May a Divorce Person Remarry?
J. Carl Laney
Author of The Divorce Myth
The History of the Issue
All the church fathers except one (Ambrosiaster) agreed that remarriage after divorce,
whatever the cause, constitutes adultery. Even in the case of adultery, the faithful spouse
did not have permission to remarry. This remained the standard in the church until the
16th century when Erasmus suggested that the "innocent" spouse not only had a right to
divorce an unfaithful spouse, but could also contract a new marriage. This view was
accepted by the Reformers and is the standard Protestant evangelical position on divorce
and remarriage today.
The Biblical Questions
Does the exception in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 allow for remarriage after divorce in the case
No. There are three possible places the exception clause could appear: at the
beginning of Jesus's statement (making separation mandatory in the case of porneia), in
the middle (allowing divorce only) and at the end (sanctioning both divorce and
remarriage). If the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 applies both to divorce and
remarriage, these are the only two places in the New Testament where such an exception
appears in the middle of the sentence and modifies both the preceding and following verbs.
What is the meaning of porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9?
Many evangelicals have mistakenly equated porneia with "adultery." But there is
another word (moicheia) which Jesus would have used if He had intended to allow for
divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery. It has been argued that porneia refers to
(1) any kind of sexual misconduct, (2) unfaithfulness during betrothal, or (3) incestuous
marriage as forbidden in Leviticus 18:6-18. Each of these views is possible. Which would
best fit in a Jewish context in a Jewish gospel? Since porneia does refer to incest in the
New Testament (1 Cor. 5:1; Acts 15:20, cf. Lev. 17:8-18:16), and was a serious problem in
the lives of the Herods (Archelaus, Antipas and Agrippa II), it is quite possible that Jesus
was arguing the permanence of marriage except in the case of an illicit or illegal (e.
incestuous) marriage. John the Baptist had recently lost his life due to his condemning the
incestuous marriage of Antipas to his brother's wife who was also his niece. The
questioning of Jesus by the Pharisees was probably motivated by a desire to see Jesus get
into similar trouble. See The Divorce Myth, pp. 71-78, for complete argumentation.
Why was no exception recorded in Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18?
In Jesus' teaching as recorded in the other Synoptic Gospels no exception to the
permanence of marriage is given. There is no "exception" clause. Divorce and remarriage
is said to constitute adultery in every circumstance. It has been suggested that Mark is a
summary of the more complete record of what is found in Matthew, thus he leaves out the
exception. But take a close look. Mark gives us details which are not found in Matthew.
Mark's account is actually the fuller or more complete account. Because the laws of
Leviticus 18:6-18 did not apply to Gentiles, Mark saw no need to include the exception in
his gospel to Roman readers. The exception is not found in Mark or Luke because it had
no application to Romans or Greek Gentiles.
How did Paul understand the teaching of Jesus regarding marriage and divorce?
Paul definitely regarded marriage as permanent (Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:39). According
to Paul, death and death alone could end a marriage. He has a word from Jesus that
divorce is not allowed (1 Cor. 7:10-11). Paul, a first century theologian and Greek scholar,
interprets the words of Jesus as not allowing for divorce or remarriage. Only two
alternatives are presented those who have been divorced: (1) reconciliation to one's
spouse, or (2) the single life. One who has been divorced should seek reconciliation or
actively pursue the single life. A new marriage is simply not an option which Paul
What is the meaning of Paul's words, “not under bondage" (1 Cor. 7:15)?
While many have interpreted these words as allowing for remarriage in the case of
desertion, Paul doesn't mention remarriage in this verse at all. He knows of the concept of
remarriage, but sees it as applying only to widows (1 Cor. 7:39). It is quite unlikely that
Paul would prohibit divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 and then allow it in 7:
15. The words "not under bondage" literally means "not enslaved." A deserted believer is
not so bound to preserve the union that he or she must follow the deserter around like a
slave seeking to maintain the marriage. Being enslaved is contrasted with being at peace.
Rather than being a slave to an unwilling spouse, the believer can be at peace in the midst
of a difficult situation.
What is the meaning of the words, "but if you marry, you have not sinned" (1 Cor. 7:28).
The key to any verse is its context. Paul is speaking about engaged virgins in 1
Corinthians 7:25-38. He has been arguing the advantages of the single life. Some people
who had plans to marry were wondering if it was s sin to go ahead with the marriage. Paul
is simply saying that those engaged virgins (parthenoi) who are in a state of marital
freedom (lelusai, v. 27) commit no sin should they go ahead and marry.
Marriage was designed by God to be a permanent relationship (Gen. 2:24, "cleave"
implies a permanent bonding). Divorce is a sin that God hates (Mal. 2:16). It was
regulated in the Old Testament (Deut. 24:1-4), but did not originate with God and never
meets with His approval. Both Jesus and Paul forbade divorce ("What God has brought
together let no man put asunder" [Matt. 19:6], and "But to the married I give instruction . . .
that the wife should not leave her husband . . . and that the husband should not send his
wife away" [1 Cor. 7:10-11]).
Should Christians grant their approval to something that Scripture clearly
disapproves? To approve divorce and remarriage or regard it as an unimportant issue will
actually encourage it. Church approval of divorce and remarriage allows people to
anticipate a way out of an unhappy relationship. If there were no loop-holes more people
would commit themselves to working through the problems and making their marriage work.
It is important for Christians to understand that the biblical prohibition against
remarriage is not punishment for divorce. The prohibition is simply given in recognition that
marriage is designed by God to be permanent and outlasts the legal termination of
marriage by divorce. To divorce and remarry is likened to taking another spouse when you
are already married. For that reason, Jesus called it “adultery” (Matthew 5:32, 19:9, Mark
10:11-12, Luke 16:18).
It is also important to recognize that divorce and remarriage is not an unpardonable
sin. God loves sinners and is always willing to forgive and restore those who acknowledge
their wrongdoing (confession) and repent (1 John 1:9). Those who have been divorced
and remarried should not be considered outcasts or second class Christians. Rather they
should be encouraged to work hard to strengthen and maintain their present marriage and
to demonstrate faithfulness to their marriage partner and to God.
As in the case of any sin, divorce and remarriage undermines one’s reputation,
integrity and trust. This condition will have an impact on ministry (1 Tim. 3:2, 11-12). For
that reason, it wise for someone who has been divorced and remarried to resign from their
ministries until credibility, reputation and trust can be restored. While such restoration is
possible, it usually takes years of demonstrated faithfulness in marriage and faithful
commitment to the Lord.
According to the Apostle Paul, the marriage relationship is a picture of the believer's
relationship with Christ (Eph. 5:31-33). Is our relationship with Christ temporary or
permanent? Can a true believer ever be separated from Christ (Rom. 8:35-39; Jn. 10:
28)? If marriage is viewed as a dissoluble relationship, it would be an inaccurate
representation of the indissoluble relationship between Christ and His church.
For further study, including application, counseling guidelines and answers to
commonly asked questions, see The Divorce Myth (Bethany House Publisher).