Some time ago, I participated in a debate about divorce and remarriage in Church. I argued that a divorced person may be remarried in church during the lifetime of a former spouse, certainly if the divorce had been occasioned by adultery on the part of the former spouse, and possibly for other reasons also. I’m afraid I don’t have a record of the counter-argument, but here’s what I presented:-
There are many things that we should be able to agree on:-
that marriage is ordained by God, Gen 2:24.
that God calls some people to a single and celibate life
that God’s will is that marriage should be a life-long covenant.
that marriage in the present day is in a state of crisis, largely because of a loss of the Christian concept of marriage as self-giving, rather than as self-fulfilment.
that ‘marital breakdown is always a tragedy. It contradicts God’s will, frustrates his purpose, brings to husband and wife the acute pains of alienation, disillusion, recrimination and guilt, and precipitates in any children of the marriage a crisis of bewilderment, insecurity and often anger.’ (John Stott)
that any remarriage therefore takes place ‘under the shadow of a broken covenant’.
But are there circumstances in which the word of God permits, and so therefore the Church may condone, remarriage after divorce?
I want to focus on the teaching of our Lord in Matthew 5:31-32. Here (if you like) is a ‘rule’ – no remarriage after divorce; with an exception to the ‘rule’ – except in the case of marital unfaithfulness. According to this ‘rule’, the Church may certainly condone the marriage of a divorced person, if the divorce had been occasioned by adultery on the part of the former spouse.
So far so good. But I said that I was also going to argue that the Church may be able condone the marriage of a divorced person possibly for other reasons also.
You see, I have just been treating the Sermon on the Mount as if it were a set of rules. But I now want to put it to you that in doing so we are rather missing the point. In fact, what we have in Matthew 5:31-32 is not so much a rule but rather an illustration of a general principle, couched (as so much of our Lord’s teaching was) in the form of figurative speech. The general principle was announced in ch. 5:20, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This general principle will be summed up in ch. 5:48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Between these comes Jesus’ saying about divorce, which comes as one of a series of striking illustrations, in which Jesus is comparing the righteousness demanded by the scribes and Pharisees with the ‘higher righteousness’ demanded by the kingdom of God.
My point, then, is this: to go combing through the teachings of Jesus and of Paul for rules about marriage and divorce, and then to comb through them again try look for exceptions to the rules, is simply the wrong procedure to use. Rather than attempting to draw up a set of rules, difficult to formulate and probably impossible to implement, the church needs to accept that it has a twofold task: to bear witness to the divine will for permanancy in marriage and also to God’s gospel of grace and forgiveness. There is no simple way of resolving the tension between these two things. We need firmness and gentleness, general principles and individual flexibility. We can find things that look like rules in Scripture if we go hunting for them. But Scripture itself is pushing us beyond rules, to wisdom. And only wisdom, informed by God’s word, motivated by God’s compassion, and empowered by God’s Spirit, will equip us for what I believe God wants us to do: to assert of the sanctity of marriage and also to demonstrate compassion for those whose marriages have died and who are genuinely seeking to build a new life with the blessing of God and the support and prayers of the people of God.