For Those Who Have Remarried
For those who have remarried, what should you do? Before I try to answer this question I want to say this has been the most difficult section to write, for I know of many who have been unwillingly divorced or had unfaithful and abusive spouses and I do not want to add to their guilt or pain. Nevertheless I believe scripture clearly teaches remarriage after divorce is wrong. Whether we believed we had justification or not to divorce, remarriage, according to Jesus, is adultery. For the one unwillingly divorced, though you had no intention to commit wrong, by remarrying became party to adultery. Understandably this can be hard to accept if we are the ones who have been wronged.
What about those who were divorced and remarried before they became Christians? Scripture doesn’t specifically address this and inevitably there would have been some who been divorced and remarried as unbelievers when Paul wrote his letters to the young Gentile churches. Therefore we must be guided by what is said in Scripture, not by what is not. Though we may have been ignorant of God’s laws, once we know the truth we become accountable. But God, in His grace, freely forgives those who repent. However those who know the truth but justify their sin is a most serious matter. The consequences of wilful sin are grave, as it will incur God’s judgement (Hebrews 10:26-31).
Many marriage beds these days have been defiled – whether it be through fornication (pre-marital sex) or adultery (through divorce and remarriage). In this respect many of us have fallen short of God’s righteousness (Hebrews 13:4). Yet all sin (except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit) is forgivable where there is confession and genuine repentance. That is God’s grace. Repentance, however, will have a personal cost and we need to do whatever the Holy Spirit tells us to obtain a good conscience.
What will repentance specifically mean? It will mean in the first instance a change of mind: “I was wrong to divorce and remarry”. Some, believing remarriage is ongoing adultery, have separated. Others have, for the sake of their children, remained living together but as brother and sister, that is ceasing sexual relations. Still others, while realising their remarriage was wrong, never the less believed they should honour their present marriage. Circumstances will differ enormously but circumstances or what other people do cannot be our guide. Again, we must be guided by what we know of scripture and the Holy Spirit. Only God knows the intentions of our heart and it is before Christ that we must give account.
Never the less, I would emphasise the need to have a good conscience and by it know God’s peace.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
But this we can say for certain: We must stop divorcing and remarrying. Repentance will mean making a genuine apology, asking for forgiveness from the previous spouse and children. It will mean, where necessary, making provision for a previous wife if they have not remarried. Pastors and clergy who conduct marriages need to teach the true nature of the covenant of marriage and the unconditional vow of faithfulness until death without fear of man’s censure. Some may understandably have to make a difficult, and probably unpopular decision, when a couple (one or both who have been divorced) want to remarry.
This raises the serious issue of church discipline where Christians divorce and remarry in blatant disobedience to Jesus’ teaching on marriage. Though scripture gives clear guidelines of when and how to exercise discipline within the church it is now rarely practised. Ronald J. Sider in his book ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience‘ (p 92, Baker Books 2005) said:
‘in one congregation I know in my evangelical denomination, a man and a woman from two different married couples had an affair, divorced their spouses, married each other, and assumed they could continue in good standing in the congregation in spite of their defiance of Jesus’s teaching and the destruction of two families. Not even in this blatant case of stark disobedience could this evangelical congregation muster the courage to exercise church discipline.‘
It seems that in the name of being ‘loving and forgiving’ discipline is not being carried out even when it is clearly justified. This is a tragic error and only serves to increase sin – leaven (1 Corinthians 5:7) – and weaken our resolve to be a ‘holy people’ before God. It is His honour and word that is ultimately at stake. The goal of discipline is to restore a sinning member. It is not about censure or punishment. As Paul encourages the church in Galatia:
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
Therefore when there is genuine repentance and forsaking of the sin we ought to be ready to love and forgive. That shows true (agape) love.
So we need to be guided foremost by love for God (shown in obeying His commands) and then by the principles of love – both for the existing spouse and former spouse (and children).
One of the basic requirements of being a disciple of Jesus is to deny ourselves if we are to follow Him. In the short term, yes, it can be difficult – but not impossible for in Christ we are given the power and strength to do his will, as Paul encourages us:
For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:9-14).
When we choose to do what is right there will be a personal cost but in the end we will experience that inner peace and joy that all the comforts of life in this world cannot surpass. It is in times of trial that God wants us to draw closer to Him, to draw on his power and strength so the life of His Son will be formed in us. Until we fully trust Him in such times we may not know His grace and provision.