By Clinton D. Hamilton
This column in this issue deals with a question which I have just received. The queriest said that it is urgent that it be answered as soon as possible. It concerns divorce.
Question: “Is divorce for any reason other than adultery a sin?”
Response: Jesus says that whoever dismisses his wife apart from the matter of fornication makes her to commit adultery and whoever marries her that is dismissed commits adultery (Matt. 5:32). Jesus made it clear in response to a question raised by Pharisees that divorce for any cause was not permitted.
Specifically, they inquired whether it is “lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause” (Matt. 19:3). His response is direct and clear: “Have you not read, that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall be one flesh? So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:4-6). The account Mark gives is essentially the same (Mk. 10:2-9). Luke gives an abbreviated account simply by writing that “Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery” (Lk. 16:18). To put away one’s companion in marriage for any other cause than fornication is prohibited by Jesus. When a marriage is terminated for any cause other than death, there is sin on the part of at least one partner in the marriage.
It is clear from Scripture that death dissolves a marriage. Paul makes this plain. “For the woman that hath a husband is bound by law to the husband while he liveth; but if the husband die, she is discharged from the law of the husband. So then if, while the husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if the husband die, she is free from the law, so that she is no adulteress, though she is joined to another man” (Rom. 7:23). Unless death has occurred, divorce can only occur with God’s approval when one divorces because of adultery of the other companion. Marriage was intended from the beginning as God instituted it to be for life. He said that the two shall be one flesh (Gen. 2:24). Jesus added, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6; Mk. 10:9). Man does not have the liberty to divorce at will with the approval of God.
The Pharisees did not like the answer Jesus gave and raised this question: “Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorcement, and to put her away?” (Matt. 19:7) They evidently had reference to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The response that Jesus gave is very enlightening: “Moses for your hardness of heart suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it hath not been so” (Matt. 19:8).
If one divorces for a cause other than the fornication of his or her companion, then one sins. The Scriptures are really clear on this point. Jesus said that “it was said also, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matt. 5:31-32).
Dismissing a marriage companion for a cause other than fornication does not dissolve a marriage. According to the teaching of Jesus, if one does dismiss a companion and marries another, then he commits adultery. If adultery on the part of one’s companion is the reason or cause for the dismissing of the companion, the innocent one may marry another without committing adultery (Matt. 19:9). Mark is especially clear on this point in his account: “whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her; and if she herself shall put away her husband, and marry another, she committeth adultery” (Mk. 10:11-12).
There are some other passages that need to be studied in this connection. If a believer is married to an unbeliever and the unbeliever is content to remain in the marital relation, a brother or sister in such a case is not to leave such a person (1 Cor. 7:12-13). Paul teaches that if an unbelieving companion departs, let the companion depart. He adds, “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us in peace” (1 Cor. 7:15). Bondage in this passage is from dedoulotai (the verb is douloo), which means to be enslaved or to be “held by constraint of law or necessity, in some matter” (Thayer). Evidently, this refers to obligations in the relation: bed and board. When the unbeliever wilfully departs, no obligation, necessity, or requirement to provide for the needs of that person is laid on the believer in that situation of willful separation.
The rule is that one is not to put away one’s companion in marriage. However, if either the wife or the husband separates, then the husband or the wife in either case is to remain unmarried or be reconciled (1 Cor. 7:11). In this case, divorce is not contemplated by Paul, only separation. Remarriage is not an option in this case if one is to have the approval of God.
In some causes it may be that one’s companion wilfully departs by means of divorce with no cause of fornication being present. In this case, the one that divorces sins. The other companion cannot control this event. Evidently the one divorced does not sin in this case for that person did not do the divorcing.
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 6, pp. 165, 167
March 21, 1991