Jesus taught that, as shown in the creation account, God has always intended for a man and woman to form a lifelong bond in marriage, and not divorce (Matthew 19:1-9). He taught that there is always adultery (sexual sin) in divorce and remarriage (see also Matthew 5:31-32). Jesus said that when there is divorce and remarriage, either the divorce might be a consequence of adultery or else the remarriage results in adultery. But where there is divorce and remarriage there is adultery, either as the cause or the outcome. According to Jesus then, divorce and remarriage always involves sexual sin on someone’s part.
In the Bible there are many stories and teachings about sexual sins and their consequences. Paul stressed that sexual sins are in some ways more damaging than other sins we may commit (1 Corinthians 6:18), and to be avoided most strenuously. It is not that these sins cannot be forgiven, clearly they can (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), but that they are difficult to cope with, difficult to turn from, and difficult to get over. Sexual sin was tremendously damaging to King David, his family, and his kingdom (2 Samuel 11-12). Guilt associated with sexual sin was at the root of John the Baptizer’s unjust execution (Matthew 14:3-12), and tolerating sexual sin nearly became the downfall of the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). These examples, and many others, demonstrate the far reaching and devastating consequences that God wants us to associate with sexual sins. They are not to be taken lightly or casually accepted. Sexual sins, including the adultery associated with divorce and remarriage, must be taken very seriously by God’s people.
Since sexual sins, including adultery associated with divorce and remarriage, are to be avoided at all costs and viewed very seriously by God’s people, what should people do who have committed sexual sins? The obvious answer is that they should repent of (turn away from) the sin(s) they have committed and run away from any further repetition of that kind of sin (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-20). In the case of the Corinthian man (1 Corinthians 5:1-5) this was called for, and later occurred (2 Corinthians 2:5-11), due to the firmness of the church following Paul’s instructions. In the case of Herod and Herodias (Matthew 14:3-12) this was also called for, by John, but did not occur. Instead stubborn resistance of God’s law provoked additional sins despite John’s firmness.
In both of the cases just mentioned, it seems clear that what was called for was separation and cessation of unlawful sexual activity. Herod was not simply called on to repent, he was told it was “unlawful” for him to have his brother’s wife, Herodias. He could not, apparently, rectify the situation by repenting and still continuing with her as his own wife (though there is no indication of even that sort of response on his part, or her’s). However, it is important to remember in this example that the sin in question is not the sin of adultery resulting from divorce and remarriage, though both Herod and Herodias has been previously married and divorced. John was not excoriating Herod for divorce and remarriage but for having his brother’s wife. Not just adultery, but incest, and forbidden under the Law of Moses in all circumstances (Leviticus 18:16) as a reproach on the family, a dishonor to your brother. The same kind of problem existed in the Corinthian situation, where the man was not only in an illicit sexual relationship, but was in an illicit sexual relationship with his father’s wife. Again, this situation was not only adulterous, but incestuous, and impossible to accept even had they legally married (Deuteronomy 22:30, Leviticus 18:7-8). The Law had said that having sexual relations with “your father’s wife” would be a reproach on the family, would dishonor your father, and no such marriage was ever to be allowed. There is no way to legitimize incest or make it acceptable, with or without legal sanction. It is a dishonor and destructive of sacred human relationships. In the cases of Herod and the Corinthian man, no marriage was possible even if a legal formality were entered into. While marriage, and the marriage bed, are honorable (Hebrews 13:4), incestuous relationships are not, and cannot be. Such relationships (and the others mentioned in the relevant sections of the Law) are impossible for God’s people to ever sanction.
A question then still remains as to whether adultery, particularly in the context of divorce and remarriage, falls into the same category? To be right Herod and the Corinthian man would evidently have had to repent and end their relationship with their partners in sin. Is that a general solution, to be applied in the case where someone has committed adultery in the process of divorce and remarriage? Clearly, Christians are taught to make their marriages work, to be committed to one another for a lifetime together in the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:1ff, Ephesians 5:21ff, for example). However, in this area, as in others, God’s instructions are not always followed, and Christians do err in their marital relationships and do commit sexual sins, and people do come to Christ who already have such errors in their past.
So, first of all, if a Christian commits adultery by divorcing and remarrying, how can they recover from that sin? No scripture offers a specific prescription for this particular sin. Some people have prescriptions of their own and coin phrases to describe these circumstances, but often the prescription and the description are not consistent with the scriptures themselves. The examples of Herod and the Corinthian are helpful in a general way, affirming how serious sexual sins are, but not specifically applicable as a pattern, because both of them dealt with sexual sins of incest. It is not possible from these two examples to prescribe separation as a mandate from God. Neither Herod nor the Corinthian had or could make a genuine marriage with the partner they had chosen. On the other hand, in his very strong teaching about the sin involved in divorce and remarriage, Jesus himself does not dispute that a marriage takes place when one divorces and marries another.
In another incident Jesus showed that multiple marriages, though entered into sinfully, are indeed marriages. He said to the woman at the well, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered and said, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You have well said, “I have no husband,” ‘for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly” (John 4:16_18 NKJ). Jesus demonstrated by his language that there is a difference between marriage and living together, and also that multiple marriages are indeed marriages. A second, third, or fourth husband is in fact a husband, while a live in companion is not. It might be at least inferred from this that while one may commit adultery by divorcing and marrying again, the marriage is a marriage and the situation cannot be described as “living in adultery” or “living in sin.” On the other hand, living together without the bond of marriage, no matter whether there have been previous marriages or not, is not marriage and is sinful. A person who remarries after divorce may be committing adultery in marrying, but the marriage is a marriage (it is not “living in adultery” in any Biblical description), with all the privileges and responsibilities of marriage, including those described in 1 Cor. 7:1-5, Heb. 13:4, Eph. 5:22ff, 1 Tim. 5:8, and 1 Peter 3:1-7.
When a person commits adultery by remarrying when they are not free to marry, they have committed a sin. The only remedy the scriptures proffer for this sin, like most sins, is repentance and prayer. There is no way to “make restitution,” indeed there is no one to provide restitution to. Separation is not a solution when a marriage has been made. God is no more pleased with violating a vow the second time than he is the first (see Malachi 2:13-15, and remember what Jesus said in John 4:18 and Matthew 19:6) and a person must provide for their spouse and family as in 1 Cor. 7:1-5 and 1 Timothy 5:8. Furthermore, the scriptures make it clear that there is no turning back to a previous relationship once divorce and remarriage occurs (Deut. 24:4). The Law said that for a person to divorce and remarry and then later return to the prior spouse is an abomination or detestable in the eyes of God. This strong language tells us this was not just a proscription of the Law but a relationship principle of the same kind as those governing incest. Once a second (or more) marriage has been made, there is no going back.
If a person has committed adultery in divorce and remarriage there is no basis in scripture for asking them to separate from their spouse, in either Old or New Testaments. No such law ever was given by God. Rather, they are called upon to humble themselves before God, seeking forgiveness (1 John 1:9), and follow all of the instructions of the New Testament with regard to the marriage they now have. “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed” (1 Cor. 7:27). When people have repented, the church is called upon to reaffirm its love for them (2 Cor. 2:7-8) and help them not be overcome by excessive grief, and not to make circumstances even more difficult than they already are.
One of the gravest challenges for those who have sinned in making a second marriage is to truly find a “place of repentance” (as in Hebrews 12:14-17). It is very difficult to repent of an action you consider necessary or whose outcome you enjoy, to repent of marrying a person whom you love, to convince yourself that you are truly sorry for having done the wrong thing and so to be at ease in trying to make the best of the choices you have made. A classic demonstration of this is found in the story of David who did not repent of his adultery with Bathsheba (and the other sins he committed in this matter) until brutally confronted with his guilt (2 Samuel 12:13-14), and even after his repentance found a renewal of his relationship with God very difficult (see Psalm 51 including the title of the Psalm). David also found that there were painful consequences of his sin that he had to accept and live with, to the detriment of his family and his nation. Nevertheless, while he struggled to believe that God truly had forgiven him he was also still responsible for comforting Bathsheba and treating her as a beloved spouse (2 Samuel 12:24). David committed many sins going into this marriage (complicated of course by polygamy which God tolerated by never endorsed), and needed to repent of them, but despite those circumstances it was a marriage and he was responsible for his wife, even in his grief and remorse for the sins he had committed. David’s renewal with God was made more difficult by his lack of confidence, provoked by his awareness of personal failure.
A final note: It seems likely that the reason it was necessary to specify that a bishop or a deacon should be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2, 12) and a widow supported by the church a wife of one husband (1 Tim. 5:9) is that there would be those in the churches, both men and women, who had been married more than once, whether due to polygamy or divorce, who could not be included in these positions because of consequences in their lives. Nevertheless, they could be active participants in God’s grace and counted among the faithful who are the church.Share this article: