Table of Contents
- All remarriage is forbidden for a man who has divorced his wife
- All remarriage is forbidden for a woman
- Remarriage is permitted for a man who did not divorce his wife but was divorced by her.
- A man in this situation who marries again is essentially entering a polygamous relationship.
Remarriage in the first century was forbidden in most forms
This seemed to be the position of the early church fathers. John Piper summarises the New Testament support for this position well. I added 22 reasons why marriage is never permitted. And I have written my own testimony of why I can’t remarry. However my position has now changed slightly. An important consideration that I had not given sufficient weight to was the link Jesus made between remarriage and the divorce which preceeded it. For example, in Mark 10:11 Jesus says “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery”. This pattern is repeated in the NT.
I had ignored the conjunction and read the passage simply as “Whoever marries another commits adultery”. One reason for reading it this way is because this is how the passages read from a woman’s perspective. Jesus does say that if an innocent women remarries both she and her new husband commit adultery. Because of the egalatarian society we live in, I had assumed that if it is wrong for an innocent women to remarry it must also be wrong for an innocent man to remarry.
However when rereading the relevant passages (included below) I noticed that in each instance the man was forbidden remarriage only if he had divorced his former wife while the women was always forbidden to remarry (see table). It was the divorce that made the remarriage wrong for the man. I believe the reason the NT has this position is because the alternative would wrongly condemn the saints of the Old Testament.
Jesus seemed careful not to condemn polygamy
In Matthew 19:9 and Luke 16:18 Jesus explained that a man who takes a second wife commits adultery. However He qualifies this by saying that it is adultery if the man has divorced his wife.
This is an important qualification. Abraham, Jacob, David (and many others) all took additional wives. If Jesus was now saying that any man who had married another woman had committed adultery then He would be saying that Abraham, Jacob and David were guilty of adultery. But there is nothing to suggest that Jesus or any of the first Christians believed this.
So it seems clear that Jesus didn’t say taking a second wife was a sin. He said divorcing one wife in order to take another was sin.
This is not intended to mean that Jesus promoted polygamy. He promoted one man with one woman for one lifetime by referring to the original order in creation. But it is important not to confuse His commendation of lifelong monogamy with a condemnation of polygamy.
One rule for men and another women
This is the case for the man but it is not the case for the woman. Both Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 state explicitly that if the woman who was wrongfully divorced remarries she commits adultery. It did not matter if she was innocent or guilty in the divorce. Nor did it matter if the one she was marrying was innocent or guilty. Her remarriage to anyone else was considered adultery.
So the divorced woman is in a difficult position. Once married she is considered always married to her first husband until he dies. Thus, any remarriage for her necessarily results in adultery.
This is reminiscent of the way in which women were, in a sense, trapped in polygamous marriages in the OT. Solomon had 700 wives. It is unlikely that he ever spoke to many of those, let alone be intimate with them. But that was their lot and the Lord seemed to permit it. This was also the case with Tamar who’s husbands the Lord had killed. She was supposed to be given to Judah’s youngest son so she waited patiently. But that didn’t happen. So she took matters into her own hands and deceived Judah into sleeping with her in order to have children. The lineage of Jesus as described in Mat 1:2-3 includes Tamar.
So it is not unusual for there to be two different rules – one for the man and one for the woman. This seems grossly unfair in today’s society but God did not seem to mind. Perhaps in support of this marital inequality is that history suggests that it is easier for women to live celibate lives. Evidence shows that men have far greater difficulty controlling their sexual desire than women. We see this most tragically in the sexual abuse cases raised against priests and nuns. “When compared to the stunning number of child sexual abuse cases involving priests, the number of such cases involving nuns seems extremely small.” [ref pg 770]
Polgyamy in the New Testament era
Jewish polygamy was still a common practice at the time of the early church. However it clashed with Roman monogamy which was state law for all Roman citizens. Although polygamy was not permitted by Rome, divorce and remarriage were both common and acceptable in Roman culture. That polygamy was not condemned during Jesus’ ministry lends some support to the position here presented.
What this means for remarried men today
This has the following implications for the man who did not divorce his wife but was divorced by her:
- There is no scriptural command that explicitly forbids him from marrying again.
- A subsequent marriage would, for a divorced man, be in the same category as a man who entered a polygamous second marriage.
- The Bible tacitly approves of polygamous marriages and so one may infer that the divorced man’s remarriage would also be approved.
- It seems the core principle is that of keeping covenant. Marriage is a covenant and as such cannot be annulled. Because the divorced man had no intention of violating that covenant, he is not guilty of adultery when taking a second wife.
- The man may still have obligations towards his first wife since that covenant still exists (it is because of the continuation of that covenant that her subsequent marriages are adulterous). However in practice these obligations are unlikely to be called upon or realised.
Divorce and Remarriage Scenarios Tabulated
The table below shows all the relevant verses in the NT and how they are applied to the husband and wife.
divorces his wife
Woman divorces her husband
Woman leaves her husband
|Woman divorced by|
|Man divorced by his wife|
while husband is alive
1 Cor 7b
(man marries an extra wife)
OT + Jesus
(woman marries an extra man)
|Man marries a|
divorced innocent woman
Woman marries a
Mat 5:32 ESV But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Mat 19:9 ESV And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Mar 10:11-12 ESV And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Luk 16:18 ESV “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
Rom 7:2-3 ESV For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
1Co 7:10-11 ESV To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
1Co 7:15-16 ESV But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?