Divorce and Remarriage: White, Black, or Gray?
It must be wonderful to be one of those fellows who has every religious controversy perfectly figured out, with no room left for disagreement. I do not happen to be in that particular segment of the Christian brotherhood. I still have to exercise considerable study and practical wisdom concerning many issues, not the least of which is the divorce-remarriage controversy. It is not that I am confused about what the Bible teaches on this theme; that is plain enough.
We may paraphrase Matthew 19:9 as follows: “Whoever divorces a wife [or husband], unless the divorce is for the cause of his mate’s fornication, and then marries [according to civil law] another person, those in the new union are committing adultery (i.e., living in the state of adultery). Moreover, the person who marries either party from an unscriptural divorce is likewise in an adulterous union.” The language is transparent. It is the application of that law that sometimes is difficult to unravel. (Note: the results of my study are set forth in my small book, The Teaching of Jesus Christ on Divorce & Remarriage – A Critical Study of Matthew 19:9.)
Over the past several decades I have been called upon to counsel with many couples who have been involved in multiple marriage relationships. In my counseling sessions, I came to this conclusion: Some situations appear fairly easy to decipher—either for “better” or “worse.” A significant number of others are murky, very difficult to analyze, and are almost impossible to yield a firm conclusion. This is due to the reality that the facts simply cannot be fully known by someone not a party to the situation firsthand, and for the following reasons: (1) The case histories are buried in past obscurity and cannot be resurrected. (2) The persons providing the background information may slant the material to support the conclusion they want others to accept. (3) Cases frequently are introduced to outside parties, not to solicit the truth—wherever that may lead—but to obtain an official “stamp of approval” so the principals may henceforth be relieved of personal responsibility.
Authority figures (e.g., elders, ministers, parents, close friends) who are consulted in complex divorce-remarriage situations must be very careful not to be drawn into situations where they are pressured to render a judgment. One may submit a measured judgment—if he dares—but great care should be exercised. Do not become a rubber stamp for marriage situations in which you cannot possibly know the background facts. Let me provide you with a couple of case histories, with the persons carefully disguised, for illustration purposes.
I have known any number of situations in which it seemed quite apparent that an innocent victim had the right to a second marriage. Here is one example: A faithful and loving spouse returned home unexpectedly one day to discover her marital partner intimate with another person. There was a confrontation and the guilty party confessed to an ongoing affair and asked the betrayed spouse for a divorce. The offended partner was devastated and traumatized. She offered to forgive the offender and work on restoring the marriage.
The adulterer was unmoved, secured a “quickie” divorce, and “married” the fornicating partner. Did the victimized party have a right to a new marriage? From all appearances, certainly so. The case seems relatively clear. One might, therefore, if his or her counsel were sought, express an opinion that a new union for the victim appears to be permissible.
A Christian husband developed a “wandering eye.” He began a long series of adulterous adventures with one woman after another. His sordid lifestyle eventually became known. He would “repent” only to pursue another affair. His wife, with every justification, divorced him on the grounds of adultery (though the specific charge was not permitted in the court document). He was then a divorced adulterer with no remarriage privilege. Eventually, however, he found a woman he wanted to “marry,” and did, claiming he would “throw himself on the Lord’s mercy.” What is his situation?
He is in an adulterous union—in spite of the fact he now is honored as a faithful brother in the congregation with which he is identified. This case is as transparent as one possibly could be, and yet this brother is in full fellowship with his local church under the guise that he “repented,” turned over a “new leaf,” and now is living a good life. Does his “changed life” unscramble the historical facts? It does not. There are consequences to some sins that cannot be altered, and with which one has to live. And brethren who endorse illicit arrangements, quite clearly known to be wrong, are enablers of serious sin.
Unfortunately, frequently it is the situation that the marriage entanglements are so complex and ambiguous that no one, apart from the parties themselves—and God!—know what the real resolution is. It is a “he said, she said” situation that defies even Solomon’s wisdom.
On many occasions, after listening patiently (sometimes for hours!) as a couple explains the entanglements of their marital history, I have been forced to say, “Here is my judgment in your situation. I do not know! There are too many unknowns in your case. I cannot provide you with a definitive judgment either: ‘Yes, probably so,’ or, ‘No, probably not.’ The decision will have to remain in your hands. If you have any doubt, do not proceed further in the relationship. If you feel absolutely confident in going forward, the church will not judge you for it. You will answer only to God.”
What else can be done? Marriage and divorce episodes are unbelievably complex, and if the cases are neither “white” nor “black,” but remain in that ambiguous “gray” area, no one can expect others to provide them with a blanket endorsement and thus jeopardize his or her personal integrity. And no one can expect all others to accept his or her opinion in assessing cloudy situations.
If I disagree with you, or you with me, regarding a situation where all the facts simply cannot be known by third parties, let us leave the matter for the Lord—and not presume to make the judgment for him. We must not condone the guilty nor crush the innocent. Either is dangerous. It’s just that sometimes fallible humans with limited knowledge cannot decipher which is what! God help us in our frustration! For further study, see Divorce and Civil Law.
- Jackson, Wayne. 2002. The Teaching of Jesus Christ on Divorce & Remarriage – A Critical Study of Matthew 19:9. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.