These days, querists present us at Gospel Gazette Online with two questions more often than any others. The second most frequently posed question concerns the biblical role of women in the church. By far, the most often asked question pertains to marriage, divorce, and remarriage and what the Bible has to say about this intensely, emotionally charged, contemporary issue. In answering either question, one swiftly exhausts the ample biblical information from the pages of inspiration. In other words, it becomes extremely difficult to say more about any subject beyond the expression of God's mind and ordinances contained in the Holy Bible. God's law in either case essentially is understood with little difficulty and is definitive. Application of God's rules for the family, including divorce and remarriage, is where the difficulty lies. These difficulties arise from our natural emotional investment due to involvement of family members and the desire to preserve homes, especially in which children abide. These difficulties blossom more when we consider the extent to which modern society abounds in marriages, divorces and remarriages. Members of the church are neither immune to nor less susceptible to the scourge of marriage, divorce and remarriage.
Application of God's Word respecting marriage, divorce and remarriage is compounded further by confusion arising from the details of the circumstances surrounding people's marriages, divorces and remarriages. Even persons wanting to do the right (biblical) thing experience puzzlement on how to proceed, the difficulty heightened commensurate with how close one may be to the problem. Under such circumstances, the simple New Testament teaching about marriage, divorce and remarriage often appears clouded or veiled to those who have the most at stake (their eternal souls). At the heart of questions from those interested in the biblical treatment of marriage, divorce and remarriage is consideration of the "innocent party." The following lines, therefore, address the biblical teaching of marriage, divorce and remarriage with an emphasis on the "innocent party" of our Lord's teaching on this vital subject affecting the home (Matthew 19:9). The answers to two actual questions appear below. The questions, though not stipulated, can be fairly well gleaned from the answers given.
In the first place, the New Testament teaching about marriage, divorce and remarriage is rather simply stated: "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" (Matthew 19:9). (Mark 10:11-12 specifically includes both spouses equally regarding their respective roles in marriage, divorce and remarriage.) Summarized, Jesus prohibited divorce and remarriage except for a single reason. The innocent party to a marriage interrupted by the sexual infidelity of one's spouse may marry another person (who is a biblically valid candidate for marriage). However, the predicaments in which souls find themselves are often such that the details and emotional investments make a clear application of Jesus' teaching difficult.
In the second place, since our Lord's teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage (along with almost everything else Jesus taught) is not popular today, and since divorce and remarriage is rampant in modern society, church leaders, including elders and preachers, have "fudged" on Christ's doctrine. Frequently, we are told essentially what we want to hear, irrespective of whether it is biblically accurate (2 Timothy 4:3-4). For instance, many erroneously teach that the part of the Gospel that concerns marriage, divorce and remarriage does not apply to non-Christians. For instance, many others imagine that there are additional reasons to what Jesus cited for divorce and remarriage (usually citing Paul in 1 Corinthians 7).
Beyond the haze of wishful thinking (Colossians 2:23, 'willing' something to be so when it is not) and anti-biblical gymnastics with Holy Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), the bare truth of Jesus' teaching remains. There is a single reason for which an innocent party may remarry. No such liberty to remarry is provided by our Lord for the guilty party or for either party of a divorce where adultery is not the reason for the divorce.
In the third place, it is very possible that, for any of a number of reasons, there may be no completely innocent party, even though adultery occurred prior to a divorce. In a case where adultery was practiced by both spouses, each spouse would contribute to the infidelity of the other. Further, in a case where a spouse refuses his or her spouse sexual gratification, such behavior contributes to the possible sexual infidelity of the other (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).
In the fourth place, desertion alone is not biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage. If one is deserted against his or her will and due to no compulsion by him or her to drive away one's spouse, the one deserted is not held accountable by God for the divorce. However, nothing in Paul's context regarding desertion mentions remarriage (1 Corinthians 7:15). (However, one who is the innocent party of desertion may well be the subsequent innocent party of adultery, Matthew 19:9).
In the fifth place, a spouse's forgiveness of a penitent adulterer and the subsequent resumption of their marriage are not dependent upon the ability to analyze one's unspoken mind (which would require the God-like quality of omniscience). Once forgiveness was requested and granted and the marriage relationship resumed, past infidelity could not be present grounds for divorce. (It behooves the most gracious spouse to fully comprehend the great difficulty in resuming a fruitful marriage before opting to forever lay aside the biblical permission of divorce because of adultery by one's spouse.)
In the sixth place, a sin that is not known publicly, including adultery, would not have to be confessed publicly. Further, it may be counterproductive to one's marriage for a penitent adulterer to apprise his or her spouse of infidelity that is not known publicly. It would be difficult to fault a penitent adulterer for either telling or not telling one's spouse of his or her infidelity when it is not publicly known.
Marriage, divorce and remarriage dilemmas are always heart-wrenching and emotional nightmares. Sometimes children are involved, too, as they were in an Old Testament case where Israelites were compelled by God's servant to put away from them biblically unlawful wives and their children (Ezra 10).
As painful as it surely is, you will have to evaluate both the biblical truths about marriage, divorce and remarriage, as well as the details attending the divorce and remarriage about which you are concerned. You will have to apply God's Word in your life, for which our Judge will hold you accountable in the last day. It is not possible for me to make that decision for you, especially respecting the cloudy details of human activity that clutter the simple directive of our Lord. Whatever course you pursue, lend yourself to prayer and arrive at an intersection in your life whereby you can maintain peace of mind now and enjoy eternity in heaven with God when this short life is over. This is submitted for your consideration with heartfelt prayer.
Following is the scenario as I understand your present representation of it: A husband and a wife separated for a time, during which the husband committed adultery. The wife forgave the penitent husband and they resumed their marriage. Later, the wife committed adultery for which cause the husband was unwilling to resume that marriage (and additionally the wife did not desire to resume that marriage either). As it so happens, the adulterous wife actually was the one who sought a legal divorce through the courts.
Your questions then, are: (1) at the time of the latter adultery by the wife, was the husband the 'innocent party' who was thereby biblically entitled to divorce his wife and subsequently marry another biblically eligible woman should he so choose to do in the future? (2) Does the fact that the adulterous wife sought the legal divorce materially affect God's biblical instruction regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage?
Strictly speaking, if there were no mitigating circumstances that would impugn the quality of being the so-called 'innocent party,' the husband in the above scenario would be biblically entitled to enact Matthew 19:9 (i.e., put away his adulterous wife and remarry in the future). The prior occasion of adultery for which forgiveness was tendered and after which the marriage was resumed is entirely separate and does not affect the present occasion of adultery. I hasten to add that several factors possibly could have nullified the 'innocent party' status of the one who did not commit adultery (e.g., Did he withhold sexual gratification from his marriage partner, 1 Corinthians 7:3-5? Did he physically or mentally abuse, neglect, mistreat or otherwise drive his wife away from him and consequently toward another man?). The 'innocent party' as well as any subsequent new marriage partner ought to have full confidence regarding the 'innocent party' status, since it could affect the eternities of the man and his subsequent new spouse.
In my opinion, the fact that the adulterous wife is the one who actually sought the legal procedure for divorce through the mechanism of the courts is incapable of nullifying or overriding God's instructions of Matthew 19:9. Further, had the husband sought the divorce through the courts, it is highly unlikely that today the court would grant the divorce technically on the grounds of adultery. Still, that would not change the intent of the 'innocent party' to discontinue the marriage due to the adultery of his wife. The legal technicalities are incapable of overriding or displacing the divine will of God regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage.
If the 'innocent party' is truly and completely innocent, he may divorce his wife based on her adultery and subsequently marry another biblically eligible spouse in the future (Matthew 19:9). The whole situation is a serious matter with eternal consequences and needs to be prayerfully studied in light of the facts and the Word of God. If any doubts remain regarding God's approval of such a divorce and the biblical right to remarry, all interested or otherwise involved parties ought to identify courses of conduct with which they can be confident that God approves. These matters ideally should have been exhaustively explored before entering a subsequent marriage. Were it determined at this late date that a subsequent marriage is under suspicion and doubt, still each must continue to embrace the moral responsibilities pertaining to any offspring born of such a union and responsibilities to the mother of those children. This would involve financial support as well as moral support and the general well-being of such a family. There would be no reason to suspend cordiality between these parties; only a man and a woman who are not biblically entitled to be married to each other would have to suspend their sexual and intimate relationship. It would probably be better if they did not appear to the community to be husband and wife, though I have known of couples who have attempted to continue the appearance of husband and wife toward children and a community unaware of the biblical ramifications or facts (with varying degrees of success and failure).
As you and I have both acknowledged, I am incapable of making any decisions for you, especially since I am unable to fully know the details. Further, the responsibility for your conformity to the Gospel and the salvation of your souls lies with you two. I hope that the foregoing proves useful.
Other articles regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage from the Gospel Gazette Online archives appear at the following URLs.