Divorce and Remarriage in the Church

This article is written to those who have come to believe that all Christian remarriages after divorce are adultery and that the only way to repent of the adultery is to break up the marriage, even if children are involved.

First, let me concede that the Scriptures never make allowance for remarriage after a divorce. They allow divorce in the case of an unfaithful spouse, but they do not therefore allow the offended spouse to remarry. There is nothing in the New Testament that clearly contradicts the principle that "a woman who has a husband is bound by the Law to her husband as long as he lives, but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband" (Rom. 7:2).

That passage goes on to say that if she marries another man while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress. Jesus adds that the man who marries her will be an adulterer as well (Matt. 5:32).

How Should a Divorced and Remarried Christian Repent?

There are a lot of churches and Christians now that argue that all divorced and remarried Christians should separate. They may allow such separated spouses to remain in the same home for the sake of children, but the spouses must remain celibate.

Divorced and remarried couples are not flocking to these churches, for obvious reasons, but neither are those churches lacking in popularity. Anti-remarriage churches often have a much higher respect for the Scriptures, both in practice and in belief, though they tend to be very pharisaical in spirit on all subjects.

Such churches (and individual Christians) argue that if remarriage while a spouse is alive is adultery, then the only way to repent of that adultery is to separate and remain celibate.

From their perspective, this is logical, but there are two problems with their logic.

  1. Their logic is based on a false premise: that it is the government which determines who is and who is not legitimately married. I am going to argue that from a Christian perspective, God and his church are the only ones who can declare a marriage legitimate and binding.
  2. Their conclusion, that all remarried spouses must be separated because they are living in adultery, has no precedent in Scripture or church history. From the earliest churches to modern times, the church has not separated divorce and remarried spouses when they came to the Lord.

It Is Not Man, but God, Who Determines a Legitimate Marriage

I was in a kerfuffle* with an anti-remarriage person on Facebook once, and I pointed out that by his beliefs, everyone who had engaged in premarital sex could only be married to their first, original partner.

* "Kerfuffle" means "a commotion or fuss, especially one caused by conflicting views." Very useful word! (Definition is from Google.)

He scoffed at me and ignored my challenge, which was a surprise to me. It turned out that his standard is that a marriage is legitimate when the government declares it legitimate. It seemed very odd to me that a person clinging so tightly to Scripture on remarriage would completely ignore Scripture on marriage.

When Jesus answered the Pharisee's question on divorce (Matt. 19:3-9)—perhaps the only pharisaic challenge that he directly answered—he appealed to Genesis 2:24: "He who made them at the beginning made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh."

How is this "one flesh" achieved? It happens by the sexual act. The apostle Paul wrote, "What? Don't you know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body [with her]? 'For two,' he says, 'shall be one flesh'" (1 Cor. 6:16).

Under the Law of Moses we see this principle strictly applied. When a man has sex with an engaged or married woman, both he and she must be put to death, unless there is reason to believe it was rape. If it is rape, then only he is to be put to death (Deut. 22:22-27). If, however, she is neither married nor engaged, then they must marry. The reason they must marry is because by their sex with one another, they have become one flesh.

As an aside, if the sex act was rape, the man still has to marry her, and he can never divorce her. I bring this up because skeptics malign God and the Scriptures because of this law. Indeed, it seems horrific to most of us, but we have to understand the culture. If he did not marry her, she would never be able to get married because she was no longer a virgin. The rape would ruin her life even more unmarried than it would if the rapist married her. Tamar, the daughter of King David, said exactly that after she was raped by her half-brother Amnon (2 Sam. 13:16).

This brings us to our next example of ungrudging application of the principle of "one flesh" in the Mosaic Law. Just prior to the passages we just looked at, in Deuteronomy 22:13-21, we read that a woman who is not found a virgin on the night of the consummation of her marriage is to be put to death. Why? Because by the application of the "one flesh" principle, she is already married to someone else.

Thus we see that if we are going to strictly enforce the teaching of Scripture, separating all divorced and remarried Christians, then we need to break up any Christian marriage in which either spouse was not a virgin.

But is this really what God wants?

God Is Not Procrustean

Procrustean: marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

God is not procrustean. While it is not a universally known principle that God makes exceptions, it ought to be. He does so regularly.

Let's begin with an example that is on our subject. God allowed kings and all the patriarchs to have multiple wives and concubines without rebuke.

Let's look at a more egregious* example:

* "Egregious" means "outstandingly bad; shocking."

The beginning of the word of the Lord by Hosea. The Lord said to Hosea, "Go, take for yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land has committed great prostitution, departing from the Lord." (Hosea 1:2)

God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute?

Yeah. God does things like that. He makes exceptions for his own purposes and especially to get a message across to his people.

Application of the One Flesh Principle in Scripture

Though the Law treated the idea of one flesh with uncompromising precision, the actual obedience of the Law was not so consistent.

As we know, the Law allowed divorce. Both the Jewish rabbis and Christians have argued about the required causes for a Jew to issue a certificate of divorce. The man who issued the certificate was free to remarry.

Of course he was free to remarry because he was free to remarry even before he issued the certificate of divorce. Polygamy was allowed in ancient Israel. The Law of Moses forbad marrying a woman and her mother or a woman and her daughter. It also forbad marrying certain relatives, but it did not forbid polygamy.

Jesus tells us that the certificate of divorce was allowed because of the hardness of the hearts of the Jews. (Their hearts were hard because they did not all receive the Holy Spirit like all Christians do under the New Covenant. We do not have the same excuse.) Surely polygamy was also because of the hardness of their hearts. Polygamy, too, is forbidden under the New Covenant, just as divorce, except in case of adultery, is (1 Cor. 7:2).

While it is good to strictly obey Jesus in all his commands and teachings, can we really argue that God is absolutely and uncompromisingly strict in his enforcement of the principle of "one flesh" when he allowed divorce, remarriage, and polygamy to the hard-hearted and commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute?

Forgiving the Hard-Hearted

I can hear the complaints of the no-remarriage crowd already. They will argue that we are not hard-hearted. There should be no such exception for us."

I agree with this.

But ...

Those who were divorced and remarried in the world, prior to coming to Christ and his church, were hard-hearted.

In addition, the vast majority of adult converts had no idea, even if they were once in worldly modern churches, that Jesus ever forbad divorce except under specific circumstances. They had no idea that they were offending God when they remarried.

If God could overlook, without demanding separation, the marriage of David to both Bathsheba and Abigail, plus seven other wives, then surely he will grant mercy to those who come to the church of Jesus having divorced and remarried while in the world.

Did the Church Ever Separate Remarried Couples Wanting to Surrender to Jesus?

Now comes the question that I believe should be answered by the practice of the churches in history. Is my interpretation correct or is the interpretation of the anti-remarriage crowd correct? Does God enforce his laws on people in the world so strictly that a divorced and remarried couple must break up even if they have children who will be devastated by the separation?

I am not being dramatic. I met a family once that had ten children. This is not uncommon among Mennonite and Amish families, and this family had gravitated toward Mennonite beliefs. We will call them the Parkers, though that was not their real name.

The Mennonites are among those that reject all remarriages, even if they happened in the world. This caused the family grave problems. They wanted to adopt Mennonite practices, and even be a part of the Mennonites, but the mother of those ten children had been divorced.

When she was eighteen, she ran off with a boy to Las Vegas and, in a drunken stupor, got married. A week later she realized how foolish she had been, and she divorced him as quickly as she had married him. Later, she surrendered to Jesus, married Mr. Parker, and they had ten children together.

When I met them they had recently been rejected, one more time, by a church with Mennonite leanings. In this case, something worse happened. Word slipped to the congregation about the Parkers situation, the gossip spread, and the Parker children found out for the first time what their mother had done as a teenager.

Ouch.

These are real people we are talking about.

Yes, you answer, but what about God's law?

If God allowed the entire nation of Israel to remarry because of the hardness of their hearts, then surely a situation like the Parker's matters to God. Surely they are deserving of the same mercy that God bestowed upon the entire nation of Israel!

Early Churches Never Separated Remarried Converts

Divorce and remarriage were common in the Roman empire. Around AD 200, a Christian named Tertullian wrote:

Where is that happiness of married life, ever so desirable, which distinguished our earlier manners, and as the result of which for over 600 years there was not among us a single divorce? Now women have every member of the body heavy laden with gold, wine-bibbing is so common among them that the kiss is never offered with their will, and as for divorce, they long for it as though it were the natural consequence of marriage. (Apology. Ch. VI.)

Ignoring the fact that Tertullian's historical timeline is way off—the Roman empire had not been in existence for six centuries—he tells us that women divorced so often that he wondered if they thought divorcing was the natural thing for a married woman to do.

David Instone-Brewer, in his 2002 book Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, writes:

Divorce was very common in the Greco-Roman world, especially among the wealthier classes. ... It is difficult to know whether it was also common among the poorer classes, about whom we know much less ... but it is likely that the practices of the wealthy reflected the practices of all strata of society. (p. 74)

So we see that divorce and remarriage was common in the Roman empire. We must conclude, then, that the churches of the Roman empire must have had many converts who were previously divorced and remarried.

Do we have any evidence that they separated these divorced-and-remarried Christians?

We do not.

There are no references in the Bible or in the writings of the churches afterward to any marriage being broken up because it was a remarriage after divorce and thus regarded by the church as adultery. There are also no instructions to do so.

Is this really possible if it was the practice of the churches to separate remarried couples, even ones who had children who would be affected by the separation? Would no one at all have commented on the distresses this caused?

Let's take this one step further and show that the subject of separating remarried Christians never came up even in situations where it should have.

Around AD 225, a leader in Rome named Hippolytus wrote out questions that were to be asked of new converts. He writes, "Those who come forward for the first time to hear the word shall first be brought to the teachers before all the people come in. ... Let their life and manner of living be enquired into ..." (Hippolytus. The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome. Ed. Dix, Gregory and Chadwick, Henry. [Alban Press: London; Morehous Publishing: Ridgefield, CT] 1992 edition. p. 23.)

Hippolytus gives a list of "manner of living" factors to be examined. Among those are:

  • If a man have a wife or a woman a husband, let them be taught that the man is to be contented with his wife and the woman to be contented with here husband.
  • A man who is unmarried let him be taught not to commit fornication but either to marry lawfully or to abide.
  • If a man be a pander [pimp] who supports harlots either let him desist or let him be rejected.
  • If a man's concubine be a slave, let her hear on condition that she have reared her children, and if she consorts with him alone. But if not let her be rejected. [This assumes the man is not converting with her.]
  • If a man have a concubine, let him desist and marry legally; and if he will not, let him be rejected.

Instructions to a husband or wife are covered, and even instructions to a concubine or an owner of a concubine, yet there is not one instruction to investigate whether a husband or wife is remarried. Isn't this puzzling if it were the job of the church to separate remarried converts?

The theory of the anti-remarriage crowd is that the church should separate couples who were divorced and remarried in the world. Yet we can find no discussion of the topic in the Bible, nor in any Christian writings for the next two centuries.

How could this possibly happen in a society where divorce and remarriage were "very common"?

I need to pause here to address an argument I have heard against my line of reasoning.

The Argument from Silence

I have left my defense of "argument from silence" on this page, but my position is no longer an argument from silence. In an ancient book titled The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, in a section titled "The Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles," I found this listed as Canon 17: "He who has been twice married after his baptism, or has had a concubine, cannot be made a bishop, or presbyter [i.e., elder] or deacon, or indeed any one of the sacerdotal catalogue." The Constitutions is difficult to date and is a collection from different time periods, but its editorial introduction, dating from the late nineteenth century, says, "It now seems to be generally admitted that the entire work is not later than the fourth century."

I once described the above argument as an "argument from silence." If the churches were separating spouses, then where do we read about the hullabaloo that such separations surely caused? Where do we find arguments from early Christians defending their practice of separating divorced couples?

I was mocked. Perhaps it would be more fair to say the powerful and scientific principle of "argument from silence" was mocked.

One of the main principles of scientific inquiry is "falsification." In science, theories are never completely "proven." Theories become stronger and more reliable as they avoid falsification over an extended period of time.

All scientific theories are handled this way. Scientists construct a hypothesis, and then they make predictions. "If my theory is true, then we should see the following results from my theory." If those results cannot be found, then the theory is falsified.

While this idea is called falsification rather than "argument from silence," it is nonetheless an argument from silence.

A great example is Darwin's theory that all life evolved from one or a few individuals. If this is true, then we should find a progression in the fossil record showing a transition from more ancient forms to modern ones.

Christians use the argument from silence against Darwin's theory of evolution all the time. I'm sure that every anti-remarriage church would argue that the absence of transitional forms in the fossil records proves that Darwin's theory of "descent with modification" is false.

The truth is that an "argument from silence" is a legitimate and powerful form of argument.

In the case of evolution, the argument is wrong. There are an abundance of transitional fossils.

Evidences from the Ancient Churches

Everyone who has studied the history of England knows that the Catholic Church issues "annulments." The pope's refusal to issue an annulment to King Henry VIII led to the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church.

An annulment is a statement that a marriage was not valid. It allows the recipient of the annulment to remarry. The Catholic Church, like the early churches, does not allow divorced persons to remarry. They require an annulment, which basically decrees that the prospective spouses were never legitimately married.

Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not issue annulments willy-nilly. They are not a replacement for divorce. The previous marriage must really be illegitimate.

While history says there have been many reasons for an annulment, The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives one main reason:

The parties to a marriage covenant are a baptized man and women. (Par. 1625)

The Catholic Church does not recognize marriages between unbaptized people as "spiritual" marriages. Spiritual marriages cannot be dissolved. The husband and wife in a spiritual marriage should not divorce, and if they do, neither can remarry.

The "Catholic Answers" web site expressed it this way:

There are two kinds of marriage: natural (ordinary) marriage and supernatural (sacramental) marriage. Supernatural marriages exist only between baptized people, so marriages between two Jews or two Muslims are only natural marriages. Assuming no impediments, marriages between Jews or Muslims would be valid natural marriages. Marriages between two Protestants or two Eastern Orthodox also would be valid, presuming no impediments, but these would be supernatural (sacramental) marriages and thus indissoluble.

Spiritual marriages cannot be dissolved, but "natural" marriages—marriages between unbaptized people—can be dissolved. The only marriage "covenant" is between baptized people.

Where did the Roman Catholic Church get the idea that the only valid marriages are those between baptized people? I would argue that they got it from the early apostolic churches.

Benefit of the Doubt?

I am convinced that from the apostles onward, the church never separated remarried couples whose previous marriage was in the world. At the very least, I have shown that the situation is more complicated than the anti-remarriage churches assert.

But that brings up another question. If I have not convinced you, and you are not sure about where you should stand, where should the benefit of the doubt lie? Though we may not be sure about God's position on the issue, should be show mercy to the couples—and their children, if any—or should we encourage separation because God might consider the marriage adultery?

What the anti-remarriage crowd does not seem to want to allow is that the matter of celibacy might be so difficult, even for a Christian, that the risk is unacceptable.

The apostle discusses this repeatedly in 1 Corinthians 7:

  • "It is good for a man not to touch a woman, but to avoid sexual immorality let every man have his own wife and let every woman have her own husband" (vv. 1-2).
  • "[Let the wife and husband] not deny one another, except with consent for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to fasting and prayer; then come together again so that Satan does not tempt you for your lack of self-control" (v. 5).
  • "I wish that all men were [celibate] like myself, but everyone has his proper gift from God, one after this manner, and one after that" (v. 7).
  • "I say ... to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they remain like me, but if they cannot control themselves, let them marry. It is better to marry than to burn" (vv. 8-9).

Paul says that the unmarried and widows are better off if they remain like him here in 1 Corinthians 7, one of his earlier letters. In 1 Timothy, one of his latest letters, he changes his mind.

This requires a little explanation. The apostles' churches did not just support widows, they took the widows in as servants of the church. It was a lifelong commitment, and it was only offered to widows with a reputation for good works before they were widowed (1 Tim. 5:10).

Paul tells Timothy not to let younger widows into this order of servanthood. Eventually, he said, they just wind up marrying, turning their back on the lifelong commitment they made. It's better for them to marry because otherwise they become idle busybodies (vv. 11-13).

Basically, Paul is saying, "I know I said years ago in my letter to the Corinthians that is better for widows, even young widows, to remain single, but they just can't handle it. Some can make this commitment on their own, but most cannot. Let them marry, and let's avoid this temptation."

I am sure my interpretation here seems loose to the anti-remarriage crowd, but I think Paul's attitude is obvious. "It's great to be like me, celibate and always available for God's service, but not everyone has the gift from God to be able to follow such a path. If you can't, it's better to marry than to burn with longing."

Jesus agrees. After his discussion with the Pharisees about divorce, he tells his disciples, "Not everyone can receive this saying; only those to whom it has been given" (Matt. 19:11).

When we deal with the God's rules about divorce without mercy, not only are we behaving like the pharisees, we are ignoring the statements of Jesus and Paul indicating that celibacy is so difficult for some, perhaps most, that it should not be enforced upon them but only embraced willingly.

I am not saying that remarriage should be allowed just because so many people cannot control their sexual lust even as Christians. I am saying that God, in the Scriptures, deals with the subject of marriage with compassion for human weakness.

Asking a convert to immediately and permanently become celibate, despite the fact that he or she is married and has children, is not the kind of thing God would do with a person whose "crimes," whose divorce and remarriage, happened in the past before they knew about God's will and before they had any power to obey it. That is not the precedent we see in the Scriptures. This is not the kind of God we find in the Scriptures.

The Role of the Church

We are in a strange situation today. The apostles churches shared everything, broke bread from house to house, and continued in the apostles' teaching. In other words, they were a family that devoted themselves to each other and to obedience to God.

They encouraged and helped each other. They knew when one of their brothers or sisters was faltering because they were part of each other's lives every day. If a marriage was having problems, there was help, and that help came early because the problems were seen by others.

Today problems can be hidden. A person can be in a church, give themselves to being diligent Christians, and never be told God's will concerning marriage. Without a sufficient picture of the importance of staying together, their commitment suffers, and often no one sees the growing distance between the two spouses. Later, when they finally divorce, most churches are not going to require either spouse to reconcile or remain unmarried.

What a mess? How do we resolve such a situation?

We resolve it with proper teaching. We resolve it by training Christians, discipling them so that they both know the will of God and know how to obtain the power to do the will of God.

The scriptural pattern is that we get things in order so that the will of God is being done. The scriptural pattern is also that God shows mercy, not forcing people to hold to a principle—not breaking the "one flesh" bond between a man and his wife—that God has allowed to be broken repeatedly throughout the history of his people.

I do not advocate continuing in the loose pattern that churches have established in this area and so many others. We need to return to a structure where Christians are discipled, and where it is normal for couples to have intervention and help to keep their marriages together.

As we move towards that proper pattern, let us handle what has come before with the mercy and regard for people shown by God in the Old Testament, by Jesus in the Gospels, and by the apostles in Acts and in the letters, not like the Pharisees.

Let us also follow the pattern we see throughout church history, allowing the old life to be buried in baptism and arising to a brand new life. It is marriages in the Lord, between baptized Christians and acknowledged by the authority of God through his Church, that cannot be dissolved.