By Johnny Stringer
The Rule And The Exception
When God established the institution of marriage, He intended it to be permanent, though He tolerated some deviation from that ideal for a while. Reverting to God’s original intention regarding marriage, the law of Christ forbids divorce. Jesus declared, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). Those who marry are bound to each other for as long as they both live (Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:39). This being true, neither has the right to remarry a second mate as long as the first spouse lives; the second marriage of a divorced person is adulterous, because the divorced person is still bound to the first spouse (Lk. 16:18; Rom. 7:2-3).
There is one exception to this rule. When one puts away his spouse for the cause of fornication, he bears no guilt; he is no longer bound to the first mate, and free to marry another. Jesus made this exception when He affirmed, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery” (Matt. 19:9).
The term which is translated “fornication” is a broad term which includes any illicit sexual intercourse. Adultery is a more specific term, referring to fornication involving a married person. Inasmuch as the persons under discussion in Matt. 19:9 were married, the fornication to which Jesus referred was adultery.
Who Is Released?
When a divorce occurs for the cause of fornication, the only one released and free to remarry is the innocent party – the one who puts away the guilty spouse. The guilty spouse is not free to remarry. It is quite clearly said that if the one who is put away remarries, the second marriage is adulterous (Matt. 5:32; 19:19).
In reference to the Lord’s explicit statement that the one who is put away is not free to remarry, some say that Jesus was talking only about the one who was put away for some reason other than fornication. They argue that the one who was put away can remarry if that one was put away for fornication. They thus read into the text something that is not there. Jesus simply said that the one put away had no right to remarry – period; He did not add, “unless she was put away for fornication.” If we take Jesus’ statement as it is, the one who is put away has no right to remarry, regardless of the reason.
Morever, those who take this position would give the guilty fornicator a privilege that someone who was unjustly put away does not have. According to this position, if a woman is the innocent victim of a jerk who put her away for no good reason, she has no right to remarry, while the one who was justly put away for fornication does have that right. Who can believe this? Such is the consequence of reading into the text what Jesus did not say.
Some have difficulty accepting the fact that one party can be released while the other is not. Picturing two people bound to each other by a chain, they point out that when the chain is broken so as to release one, the other is also released. The only problem with this illustration is that those who are bound to each other in marriage are not bound by a chain. They are bound by the law of God. Since it is God’s law that binds them, He is the only One who can release them from their contractual obligations; and He can release one without releasing the other, if He so chooses.
The fact is, the only one God has released is the one who puts away his spouse for the cause of fornication. Nowhere do we read that He has released the guilty party also. Who, then, can presume to say that he is released? It should not seem strange to us that one is released while the other is not; for even in man’s legal affairs, it is sometimes the case that one party is released from a contract while the other party is not.
Fornication Must Precede The Putting Away
In order for one to be free to remarry, the fornication must be the reason for putting away his spouse. It is plain from the wording of Matthew 19:9 that the putting away must be for the cause of fornication; hence, one cannot claim the right to remarry on the basis of fornication that came after the putting away.
Sometimes a couple makes the decision to divorce for some reason other than fornication. Then later on, when one remarries, thus committing adultery, the other one claims the right to remarry on the basis of that adultery. This person’s claim is without scriptural warrant, for when he put away his spouse, it was not for the cause of fornication.
In fact, Jesus taught that if the divorced partner does proceed to commit adultery, the one who divorced her is held partly responsible before God. He “causeth her to commit adultery” (Matt. 5:32). This is because he put her into the position in which she was tempted to seek an adulterous relationship. If both agree to the unscriptural divorce, then each one shares some responsibility for the other one’s adultery which results from the divorce.
Though fornication must be the reason for the putting away, I know of no scriptural principle which demands that fornication be specifically named in the legal papers as the cause. If the party who is divorcing his spouse knows that to be the reason, and if God knows that to be the reason, then, so far as I can see, the scriptural requirement is fulfilled. In order that others might know that he is acting in accordance with God’s Word and that he is not defying God’s law, one should make others aware that it is for fornication, even if such is not specifically stated in the legal papers.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 3, pp. 75-76
February 7, 1985