Is it possible to divorce and then marry again?

After Jesus has been challenged by the Pharisees about Divorce in Mark 10:1-9, his disciples quiz him further.  This is Mark’s summary of the conversation.

10 Later, when he was alone with his disciples in the house, they brought up the subject again. 11 He told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. 12 And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery.”

Mark 10:10-12

This is the logical conclusion to what Jesus has said about Divorce. His argument is that God is the one who has joined a husband and wife together as one. They therefore become one flesh and so, this is not something that can simply be set apart by humans.  This means that powerful men should not simply treat women as chattels to be passed about. That’s why the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 24, even as it makes an allowance for hard hearts in permitting divorce puts restrictions in place to control it.

But if divorce is not meant to happen, then this means that the divorce certificate is invalid before God. The couple are still married and so, they are committing adultery, being unfaithful to their original husband/wife if they remarry again.

That would put a very strict rule in place.  However, Matthew’s account gives us a little bit more detail regarding Jesus’ position.  Matthew’s report reads:

And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful

Matthew 19:9

Mark is quite strict in his use of space, and so he doesn’t give us every detail. As I mentioned previously, I don’t think that his aim is to give us chapter and verse on divorce case law. Rather, he simply wants to draw the point that people who are legalistic end up putting up barriers to others even as they, themselves are breaking God’s Law.

Matthew has a bit more space and so introduces an exception clause where the wife has committed “porneia” -sexual immorality or unfaithfulness.  It is worth observing further that the exception although focused on husbands here because they are the ones being addressed works two ways and applies to both wives and husbands.

Additionally, I believe that wrapped up in that concept of “unfaithfulness” are a number of ways in which it is possible to be unfaithful and so break the marriage covenant. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 talks about husbands who desert their wives and the OT Law also raises the possibility of neglect being covered. Unfaithfulness can include failure to maintain the covenant responsibilities in marriage and seeking pleasure and gratification through abuse of the relationship rather than through the appropriate means within the marriage covenant. 

So, whilst, as I cover here, there are different views among Christians about if and when divorce and remarriage are permissible, my understanding of Scripture is that divorce should be rare. However, there are specific situations where a husband or wife may be set free to divorce and remarry again.

I think the reasoning can be summed up as follows. First, that the one who causes the divorce is guilty of breaking the marriage covenant. Even if they are not the one who takes legal action to formalise the divorce, they have in effect done so in practice.  Secondly, that the purpose of divorce is to set the person completely free. It is reasonable then that the innocent party should be completely free to move on with their life.  Thirdly, that the proper consequence for breaking the OT Law had been the death penalty. We might conclude, in line with Romans 7, that the one guilty of unfaithfulness is in a technical sense, legally dead with regards to the marriage and therefore has no claim on the relationship. The innocent party is truly free to begin again without guilt, shame or fear.

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