Divorce and the Purpose of the Law

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Much of what we believe is inherited and that includes how we interpret certain passages of Scripture.  It is just the way things are, we do not independently arrive at our own conclusions and could very well have been taught wrong.  Those who believe that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they’re standing on it have no potential for growth in understanding or perspective.

Many in a purity culture would squeal their displeasure at the term “legalism” being used to describe their ‘Biblical standards’ and hide behind mantras such as “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!”  Unfortunately, while this kind of obstinate stance may be good as far as resisting temptation, it basically amounts to confirmation bias on steroids in a search for truth.

This is exactly the attitude of those who took issue with Jesus breaking the Sabbath and how they absolutely refuse to see their own application of Scripture as entirely missing the point:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

(Matthew 12:1‭-‬14 NIV)

The Pharisees, like religious fundamentalists today, believed that they were the experts and examples of righteousness.  They would know that Moses, by order of the Lord according to Numbers 15:32-36, had a man put to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.  It is very likely that many of them were very sincere in their saying that Jesus was possessed by a demon.  How dare this teacher allow his followers to break the law and then defiantly double down in response to their concern!!!  Weren’t there six other days to heal?!?

Now some commentators may try to square this legalistically, by claiming that Jesus was not truly going against Scripture.  But I do not believe this is the case.  The Pharisees were obsessed with the letter of the law and technically right in their complaint against his breaking the Sabbath.  Jesus, by contrast, was focused on the reason behind the law, or spirit of the law, and pointed to Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” to establish the vast difference between the ritualistic devotion to a set of religious rules and genuine love for people.

Legalism, by this standard, is a use of the law that is negligent of the purpose.  What is the purpose of law?  The law is supposed to be for our own good, to protect us from harm, and thus the exceptions that Jesus mentioned in response to his critics.  A legalist, in their strict adherence to rules, loves their rules, and yet they lack love and mercy for people.  Thus, a legalist, in their no-compromise application of the law, defies the actual purpose for which the law was established and, therefore, are no longer under the law themselves:

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

(James 2:12‭-‬13 NIV)

Legalism: Divorced From the Issue

This blog is not meant to be a theological tome.  For a more exhaustive look at the divorce and remarriage topic, especially for those of an Anabaptist background, I would suggest reading Dwight Gingrich who has covered the issue exhaustively in a series of blogs.  I’ve already covered Biblical proof-texts in prior postings as well.  Instead, I’ll stick to a discussion of the hardness of hearts and economia (special exception) as it applies to divorce and remarriage.

First of all marriage, by original intent, is until death do they part and there’s no exception to this.  If men and women would live up to their vows, not make promises they not keep, this would solve the entire issue.  If people would act responsibly and remain faithful in relationships then there would be no broken homes.  That is certainly ideal, it was also the privilege of being born into conservative Mennonite culture for me—in that my parents were encouraged, through peer pressure, to overcome doubts and make it work.

However, this ideal simply is not available to many in the world.  Many do marry, or have children, with someone whom they intend as their soulmate and it doesn’t end in a happily ever after for them.  This failure of adults can have disastrous consequences for the next generation, the less desirable outcomes for children of single-parent homes are the evidence:

Children who live with only one of their parents do less well in school, obtain fewer years of education, and have trouble keeping a steady job as young adults. Children from single parent families are six times more likely to be poor.

“Single Parenthood and Children’s Well-being,” Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars

Now maybe this is genetic, that the children have the same commitment issues as their parents, and this strong correlation of single-parent homes with poor outcomes for children does not automatically equate to environmental causation.  Maybe we need an adopted twin study?  But it is pretty safe to say, without a complex analysis, that the insecurity and chaos of a home with one parent will have an impact on children that is undesirable.

So there’s a question: If the law is there for our good and single-parent homes are bad, what should happen after divorce or abandonment?

In the culture that I came from, there was a hardline stance on divorce and remarriage that even nullified the “exception clause” of Matthew 19:9.  This perspective, from my personal experience as one who defended it, is about the preservation of an ideal and even at the expense of people.  I could reason, like Moses having the man killed for picking up sticks, that allowing one exception would be a slippery slope and lead to far greater social disorder.

And yet this “greater good” logic is exactly why Jesus was put to death:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” 

(John 11:47-50 NIV)

They both missed out on Jesus, their king, and also did not save temple worship. Also equally ironic is that the high priest unintentionally spoke the truth.

Anyhow, maybe, in the time of Moses, sacrifices of animals and the sons of Abraham were needed for the health of the nation.  But now, after the death and resurrection of Christ, we are clothed in his righteousness and thus free from the letter of the law that kills:

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

(2 Corinthians 3:6 NIV)

You’ll need to read further about the context of that statement to fully grasp what St Paul is saying in that letter.  But the short version is that he’s contrasting the understanding of the law prior to Christ with that which only comes with the Spirit and seeing the intent behind laws as being greater than the laws themselves.  This is different from the Pharisee men who carved out legalistic exceptions for themselves to divorce and were confronted by Jesus for their hardness of heart:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

(Matthew 19:3‭-‬9 NIV)

The audience is men.  The ideal is marriage until death do they part.  And the rebuke is against the hardness of hearts.  This is what makes it so egregiously wrong that men, in fundamentalist communities, will apply this passage (usually excluding the exception clause) to women who were abandoned by their husbands.  It is, at the very best, taking the words of Jesus out of context and it is too often used rather hard-hearted response to those who have no chance of restoring what is ideal.

Jesus was not answering the question of what a woman is supposed to do when left to raise her children alone.  And I’m also quite confident that he was not intending for his prescription to these men to be applied in the same dogmatic manner as they approached the Scriptures.  It was their lack of mercy and compassion, how these men would misuse of the law of Moses (which did allow divorce) to escape their own responsibilities, that is the focus of his words.

As was explained to me concerning the Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage in contrast to that of fundamentalists:

As to sticking with what is written, I think here you can see the difference in how the Orthodox view the Scriptures—as part and parcel—but never the entirely of the whole Tradition—all of which has been handed down to us. The Orthodox do not take divorce and re-marriage lightly—it’s a complicated process to get a bishop’s blessing to undertake second and third marriages and the blessing is not always given. But the primary issue here is that the Orthodox confess God to be a God of mercy, love, and forgiveness—not a law-obsessed judge who keeps a record of pluses and minuses in order to play “gotcha” with those who fail.

Father Anthony Roeber

That statement above, part of an email that so profoundly reframed my understanding of divorce and remarriage, cuts right to the heart of the issue.  Married or single, first marriage or second, what matters more than anything else is will if help us in the journey of faith or will it hinder.  And that’s the true intent behind the law, it was a tool to steer us in the direction of doing what is good and merciful, like our Father, and yet would never be sufficient to save us.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:36 NIV

Second Marriage: A Second Look At Early Christian Writers…

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Early Christians, like their modern-day counterparts, had a wide variety of opinions and not all of their opinions are trustworthy or canonical. Still, their writings are often taken as 100% reliable and played like a trump card in debates over the correct interpretation of Scripture.

That is the case with some of my conservative Protestant friends when it comes to the topic of remarriage after divorce. If shown where Jesus addresses divorce as causing sin and qualifies his statement adding “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32, 19:9), they will deny the implications of this clear exception and deflect to non-canonical early church writings.

It seems a fairly reasonable approach to a controversy over meaning at first glance. Why would we not trust early church writings as reliable indicators of original intent? What reason would they have to distort the true meaning of what Jesus taught? Shouldn’t we assume that they would know better than us?

However, that is not reasonable to assume. In fact, this idea that the early church was completely pure or free of heresies and false teachings goes completely contrary to Scripture. Indeed there were many errant ideas that circulated then and some very deep disagreements over practice. So, in other words, we should be testing their words against Scripture and not using their words in aid of our own confirmation bias.

Or, at very least, if you are going to quote Tertullian in a debate you should probably know a little about him before you do and also consider what else he believed.

Consider this early church writer…

Athenagoras (circa A.D. 177)

A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. “For whosoever puts away his wife,” says He, “and marries another, commits adultery”; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to many again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.

Did you catch that?

He just declared *all* second marriages, even those after the death of a spouse, to be “only a specious adultery” and forbidden.

Compare what he says to Saint Paul in the Romans 7:2-3:

For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

Athenagoras has clearly gone off the rails. He is in direct contradiction to the canonical teachings of the apostle Paul. Why? Well, the reason for this is that he subscribed to the heretical “New Prophecy” called Montanism.

Montanism arose from the teachings of a man named Montanus, a new Christian convert from paganism, who claimed to have a special new revelation from the Holy Spirit. They taught that their own revelations superseded those of Jesus and the apostle Paul. They ordained women as bishops and basically rejected the authority of Scripture and the established church tradition as well.

And you know who else was under the influence of Montanism and also wrote against *all* second marriages?

Tertullian.

Tertullian, a favorite of sophistical fundamentalist efforts to justify their existing positions, taught that *all* second marriages were forbidden. And by all I mean even second marriages in cases where the first spouse had died and a teaching that is certainly in direct contradiction to Scripture. That contradiction (if one truly believes that Scripture has an authority that supersedes personal revelation and not the other way around) disqualifies Tertullian as an authoritative source.

It is strange, while most Mennonites (and other Protestant fundamentalists) might denounce a modern version of Montanus as a false teacher and regard his adherents as deceived, many do accept old heretical teachings (when these old heresies argue their own established positions) and ideas that are not supported in Scripture.

All second marriages were forbidden by those misled by Montanus. However, according to Scripture, and not my own opinion, marriage can be dissolved for three reasons: Adultery, abandonment, and death of a spouse. In all three cases, a person is no longer bound to the first marriage and therefore is free to marry again.

1) The death of a spouse…

A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39 NIV)

There is no allowance for a Christian to divorce their faithful husband or wife. Marriage is supposed to be one man and one woman till death do they part. However, we live in a fallen world and that means sometimes a young married person might lose their husband or wife. For that reason, the apostle Paul provides a provision for widows and, presumably, widowers as well.

2) The abandonment of a spouse…

But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15 NIV)

A Christian is never allowed to divorce a faithful spouse. But, there are times when a couple is “unequally yoked” where one is a believer and the other is not. Paul tells those with a faithful and unbelieving spouse to remain faithful. However, he also provides a provision for brothers and sisters who have been abandoned by their unbelieving spouse. He says they are “not bound” to the marriage in that case.

3) The unrepentant adultery of a spouse…

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9 NIV)

Jesus, in response to the Pharisees who asked if it is lawful to divorce for “any and every” reason, first took the opportunity to restate the ideal for marriage as a lifetime commitment, then explains that Moses only allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, and lays down the gauntlet: There is no divorce for any and every reason.

Jesus does, however, give one exception and that is in the case of sexual immorality (or porneia) when the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness. He significantly narrows the scope for divorce and remarriage. I do not believe he is ruling out forgiveness of the errant spouse either. But marriage can be broken and it is broken by unfaithfulness to the marriage vows.

Isn’t it better to be stricter than Scripture?

The church of my youth allowed remarriage after a spouse had died, yet not when a marriage had ended by other the other means described in Scripture and has turned away those remarried who refused to separate from their second spouse. This kind of hard-line, no exceptions besides death, stance seemed normal to me. I had simply accepted what I had been told.

It would seem like a good thing to exceed a Scriptural requirement. Mennonites do this all the time, they forbidding alcohol, mandate clothing styles and often have a whole list of standards. There seems to be an idea that exceeding the requirements of Scripture makes us safer and there is definitely a case for erring on the side of avoiding things that are questionable.

But, that said, when our own personal conscience (standards in addition to Scripture) is used as a basis to exclude others, then we have become as Diotrephes, the arrogant church leader condemned in 3 John for his refusing welcome other believers, and we will be held to account. It is one thing to have high personal standards, it is quite another to make them a test of membership and reason to slam the door in the face of those trying to enter.

Do not be like those who use their own conscience to overrule the teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul. Montanism was heretical, a false teaching, and their kind of sophistry remains a stumbling block.

Is a second marriage ever permissable for a Christian?

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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.

In conclusion…

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?

Maybe.

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.