Can the Guilty Party Remarry after a Divorce?

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.”)

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Can the Guilty Party Remarry after a Divorce? — 30 Comments

  1. On a previous attempt to understand what makes a biblical divorce I came across a ref to an early church father who was concerned about the severity of what Jesus appears to say about divorce, even with the exception, compared to the Old Testament understanding, but because of what the Greek said, the severe attitude was established, reluctantly, through obedience.
    Uncomfortably, it occurs to me to wonder why so soon after the apostles had gone, they were so unsure of Koine Greek and Latin and Hebrew that they understood less than the interpretation you give, and the people you quote. How do we know we are not tickling our own ears with this?

  2. What do you say about the Old Testament instructions on how to treat a female slave (Ex 21:10 perhaps) and those rights therefore by implication being the minimum expected of the greater status of marriage? I.e. Not relegating her, deserting her, but loving and providing for her? Thereby elevating such cases of neglect as a prohibition and a reason for valid divorce if good treatment is lacking?

    When Jesus was challenged about divorce, wasn’t it just about the giving of a note ‘for any reason’ that was abhorant, not the generally accepted reasons of neglect and poor treatment that were already accepted? He wasn’t asked about that. Which would give us other valid reasons for divorce in the first place. You couldn’t treat a wife as badly as a slave was not to be treated! Not and expect to keep her, that is. Seems like God was protecting the weak here.
    Is the reasoning correct, that protection clearly stated for slave women should be assumed for the higher status of wife? Made sense to me, but some might call that reading into scripture. If not, why would God protect a slave and not a wife?

  3. I have found this all a gracious blessing, after a nightmare reading what Apologetics have to say about this, which is to dissolve adulterous marriages. I have been tortured by these issues myself.
    I also take some comfort in the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. He acknowledges her previous partners as husbands. He’s not approving of them but seems to recognise their status. He also makes a distinction between them and her then present cohabitation arrangements! We have no reason to believe she’s a serial widow either, though she could be I suppose. Unfortunate statistics if so!
    He doesn’t condemn her, though I expect she later had to sort herself out! My hope is that she then married her partner.

    • And, at the risk of repeating myself, surely Jesus would not have called the previous men husbands if they amounted to a collection of adulterous relationships. and how would their status be different from her present man, who is not a husband? They wouldn’t merit a mention.

  4. Excellent article really helps to make sense of a number of issues. I wondered how you would understand 1 Corinthians 7-10-11 in reference to the phrase that the woman must remain unmarried or return to her husband and the husband should not divorce his wife? This seems to contradict his teaching which follows as you have laid out. Thanks again for the article!

    • I take 1 Cor. 7:10-11 to be referring to separation, not divorce. Unless a Biblical ground for divorce is present, the only options once one is in a (legal or otherwise) separation are (1) remain celibate or (2) be reconciled.

  5. Your readers may want to check out articles, and books by Olan Hicks at regarding the divorce and remarriage issues. Also Rubel Shelly has book out titled “Divorce & Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology” that addresses this concern, and how to minister to those in these circumstances.

  6. Jack, I need SPIRITUAL RELIEF. I love Jesus but let hard times and circumstances lead me away from Christ where I committed adultery. We are both Christian’s and married as such. In my work I traveled a lot and my wife gave me an ultimatum to quit that job. We divorced on “Incompatibility” which is not scriptural. I REMARRIED after the divirce. I told her after the divorce of my adultery and asked her forgiveness. To sooth my conscience I told her we had an unscriptural divorce and the only grounds for divorce was adultery. It was her decision. She then signed a “Certificate of Divorce” like in Moses day based in adultery to give to me. My conscience started bothering me and I saw the effects of adultery on my children (they are all over 18). TO COMPLICATE MY SITUATION “NOW” my ex wife wants me back. I AM SO CONFUSED!!! I AM TORMENTED BY THIS!!! At this point I give up my will. I only care what God wants. Scriptures say no adulterer will enter The Kingdom of God. PLEASE GIVE ME GODLY COUNSEL FROM GOD’S WORD. I just want to be in God’s Will concerning this situation and will crucify my will to do God’s Will. Please email me your answer. Thank you.

    • I am not in a position to give counsel to individuals on this site, since the information available is so limited. The main things you need to know are (1) A legal divorce without Biblical grounds is a sin, but it is forgiven on the same basis as other sins are forgiven. (2) If you have remarried, the new marriage was initially the sin of adultery, but that too is forgiven in the same way. (3) If you have remarried, that marriage is a legitimate marriage and the only marriage that now exists. You cannot go back to the first marriage without committing these same sins all over again. Forget your ex-wife’s willingness to a do-over. (4) If you have NOT remarried, and your ex-wife is willing, there is no reason why you cannot remarry. You are making it too complicated.

  7. The church of Christ literally shares the view that adultery in on going i.e. Living in it and not a valid marriage. I am heart broken of my past guilt and stained without mercy. My life is dead and cannot even worship nor have feelings to pray. The church did discipline and my adulterous marriage limps into hell. I have no hope and only fit to die really. My adultry wife is beyond herself and on medications for depression. I have no choice but to rip my life apart and stay alone for the rest of my life. I am not with myself mentally. God does not care about happiness, but obedience. I am doomed for eternity in this life and will die alone. I do not even feel worthy to attend a service. It’s all my fault and I have caused another emotion pain

    • I am not in a position to give counsel to individuals on this site, since the information available is so limited. Forget what “the church of Christ” teaches; what matters is what the Bible teaches. Sometimes a “church” position is not Biblical. The main things you need to know are (1) A legal divorce without Biblical grounds is a sin, but it is forgiven on the same basis as other sins are forgiven. (2) If you have remarried, the new marriage was initially the sin of adultery, but that too is forgiven in the same way. (3) If you have remarried, that marriage is a legitimate marriage and the only marriage that now exists. You cannot go back to the first marriage without committing these same sins all over again. Since the new marriage is a legitimate marriage and the only marriage that now exists, and you are NOT living in adultery. It is NOT an “adulterous marriage.” (4) Though you have sinned, if you are truly believing and repentant, you are FORGIVEN! Stop punishing yourself.

  8. Hi Jack,
    Thank you for your post. Being a divorced person from my early 20’s, who was the guilty party, I have had a long journey of sincere repentance, and seeking out forgiveness from God, all afflicted parties, & myself. However, even through the forgiveness I’ve experienced, it still can feel like I’m a “second class citizen” in the church and that remarriage is not an option for me. Although I have the desire to marry again, I truly want what God wants ultimately.

    I’d like to know if the guilty party, after sincere repentance, can be considered as part of the “Unmarried” in relation to 1 Cor. 7? If so, when does that occur? Does it have anything to do with what the former spouse does? Scripture to support?
    Thank you!

    • My judgment is that the “guilty party” in a marriage has broken the marriage bond; when a divorce occurs, the marriage no longer exists. Both parties are unmarried. Both are able to enter into new marriages, which will be valid. The guilty party’s sin and his or her guilt derived therefrom are a separate issue; sincere repentance should certainly occur. How this sin is related to one’s saving faith will differ from person to person.

  9. Hey Jack, Thank you for your post. I just stumbled upon it by searching through google. I was hoping that you can help clarify something for me. In Murray’s book on divorce, he says on page 111, “A great deal of respect should be entertained for the position that when a person remarries after divorce on an unscriptural ground this remarriage should be regarded as invalid, that is to say as null and void, and that the person concerned should be required to return to the former spouse.”

    Murray then presents an alternative way of dealing with the problem of illegitimate divorce and remarriage by saying, “The second marriage is undoubtedly adulterous and, therefore, illegitimate. But we are not prepared to say that it is invalid. For that reason our interpretation is that, though illegitimate, it is a real marriage and should be regarded as such. It has the effect of dissolving the first marriage… On this interpretation the second marriage should not be dissolved. Though contracted and consummated illegitimately and adulterously, it nevertheless de facto exists and the parties to it should prove faithful to each other. It is admittedly a most anomalous situation.”

    It seems that you landed on the latter method of dealing with unscriptual divorce and remarriage. Would you be able to provide me some passages from which we can infer that the second adulterous marriage can effectually dissolves the first marriage? Thank you.

    • I believe that Jesus’ teaching about immorality (“porneia”) being a legitimate ground for divorce (Matt. 19:9) is all you need for this. The sexual contact between the parties of the illegitimate marriage would the the porneia that breaks the bond of the original marriage.

      • hello sir, can you please explain I Corinthians 7:39, how this text applied or not to be applied on the issue of remarrying and committing sin after the first marriage.

  10. At last, the subject of MDR makes sense. Trying to force various preconceived views onto the scriptures has caused me some vexation for years. I do not see anything that says an adulterer cannot remarry, only that he has committed a grievous sin of breaking a covenant with his spouse and his God. God will judge any who presume forgiveness and willfully commit such a sin, and never genuinely repent. Likewise, God will forgive the broken heart that begs mercy. Christians ought not enact punishments for which there is no clear scriptural basis.

      • What do you make of John 4:16-18? It seems to indicate successive marriages are not necessarily considered valid by the Lord.

        • I think the opposite, Jesus mentions 5 previous husbands, AND the current man isn’t a husband. He differentiates between husband and partner, and by counting the husbands he acknowledges serial husbands, achieved by real marriages, are possible. At least that’s what it looks like to me

  11. Hi Jack Thank you so much for the information that you have given on the guilty parties being able to remarry. Why is it that the Churches of Christ largely speaking condemn the guilty party to a life of singleness or hell? And they also make the new marriage a matter of living in sin rather than looking at adultery as a single offense against God.? For so many there is the suffering of alienation even when they repent. Many believe they are going to hell. Where (other than Scripture badly interpreted) does this awful idea come from within these churches. I hear so much about people who will not even take communion though they have repented because the church has made them feel unworthy. These churches set themselves up as little command posts even when people want to get their lives in order, repent and serve God. It is tragic for many and hopeless. Thank you for your response.

    • I think the idea that the guilty party is not permitted to remarry is based more on feelings (emotions) than on any Biblical principle or data. I’m glad you found my essay helpful.

  12. Also, can you explain what you meant by “this is parallel to the sin of marrying an unbeliever”. Are you saying that although it may be a sin to commit adultery or to marry an unbeliever, one the marriage takes place it’s a valid marriage and honored by God?

    • Yes, that is what I am saying. In such cases the “latest” marriages are he only existing marriages and should be maintained for life. “Honored by God” may not be the best way to describe it. The idea is this: once such a marriage has taken place, it is a true uniting of the two persons; the Biblical prohibitions relating to divorce apply. Once such a marriage has occurred, there should be no going back to one’s former spouse (if there was one).

      • So God would recognize the marriage and the people married would not be living in sin correct? Would God honor the marriage? I mean if He recognized it wouldn’t He honor it as a sacred bond that shouldn’t be broken?

  13. How does Corinthians 7:39 play into all of this? Because it says that a woman is bound to her husband until he dies.

    • This is true, unless one of the two Biblical exceptions are a fact. Jesus specified the exception of sexual immorality (porneia) in Matthew 19:9, and Paul (an inspired apostle) adds the exception of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse in this very chapter (1 Cor. 7:15). These two acts also break the marriage bond.

  14. Katerina, once a marriage is “broken” both parties are free to re-marry since neither are now married. Single people, divorced people, are free to marry and live a life that brings God glory.

    May God bless you with a Christian husband!!

  15. Thank you for this post, I think you take a very grace-filled approach to this sticky and confusing issue. I have a question I am hoping you can answer. What if the divorce was going to happen, but days before the legal proceedings began, one of the spouses committed adultery. What happens in that case? Can either party still remarry freely once the divorce is finalized? Even if initially it’s adultery? Your insight on this would be appreciated.

    • I am not sure I understand the scenario you are sketching, so I will give a general answer. Adultery legitimizes the divorce, but it is still a sin and must be treated with sincere repentance like any other sin. Regarding the legitimacy of remarriage after such a divorce, the answer is yes, for either party. The general principle is that adultery breaks the marriage bond for both the innocent and the guilty parties in a divorce situation; thus both are unmarried and free to marry again. This does not mean that God is pleased with this whole situation, of course.

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