Jesus and Divorce (and Remarriage)

It has been said, whoever puts away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement but I say unto you, that whoever puts away his wife except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery and whoever marries her that is divorced commits adultery. This teaching of Jesus, from the Sermon on the Mount, is certainly not a popular teaching in today’s world. Nearly every Christian book shop has a shelf full of books which attempt, in various ways to twist this teaching of Jesus to make it mean just the opposite of what it clearly says. Divorce and remarriage are so widespread today that many churches would have very few members left if they kicked out all those who are divorced and re-married from their congregations. Even in churches where members of the congregation rant constantly against homosexuals fornication amongst heterosexuals gets very soft treatment. And couples who’ve been divorced and re-married are welcomed with open arms on all levels including some very high positions in the religious hierarchy. Now, to be honest, I don’t know whether God might make a few exceptions but the problem is that everyone wants to make themselves the exception. Even those who might be candidates for special consideration refuse to settle for that. I’ve asked re-married divorcees if they would be prepared to at least teach that what they did was wrong…to teach other younger people that they should not follow that bad example. And so far, in my 45 years of ministry, not one re-married couple that I have met has been willing to do that. They all want to have it stated clearly and strongly that what they did–divorced and re-married–is just fine. “A loving God would never require anyone to stay celibate if they had the opportunity to have a sex partner “…well, anyone except a homosexual. “We heterosexuals can claim all the freedoms and all the grace we like “but God help anyone who suggests that similar leniency should be shown toward a gay couple.” Now, just for the record, I’m not advocating either abuse of our liberty in Christ. I think gay sex and re-marriage are both equally contrary to the Bible even though Jesus only taught personally against re-marriage. The bottom line is that God makes the rules, and it is our job as followers of God to teach the rules as he has presented them! Here in his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that there is only one excuse for divorce. He further teaches that there is no excuse for re-marrying after one has been divorced. Either you make the best of your one and only marriage, or you remain celibate…that’s the rule. Now, for the sake of unity, and for every chance of success in that first marriage even fornication can be forgiven, if a couple is willing to keep on trying to make the marriage work. But if it proves to be too much, and if they end up divorcing over it there is no way that divorce–on the grounds of fornication–opens the door for you to start all over again with another sex partner. There have been many arguments given to justify re-marriage but by far the most popular one comes from the passage in Matthew 5 itself…the one I just quoted. It is the phrase “except for fornication”. Some will shout it over and over again as if repetition and volume alone will make it say something which it clearly does not say. They want us to believe that if their partner commits fornication, it automatically frees them to re-marry. But if you look at the verse very closely, you see that the phrase “except for fornication” does, in fact, allow for divorce. Certainly, if your spouse chose to live openly with another person, it would become virtually impossible to continue with such a three-way relationship; separation is the only way out. However, in the case of an affair, for which the other partner asks forgiveness and for which there seems to be genuine repentance, there is nothing stopping a spouse from forgiving the fornication and resuming the marriage. And this is far more likely to happen if both parties understand that in the eyes of God, they have not been given a free pass to go out and marry someone else just because the other party committed adultery. Much is made of the so called “innocent party argument”…it goes like this. If your spouse commits adultery and you do not then as the so called “innocent party”, you’re free to divorce him or her and start over again. If “except for fornication” allows for divorce, this argument says it must also allow for re-marriage. But look again at what Jesus has said. He starts with an example that involves not just one innocent party, but with two innocent parties. Check it out. Assuming that no fornication has occurred, the rule goes like this. Whosoever puts away his innocent wife causes her to commit adultery and whosoever marries the innocent wife also commits adultery. Why? Because innocent or not, she is not available for re-marriage. When the exception is added, it only clarifies that you cannot be personally blamed for your wife committing adultery, because she had already done that on her own…before the divorce. Yes, certainly the guilty party is guilty of adultery if they re-marry but that’s not what Jesus was talking about, since with or without re-marriage, the guilty party is still guilty. It’s the so-called innocent party that Jesus is talking about. Let’s just go over it once more. Whoever divorces his innocent wife contributes to her committing adultery. How does he do it? Because he puts pressure in her to re-marry and of course the person who marries her does the same thing; he commits adultery by marrying her when she has already been married once. All of this is about a wife who has not committed fornication. But whoever divorces an adulterous wife does not cause her to commit adultery. She’s already done that all on her own. And having done so, it can pretty well be expected she’ll continue to do so. It’s just that her misbehaviour is not on your hands. Do you see that? So, the real point Jesus is making is that it is wrong for an innocent wife to re-marry. And it is wrong to marry an innocent wife. The same would of course be true of a supposedly innocent husband. Well, really, it’s wrong in all cases. But the one who does the divorcing becomes party to the crime if he or she does not have scriptural grounds for divorcing. That’s the rule as God has made it. “Except for fornication” has no bearing on remarriage. It only has limited bearing on divorce. It can be used to allow divorce, but it does not require divorce. “What God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6). And this includes those pastors who tell the members of their flock that they can re-marry for any number of reasons. Many of the excuses invented by pastors around the world do not even relate to fornication. Some say that if you only lived together and you raised children, but you didn’t formalize the marriage you are free to toss it out and start over. Others say that if you were married before you became a Christian, or before you joined their church you’re free to toss it out and start over. Well, heck, most of them these days just say that if you want to toss it out and start over, go ahead and do it toss them out and start over; it’s entirely up to you. Why worry about what God thinks when we don’t worry about what he says in any other area of our lives? We are, indeed, living in an adulterous and sinful generation. Everywhere I look, pastors are not willing to take a stand for the truth in the area of sex just as they are not willing to take a stand for the truth in everything else that Jesus taught. Now, am I saying that a man and woman who have lived together for many years and even raised children together should end the relationship simply because one or the other was married to someone else previously? Well, to be honest, I’m not saying anything. Jesus is the one talking here, and he says that if you’re married now, and you have been married before or if you’re married to someone now who has been married before, you are committing adultery. You can read it for yourself; it’s right there in the Bible…in the four gospels, in the Sermon on the Mount. And it is repeated over and over throughout the four gospels. If you divorce your wife, you cause her to commit adultery. And if you marry someone who is divorced, you are committing adultery by doing so. I had one guy who wrote to me over and over saying “What can I do?! I’m heading for hell! God has put me in an impossible situation! There’s no way out! “Woe is me!” I kept writing back and saying, “No! I don’t think it’s as impossible as you’re saying it is. “What would anyone else do if they discovered that something they’re doing in sinful? “Anyone who really wanted to obey Jesus…what would they do?” He would write back, “But there is nothing I can do! “I’m already married to her. I’m guilty of adultery. I’m going to hell and there’s no hope for me.” The correspondence went on and on until eventually it came out that someone had told him that remarriage is an all or nothing thing. It’s not engaging in sex which amounts to adultery; it is the fact that you remarried. Every day of your life, you will be guilty of adultery until the day you die. Nothing you can ever do will erase the fact that you remarried. What has been done is irreversible. I don’t know who came up with that one, but I really do have to give them extra points for originality. Seriously, this guy was crying “foul” against God because of something which his pastor had told him. But of course his pastor had told him that so that he could just stop listening to me and stop listening to other people like me or more precisely, so that he could stop listening to such a supposedly unfair God and go back to committing adultery with his wife as often as he liked. Well, I wonder, what are the chances of him sneaking that one by God on judgement day? It’s like a prostitute saying that she signed a contract with the pimp that promotes her so she’s obligated to continue prostituting herself until the contract expires. It’s straining at an obvious gnat which is to break the contract and face whatever consequences come with it and at the same time, swallowing a camel (fornication day after day for the rest of her life) because she signed a contract. Well, throw out the damn contract! You remarried divorcees know what the solution is, don’t you? And until you do it, I’m afraid I cannot justify what you’re doing. I see nothing wrong with you loving the husband or wife who’s not really your husband or wife but I do see something wrong with arguing that you need and deserve to have sex on demand for the rest of your life, whether or not it is consistent with God’s holy law. If you seriously think it’s impossible to remain celibate, please watch my video on masturbation. But celibacy is what Jesus prescribes. Before I finish, however, I want to look at another story from the gospels, so that we can get the bigger picture. A woman was dragged before Jesus for having committed adultery. She had been caught in the very act. Isn’t it interesting that the man with whom she had committed adultery was not brought before Jesus? So obviously there was some corruption going on behind the scenes somewhere to begin with. Nevertheless, after being reminded that the Old Testament law required that the woman be stoned to death Jesus says to the religious leaders, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. I don’t think this comment from Jesus should be used to justify adultery divorce and remarriage, or even gay sex. But it does give us a very powerful lesson about how we should approach sex sins in general. We humans tend to be most harsh on people who commit sins that we personally are least inclined to do. It explains the insane hatred that so many Christians have about gay sex. Indeed, it helps to explain our obsession with gay sex at all. “I’m not attracted to other men, so why should anyone else be allowed to have such thoughts?” And that’s when Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. He wants us to look at more than just the particular sin that we’re targeting. Remarried divorcees can get quite self-righteous toward gays. And people who look at pornography can get quite self-righteous toward remarried divorcees. In fact, people who have no interest in sex at all, but who have a terrible problem with greed or pride or laziness can get quite self-righteous toward all kinds of sex sins. Do you see how it works? We judge others most harshly for those sins which we feel least inclined to commit. I do think that the only way the church is going to be ready for the return of Jesus is that all of these adulterous marriages need to be done away with. We need to do it in love…love for the children who have been born into such marriages but also love for the couple themselves. We need to surround them with a community of loving brothers and sisters who will give them both support in whatever genuine, Christian, brotherly/sisterly love they have for one another. Just think of how powerful it would be to have a church full of people who put obedience to God even before their marriage but who work together with their former partners to build the kingdom of heaven. And that includes people like myself who are legitimately married but to whom Jesus has said that he must still come first before our husbands, before our wives, before our children, siblings, and parents. Can we unite together like that? Even gays can be embraced in such love as we all seek to get things sorted out between us and God learning what it truly means to put him first. Just think about it, and the power it can unleash for the kingdom of God. And then contact me if you’re like to be part of such a community. I look forward to hearing from you today. Thank you.

Michael Martin

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