Do Divorced and Remarried Persons Need to Separate?
Adultery: An Act or a State?
A basic but often unidentified issue involved in discussions about what a person who has committed adultery should do in order to repent is this: was his sin of adultery only an act, or is it considered to be an ongoing state of sin? If it was an act of sin only, then the person may acknowledge his sin, be forgiven, and be careful not to repeat it again. This allows one to continue in the remarriage relationship. If, however, adultery is a continuous state of sin until the present partner is put away, complete repentance and full assurance of God’s forgiveness do not exist until the adulterous union is discontinued.
Both positions have very serious implications. If adultery is an act only, then to require separation is to needlessly break up homes and to lay a heavy and unnecessary burden on persons who desire to repent. It could also result in placing a stumbling block in the path of earnest seekers. If adultery is a state; however, then to assure persons of forgiveness while living with their partner (with the first spouse still living) is to give them a false hope of salvation and to sanction their going to hell since no adulterers will enter the kingdom of heaven (I Cor. 6:9). It also undermines the foundations of marriage and weakens the will to work through marriage difficulties.
How does God view adultery…as an act or a state? We believe the Bible clearly present adultery as an ongoing state of sin until the adulterous union is discontinued. Read and meditate on the following passages:
Genesis 20 As long as Abimelech had another man’s wife under his roof, he was a “dead man” until he released her to go back to her rightful husband, even though he had not yet touched her. This was true for even a pagan king.
Ezra 9 & 10 Though a somewhat different situation, ie. marrying foreign women, their unions were illicit and their sin was considered to be removed only when they separated themselves from their wives. (10:2-4, 10, 11)
Jer. 7:8-11 (Note preceding context) The Israelites were committing adultery and then going to the Temple saying “We are safe’–safe to do all these detestable things…” God said they were trusting in deceptive, worthless words.
Mal. 2:13-17 God hates divorce, the breaking faith with the wife of one’s youth. Can He accept in our time that which He once hated? Is it only the act of breaking faith that He hates, or does He hate both the act and the ongoing state of breaking faith?
Mt. 14:3,4(NAS) John the Baptist rebuked Herod for taking his brother Philip’s wife. He did not say: “It is not lawful for you to have taken her” but rather “It is not lawful for you to have her”. Some say the sin was that of incest. Actually, Herod had committed two sins: adultery and incest. The only way to repent of both was to release the woman. John was rebuking a sinner, which shows that immorality is sin, not only for the saint, but also for the sinner. If adultery were merely an act, John died in vain. He should have been more discreet and sensitive, calling only for Herod to say he was sorry and giving permission to continue on with Herodias. Instead, Jesus commended John as being the greatest man born of women. Note also in Mk. 6:18 John’s warning to Herod was repeated, continuous action: “For John had been saying…” This is why Herodias nursed a grudge against John. If he had said, “Just recognize you sinned, but stay with her and don’t commit adultery again with another woman”, Herodias wouldn’t have had reason to be so upset with John.
Lk. 16:18(NKJV) If adultery and divorce effectively terminate the marriage relationship so that the divorcee may then be remarried, how could Jesus’ words be true: “Whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery”? Notice also that he says “whoever”, not merely the Christian who does it.
Mk. 10:10-12 Jesus clearly states that remarriage after being divorced is adultery.
Rom. 7:2, 3 Only death breaks the marriage bond. If the woman marries another man “while her husband is still alive” (not: “before her husband divorces her”), she is an adulteress. It does not say “she commits an act of adultery” but rather “she shall be called an adulteress”. Some say that this is only an example used to illustrate our relationship with the Law. Granted, it is an example. However, the teachings about our relationship with the Law can only be true if the example also is true. It is hard to think of how one could improve on this passage in terms of its simplicity, clarity, and conciseness.
I Cor. 7:10, 11 The Lord’s command through Paul: no divorce, no separation. But if separation does occur, then no remarriage. Either the individuals must remain unmarried or else be reconciled.
I Cor. 7:39 Marriage is for life, not until divorce separates.
Following are other related passages and perspectives that point to adultery as being an ongoing state of sin until the adulterous union is discontinued:
The marriage vow states “till death do us part”, not “till divorce do us apart”. God takes vows very seriously as seen in Eccl. 5:4-6. God honors the first vows, the first union. Sinful vows should be repented of and sinful actions put away, not continued. The second vow was not a legitimate vow.
What is the meaning of repentance? With all other kinds of sins, we tell a person that true repentance means putting away sin; only then can he be sure of God’s forgiveness. The following passages demonstrate this truth: Prov. 28:13; Mat. 3:8 and context; Lk. 3:8-14; Acts 26:20–we prove our repentance by our deeds, not by our words. See also II Cor. 7:11.
I Cor. 5:1 says the man “has his father’s wife”, not took his father’s wife. As long as he was calling himself a brother, they were not to associate with him but rather to expel him from the church. This indicates that his immoral relationship was an ongoing state. Other gross sins are listed as reason for the same action by the church.
Consistency calls for discontinuing the adulterous marriage. If two people live in fornication, in order for them to repent we tell them they must stop living together as unmarried people. If a person lives in incest, we tell him to discontinue that relationship. If two persons of the same sex are married, they must get out of that union, whether or not the State says it is legal. With other sins it is the same: someone who has stolen goods must return them, not merely say he is sorry for having taken them. A person who has kidnapped someone must release the person before we would be sure he had truly repented. Why, then, would this not apply also to divorced and remarried persons living in adultery?
The fruit of both approaches. Viewing adultery merely as an act fills churches with adulterous unions, undermines existing marriages, justifies having leaders that are divorced and remarried, and shuts the mouths of Christians and church leaders from speaking out against adultery in a society that is becoming more immoral and perverse. Today, many churches are very little different from the surrounding society in their morals.
Viewing adultery as an ongoing state, however, promotes a life of holiness and purity in churches which take this Scriptural position, and provides solid foundations for marriages, a basis for facing difficulties in marriage, and courage and authority to confront sin both in the church and in the society. This approach best harmonizes Scripture passages on the topic and follows the practice of the Early Church in the first centuries.
Responses to questions:
1. What about the “exception clause” (Mt. 5:32). Jesus here clarifies in which situation a man is causing his wife to become an adulteress. He does not give permission for remarriage; in fact, he forbids remarriage even to the adulterous woman. In Mt. 19:9, a very good case can be made for the position that divorce in certain limited cases is permitted but not remarriage; ie. that the exception clause modifies only the first part of the verse, not the last part. This position allows for separation in certain limited cases, such as homosexuality and prostitution without giving permission for remarriage. This position best harmonizes with other Bible passages on the topic and is the position of the Early Church for the first five centuries (See: Jesus and Divorce, by Heth and Wenham, p.22). This position also makes the best sense of the disciples’ expression of surprise (Mat. 19:10) about the Jewish Rabbi Hillel for “any and every cause” and the conservative position of Rabbi Shammai permitting remarriage in the case of infidelity.
2. What about I Cor. 7:15 “A believing man or woman is not bound…” Bound to what? In observing the context, it seems the best understanding is to say: “He/she is not bound to fulfill his/her marital rights if the unbelieving spouse voluntarily leaves. He/she is not bound to force the unbeliever to stay.” To say that this “not bound” passage means that one may divorce and remarry causes Paul to contradict himself in what he says in vs. 10,11 (by God’s direct command) and vs.39.
3. Doesn’t Paul say that “each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God called him” and “to remain in the situation which he was in when God called him”? (I Cor. 7:17,20,24) Yes, but God does not call people into a state of adultery. They should remain only in situations that are not sinful, as per the examples given: circumcision, being a slave. To apply this to a remarriage situation requires one to also say that a person who is single or a widow(er) when he accepts Christ must always remain that way.
4. Didn’t Paul say that if you are loosed from a wife you may marry without sinning? Actually, what he said is “Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned…” (I Cor. 7:27,28 NKJV). He did not say “if you remarry, you have not sinned.” To marry if one’s spouse has died is not sin, but to use this passage to justify remarriage while the first partner is living causes Paul to contradict himself in this same chapter (vs. 10,11,39) and in his teachings in Romans 7:2,3, to contradict the teachings of Jesus (Mk.10:11,12;Lk.16:18) and also the understanding and practice of the Early Church. One must ask the question: how may a person properly be “loosed from a wife” in order to marry again? The Scriptural answer is: the death of the partner (I Cor. 7:39; Rom. 7:2,3). Furthermore, in the context of “loosing”, Paul is not speaking about divorcees, but about virgins and widows (7:25-40).
5. Doesn’t God forgive? Doesn’t his mercy cover our sins? God’s mercy becomes ours when we confess and abandon our sins (Prov. 28:13). Otherwise we are sinning deliberately, and as long as one remains in that state there is no forgiveness (Heb. 10:26-31). Note also Titus 2:11-14: The grace of God teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldy passions–not continue on in them. See also I Jn. 3:7-10. If adultery was sin in the beginning when first committed, common sense indicates it continues to be sin when it continues to be committed. That is the way we view all other sins. Why would it be different with adultery.
6. What if I divorced my spouse before I was a (committed) believer in Christ? Doesn’t that allow me to remarry (or stay with my present spouse)? We need to remember that marriage was not first of all a Christian institution and is valid whether one marries as a Christian or not. Adultery is not a sin that only Christians can commit. If marriages were valid only for Christians, then we would have to tell all unbelievers that their marriages are worthless and that in God’s sight they are not married. This approach would also conflict with the passages in Genesis 20 and Matthew 14 where Abimelech and Herod, as unbelievers, were clearly condemned by God in what they had done.
Conclusion: We believe that the teaching that adulter is merely an act of sin which the grace of God covers while allowing the adulterous couple to continue together is an example of what Jude warns: “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of God into a license for immorality…” (v. 4, NIV;italics added).
Therefore, in view of the Scriptures cited above, we conclude the adultery is an ongoing state of sin that can only be truly forgiven when divorced and remarried persons separate. “He who covers his sin will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (NKJV).
For additional reading on this position:
Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage, John Coblentz, c.1992, Christian Light Publications, 98p.
Till Death Do Us Part?, Joseph A. Webb, c.1996,
PO. Box 520729
Longwood, FL 32742-0729 274 p.
Jesus and Divorce, the Problem with the Evangelical Consensus, William Heth and Gordon Wenham, c.1984, Nelson Publishers, 287 p. (No longer in print)
–Written by: Allen Roth