Divorce and remarriage

Christian scholars differ on the grounds the Bible allows for remarriage. In fact, until the Reformation in the sixteenth century the church forbid all remarriage. And from that point it was only some Protestant streams that permitted it. Generally this was only for the innocent party, and where adultery had occurred or desertion that could not be remedied. Even today the Roman Catholic church forbids all remarriage. And the Anglican church has only recently permitted it in “exceptional circumstances.”

The complexities of argument that lie behind such diversities of view are too complex to deal with in a policy document, as are the numerous sexual histories those seeking remarriage today comes with. This paper will therefore simply state my understanding of the various texts and the principles that may apply to the pastoral situations churches currently face. The following must however be understood:

(1) Any principles must be based on the biblical passages, and not held too because they have a historic pedigree, or because they feel more inclusive or relevant to modern relationships

(2) The divergence of views amongst theologians and ministers who take the Bible equally seriously, means that any view must be held with particular humility and respect for alternatives.

(3) Any church policy must only therefore stand whilst the incumbent that drafted it remains in post. A new incumbent may have very different views indeed. And this means that no remarriages should be booked in an interregnum.

(4) Points 2 and 3 suggest that such a policy should therefore err on the side of caution with respect to what it allows. It should not seek to prohibit or discourage what it is felt scripture does not. But it should be show restraint, lest it minimises situations that may not be wrong, but are certainly not ideal.

The oneness of marriage
Genesis 2v23-24 are foundational. They suggest marriage is simply the act of one man and one woman beginning to live together in a sexual relationship with the intent of sticking with one-another. The “become one-flesh” is portrayed as the heart of the relationship. Malachi 2v14-16 confirms this, teaching that the relationship is a covenant witnessed by God in which he himself has made them as one. And it is for this reason that he hates the separation of divorce.

As with all covenants then, marriage has stipulations. The only one implied by the one-flesh bond is ‘oneness’ or faithfulness. And here, two things seem immediately implicit: fidelity and permanence. So faithfulness is to never seek the one-flesh relationship with another, nor separate by deserting or discarding one’s spouse. These reflections seem confirmed by wider biblical data.

Sex and marriage
On one hand, to enter into this one-flesh bond through sex outside the cohabitation and commitment of marriage is strongly forbidden, because the fidelity, permanence and provision guaranteed by marriage make it its only appropriate (and safe) place. Indeed, to engage in extra-marital sex is such a profound act, that it requires and perhaps implies marriage, even when not consensual (Deuteronomy 22v28-29). In fact, it is assumed that women will be virgins when married, and not being so required the most serious of punishments (Deuteronomy 22v13-24). In Israel then, the only two options when someone had sex outside marriage, was to marry the person or remain single and celibate for life! This explains Joseph’s shock at Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1v18-19).

On the other hand, cohabitation and commitment alone cannot be deemed marriage until sexual union takes place (Deuteronomy 21v10-13). This may suggest that assumed in faithfulness, is a third aspect: not just sexual fidelity but sexual activity, so that the one-flesh bond remains.

The New Testament confirm much of this. When condemning “sexual immorality” on 24 separate occasions, it uses the Greek term “porneia,” which refers to all sexual practices forbidden by the Old Testament, including adultery, homosexuality and sex before marriage. Jesus himself described the only alternative to marriage to be the equivalent of being a eunuch (Matthew 19v1-12). And Paul states that the only course of action if one cannot control their sexual desires, whether engaged or not, is to marry (1 Corinthians 7v2, 8-9, 36-37).

Divorce and remarriage
Despite the arguments for the absolute indissolubility of the marriage bond, there are numerous inferences that the marriage covenant can be dissolved: The nature of covenants themselves, the allowance of divorce and remarriage in Israel, and God’s dissolution of his covenant with Israel being described as divorce.

Interestingly, where marriage did occur within Israel, our third aspect to faithfulness is stressed, and with it a potential fourth. In Exodus 21v7-11 a Hebrew woman who has been married as a slave to her master is allowed to “go out” or leave her husband, if, despite maintaining fidelity (relatively) and permanence, he fails to provide food or clothing, or continue the sexual union. So perhaps faithfulness also implies provision. Because the two become one in marriage, each is to provide for the other as themselves.

It is difficult to see a breaking of faithfulness in any of our four senses within Deuteronomy 24v1-4. There divorce is because of “indecency” in the woman. But it cannot imply infidelity, for that would mean death (Deuteronomy 22v13-22), and that God’s ‘remarriage’ to Israel after her adultery is sin (cf. Jeremiah 3v6-10). Nor can it mean impermanence for he sends her away, she doesn’t leave. It cannot be a matter of provision, as this was the responsibility then of the husband. And, it is possible, but by no means clear that it was a refusal to have sex.

Literally "nakedness of a thing," the word occurs elsewhere only in Deuteronomy 23:14 to refer to human excrement as something not to be seen by God. We can only therefore suggest a broad definition of: "something that is exposed [the idea of the nakedness] and that is considered unbecoming to be looked at." It might therefore be tentatively suggested that Deuteronomy 24:1 refers to divorce that is on the grounds of any kind of fault on the part of the wife. This is of course in contrast with being simply on the grounds that the husband dislikes or "hates" her (v3).

Whatever the case, the second marriage causes the woman to be “defiled” in such a way that would make her return to her original husband an “abomination” – a word used, amongst other things, for the most serious sexual sins (v4). At the very least this suggests something lacking in any-fault divorce that makes the subsequent marriage “defiling.” This would explain why priests are forbidden from marrying divorcees (Numbers 30v3-5).

Here then we see divorce permitted within Israel on the widest of grounds, but with some question as to its appropriateness. Nevertheless, adultery is clearly an appropriate grounds, as God’s own metaphorical divorce of Israel shows (Jeremiah 3v6-10).

Jesus draws these threads together. In Matthew 19v1-12 he is quizzed about an ethical debate that was raging around the interpretation of “indecency.” One school argued it allowed divorce for ‘any reason’ and another only for ‘sexual immorality.’ Jesus makes a number of points. First, Moses was not teaching a right grounds for divorce, but making provision because the hearts of the Israelite men were hard, and so they were unprepared to abide by the commitments inherent in the one-flesh bond of marriage. Second, sexual immorality is therefore the permitted ground for divorce, not ‘any reason.’ When one considers the debate, there is no way Jesus’ hearers would have read him as not allowing any divorce or remarriage as some would suggest. Third, this means that for someone to remarry after divorced on other grounds is technically adultery as the original marriage covenant remains. Indeed, to marry a woman divorced on wider grounds is adultery, and to divorce a woman is to cause her to commit adultery because in the culture it was almost beyond doubt that she would remarry (cf. 5v31-32). Fourth, all this is taught not in Deuteronomy 24 but in the creation account itself. As we have seen, Deuteronomy may well permit no-fault divorce, but not approve it. Fifth, if people find this high expectation of remaining married frightening, they should not marry and remain celibate.

It is noteworthy that we hear nothing from Jesus that justifies divorce on the grounds of impermanence, lack of provision or conjugal rights. Some argue that this is because these were assumed grounds and not under debate. One might consider, reading two thousand years from now, of the debate about whether people should smoke inside or not. Both sides assume that smoking at all is forbidden for those under 16, and so do not state it.

Reading Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 may give some support to Jesus assuming wider grounds. In the Greco-Roman world separation was apparently the equivalent of divorce. So Paul is adamant according to “the Lord’s command” that Christians should not divorce/separate. And that if they do, they should be reconciled. This stresses the ideal of maintaining the marriage covenant if at all possible. And here Paul seems to presume the understanding that adultery nevertheless permits divorce and remarriage, probably because it did culturally and so did not need clarification. What is at issue for him, is whether a converted spouse should divorce/separate from their unbelieving partner. Paul answers “no,” unless that spouse leaves them. In such situations, he says the Christian is “not under bondage” which apparently echoes language of divorce certificates and what have been read as “free to remarry” (cf. v39).

So between Jesus and Paul, we see divorce discouraged at all costs, reconciliation urged, and remarriage only allowed where there has been infidelity or desertion, within which we might include one-sided divorce.

What then of breaking the covenant through lack of provision or conjugal rights? The New Testament does stress their importance. Paul states that ongoing sexual activity is a ‘right’ and that food and care are to be given, all because of the nature of the one-flesh bond (1 Corinthians 7v3-5, Ephesians 5v28-31). However, in the context of suffering, we also have Peter urging wives to submit, with no hint of a right to divorce (1 Peter 3v1-7). For this reason, there just isn’t the clarity within scripture to sanction divorce and remarriage on these grounds. Moreover, the husband’s particular provision is less needed or expected in the modern day, and establishing whether sufficient provision or sex has been provided to allow divorce is undeniably difficult.

Cohabitation and marriage
Returning now to the nature of marriage, we must note that throughout the Old Testament, vowing fidelity and permanence are not explicit, but implied in the very act of moving in together with this understanding. Certainly, the consent of the bride’s father is sought, and a feast is often held. But these things are not portrayed as necessary to a relationship being a genuine marriage (Deuteronomy 21v10-13).

Similarly, as has already been hinted at, in the Greco-Roman culture Paul wrote to, marriage was assumed in the act of sexual cohabitation, and divorce therefore in separation. We see this in the way Paul equates ‘separate from’ and ‘divorce.’

This has huge implications for cohabitation today. A cultural understanding of what constitutes proper marriage is important as it enables couples to formalize their commitments and clarify to one-another that they are truly married. Indeed, many cohabitive relationships are formed particularly because they are not legal and do not come with the assumed stipulation of marriage. Such relationships cannot be judged as akin to marriage. Though, it should be pointed out that, whether the parties recognise it or not, they assume the responsibility to get married (Deuteronomy 22v28-29).

Other cohabitees however shy away from the traditional wedding for various reasons: finance, bad past experiences, or because they cannot see that it adds anything. Nevertheless, they both assume or state to one-another that their relationship is one of fidelity and permanence. We would say it is unwise and ambiguous not to formalize this relationship with a wedding, for it can leave friends and family confused, and the less secure partner or any children uncertain about the true nature of the commitment, and vulnerable if the relationship fails. Having said that, we cannot say that such a relationship is not marriage in the biblical sense. Indeed, it may conform far more to biblical marriage than those legally married, but who have agreed that their marriage is ‘open’ to other sexual activity, and who assume they can just opt out if things don’t work.

Of course most such relationships start as uncommitted ‘trial runs,’ and then become committed. They therefore move almost imperceptibly into a state of biblical marriage, which stresses the need to formalize this all the more. The morality of such relationships is intriguing. Certainly they are sinful and irresponsible to begin with. But to then commit is the right and responsible thing to and should be celebrated. The church’s role is then to convince the couple why formalizing this is ‘better’ and ‘ideal’ because of what it brings to the marriage.

This is particularly helpful where one member of a cohabiting relationship is converted to Christ. The church here can only seek to establish the implicit commitments of the couple. If they are clearly uncommitted, then break up should be urged, but with it a quick marriage. If they are unsure, clarity needs to be encouraged as to the commitments, and with it a wedding. If they are committed, then they should be convinced that formalizing this is beneficial.

Often however, they are inconsistent in being committed but nervous of the wedding. In truth, this is often nervousness only about the legal binds of marriage, and if committed, doesn’t change the marriage-like nature of the relationship. In such cases it would be wrong to encourage the believer to leave their partner because of their one-flesh bond, because they have made commitments to each other, and because of any children. As sex maintains and deepens companionship and is fundamental to marriage, urging separation in such cases could even be construed as separating what God has joined together! The situation here is strikingly parallel to that of Christians in Corinth who Paul commanded to have sex and not to divorce/separate (1 Corinthians 7v3-6, 10-13). Instead the Christian should be a husband or wife to their partner and urge them to formalize this with a wedding. Free and private ceremonies could be offered to encourage this if finance or embarrassment after so many years is the issue.

Cohabitation, divorce and remarriage
If committed cohabitation is akin to marriage, its break-up is therefore akin to divorce. So in all such circumstances, break up should be discouraged and where it occurs, reconciliation sought. Moreover, where it stems from reasons other than adultery or desertion, any subsequent sexual relationship or marriage would be technically adulterous.

Having said this, more often than not, couples come for marriage or remarriage when already cohabiting, and due to the fact that they are seeking marriage, their cohabitation already has the commitments of marriage. Although entering such a relationship after any previous cohabitation or illegitimate divorce is adulterous, it has to be acknowledged that a new marriage has been effectively entered into. Again, whether or not children are present, it would therefore seem wrong to discourage this for the reasons just outlined. Rather, the couple should be encouraged to formalize their relationship with a wedding.

Here we must consider whether wrongly entering into a second marriage or its equivalent in such cohabitation effectively dissolves the original marriage covenant. The condemnation of a wife returning to her first husband in Deuteronomy 24 may suggest so, as would the fact that the second marriage was treated as such. However, this is not clear, and polygamous marriages certainly doesn’t dissolve the initial one. Instead, it may be that by entering another marriage or its equivalent, the individual effectively commits adultery and deserts their previous spouse. Whatever the case, reconciliation is impossible. So we might speculate that when a second cohabiting union takes place, the initial covenant is irreconcilable if not dissolved and the so new relationship is to be seen as moving beyond one of mere adultery to a new, unfortunate, but real, marriage.

What should the church oversee?

There are two key questions here: First, over what the church might provide. There are five options:
1) Nothing.
2) A public remarriage (a) without repentance,
3) or (b) with.
4) A private remarriage with repentance.
5) A private prayer and dedication service with repentance.

The second question is over which of these it is legitimate to offer, and which would actually be wise to offer.

Where divorce was illegitimate
and the couple and their previous spouses have not since married or equivalent
As to legitimacy, nothing could of course be done if the remarriage would be adulterous. For example, if one of the couple were illegitimately divorced and they and their previous partners have not since married or entered its equivalent in committed cohabitation. In such cases reconciliation must be urged.

Where this is not granted, one could argue the individual is now in the situation of one who has been deserted and so permitted a full remarriage. However, they were in part responsible for a sinful divorce, and to give them preference over others in such a position simply because of the unwillingness in others to be reconciled is unfair. Moreover, to conduct a full church wedding would suggest all can be well in such cases, so encouraging divorce in others. In such cases, option 4 would seem appropriate for believers and 5 for unbelievers, with repentance over the breakdown of the previous marriage.

Where divorce was biblically legitimate.
It would seem quite appropriate to offer option 2 to any who are legitimately divorced, whether through adultery, desertion or forced divorce. Indeed, not to, would seem inappropriate, as it is to cause them to suffer because of the sins of others. A full blown wedding also contradicts the view that the church is harsh on remarriage where it is not the individual’s fault.

In the case of two believers this would seem wise too, as long as the reasons were clear to the wider congregation and so kept them from presuming this could be their joy if they divorce for other reasons. If unbelievers, it would be sensible to ask them to attend church for six months prior to the wedding. Marriage is hard enough, and there may be all sorts of baggage being brought to it. This ensures that they at least consider the help faith in Christ can bring.

Option 3 could be used in either case where there is guilt over the past, over actions that may have precipitated the divorce, or the way children were dealt with etc. This could be done in the service or after the rehearsal. It would be preferable in the service in order to acknowledge the harsh realities of divorce. With unbelievers it would be an expression of sorrow rather than repentance, as repentance stems only from faith in Christ and God’s forgiveness is only assured by that means.

Where divorce was biblically illegitimate but fault uncertain
and they or their previous spouses have since married or equivalent
Examples include divorce because people ‘fell out of love’ or ‘grew apart’ or ‘just didn’t get on.’ The assumption here is that as they or their previous spouse have since married or committed in cohabitation, a further marital covenant has been entered, so dissolving the original one. Otherwise reconciliation must be sought.

Given this assumption, option 5 would seem appropriate. It is less clear whether the parties concerned were necessarily guilty of initiating their previous divorce, but the divorce was nevertheless sin, and any subsequent cohabitation adulterous if their previous spouse did not marry or cohabit before they begun to. Nevertheless, if the couple have been cohabiting, marriage is not just permissible but should be encouraged.

Where the individuals are believers, then it is their spouses not them who have since cohabited, or who are refusing reconciliation. So the remarriage is not technically adulterous, and option 4 would be appropriate. It makes no sense to ask believers to go through a civil service and then be prayed for. Nothing less is granted by this service over the marriage itself. But by doing the marriage, God’s grace is affirmed.

In either case a public ceremony would not be appropriate, as it would comprise the seriousness of wrongful divorce and past implicit adultery, and it would be treated with the pomp of a first wedding. Moreover repentance/sorrow would be necessary as above, for the contribution to divorce and failure to keep promises. Without this, a service of either type should be refused, because it suggest they are not taking their new vows seriously.

One must remember that if the couple are sincere in wanting God’s blessing rather than a traditional ceremony, they will not mind a private occasion.

Where the couple were romantically linked before their divorce was finalised.
This is heard of again and again. The couple may not have been at fault in the initial divorce, and may even have been innocent. But still they effectively committed adultery. This highlights the flippancy of so many modern relationships. However, often such relationships are entered in great pain. The problem is not just the sin, but the scandal in some assuming it may have caused the breakdown of the previous marriage. Where there is no sense of this, and the original marriage was not local and is now distant, I might deal with it under the section above. Where this is not the case, I would handle it under the section below.

Where the individuals were grossly at fault in the breakdown of their previous marriage.
Perhaps here, they committed adultery, deserted, forced a divorce or abused their spouse to the point that remaining together was dangerous. The difficulty here is that these acts make the original divorce valid, the contract dissolved and so remarriage permissible. And if they are in committed cohabitation, they are already effectively married and should formalize this. Yet at the same time, it seems inappropriate that they as the guilty party enjoy a second marriage and look to the Lord to bless it, especially if their relationship was the original adulterous one.
The note of sin and scandal in such a wedding, makes nothing but a private service with repentance possible. My sense is to refuse this to non-Christians on the grounds of the scandal involved and the pain the marriage may cause those hurt by the previous divorce. Civil marriage can still be encouraged if the couple are cohabiting.

The situation for Christians is slightly different. In not conducting a service, there is a danger of suggesting their sin was unforgivable. Here, nothing should be done unless sincere repentance is evident. And even then, if the previous circumstances are known in the parish, and the divorce still painful for the previous family, it should be explained that a remarriage would not be wrong but would be inappropriate in how it may be understood. Instead, a private prayer and dedication with repentance (option 5) could be held perhaps in the couple’s home after a civil ceremony. If the previous divorce is sufficiently distant to be unknown and now painless, a private remarriage (option 4) may however be taken as a sign of God’s grace.

Whatever, the course of action this category could only be determined with much prayer and reflection.