Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
Last time we cited the three Scripture passages that are often appealed to by those who teach the right of the “innocent party” to remarry: Deuteronomy 24:1, 2; I Timothy 3:2, 12; and Matthew 19:9. In this article we want to take a closer look at these passages and see that they do not in fact support this position.
First of all, this is true of Deuteronomy 24:1, 2. The statement at the end of verse 2, “she may go and be another man’s wife,” is incorrectly understood when it is interpreted as permitting the remarriage of the “innocent party.” The word “may” is not used here in the sense of “it is permitted, she is at liberty,” as the original Hebrew makes plain. “May” is used here in the sense of “it is possible, it may happen.” This is how we often use the word “may” in our everyday speech. If I say, “I may go to the store this afternoon,” then I don’t mean that I am permitted to go to the store, but I mean that it is quite possible, it may happen that I will go to the store. This is howDeuteronomy 24:1, 2 must be understood. The law here is only recognizing what may very likely happen, and in the case of this eventuality laying down a further commandment. No justification for the remarriage of the “innocent party” can be found here.
The same is true of the passage in I Timothy 3:2, 12. In this passage the Apostle Paul lists the qualifications of elders and deacons. Since the Apostle specifies that the elders and deacons must be “the husband of one wife,” it is argued that it was permitted the ordinary members of the church, those who did not serve in the special offices, to be the husband of more than one wife, either due to polygamy or divorce and remarriage. This is an altogether faulty argument. In no sense is the Apostle making requirements of officebearers here that are to be true only of them and not at all of the rest of the members of the church. On this argument, the officebearers are not to give themselves to wine, not to be greedy of filthy lucre, not brawlers, and proud, but it is permitted the rest of the members of the church to be drunkards, covetous, brawlers, and proud. This certainly is not the teaching of the Apostle in I Timothy 3. The requirements that he lays down for officebearers are requirements that ought to be true of every member of the church, but requirements which ought especially and to a greater degree to be true of officebearers. Especially in the case of the officebearers, but also of every member of the church, it ought to be true that he is the husband of one wife, or the wife of one husband, as the case may be. Remarriage of divorced people is not permitted.
Appeal is also made to Matthew 19:9 in support of the permissibility of the remarriage of the “innocent party.” The passage contains Jesus’ words, “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 also remarry.
In fact, this is not the teaching of Matthew 19:9. Not only does this passage not teach the right of the “innocent party” to remarry, but the last part of the verse is in reality a clear condemnation of the remarriage of the “innocent party.” The last part of the text refers to the remarriage of the woman divorced in the first part of the text: “and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” But the woman who was divorced in the first part of the text was divorced unlawfully. Her husband, divorcing her and marrying another, committed adultery. Concerning that woman, that woman who had been divorced unlawfully, who was therefore the “innocent party,” Jesus says that whoever marries her “doth commit adultery.” The Lord expressly teaches here that the “innocent party” may not remarry. The exception clause, “except it be for fornication,” qualifies only the prohibition of divorce, and does not give a ground for remarriage.
There are at least two strong arguments from the Scriptures that may be brought against the position that allows for the remarriage of the “innocent party.”
First of all, against this position is Jesus’ unqualified condemnation of the remarriage of all divorced people. This is the Lord’s instruction in Mark 10:11, 12: “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.” This is also the teaching of Jesus in 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.” In these passages Jesus forbids absolutely the remarriage of all divorced people. Whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery. Although there is one ground for divorce, there is no ground for remarriage.
In the second place, the Scriptures prohibit the remarriage of the “innocent party” by their teaching that nothing but death severs the marriage bond, so that as long as my marriage partner is alive, I am bound by the law to that partner. Divorce does not sever the marriage bond. If it did, then it would be permitted the “innocent party” to remarry. If divorce dissolved the marriage contract, then nothing could stand in the way of the right of remarriage.
This is the position concerning divorce that many have taken, that divorce does in fact break the marriage bond. This is the position of both John Murray and Jay Adams. In the quotation which we cited from Murray in the previous article, he 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 (emphasis ours, R.C.) 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)
Adams agrees with this position. Carrying this position out consistently, these men are forced to allow even the remarriage of the guilty party in the divorce, and ultimately all divorced people. If the divorce actually dissolves the marriage bond, what is to prevent remarriage?
But divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond. No act of man, but only an act of God can dissolve that which God has united. And God dissolves the marriage bond by death. Because only death dissolves the marriage bond, it is the only ground for remarriage.
This is the teaching of the Scriptures. This is the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:1-3: “Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? 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.”
In this passage the Apostle teaches that as long as they are alive, a husband and a wife are bound by the law to each other. If while they are both alive, either of them is married to someone else, they commit adultery. Only death frees the husband or wife from the law of marriage.
This is also the Apostle’s teaching in 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.”
There is only one thing that sets a woman at liberty to marry again. That is not her divorce from her first husband. But it is only the death of her husband. Then she is free to marry again, without fear of committing adultery.
In clear language the Scriptures condemn divorce, except on the ground of fornication. In equally clear language, the Scriptures condemn the remarriage of divorced people, even the remarriage of the “innocent party.”
This is not to say that the Scriptures and the church are unsympathetic to the plight of divorced people. This is not to say that we are cold, hardhearted, and unfeeling with respect to the difficulties of divorced people who are forced to face the rest of their life alone, without the help and companionship of a husband or a wife. We are sympathetic to their situation. The Scriptures are sympathetic to their situation. But our sympathy must not cloud our judgment. Our feelings must not lead us to violate the teaching of the Word of God.
Our sympathy for divorced people must not encourage them to go in the direction of disobedience to the Word of God. Is this sympathy? Is this love? Of course not. Our sympathy for divorced people shows itself in our call to them to live as God requires of them. Our sympathy shows itself in our pointing them to God, God’s grace, and God’s Word for the strength that they need to live the life to which God calls them. Since God calls them to this life, He will also give them grace sufficient to live this life. It will not be easy. But then, is the Christian life ever easy? The way into the Kingdom is a straight and a narrow way, also as regards marriage. Few there are who find it. But those who do, those who walk this narrow and difficult way, enjoy the eternal life that is at the end of this way.