The struggle to understand the Bible’s teachings on divorce and remarriage is not unique to the Churches of Christ. Indeed, it is easy to find literature from all denominations dealing with the same issues and making most of the same arguments found in Church of Christ literature.
Thus, the “traditional” view is not only the view traditional in the Churches of Christ, it is also the view traditional in Roman Catholicism and most Protestant denominations. The traditional view is so pervasive that it has even affected the law of most Western nations and even our language and vocabulary.
The traditional view is based on the King James Version translation of certain sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. In particular, most teaching is based on the following two passages in Matthew:
(Matt. 5:31-32) It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
(Matt. 19:3-9) The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
Now let’s start with Matthew 5:31-32. This is part of the Sermon on the Mount. As translated, Jesus declares that if a husband divorces his wife, he causes her to be an adulteress and also makes her second husband an adulterer. He makes an exception for fornication by the wife, however.
In Matthew 19 Jesus addresses the husband’s situation. If he divorces his wife, except for fornication, and marries another, he commits adultery. In the King James Versions, Jesus repeats the declaration of Matthew 5:32 that whoever marries the divorced woman also commits adultery. However, this declaration is not found in the oldest Greek manuscripts and was certainly not written by Matthew. Therefore, few later translations include the second clause. This is important because in Matthew 5, Jesus says the husband “causes” the wife to commit adultery, but as wrongly translated in the KJV, Matthew 19 just says she’s an adulterer. As we’ll see, this is likely one major cause for our misinterpretation of this passage.
Traditionally, these passages have been interpreted thusly:
1. Any divorce not based on fornication is an “unscriptural” divorce. In God’s eyes, such a divorce never took place at all. The couple is still married in God’s eyes, so that a second marriage is actually not a marriage at all. Thus, sexual relations in the second marriage are a sin against the still-existing first marriage and therefore adultery. In other words, the traditional view is that, other than for fornication, a couple cannot actually divorce.
2. In the case of fornication, there is a “guilty” and an “innocent” spouse. Most concede that that the guilty party cannot remarry. Matthew 19:9 certainly seems to imply this result. Christians have disagreed as to whether the innocent spouse may remarry. Most believe that the innocent spouse is free to remarry. However, some have disagreed, relying on other Gospel passages where Jesus does not mention an exception for fornication (Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18). And some have contended that there never really is an innocent spouse, so that neither spouse is permitted to remarry.
While the majority view appears to be that in the case of fornication the innocent spouse may remarry, this creates the odd notion that the guilty party is still married to the innocent spouse (and so can’t remarry) but the innocent party is not married to the guilty one!
3. The even more troubling question is the fate of the spouse divorced in an “unscriptural” divorce, that is, a divorce not for fornication. Suppose a husband abandons the marriage, obtains a divorce, and never remarries or commits fornication. May his innocent spouse remarry? Some say yes, but the majority view is no, based on the evidently plain statements in Matthew 5:31-32 that seems to prohibit marriage by the wrongly divorced wife where fornication is not involved.
Now this seems very unfair to anyone not brought up on this teaching. After all, if a wife is wrongly abandoned by her husband, why shouldn’t she be allowed to remarry? The rationale for this is usually given by this chart:
The argument is that a marriage is a covenant between a man, a woman, and God. While a husband and wife might attempt to end the marriage by breaking the bond between each other, the marriage bond with God is unbreakable except for fornication. Thus, an unscriptural divorce, that is, a divorce not based on fornication, is no divorce at all. The couple is still really married in God’s eyes, regardless of how they or the government perceives the marriage. This makes sex with anyone, even a second spouse, adultery.
The next phase of the argument is that in the case of fornication (let’s say by the husband), God releases the wife-the innocent party-from the marriage bond but not the husband:
And so the husband is still subject to the marriage covenant, having been guilty, while the wife is not — giving the somewhat incongruous result that in God’s eyes, the husband is married but the wife isn’t!
In the next post, we’ll consider some of the questions this position creates.