Even after all this discussion, I don’t think I have all the answers. But let’s review a few examples to see how this approach to the scriptures provides far more consistent, sensible, loving, and gracious results than the traditional view.
Suppose that a husband abandons his wife, leaving no forwarding address, through no fault of the wife. Under the traditional view, unless the wife can prove the husband guilty of fornication, the wife cannot file for divorce and, if she does, she may not remarry. However, under the view presented here, the sinner is the husband who violated the marriage covenant. He put away his wife when he left her. The wife is a victim, not a sinner. If she files for divorce, she is not sinning, because the marriage is already ended. She may remarry, and it’s not sin.
Suppose two people meet and fall in love, marry, and have children. Suppose further that they are later converted to Christ. Finally, suppose that they had each been married and divorced before this marriage. Under the traditional view, the second marriage is adulterous and the couple should divorce as a condition to being saved. Under the view presented here, the first divorce may or may not have been sin, depending on other facts, but the second marriage should not be ended by divorce, for to do so would be sin. Two wrongs don’t make a right. However, the converted couple must repent to be saved, and repentance would include putting behind them whatever sins led to their earlier divorces — perhaps selfishness or ingratitude.
Suppose a wife, contrary to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7, refuses to have sexual relations with her husband, and her husband, after trying all options to change her mind, files papers with the courts and obtains a divorce. Under the traditional view, the husband sins by obtaining a divorce and neither spouse may remarry. Under the view presented here, the wife has substantially violated her marriage covenant, she has put away her husband, and she is the one who is the sinner. The filing of the divorce petition by the husband does not end the marriage — the wife’s refusal to honor her marriage vows already did. He may remarry. She may also remarry, but the church should call her to repentance so that she does not repeat the sin that led to the termination of the first marriage.
Suppose a husband routinely beats his wife. She has attempted to remedy the problem by seeking therapy, but he refuses to participate. The elders, the preacher, and their friends have all tried and failed to change his behavior. In order to preserve her health, if not her life, she files for divorce and the divorce is granted. Under the traditional view, she has sinned by obtaining a divorce on grounds other than fornication and may not remarry. However, the traditionalist would allow her to obtain a legal decree of separation. Under the view urged here, he ended the marriage by his outrageous violations of the marriage covenant. He has sinned in so doing. However, the wife did not sin in obtaining a legal decree of divorce, and she may remarry. He may remarry as well, but his violent behavior is sinful and should be rebuked. At some point, the church may properly disfellowship him for his abusive conduct.
Suppose a wife and husband are in a healthy marriage. The wife grows bored with her domestic life and so files for a legal decree of separation. Her religious beliefs prohibit her from seeking a divorce, but she wishes to obtain alimony while living apart from her husband. Under the traditional view, no divorce has occurred and the husband has no grounds for a divorce so long as she has no adulterous sexual relations. Under the view urged here, she has violated the marriage covenant, not only 1 Corinthians 7’s teachings on sexual fulfillment in marriage but also Paul’s teachings on submission, Moses’ teachings on being united, and Exodus 21:10-11. The legal separation has effectively put her husband away, and the husband would not sin by asking a court to decree the marriage ended. He may remarry. She should be called on to repent of her un-submissive, selfish behavior, but may remarry.
Suppose a married couple divorces by mutual agreement, neither being guilty of fornication. One spouse later remarries. Under the traditional view, the remarried spouse has entered into an adulterous marriage and must either divorce the second spouse or else live in a sexless “marriage.” Because the remarried spouse has now committed fornication in violation of the first marriage, the other spouse is free to treat the first marriage as ended in God’s eyes, and thus may remarry. Under the view urged here, it is likely that both spouses sinned in ending their first marriage (but these things are very hard to judge). However, under Paul’s clear teaching on the subject, either spouse may remarry. On the other hand, either or both spouses likely bring to a second marriage much of the same immaturity or sin that caused the first marriage to fail, and so it is urgent that the church intervenes to counsel the new couple on how to build a Christian marriage that will last.
Suppose that a married man and an unmarried woman decide that they wish to marry. To accomplish this, of course, the married man must divorce his wife, who has been a faithful and entirely innocent wife. The husband and the unmarried woman have had no sexual relations. Under the traditional view, the divorce is not scriptural (that is, not for fornication), and so neither the husband nor the wife may remarry. If the husband nonetheless remarries, his marriage is adulterous. Some (but not all) would agree that upon the second marriage, the first wife is free to remarry, the husband having now become guilty of fornication. The second marriage is not recognized by God, and so the couple should be compelled either to divorce or to live together in a sexless relationship. Under the view urged here, the divorce is, of course, sin. Indeed, it is adultery. Clearly, the first wife is free to remarry. However, not only is the husband guilty of a wrongful divorce, so is his new wife. Both have committed adultery against the first wife, as well as the children, if any. If the husband, after the divorce and before the second wedding, intends to remarry, it would be appropriate for the church to use every effort to compel the husband not to remarry but to return to his first wife. If the church fails, and the husband marries, he and his new wife should be treated as any other members of the church who sin and refuse to repent. However, the first marriage is broken, and the husband and his new wife should not be compelled to sin again by breaking another marriage.
So what would repentance look like in this case? Breaking new vows would hardly be repentance from vow breaking. But recognizing the wrongfulness of their prior conduct and genuinely regretting their prior conduct would be a very good start. Apologizing to the divorced spouse would be a step. Even further down the road would be putting to death the bad attitudes and misconduct that led to the first divorce. Another step would be working very hard to make the second marriage work. I would also add that a penitent heart would be evidenced by not using the divorce as a means for retaliation against the first spouse, fully honoring child support and alimony obligations, and working to be a good parent to the children of the first marriage. Now none of this is a cure for the divorce, but repentance doesn’t require a cure, only doing the best you can with the mess you’ve made of your life — and other people’s lives. And I’d add that going through the motions of doing these things without a true change of heart is not repentance.
 2 Tim. 4:2b comes to mind: “Correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.” So do the passages on disfellowshipping, primarily 1 Cor. 5 and 2 Thess. 3:1-15. I also note the very real danger of a willful sinner becoming so hard-hearted that he can no longer repent. See, for example, 1 Tim. 4:2 (referring to those whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron) and Heb. 6:4-6 (warning that for some it will be impossible to repent). See more on the doctrine of repentance in the author’s The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace. And while it is possible that the couple cannot be brought to repentance, we cannot assume that to be the case and dismiss the couple as beyond salvation.
This conclusion ultimately derives from Luke 17:3-5: “So watch yourselves. ‘If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, “I repent,” forgive him.’ The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!'”