Recently, a friend and brother in Christ posted two videos on his Facebook page dealing with the issues of divorce and remarriage. Before I watched the videos—and before he posted them—we disagreed about its conclusions, though I was not in position to continue the discussion—wasn’t prepared and had a sermon to finish. So, when he posted the videos, I watched them and felt a public response is necessary. However, I want to be clear that my response is not personal in regards to the brother who posted them, but I do believe the views espoused by the videos are harmful and incorrect(We had a lengthy conversation before I posted this and were able to establish some common ground regarding marriage and divorce generally, but not on remarriage) . It is for that reason and that reason alone that I chose to respond via my blog.
We live in a world riddled by divorce and brokenness. No one enjoys the experience of divorce. No doubt remarriage adds on additional layers of complication and, in some cases, more layers of brokenness. The videos are here and here. My response follows his main points in the sequence they were presented. The videos are posted by a Joseph Alexander, whom I don’t know.
Alexander begins his presentation by making quick work on the issue of remarriage after divorce. He claims the matter is crystal clear. But it is only clear when isolating verses from their context. This is what he does when he cites 1 Cor. 7:10-11 which reads, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife”(ESV).
Contextually, Paul is addressing various groups in the Corinthian church. He has already said he wished all could be like him (single), but acknowledges this is a gift. Prior to addressing the married, he addresses the widows and the unmarried, and though he would prefer them to stay unmarried, his main concern is to avoid sexual immorality. So, he permits them to marry. This unmarried category likely refers to those whom have been previously married (i.e. divorced), and is thus why they are grouped with the widows.
This significant point is further supported by two more observations. 1. Paul refers to the group that apparently has never been married as the virgins. If the “unmarried” were one and the same as the virgins, then why address them as if they were different groups? 2. This identification is undeniable in the very verse Alexander quotes. In verse 11 the term “unmarried” (Greek, agamos) describes the divorced woman. What does this mean? It means before we ever get to verses 10-11, Paul’s own instructions permit divorced folks to remarry in order to avoid sexual immorality, even if his own preference was that they would be like him—gifted with celibacy.
Paul makes this concession because to demand celibacy for someone not gifted for it is to impose a harsh sentence. In the verses quoted by Alexander, the instruction is to the married. Paul is clearly trying to discourage further divorce. Echoing Jesus’ own teaching, he pastorally teaches that someone should not divorce their spouse and marry another. If Paul, however, meant that the person has undergone a divorce could never marry again in any circumstance, then he contradicts both what he already said and what he will go on to say.
In the next section, Paul addresses what is to happen if an unbeliever divorces (leaves) his or her Christian spouse. In such a situation, Paul says the abandoned spouse is not enslaved (ESV). Surely, this means that a Christian in this situation would be permitted to remarry. The issues confronting the Corinthian church were complex and the issue of remarriage does not seem to be as clear as Alexander claims. One other interpretative consideration comes from v. 26, which places Paul’s instructions in the context of “the present distress.” We don’t know what the present distress was, but, at least some of Paul’s instructions may be related to that present distress. In any case, it is a stretch to say vs. 10-11 express unretractable and unqualified condemnation of remarriage.
Alexander couples this verse with the last part of Matt. 5:32 to close his case on remarriage, “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” So, if you married a divorced woman, then you’ve committed adultery. The Bible says it. That settles it. Period. Except not exactly. Again, context matters.
Here are both verses dealing with divorce from the Sermon on the Mount. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” So, if we are going to take that last line literally, then we have to take the whole passage literally. The person who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. So, she didn’t commit sexual immorality, but she is made an adulterer by him! So, had she actually committed adultery and he had divorced her, then she wouldn’t be an adulterer?!!
You can see the absurdity of forcing a literal interpretation of this passage. So, the woman, who is a victim in this case, is divorced and somehow turned into an adulterer. The man who marries her later is also an adulterer. Do you realize the only person Jesus does not call an adulterer in this passage? Yep, that’s right, the man who caused it all by unjustly divorcing his wife in the first place. This is hyperbole just as much as the prior passages that counsels us to pluck out our eye and cut off our hand to keep us from sinning. Unfortunately, some have taken that passage literally as well.
Hyperbole is used to make a dramatic point. The point here is that the husband who divorces his wife spreads the pain of adultery to everyone (If anyone is the actual adulterer, it is him). He thought that he could avoid the sin of adultery just by handing out a certificate of divorce and Jesus says he just infects more people with his sin.
This text is not some new more legalistic interpretation of the Law of Moses, which permitted divorce. More importantly the Law made provisions for remarriage, protecting women who were vulnerable to whims of more powerful men (cf. Deut. 24 for the law/background). So, if we take Alexander’s approach here, Jesus has overturned the Law of Moses to make it more difficult on divorced women to survive, opening up them to further abuse and exploitation. After all, it isn’t the man who is called the adulterer, but the woman and whomever she remarries. Isn’t the gospel supposed to be good news?
Of course, this isn’t how the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to be interpreted at all. Jesus is calling his disciples to keep not only the letter of the law, but its intended meaning and spirit. Don’t just avoid adultery, but lust as well. Don’t think giving out certificates of divorce protects you from the ramifications of adultery, because it doesn’t. A disciple of Jesus stays married to his wife and fights lust at its root—the heart.
People who insist on a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, run into the problem of literally applying everything that Jesus said. So, a person with a hard view on divorce and remarriage is still walking around with his right hand/eye. They probably still take oaths in a court of law as well (technically forbidden in the next few verses). Jesus isn’t laying down a stricter legal code than the Pharisees; he’s calling his disciples to adhere to God’s intentions behind the written law (cf. Matt. 5:20).
Much of the rest of Alexander’s presentations focuses on proving that divorce is never permitted for a Christian. He makes a rather unique case (at least, unique to me) that the adultery Jesus addresses for the cause of divorce in Matthew 5 is actually fornication in the betrothal period. The word used is porneia, a general word for sexual immorality instead of the more particular word for adultery. I was not persuaded by this argument, because it relies too much on the distinction of one word used over another. Porneia can include all sorts of sexual immorality, including adultery. Furthermore, contextually there is nothing present in Matt. 5 that indicates that Jesus is only talking about the betrothal period—that would be a very narrow focus indeed.
Much of this argument relies on the idea that God doesn’t recognize divorce, so a person is still living in adultery, if married to someone other than their original spouse. But this simply does not square with the biblical data. The allowance for divorce and remarriage in the Law of Moses indicates that both were certainly possible in God’s eyes. Yes, such was not ideal and given “because of the hardness of your hearts,” but it was real nonetheless. It was real in the days of Ezra when he ordered the Israelites to divorce their foreign wives. It certainly seems Jesus recognized subsequent marriages with the Samaritan woman at the well. Divorce is the result of sin and a broken world, but that doesn’t make it less real in our eyes or God’s.
There are other arguments that Alexander makes in regards to other passages on divorce/remarriage from Jesus, but my responses would be similar and this is getting long. I am indebted to Rubel Shelly and his book Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemption Theology for my understanding of these texts. If this issue really troubles you, I recommend you read his book.
I will close by discussing implications of Alexander’s view. You don’t start with implications when searching for the truth, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. If I am working a math problem and I get an answer that is absurd, then I assume I made a mistake on arriving at that conclusion. The implications of Alexander’s view result in a doctrine on divorce and remarriage that is absent of compassion, good news, or good sense.
Someone very close to me was abandoned by her first husband so that he could pursue homosexual relationships. She remarried, raised three kids, has been a faithful Christian, and an elder’s wife. She was a divorced woman, so she and her husband are actually the adulterers according to Alexander. So, was the woman to live her life unmarried or else be reconciled to her original husband? And if she were to come to this conclusion after remarrying, is she to divorce her current husband? That’s what some have taught and it brings us to the complete opposite of Jesus’ teaching, which was intended to curtail divorce.
It may be wise for some divorced people not to remarry, but there is not a clear cut one size fits all law for New Testament Christians regarding this issue. You can see the absurdities we breed when we create such legal handcuffs. If you have a hermeneutic (method of interpretation) that takes you far from the spirit of the Christ and the power of the Good News, then you can be sure your hermeneutic is flawed.
The issue of divorce and remarriage is a messy one by definition. Simple solutions or conclusions are attractive because it gives us a clear rule of law in an otherwise complex matter. Yet, sometimes these solutions create disastrous results and I am convinced that is the case here. And I haven’t even ventured into scenarios involving abuse and danger. Divorce is serious, but is it the only sin that requires a lifelong penance? What is the meaning of the gospel, of redemption, and forgiveness when it comes to divorce and remarriage? What is for sure is that we won’t find out, if we never get beyond a strictly legal reading of the relevant texts.