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Is Remarriage Permitted?

Today’s Question: I have a question that no one has ever answered to my satisfaction. I know several Christians that have been divorced and remarried. Is this right? I know that Jesus said two people should not divorce except for marital unfaithfulness. But if you are divorced, should you never marry again?

–Cassandra

Bible Answer: Many Christian denominations do not allow remarriage, unless it is remarriage to the same spouses that divorced. The reason many churches do not allow remarriage is because of a faulty interpretation of Matthew 19:9:

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

Without studying the cultural background or using some common sense, at first glance, it appears that Jesus is against any form of remarriage, and thus, considers all remarriage to simply be adultery. If that is the case, you can imagine the untold harm that would bring to divorced people. If they are not allowed to remarry, then they might be doomed to a life of loneliness, despair, and sensual temptations.

Even the Catholic Church, which interprets the passage as forbidding any remarriage, has been creative in getting around this issue by using the doctrine of "annulment". An annulment is the declaration that a marriage never really existed, or was void from the beginning. Many Catholics, in order to get remarried in the Church, ask for an annulment of their previous marriage. If it is granted, the Catholic Church is free to marry the person because in their view, the previous marriage never really existed in the first place, and thus, the new marriage is considered the first one.

Protestants have not been as creative. They usually have gotten stuck with their hard-line interpretation. I have seen ministers that—because of their compassion and desire to see people happy—desperately wanted to marry a couple, but because one of them was previously married, they could not perform the wedding. Often, they send them to me, because they know I will do the wedding. They have even attended the weddings and have congratulated the couples, but, because of their stringent church laws, they could not perform the wedding. Surely, they must think that something is wrong with their church rules, but they don’t know how to answer the objections to remarriage.

So, how can we make sense of this passage? The answer is really not as complicated as it first appears. You see remarriage has never been an issue to Jews, and in Jesus' day, any Jew was free to remarry so long as they were legally divorced. The same is true in most modern cultures. So long as both have been legally divorced, the couple is free to get married again. No problem.

The trouble Jesus saw in the law of divorce, as in any law, is it doesn’t deal with motives. The law cannot change one’s heart. Jesus let the people know that God never intended for divorce to take place from the beginning, and so He never made provision for divorce. This prompted the Pharisees to question Jesus on it:

"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. (Matt 19:7-8)

Jesus showed the cause of divorce was the hardness of heart. Jesus made men face their motive for divorce. Why did they want to get divorced in the first place?

In Jesus' day, as in our day, many men in order to marry their mistresses often divorced their wives. Adultery was wrong, so the Jews in order to avoid or end adulterous affairs often divorced their wives to marry the "lady in waiting". Jesus was saying that God knew their hearts and motives, and that they were using the law to get their new wives. He was saying that if you marry your mistresses then you still are an adulterer, because no piece of paper could end adultery. They were already adulterers before the divorce, and so the divorce did not end adultery, instead the new marriage was simply the continuation of adultery.

Unfortunately, many Bible interpreters mistakenly assume that all remarriage is adultery. They often see Jesus saying, "If you divorce your wives, and later meet someone that you fall in love with, you cannot marry her because that would be adultery." No! Jesus was using divorce and marriage in the same context. The divorce was for the purpose of remarriage. We could phrase the passage correctly in this way: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, in order to marry another woman commits adultery." I think this makes much more sense than some legalistic, non-sensible interpretation that keeps divorced people from marrying again.

Let's now look at what Paul said about remarriage. Paul uses the words of Jesus in explaining what a Christian should do if she should get a divorce: "But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife" (1 Cor 7:11). Here Paul says that a divorced wife should remain unmarried. (It is interesting to note that Paul fails to give the same injunction to unmarried husbands, although I think it should be assumed he meant the same for the husband.)

Now, it is the word "remain" that we need to focus on, since he said "remain" unmarried. The Greek word remain is meno1, and interestingly it is not used in the Bible to necessarily refer to permanency. In that same chapter he says, "Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so" (1 Cor 7:20-21). So even a slave is to "remain" a slave, but not necessarily for a lifetime. He is free to change his status and get freedom.

Paul also uses this word for married and unmarried people, "Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to" (1 Cor 7:24). Then he gives an example of what he meant, and in it he directly states that remarriage is not a sin. The passage is in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28:

Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife. But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned... (KJV, emphasis added)

Who has not sinned by getting married? Both the virgin and the person who was loosed from a wife have not sinned. The virgin is the one who has never married; the one loosed from the wife is one who was married but got a divorced. The word "loosed" is the word for "divorced". Paul clearly says that none of them have sinned by getting married. This makes it abundantly clear that Paul never saw remarriage as a sin.

Paul was teaching what Jesus taught concerning divorce and remarriage. He was saying that if you divorce, then remain single—that is to make it your state unless God calls you to get married. He was saying, Don’t rush into a new marriage after divorce, instead, be patient and wait until God brings you a spouse. He was also concerned of people’s motives for the divorce. He did not want people to divorce "in order to" marry someone else, because that would be adultery.

In summary: the thing God hates is divorce, not marriage. God believes in marriage, even, the marriage of those who have been divorced. It is wrong to ship divorced people to the island of celibacy. Instead, we should rejoice when people get married, no matter the past. God forgives, so why should He hold a past divorce against them?

If we really believe that God has forgiven people for their divorces, then why do we still hold it against them by refusing them a church wedding? The problem is a superficial reading of the scripture, and of course, church dogmas add rules that chain people to bondage.

I am concerned that many will use my answer to justify getting a divorce. They might say, "Good, I can divorce my wife or husband so I can marry my true love." Wait a minute, God knows your heart. You can’t fool Him. You don’t divorce to marry someone else—we just covered that. In another article I will discuss great reasons for staying in a marriage, but for now, I hope I have answered your question.

1 Meno is used in the following passages: Matthew 10:11, Luke 24:29, John 1:39, John 4:40, and Rev 17:10. Although meno can be used to speak of permanency, the above passages prove that it does not always mean permanency. Regardless of the how the word is used in various passages, it is the context that determines its meaning, thus more importantly, Paul uses this word in 1 Corinthians 7 to mean "wait but not necessarily for a lifetime".

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