What the Bible Says about
Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

John Coblentz

If an unscriptural relationship is terminated
and one party never has had a legitimate marriage,
is that person free to marry?

Pages 72 - 77

This question and the next one are very difficult questions to face. Situations can vary considerably. And no matter how thorough or meticulous we are in defining a valid marriage, new situations have a way of adding a twist we had not considered and must weigh carefully. In applying Scriptural principles to these situations, Christians have not always arrived at the same conclusions. When we face these questions in actual experience, therefore, we do best to draw from the wisdom of a spiritual brotherhood, rather than trusting personal conclusions alone. All that we do must be to the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31). All we do must have the effect of edification in the brotherhood (Romans 15:2). All we do must be above reproach before a watching world (I Peter 2:12).

Before we look at the above question directly, we should review Jesus' definition of marriage and adultery. In God's sight when a single man marries a single woman, they are bound in marriage for life. Any relationship with any third partner while the two live is adultery and calls for repentance and a return to fidelity.

This was not so under Moses. Both divorce and remarriage were permitted, and a remarriage was considered a binding marriage (see Deuteronomy 24:2). Under the New Testament, however, Jesus said, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery" (Mark 10:11, 12). The second couple now, according to Jesus, has not formed a legitimate marriage bond but an adulterous union.

Suppose, for illustration, Joe, a single man, marries Sue, the divorced wife of Sam. In God's sight, Joe and Sue cannot form a legitimate marriage bond. No matter how legal their action is by the laws of the land, God says Sue is committing adultery against her lifelong husband Sam.

Now suppose Joe and Sue divorce. Here we are back to our question. Is Joe free to marry a single woman?

We just noted that God did not view Joe and Sue as legitimately married. He viewed Sue as committing adultery against Sam. Joe was party to Sue's adultery. So Joe has never formed a legitimate marriage bond. He has been an accomplice in an adulterous relationship. From the standpoint of marriage, then, we cannot say Joe was bound to Sue.

There are, however, more factors to consider than one's strict marital status when determining how "free" one is to marry. Although a person may not be disqualified from marriage by a former marriage bond, he may have other bonds and obligations which make marriage inappropriate. Paul asks, "Know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh" (I Corinthians 6:16). Although the physical union is not a marriage bond, it is a physical bond. It is also an emotional bond. And it may be a procreative bond. THE MORE TANGLED THESE BONDS, THE MORE INAPPROPRIATE MARRIAGE WOULD BE.

Some people have been married, divorced, and remarried numerous times when they come to Christ. They may have had children by several partners, including some to whom they never were legally joined (cf. John 4:18). Some may have had bonds of sexual union with many, children by several, but marriage to none. Would it be wise to sweep all these tangles aside with a simple assertion, "Well, I never was legitimately married in God's sight" and go happily into marriage? Would not even the ungodly raise their eyebrows if a man became a Christian, left a long-term adulterous relationship (with children), and married a single woman from the church, under the blessing of the church? One's strict marital status is surely not the only thing to consider in such cases. Wouldn't it be right to conclude that a marriage may be wrong even if it is not strictly adulterous? Certainly, singlehood for Joe (divorced from Sue) is a safe and honorable position.

The way we view the "wrongness" of marriage in Joe's case, however, may depend somewhat on whether the marriage is being contemplated or has already occurred. It is one thing if Joe (in the former illustration) has left Sue and is contemplating marriage to Jane, a single woman. His former involvements may be considered tangled enough to make marriage to Jane both inappropriate and wrong. That wrongness would be greatly intensified if an anticipated marriage to Jane was an apparent factor in ending his relationship with Sue. Trading one wife for another is certainly not the way to find pardon and cleansing from an adulterous marriage. But suppose Joe and Jane are already married. Though they may look back and acknowledge they did wrong in getting married, their relationship is not wrong in the way that Joe and Sue's relationship was. Neither Joe nor Jane, in other words, have had a true marital union; neither is in violation of a lifelong obligation of fidelity to another marriage partner. The wrongness of Joe and Jane's marriage is analogous to the wrongness of many other marriages wherein the people made marital decisions contrary to God's will for them. This kind of wrongness does not free Joe and Jane from their lifelong obligations of marriage, nor anyone else who has made very wrong decisions entering marriage.

We might raise yet another twist to this, however. Let's go back to Joe marrying Sue (the divorced wife of Sam). Their "marriage," according to Jesus, is an adulterous union. But suppose Joe and Sue are saved, and in the process of repentance and trying to get their lives straightened out, they learn that Sam (Sue's husband) has passed away. Does their adulterous relationship automatically become a legitimate marriage?

Sam's death certainly does not legitimize Joe and Sue's adultery nor nullify their need for repentance. They entered their relationship in sin, and that sin calls for confession and repentance. Sam's death does free Sue, however, from her former marital ties. ". . . but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man" (Romans 7:3). A possible approach to the problem of their marriage would be for Joe and Sue to have a true marriage ceremony in which they pledge their lives to each other. This would not be necessary from a legal standpoint, of course, for in the records of the state, they are considered married. But it would place both their past relationship and their future relationship in a proper light. It would likewise honor the integrity of marriage.

Hypothetical situations innumerable could be raised, which demonstrate that hard and fast rules are not always possible. Fortunately, the church must not decide every hypothetical case in order to deal with actual problems, but unfortunately, with the erosion of marriage in our society, real situations sometimes present us with problems our hypothetical situations never included.

The point here is to acknowledge that the Bible does not lay out rules for every variation of man's sinful entanglement. Christians must be obedient to the commands of Jesus in those situations which are clear, and willing to apply His principles wisely in those situations which are complicated.

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