By Dr. Stephen Kim
[Author’s Note: Readers are encouraged to read my paper entitled, Remarriage is Adultery, for a more extensive treatment of the topic of remarriage.]
“You shall not commit adultery.” -God (7th Commandment, Exodus 20:14)
I once had an affluent couple visit my church. After the worship service, they were glowing as they expressed their gratitude to me for the gospel work that I was doing in N.Y.C. The woman was a graceful woman with elegant blonde hair. The man was a quiet but astute observer–a veterinarian by trade. As we began wrapping up our civil small-talk pleasantries, she revealed to me that this was her second marriage, and that her first marriage did not end due to adultery–but instead, it had terminated due to “irreconcilable differences.” Her first marriage just simply, “hadn’t worked out.”
Situations like the aforementioned make pastoral ministry one of the most difficult vocations in the world. Having to tell a couple that’s interested in joining your church that their current “marital” relationship is really an adulterous affair in the eyes of God, is painstakingly difficult. There are few things harder in pastoral ministry than giving people the gracious gospel of Jesus Christ. Why? Because the gracious gospel of Jesus Christ calls first for repentance prior to faith. Faithful pastors, like faithful surgeons, must care for the soul–even at the risk of becoming the recipients of a patient’s short-term wrath.
And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12)
In a previous post, I quite thoroughly explained the four biblical purposes of marriage. I will not, therefore, repeat the material in this article. The purpose of this article is to simply teach, in a very straight-forward manner, on the topic of divorce and remarriage. (I am not going to teach on the issue of unbeliever initiated divorce in this article.)
WHY THE TOPIC IS SO IMPORTANT
As Christians, we often harp about how unrepentant homosexuals will not go to heaven (1 Cor 6:9). It is true that the most loving thing we could do for a homosexual is to warn him of the punishment from God that is coming and direct him to the redemptive message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, sometimes we forget that adulterers are also forbidden from entering heaven–in the very same verse (1 Cor 6:9).
All Christians readily admit that adultery is a heinous sin that a Christian ought not commit. (It is not an “unforgivable” sin, however, and adulterers can receive divine forgiveness through faith in Christ, repentance, and the discontinuance of the practice of adultery (John 8:11).) What many Christians fail to see, however, is the fact that any second marriage–outside of the the first marriage dissolving due to marital infidelity–is adultery. The teaching that claims that a second marriage “starts off as adultery, but is later to be considered a legitimate marriage,” is one of the deadliest errors floating around in our churches today. Why? Because if the Bible is correct, and the person dies while still in that second marriage, then the person dies as an unrepentant practicing adulterer.
My job as a pastor is to faithfully teach you to observe all that Jesus has commanded you (Matt 28:20). Yes, I want to make sure that you gain admittance into heaven. As a skilled surgeon, I want to save your life–even if it causes you some short-term pain. I want your joy and that means I must teach rightly–irrespective of your emotional attachment to a person. You will thank me in eternity for it.
THE VERY WORDS OF CHRIST
The topic of divorce is, in my opinion, one of the clearest teachings of Christ in the entire New Testament. Read the Scripture text above and you can quite easily see why I say that. The text is very straightforward. There’s not much ambiguity there. There’s really not much to explain. It is all quite self-evident. For the sake of pedagogical efficiency , let’s just focus on Matthew 19’s teaching on this topic (other texts containing the same teaching include Luke 16:18, Matt 5:32, and Mark 10:12):
He said to them, “Moses, confronting the callousness of your heart, let you divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” But I say to you, “Whoever divorces his wife apart from adultery and will take another, commits adultery, and whoever will take her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:8-9)
- The word “divorces” used in that text is the Greek word apoluō, which always means “divorce” in contexts concerning marriage. Unlike what some propose, the word does not mean “separate” in any context describing marriage; and furthermore, in this context, the Pharisees (in verse 3) were specifically asking Jesus about divorce–not separation. Hence, it is only logical to believe that Jesus, likewise, is talking about divorce in his response to them. Finally, the remarriage exception given in verse 9 for the case of adultery makes no sense if the word did not mean “divorce.”
- Divorce and remarriage were permitted by the Law of Moses in the Old Testament (Deut 24:1-4). Hence, although divorce was not God’s original design from the beginning (i.e., “What God has joined together, let not man separate”), divorce and remarriage were permissible during the time of the Old Testament (which is why Jesus informs the Samaritan woman at the well that she indeed did have 5 husbands in the past (John 4:18)). However, by the time we get to Matthew 19, Jesus lays down His standard for all future believers: Marriage is for life and divorce (except for sexual immorality) is never permissible. (A woman may keep her distance–for the sake of safety–from an abusive husband, but she must not divorce him.) The man who remarries after his first marriage ended due to “irreconcilable differences,” is an adulterer (and the same goes for a woman).
- An exception is clearly given for the case of adultery. By saying “apart from adultery,” Jesus allows the victim of adultery to divorce and remarry. In that situation, the second marriage is not considered adultery, but rather, is a valid marriage. However, the spouse who committed adultery does not receive the right to remarry. He/she must repent and remain single for the rest of his/her life. Furthermore, although Jesus grants the victim the right to divorce and remarry, it is not mandatory. The victim could choose to forgive the sin and continue on in the marriage.
- “Whoever divorces his wife apart from adultery and will take another, commits adultery.” It is clear that any second marriage (outside of the exception) is not a valid marriage in the eyes of God because Jesus calls it, “adultery.” In the eyes of God, the first marriage is still valid and in full effect. By the way, let’s get this clear: Adultery is always adultery–the passage of time does not change the nature of the sin. The apostle Paul confirms the on-going status of “adulteress” for the woman who persists to live in a second marriage by stating, “Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress” (Rom 7:3).
- The popular ESV Study Bible has the following comment for Matthew 19:9: “And marries another” implies that the second marriage, though it begins with adultery, is still a marriage. Once a second marriage has occurred, it would be further sin to break it up. The second marriage should not be thought of as continually living in adultery, for the man and woman are now married to each other, not to anyone else (ESV Study Bible, Crossway Publishing 2008, page 1861). This explanation for the verse is groundless and irrational for two reasons: 1. If ESV Study Bible means that the second marriage act itself (and not the sex acts that occur afterwards within the second marriage) is adultery, then it is a groundless argument because there effectively is no marriage to honor. It was just identified as adultery–not a valid covenant. 2. If the initial sex act within the second marriage is being identified as adultery, then it is preposterous to claim that it merely “begins with adultery” because repetition does not change the categorization of the act. If the first act of intercourse was categorized as adultery, then it would only make sense that the act is still adultery when it is committed the second, third, or even hundredth time. Again, the repetition of an offense does not change its illegality.
- The words of Christ are as clear as they are inescapable. Christ calls the remarriage adultery and therefore, if left unbroken, the remarriage will always remain adultery. It is best to simply take Jesus at His word. The apostle Paul confirms the words of Christ for us in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 by stating, “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.” Again we see that divorce is forbidden, but if it has occurred, the divorcee must either remain single or reconcile back to his/her spouse in order to prevent adultery through a remarriage to another person. (Take special note of how the Apostle still refers to the woman’s spouse as her “husband”–even after a divorce had taken place.)
HOW IS THIS INSTRUCTIVE IF I AM CURRENTLY SINGLE?
It is instructive because it shows the life-long permanence of marriage in the eyes of the Creator. After your decision for Jesus, marriage is the second most important decision in life. Divorce is not an option for Christian men and women. Therefore, choose wisely.
Refer to these articles for some helpful guidance:
WHAT MUST I DO IF I AM IN A SECOND MARRIAGE?
Repent and leave it. Dissolve the marriage. Cling to Christ.
Yes, I understand, it’s hard–especially with the emotional attachment, but for the sake of your eternal soul, do what’s right. You might have to pay child support for the children produced out of your second “marriage,” but you must dissolve the remarriage. It is sin to remain in it. Jesus clearly said that if you are married to anyone other than your first spouse, then you are committing adultery.
Get a legal divorce from the state in order to be clean with the government concerning the second marriage; but remember, in the eyes of God, it was never a real marriage to begin with (hence, Jesus called it “adultery”). King Herod “married” Herodias, but it was nevertheless “unlawful” in the eyes of God and John called him to dissolve and forsake it. Yes, God hates divorce (Mal 2:16), but remember that because the second marriage was never a real marriage in the eyes of God, therefore, you are not “adding sin upon sin” by breaking up the remarriage. Instead, you are showing genuine fruits of repentance. It is not a sin to end what Jesus called adultery. You are turning from your sin to Christ, forsaking adultery and bearing fruits in “keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:8). To remain in the second “marriage” would be to continually commit unrepentant adultery for the rest of your life. Forgiveness and redemption is available for you if you repent and forsake your sin.
The case is similar to a hypothetical situation in my state of New York. Suppose two gay men were legally “married” in New York. Imagine, that subsequently, they both came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. What must they now do with their current “marriage?” Can they continue in it? Of course not! They must repent, turn to Christ, and immediately forsake the gay marriage. Now, they might have to get a legal “divorce” from the state of New York for civil clerical legal purposes, but all that’s a formality. The gay marriage was never a marriage in the eyes of God to begin with. The same is true for all second marriages in which the first marriage did not end due to marital infidelity.
I do believe that due to the high divorce and remarriage rates with the Church, the clear words of Christ have been wrongly taught by many pastors and teachers (the fear of losing many members dominating their hearts). Please, examine the words of Christ for yourself. I implore you, unlike King Herod*, have the right response to Christ’s teaching.
For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mark 6:17-18)
*Historian Josephus informs us that Philip and Herodias had a divorce (Ant., 18.109-115). Yet, interestingly, John the Baptist still refers to her as “your brother’s wife”–effectively not recognizing the divorce nor the remarriage (even though the Bible uses the word “married” (Gk. ἐγάμησεν) to identify the Herodias’ remarriage to King Herod).
Response to John MacArthur’s Grace To You‘s popular position on remarriage.