“I have heard it said,” writes a gracEmail subscriber from the Southeast USA, “that anyone who divorces a spouse for an ‘unscriptural’ reason and marries someone else must leave their present mate and remarry the original spouse, or else remain unmarried. It is argued that Matthew 19:9 describes an ongoing action which continues simultaneously with any subsequent marriage following an ‘unscriptural’ divorce. What are your thoughts?”
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I think this more closely resembles the teaching of the Pharisees and the Scribes than that of the Lord Jesus Christ (compare Matthew 23:4 with Matthew 11:28-30). In Jesus’ day, the rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai differed on the basis for “lawful” divorces. In Matthew 19, Jesus responds to hypocritical Pharisees who tried to trap him into taking sides with one school or the other. In answer to their trick question, Jesus points to God’s original intent for marriage — which did not include divorce at all. Jesus does not play the “loophole game.” He holds up God’s ideal, to which no one has perfectly conformed, and he forgives repentant sinners in this area of life as well as in others (Matt. 5:27-28; Mark 10:2-9; John 8:3-11).
People who approach God seeking legalistic loopholes always miss the gospel truths that God loves sinners, that we all fit in that category, and that Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection enable us to die to any messed-up past and to begin life afresh as new creations in Jesus Christ. (Modern-day Pharisees even err based on the Law, since Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the text to which Jesus refers in Matthew 19:9, explicitly forbids a return to the first spouse following a second divorce.)
To “commit adultery” is to violate the marriage covenant. Although God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), once a marriage is over it does not exist any longer, and one cannot “adulterate” a covenant which no longer exists. A remarried person does not commit adultery by living faithfully within that marriage. What you have heard distorts Jesus’ teaching and contradicts his example in relating to real people. When Jesus encountered a contrite woman taken in adultery, his response was to forgive her first, then to urge an upright life in the future (John 8:3-11). That is very different from the approach of those today who first condemn, then command impossible deeds as proof of repentance.