Who May Marry, Divorce, and Remarry?

Married couple at sunset

The topic of marriage, divorce, and remarriage has been a controversial issue for years. Even during the first century, the “Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?’” (Matthew 19:3).

In this and a subsequent article, we are going to explore this issue. We will do so from two different angles – what the Lord permits and what the Lord requires. In this article, we will be focusing on the permission. Who may marry, divorce, and remarry?

Who May Marry?

To answer this question, we must understand the origin of marriage. The Scriptures are clear that marriage was established by God in the beginning. He created woman to be “a helper suitable” for the man (Genesis 2:18). God presenting Eve to Adam (Genesis 2:21-23) served as the basis for marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This is the standard to which Jesus appealed when questioned about putting away one’s mate (Matthew 19:4-5).

Therefore, since God established marriage, He makes the rules for it. Civil leaders do not have the authority to make rules for marriage. This is beyond the scope of their God-given authority – to punish evildoers and protect the innocent (Romans 13:3-4). No matter what legislation may be enacted, civil government cannot grant a permission that God has not given. For example, civil authorities might permit a man to marry another man and then recognize them as being married; but that does not mean that God joined them in marriage to one another (cf. Matthew 19:6).

According to what Jesus taught, who has permission to marry?

  • Male and female (Matthew 19:4) – Since God’s marriage law specifies a union between a man and a woman, same-sex “marriages” are prohibited.
  • The two shall become one flesh (Matthew 19:5) – Not only must marriage include a man and a woman, it is just for one man and one woman. This means that polygamy is also prohibited.
  • Those who have never been bound by God in marriage – This is not explicitly stated, but it is certainly implied by Jesus’ statements. Jesus condemned remarriages as adultery: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). [We will discuss the exception to this rule against remarriage later.] Paul used the same type of language: “So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man” (Romans 7:3). Why would the sexual relations within this type of marriage be labeled as adultery? It is because a marriage bond still exists. The one who remarried is still bound to the first spouse. The fact that one is bound to someone else is what makes the subsequent marriage wrong. This is important to understand as our society continues to corrupt its definition of marriage. There may be people who have been “married” before (i.e. one was in a same-sex “marriage” but repented of his homosexuality) who would commit no sin by “remarrying” (because they were never bound, there is no adultery). One who has never been joined by God to someone else in marriage has the permission to marry.

It is important to understand that this applies to everyone, whether they believe in God or not. Marriage was not given to the church, but to humanity. Jesus taught that these instructions applied universally (“whoever” – Matthew 19:9), not just to those who claimed to follow Christ.

Who May Divorce?

The Pharisees asked if a man could “divorce his wife for any reason at all” (Matthew 19:3). Many people – both religious and non-religious – believe it is perfectly acceptable to do this. It is common for states to have “no-fault” divorces. The civil authorities just want to record who is married or unmarried; they have no concern over morality or divine permissions.

The general rule that Jesus gave is that no one who is bound in marriage can divorce his/her spouse. Brethren sometimes spend a lot of time focusing on the exception (which Matthew recorded), but notice the rule: “And He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her’” (Mark 10:11). “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18). God expects marriage to be permanent.

Jesus gave just one exception to the “no putting away” rule – “except for immorality [fornication, KJV]” (Matthew 19:9). When one is bound in marriage to someone, if his/her spouse commits fornication, then he/she may put away the guilty fornicator, remarry, and not commit adultery.

It is important to note that this is a permission, not a requirement. One may choose not to put away his/her fornicator mate. Depending on the circumstances, there may be many reasons why this might be preferable (i.e. well-being of the kids, spiritual well-being of the guilty spouse, etc.). Yet we must recognize the permission given by Jesus – one may put away his/her mate for fornication.

Who May Remarry?

This question is about those who have previously been bound to someone else in marriage [we discussed those who were married but never bound earlier]. When we understand what the Bible teaches about marriage and divorce, the answer to this question is pretty straightforward.

Who may remarry after having been previously bound to another mate?

  • One whose spouse dies may remarry – When God instituted marriage, He intended it to be for life: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6). However, when one’s spouse dies, he/she is then free to remarry. Paul made this clear in his letter to the saints in Rome: “For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband” (Romans 7:2). When one’s spouse dies, the marriage bond by which God joined the couple to one another is no longer in place. The surviving spouse “is released” from that bond.
  • One who puts away his/her spouse for fornication may remarry – Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). As we already noticed, the general rule is that it is wrong to put away one’s spouse for any cause and remarry. The exception to that rule is when one’s spouse commits fornication. In that case, the Lord’s rule is that one may put away the guilty fornicator and remarry without committing adultery. As we noticed, this is the only permission given by the Lord for one to remarry while the mate to whom he/she was bound is still living.

Remarriage in these two instances is a permission, not a requirement. In some cases, it might be better to remain unmarried (cf. Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:26-28). Yet the permission to remarry exists for those whose spouse has died and for those who put away for fornication the one to whom they are bound.

Conclusion

Marriage is a great blessing from God, but we must respect His rules concerning it. Marriage, divorce, and remarriage are serious matters. We must be sure that whatever action we take is approved by God.


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