The traditional view has raised a number of troubling issues over the years. And as divorce has become increasingly common over the last 40 years or so, these troubling issues have become commonplace for churches everywhere.
a. What about a couple unscripturally divorced and remarried prior to conversion? Does baptism cleanse the former sin and allow them to remain married? Christians have disagreed, but it has often been taught that no one can be saved without repentance (undeniably true!), repentance requires a change away from former sin (such as adultery), and so the divorced and remarried couple must divorce one another — putting their wrongful marriage behind them — to be eligible for baptism. Of course, the problem with this view is that we have preachers and elders telling couples to divorce to please God — often when they have children at home — causing unspeakable pain and harm: the very pain and harm that Christ’s teaching against divorce is supposed to prevent!
b. Some have taught that, rather than divorcing, such a couple may live together so long as they do so without sexual relations. And yet, as we’ll see, this seems to contradict Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 — that husbands and wives may not deny one another sexual privileges — not to mention being the occasion of much temptation and sin. I mean, while I know of cases where this has been done, how many couples have been driven out of the church by such teaching? Or have lived together and engaged in what they have been taught to be wrong? As Jesus (Matt. 19:11-12) and Paul (1 Cor. 7:7) both teach, not everyone has the gift to live a celibate life!
c. And how should we treat our church members who have divorced? The majority view would be that divorce is wrong (unless scriptural, that is, for fornication) but forgivable. However, many churches have, for reasons not clearly articulated, treated divorced members as second-class members — not “in good standing” — and denied such members the privilege of teaching class, attending the Lord’s Table, or preaching. Indeed, if a preacher’s wife leaves him and can’t be shown to have been a fornicator, the preacher’s career is over, no matter how innocent he may have been. In some cases, even where the wife was unfaithful, the preacher has become a pariah on just the notion held by some that there really never is an innocent party.
d. While divorce has been viewed as semi-forgivable sin, remarriage after an unscriptural divorce is viewed as unforgivable. The problem is that under the logic of the triangle drawn above, the second marriage is no marriage at all, but is cohabitation in violation of the first marriage, and adultery is committed every time the couple have sexual relations. Because adultery is committed more or less continually, forgiveness is unavailable. The only path to forgiveness is repentance, which means divorcing the second spouse — regardless of the impact on the children. Not surprisingly, remarried couples generally leave a church that takes this position and find a more indulgent denomination or else leave Christianity altogether.
It has been said that it would be better to kill your wife than to divorce her, since having killed her, you could obtain forgiveness and remarry! Just divorcing her leaves no path available for a second marriage.
e. Elderships sometimes have to face other daunting questions under this view. For example, suppose a woman’s husband abandons her, leaving no forwarding address. May she presume that he has had sexual relations with another woman, allowing the former wife to remarry, or must she seek proof before remarrying? And how much proof is needed? Indeed, a former husband is often very vindictive, and knowing his wife’s views on remarriage, may go out of his way to deny her the ability to remarry by keeping his sexual conduct secret!
f. What if under state law a husband who has abandoned his wife is presumed dead? May the wife remarry? What if it later turns out that he is alive and not guilty of fornication? Is she thus a bigamist? Must she divorce her second husband?
g. And does fornication after the divorce retroactively render the divorce scriptural? Suppose a husband divorces his wife when no fornication has occurred. This is an unscriptural divorce. Suppose the husband remarries. Has he now committed fornication, freeing the first wife to remarry? This would have a certain logic, but it would mean that after an unscriptural divorce, the first spouse to remarry is a sinner and the second spouse to remarry is not. There is logic here, but no justice — much less mercy.
h. And what about a post-divorce death? Following an unscriptural divorce, one former spouse dies. Is the surviving spouse now free to remarry? Most would say yes, but Jesus’ sayings don’t explicitly make this an exception. For those who see the prohibition on second marriage as a penalty for sin, death is no justification, and so some don’t see an exception.
i. Suppose a husband routinely beats his wife. She is as patient and loving as can be, but he is a wife beater. Preachers, elders, counselors, police, and the courts can get him to stop. She moves out to avoid permanent injury or death. May she divorce her husband? And if so, may she remarry? Under the traditional teaching, she may not divorce him and if she does, she may not remarry. However, she may live separately from him and even have the courts grant a legal separation. She may even get a restraining order to compel him to always stay 500 feet away from her. But is this really God’s model for marriage? In what sense is she is his wife — or should she be? How can she relieved of her scriptural duty to submit (Eph. 5:21 ff) and to make her body available to him (1 Cor. 7:1 ff) and not be relieved of the marriage?
j. Suppose a couple is converted and baptized, based on genuine faith and repentance. Some time later the elders learn that one of the spouses was earlier divorced and remarried. The couple now have three children at home. Do they require them to divorce? To live without sexual relations? Or do they treat the baptism as having cleansed their marriage?
k. One of the more sad results of all this is the number of church splits triggered by disagreements on how to deal with remarried couples. Suppose an eldership admits into membership a couple divorced and remarried before baptism. The elders believe that baptism cleansed the relationship (or at least that we shouldn’t judge such things), but many members consider them plainly living in adultery. It has been common practice in some parts of the country for such members to feel compelled to leave the church rather than be guilty of “condoning” the adultery by remaining members of the same church as adulterers.
 Matt. 12:7: “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Unless otherwise indicated, scriptures are quoted from the New International Version.