When Is A Divorce, A Divorce?

A couple gets divorced for reasons other than fornication.  In time, one of them remarries, or becomes sexually involved with another.  May the other partner (in that original marriage) now remarry with God’s approval?

There are brethren, “conservative brethren,” on both sides of this issue.  However, truth is not determined by who is on this side or that side.  Moreover, truth is not determined by nose-counting.

The issue comes down to this question: When is a divorce, a divorce?

View One

Let’s consider the position of those who believe that the partner (in the scenario given before) may remarry.  They believe that a civil law divorce took place.  However, the couple remained married “in God’s sight.”  Therefore, when one partner commits fornication, the other partner may mentally divorce his/her mate and remarry with God’s approval.

Here are some common arguments.  (1) Herodias was still referred to as “Philip’s wife,” after she had married Herod Antipas (Mark 6:17-18).  (2) The woman who departs from her husband has the option of being reconciled with her “husband” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).  He is still referred to as her husband.  The term “depart” (choridzo or chorizo) can be used of divorce (cf. Matthew 19:6, Where a form of this word is used).  (3) “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:12).  It is asked: “How can this be adultery unless she is still his wife ‘in God’s sight’?” Adultery involves a third party.

Those who oppose this view commonly reply.  (1) No where, in scripture, does one read about mental divorce.  (2) Herodias was responsible for her marriage covenant with Philip (cf. Romans 7:2). This does not mean that no divorce had occurred “in God’s sight.”  (3) The woman who departs from her husband has the option of remaining “unmarried” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).  She is considered unmarried.  The term “husband” could be rendered “man,” and the word “her” is supplied. It could be rendered “the man.” (4) God defines adultery.  Kerry Duke has provided this explanation, “The adultery of a betrothed Jew is to be understood in a prospective sense due to the gravity of the betrothal and the solemnity of the future marriage.  But if the concept of adultery was applied prospectively with regards to marriage in the case of a betrothed person in the Old Testament, is it inconceivable that ‘adultery’ is used retrospectively with regard to marriage in the case of a divorced fornicator in Matthew 19:9b? If the unmarried Jew could commit adultery, then it is not absurd to say an unmarried divorced fornicator commits adultery by marrying another person” (Duke, The Remarriage of A Divorced Couple, pp. 45-46).

View Two

Let’s consider the position of those who believe that the partner (in the scenario given before) may not remarry.  They believe that divorce took place.  It took place for reasons other than fornication.  Therefore, neither party has the authority to remarry another (though, there may be reconciliation cf. 1 Corinthians 7:10-11).  There is no such thing as a later mental divorce set forth in scripture.

Here are some common arguments.  (1) The Bible calls it divorce (cf. Matthew 19:9). It is not clearly stated to be merely a civil-law divorce.  (2) The woman who departs from her husband is considered “unmarried” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).  (3) There is no such thing as a later mental divorce, which follows a civil-divorce, clearly set forth in scriptures.  There is certainly no direct statement or example of such. Moreover, it is said that the Bible nowhere clearly teaches two types of divorce.

Those who oppose this view, commonly reply.   (1) They believe that it is implied that not all civil-divorces are recognized by God (cf. Mark 6:17-18; 1 Corinthians 7:10-11).  (2) The woman who departs from her husband is considered “unmarried” in an accommodative sense, or in a civil/legal sense.  However, the man is still referred to in the text as “her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).  (3) It is true that there is no example of one later mentally divorcing his wife, after a civil divorce.  However, why can’t he do so – if in God’s sight the marriage continued after the civil divorce?

I believe that I have fairly summarized the two positions. It is not my intent to misrepresent these positions.

This is a difficult issue, at least for me. I see some strength in the arguments of view one, but have not been convinced beyond doubt.

 What should one do? If one is in a situation, like the one given above, and is trying to decide whether or not he may remarry with God’s approval, caution and serious thought should be given. Eternity may be at stake, not just for you, but also for the one you marry. Are you fully convinced, beyond doubt, that the Bible authorizes you to remarry? (Romans 14:23). I believe that in cases where there is personal doubt, or where the Bible does not speak, in your mind, as clearly on a point as one would like, it is wise to take the safest course. Remember, our relationship with Jesus must come before all human relationships (Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:26).

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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