The Right of the Innocent Divorced Party to Remarry

My subject presupposes that this particular divorced party is innocent. The extent or degree of his (or her) innocence need not be discussed. Neither does this article purpose to answer the question whether one may seek and obtain a divorce. Some, we know, are of the opinion that a divorce is never permissible. They believe that what God hath joined together man may not and cannot put asunder. Death only can make separation. Only then, when God Himself breaks the bond, is remarriage permissible. Of course, this also applies to the “Innocent Divorced Party”. He (or she) may certainly remarry when the other party dies.

This need not deter us, however, from expressing our opinion on the question mentioned above. We do not believe that a divorce is never permissible. Rom. 7:2 and I Cor. 7:10 are not applicable here and cannot be quoted to sustain the Contention that a divorce is never permissible. For, although these passages do teach that the woman is bound to her husband as long as the husband liveth, do they also teach that this is true in the event of fornication? Fornication is not discussed in either Rom. 7:2 or I Cor. 7:10. The passages in Scripture which do throw light on the question whether an innocent divorced party may remarry are Matt. 5:32 and Matt. 19:9. These passages, in distinction from Mark 10:11, 12 and Luke 16:18, throw light exactly on this question because they speak by implication of the “Innocent Divorced Party”, the party divorced saving for the cause of fornication. Although if is true that man may not put asunder what God hath joined together, he nevertheless can and does put asunder. The words of Jesus in Matt. 5:32, “But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication,” surely imply that it is permissible to put away one’s wife in the event of fornication (and this means that a man legally divorces his wife). This, of course, does not necessarily mean that as soon as fornication occurs the other must seek a divorce, the spirit of Christian love must seek to overcome (and can overcome) and pardon also this sin. Yet, so Jesus implies, the sin of fornication, can be a cause for divorce. However, our subject forbids us to enter into this phase of the problem. We are at present concerned only with the “Innocent Divorced Party” and his (or her) right to remarry.

In Matt. 5:32 we read: “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery”.

And in Matt. 19:9 we read: “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”.

In Matt. 15:32 we read of two parties who commit adultery and of one who is the cause for another committing adultery. The first man, who put away his wife except for fornication, causeth his wife to commit adultery. The second man, who marrieth her that is put away, committeth adultery. And this, of course, implies that the woman, who, when put away remarries, also is guilty of adultery.

In Matt. 19:9, on the other hand, Christ speaks of three parties who are guilty of adultery. The first man who, having put away his wife except for fornication, marrieth another, and the second man who marrieth her which is put away are guilty of this sin. And the third party guilty of adultery is, of course, the woman who, having been divorced except for fornication, remarries.

At one of the Christian Reformed synods, when this question was being treated, these passages of the Savior were explained in such a way that all three parties, of whom Jesus declares that they commit adultery if they marry again, can marry without rendering themselves guilty of the sin of adultery.

Their reasoning was as follows. Firstly, the first man puts away his wife but is therefore not as yet guilty of adultery. If now he should immediately marry another he would be guilty of adultery. But, the reasoning continues, another possibility presents itself. He waits until his divorced wife marries another. This remarriage of the wife would free the man and permit him to marry again, inasmuch as his wife would free the man and permit him to marry again, inasmuch as his wife married another and thereby committed adultery. Secondly, the second man, should he marry the divorced wife immediately upon her being divorced by her first husband without waiting for him to marry another, becomes guilty of adultery inasmuch as the woman was as yet legally bound to her first husband. But if now the second man also should wait until the first man again marries, he is at liberty to marry the divorced party without committing the sin of adultery. This conclusion is based upon a translation of the text which would read: “And whoso marrieth her when she is put away”, which translation is understood in the sense: immediately after she is put away and before the first man had married another woman. It is claimed that that part of the text which reads, “And whoso marrieth her which is put away”, permits this translation. Thirdly, this also renders it possible for the divorced wife to marry again without committing adultery. She has been divorced by her husband. If now she should marry again before her husband remarries she becomes guilty of adultery. But has her husband married another, she is free to marry again and is not guilty of the sin of adultery.

Is it not strange, when viewing these interpretations of the words of the Savior, that an explanation of the text should lead to a conclusion which very evidently teaches the very opposite of what Christ intended to teach us? Let us then look at these interpretations a little more closely.

The assertion that that first man is at liberty to marry another is surely in conflict with the clear explanation of the text. We do not read anywhere in the text that he commits adultery when he marries immediately, hence before his wife marries another. We do read: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for fornication, causeth her to commit adultery”. It does not make a particle of difference when or under which circumstances he should marry another, he commits adultery. Yea, he not only commits adultery, but, according to the text in Matt. 5, he also causes his wife to commit adultery. He is guilty of a double sin. He himself commits adultery. And he is also the cause of the sin of adultery as committed by his wife if she should marry another. Is it not a rather strange reasoning, whereby the man, who causes his wife to commit this sin, now in turn becomes innocent of this sin when she marries another? The man causes his wife to sin and that sin of his wife renders him innocent! Hence, we may safely conclude that the man who divorces his wife, except for fornication, and marries another is guilty of adultery. Never may such a marriage be condoned or recognized by the church. The second and third instances belong together, inasmuch as the second man marries the wife who had been divorced.

The question is simply this: May a divorced woman, put away by her husband saving for fornication, marry again? Or, one can ask the question more significantly: Is she not, at liberty to marry another if the man, who put her away, marries another? The above interpretation of the words of Christ, given at a synod of the Christian Reformed Churches, answers this question in the affirmative.

We must remember that the above erroneous conclusion was based upon the assumption that that part of the text, translated, “And whosoever shall marry her that is divorced”, can be translated so as to read: And whosoever shall marry her when she is divorced. Of course, even if this translation were possible, it would still not be identical with the reading: Immediately upon being divorced. And one can surely not read into the text: If the first man have not remarried. In his connection it is well to bear in mind that it was a law among the Jews that a man, who had put away his wife on unbiblical grounds, might remarry immediately but that the divorced woman must await at least three months. Consequently, it was impossible to marry this woman immediately upon her divorce, for the simple reason that she was compelled by Jewish law to wait at least three months. The interpretation of the text, that only then adultery was committed when a man married this divorced w- man immediately without waiting for her first husband to marry again, is therefore impossible. However, it is very doubtful whether one may read the above translation into the text: And whosoever shall marry her when she is divorced. Literally we read here: “And whosoever, if (or, in case) he should marry the one having been divorced, committeth adultery.” The natural explanation of the text is: If anyone puts away his wife and marries another, and another man then marries the divorced party, this second man commits adultery and also the woman is guilty of adultery. And, finally, this erroneous explanation proceeds from the assumption that fornication and adultery have the same meaning in the text. If the first man marries another, thus is the reasoning, he commits fornication and fornication is adultery and adultery is a legal basis for divorce and remarriage with another. And the divorced wife is then free to re-marry if the first man has married another woman. Does this interpretation not reason that when the first man marries another he commits adultery? Does this act of (the first man not liberate his wife and permit her to marry another? Or, does this act of the first man not permit his wife to ask for a divorce? Is not fornication (according to the text) the Scriptural ground for divorce? We read, do we not: That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for fornication, committeth adultery? Fornication, is therefore a ground for divorce. Hence, fornication and adultery are regarded as identical in meaning. But, this is evidently not the true interpretation of the text. The text distinguishes between fornication and adultery. Fornication refers to a living of sexual fellowship of one of the married parties with a stranger. Adultery refers to the breaking of the marriage bond. Not adultery but fornication is given in the text as a possible basis for separation or divorce.

Hence, we conclude that, if there be no fornication, a man and his wife must be regarded as united, commit adultery when the one puts away the other. This means that he having put away his wife commits adultery, and she having been put away also commits adultery, if she marry another. Hence, if the woman who has been put way be innocent, having been divorced by her husband except for fornication, she may never marry again. If she marry again, she commits adultery. His adultery does not render her free. Even-so, however, the question may arise: But if the man divorces his wife except for fornication and marries another, does he then not commit the sin of fornication? Does he then not live the life of matrimony with a woman with whom he is not legally married, according to Scripture? Scripture regards his first marriage as binding. Yet he lives the life of matrimony with another. To this we answer that the words of Christ presuppose exactly this state of affairs, for we read of a man who, having divorced his wife illegally, marries another. Nevertheless, Christ continues: And whosoever shall marry the one who has been divorced committeth adultery. This implies, does it no, that also the one divorced committeth adultery. Hence, the “Innocent Divorced Party”, we conclude, may not marry again, as long as her legal husband (or legal wife) liveth.