Can the Guilty Party Remarry after a Divorce?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, October 8, 2010 at 11:02am
QUESTION: In a Christian marriage which dissolves due to marital unfaithfulness, is the guilty party not allowed to remarry? And would this be the case even if the guilty party under the leadership of the elders tried everything possible to save the marriage? In view of 1 Cor. 7:9, would remarriage in such a case—even if it is a sin—be the “lesser of two evils”?
ANSWER: First, let’s get this straight: 1 Cor. 7:9 does not apply to this issue in the way you seem to suggest. Paul does NOT say, “It is better to REmarry than to burn IN HELL.” The “burn” here does not refer to burning in hell as a penalty for sin, but to being “aflame with passion” (ESV), i.e., to be constantly wrestling with unfulfilled sexual desire. Thus Paul is not talking about the “lesser of two evils” here. Even if it is a divorced person that is facing this dilemma, 1 Cor. 7:9 may indeed apply, but NOT in the sense of the lesser of two evils.
The reason why this is so is this: remarriage after a Biblically-based divorce is NOT an evil, i.e., a moral evil or sin, even for the guilty party. There is NO REASON why the guilty party after a divorce may not remarry, as I will now explain.
First, if sexual immorality and abandonment are grounds for divorce, they are also grounds for remarriage as such. The “except” clause in Matt. 5:32, 19:9 applies both to divorce and to remarriage. In these cases, the marriage bond no longer exists in God’s sight. Sexual immorality and abandonment, finalized by a legal divorce, sever the marriage bond. Both parties are now in a single state and free to remarry.
On the subject of remarriage as such, I recommend a book by Guy Duty called “Divorce and Remarriage.” Also, in his book, “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible,” Jay Adams discusses 1 Cor. 7:27-28a, where Paul says, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you should marry, you have not sinned.” Here are Adams’ comments (pp. 84-85): “1. The word translated ‘released’ in both instances is the same word, ‘luo.’ 2. To be released from a wife in the second instance must mean what it does in the first or the intended contrast that is set up would be lost. 3. It is plain that divorce is in view in both instances. Clearly, when Paul says that one must not seek to be released from a wife he doesn’t mean by death! The release in view can mean only one thing—release by divorce. So too, the release in the second instance must refer to release from the bonds of marriage by divorce (N.B., to be ‘released’ is the opposite of being ‘bound’ to a wife). 4. Paul allows for the remarriage of those released from marriage bonds (i.e., divorced) even in a time of severe persecution when marriage, in general, is discouraged (v. 28). 5. And, to boot, he affirms that there is no sin in remarrying.” “It is most important, then, to understand that the position of those who hold that under no circumstances whatever may a divorced person remarry, is totally unwarranted. This passage is fatal to that view; the Scriptures plainly contradict it when they affirm the opposite. There can be no doubt about it, the Bible allows the remarriage of some divorced persons . . . .”
But the main question here is, WHO is allowed to remarry? Adams says “SOME divorced persons,” suggesting that some are NOT allowed to remarry. I disagree. Now, most would grant that the innocent party can remarry. (Note: the term “innocent party” applies only if there is a valid Biblical grounds for divorce. “Innocent” implies a situation involving such a Biblical grounds.) But what about the GUILTY party? The common idea is that this wretched person must not be allowed to remarry! But the fact is that the guilty party ALSO is allowed to remarry. The old marriage bond is severed; the old marriage no longer exists. Those who deny the guilty party the right to remarry usually do so on an emotional basis rather than on a Biblical basis. There simply is no Biblical reason for such a denial. (See John Murray, Divorce, pp. 99ff.)
None of the above applies in the case of a non-Biblical divorce. If there are no Biblical grounds for divorce, then a legal divorce in itself does not sever the marriage bond before God, and NEITHER party is actually divorced and the marriage has not really ended in God’s sight. Thus neither party is allowed to remarry another, until one or the other of the original couple becomes guilty of sexual immorality.
To explain further, since in this case the marriage is not really dissolved in God’s sight, the first spouse who enters into a sexual relationship (either via remarriage or outside of marriage) commits adultery and thus breaks the marriage bond (according to Matt. 19:9) AFTER the legal divorce. This is then a second sin, in addition to the sin of groundless divorce as such. If this happens through another marriage, then the other party in that new marriage also commits adultery (Matt. 5:32; Luke 16:18). If anyone is the victim of a legal yet unscriptural divorce, then the one who initiated this divorce is implicated in the adultery which occurs if the unwilling partner remarries first (Matt. 5:32). This is all true EVEN if the remarrying person has become a Christian since his or her divorce! Becoming a Christian does not break a marriage bond! (I have found that in the area of ethics, nothing is more complicated than trying to sort out all the possible scenarios caused by divorce.)
Once a sexual relationship has been entered by one of the separated spouses (within or without another marriage), the other spouse is then free to remarry without guilt, since the original marriage bond is then truly broken. Any marriage which occurs after even an unscriptural divorce is thus a VALID marriage, since the original marriage bond is now broken. Such new marriages are the only ones that exist. Any attempt to “return to one’s original spouse” would only compound the adultery.
The first to enter such a new marriage after an unscriptural divorce is initially guilty of adultery; but since a new marriage is thus begun, he or she does not CONTINUE to “live in adultery.” It is a one-time sin, not an on-going one. The resulting marriage is a valid marriage. This is parallel to the sin committed when a Christian marries a non-Christian. (The present tense in Matt 19:9 [“commits adultery”] does not imply “continues to commit adultery.”)