Recently I have come across some novel arguments to justify remarriage after divorce while the original spouse is still living. I will not name the advocate of remarriage on the blog: suffice to say that on social media he began commenting on a video link to Prof. David Engelsma’s lecture at the British Reformed Fellowship Conference (2018), “Unbiblical Divorce and Adulterous Remarriage: A Scandal.” He labeled it “proscribed heresy” and called those who agreed with the lecture “hypocritical legalists” who “damage the church and mock the grace of Christ,” adding that we were “perfect illustrations of the haughty Pharisees,” and called us to repent. Then he called our position “false, anti-Reformed, and unbiblical,” as well as “schismatic and destructive of true Christian compassion.” He argued (correctly) that neither Luther nor Calvin agreed with our position, which Prof. Engelsma fully admits in his book Marriage: The Mystery of Christ and the Church. While we admire the Reformers, they were (sadly) not strong on the subject of divorce and remarriage. This is reflected in the otherwise excellent Westminster Confession of Faith.
Because I did not want my answer to be buried in a long Facebook thread where the advocate for remarriage made his novel arguments, I decided to make it public here. I hope it will serve as a witness to the truth of the unbreakable marriage bond. Some of the arguments from Greek grammar are quite involved, so I ask for the reader’s indulgence.
In addition, I am not interested in attacking personalities or churches. I am merely interested in the arguments, especially exegetical arguments, for God’s word is the final arbiter on this and all matters.
I should point out right at the beginning, however, that knowledge of Greek grammar is not necessary for the child of God. The King James Version of the Bible is an accurate translation of the original Greek and Hebrew, and no theologian or pastor should give the impression that the Bible cannot be comprehended without recourse to the original languages: we believe in the perspicuity of holy scripture, that is, we believe that the Bible is clear, so clear that, if a child of God has a good translation, he can understand the scriptures; yet the Bible is so profound and rich that the greatest theologian cannot plumb its depths. Moreover, we believe in the office of believer according to which every child of God has the blessed privilege of knowing and understanding God’s word without the need of “experts” or a “priestly class” in the church.
In addition, the main issue is clear. Marriage is a lifelong, unbreakable bond between one man and one woman, in which the two become one, enjoying intimate fellowship with one another, which fellowship, both in the Old Testament and New Testament reflects the relationship between Christ and the church. In scripture God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16); and even when he gives his adulterous, unfaithful wife a “bill of divorce” (Jer. 3:8), he still declares himself married to his people (v. 14), and he never takes another people (i.e., the Lord never remarries).
Moreover, when Jesus deals with the subject of divorce and remarriage, he does so in the context of a controversy he has with the Pharisees, many of whom had a very permissive view of divorce and subsequent remarriage. The Pharisees made their main appeal to Deuteronomy 24:1–4, where they interpreted the “some uncleanness” as allowing divorce for every cause. Before Jesus addressed that text, however, he reminded the Pharisees of God’s original command in Genesis (showing, incidentally, that Jesus believed in the authority and historicity of the creation account of Genesis 1–2):
Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Matt. 19:4–6; see also Mark 10:6–9).
In those words, Jesus defines marriage as between one man and one woman and confirms that God created two (and only two) genders, refuting the “same sex marriage” and “transgender” movements of our day.
The Pharisees counter in Matthew 19:7 with an appeal to Moses in Deuteronomy 24: “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” Notice how Jesus reframes the issue in his response: the Pharisees speak of a “command,” but Jesus refers to Deuteronomy 24 as permission or concession (God “suffered you”). This is accurate, for in Deuteronomy God does not command the people to put away their wives, but he legislates for divorce in such a way that the woman who is put away receives legal protection. To paraphrase: “If you are so stubborn and hardhearted as to desire to put away your wife, you may not do so unless you give her a bill of divorcement, which bill will protect her and give her some legal rights. Otherwise, you are, as it were, throwing her to the wolves when you divorce her.” God’s command is: Do not put away your wife; the concession is: if you divorce, give her a bill of divorcement.
This is clearly Christ’s authoritative interpretation of the law: “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you [permitted you] to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). Hardhearted Pharisees appealed to Deuteronomy 24 because they desired to rid themselves of their spouses. Hardhearted people in the church follow their Pharisaical forebears, which is ironic, for it makes them (and not churches who argue for the permanency of the marriage bond, and who forbid divorce and remarriage in the preaching and in discipline) the children of the Pharisees on this issue.
Moses permitted it, but Jesus does not permit it. “For the hardness of your heart he [Moses] wrote you this precept, but from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female” (Mark 10:5–6). “But from the beginning it was not so, and I say unto you…” (Matt. 19:8–9).
In addition, of course, the stipulation of Deuteronomy 24 no longer applies in the New Testament. What applies is Christ’s authoritative teaching on the permanency of marriage in which he gives no concession to hard hearts!
The apostle Paul repeats the teaching of Jesus, insisting that a divorced and remarried woman (one living with a second or subsequent husband) is an adulteress (and he makes no reference to the “permission” of Deuteronomy 24): “If, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man” (Rom. 7:3). Only death breaks the marriage bond to permit remarriage: widows and widowers may remarry; divorced persons may not as long as their original spouse lives.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul applies the teaching of the Lord to marriage: “Let not the wife depart from her husband” [No separation; departure from one's husband may lead to divorce, but even separation itself is forbidden by Jesus Christ] (v. 10). “But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried [No remarriage], or be reconciled to her husband [The original bond of marriage could and should be restored]: and let not the husband put away his wife” [No divorce] (v. 11). Remarriage after divorce makes reconciliation with one’s original spouse almost impossible, which is another reason why God forbids it. The permanency of marriage applies even, says Paul, when there is a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever: “Let him not put her away” (v. 12); “let her not leave him” (v. 13). The only exception is where the believer is wickedly abandoned by his unbelieving spouse: then, divorce is possible: “Let him depart” (v. 15). Nevertheless, the abandoned believer may not remarry. Verse 15 does not permit remarriage in the case of desertion, but rather the deserted believer may live without shame and enjoy peace: “A brother or sister is not under bondage [the meaning is not “is not bound;” that is a different verb] in such cases: but God hath called us to peace” (v. 15).
Paul ends the chapter by reaffirming the permanency of the marriage bond: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead [with real, physical death that puts him in the grave], she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord” (v. 39).
The Bible is clear: marriage is a lifelong bond broken only by death; divorce is permitted, although not required, only on the grounds of adultery; and remarriage (a second or subsequent marriage) is not permitted to either party in the marriage while the original spouse is alive.
Having set forth the teaching of Christ, I plan to address the novel grammatical arguments of the advocate of remarriage. Again I ask for the reader’s indulgence, as some of this will be complicated; however, I hope that most readers will be able to grasp most of what I write.
To be continued...
This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments, please post them in the comment section on the blog.