Barna Research reports that the divorce rate of those who call themselves evangelical Christians is now identical to the world's. At the same time, legalistic extremes on the subject are gaining popularity among many fundamentalist believers.
In this article, I will consider the true Christian standards concerning divorce and remarriage as enunciated primarily by Jesus. Although Jesus' statements on the subject are terse in the extreme and usually misunderstood, I believe that, as we carefully explain what He did and did not teach, we will see that God's law on marriage and divorce is clear and simple.
I will also refute particularly legalistic and oppressive views on remarriage espoused by popular Calvinist Bible teacher and author John Piper. Piper, an author of many books including the famous Desiring God, is a leading authority for Christians seeking deeper spirituality. His position paper on divorce and remarriage may be found on the Internet under the title "Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper," click here.
Here are Piper's two primary errors. He believes:
- That marriage is so sacred that adultery cannot dissolve it, only death. Thus, the innocent spouse from an adulterous marriage remains one flesh with the adulterous partner until death.
- That the innocent spouse from an adulterous marriage, even after divorce, commits adultery if he or she remarries.
What is Jesus' response to Piper's claim that adultery does not dissolve marriage? In Matthew 19:9 He says: "Whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery." "Porneia" is Greek for "fornication" in this verse. Thayer's Lexicon defines it as "fornication" and "illicit sexual intercourse in general." Jesus does not say it is sin to separate/divorce as long as both partners remain single. In fact, to remove one's self from financial and legal obligations to one's estranged spouse, even a Christian may have to go through divorce court. Nevertheless, He is saying remarriage by one partner is adultery. The man and his original wife are still one flesh in God's eyes.
Regardless of a divorce court's decree, the bond of marriage continues unless there is sexual union by one of the partners with another individual (adultery). Incompatibility, spiritual backsliding, mental or physical abuse, lack of sexual satisfaction, pornography addictions, etc. by a partner do not free one to remarry.
Yet Jesus could not be more clear that "fornication," i.e., sexual immorality, is grounds for dissolution of the marriage bond. If adultery or any illicit sexual immorality has occurred, that bond no longer exists. If there is sincere repentance before God, the innocent spouse can forgive the guilty partner and the marriage be reaffirmed. Or the innocent spouse is free to remarry, only in the Lord. Clearly, Christ refutes Piper's claim that adultery does not dissolve the marriage bond.
How does Piper attempt to evade Christ's "fornication" exemption? He admits that "porneia" includes every kind of illicit sex, such as fornication and incest and, of course, adultery. Yet he says that because he has established so thoroughly from Scripture that adultery cannot sunder marital union, it cannot mean that adultery does so here. Instead, he speculates that Matthew inserted "porneia" in this passage with the limited purpose of justifying Joseph's decision to divorce Mary for her evident "porneia." Rejecting Christ's clear statement that illicit sex of any kind sunders marriage, he says "porneia" in this context had a localized application in Jewish antiquity, upholding the right of a betrothed husband to end betrothal (which was held in almost-marriage esteem) if fornication was discovered to have been committed by his betrothed. At this pivotal juncture, Piper makes Christ's clear law of what destroys a marriage of no effect.
Piper goes on to create more error. His second claim is that, since adultery does not sunder the union, the innocent victim in an adulterous marriage also commits adultery if he or she remarries. He says Jesus teaches this in Luke 16:18: "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery."
Let's carefully consider what is and is not being said in the two parts of this verse. The first half says that a husband who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery since he was still one flesh in God's eyes with his first wife.
The second half describes a different couple. No mention is made of an adulterous husband. Instead, Jesus simply describes a divorced woman, still one flesh with her husband, remarrying. Jesus says that the man who marries her (and she, by implication) commits adultery.
Piper goes astray by innocently presuming, as have Christians from the beginning, that the second half of this pivotal verse describes identical individuals as the first. In the second half, Jesus is not describing a situation in which a divorced husband has committed adultery by remarriage, as He was in the first. Nor is he saying the innocent spouse of the one who has committed adultery will, along with a new spouse, be adulterous if they remarry. As we have seen, adultery, either through the physical act while married, or through remarriage after divorce, shatters holy matrimony.
We cannot argue that it seems like the terms of Christ's second statement flow from the first and therefore are the same. The conjunction "and" connecting them signifies nothing in this issue. It is wrong, then, to read the second half as if its terms are identical to the first. Such presumption lays down false premises leading to oppressive and legalistic conclusions.
This is crucially important because if one forgets that in the second part Christ has not specified a divorced woman whose husband has committed adultery then, like Piper, you will become confused. You will believe the innocent spouse is guilty of adultery if she remarries, i.e., that her husband's adultery does not free her from her marriage vows. In reality, Jesus' ethics state his adultery dissolves their union, completely freeing her to seek another marriage partner.
In formal logic, the philosophy student is taught that a conclusion cannot go beyond the terms included in the premises. The terms of Christ's first statement in Matt.19:9 are these:
The terms of Christ's second statement are these:
- A man has divorced his wife.
- He has committed adultery by remarrying.
- A woman is divorced from her husband.
- A man who marries her commits adultery.
Missing in Christ's second statement is mention of adultery by the divorced woman's former spouse. This is clearly a different situation. Unless there has been adultery by one's spouse, remarriage is adultery for either a man or a woman.
Yet, Piper presumes that Christ's statements describe the same couple. As a result, he concludes that adultery does not sunder the marriage vow. This leads to a most perverse and oppressive decree: The innocent partner from an adulterous marriage commits adultery if he or she remarries. This sentences the innocent partner to a life of celibacy, a punishment completely undeserved.
Piper insists this is God's law. His interpretation, however, makes the innocent suffer for a lifetime because of the sin of another, which is foreign to Biblical ethics. God's justice and equity say every person shall be punished for their own sin.
Piper asserts that Paul teaches that a woman may not divorce an adulterous spouse and remarry without sin (Rom. 7:1-3 and I Cor. 7:10, 11, 27, 28, 39). "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married, only in the Lord."
Yet it should go without saying that Paul accepts Christ's dictum that sexual immorality frees the innocent spouse to divorce and remarry. This is reflected in Paul's exhortation: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" (I Cor. 6:14 ) (Surely, being one flesh with an adulterer is unequal yoking!)
There can be little doubt about Paul's attitude toward remaining one flesh with an adulterous spouse: "Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you …" (II Cor. 6:17)
Paul always teaches God's conditional requirement of remaining one flesh with an earthly partner, or one flesh with Christ as His spiritual bride. Both physical and spiritual adultery are moral choices against God's law. As a result, not just physical death frees a spouse to remarry but also the moral death that occurs when a spouse commits adultery.
Such conditionality pervades Biblical ethics. It requires sinners to repent to get into heaven or a nation of Jews to be obedient to God to legitimately occupy Palestine. It also requires marital fidelity for a man and a woman to be one.
In Matt.5:32 Jesus says: "Whosever shall put away his wife, except for the case of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."
Since no mention is made here of adultery on the part of the husband but, rather, his divorce of the wife, how can his action have caused her to commit adultery? I believe what Jesus is saying is that the cruelty of his utter separation of her from his nurture and protection sets her adrift, powerfully causing her to seek such sustenance from another man, thus committing adultery. While the "hardness" of his heart is not described as sin, Jesus says it is the powerful causative force behind her actual decline into adultery through remarriage. Christ cannot mean that the man's hardness in divorcing her actually makes her into an adulteress without her moral choice.
Piper refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where an innocent woman is divorced by an evidently nonadulterous husband, and she, remarrying, is "defiled." He presents this, illogically, as strengthening his case that such a woman today, victim of divorce by an adulterous husband, is also "defiled," committing adultery if she remarries. True, every breakup of a marriage in the Old Testament or New is a "defiling" of a sacred relationship God has authorized. He hates divorce. Yet Jesus is clear that an innocent spouse is not morally "defiled" by divorcing an unfaithful mate and remarrying.
Piper's thesis, regardless of his motives, creates oppression similar to that of the Pharisees. They exalted the Sabbath to such a degree that innocent people were encumbered by its legalistic requirements (Luke 11.46). Piper similarly exalts marriage to supreme and even oppressive importance. Yes, the marriage vow is sacred. It is a pattern to us of the marriage of Christ to His Church. But marriage, like Jesus said of the Mosaic law, was made for man, not man for marriage. Piper, however, makes the institution of marriage into a cruel taskmaster which sentences an innocent victim of an adulterous spouse to a life of celibacy and hardship. This is ethical confusion.
Paul contradicts this mentality, saying it is for liberty that Christ has redeemed us. The view that an innocent victim of an adulterous marriage commits adultery by remarrying makes God's supposed "law" on marriage unjust and punishing. Contrary to upholding His credibility and drawing people to His reasonableness, it portrays the opposite: His "law" becomes so illogical, offensive and virtually unworkable that our humanity cannot bear it. The innocent spouse, unable to endure the restraints of celibacy, as Christ predicted, will undoubtedly also be "caused" to remarry. But worse, forced to violate the artificial conscience this legalism imposes, such a spouse could well abandon "religion" and live according to human need. This is exactly what Paul said would happen to the consciences of weak Christians who saw stronger Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols. Confused, yet tempted to also eat such meat, they began to act and eat by sight, not faith. As such, he says, they ended up damning their souls (I Cor. 8:9-10).
Should the Divorced and Remarried Separate?
There is among Christians a second legalistic extreme, of which Piper does not approve, which must be set right. In this scenario, one or both partners in a marriage has been divorced for reasons of incompatibility. They have married another, committing adultery. They then become so convicted of the wrong they have done that they forsake their new marriage partner and no longer live together. Since their second marriage was an adulterous one, they presume it remains so.
Yet God does not encourage social wreckage by commanding such remarried spouses (possibly now with children) to separate. Their previous marriage has been dissolved by the adultery of remarriage. Their present wedding vows are honored by God. This compels them to do their best to go forward, repentant and trusting Christ.
This, of course, doesn't justify remarriage for those who have separated or have legally divorced for reasons less than adultery. They cannot contemplate remarriage. They have not sinned by separation but would by remarrying.
Far from upholding God's law concerning the sanctity and inviolability of remarriage, Piper defiles it by teaching that adultery may exist within marriage, with no threat to the unity of the "one-flesh" relationship. By such allowance, yet condemning as adulterers innocent spouses who accept Christ's "fornication" clause and begin new marriages, like the Pharisees, Piper calls being yoked to an adulterer "God's law" and what is lawful and good an abomination.
Yet, as a Baptist pastor and Calvinist, Piper's ethics only reflect the Calvinist conviction that it is to be expected that righteousness and sin coexist in the believer (as "proven" by Romans 7). According to Calvinism, Christ understands this duality and, while not providing for actual removal of the sin impulse through His death on the cross, "covers" it, "imputing righteousness" to "sinning saints" who are far from being actually obedient to God.
To the Calvinist, then, it is normal for sin to exist in the believer's life, as Christ's blood, like a crimson blanket covering a garbage dump, "hides" the Christian's ongoing sin from the view of the Father. With this mentality, Piper is attracted to an interpretation of Christ's statement about marriage that exempts adultery from severing the marriage bond.
Calvinism, despite its emphasis upon "the perseverance of the saints," thus gives the impression to millions that, for the truly born again, salvation is not conditional upon continued daily trust in Jesus and obedience. Reflecting this attitude, Piper asserts that being one flesh in marriage is also not conditional upon sexual faithfulness to one's partner.
Piper's thesis is not a return to authentic Christian ethics but its opposite, antinomianism -- spiritual lawlessness. By rejecting Christ's lawful terms for dissolution of a marriage as a result of illicit sex of any kind and instead giving adultery immunity from destroying the "one-flesh" union, he allows the vilest evil to find sanctuary in the most sacred human relationship.
God's law says the opposite: The bond of marriage is a unity meant to create life and is an accurate portrayal of Christ's holy relationship to His bride, the Church. Can you imagine Christ saying that spiritual adultery cannot jeopardize the "one-flesh" spiritual relationship between Him and His Church? It is unthinkable, but not for Calvinists. That's what countless "eternally secure" Calvinists are counting on: Nothing shall separate them from the love of God -- even sin. But there is one thing of which God has tried to convince humanity from the beginning: Sin, rebellion to the known will of God, does destroy our relationship with Him. "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23).
In "Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper," we see how far Piper has drifted from Biblical ethics. It was first published 26 years ago. During that time this very popular Calvinist theologian, largely out of misguided sincerity, has doubtless brought hardship and deprivation on many struggling believers who are innocent victims of an adulterous spouse, yet uncritically accept his "remarriage is adultery" edict.
Please join us at Truthtellers' Biblical Answers page and listen as I read this article, followed by a lively discussion. Click Here to Listen to Bible Study: What Christ Really Taught About Divorce and Remarriage (13 Aug 12)
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