Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
Our Protestant Reformed Churches teach a distinctive doctrine concerning marriage and divorce. By maintaining the Biblical truth that marriage is for life, and by opposing divorce except on the ground of unrepented of adultery, we separate ourselves from most churches today. Not only is there an increasing corruption of the truth of marriage by the churches, but there is a corresponding disregard for the Bible’s clear teaching on the subject of divorce and remarriage.
One particularly distinctive position of our Protestant Reformed Churches as regards marriage is our stand against the remarriage of the “innocent party.” * By the “innocent party” we refer to the marriage partner who is “innocent” as far as the leading cause of the divorce is concerned. Since unrepented of adultery is the only Biblical ground for divorce, the “innocent party” is the marriage partner who is not guilty of the adultery. As far as he (or she) is concerned, he (or she) has been faithful to his (or her) mate. It is our position that not only does the Bible generally prohibit the remarriage of divorced people, but that the Bible prohibits even the remarriage of the “innocent party.” The teaching of Scripture is opposed to the remarriage of ALL divorced people, even those divorced on the one legitimate ground of unrepented of adultery.
This position of our churches was expressed several years ago by the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema in a pamphlet entitled “The Unbreakable Bond Of Marriage.” In that pamphlet Hoeksema wrote:
But it is nevertheless true that sometimes that covenant relation is so thoroughly spoiled and marred and violated that one cannot live the full covenant relation of marriage any more. In that case (i.e., the case of repeated adultery, R.C.), as well as in the case of unrepented of adultery, the innocent party may leave the guilty party and obtain a divorce.
However, I maintain that even then the marriage relation is not broken. No more than the marriage relation with God is broken when we sin, and sinning, commit adultery a hundred and a thousand times, no more is the marriage relation between man and woman broken, even though they separate, even though they obtain a legal divorce, and even though it may be impossible for the innocent party to continue sexual relationships with the guilty party. The innocent woman is still the legal wife of her husband, and remains such until the husband dies. The same is true of the innocent husband in relation to his guilty wife. I maintain, therefore, that even though separation, even legal divorce, is allowable because of adultery, according to the Bible, the marriage relation is never broken and can never be broken until death. (p. 12).
There are many who do not agree with our position that the one Biblical ground for divorce is unrepented of adultery. But even among those who do agree with us on this score, there are those who do not agree with our stand against the remarriage of the “innocent party.”
This is true generally among the Presbyterians. The teaching to which most Presbyterians subscribe is the teaching embodied in The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 24, “Of Marriage and Divorce.” In this chapter, The Westminster Confession teaches:
V. Adultery, or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. 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.
VI. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments, unduely to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied, by the Church, or Civil Magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed: and the persons concerned in it, not left to their own wills and discretion, in their own case.
In these two paragraphs from The Westminster Confession, two facts stand out which are pertinent to our present discussion. First, The Westminster Confession teaches the permissibility of divorce not only on the ground of unrepented of adultery, but also on the ground of “willful desertion.” Secondly, The Westminster Confession teaches the permissibility of the remarriage of someone who has obtained a divorce either on the ground of the unrepented of adultery of their mate, or the willful desertion of their mate. Remarriage of divorced people is permitted—certainly the remarriage of the “innocent party.”
The Presbyterian theologian, John Murray, also defends the right of remarriage in his book Divorce(Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1961). Murray states:
The considerations preponderate rather in favor. of the conclusion that when a man puts away his wife for the cause of fornication this putting away has the effect of dissolving the bond of marriage with the result that he is free to remarry without thereby incurring the guilt of adultery. In simple terms it means that divorce in such a case dissolves the marriage and that the parties are no longer man and wife. (p. 43).
Again, Murray writes:
We have taken the position, on what we believe to be proper grounds, that the man who puts away his wife for adultery may remarry without committing an offence. . . . The innocent spouse is free to marry again. (p. 98).
Murray even goes so far as to justify the remarriage of the guilty, adulterous party after the divorce has taken place.
But if the marriage has been dissolved, it is difficult to see on what ground the contracting of another marriage on the part of the guilty divorcee could be considered adultery. What constituted the prior act of infidelity and act of adultery was the fact that the marriage was still inviolate. But once the marriage has been dissolved there is a very different relationship. And we must remember that in the case of divorce for adultery it is by divine warrant that the marriage is dissolved. The parties are no longer man and wife. If so, it is difficult to discover any biblical ground on the basis of which to conclude that the remarriage of the guilty divorcee is to be considered in itself an act of adultery and as constituting an adulterous relation. (p. 100).
This same position in favor of the remarriage of certain divorced people, especially the remarriage of the “innocent party,” is taken by Jay E. Adams in his book Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1980). He states his general position that “It is assumed in the Bible that wherever Scripture allows divorce, remarriage also is allowed,” (p. 85). “Who may remarry after divorce and under what conditions?” Adams asks. “The answer to those questions is at once both simple and complex. What is simple is the first general principle: All persons properly divorced may be remarried,” (p. 86). Later, Adams writes:
Let us ask the question, then, Is marriage to formerly adulterous or sinfully divorced persons prohibited? Ask another: Is marriage to former murderers or liars or slanderers prohibited? There is no more biblical reason to believe that the first is prohibited than there is to believe that the second is. (p. 94).
So, we have seen that remarriage after divorce is allowed in the Bible and (even) that the guilty party—after forgiveness—is free to remarry. (p. 95).
Murray and Adams are representative of those who teach that the Scriptures permit the remarriage of divorced people, particularly the remarriage of the “innocent party.” Their position is accepted today in most Reformed and Presbyterian circles.
There are at least three Scripture passages that are commonly appealed to in order to prove the permissibility of the remarriage of divorced people.
First, appeal is often made to Deuteronomy 24:1, 2: “When a man bath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he bath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.” Support is found for remarriage in this teaching of Moses concerning divorce, in which Moses “suffers” divorce among the Israelites (Matt. 19:8). Does not Moses say about the woman in whom “some uncleanness” has been found and who has been given “a bill of divorcement” that she “may” remarry, she “may go and be another man’s wife,” that this is permitted?
The second passage often quoted in support of the remarriage of the “innocent party” 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.” This passage, it is said, establishes one ground for divorce and one ground for remarriage: “except it be for fornication.” Fornication is the ground for divorce. But one who has obtained a divorce on the ground of fornication may remarry.
A third passage appealed to by those advocating the right of divorced people to remarry is I Timothy 3:2, 12. In this passage the Apostle Paul is listing the qualifications of elders and deacons. In connection with both the elders and the deacons the Apostle insists that they must be “the husband of one wife.” The argument from this passage runs something like this. Since it is especially insisted upon that the officebearers be the husband of one wife, it may safely be concluded that there were ordinary members of the church who were not the husbands of one wife. This was true either because of polygamy or divorce and remarriage. In either case, although these persons were not permitted to hold office in the New Testament church, they were at least permitted church membership. And this, so the argument goes, ought to be the case today.
Next time we hope to examine more closely these passages of Scripture, as well as lay down the reasons for our position against the remarriage of the “innocent party.”
* I was recently somewhat surprised to discover that a group of Calvinistic (Primitive) Baptists take basically the same position that our churches do on the impermissibility of the remarriage of the “innocent party.“