In part 1 I noted that, contrary to some traditional teaching, there are biblical grounds for divorce and for re-marriage. This final post compares the teachings of Paul with that of Jesus, summarizes our findings, and offers some possible implications.

Is Paul’s Teaching Consistent with Jesus’ Teaching?

Comparing Mt. 5:31-32 & 1 Cor. 7:10-16
When counseling the Corinthian Church, Paul speaks of two kinds of divorce: 1) Christian couples, i.e., divorce between two believers (1 Cor. 7:10-11), and 2) mixed marriages, i.e., divorce between a believer and unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:12-16). Although Paul does not explicitly say that he is speaking about Christian couples in the first instance (7:10-11), it seems apparent that he has Christian couples in mind. First, he refers to Jesus’ teaching (“not I, but the Lord,” v. 10), presumably referring to the Sermon (Mt. 5:31-32). If, therefore, some of Paul’s teaching on divorce refers to the teaching of Jesus (comp., 1 Cor. 7:10-11 with Mt. 5:31-32), and the Sermon (Mt. 5-7) is primarily referring to those who are pursuing kingdom righteousness (= believers), then the divorce statement in both Mt. 5:31-32 and 1 Cor. 7:10-11 is exclusively referring to Christian couples. In the second instance (divorce between mixed marriages), Paul is careful to say that his instructions come from himself, not the Lord. That is, the teaching on divorce in the case of mixed couples has not been expounded by Jesus until Paul.

If it is the case that Jesus’ teaching in Mt. 5:32 is addressed exclusively to Christian couples (and this comports with Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 7:10, 11), then the adulterous situation Jesus refers to in remarriage does not apply to a divorce born out of a mixed marriage. In Mt. 5:31-32 the prohibition to remarry may very well be given to the man who was presumably guilty for illegitimately divorcing his wife.

Moreover, it is men whom Jesus condemns for their flippant attitude toward the marriage covenant in Mt. 19:8, 9 (note the masculine pronouns throughout). This is also true in Malachi 2:13-16 where the famous “I hate divorce” statement lives. Does God hate all divorce or the the kind being referred to in Malachi where men were notoriously unfaithful to their original wives by divorcing them. In addition, there is a variant reading in Malachi 2:16. It could read “For he [the Israelite husband] has hated, divorced, says the LORD God of Israel, and covered his garment with injustice.” The verb “hate” in the Hebrew is not first person (“I hate”), but third person (“he hates;” thus especially the English Standard Version).

Observations from Mt. 5:31-32

  • Jesus is addressing Christian couples.
  • Jesus allows divorce if a believing spouse is unfaithful to their covenant obligations.
  • Jesus does not explicitly say how the remarriage commits adultery.

“Causes her to become an adulterous” (NIV) does not mean the woman is literally an adulteress, but that the improper grounds of the divorce has caused the woman to be stigmatized. In essence, the woman has been framed by the husband. Yet, the intent of Deut. 24:1-4 is to remove the moral stigma of the divorced woman and emphasize the protection of the innocent wife, whereas Mt. 5:31-32 emphasizes the culpability of the divorcing husband.

“Anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” may mean any divorced woman who is not legitimately divorced. The definite article is not in the Greek and may indicate “any” illegitimately divorced woman (see NASB).

If divorce occurs between two believers, Jesus prohibits remarriage of the offending party since that is an adulterous situation. However, neither Jesus nor Paul explicitly say how long the believing divorced spouse is to remain unmarried who is illegitimately divorced. Presuming it is an indefinite period of time (i.e., life-long) is going beyond the biblical text. So too, it is equally presumptuous to make it merely a matter of weeks or even months before the divorced believer is free to remarry. Nevertheless, the timing of remarriage is simply not addressed by Jesus nor Paul.

Additional Questions for Mt. 5:32b
What exactly breaks the covenant relationship between two people? Is it the remarriage or the unrepentant heart of the unfaithful partner? Isn’t it true that the “immorality only occurs because the first wife has been unjustly divorced?” (Luck, Divorce and Remarriage, p146, first edition).

Is the marriage covenant really sacred where it cannot be broken under any circumstances? After all, how can adultery be committed against a covenant? In the biblical schema, adultery is committed against persons, not things.

If remarriage by the faithful, innocent spouse adulterizes the original unfaithful spouse, where is the blame laid? Apparently, according to traditional teaching, upon the one who remarries. Why? The unfaithful spouse is where the offense is, and hence where the guilt belongs. Why must such a burden be put upon the faithful, innocent spouse when he/she desires to remarry?

Although the woman in Mt. 5:32b may be the same person as in Mt. 5:31-32a, is it possible that it is the same man (if not the same male attitude) remarrying in v. 32b as in vv. 31-32a? If so, then the man is the adulterer many times over.

If the period of time to wait and remarry is not life-long, how long should the innocent divorcee from a mixed marriage remain unmarried?

How long a believing, divorced spouse is to remain unmarried is not addressed by Jesus nor Paul. To presume it is an indefinite period of time is going beyond the explicit biblical texts. If the period of time for the innocent, Christian divorcee is not life-long, then necessarily he/she is free to remarry. I suspect this is the “freedom” or “peace” Paul speaks to in 1 Cor. 7:15, 16. The believing spouse who was illegitimately divorced is free not only from the former marriage bond, but free to secure another. Finally, adultery cannot occur unless there is some act of unfaithfulness. Therefore, it is not the remarriage that constitutes adultery, but the breaking of a covenant relationship. It is the person who breaks faith who becomes the adulterer(ess) (e.g., Jer. 3:1-10).

Potential Implications
If a divorce is born out of a mixed marriage and was initiated and consummated by the unbelieving spouse, the believing spouse is free from any covenant obligations to the first marriage and, therefore, free to remarry (1 Cor. 7:15).

If it is the case that Jesus’ teaching in Mt. 5:32 is addressed exclusively to Christian couples, then Mt. 5:31-32 does not apply to an adulterous situation in a mixed marriage.

If the moral, legal, and sexual bonds that make up a covenant relationship between husband and wife are severed by an unbelieving spouse, and divorce ensues, then the believing, innocent party is free to remarry.

Given these conditions, there is no biblical possibility that the remarriage of a believer to another believer constitutes living in an adulterous situation. Since it is true that adultery cannot occur unless there is some act of unfaithfulness, then where is the unfaithfulness when another believer chooses to marry a believing divorcee who was illegitimately put out of their covenant relationship by an unfaithful spouse?

NOTE: The majority of these findings come from Divorce and Remarriage: Recovering the Biblical View (now updated and re-published), by William F. Luck. For an equally important treatment, refer to Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, by David Instone-Brewer. Also, sincere appreciation goes to my good friend Louis McBride who not only sat under Bill Luck at Moody Bible Institute, but helped me think deeply about much of this material.

1 Comment

  1. In warning against the sin of abandoning one’s marriage, Jesus is defending rather than oppressing those divorced against their will. Yet instead of examining our own hearts and marriages as Jesus wills, some Christians today resort to the very kind of Bible interpretation Jesus was opposing. Jesus’ words protected married people from the schism of divorce, but we sometimes turn them into a weapon against wounded Christians. Assuming that anger (Mt 5:21-22) and lust (5:27-28) are forgivable offenses because we have committed them, some nevertheless look askance at those who divorced in the past, as if that sin were unforgivable. Not content with that, some condescendingly claim to “forgive” innocent parties in divorces (such as a young mother who is single because she was abandoned by a drug-abusing husband). Perhaps none of us is a perfect spouse, and many of us live in a culture that confuses right and wrong, but the Bible does take sides on some issues. For instance, it plainly assigns guilt to the adulterer without assuming guilt on the part of the adulterer’s spouse (Lev 20:10); nor may one automatically assume any more guilt for the abandoned spouse than for a spouse who is not abandoned (see Stephen 1993:14). Punishing one divorced against his or her will to show that we are against divorce makes as much sense as punishing a mugging victim to express our disdain for mugging.

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