Is a second marriage ever permissable for a Christian?

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As an idealistic person, one raised in a purity culture, and unmarried, I rarely have needed to question my indoctrination on the issue of remarriage. Likewise, those who are happily married (or who have never been married) have the luxury of easy absolutism on this issue and can draw a hard-line with no need to take a closer look.

However, having been asked my opinion of divorce and remarriage on a couple of occasions, I have been pondering the question for several months. The opinions of modern commentators are as varied as those I have found in the writings of those in the early church and onward.

What do the commentators say about divorce and remarriage?

Some of the conclusions of early church writers differ dramatically from what I’ve been taught. For example, divorce was not only recommended in the case of an unfaithful spouse—it was required. Some taught remarriage, in any case, was wrong for a Christian and forbid all second marriages even if the first spouse died.

Tertullian, however, did make an exception when the prior marriage ended (by death or divorce) before conversion. Menno Simons and other notable early Anabaptists also allowed divorce and remarriage in the case of unrepentant adultery, but only with the council of the church body:

“In the fourth place, if a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair. But if he be a bold and headstrong adulterer, then the innocent party is free–with the provision, however, that she shall consult with the congregation and remarry according to circumstances and decisions in the matter, be it well understood. (Wismar Articles)

That is in sharp contrast to the conservative Mennonitism that opposes all divorce, recognizes the marriages of even unbelievers as valid, and yet allows remarriage if the prior spouse has died. Many teach that a second marriage (besides those ended by death) should be broken up even if there are children involved and it creates a hardship.

That is also in contrast to David Bercot who’s lawyerly approach to Scripture and early church writings led him to believe that remarriage after a divorce is NOT a perpetual sin:

“I have not found any situation in the early church where they ever broke up the second marriage. In other words, they said that it was an adulterous marriage, it was a wrong situation, but they didn’t say that it was just the same thing as living with someone in adultery. In other words, there was a union that had taken place there, and they don’t seem to have taken the position that breaking that up would be something good. Instead, it’s a second wrong that doesn’t make the first wrong right. It just makes things even worse, and we can see that today where there’s a family with children. To divorce a second time, break up a happy home, doesn’t seem to be the way God would normally work.”

That, of course, is Bercot’s opinion…

[Edited 11/2/2018  The quote above, attributed to David Bercot, was taken from a conversation on a defunct website called MennoDiscuss.com.  The person posting the quote, as I recall, claimed to have transcribed it directly from a cassette tape of Mr. Bercot, I copied and pasted because it was an interesting point.  That much is now in dispute, I’m not going to go through every recording to properly attribute the quote, and that’s why I’ve crossed out the quotation.  However, what is not in dispute: There is no record of the early church breaking up second marriages.]

So how does all that above stack up against the actual teachings of Scripture?

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)

Jesus quoted the common practice and then corrects it. He states “anyone who divorces his wife,” then adds the caveat “except for sexual immorality” and continues with that qualification to describe remarriage as sin. From this one can conclude that remarriage is not adultery if there was infidelity (or “porneia” in the original Greek) discovered in the prior marriage.

In fact, if we take the Apostle Paul at his word, then a person applying his teachings must separate themselves from an unfaithful and unrepentant spouse or they are joined together in the sin:

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)

To send an unrepentant sinner packing is NOT hardness of heart (as in what Jesus rebuked in Matthew 19:8) but an absolute necessity and why the church was directed by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:13) to cast out those who refused to repent of their immorality. It is not hard-hearted, it is something necessary to preserve the testimony of the church.

In the Old Testament, we read various places where God is portrayed as the husband of an unfaithful spouse. When the children of Israel break their covenant with God they are given their divorce papers and sent packing (Jeremiah 3:8) because their unfaithfulness could no longer be tolerated. It was not hard-hearted of God to divorce.

But, besides that one exception given by Jesus for sexual immorality, I see the clear indication in Scripture that marriage commitment is permanent and a change of status not recommended. At very least it seems second marriage (presumably any second marriage) has consequences. We are told a church leader must be “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2) and, since all should desire to be the best example of faithfulness, I would conclude remarriage is at least strongly discouraged.

In conclusion…

I believe grace triumphs over judgment and that we should love others as we wish to be loved. It is my opinion that one is to remain committed to their first spouse in every circumstance except in the case of unrepentant sexual sin. I believe death (or divorce of an unfaithful spouse) does unbind the living spouse and give them the freedom to marry again. But, if there is any doubt, it is better to remain unmarried.

For those who have already divorced and remarried, there must be repentance of the broken marriage. I do not feel I have the authority to overrule those who believe it is permissible to remain in a subsequent or second marriage. But, we also should not continue in sin that grace may abound and should obey our conscience when in doubt. That said, I am also not of the position that there is any sin (past, present or future) beyond the grace of God.

Anyhow, is a second marriage permissible for a Christian?

Maybe.

But it is nearly always undesirable, unpleasant and not ideal. Those who have lost a spouse or have been abandoned by an unfaithful spouse know that pain all too well. Children of divorced parents often suffer terrible insecurity through life as a result. It is not ideal.

So, to married people, stay faithful if at all possible and don’t risk your own future or that of those who are your responsibility by taking the commitment lightly.

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9 thoughts on “Is a second marriage ever permissable for a Christian?

    • It was from a discussion on MennoDiscuss.com. The person quoting transcribed it from recording of Bercot they had listened to. I realize that is not the best sourcing for a quote, but it is the best I have.

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  1. I keep getting inquiries from people about the quote allegedly made by me that you have published in your blog. Your quotation does not represent my view on second marriages after divorce. You say that the quote comes from something that a third party posted on MennoDiscuss.com. When someone publishes an alleged quote from me with quotation marks around it, I deserve to have better validation than that.
    David Bercot

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    • I’m not sure what you do or do not deserve. However, since you say the quote doesn’t represent your views, and I do not have a way to locate the person who originally transcribed and posted the quote nor access to your many recordings, I will edit the blog to reflect your protest.

      Anyhow, since you are here and considered by many to be an authority on the early church: Is there any situation in the early church where a second marriage is recorded to have been broken up?

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      • Hi Joel,
        It is very kind of you to let me clarify this matter. And I want to apologize for coming across so curt in my initial response.

        In response to your question, I haven’t found any quotations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers where the church split up a second marriage. At the same time, I haven’t found any of the writers to say that such a second marriage was acceptable. Any argument either way is an argument from silence.

        In recent years, it has been brought to my attention that the situation is discussed in a letter to Jerome. This, of course, is not pre-Nicene, as the letter would date to A. D. 394. Yet, normally the post-Nicene church was less strict than the pre-Nicene church. In the letter, Jerome discusses how to deal with a situation where a woman divorced her first husband for adultery and married another. Here is the letter:

        JEROME’S ORIGINAL LETTER ABOUT FABIOLA (Letter 55, to Amandus, about 394 A.D.)

        3. I find joined to your letter of inquiries a short paper containing the following words: “ask him, (that is me,) whether a woman who has left her husband on the ground that he is an adulterer and sodomite and has found herself compelled to take another may in the lifetime of him whom she first left be in communion with the church without doing penance for her fault.” As I read the case put I recall the verse “they make excuses for their sins.”

        We are all human and all indulgent to our own faults; and what our own will leads us to do we attribute to a necessity of nature. It is as though a young man were to say, “I am over-borne by my body, the glow of nature kindles my passions, the structure of my frame and its reproductive organs call for sexual intercourse.” Or again a murderer might say, “I was in want, I stood in need of food, I had nothing to cover me. If I shed the blood of another, it was to save myself from dying of cold and hunger.”

        Tell the sister, therefore, who thus enquires of me concerning her condition, not my sentence but that of the apostle. “Know ye not, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman which has an husband is bound by the law to her husband, so long as he lives; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then, if, while her husband lives, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress.” And in another place: “the wife is bound by the law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”

        The apostle has thus cut away every plea and has clearly declared that, if a woman marries again while her husband is living, she is an adulteress. You must not speak to me of the violence of a ravisher, a mother’s pleading, a father’s bidding, the influence of relatives, the insolence and the intrigues of servants, household losses. A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another. The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: “whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, commits adultery.” Mark what he says: “whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery.” Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer.

        Wherefore the apostles seeing how heavy the yoke of marriage was thus made said to Him: “if the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry,” and the Lord replied, “he that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” And immediately by the instance of the three eunuchs he shows the blessedness of virginity which is bound by no carnal tie. 73

        4. I have not been able quite to determine what it is that she means by the words “has found herself compelled” to marry again. What is this compulsion of which she speaks? Was she overborne by a crowd and ravished against her will? If so, why has she not, thus victimized, subsequently put away her ravisher? Let her read the books of Moses and she will find that if violence is offered to a betrothed virgin in a city and she does not cry out, she is punished as an adulteress: but if she is forced in the field, she is innocent of sin and her ravisher alone is amenable to the laws. Therefore if your sister, who, as she says, has been forced into a second union, wishes to receive the body of Christ and not to be accounted an adulteress, let her do penance; so far at least as from the time she begins to repent to have no further intercourse with that second husband who ought to be called not a husband but an adulterer. If this seems hard to her and if she cannot leave one whom she has once loved and will not prefer the Lord to sensual pleasure, let her hear the declaration of the apostle: “ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of devils,” and in another place: “what communion has light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial?”

        David Bercot

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      • David, first I accept your apology for curtness.  I would not like to be misrepresented and thus would not intentionally misrepresent someone else.  So it was not my intention to misrepresent you.  

        The quotation of Jerome reminds me of my own understanding of the issue as one born into a Biblical fundamentalist church.  We tended to prefer our simple prohibitions over a more correct or appropriately nuanced approach.  It is much easier to rely on black and white prescriptions when it comes to things like alcohol consumption and other things that would otherwise require wisdom and discernment.  

        Jerome’s opinion also reminds me of that of Peter and the Pharisee converts on the topic of circumcision prior to the council in Jerusalem that settled that issue.  So, while the quote does settle the question asked, we cannot claim that the authority of Jerome’s word is absolute nor that it is the best interpretation (or application) of what is truly canonical.  We also know early church writers taught things that were later rejected by the church.  

        For example, Origen taught a form of universalism that was rejected later because it went against what the church believed as far as free will.  Tertullian, likewise, came under the influence of Montanist heresy and his writings, for that reason, should be considered in light of his fall from orthodox teachings.  

        I’ve noticed, as well, that you have not completely denied the possibility that the quotation that “does not respresent [your] view on second marriages after divorce” could be your own.  I know that my own perspectives have changed dramatically even since writing that blog and that is simply the reality we all face as fallible creatures.  We, like Peter on circumcision or Origen on universalism, sometimes get things wrong and not even the opinion of Jerome is exempted from critique.

        So, back on topic of divorce, I believe many take the words of Jesus wrong and for the same reason that the two sides of the Jewish debate over divorce failed to comprehend the words of Moses.  First, Jesus did not contradict Moses.  No, after taking his audience back to the original design for marriage, he goes on to restate what Moses said and answers the question of whether or not a man can divorce for any reason.  He did not add a new prohibition, rather he clarified the circumstances described in the law and told them that divorce for any reason other than adultery causes adultery.  And, it is interesting that Jesus, by saying divorce for any reason other than adultery causes adultery, is presuming a remarriage after the divorce.

        Anyhow, I believe it is because of the hardness of hearts that Jesus is misunderstood.  We flip his intentions, addressing an abuses of men, and use his words to bind innocent women to a marriage that has been broken.  Instead of understanding the purpose behind the law, we approach it like the critics of Jesus approached Sabbath laws, and risk being as wrong as they were.  A lawyer doesn’t need to know the purpose or untent of the law, all he needs to do is make a case.  But we, as representatives of Christ, should concern ourselves with more than just the letter of the law.

        I’ll leave it there.  In the end people are persuaded by love, not by argument, and my words here will not change anything if there’s no love in them.  

        Thank you for your comments!

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