By Pastor Glenn Pease
I got a kick out of the story I heard the other day. This man had gone to a psychiatrist, and after a great deal of examination he asked the doctor, "What is wrong with me?" The doctor replied, "I think you are crazy." "I demand a second opinion," the man insisted. "Very well," said the doctor, "I also think you are ugly." The only relevance of the story to our theme is that we are also looking for a second opinion on this issue of divorce and remarriage. We have looked at what the Old Testament said, and now we want to look at what the Apostle Paul said.
The Corinthians had just about every problem known to man, and so we have their problems being dealt with in Paul's letter to them. This becomes our blessing, for because of their problems we have authoritative counsel on how to handle them. What we get from Paul confirms what we studied before. Divorce is not God's best, and it is never His primary will. However, sometimes it is inevitable in a world where everyone has a sinful nature. The principle we are seeking to establish is that whenever divorce is legitimate the right to remarry is assumed. Moses and Jesus both assumed that divorced people would remarry, and both gave assurance that it was proper and acceptable to do so when the divorce was valid.
Paul confirms this in verse 15 by telling the Christian who has been divorced and deserted by a non-Christian mate that the marriage has been dissolved, and they are no longer bound. Those who do not like this conclusion go to verse 39 where Paul says, "A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives." They say this has to apply to the one that Paul says that is not bound in verse 15. It cannot be both ways. You can't be bound an unbound to a mate at the same time, and so they say this principle is superior to the words of Paul in verse 15. The confusion is the result of carelessness with terms. Everyone agrees that a wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. That is an absolute principle, and I have never heard or read of anyone even trying to find an exception to it. There are no exceptions.
When you introduce the subject of divorce, however, you are dealing with different terms and relationships. When a wife is divorced from her husband for adultery, as Jesus said, or for desertion, as Paul says in verse 15, she is no longer his wife, and he is no longer her husband. If they were still husband and wife, they would still be married in the sight of God, and, therefore, bound to each other. Paul could only say to the wife in verse 15 that she is not bound, because the divorce from her non-Christian husband made her no longer his wife. Everywhere that a true divorce takes place the terms husband and wife no longer apply. We saw in part 1 in our study of Deut. 24:1-4 where divorce changed the husband to a former husband, and set the wife free to remarry. Paul is not saying in verse 39 that a former wife is bound to her former husband as long as he lives. That is the very thing we are establishing that is not true to Scripture, and that is why Paul says in verse 15 that a mate properly divorced is not bound.
We want to look now at what appears to be an exception to the principle we are expounding. In verse 11 Paul tells the Christian wife who has divorced her Christian husband that she is to remain single and not remarry, but rather seek to be reconciled. Here is a divorce where remarriage is clearly forbidden. Why? Because in verse 10 Paul says this kind of divorce is forbidden. It is not acceptable for two Christians to get divorced. Paul does not get into the exception of adultery being a valid cause. He is just dealing with divorce in general. The kind of divorce he is dealing with here is not valid, and so in God's eyes it does not break the marriage bond. Neither mate has the right to remarry in such circumstances. One only has the right when the marriage bond is broken.
This is really not an exception then to the principle we are expounding. Forbidden divorce naturally does not give the right to remarry. If you are married it cannot be legitimate to remarry, for this would be bigamy. The point of the principle we are seeking to establish as being consistent with all of Scripture is that God expects all unmarried people to have the right to marry. If you are not married, there is no reason you should be hindered from getting married. A legitimate divorce returns a person to the state of being unmarried, and in that state they have the same right to get married as anyone else who is single. They will have the same desires and needs that lead them to get married in the first place. There is no Scripture that says God expects them to remain unmarried. In fact, all of Scripture expects that they will remarry. If marriage is legitimate for all unmarried people, then all we have to do is establish that divorce makes a person no longer married.
Paul does this in verse 11 where he is dealing with the most unacceptable kind of divorce in all of the Bible. It is the divorce of a Christian wife from her Christian husband. Note that Paul says that if a Christian wife does this which is forbidden, she is to remain unmarried, or as some versions have it, she is to remain single. There is no getting around this clear word of Paul. Even an illegitimate divorce returns a mate to a state of singleness where they are no longer married. This Christian wife is now single says Paul when she divorces her husband. She is not free to remarry, however, because in God's eyes the marriage bond is not broken, and as far as He is concerned the man is still her husband, and they are to strive for reconciliation. Now you can see that if the divorce is legitimate, and is based on adultery or desertion by a non-Christian, the Christian is returned to a state of being unmarried with no marriage bond existing. There is not a hint anywhere in the Bible that this single person is not free, like all other unmarried people to enter into a relationship that will lead to marriage.
We need to study these verses carefully to get as much light as possible on this issue. The first thing Paul does is make clear who he is addressing. In verse 8 he addressed the unmarried and widows. Here he addresses the married, and in v. 12 he addresses the rest. Ignoring this simple fact that Paul is addressing different categories of people has led to misuse and abuse of this passage. If you read 20 commentaries, 19 of them will point out to you that the rest that Paul addresses in v. 12 are also married, but they are dealt with separately because they are involved in a mixed marriage with a Christian and a non-Christian. This is a totally different category than those in verse 10 and 11 where both are Christians and both are members of the church.
Some commentators who are more determined to defend their own views than they are to listen to the Word pay no attention to Paul's distinction here. Listen, for example, to how one of them avoids Paul's conclusion by forcing Paul to contradict himself. Commenting on verse 15 he writes, "There are those who make this verse an argument for a remarriage of divorced people where they point to the statement that a brother of a sister is not in bondage in such cases. But this argument is negated entirely by the other statement of Paul in which he says, "But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband."
Do you see what he has done? He has ignored the word of Paul to the Christian divorced by the non-Christian to whom he says, "You are not bound." He goes back to the word of Paul to the two Christians to whom he says that they are not to remarry. He takes the word that applies to the two Christians and applies them to the Christian and non-Christian, and he just ignores Paul's conclusion that they are not in bondage. He says they have to be in bondage yet, and not set free to remarry because Paul said they are to remain unmarried, paying no attention to the fact that Paul draws a clear distinction between the two categories of people.
This is clearly a stubborn refusal to allow Paul to speak for himself. It is done in order to avoid a conclusion that Paul comes to that does not fit one's conviction. It is a deliberate abuse to take Paul's conclusion on the Christian couple and apply it to the couple in the mixed marriage, for Paul comes to two different conclusions. To ignore this is to reject the Word of God for the tradition of man. You might differ with Paul when he shares his own conviction, but no one can question him when he states what the Lord of the church himself speaks on the issue, which is the case here with two Christian people. We need to get this distinction clear in our own minds. In verse 6 Paul says, "I say by permission not of command." He knows his own conviction is not of absolute authority, for in verse 7 he says he would prefer all Christians to remain single as himself, but he knows other Christian feel equally strong in their conviction that every Christian should be happily married. Christians have different gifts Paul says, and so he knows they will have different convictions, and he does not expect that his will be acceptable to all.
In verse 12 he again says, "I say, not the Lord." In verse 25 he says, "I have no command of the Lord but I give you my opinion." It is important that we pay attention to this distinction between what is clearly commanded of the Lord, and what is Paul's conviction. Allen Redpath, the one time pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, wrote concerning these statements of Paul, "In other words, he is using his own judgment supported by what he believes to be the authority of the Holy Spirit. That does not invalidate this teaching in any way. It does, however, recognize that in matters concerning marriage there is no law so inclusive as to apply to every situation. Each case will call for the careful exercise of human judgment under the direction and authority of the Holy Spirit."
What Redpath says makes so much sense to pastors who have to wrestle with real life situations where there is no clear word from the Bible. Paul is doing that in this context, for he is confronted by issues that never before existed. Paul could not look to Jesus for a word on a Gentile married to a Jew who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. It did not exist in the day of Christ, and so Jesus never spoke to the issue. Paul had to deal with it without help from Moses in the Old Testament, or from his Lord. He had no choice but to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for wisdom to do what was best. This is what every leader has to do as he faces situations not covered by Scripture.
In verse 10 Paul says he does not have to wrestle with this issue, for he has the word of Christ on it. Whether two Christians should get divorced or not is not a question at all. It is not a matter of majority vote of the Apostles, or of Paul's conviction. It is a matter of the Lord's command, and Paul says the Lord has said no to such a divorce. Note that Paul begins in verse 10 with the wife, and then gets to the husband in verse 11. This is in contrast to all of the rest of the Bible. Why? Because Paul faces a world totally different from the world of Moses and Jesus. Women did not have the right to divorce, and so there was no word to them about not doing it. Paul, however, faces a world where women had the right to divorce their husbands. They have equal rights in the New Testament, much as is the case in our own day, and so Paul deals first with the women.
The Lord's command in the Gospels applies to wives as well as husbands, and so Paul says a wife should not depart or separate from her husband. The wife is told not to depart because divorce for her means leaving her husband and going back to mother, or elsewhere. Divorce for the husband means to put away, or send away, and so we see two different words are used to describe the women's perspective and the man's, but they both mean divorce. Paul says a wife should not depart, but Paul knew that saying you shouldn't do something to a woman does not mean she won't do it. It didn't stop Eve, and Paul knew that just because it was the Lord's command would not stop all Christian women from doing it.
He goes on then after saying you shouldn't do it to say, but if you do, what you shouldn't do, here is what you should do, when you do what you shouldn't. In other words, Paul had a backup plan. He was no ivory tower idealist. He knew that real saints still live like sinners, and so he shows what needs to be done when a Christian wife fails to do what is best. Paul says here is what is the next best thing after you have missed the best. Paul's method here is a great lesson. Like Paul, we must be asking ourselves all the time, what is the next best thing to do when we have missed God's best? Some Christians are so pessimistic that when they fail to reach the ideal they collapse in despair and feel defeated. The proper attitude is this: I have failed to follow the path to the best, but now which direction can I go to still be in God's will, and receive the second best, or the third, or the 99th best?
This is Paul's approach to life, and it is the only realistic approach. Paul does not go on to look at all the other possible problems that could develop if this wife also rejects his second command like she does the first. What if she does go ahead and remarry after he says this is not acceptable? If she remarried, she would be guilty of adultery, and would thereby destroy the marriage bond, and kill the union she had with her Christian husband. Paul is hopeful that Christian couples will see what a blot this would put on the church, and so avoid this kind of scandal. If the wife remarries another Christian in the church, and the husband goes on to remarry a Christian in the church, it is not far removed from wife-swapping, and the church would be disgraced before the world. Paul says two Christians having serious marital problems may be forced to separate, and that is bad enough, but they are to remain unmarried, and seek by all means to overcome their problems and be reconciled.
Christian couples have an obligation to Christ, and to His body the church to make sure they get all of the marriage counseling available to avoid divorce. If divorce comes, they are to be open to reconciliation. Even when a Christian couple get involved in a situation where adultery happens, they should labor hard to bring about healing and reconciliation. Every author you can read agrees that two Christian people should pay any price to save their marriage.
Paul does not deal with every possible exception. What if a Christian husband goes off to live in adultery with another woman, and this leads to divorce? I know of a pastors daughter where this was the case. Her husband is now married to the woman he went off to live with. The marriage bond was dissolved, and there was no reason based on the Bible or tradition that would make anyone assume that he was still her husband. She is now a single woman again, and she is free to remarry.
I know of another pastors daughter who was divorced because she discovered her husband was homosexual. Nothing in the Bible deals with this situation, and so, like Paul, we have to deal with it seeking the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. She got her divorce and remarried a Christian man, and there was no way to see that this was not a wise thing to do. The bottom line in all of this study of divorce and remarriage is this: Every situation has to be considered on its own merits, and decisions need to be made in such a way that the grace of God dominates over any kind of legalism. This is a difficult subject, and the only way to be right most of the time is to make love the priority.