Divorce & Remarriage: What the Bible Says
The subject of marriage-divorce-and-remarriage must be the scourge of day; of all the doctrinal errors that threaten Christianity in this generation, perhaps nothing else is more infectious as well as lethal. Doctrinal errors concerning divorce and remarriage are probably more widely spread throughout the Christian religion than any other heresy. It promises to blemish the spotless bride of Christ and fill the church with adulterers.
The ark of safety is taking on worldly water and cannot long remain afloat, unless the gash in the hull is quickly repaired and that water bailed. Unchecked, courtesy of false teachers, future teachers, preachers, elders and deacons will be selected from among adulterous congregations.
"But," we are told, "don't you know that Jesus was only speaking to his disciples in Matthew 5:32? Therefore, our Lord's teaching about divorce only applies to Christians today; it doesn't affect non-Christians."
In essence, we are asked to believe that a non-Christian may marry, divorce and remarry several times before baptism, and with whomever he happens to be when he is baptized, to that person he is married. It would seem, then, that God does not recognize the marriages of non-Christians. Hmm! How do you suppose God views a marriage between a non-Christian and a Christian; is the former not married whereas the latter is married; or, does God not recognize such an arrangement as a marriage at all?
Audience: Disciples Or Multitudes Too
Yes, the disciples of our Lord were present when Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, including when he addressed the subject of marriage and divorce (Matt. 5:1-2, 32). However, multitudes who gathered from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judaea and beyond Jordan followed Jesus (Matt. 4:25). The multitudes were the reason for which he went into a mountain; but, did he go to the mountain to escape the crowd or to address the multitude from a natural crest (Matt. 5:1)? It is true that his disciples came close to him, but that does not necessarily exclude the multitude. The greater audience, including the vast gathering, was present considering Matthew 7:28-8:1.
Notice, that when Jesus concluded the Sermon on the Mount, "the people were astonished at his doctrine." The Greek word for "people" here means "a throng" or "multitude," hardly an appropriate reference to twelve disciples. Obviously, the multitude was present for the Sermon on the Mount; that is why they were astonished at his doctrine. Further, had Jesus deserted the multitudes, taking refuge in the mountain, the multitudes would have dispersed, and could not have followed him when he descended the mountain, as they did.
Luke 7:1, pertaining to the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, definitively settles any question whether the people (in addition to the disciples) were present; the multitude was there: "Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum." The Greek word for "people" here means "people, not one's own populace." Jesus did not call his disciples, essentially, people not his own; they were his close disciples.
The Sermon on the Mount was not an instance of private instruction for the close disciples alone. This was an occasion of public teaching to the multitudes. Therefore, Matthew 5:31-32 concerning divorce and remarriage was taught to all, and is binding on all, both non-disciples and disciples.
Jesus, the Master Teacher, purposed to teach his disciples so they in turn could teach others; he told his disciples he would make them "fishers of men" (Matt. 4:18-22). Likewise, the apostle Paul also instructed Timothy to teach those who could teach others, too (2 Tim. 2:2). A preacher today sometimes finds himself laboring with a church that wants its minister to subscribe to sound doctrine, but not preach it. How lamentable! But, who believes Jesus did not want his disciples to teach what he taught them? Were they forbidden, for instance, to teach "seek ye first the kingdom of God" (Matt. 6:33) or "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). Or, were they only restricted from teaching about marriage and divorce? How strange!
The word "whosoever" equates to all, everyone. At the very conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus bound what he had just taught on all men, all present and all men in that generation not present, forward to our day, too. "Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock" (Matt. 7:24). Jesus did not say his sayings were bound only on those to whom he personally spoke, but upon all those who hear what he said, namely in this context, the Sermon on the Mount. So, it does not even matter were the apostles only present during the presentation of the Sermon on the Mount; all men ("whosoever") are bound by it.
Also, the word "whosoever" is used by our Lord in Matthew 5:32 about divorce and remarriage. "But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery" (Matt. 5:32). Therefore, Jesus applied his teaching to all men although this speech is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. Whether the apostles alone were present is immaterial.
Must Do Better
In order for one to enter the kingdom of heaven, his righteousness must exceed the corruption characteristic of first century scribes and Pharisees. "For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). Though true of the apostles, how is it any less true regarding non-disciples or non-Christians? Is it not certain that others besides the close disciples of Jesus had to exhibit superior righteousness to the scribes and the Pharisees to "enter into the kingdom of heaven"? Surely, corruption by non-disciples is not satisfactory with God! This superior righteousness (Matt. 5:20) is part of the Sermon on the Mount; did it only apply to the twelve disciples then, and only Christians now? Absurd!
As Matthew Chapter Nineteen opens, great multitudes follow Jesus (Matt. 19:2). In that vast audience are Pharisees who pose a question about divorce to our Lord (Matt. 19:3). This is not the occasion of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 19:1).
Jesus first refers his auditors to the original plan of God for marriage (i.e., no divorce; Matt. 19:4-6). Next the Pharisees interject that Moses commanded divorce (Matt. 19:7). Our Lord replies that Moses did not command divorce, but "suffered" divorce because of the hardness of men's hearts (Matt. 19:8). Verse Eight then concludes with another reference to God's original plan: "but from the beginning it was not so."
In Matthew 19:9, Jesus restores God's original plan for marriage, and applies it to all men with the word "whosoever." "And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."
The multitude present (yes, the disciples were present, too), Jesus specifically addressed the unbelieving, tempting and corrupt Pharisees. Disciples and non-disciples, believers and non-believers, were plainly told this is God's law on marriage, divorce and remarriage now binding on all men. The disciples understood what Jesus taught and recognized it as a difficult teaching; "His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matt. 19:10). They did not, however, reject either the teaching or their Lord! How is it, then, that people today cannot understand the same teaching, or do reject the teaching and the Lord?
First Corinthians Seven
Contrary to what multitudes hope, the apostle Paul did not modify or rescind anything Jesus taught concerning marriage and divorce. In the first four verses, the apostle wrote the Corinthians that marriage provides safeguards against fornication and is God's designated outlet for sexual desires. Marriage is God's exclusive provision for sexual gratification.
Verse Five notes the only separation between husband and wife of which God approves is temporary for prayer and fasting. Verses Six through Eight represent inspired advice to unmarried people not to marry during the then present distress (Verse 26). Verse Nine affirms marriage is preferable to burning lust.
Verses 10 and 11 prohibit divorce, as do Matthew 5:32 and 19:9; verse 11 adds, should a divorce occur, the only biblical options are celibacy or reconciliation.
Beginning with Verse 12, Paul addresses an area of marriage about which the Lord did not speak. The apostle did not contradict anything spoken by Jesus, but by divine inspiration gives a wider treatment of the topic. Verses 12-14 further teach that God recognizes marriage between Christians and non-Christians. (And, unless God also recognizes marriages between non-Christians, once a couple is converted, they are living in adultery should they continue as husband and wife without a subsequent marriage ceremony; except for Catholicism, who believes such a thing?)
Verses 15 and 16 do not provide new grounds for divorce and remarriage. The Christian should desire reconciliation, but is not guilty or contributory to the separation (and possible subsequent adultery of the one leaving), since the non-Christian left the Christian because of his religion (Matt. 5:32). The potential salvation of one's marriage partner is sufficient reason to try to preserve a Christian to non-Christian marriage.
In Verses 17-24 Paul addresses several responsibilities and relationships which were in danger of being compounded and more difficult due to the then impending present distress. To walk as the Lord hath called is not a prescription to transform an adulterous marriage into a righteous relationship. Repentance would stop an adulterous marriage before baptism; therefore it is impossible for anyone to legitimately entertain the remotest possibility baptism could turn a sinful relationship into an honorable marriage. Through these verses, Paul urges the preservation of marriages and a measure of contentment, in spite of various unavoidable circumstances or great distress (e.g., slavery, marriage, being single, married but deserted).
Verses 25 and 26 represent additional inspired advice in view of what is styled "the present distress" (possibly the then impending destruction of Jerusalem and widespread persecution). Under such circumstances it is advisable to incur no new responsibilities (Matt. 24:19). Similar distresses today could include: war, economic crisis, catastrophe or famine.
Verse 27 again forbids divorce. The unmarried are advised not to marry, considering "the present distress." Verses 28-35 caution against marrying under the "present distress," but again affirm it is better to marry than burn with lust. Yet, marriage itself is somewhat of a distraction to full service to God, not to mention how much more so when under duress. Verses 36-38 assure fathers though the single life, during the time-frame of the epistle, is preferable, they do not sin should they allow their daughters to marry.
Finally, Verses 39 and 40 prohibit divorce, but permit widows to remarry, though celibacy is again urged. Throughout First Corinthians Chapter Seven, divorce is disallowed; the chapter concurs perfectly with Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Nothing here rescinds or modifies what Jesus taught; further, if what Jesus and Paul taught about marriage and divorce does not apply to non-Christians, then unbelievers may continue in fornication and adultery without any spiritual consequence. If so, the Lord's disciples were right: "If the case of the man [Christian?, LR] be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matt. 19:10). How strange!
Gospel For All Or Not?
Just what is it about Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce that is unsuitable for all men? Is it part of the Gospel? John Chapters 14-16 is an occasion during which Jesus addressed his apostles only; and, there are portions of that address that apply only to the apostles (e.g., promises concerning the Holy Spirit). Yet, vast portions of that context are suitable for all men. There is nothing in Matthew 5:32 or 19:9 or their surrounding contexts to suggest the slightest possibility that Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce is not suitable for all men.
Either the Gospel of Christ as a unit (barring specific, verifiable instances of exclusive reference) applies to all men, or someone with divine inspiration himself must accept the task of rightly dividing the Word for the rest of us.
Emotional turmoil is not an acceptable excuse for refusing the Word of God. Yes, we are aware of the heart-wrenching stories of potentially divided families over the application of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 to all men. Answer me this; is it better for a family to be physically parted from one another, or dwelling in a devil's hell, be eternally separated from Almighty God? Was dissolution of illicit marriages (including those with children) any easier for Old Testament peoples (Ezra 10)? Be it also remembered, God did not encourage forbidden marriages, but warns all who will read the Gospel against such.
At least in years past, some banks refused to cash Social Security checks, but would take them for deposit and hold them a few days. One sister, a brassy young-spirited senior citizen, presented her checks to be cashed each month and met the same opposition. Her curt reply was: "Either honor it, or dishonor it!" Imagine a little old lady putting a financial institution on the defensive, to either "honor" or "dishonor" a Federal Social Security check, a monthly transaction with her own bank. Guess what? The bank cashed her checks!
Well, included in the Gospel is Jesus' final word on marriage and divorce (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). "Either honor it, or dishonor it!" Accept it, or reject the Word of God in this matter! Which will you do?