From a reader in Virginia Beach, Virginia comes a request for more light on divorce and remarriage. The request is a response to my series on the subject in recent issues of the Standard Bearer: “The Sad Case of Bert Zandstra” (Nov. 1, 1997); “The Scandal and Silence” (Nov. 15, 1997); and “The Remarriage of the Guilty Party” (Dec. 1, 1997). The request for more light asks particularly about the Word of Jesus Christ in Matthew 19:9.
Prof. Engelsma’s otherwise excellent editorial series on divorce and remarriage left me in a bit of a logical quandary. Unless I am totally misreading Matthew 19:9, the “adultery” exception seems to relate directly to the phrase, “and marry another,” in which case the Westminster Confession is correct in saying, “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” (WCF XXIV.V). On the other hand, Prof. Engelsma’s view that adultery is ground only for “separation” does not seem to take into account the phrase, “and marry another.” However (and this is my quandary), both I Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:3 clearly imply that the death of a spouse is the only ground for remarriage.
The trouble that I have (and I am greatly troubled by all of this) is that these passages seem to present a contradiction. On the one hand, divorce and remarriage are apparently permissible in the case of adultery. On the other hand, the only ground for remarriage is the death of a spouse. While Prof. Engelsma’s arguments against divorce in the case of adultery are compelling, particularly in light of our adulteries against our Lord, I am still not clear on how he would exegete Matthew 19:9. Either Engelsma is correct and the WCF is wrong on this count (notice: I did not even ask about the “not under bondage” phrase in I Corinthians 7:15!), or the WCF is correct and Engelsma is imposing extra-biblical restrictions on divorce and remarriage. However, if the WCF is correct, I still have difficulty with I Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:3.
I certainly do not want to give any credence to the Christian Reformed and Van Tilian camps which so eagerly embrace the “paradoxes of Scripture.”
I do not know whether this warrants one more editorial, but if the Standard Bearer can shed any more light on this subject, I will appreciate it.
Virginia Beach, VA
There is one text in the Bible that might seem to approve remarriage after divorce. One text! If understood as approving remarriage, this text would approve the remarriage only of the “innocent party,” that is, the married person whose wife (or husband) has fornicated. All other remarriages are forbidden as adultery.
This one text is Matthew 19:9:
And I say unto you, 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.
Against the seeming approval of the remarriage of the “innocent party” in Matthew 19:9 stand a number of texts that clearly forbid all remarriage after divorce, regardless of the ground for the divorce. These passages condemn all remarriage after divorce as adultery.
Mark 10:11, 12: And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And 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.
I Corinthians 7:10, 11: And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.
I Corinthians 7:39: The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.
Romans 7:2, 3: For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.
The prohibition of remarriage in these passages is absolute.
Romans 7:2, 3 and I Corinthians 7:39 ground the absolute prohibition in the nature of marriage as a lifelong bond by virtue of God’s sovereign ordination as Creator and Governor of this world.
One text apparently conflicts with this absolute prohibition of remarriage by a seeming approval of the remarriage of the “innocent party.”
If Matthew 19:9 does, in fact, permit the remarriage of the “innocent party,” it flatly contradicts Scripture’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the passages quoted above, especially I Corinthians 7:39.
Even though it adopts the position that Matthew 19:9 permits the remarriage of the “innocent party,” the Westminster Confession of Faith really admits that permission of the remarriage of the “innocent party,” and, therefore, Matthew 19:9 (as the Westminster divines explained it), contradicts I Corinthians 7:39. It makes this admission when, having said, “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,” it adds: “as if the offending party were dead.” The delegates to the Westminster Assembly recognized that their permission of the remarriage of the “innocent party,” supposedly on the basis of Matthew 19:9, contradicted the rule of I Corinthians 7:39 that only death dissolves the marriage bond so that a married person is set at liberty to marry another. Therefore, the Westminster divines felt it necessary to concoct the strange, startling, and obviously false decree that adultery effectively renders the adulterer—the “guilty party”—dead in the sense of I Corinthians 7:39. Thus, they attempted to bring Matthew 19:9 (as they explained it) into conformity with I Corinthians 7:39.
The trouble with this is that I Corinthians 7:39 is not referring to a fictitious, virtual, “as if,” unreal death. The apostle does not say, “but if she or someone else decides to regard her husband as dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will.” The death in I Corinthians 7:39 that alone dissolves the marriage bond so that a married person may marry another is real, actual physical death—death that breaks all earthly ties, death that puts the man’s body (that otherwise belongs in bed with his wife) in the grave.
The explanation of Matthew 19:9 that permits the “innocent party” to remarry contradicts I Corinthians 7:39. In this case, Scripture contradicts Scripture.
Matters are even worse. If Matthew 19:9 permits the remarriage of the “innocent party,” the text is self-contradictory. Intending to forbid the remarriage, among others, of the “guilty party” as adultery (this is what the text expressly teaches), the text actually opens the door to the remarriage of the “guilty party.” It does this exactly by permitting the remarriage of the “innocent party.” For if the “innocent party” may remarry, it must be the case that the marriage bond between the “innocent party” and the “guilty party” is dissolved. But if the marriage is dissolved, presumably by the adultery of the “guilty party,” it is dissolved for the “guilty party” as well as the “innocent party.” And if there is no marriage, the “guilty party” has every right to remarry. Being unmarried, he is at liberty to marry (again).
Thus, Matthew 19:9 contradicts itself and plunges the matter of divorce and remarriage into utter confusion and chaos.
In reality, there is no contradiction between Matthew 19:9, on the one hand, and all the texts prohibiting remarriage, on the other hand. Matthew 19:9 merely seems to approve the remarriage of the “innocent party.” To say it more accurately, the approval of the remarriage of the “innocent party” is an inference that some erroneously draw from Matthew 19:9.
The meaning of Matthew 19:9 is that all divorce except that due to the sexual unfaithfulness of one’s mate is forbidden. In keeping with the Pharisees’ question in verse 3, the main subject of the passage is the legitimacy of divorce. The phrase, “except it be for fornication,” gives the one biblical exception to the prohibition of divorce. It does not give an exception to the prohibition of remarriage. To say it differently, the words, “except it be for fornication,” give the one biblical ground for divorcing one’s wife (or husband). They do not give a biblical ground for remarriage after divorce.
Christ does mention remarriage in the text. He mentions this because almost always the man who divorces his wife either intends to marry another woman or will eventually marry another.
What about remarriage after divorce? What about the permissibility of remarriage after divorce in Matthew 19:9?
There is no question about the remarriage of the man who divorces his wife unjustly, that is, the man whose wife has not been guilty of fornication. Jesus states, indeed it is His main purpose with the text to state, that he commits adultery when he remarries.
But what about the remarriage of the man who divorces his wife on the ground of her fornication? What about the remarriage of the “innocent party” in Matthew 19:9?
If Matthew 19:9 concluded in the middle of the text, concluded, that is, with the words, “. . . and shall marry another, committeth adultery,” there might be some excuse for uncertainty whether this text permits the remarriage of the “innocent party.” Even then, the church would have to take into account the clear, explicit teaching of Scripture elsewhere that all remarriage after divorce is prohibited. Scripture interprets Scripture. The doubtful passage must be explained in light of the clearer passages.
But Matthew 19:9 does not end in the middle. There is a second part: “and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” “Her” is the woman of the first part of the text who has been divorced unjustly and whose husband then married another, committing adultery. She is the “innocent party.” Nevertheless, whoever marries her commits adultery. Of course, she too commits adultery, if she remarries.
Matthew 19:9 condemns the remarriage of the “innocent party” as adultery.
Because the wife (or husband) is bound by the law to her husband (or his wife) as long as her husband (or his wife) lives. Only death dissolves the bond. Adultery does not dissolve the marriage bond. Emphatically, adultery does not have the power to dissolve the marriage bond.
Matthew 19:9 is in perfect harmony with all of Scripture in the vitally important matter of marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
Divorce is permitted on the ground of fornication.
All remarriage after divorce is forbidden as adultery, including the remarriage of the “innocent party.”
The reason is that God’s honorable ordinance of marriage is a lifelong, indissoluble bond.
Let the saints practice it.
Let the church proclaim it.
And defend it with discipline.