As an idealistic person, one raised in a purity culture, and unmarried, I rarely have needed to question my indoctrination on the issue of remarriage. Likewise, those who are happily married (or who have never been married) have the luxury of easy absolutism on this issue and can draw a hard line with no need to take a closer look.
However, having been asked my opinion on divorce and remarriage on a couple of occasions, I have been pondering the question for several months. The opinions of modern commentators are as varied as those I have found in the writings of those in the early church and onward.
What do the commentators say about divorce and remarriage?
Some of the conclusions of early church writers differ dramatically from what I’ve been taught. For example, divorce was not only recommended in the case of an unfaithful spouse—it was required. Some taught remarriage, in any case, was wrong for a Christian and forbid all second marriages even if the first spouse died.
Tertullian, however, did make an exception when the prior marriage ended (by death or divorce) before conversion. Menno Simons and other notable early Anabaptists also allowed divorce and remarriage in the case of unrepentant adultery, but only with the council of the church body:
“In the fourth place, if a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair. But if he be a bold and headstrong adulterer, then the innocent party is free–with the provision, however, that she shall consult with the congregation and remarry according to circumstances and decisions in the matter, be it well understood.“ (Wismar Articles)
That is in sharp contrast to the conservative Mennonitism that opposes all divorce, recognizes the marriages of even unbelievers as valid, and yet allows remarriage if the prior spouse has died. Many teach that a second marriage (besides those ended by death) should be broken up even if there are children involved and it creates a hardship.
That is also in contrast to David Bercot who’s lawyerly approach to Scripture and early church writings led him to believe that remarriage after a divorce is NOT a perpetual sin:
“I have not found any situation in the early church where they ever broke up the second marriage. In other words, they said that it was an adulterous marriage, it was a wrong situation, but they didn’t say that it was just the same thing as living with someone in adultery. In other words, there was a union that had taken place there, and they don’t seem to have taken the position that breaking that up would be something good. Instead, it’s a second wrong that doesn’t make the first wrong right. It just makes things even worse, and we can see that today where there’s a family with children. To divorce a second time, break up a happy home, doesn’t seem to be the way God would normally work.” That, of course, is Bercot’s opinion…
[Edited 11/2/2018 The quote above, attributed to David Bercot, was taken from a conversation on a defunct website called MennoDiscuss.com. The person posting the quote, as I recall, claimed to have transcribed it directly from a cassette tape of Mr. Bercot, I copied and pasted it because it was an interesting point. That much is now in dispute, I’m not going to go through every recording to properly attribute the quote, and that’s why I’ve crossed out the quotation. However, what is not in dispute: There is no record of the early church breaking up second marriages.]
[Edited 06/24/2022 I received a call, late one evening, from Jerry (see comments section) who informed me that he was the one who transcribed the text above, from a cassette that was put out by Scroll Publishing, where Bercot indeed spoke those words. I’m leaving the strikethrough in place because this does not reflect the current opinion of Bercot.]
So how does all that above stack up against the actual teachings of Scripture?
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.“ (Matthew 5:31-32)
Jesus quoted the common practice and then corrects it. He states “anyone who divorces his wife,” then adds the caveat “except for sexual immorality” and continues with that qualification to describe remarriage as sin. From this one can conclude that remarriage is not adultery if there was infidelity (or “porneia” in the original Greek) discovered in the prior marriage.
In fact, if we take the Apostle Paul at his word, then a person applying his teachings must separate themselves from an unfaithful and unrepentant spouse or they are joined together in the sin:
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)
To send an unrepentant sinner packing is NOT hardness of heart (as in what Jesus rebuked in Matthew 19:8) but an absolute necessity and why the church was directed by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:13) to cast out those who refused to repent of their immorality. It is not hard-hearted, it is something necessary to preserve the testimony of the church.
In the Old Testament, we read various places where God is portrayed as the husband of an unfaithful spouse. When the children of Israel break their covenant with God they are given their divorce papers and sent packing (Jeremiah 3:8) because their unfaithfulness could no longer be tolerated. It was not hard-hearted of God to divorce.
But, besides that one exception given by Jesus for sexual immorality, I see the clear indication in Scripture that marriage commitment is permanent and a change of status is not recommended. At the very least it seems second marriage (presumably any second marriage) has consequences. We are told a church leader must be “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2) and, since all should desire to be the best example of faithfulness, I would conclude remarriage is at least strongly discouraged.
I believe grace triumphs over judgment and that we should love others as we wish to be loved. It is my opinion that one is to remain committed to their first spouse in every circumstance except in the case of unrepentant sexual sin. I believe death (or divorce of an unfaithful spouse) does unbind the living spouse and gives them the freedom to marry again. But, if there is any doubt, it is better to remain unmarried.
For those who have already divorced and remarried, there must be repentance of the broken marriage. I do not feel I have the authority to overrule those who believe it is permissible to remain in a subsequent or second marriage. But, we also should not continue in sin that grace may abound and should obey our conscience when in doubt. That said, I am also not of the position that there is any sin (past, present, or future) beyond the grace of God.
Anyhow, is a second marriage permissible for a Christian?
But it is nearly always undesirable, unpleasant, and not ideal. Those who have lost a spouse or have been abandoned by an unfaithful spouse know that pain all too well. Children of divorced parents often suffer terrible insecurity throughout life as a result. It is not ideal.
So, to married people, stay faithful if at all possible and don’t risk your own future or that of those who are your responsibility by taking the commitment lightly.