“I’m Divorced and Remarried. Am I Living in Adultery?”

By David Servant

Imagine this:

Picture with text: I'm Divorced and Remarried. Am I Living in Adultery?

John is an unregenerate drug-user who, during a weekend fling in Las Vegas, falls for a flirtatious bartender named Lisa and marries her at the Little Neon Chapel. Their marriage lasts one week.

Fast forward to 20 years later. John is a completely different man. He’s been born again and drug-free for 16 years, and he has been married for 15 of them to a devoted Christian woman named Karen. They have 4 beautiful children, ages 5 through 14, whom Karen homeschools, primarily because they want to make sure that their children are raised in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).

At work, John is befriended by a Christian man who invites him to a daily lunch hour Bible study, and John, hungry for God’s Word and fellowship with other believers, begins to attend. He is very impressed with the depth of biblical knowledge possessed by those who attend. Their influence over him grows.

Fast forward six months. One evening, after their children are all in bed, John sits at the kitchen table across from Karen and tearfully tells her that he has filed for a divorce. He explains that he doesn’t want to divorce her—because he loves her and their children dearly—but he has learned that theirs is an “adulterous marriage,” all due to the fact that he was once married to a Las Vegas bartender for a week. John explains that, in God’s eyes, he is still married to Lisa, and until Lisa dies, his marriage with her (Karen) is adulterous.

John quotes Luke 16:18, where Jesus said, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery. “That is us,” John says. He also quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which declares that no adulterers will inherit God’s kingdom. Karen tearfully argues with him for hours into the night, but to no avail.

The next morning, while Karen is asleep on the couch, John breaks the news to their 4 children, although they don’t understand why their daddy is leaving them. He promises that he will still be visiting them regularly, and with tears running down his cheeks, drives off with some boxes of clothing to the apartment of one of the men from his Bible study, who has also divorced his Christian wife and left his family. At that day’s lunch hour Bible study, everyone encourages John, reminding him that Jesus promised suffering for all those who follow Him.

Sound far-fetched? Tragically it is not. I recently encountered some folks who believe and practice what I have just described. After a little research, I found that there are entire churches that hold to such doctrine. Just today I received an email from a lady who became a Christian three years ago and who is divorcing her husband of 35 years, all due to the fact that she was previously married and divorced. She wrote, “I ain’t going to hell for anybody, even for a husband of 35 years.”

This kind of doctrine not only can potentially destroy devoted Christian families like John and Karen’s, but it opens the door dangerously wide—for certain Christian couples who are struggling in their marriages—with a convenient justification to divorce. It can turn a treacherous sin—divorce between two Christians—into a holy obligation. It makes divorce, something that God hates (Mal. 2:16) into something that, in some cases, pleases Him. It forces those who do not have the gift of celibacy to pretend that they do. And it creates a lower, “unclean” class among those who have been cleansed of their sins by Jesus’ sacrifice, a class consisting of those who have previously been married and divorced.

The Premise

The foundational premise upon which this Divine Divorce Doctrine is based is that, according to Jesus, divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery. Thus, married couples that include at least one person who has been previously married and divorced should repent of their “adulterous marriage” by divorcing again (or at least separating so that there is functional divorce). This is not a sin, they say, but rather a repentance from sin. After their divorce/separation, the person now twice-divorced should remain single, at least until his or her original spouse dies, at which time they will no longer be married to their original spouse “in God’s eyes.”

Those who hold to this doctrine differ on whether it is lawful for the spouse who was dumped, who is now once-divorced—but never actually “married in God’s eyes”—to remarry. They also disagree on whether or not there is ever a legitimate reason to divorce, that is, a reason that would allow a person who initiated a divorce to remarry.

Divine Divorce Proponents point to four passages in the synoptic Gospels to support their foundational premise. For sake of clarity and brevity in this article, I will most often refer to them as the “Four D&R [divorce and remarriage] Passages.” Quoted apart from their context, they read:

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:32).

And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt. 19:9).

And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery” (Mark 10:11-12).

Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18).

All four passages are similar, but there is variation between them. By combining them all, we learn that the man who divorces and remarries commits adultery. He also makes his wife whom he divorces commit adultery together with her new spouse if she remarries. Similarly, a woman who divorces her husband and remarries also commits adultery. The exception to these rules is found in the two passages in Matthew. If a man’s wife commits pornia, a Greek word translated “unchastity” and “immorality” (in the NASB) or “fornication” (in the KJV), divorce is lawful. Pornia, as it is used in ancient Greek texts, refers to any illicit sexual activity including, but not limited to, fornication, adultery and incest.

Obviously, in all cases in which one is either personally guilty of adultery or one makes someone else commit adultery, remarriage must occur. It could not be logically said that one commits adultery by simply divorcing or being divorced. And therefore, if these four passages were the only verses in the Bible, we could conclude that Jesus was OK with divorce as long as there was no remarriage, which of course is not true. The one who divorces his or her spouse, Christian or not, breaks an oath. For that reason and many others, God “hates divorce” and considers it “treachery” (Mal. 2:14-16). I say that simply to point out the importance of considering everything the Bible has to say on the subject. False doctrine is generally extracted from Scripture by isolating Bible verses from their context. So in the case of the above-quoted Four D&R Passages, we should consider their immediate and wider context in the Bible.

An Important Question

Before, however, we do begin to consider biblical context, it would be good to use our God-given brains and ask ourselves a simple question: By making these four sayings related to divorce, remarriage and adultery, was Jesus trying to exterminate the kind of “evil” being perpetrated by John and Karen? That is, was Jesus hoping to break up godly, long-term, Christian marriages and families if one spouse, years prior to his or her salvation, had been married for a week?

If you answered yes to those two questions, you very much need to read what follows.

If you answered “no” to those questions, as the large majority of Christians would, the next logical question to ask is: Exactly what evil was Jesus trying to eradicate by what He said in the Four D&R Passages?

The Context: Matthew 19:3-9

So let’s take a close look at all Four D&R Passages, considering their historical and biblical context, starting with the passage found in Matthew 19:

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:3-9).

So now we have some very important context. Jesus wasn’t talking to married Christians who happened to have been married and divorced years before their salvation. Rather, He was talking to Pharisees who believed it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for “any reason at all,” a belief so lax that it is rarely found even among unbelievers. Not surprisingly, Jesus corrected the Pharisees, and His correction ended with one of His statements that equated illegitimate divorce and remarriage with adultery.

Could believing that it is OK to divorce for “any reason” possibly be the evil that Jesus was trying to eradicate? Obviously, the answer is yes.

Some Historical Context

We know from ancient Jewish writings that there were two primary schools of thought among the rabbis regarding divorce, and specifically on what constituted the “indecency” mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 by which a man might divorce his wife. About twenty years before Jesus’ time, an influential rabbi named Hillel taught that an indecency was an irreconcilable difference. By the time Jesus had His debate with the Pharisees, the “Hillel” interpretation had become even more liberal, allowing divorce for just about any cause, as the Pharisees’ question to Jesus indicates. One could divorce his wife if she burned his dinner, put too much salt on his food, accidentally exposed her knees in public, took her hair down, spoke to another man, said something unkind about her mother-in-law, or was infertile. A man could even divorce his wife if he saw someone who was more attractive, thus making his wife “indecent.”

Another famous rabbi, Shammai, who lived prior to Hillel, taught that an “indecency” was only something very immoral, such as adultery.

As is obvious from the Pharisees’ question, Hillel’s liberal interpretation was much more popular than Shammai’s. The Pharisees lived and taught that divorce was lawful for any cause, and consequently, divorce (and remarriage) were endemic. Yet, incredibly, the Pharisees also taught strongly against adultery. Their divorce-for-any-cause teaching, however, was nothing less than a loophole for adultery. Marriage vows are meaningless when one can divorce for any reason.

Is all that hypocritical? Yes. Was it evil? Yes. Was Jesus against it? Yes. And so He pointed out, first of all, that the Pharisees’ inane question was answered long before the Mosaic Law was given, in the second chapter of Genesis. God originally created one male and one female (not one male and multiple females, or one female and multiple males), and designed that those two would become one flesh. That set a precedent, and concerning the creation of the world’s first married couple, Moses, the author of Genesis, wrote, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). So there is lots of support in Genesis 2 for the idea that in marriage God puts two people of the opposite sex together to share in an exclusive sexual union. Jesus underscored that point by saying, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

The Pharisees couldn’t argue against His point from Genesis 2, but they were able to drag up an objection to His anti-divorce stance, which was that the Law of Moses made some provision for divorce. Jesus, the giver of the Law of Moses, was ready for their objection. He said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives.” That is, even though God never desired or intended that anyone would ever divorce, because He knew that divorces would occur due to the hardness (sinfulness) of men’s hearts, He included some regulation concerning divorce in the Mosaic Law—an attempt to at least curb some of the evil. And He mercifully but reluctantly permitted Israelite men to divorce their wives—but only of course for immorality and not “for any reason.”

Again, this provision was due to the hardness of men’s hearts. A man with a soft heart who discovers his wife’s immorality doesn’t rush to divorce her, but rather confronts her and, if she repents, forgives her (just as Jesus taught). He might also examine how he has been treating his wife to see if he has any guilt associated with her behavior.

Then Jesus again reminded them of God’s original intent in marriage as revealed in Genesis 2, saying, “but from the beginning it has not been this way.” That is, the concession for divorce in the Mosaic Law does not represent God’s original intent for marriage, because God’s original intent is that there would be no divorce, and “no divorce” is a far cry from “divorce for any reason!”

A Clear Answer

At that point, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” was crystal clear: “Absolutely not!” And Jesus—the One who was sent from God the Father, was God Himself, was the One who gave the Mosaic Law to Israel, and was the Messiah who would never contradict the Mosaic Law—perfectly summed up His endorsement of the Mosaic Law’s actual teaching on divorce and remarriage with the provocative statement: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” That is, illegitimate divorce + remarriage = adultery, a sin under the Mosaic Law that was punishable by death.

Notice that Jesus endorsed the Mosaic concession, “except for immorality.” Thus, immorality is a legitimate reason to divorce, and understandably so.[1] A marriage covenant is consummated by sexual union.[2] The adulterer, by his sexual union with another, breaks his marriage covenant. In that respect, adultery effectuates a divorce. The person who divorces his adulterous spouse only formalizes the divorce that has already occurred by the adultery. (Again, however, Scripture teaches clearly elsewhere that confrontation and mercy predicated upon repentance is the best route.)

Also regarding the Matthew 19 D&R Passage, keep in mind that everyone in Jesus’ audience knew the Mosaic Law condemned adultery. The Pharisees, of course, preached against adultery. Remember, it was the Pharisees who once brought before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery, condemning her for her sin (John 8:3-11). So Jesus masterfully exposed the hypocrisy of their “divorce-for-any-reason” stance, declaring that it was promoting what amounts to adultery, which they themselves preached against. So the anti-adultery, divorce-for-any-reason Pharisees, who considered themselves to be a holy group of lawfully-divorced-and-remarried men, now had a chance to see themselves as God saw them, as a self-deceived bunch of adulterous wife-swappers who deserved to be stoned to death. They were caught with their pants down, almost literally.

Also, take note that Jesus was not “raising the standard” regarding divorce and remarriage. He wasn’t “altering the Mosaic Law” as some claim. Divorce “for any reason” and remarriage didn’t suddenly become wrong, or suddenly become equivalent to adultery, when Jesus said so as recorded in Matthew 19.  Illegitimate divorce and remarriage was wrong and akin to adultery from the time that Moses’ Law was given, and even from before Moses’ Law was given, “from the beginning.” Jesus was pointing out what has always been true: The man who breaks his marriage vow by illegitimately divorcing his wife, and who then marries another woman, is fundamentally no different than the man who breaks his marriage vow through adultery. [3]

Jesus’ own disciples, who had all their lives sat under the teaching and example of the scribes and Pharisees, were probably not hearing His teaching regarding divorce and remarriage for the first time (see Matt. 5:32). But prior to their interaction with Jesus, they likely thought that God was OK with divorce for any reason. The idea of one-wife-for-life was radical to their ears, precipitating their reaction: “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). That is, “If God expects us to stick with one woman all our lives, and if illegitimate divorce and remarriage is adultery, it might be better to remain single.” Jesus responded by explaining that celibacy is an alternative for some, but not all (Matt. 19:11-12). Paul later referred to celibacy as a gift (1 Cor. 7:7).

What does God expect of people who are guilty of the sin of adultery? Of course, if two people are married and one commits adultery, God expects the adulterous one to repent by (1) ending the adulterous relationship, (2) confessing and asking forgiveness of his/her spouse, and (3) being faithful from then on. But what about those who are already divorced and remarried?  What does God expect of them? Obviously, there are other factors, and other people, to consider in those situations. Theirs is not exactly the same situation as the married person who has just had an affair. So the question deserves some thought and a careful study of God’s Word, which we are about to do.

In regard to the Matthew 19 passage we’ve been considering, we note that Jesus did not tell His audience that those who were illegitimately divorced and remarried needed to remedy their sin by divorcing their current wives. If that is what He expected, it would have been a perfect time for Him to have said so. But He did not. The same is true in the other three D&R Passages. Jesus never told His guilty hearers to divorce one more time. You can be sure that, among the crowd of Pharisees that day who all believed that divorce was lawful for any reason, there were quite a few who were divorced and remarried. And they all knew that the Mosaic Law legislated stoning for adultery.

Two More D&R Passages in Context

Now that we have considered, in context, Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, we are better equipped to consider the other three similar passages, as all were spoken by Jesus within the same three-year time period to people who were under the Law of Moses, and who had all been influenced by the “divorce-for-any-cause” teaching and example of their spiritual leaders, the scribes and Pharisees.

One of those remaining three passages, Mark 10:1-12, describes the same incident we’ve just considered in Matthew 19. Mark doesn’t add much to Matthew’s rendition of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees regarding divorce-for-any-cause. He omits the “exception clause” and, interestingly, is the only Gospel author who mentions Jesus saying that what is true of men who divorce and remarry is also true of women who divorce and remarry. Both “commit adultery.”

Regarding the remaining two of the Four D&R passages, they are also interestingly framed within Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees. Here is Luke’s account:

Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God. The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery (Luke 16:14-18).

We know that the Pharisees were not only lovers of money but, as we have learned from Matthew 19, also believed that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, even while they hypocritically preached against adultery. Such would be a good example of their “justifying themselves in the sight of men while God knew their hearts,” and perhaps that is why Jesus inserted His words about divorce and remarriage into a chapter focused primarily on the subject of financial stewardship. Before their followers, the Pharisees portrayed themselves as sexually moral men who would never commit adultery, yet their multiple divorces and remarriages testified of their adulterous hearts.

A Fourth and Final D&R Passage in Context

The only passage that remains of the Four D&R Passages is the one found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where the teaching of the Pharisees pops up again. It is in a sermon that includes a substantial amount of correction of their false teaching and unrighteous practices. Near the beginning of His sermon, Jesus warned, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). And at the end of the sermon, Matthew comments, “The crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matt. 7:28-29).

It should not surprise us then that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus once more addressed the “divorce for any reason” and remarriage issue. In this case, however, we find that Jesus began by labeling as adultery something other than divorce and remarriage:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt. 5:27-30).

At a minimum, Jesus was warning His followers to purge themselves of lust, as lust always precedes adultery, and unrepentant adulterers will one day find themselves in hell. Some commentators go further, concluding Jesus was warning that lust is just as damnable as adultery.[4] In any case, the lustful man, Jesus said, “commits adultery” with the object of his lust “in his heart,” and whatever might cause one to stumble into lust should be treated as an enemy of one’s soul.

Directly following, and perhaps for a significant reason, is yet another warning by Jesus against divorce and remarriage:

It was said, “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce”; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:31-32).

We know, of course, that nowhere does the Law of Moses say, “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” And of course, Jesus did not say, “Moses taught…”, but rather, “It was said.” No doubt what Jesus quoted was being said by the divorce-for-any-cause Pharisees, emphasizing in their perverse teaching the importance of giving a divorce certificate whenever an “any reason” divorce occurs.

The important thing to see is that, in this short passage, Jesus labels two things as adultery: (1) lust and (2) divorce and remarriage. We can’t help but wonder, in the divorce-for-any-cause culture that Jesus was addressing, how many divorces and remarriages had lust as their root. As I’ve already mentioned, the list of lawful reasons to divorce one’s wife, as derived from the teaching of Rabbi Hillel, even included seeing a woman who is more attractive than your wife. And how many other tolerable, trivial items on rabbi Hillel’s list suddenly became intolerable at the sighting of an attractive woman?

I think any reader can see that, in the cases of divorce and remarriage that are motivated by lust for another woman, the label of “adultery” is very appropriate. I’m not saying that Jesus was only referring to those kinds of divorces and remarriages in the Four D&R Passages, but I am suggesting that, in light of the context of Matthew 5:31-32, such divorces and remarriages were a significant percentage of the overall total in Jesus’ time, and they certainly help us understand part of the evil that Jesus was hoping to eradicate.

So What Does God Expect Now?

Having established God’s original intent in marriage as well as His views of illegitimate divorce, divorce-for-any-cause, remarriage and lust, the question remains, What should Christian married couples—which include at least one person who was previously married and divorced—do once they are enlightened to these truths?

A tiny percentage of Christians today would say to such couples, “Divorce and remain single until the original spouse dies, because you are living in adultery, and the only way to demonstrate your repentance from adultery is to end your adulterous relationship.”

That advice may sound somewhat logical, but is it biblically sound?

We have already noted that, even in the Four D&R Passages, Jesus never told His guilty hearers to divorce again. Moreover, there is no record in any of the four Gospels of Jesus ever telling anyone to divorce or leave their current spouse. We have already studied everything Jesus said on the subjects of divorce and remarriage. And there is no example of anyone “repenting of an adulterous remarriage” under the ministry of Christ.

Is this an “argument from silence”? Perhaps it could be called that. Yet arguments from silence are entirely valid when there is an extraordinary reason for there to be no silence.

Much more so, this is an argument from “lack of evidence.” Lack of evidence is the proof of an invalid claim. If there is no smoking gun, no fingerprints, no dead body, and the murder victim is eating pizza, there is a good chance there has been no murder.

I ask: Where is this Divine Divorce Doctrine found outside of the Four D&R Passages? Surely if Jesus expected every divorced and remarried person to divorce again as a requirement for salvation—no small thing—He would have said so, and especially during those times He was talking about the very subject of divorce and remarriage to crowds that were full of divorced and remarried people.

Furthermore, there is no evidence any of Jesus’ apostles ever interpreted His words about divorce and remarriage to be a requirement for divorced and remarried couples to legally or functionally divorce. Their initial reaction to His statement to the Pharisees in Matthew 19 revealed they only thought that, in light of Jesus’ endorsement of one-wife-for-life, it might be best if people never married. They did not come to the conclusion that divorced and remarried people needed to divorce again. In fact, it is much more likely that they were wondering if Jesus was advocating the stoning of all divorced and remarried people, since that is what the Mosaic Law prescribed for adulterers.

And if Peter or John, who were likely present when Jesus had His Matthew 19 conversation with the Pharisees, later realized that Jesus actually required all divorced and remarried people to divorce again if they were to be saved—no small thing—they never mentioned it in their letters to the churches.

The Silence (Lack of Evidence) Grows

The other authors of the New Testament letters, James, Jude and Paul, who were not from among the Twelve, never wrote a word about God’s alleged requirement for those who are divorced and remarried to divorce again.

Nothing can be found in the New Testament epistles that supports the idea that those who are divorced and remarried are “still married to their original spouse in God’s eyes” or that they are “continually living in an adulterous relationship of which they must repent by divorce.”

And the silence grows even louder when we consider the fact that, in their letters, (1) Paul, James and Peter all wrote against adultery, (2) both Peter and Paul addressed the subject of husband-wife relationships, and (3) Paul devoted almost an entire chapter (1 Corinthians 7) to the subject of sex, self-control, immorality, celibacy, marriage, separation, divorce, widowhood and more, and he never said a single word about God’s alleged requirement for divorced and remarried Christians to divorce again.

In fact, Paul emphatically wrote in that Corinthian passage that husbands and wives should not deprive each other of conjugal rights, and he listed no exceptions (1 Cor. 7:4-5).[6] He didn’t mention that some husbands and wives might be “committing adultery.” And he emphatically stated that “the wife should not leave her husband” and “the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10-11), listing no exceptions. This is even true for believers who are married to unbelievers (1 Cor. 7:12-13). Believers should not divorce unbelieving spouses, no exceptions. Surely in the church in Corinth, a city that was a bastion for immorality, there were cases of married believers who were previously married and divorced, or unbelievers who were previously married and divorced who were married to believers. Why didn’t Paul say, “Those of you who are married to unbelievers who have been previously married and divorced, you are committing adultery if you remain married, so divorce them”?

The claim is made by some that all those in the Corinthian church who had “adulterous remarriages” repented of them at their conversions, divorcing their spouses prior to baptism, an unsupportable claim of which we read nothing in the book of Acts or in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul clearly allowed for divorced persons to remarry:

Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy. I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is.

Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned (1 Cor. 7:25-28).

Paul advises those who have never been married, “virgins,” to remain single, but his advice is based purely on “the current distress,” that is, a wave of persecution against the church. Then, in a statement that summarizes much of his earlier advice for Christians to “remain in the state in which they were called” (see 1 Cor. 7:18-24), he advises the man who is married, “bound to a wife,” not to seek a divorce. Similarly, the man who is already divorced, “released from a wife,” should not seek a wife (“in view of the present distress”). However, Paul says, the already-divorced man, the one “released from a wife,” does not sin if he marries. And it is indisputable that he is speaking specifically to already-divorced men, because Paul continues in the same sentence saying, “and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned.”[5]

Clearly, from reading 1 Corinthians 7, Paul did not believe that the marriage covenant was indissoluble. Just as marriage is annulled by death and (often) adultery, it is also annulled by divorce. Paul did not believe Jesus’ words in the Four D&R Passages should be interpreted, “Whoever divorces and remarries lives in a continuous state of adultery that can only be remedied by yet another divorce.”

Along these lines, Steve Gregg astutely writes:

The only valid reason for forbidding remarriage to a divorced person would be the assumption that their first marriage is still valid. If a person is not bound to an existing marriage, he or she is unmarried and eligible to get married again. Remarriage is thus permissible or not only insofar as the first marriage has or has not been validly terminated in the sight of God.

Those who forbid all divorce and remarriage must demonstrate that marriage is permanently and unconditionally binding before God. This cannot be established from Scripture. The usual argument is that a married couple are declared to be “one flesh” (Gen.2:24), and are therefore bound to one another unconditionally for life. However, this certainly burdens the phrase “one flesh” with more baggage than it will bear, since a tryst with a prostitute constitutes a “one flesh” relationship, according to Paul (1 Cor. 6:16), yet not necessarily a permanently binding one.

The fact that Jesus saw fit to forbid the “putting asunder” of what God has joined, demonstrates that such a dissolution is apparently possible, though inappropriate (Matt. 19:6). What would be the point of Christ forbidding an act that is humanly impossible to perform? The question upon which a divorced person’s legitimate freedom to remarry must be determined is: “In the sight of God, has ‘what God has joined together’ effectively been ‘put asunder’ by man, and if so, by whom?” If there has been adultery, then it is the adulterer who has effectively put asunder what God has joined. If there has been no adultery, then the person seeking the divorce has put the marriage asunder. Both adultery and divorce (for grounds other than fornication) are forbidden by Christ. The only way a second marriage could be regarded as “adultery” would be when it, like ordinary adultery, is the violation of an existing marriage covenant. If the first marriage covenant has ceased to exist in God’s sight, however, there remains no such covenant to be violated in contracting a second marriage.[10]

The Silence of the Early Church

The “silence” (lack of evidence) we’ve been considering grows to a roar when we read the book of Acts, where there is not a single record of a divorce or of anyone repenting of an “adulterous marriage.”

And the silence becomes deafening when we examine the writings of the early church fathers. I am no expert on their voluminous writings, but my friend Paul Pavao, who is quite knowledgeable of early church writings and regularly publishes articles about them on his popular website, Christian History for Everyman, writes:

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…. 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.

The Next Question

We could justifiably stop at this point, because it has been shown that neither Jesus, the apostles, nor the early church believed and practiced what Divine Divorce Proponents advocate. Their doctrine cannot be found outside their interpretation of four proof texts.

At this point, pure-hearted Divine Divorce Proponents are rejoicing with relief, as they were no doubt extremely troubled with the thought of redeemed, devoted, long-term, Christian married couples and their families being torn apart, as well as the idea that such a thing could ever be pleasing to God. Stalwart Divine Divorce Proponents are trying to think of ways to overcome the complete absence of their doctrine in Scripture outside their interpretation of four proof texts. Tragically, preserving their doctrine is more important than preserving Christian marriages and families. (Some are also desperate to justify their divorces from those whom they wanted to divorce and, once they discovered a strange doctrine that sanctified their sin, did divorce.)

Perhaps the next question that logically comes to the pure-hearted is, “Why didn’t the apostles and early church interpret Jesus’ Four D&R Passages in such a way that requires divorced and remarried people to divorce again?

There are many possible answers. Most fundamentally, however, is the obvious fact that the apostles did not take Jesus’ Four D&R Passages in their most literal sense. But if they had, they would not have come to the conclusion that divorced and remarried people needed to divorce again, but rather, that divorced and remarried people ought to be stoned as the Law of Moses stipulated for adulterers.

Jesus’ true disciples take His words very seriously, of course, and they are not looking for excuses to disobey His commandments. That being said, students of Jesus also know that, when they endeavor to interpret His words, they should not only consider context, but the fact that Jesus indisputably did not intend that all of His words should always be taken in their most literal sense.

For example, everyone agrees that Jesus does not really intend that we pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands if they “cause us to stumble,” or even that our physical eyes or hands can actually “cause” us to stumble.” Yet that is what Jesus said in Matthew 5:29-30, just moments before one of the Four D&R Passages.

No one claims that the man who looks on a woman with lust, which Jesus called “adultery,” should be taken so literally that a woman may legitimately divorce her husband if she catches him viewing pornography. No one claims that God expects the repentance of a man who lusts to be identical to the man who commits adultery. Yet Jesus did refer to lust as adultery in Matthew 5:28, again, just moments before one of the Four D&R Passages.

No one claims that Jesus expects some men to literally castrate themselves for the sake of God’s kingdom, but within a few seconds of one of the Four D&R Passages, Jesus said “there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12).

No one believes Jesus’ words, “Give to everyone who asks of you” (Luke 6:30) should be taken in their most literal sense, because they don’t believe they should give their children everything they request, or that they should give to those who would use their gift for evil.

No one believes Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler, “sell all you possess,” should be taken in its most literal sense, because no one believes Jesus wanted the man to sell even his clothes and walk around naked.

None of us think Jesus actually wants us literally to “hate father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters” (Luke 14:26) if we hope to be one of His disciples.

The list of such sayings of Jesus, if compiled, would be quite long. Jesus was a communicator who provoked people to think. So, again, those who are serious about interpreting His words correctly do think. They think about context, and they ask the all-important question: Did the apostles interpret Jesus’ words as I am thinking they should be interpreted? A fundamental doctrine, if true, will be consistently endorsed throughout Scripture. The fact is, you can make Bible verses say just about anything by ignoring context.

Divorce and Marriage is Similar, But Not Identical, to Adultery

Divine Divorce Proponents claim, “Jesus said that divorce and remarriage is adultery. So divorced and remarried people should repent of their adultery just as classic adulterers should, namely, by ending the adulterous relationship.” But Jesus certainly did not mean that divorce and remarriage is identical to adultery, any more than He meant that lust is identical to adultery when He said that the lustful man commits adultery in his heart. (In fact, the phrase “adultery in his heart” differentiates it from physical adultery.)

Everyone knows this. Illegitimate divorce and remarriage shares some similarity to adultery, but it is not identical. In the case of divorce and remarriage, the “adulterer” believes he is not married to his former spouse. He has not been living with her. He has not been having sexual relations with her. He is not hiding the fact that he “has another woman.” He has publicly made vows and entered into a covenant with that other woman. No classic adulterer fits that description.

Moreover, it is indisputable that Jesus did not view divorced and remarried people to be exactly like adulterers, otherwise He—as the giver of the Mosaic Law, and whose entire ministry was conducted while the Mosaic Law was still in effect and whose credibility as Messiah depended on Him fully endorsing and not contradicting it in the least—would have advocated that people who are divorced and remarried be stoned as adulterers, just as the Mosaic Law stipulated.[7]

Thus, to assume that the required remedy for the “adultery” of divorce and remarriage is the identical remedy required for classic adulterers is both illogical and unscriptural.

A similar illogical conclusion could be drawn from the Apostle John’s words, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15), an idea he likely learned listening to Jesus (see Matt. 5:21-24). Did John mean that the one “who hates his brother” is identical to a murderer? Of course not. The brother-hater is in many ways similar to the murderer, but not identical. Both are haters, but the brother-hater’s victim is still alive. The brother-hater can repent by an apology and mend his relationship, something the murderer cannot do. The murderer has grossly sinned against the spouse, children and parents of the one he murdered, something of which the brother-hater cannot be near as guilty. The murderer simply can’t undo what he has done, and if he repents, it will by necessity look much different than the repentance of the brother-hater.

So the same is true of the one who commits “adultery” through illegitimate divorce and remarriage. And quite obviously, every illegitimate divorce and remarriage varies in the degree that it resembles adultery. The man who divorces his wife because he is lusting after another woman—whom he marries one day after his divorce—is about as close to classic adultery as you can get. The man who divorces his wife “for any cause” also seems very close to the classic adulterer. But the example of John and Karen, whose imaginary story I told at the beginning of this article, appears to be significantly distant from classic adultery, and for many reasons.

Other Good Reasons to Reject Strict Literality

All of this is to say that when we begin to interpret a passage of scripture in such a way that it contradicts other clear biblical principles or themes, clashes with major moral truths, or impugns the consistent character or actions of God, we can be sure our interpretation is a misinterpretation. There could be many reasons why the apostles and the early church did not adopt the most literal interpretation of the Four D&R Passages, but any and all of their reasons would fall somewhere within those three general categories. Here are a few possibilities:

1.) Perhaps because they noticed that Jesus was endorsing what the Law of Moses prescribed concerning divorce and remarriage (this is particularly clear in the Matthew 19 passage), then it stood to reason that the One who gave the Mosaic Law and who declared that He “did not come to abolish the Law” (Matt. 5:17) would not contradict anything found in the Law of Moses regarding divorce and remarriage.

And the fact is, under the Law of Moses, God permitted divorced women to remarry and He permitted men to marry divorced women. The only prohibition concerned priests. They, alone, were not permitted to marry divorced women. So clearly, the Mosaic Law reveals that God did not view everyone who was divorced and remarried to still be married to their original spouse, or that divorced and remarried people were “living in a state of continual adultery”; nor did He believe that the marriage covenant was indissoluble.

This is also borne out in the Mosaic Law’s classic divorce and remarriage passage in Deuteronomy 24:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance (Deut. 24:1-4).

It is from this passage that the Pharisees derived their teaching that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, all built upon their very liberal interpretation of the word “indecency.” Notice that the only thing that God condemns in this passage is the twice-divorced (or once-divorced and once-widowed) woman returning to her first husband. Obviously and without dispute, God did not view the once-divorced, twice-married woman as still being married to her first husband. On the contrary, such a woman was forbidden from ever returning to her first husband.

If you had asked Jesus, directly after He spoke any of the Four D&R Passages, if He endorsed Deuteronomy 24:1-4, He would have said, “Absolutely yes. I gave the Law of Moses. I did not come to abolish it.” And He might have added, “As I already told you, it was never My intention that anyone divorce, but because I knew how hard-hearted people would be, I knew there would be divorce, and so I gave a few regulations concerning divorce in order to mitigate some of the evil. In an attempt to get hard-hearted husbands to think a little bit before they divorced their wives—in hopes of preventing some divorces—I created a law that forbade their wives from ever returning to them. Once their wives were remarried, the door was permanently shut for reconciliation. I hoped that would motivate husbands who were contemplating divorcing their wives to pause and think.”

And this passage in Deuteronomy is yet another deathblow to the Divine Divorce Doctrine, because divorce-for-any-cause and remarriage was just as much like adultery in Moses’ day as it was in Jesus’ day. Yet God said it would be an abomination for a twice-divorced woman to return to her husband, the very thing that is the highest goal in Divine Divorce Doctrine. What God said would be an abomination in His sight, Divine Divorce Proponents say would be a happy, holy ending.[8]

To elaborate, if the interpretation by Divine Divorce Proponents of the Four D&R Passages is correct, then those who are “still married to their original spouses in God’s eyes” should do everything within their power, once they’ve escaped their “adulterous marriages,” to return to their original spouse including—if their former spouse is remarried—attempt to break up that second marriage too. Imagine them testifying in church: “Praise the Lord, I got saved! So I divorced my husband of 20 years and tracked down my ex-husband, to whom I’m still married in God’s eyes since marriage is only terminated by death. Miracle of miracles, he has also become a believer since we broke up! So I convinced him to divorce his Christian wife since theirs was also an “adulterous marriage,” and now we are happily reunited in the Lord with a God-pleasing marriage! Hallelujah! It feels so good to be holy!”

And while all the Divine Divorce Proponents would be shouting “Praise the Lord!” the angels in heaven would be weeping, not to mention little children, perhaps, produced from the second, “adulterous” marriages.

Finally, along these same lines, perhaps the apostles and early church also considered how Jesus viewed the woman at the well of Samaria, and they noticed that He did not say to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had one husband and four adulterous marriages, and the man you have now is not your husband.” No, Jesus said she had had five husbands, and He differentiated all of them from the man she was currently living with, one to whom she was not married. Moreover, He didn’t tell her to try to reconcile with her first husband to whom she “was still married in God’s eyes.” Incidentally, had Jesus said that, it would have proven He was not the Messiah since He would have been contradicting the Mosaic Law, specifically Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

2.) Perhaps the apostles and early church concluded from reading the entire Bible that God is gracious and forgiving, and that He quite often gives people who sin second chances. Perhaps they remembered that God didn’t require David to divorce Bathsheba, even though he had not only committed adultery with her, but also got her pregnant, arranged to have her husband killed in battle, and then took her as his own wife.

Some Divine Divorce Proponents may object with the claim, “David’s marriage with Bathsheba was lawful because her original husband was dead.” That line of reasoning makes divorce a greater sin than murder, because the adulterer/murderer receives more grace than the adulterer. Here is an amazing thing (and another flaw in the Divine Divorce Doctrine): A man could murder his wife, be forgiven of murder through repentance, and lawfully remarry. But the man who divorces his wife is not permitted to remarry until his ex-wife dies.

3.) Perhaps the apostles and early church reasoned that through His Four D&R Passages, Jesus was hoping to prevent potential divorces and illegitimate marriages rather than unscramble the scrambled eggs of those who had already divorced and remarried. Perhaps they reasoned that sin is not remedied by more sin, and that expecting a thief to repent by stealing more money in order to repay those he had previously stolen from is a very odd repentance. Perhaps they reasoned that breaking one oath doesn’t fix the breaking of another oath. Perhaps they wondered what would be the point of requiring divorced and remarried people to divorce again, and what good would be the good accomplished by it. Not being able to think of any point or any good, they concluded that surely a wise and good God would not require it.

4.) Perhaps they reasoned that the highest moral law—to love one’s neighbor as oneself—should always be the guiding principle. Perhaps they concluded that the most loving thing to do in such situations—like John and Karen’s for example—is not to divorce one’s current spouse or break up one’s current family, but to apologize, if possible, to one’s former spouse and common children for one’s guilt regarding the divorce (if one bears responsibility for the divorce), and to renew one’s resolve to never allow such a thing to happen again so far as one’s current spouse and common children are concerned.

5.) Perhaps they thought about the inherent absurdity and injustice of demanding those who were previously divorced and remarried to divorce again while requiring nothing of those who had sexual relationships with multiple partners prior to their current marriage but who were never previously married and divorced. The folks who tried to do what was right by entering into a marriage covenant, but who failed, are penalized and not permitted to remarry lest they commit “adultery,” while the one who never married, but who may have committed adultery with scores of married women while he was single, does not commit adultery if he marries!

Think about my example at the start of this article. If John had not married the Las Vegas bartender for a week, but had only slept with her for a week, Divine Divorce Proponents would not require him to divorce Karen. If he had slept with hundreds of Las Vegas bartenders prior to his salvation, his marriage to Karen would be OK. Doesn’t that seem odd and grossly unfair?

6.) Perhaps the apostles and early church considered the logical ends of taking the Four D&R Passages in their most literal sense and realized that, in some cases, the result would be the breakup of long-term, love-filled, devoted Christian marriages and families. Thus such an interpretation would contradict clear biblical principles and themes, clash with major moral truths, and impugn the character of God. We don’t see God trying to break up godly, Christian marriages in the Bible, including any that involve remarriage.

In Summary

There could be other reasons the apostles and early church did not adopt the most literal interpretation of the Four D&R Passages. Regardless, the primary point is that they did not.

The fundamental flaw of Divine Divorce Proponents is that they’ve assigned preeminence to the Four D&R Passages above all the rest of Scripture, and once they’ve settled on an extremely literal interpretation of those Four D&R Passages, anything else in Scripture that doesn’t fit or contradicts their doctrine must be adjusted or explained away. Anabaptists, in particular, are prone to make such an error because of their belief that Jesus introduced new moral standards, effectively abolishing the moral standards of the Mosaic Law (something Jesus said He would not do in Matthew 5:17). They often wrongly think, for example, that Jesus’ “You have heard…but I say” statements in the Sermon on the Mount are examples of Him abolishing the Law’s moral standards and replacing them with higher standards.[9] Thus the moral standards of the Mosaic Law regarding divorce and remarriage can be brushed off as entirely irrelevant. After that, they only need to ignore the deafening silence of the entire New Testament regarding their doctrine and contend with 1 Corinthians 7.

The tragic irony of the Divine Divorce Doctrine is that its adherents often identity themselves as promoters of “marriage permanence,” yet they are helping to destroy Christian marriages, and if they had their way, millions of married Christian couples would divorce as they repented of their “adulterous marriages.” It seems bizarre to identify yourself as being an advocate for “marriage permanence” when you hope to convince millions of married Christians to break their vows and divorce.

For that and other reasons, I have no hesitation labeling the Divine Divorce Doctrine a “doctrine of demons,” the kind of which Paul warned would arise in the last days (1 Tim. 4:1). It is interesting that Paul specifically mentioned that those last-days demonic doctrines would be marked by “men who forbid (or hinder, as the Greek verb koluo is often translated) marriage” (1 Tim. 4:3). Again, Divine Divorce Proponents want millions of married Christian couples to break their vows and divorce. My advice is that you run for your life from anyone who is promoting this dangerous and destructive twisting of the Word of God.

Although Jesus did perceptively liken illegitimate divorce and remarriage to adultery, the Bible does not teach that the remedy for such a sin is another divorce coupled with a return to the original spouse if possible, and celibacy otherwise. God does not view those who have been married and divorced as still married; nor does He view those who are divorced and remarried as living in a continuous state of adultery. By likening divorce-for-any-reason and remarriage with adultery—what everyone acknowledged was sin—Jesus was attempting to help the Pharisees and their unfortunate students, the people of Israel, see that their interpretation of the Mosaic Law was entirely off base. His hope was to curb future divorces—legitimate and illegitimate—rather than break up existing devoted Christian marriages.

And what was motivating Jesus in all this? The same thing that has been motivating God from the beginning. Love. Because He loves people, He hates divorce. So He tries to prevent it. And when He can’t prevent it (because of people’s hard hearts), He tries to mitigate the evil of it, patch it up as best as possible, and prevent it from happening again. All because He loves people.

Marriage was made for man; not man for marriage. But you would never know that from listening to legalists. They see their relationship with God as that of a slave and his taskmaster rather than that of a child and his father, and they read the Bible like a prison rule book rather than an endearing love letter. And as they compete with each other to prove who is the most devoted slave, they dissect and twist God’s Word to find more ways to condemn the less holy and spread their self-inflicted misery to others. I feel so sorry for them. And still, God loves them. — David

[1] Some Divine Divorce Proponents who hold that marriage is dissoluble only through death and not because of adultery, argue that the exception of which Jesus spoke was the discovery, during the engagement phase, of pre-engagement immorality. That is, one could lawfully break off his engagement if he discovered that his fiancée was guilty of fornication (as exemplified by the case of Joseph and Mary), but after one formally married, there was no allowance made for divorce for any reason, including even adultery. Steve Gregg correctly observes, “This introduces the strange suggestion that premarital sex is a greater violation of, and more destructive to, the marriage than is an extramarital affair after marriage. Such a valuation is exactly the reverse of the respective estimation of these two offenses in the Scriptures (cf. Ex.22:16-17/Deut.22:22).” (http://thenarrowpath.com/ta_divorce.php)

[2] So much so that, under the Law of Moses, a man who seduced or raped a non-betrothed virgin was required to marry her and never divorce her (see Ex. 22:16-17; Deut. 22:28-29).

[3] If Jesus was “altering the Law of Moses” with new standards for divorce and remarriage (as some Divine Divorce Proponents claim) suddenly making what was not previously a sin to now be a sin, then there were divorced and remarried people in His audiences during His Four D&R Passages who suddenly became adulterers in God’s eyes, something they were not seconds earlier. When Jesus spoke and “changed the standard,” any of those people who were heaven-bound instantly lost their salvation!

[4] Personally, I am not persuaded that thinking about committing adultery with someone is as evil in God’s appraisal as actually committing adultery with that person.

[5] Abstinence from sex, rather than divorce, is advocated by some as a remedy to an “adulterous marriage.”

[6] As you might suspect, Divine Divorce Advocates are troubled by this clear passage, as it contradicts their doctrine. Thus some interpret Paul to say: “Are you a virgin man who is betrothed to a woman? Do not seek to get out of your betrothal. Are you a virgin man who has somehow been able to break your oath of betrothal to a former fiancée? Do not seek to be betrothed again and married. But if you marry, that is, specifically you virgin men who were once betrothed but who were somehow released from your betrothal, you have not sinned; and if a female virgin marries, she has not sinned. What I am saying has no application to those who were once previously married…only those who were previously betrothed.” This shows the lengths to which Divine Divorce Proponents will go to protect their doctrine.

[7] See http://thenarrowpath.com/ta_divorce.php

[8] “Then why didn’t Jesus endorse stoning the woman who was caught in the act of adultery?” some may wonder. Jesus did not say that the adulteress didn’t deserve to be stoned. But there were other factors, related to the Law of Moses, that were relevant in her case. For example, those who cast stones should be without sin themselves, lest they be hypocrites. Jesus could not endorse hypocrisy. And, stoning an adulteress while ignoring the sin of the adulterer is an act of injustice. Jesus could not endorse that. Beyond those things, Jesus extended mercy to the adulteress, mercy being one of  the “weightier provisions of the Law” according to Jesus (Matt. 23:23). By the way, mercy is why Joseph, upon discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, didn’t gather a crowd to stone her or broadcast her alleged sin, but rather “planned to send her away secretly.” Scripture says he intended to do this because he was a righteous man” (Matt. 1:19). Some food for thought.

[9] And of course, if God felt during the time of the Law of Moses that illegitimate divorce and remarriage was identical to adultery, He would have legislated identical punishment for both, and thus God would have called for the stoning of those who divorced and remarried.

[10] If this were true, however, we would expect that Jesus would have correctly cited any old covenant law that He was changing (which He often did not), and that the “new” standard He was introducing would in fact be new, and not already be a standard found in the Mosaic Law (which was never the case).