Divorce And Remarriage
One area of life with which the Scriptures deal is marriage. A biblical definition of marriage is given in the Westminster Confession of Faith: ‘Marriage is to be between one man and one woman; neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time’. (The whole subject of Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage is dealt with in chapter 24 of the Confession). This is the view of marriage which is preached and taught in our churches and has been taught for some hundreds of years in Protestant circles. The purpose of marriage is (in this order of priority): for the mutual help of husband and wife; for the purpose of having children; and to avoid the temptation to moral uncleanness.
Those who are Christians are required by God to marry only ‘in the lord’ (I Cor.7:39). For a Christian to marry an unbeliever is to become ‘unequally yoked’ (2Cor.6:14). This illustration is drawn from the old practice of harnessing together two animals for ploughing a field or drawing a cart. Animals which are unequally yoked would pull in different directions and so make the task of ploughing or drawing a cart very difficult and inefficient. So when Christians marry those who are not of the same faith it leads to similar discord and unhappiness. Hence God forbids the believer to enter into such a relationship.
In a perfect world in which there was no sin there would be no need for divorce. But the Bible is a realistic book and is given to help us in the real world in which we now live. The fact is that men and women are imperfect and at times their sin brings about circumstances which make divorce necessary.
In the Old Testament there was provision made for divorce. The place where this is found is in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The provision here in Old Testament times was that if a man married a woman and then found some uncleanness in her he was authorised to give her a bill of divorce and send her out of his house. The woman was at liberty from that time on to become another man’s wife. It is not stated what the uncleanness was which the husband might find in her. It evidently was not marital unfaithfulness on her part because in that case a woman was to be stoned to death (Deut.22:22). Presumably it was some deformity or other disagreeable feature which her husband found offensive.
Christ makes it clear in His teaching that this Old Testament provision was now abolished. This reason for divorce was tolerated by God in Old Testament times, He said, because of the hardness of men’s hearts. But it is not tolerable now in these New Testament times (Mt.19:8-9). The coming of the New Testament has brought an alteration in the terms upon which a divorce may be obtained.
New Testament Times
What then are the conditions upon which a divorce might be lawfully had in the sight of God in these New Testament times? Our church’s position is that which is stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith in this way: ‘In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce’. This is one ground of divorce. There is a second ground of divorce, which the Confession puts like this: ‘Such wilful desertion as can in no way be remedied by the church or civil magistrate, is sufficient cause of dissolving the bond of marriage’.
Our church’s position then is that there are two grounds of divorce. One is adultery; and the other is wilful, irremediable desertion. This is understood to mean that an innocent person within marriage has a right to a divorce if their spouse has abandoned them. In such cases an attempt ought to be made to persuade the deserting partner to come back to the matrimonial home. But if they will not, the party who has been abandoned may, after all reasonable efforts at persuasion have failed, proceed to exercise the right to a divorce. Where either situation has taken place it gives to the innocent party within the marriage the right before God to a divorce.
It should be noted that the punishments of the Old Testament for adultery are not to be enacted now in this New Testament age. It is not an offence to be punished nowadays with capital punishment when a person commits adultery. At the same time the act of adultery does give to the innocent party within a marriage the right to divorce. This is not the same as saying that the innocent party in a marriage is obliged to divorce his or her spouse. If it is their wish to do so, they may choose to forgive the offence of the spouse. In that case they will want to remain in the marriage bond with them. But the innocent party does in such cases have the right to a divorce if they wish to use it.
The Teaching of Christ
Christ’s teaching within the New Testament is to be found in a number of passages where He refers to this general subject of adultery. The references are cumulative. This is to say that they are given by Christ to throw light on the subject before us from various angles and with various possible situations in view.
Mark 10:11: ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her’.
Mark 10:12. ‘If a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery’.
Luke 16:18: ‘Whosoever putteth away his wife and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband, committeth adultery’.
Matthew 5:32: ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication causeth her to commit adultery; and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery’.
Matthew 19:9: ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery’.
From the above teaching we are to understand that divorce is permissible in these New Testament times when the grounds of it are adultery or fornication. The first three references above are evidently to be understood in the light of the fourth reference. The statement in Matthew 5:32 is referred to as the Exceptive Clause. It states clearly that there is a proper ground of divorce, namely fornication. But all the trivial and lesser grounds of divorce which mankind has invented over the centuries are invalid in the sight of God.
The Exceptive Clause however of Matthew 5:32 is of great importance for all in the church to understand and recognise as part of the teaching of Christ on the whole subject of marriage and divorce. Our Lord can only mean that it is not improper for a person whose marriage-partner has committed fornication or adultery to seek to obtain a divorce from them if they so wish. Adultery breaks the very bond of marriage and gives right to the innocent person to seek to be freed entirely from all further obligation within the marriage contract.
The Teaching of the Apostle Paul
Christ here shows one ground of divorce. Paul gives a second just ground of divorce in I Corinthians: ‘But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases’ (I Cor.7:15). To grasp the importance of this statement it is necessary to remember the context of Paul’s words here. The situation envisaged in this case is that of a Christian who has an unbelieving spouse.
As a rule the Apostle commands a Christian in such a situation to remain within the marriage bond. To be married to an unbeliever is no ground in and of itself why divorce should be sought. The Christian faith is not given by God to cause disruption within human society but rather to bring peace and harmony as far as possible. So the believer within a mixed marriage should do all in his or her power to keep the bond of marriage unbroken. A Christian who finds himself or herself in a situation in which they have become believers after marriage, let us say, is not at liberty now to dissolve the marriage-bond with the unbelieving spouse.
However, if a situation within marriage arises in which a Christian finds himself or herself abandoned by the unbelieving spouse, they may, after all due effort at persuading the spouse to return, seek a divorce from the party who has abandoned them and will not be reconciled to them. In Paul’s words, they are in such situations ‘not under bondage’ (1 Cor.7: 15).
The obvious meaning here is that a believer in such a position is not bound by the marriage vow which they formerly took. The reason for this is that their spouse has now deserted them and refuses to be a marriage-partner to them. A marriage-partner who goes away from home and refuses to live with the spouse is no marriage-partner at all. In this scenario the innocent person who has been abandoned may lawfully sue for a divorce. This is what the Westminster Confession means when it uses the terms: ‘Such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied’.
In such situations it is declared by Paul to be permissible for the Christian to divorce the party who has abandoned them. This of course must not be done without every due attempt being first made to have the deserting partner persuaded to return, as formerly stated.
Remarriage of the Innocent Party
The position of our church on the subject of the remarriage of a divorced person is given in the Westminster Confession of Faith in these words: ‘In the case of adultery after marriage it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.’
The first proof text which is given in the footnotes to the above statement in the Confession is Matthew 19:9: ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another committeth adultery; and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery’.
It is clear that the Westminster divines understood the exception of fornication to extend both to the right of divorce and also to the subsequent right of remarriage. This is surely a correct reading of Christ’s words. If a person has the right of divorce they must also have the right of remarriage. The very nature of divorce is such that it dissolves the marriage bond. This was so in Old Testament times (Deut. 24:1-4). Here God allows the woman who receives a bill of divorce to become another man’s wife. To view a lawful divorce as if it permitted only the dissolving of the marriage but not the permission to remarry is intolerable.
It is surely for this reason that the Confession states that ‘after the divorce’ the divorced person may ‘marry another, as if the offending party were dead’. There have on occasion been scruples raised among Christians as to whether a divorced person has the right to remarry. The Confessional position is very clear. An innocent person who has been obliged to sue for a divorce on biblical grounds may, after divorce, feel perfectly at liberty to remarry if they wish to do. They are to act in this matter with as clear a conscience as if their former spouse were dead and buried. So the Confession teaches.
For Further Reading
DIVORCE, by John Murray, published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company
With permission from the Free Church Witness, December 2005