Divorce and Remarriage in the New Testament (Part 1)


Ng Kam Weng

Recent sociological and psychological studies have shed much light on the nature of marriage. The Christian however, bases his view of marriage on the Bible as the sufficient and final authority for all matters of faith and conduct. This paper shall therefore discuss biblical passages that are significant to the subject of divorce and remarriage in order to draw out normative guidelines for the Christian.


a) Marriage as a Covenant

The term covenant describes an agreement, freely and publicly entered into by two persons with the promise faithfully to keep any obligations required to maintain the special relationship between the two parties. Marriage in the Old Testament is seen as a companionship in the context of a covenant Marriage is an exclusive relationship to be honored in the presence of God. When marriages were dishonored in Israel God refused to answer prayers even though Israel flooded the altar with tears. “It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant” (Mal. 2:14). Finally, Proverbs 2: 17 promises the man .of wisdom that he will be safe from the woman “who has left her partner of her youth and ignores the covenant she made before God.”

Marriage is more than a convenient sociological arrangement. It should ideally reflect God’s covenant relationship with his people. It ought to manifest such qualities as God’s steadfast love to faithless Israel which is movingly described by the prophets in Hosea 1-3, Ezekiel 16 and Isaiah 54:6-8. One cannot escape the tenderness in the words of Hosea 2:19-20 “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth .you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness and you will acknowledge the LORD.” Elsewhere, the elements of a covenant relationship beautifully summarized. In Gen. 2:24 the marriage is described as exclusive (‘a man, his wife’), publicly recognized (‘leaves his parents’), permanent (‘united to his wife’) and consummated by sexual union (become one flesh’).

The ideal for marriage described above provides the framework wherein all subsequent biblical provisions are to be understood in order that God’s purpose for marriage is kept in view. As such, the problem of divorce must never be discussed in isolation, but be seen in principle as a breach of trust in a covenanted life – long union. Divorce is always a sinful act in the sight of God (Mal. 2:13-16).

b) Deut.24:1-4

Some attention must be given to these verses since they form the backdrop to the discussion on divorce in the New Testament

vv. 1-3: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeased to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and send her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and if her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from her house, or if he dies,

v. 4: then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

The King James version, in taking v.1 as the protasis (the ‘if’ section) unfortunately gives the impression that divorce is encouraged under ‘justifiable’ circumstances. In contrast the Septuagint and modern versions accept that the first three verses from the protasis and that the apodosis (the ‘then’ section) only begins in verse 4. The same view is accepted by standard commentaries. /1

Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 should not be understood as giving any command or encouragement to divorce. It simply provides that if a man puts away his wife and she marries another man, the former husband cannot under any condition take her again to be his wife. Moses was not so much giving a prescription as a permission for divorce ‘out of the hardness of man’s heart’. The verses merely recognized divorce as an existing fact and seek to regulate it. This is achieved by limiting the ground for divorce to erwarth dabar and by discouraging any hasty action which would result in costly and irreversible consequences.

The criteria for a legal divorce remains controversial. The standard Hebrew lexicon by Brown, Driver and Bridge (p. 789) indicates that the Hebrew word erwarth dabar (v. 1) literally means “nakedness of a thing”. Further clarification is given by John Murray who has marshalled the following evidences to support the view that it is not adultery:/2

1.    The Pentateuch prescribes death for adultery (Lev. 20:12; Deut. 22:22; cf. 22:23-27)
2.    In view of Numbers 5:11-31 these verses must not be seen as regulations for cases of suspected but unproven divorce.
3.    Deut. 22:13-21 covers the case of a newly-wedded wife vindicated against the charge of sexual promiscuity. The man is forbidden from dismissing his wife.
4.    Deut. 22:23-24 requires that both man and woman be put to death in the event of proven sexual promiscuity.
5.    Deut. 22:25-27 exonerates a betrothed virgin in the event that she was coerced into having sexual relation. The man is put to death.
6.    Deut. 22:28-29 specifies that in the event of premarital sex that the man must marry the woman without the right of divorce.

In none of these cases does the phrase erwarth dabar appear and in none of them is divorce involved. We are then left with the conclusion that the word erwarth dabar means some indecency or impropriety of sexual behavior. To be rejected however, are the views of the liberal school of Hillel which allows divorce for marital ‘incompatibility’ and the school of Shammai which allows divorce only in the case of adultery. What seems certain is that the issue must be so shameful and repulsive as to arouse the husband’s disgrace and revulsion./3

The right of the woman to remarry is implicit. But it is not clear why she may not return to her first husband, even in the event of the death of the second husband. Gordon Wenham, follows R. Yaron and suggest that this is due to the fact that marriage and sexual intercourse creates such a close union – “one flesh” that a remarriage would commit the offence of incest./4  But one wonders whether the Old Testament covenant language views marriage as a metaphysical or substantial union. It would be more natural to view the restriction as prohibiting the practice of loaning of wives./5  Otherwise adultery would be legalized.

It must be stressed that divorce is not made mandatory nor is it ever encouraged. It is true that divorce is tolerated but the restrictions imposed are severe to deter any impulsive acts of divorce or trivialization of the marriage relationship.


a) Matthew 5:31-32, cf, Mark 10-12 and Luke 16:18

v.32 “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”

Matthew alone contains the except clause. Some critical scholars speculate that the additional clause found in Matthew arose from a later church situation which found it difficult to keep to the strict teaching found in Mark. Some relaxation was necessary and thus the Matthean addition.

But it is not obvious that Matthew has added anything. May it not be possible that Mark and Luke were concentrating rather upon the abrogation of certain Mosaic provisions which were abused by the Jews. Matthew however, gives us additional information regarding Jesus’ view viz., a man may remarry in the case of divorce on grounds of porneia. As David Hill notes, Jewish law requires that a man divorce an adulterous woman. Such common knowledge is considered so obvious by the other synoptic gospels that they did not feel the need to spell out the exception mentioned by Matthew./6  Care must also be taken to avoid too narrow a view of the meaning of porneia which broadly refers to any kind of extra marital sexual immorality. (Suggestion from scholars include indecency, prostitution, incest and adultery.)

The infinitive clause poiei auten moicheuthenai has the passive force and many be translated, “he makes her to suffer adultery”. As such the man’s sin consists in initiating a process ending in adultery on the part of the woman when she remarries. The judgment assumes that a morally illegitimate divorce, even one recognized by human court of law does not dissolve a marital relation. The Lord’s evenhandedness in moral judgment is evident. He also focused attention upon the sin of the divorcing husband, “he makes her suffer adultery”. Both parties are reckoned guilty in refusing to be reconciled and to continue their marital obligations.

Jesus made clear the ambiguous term (erwarth dabar) which was open to much abuse should be restricted to mean adultery. At this point he also abrogated the Mosaic death penalty for adultery. As Hurley writes, “marital unfaithfulness still constituted a rupture of the ‘one flesh’ relation; in the absence of stoning, the termination of the relationship might appropriately be affected by divorce.”/7  But this does not mean that Jesus has relaxed the Mosaic law. Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law. Instead the true intention of the Old Testament law is authoritatively interpreted by Jesus himself and contrasted with the pharisaical and rabbinical perversions.

b) Matthew 19:9

v.9. “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The Pharisees sought to force Jesus to take sides in their longstanding debate over the precise conditions of lawful divorce given in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus, however, refused to discuss the issue within the terms set by the Pharisees since they were only concerned with how far they could stretch God’s law rather than with fulfilling God’s desire. Jesus therefore redirected them to the foundational premises of marriage spelled out in Genesis 2. In the light of these first principles the Pharisees were exposed in stretching what Moses permitted (epetrepsen) into what Moses commanded (enteilato). They should have recognized Moses’ provision as a concession to ‘the hardness of heart’. Moses merely sought to regulate a situation where a marriage is already broken.

Cranfiled notes that in bringing out the real meaning of Deut. 24:1, “A distinction has to be made between that which sets forth the absolute will of God, and those provisions which takes account of men’s actual sinfulness and are designed to limit and control its consequences.”/8  The Pharisees mistook as a divine approval for sinning what was in actuality a merciful provision designed to limit the consequences of man’s sin.

Protestant understanding of this verse generally follows that of the position first set out by Erasmus: divorce effected on grounds of porneia allows the right to remarry. Such an ‘Evangelical consensus’ however, has been severely challenged by William Heth and Gordon Wenham in their recent book, Jesus and Divorce. Given the controversy, the syntax of the verse needs to be analyzed more closely. The question is, does the except clause only qualify the first part of the verse? If so, then divorce and separation is allowed, but any subsequent remarriage will amount to adultery. Such is indeed the position of Heth and Wenham. However, their position is questionable since separation without the possibility of remarriage was unheard of in Jewish circles in Jesus’ time. Furthermore, the word apolyo was already used in verse 3 which clearly bears the meaning of “to divorce”. Consistency demands the same meaning for the Greek word occurring in the same context.

Bruce Vawter has suggested that the except clause have been misunderstood: they are preteritions, i.e., exceptions to the proposition itself and not simply the verbs. /9 The verse then becomes, “I say to you whoever dismisses his wife – the permission of Deut. 24:1 notwithstanding – and marries another, commits adultery.” The outcome is that Matthew, in agreement with Mark and Luke does not allow any exception for divorce. However, it is not obvious that the except clause are preterition, at least not in the eyes of many other exegetes./10  Furthermore, in Vawter’s case, the contrast between the creational ideal and the Mosaic concession becomes meaningless, which is indeed the primary point of Jesus.

Heth and Wenham has marshalled a strong case for the view that the except clause is syntactically linked only to the first clause, but other grammatical factors must be taken into account. As Donald Carson and John Murray point out, locating the except clause anywhere else would create even more ambiguity. For example, if it is placed before the verb moichatai (“commits adultery”), the verse assumes the meaning: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, if it is not for fornication that he divorces one and marries another, commits adultery.” This wording suggests that fornication is being advanced as the actual reason for marrying another, and not only for the divorce. This is obviously defective moral reasoning.

Furthermore, the part of the sentence which is modified by the exceptive clause, on Wenham’s construction does not and cannot stand alone. Elimination of the clause “and marries another” from any modification by the except clause will not help either. John Murray’s careful and precise argumentation is worth following: “In order to complete the sense of what is introduced by the clause hos an apolysei ten gunaika auto we must move on to the principal verb, namely, moichatai. But if we do this without reference to the remarriage clause (kai gamesei allen) we get nonsense and untruth, namely, “whoever puts away his wife except for fornication commits adultery”. In other words, it must be observed that in this sentence as it stands no thought is complete without the principal verb, moichatai. It is the ruling thought of this passage, and it is quite indefensible to suppress it. The very except clause, therefore, must have direct bearing upon the action denoted by the verb that governs. But in order to have direct bearing upon the governing verb (moichatai) it must have direct bearing upon that which occur before the action denoted by the principal verb can take effect, namely, the marrying of another. . . the exceptive clause must apply to the committing of adultery in the event of remarriage as well as to the wrong of putting away. ”/11 We are led to conclude that the except clause governs the entire protasis. Carson’s final paraphrase helpfully brings out the meaning of the verse: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery though this principle does not hold in the case of porneia.”

Thomas Edgar gives lucid update of John Murray’s argument and a rebuttal of Wenham and Heth in the book, Wayne House, Divorce and Remarriage. Four Christian Views (IVP 1990):

The main verb inverse nine is “commits adultery”. The subject of this verb, the one who commits adultery, is described by the relative clause “whoever divorces his wife except for fornication and marries another.” The person who divorces his wife except for fornication is the same individual who marries another since both verbs are in one relative clause describing the one individual. Thus, the one who divorces his wife except for fornication is the same one who also marries another, and it is this same individual who commits adultery. It is grammatically impossible for this verse to refer to two different subjects.

Wenham, in order to support the patristic interpretation, makes the grammatically and logically impossible claim that Matthew 19:9 (and 5:32) can be divided into two propositions: (A) to divorce except for porneia is adulterous and (B) to divorce and remarry is adulterous. Therefore, he concludes, all remarriage is adulterous and most divorce is in itself adulterous.

Consider an equivalent statement: “Whoever drives on this road except an ambulance driver on call and exceeds the speed limit is breaking the law.” If this is interpreted as Wenham and other interpret Matthew 19:9, it would contain two propositions: (A) anyone who drives on this road except an ambulance driver on call is breaking the law and (B) to drive on his road and exceed the speed limit (including ambulance drivers on call) is breaking the law. It is clear that the original statement does not teach that merely driving on the road is illegal (compare with “merely divorcing is adultery”), nor that every one exceeding the speed limit including ambulance drivers on call is breaking the law (compare with “everyone remarrying, including the exception, commits adultery”). The original statement teaches neither concept; rather, both propositions are actually contrary to its real meaning.

The sentence has a singular subject “whoever.” This person is the subject of the verb “to break the law.” The individual is described as a man who drives on the road (excluding ambulance drivers) and exceeds the speed limit. The error in trying to interpret this as containing the two propositions A and B is that they refer to two different kinds of individuals. Proposition A has as its subject some of those who drive on the road (excluding ambulance drivers) and proposition B refers to all of those who drive on the road (including ambulance drivers) and exceed the speed limit. However, this is grammatically impossible. The sentence only refers to some drivers (excluding ambulance drivers) who also exceed the speed limit.

This error which says, in effect, that all who exceed the speed limit (including ambulance drivers) are breaking the law, is precisely equivalent to the so-called patristic view of Matthew 19:9, which attempts to prove that all who remarry (including those divorced for fornication) are guilty of adultery. It is also contrary to the meaning of the original statement. Neither of Wenham’s propositions is in Matthew 19:9. In fact, both are actually contrary to Matthew 19:9.

Matthew 19:9 has only one singular subject, “whoever” (“he who”, hos), of the singular main verb, “commits adultery” (moichatai). This individual is described by the two singular verbs “divorces” and “marries”. In other words, this individual is the subject of all three verbs (“divorces,” “marries” and “commits adultery”) and is the only subject of the sentence. A sentence diagram will demonstrate the syntax of Matthew 19:9.


Jesus definitely states that the subject of the very “divorces” (apolyse) is someone who divorces for some reason other than fornication (porneia). One who divorces for porneia is not mentioned. The subject of the verb apolyse in some divorceés, not all, and is also the subject of the other verbs in the sentence, “marries” (gamese) and “commits adultery” (moichatai). The sentence thus says, and can only say, “Some (not all) divorceés who remarry commits adultery.” To say otherwise is contrary to the verse. There cannot be two subjects that the same time, neither can be singular verb “divorces” have two different subjects (some and all) as the patristic view requires.

This verse definitely indicates that someone who divorces due to the exception and then marries another does not commit adultery. The exception is a real exception which allows for a genuine divorce so that the person may marry another. If a student asks whether it is permissible to leave the classroom during a lecture and the teacher replies that anyone who leaves without permission is wrong, the statement is meaningless if it does not mean that someone may leave with permission. In the same way, when Jesus answers the question of whether divorce is ever proper with the statement that if someone divorces except for fornication and remarries, he commits adultery, his answer is meaningless if it does not mean that in other cases it is acceptable. If we follow anything close to a normal approach to interpretation, then Jesus means that for anyone who divorces due to spouse’s fornication and marries another, the divorce is valid, and remarriage is permitted.

Edgar’s rebuttal of Wenham and Heth’s argument from word order goes as follows:

If the exception clause were placed after the verb marries, as some claim it should be if the verse were to allow remarriage, then it would read, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another except for fornication commits adultery.” This makes the exception the reason for the remarriage, rather than the divorce. This is absurd. With this view, anyone can divorce for any reason and not commit adultery so long as they marry another for the purpose of fornication. The only divorced person restricted from remarriage would be one who does not marry due to sexual lust.

To place the exception clause in other positions, such as before or after the entire sentence, merely produces other ambiguous statements. The exception does not qualify the basis for remarriage, but the basis for the divorce. Therefore, it must go with “divorces his wife,” as it, in fact, does. When considering the statement, “Anyone who drives on this road except an ambulance driver and exceeds the speed limit is breaking the law,” it cannot be argued that an ambulance driver is not allowed to exceed the speed limit unless the exception comes after “exceeds the speed limit”. The subject of the first verb is also the subject of the second. In Matthew 19:9 the individual in question both divorces and remarries, but the action which fits the exception is the divorcing. If the divorce does not fit the exception and he remarries, he commits adultery. If the divorce does fit the exception and he remarries, he does not commit adultery. It is the validity of the divorce which determines whether or not the remarriage is adultery; therefore, the exception is properly the basis for the divorce and at the same time governs the validity of the entire action.


Our conclusion must therefore be that when a man puts away his wife for reason of sexual immorality, this putting away has the effect of dissolving the marriage bond. The result is that he is free to remarry without committing adultery since in such a case divorce dissolves the marriage and the parties are no longer man and wife.

On the basis of the above discussion we may summarize Jesus’ teaching to include: 1) Jesus endorsed the permanence of marriage, 2) He declared Moses’ provision of divorce to be a temporary concession to regulate and contain the effects of human sin, 3) He called remarriage after divorce (other than the case of marital unfaithfulness) adultery and 4) He permitted divorce and remarriage on the sole ground of immorality.

a) Prohibition on Divorce for Christian Spouses (1 Cor. 7:10-16)

Some preliminary words on Paul’s authority must first be noted. Verses 10, 11 (“I give this command – not I, but the Lord”) and verse 12 (“I say this – I, not the Lord”) could be misunderstood. Paul could be taken to acknowledge that he could not speak with authority on the matter. However Paul has not the slightest hesitation to exercise apostolic authority. See v. 25 and 1 Cor. 14:37-38. We should therefore understand Paul to say that he had not heard of any actual quotation of the Lord touching on the issue. Therefore he proceeded to give his judgment which is to be received as normative for Christian conduct. Paul was far from disclaiming authority on the matter. On the contrary, Paul here claims to speak with the authority from God in an area in which he makes clear that Jesus did not touch on!

In vv. 7-10 Paul reiterated Jesus’ teaching that neither partners in a marriage consisting of professing believers should initiate any moves to put away or divorce their spouse. Paul however recognized that this divine-ideal is often not followed, and that a marriage may de facto be one where the spouses are already separated. Since the reason for separation is not the husband’s immorality, Paul urged that the woman to remain single or else be reconciled to her husband. Likewise, the husband must refrain from initiating divorce.

Some interpret Paul as teaching against divorce while allowing separation. This interpretation is inadequate for two reasons. Pastorally, the counsel of separation creates more problems than it solves. The alienated parties merely hang on to a false sense of ‘peace’ and prefer to avoid facing again the issues leading to the initial breakdown of their marriage. In contrast peace is genuinely attained only by a resolution of difficulties rather than avoidance of them.

Linguistically, the counsel of separation imports a contemporary expedient into the word chorizo./12 The word has nothing to do with the modem idea of separation as a lesser evil to divorce . Neither did Paul in the context grant approval to such a move. His instruction on how separated spouses ought to conduct themselves (v.l1a) merely represented a solution to a particular situation when a marriage has actually fallen from the ideal. This is evident from the observation that his remarks fall in between the central affirmation of the permanence of marriage (v.l0b and v.11b). Paul was not giving permission to separate. He was only acknowledging the fact that separation has occurred because of sinful disobedience and simply warned against further complication arising from an additional sin. Indeed, the duty of each. Christian is to pursue reconciliation.

Paul’s advice is consistent with his high view on marriage, evident from his usage of marriage as a symbol for the pure relationship between Christ and the church. Consequently, Paul argued that if while the husband is still alive a woman marries another man, she commits adultery because marriage is still binding in the same way the law is binding for any man. A caution should however be noted. Paul’s affirmation makes no judgment on whether divorce is permissible but only its wrongness. One must not read too much into it when Paul was merely using it as an illustration of a general principle. Neither is it to be assumed that he knew nothing about the except clause in the Lord’s teaching on divorce.

b) Paul Permits Divorce on the Desertion or An Unbelieving Partner (1 Cor. 7:12-16)

In v. 12 Paul addressed to a situation in Corinth where there were cases of two non-Christians married, one of whom subsequently converted. Paul gave an unequivocal command that on no account must the believing partner initiate a divorce or leave the unbelieving partner, “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is riot a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him” (vv 12-13). The reason given is that the unbelieving partner and the children are somehow ‘sanctified’ or ‘consecrated’ (v.14).

It would be going too far to conclude that a marital relationship with a Christian automatically confers actual salvation to any unbeliever in the relationship. Nevertheless, the unbeliever must be seen as having been placed in a privileged position to benefit from the grace of Christian salvation. Paul gave the assurance that the powers of Christian grace is more effective than natural relationships. For that reason, the children of the marriage are seen as receiving sanctification from the believing spouse rather than from the unbelieving spouse. Of course, this advice makes sense only if the believer is doing his best in Christian witness.

It is true that Paul stated in no uncertain terms that fellowship is not possible between the children of light and the children of darkness (2 Cor. 6:14-18). Nevertheless a marriage is so sacred and so inviolable in the eyes of God that he even provides his sanctifying grace to an unequally yoked marriage. There remain deep divisions in moral values and spirituality within the marriage. But these divisions do not constitute any valid ground for a dissolution of the union of two flesh into one. Any subsequent discussion of the so-called ‘Pauline privilege’ must keep this in view.

The availability of Christian grace however does not rule out the possibility that the unbelieving partner fails to respond to the believer’s effort to establish peace. He may even desire to separate. Paul’s counsel is “let him do so” (v. 15). The unbeliever is not required to separate. But if he should insist on it he should be given the liberty to do so. In this case the believer is released from the burden to keep the marriage going. The reason given is that God has called us to peace (v. 15). Paul realistically recognized that it is not always possible to achieve a peaceful relationship without the co-operation of unbelievers./13

The phrase “A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstance” appears puzzling in view of Paul’s teaching of life-long union in Rom. 7:2-3. The solution lies in seeing the action of the deserting partner as so radically altering the marital relationship that the law no longer binds the believing partner who would have preferred to keep the marriage going. In this case, the “Pauline privilege” is not an exception to the law. It is rather the consequence arising from a new set of conditions which effectively dissolved the marital bond and rendered the law no longer binding to an innocent spouse.

The advice given by Paul in v.15 is a sharp contrast to the command given in vv.10 and 11. In vv. 10-11, Paul strictly commanded the separated partners must remain unmarried or be reconciled. In contrast, there is no command to remain unmarried in v.15. Just as the death of a spouse releases one from the bond of marriage when widow(er)s are free to remarry, the possibility should not be withheld from the innocent spouse. The ‘Pauline privilege’ must therefore be seen to be in agreement with the Lord’s teaching in Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Mk. 10:11 and Lk. 16: 18.


a) Remarriage

We do not find anything in the New Testament that rules against remarriage after the death of one’s spouse. This is clear from Rom. 7:3(b), “But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.” Paul goes on to encourage remarriage in some cases, “So I counsel younger widows to remarry, to have children, to manage their own homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” For Paul it is even better that those who have, a problem of dealing with their sexual desires to seek remarriage. “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better for them to marry than to burn with passion.” In short, remarriage is not tolerated as a lesser sin, it is positively accepted.
b) Remarriage After Divorce

We have seen from a study of Mt. 19:9 that a person who has been divorced in accordance to the exception (except for porneia) is free to remarry ./14 We have also understood the ‘Pauline privilege’ to be consistent with the Lord’s teaching. However, several cautions must be registered at this point. The privilege must be exercised only with reserve. For instance, we must not be too quick to conclude that a single act of adultery necessarily deals a death blow to the marriage bond. Surely, the innocent spouse must be willing to be reconciled with the guilty in the event of genuine repentance. Porneia must be seen not in a single act but in the context of stubborn unrepentant sinning.

It must also be recognized that a marriage bond is not necessarily rendered totally dead even though a ‘bill of divorce” may have been granted by the civil authorities today. This is especially true in the case where the divorced partners are still financially supporting and regularly seeing the children from the marriage. At the practical level, a remarriage would probably result in a withdrawal of this financial support. Financial difficulties will certainly increase when new children arrive from a new marriage, causing further psychological and emotional stresses to everybody. In such cases, it might be better for the divorced spouse to remain unmarried. This advice must not be seen as a restriction leading to deprivation. The separated partner is merely asked to prayerfully consider the possibility to follow the vocation of self-giving. In the same way many widow(er)s have chosen to remain unmarried in order to dedicate themselves fully to bringing up their children.

A problem also arises where a spouse who professes to be a Christian refuses to heed Paul’s advice to be reconciled and indeed covertly desires to start a relationship elsewhere. Some may even act cruelly in making life miserable for the spouse in the hope of driving the spouse either to flee or to petition for divorce. He would then be legally and ‘morally’ free to remarry. Some are of the opinion that the option of divorce between Christians is absolutely out of question, as a legalistic application of 1 Cor. 7:10-11 seems to require. However, there is nothing ‘peaceful’ in being bonded to a spouse determined to harass his partner and continue his own life of adulterous pursuits.

Justice and true peace should lead to recourse of the ‘Pauline privilege’. In this case, the spouse should pursue Christian reconciliation according to the guidelines given in Mt. 18. If she fails in her private attempts, the matter should be laid before the church with witnesses. Should the husband persist stubbornly and refuses to be reconciled, then the church should excommunicate him for willful disobedience. Such a drastic move highlights the upholding of Christian marriage as a mutual responsibility of members to each other in the church. It is unfortunate that the leaders of many churches often fail to demonstrate such moral concern and exercise spiritual authority to minister to marriages in crisis.

Now, excommunication changes the husband’s status to that of an unbeliever (Mt 18:17), The principle governing the marital relationship now shifts to that given in 1 Cor. 7:15-16 and the innocent spouse, with the approval of the church may exercise the ‘Pauline privilege’. However, it must be emphasized that in the event that the guilty spouse repents and seeks forgiveness and reconciliation then the innocent spouse is under Christian obligation to forgive (Lk 17:3ff). Reconciliation must be accepted even in the case of adultery.

In the event of a request to the church to effect a second marriage what must be done? The problem here is how to proclaim the reality of God’s grace without cheapening it. Atkinson gives excellent advice in this matter. First, “The Church’s blessing for any marriage should be reserved only for those who share its view on marriage, and the condition (with respect to the couple) on which the Church’s blessing on second marriages should be decided, in penitence for past sin and a genuine desire to seek God’s grace for a new marriage which accords with this pattern .” /15 The permission to bless the second marriage should also be decided not by any individua1 but by the leadership of the church collectively. After all, such marriages must be collectively nurtured and protected by pastoral care and love for the community.

1.    All the above requirements may be satisfied by some modification to the marriage service which should include the following elements:

2.    An introduction declaring the Christian doctrine of marriage noting that one or both partners had been divorced.

3.    That they had in pastoral consultation expressed penitence for any sin leading to the breakdown of the previous marriage and a genuine desire to seek the help and grace of God to keep the vows which they are about to make.

4.    A public act of confession by the couple (the problem here is now to be discreet without being too general and the danger that a less mature congregation may actually be stirred to Pharisaic pride as Thielicke rightly warns) ./15 This may be avoided if the congregation joins in confession for its failure to uphold the couple in the past. A public absolution and forgiveness should be proclaimed.

5.    The charge to the congregation both to accept and to uphold the couple.

6.    The marriage vows should be identical with the normal Christian marriage vows


While hot minimizing the sinfulness of divorce, the church must never stand in judgment over people trying to mend their lives anew. Those seeking to minister to people in the midst of marital crisis must maintain a deep compassion in the suffering of those whose marriage has failed. Such an attitude comes about only with a sensitivity to our common humanity under the universal taint of sin. Above all, it springs from a profound awareness of the reality and power of God’s grace and forgiveness which can release and heal any person, even one with a sinful past


Related Post: Divorce and Remarriage in the New Testament Part 2

1. See, for example, C. F. Keil and Franz Delizch, Biblical Commentary on The Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1956), vol. 3: 417; S. R. Driver, A Critical Commentary on Deuteronomy (T &: T Clark, 1895), p. 269, Peter Cragie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 304-305.

2. John Murray, Divorce (Baker, 1976), pp. 10-12.

3. Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Zondervan, 1983), p. 202.

4. William Heth and Gordon Wenham, Jesus and Divorce (Nelson, 1984), p. 109-110.

5. David Atkinson, To Have and to Hold (Eerdmans, 1979), p. 104.

6. David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans. 1975). William Lane surmises that the Markan tradition in its historical context was concerned to emphasize the sinfulness of Herodias’ desertion of her husband Philip to marry Herod despite a ‘proper’ letter of divorce. But the historical context was apparently lost in the transmission of the textual traditions. Hence the need for Matthew’s clarification. William Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans, 1974), p. 358.

7. James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Zondervan, 1981), p. 104.

8. C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Mark (CUP, 1959), p. 319.

9. Bruce Yawter, “The Divorce Clauses in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9” in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 16 (1954). p. 155-167.

10. For further discussion see William and Heth, ,Jesus and Divorce, p. 188

11.Murray, Divorce, p. 40.

12. The standard lexicon by Baur & Gingrich gives the meaning “separate (oneself), be separated of
divorce.” BAGD, p. 890

13. Gordon Fee doubts whether the phrase “God has called us to live in peace” should be seen as the basis for the believer not to hang on to the unbeliever. Instead, it should be seen as the reason why Paul asks the believer to maintain an unequally yoked marriage. See Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1987), p. 304. The exposition above clearly sees this as an unnecessary choice.

14.The NEB’s translation of I Cor. 7:27-28 says that remarriage is no sin “Are you bound in marriage? Do not seek dissolution. Has your marriage been dissolved? Do not seek a wife. If however, you do marry, there is nothing wrong with it.” The translation however, brushes aside the ambiguity of the word lelysai, lit. are you loosed? Objection to this translation may be seen in the commentaries on I Cor. by F.F.Bruce, C.K. Barret and Gordon Fee. See the different sense obtained in the NIV.

15. Atkinson. To Have and To Hold, p. 191

16. Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, vol. 3 (Sex) (Eerdmans, 1964. p. 189).

Useful Books
James Adam, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (Baker, 1980).
Davis Atkinson, To Have and to Hold (Eerdmans, 1979).
Wayne House, Divorce and Remarriage, Four Christian Views (IVP 1990)
William Heth and Gordon Wenham, Jesus and Divorce (Thomas Nelson, 1984).
James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Zondervan, 1981).
John Murray, Divorce (Baker, 1961).
David Phypers, Christian Marriage in Crisis (MARC, 1985)
John Stott, Divorce (Falcon, 1972).
Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, vol.3 (Sex) (Eerdmans, 1964)


  1. Vincent Chia says:

    You wrote: “Our conclusion must therefore be that when a man puts away his wife for reason of sexual immorality, this putting away has the effect of dissolving the marriage bond. The result is that he is free to remarry without committing adultery since in such a case divorce dissolves the marriage and the parties are no longer man and wife.?

    If this is the case – that is, the marriage bond is dissolved when a man puts away his wife for reason of sexual immorality – isn’t it true that the marriage is also dissolved for the guilty party (the adulterous wife)? As such, the guilty party does not sin when she remarries, since her previous marriage to her husband is dissolved. It cannot be true that for the “innocent party? the marriage is dissolved, while the guilty party is still “married? to her husband! The adulterous, therefore, can remarry based on this alone. Your view on divorce & remarriage will logically lead to the acceptance of remarriage for the guilty party as well. Mark my words.

  2. Kam Weng says:

    The putting away (divorce) is a formal declaration of a reality – a broken covenant or a dead relationship. The intention of the divorce primarily is not for the purpose of giving freedom for remarriage – although that is evidently permitted – but to free the aggrieved victim from bondage to a dead and oppressive relationship. Only then can he/she begin a new start in life.

    Whether the adulterer/ress continues in adultery or get married is not the focus of this provision. However, without a doubt the adulterer/ress is presumed to be in a state of sin until there is repentance before God.

    The same judgment applies to the adulterer/ress’ new marriage. How the church should deal with this is of course a pastoral issue. It should be dealt with like any other sin in church – wisely and firmly.

  3. John Carroll says:

    Great article. I agree with your conclusion. I really enjoyed the read.