Matthew 19:9 says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” This passage is rarely taught. Most people agree Jesus’ take on marriage is firmer than society’s take. Jesus wants marriage to last until death. Jesus only permits divorce in the case of adultery, and only allows the innocent person to remarry. A second marriage in any other case He defines as adultery.
Here’s the part that gets really heart-wrenching: What does God expect of those who are already in second marriages, who discover this truth?
Repentance is part of the gospel (Acts 2:38, 17:30). Clearly, if one is in a relationship that Jesus defines as adultery, repentance is necessary. Repentance is to have a change of heart regarding sin, and to stop practicing it (Acts 26:20). If God defines a marriage as sinful, the only way to repent is to quit the marriage. It’s hard to tell a couple they must separate to be saved—especially if they have a loving relationship and children.
This is not one of those things we can agree to disagree on. If I tell the couple it’s OK to stay together and I’m wrong, they are committing adultery and I have given them false hope (Matt. 15:14). If I tell a couple they must separate and I am wrong, I have likely driven them away from God’s grace (Matt. 18:6, 23:13). Which makes me want to thoroughly investigate all possible ways to view this passage.
I wonder if perhaps Jesus condemns the act of remarriage, the moment in time when the new vow was pronounced, not the subsequent relationship. Perhaps we should not compound one wrong with another. Perhaps the couple should, from this moment forward, be faithful to what vows they are currently under. I like that logic. But it’s not what Jesus says. Jesus defines a second marriage as adultery. Apparently, He views the first marriage, which God joined together, as in force. Otherwise, He wouldn’t call it adultery. And adultery requires repentance.
I wonder about baptism, which “washes away sin” (Acts 22:16). Could a couple who got remarried before they knew the truth get baptized, thus washing away their sin and sanctifying the union, allowing them to continue in their relationship? I don’t think it works that way. Baptism washes away sin, but it doesn’t change the nature of sin itself. A baptized believer gets a new start on life; but not a license to keep committing sin. The individual enters sin once again, just as soon as he or she goes back home to his spouse. Repentance requires quitting the union Jesus defines as adultery.
Let me offer an example. After the recent Supreme Court ruling, all states must recognize gay marriage. If a gay couple learned the gospel, and wanted to be saved, what would God require for repentance? Would baptism erase the sinful nature of their marriage, permitting them to remain in it? Would the preacher be correct to admonish them to separate, regardless of what the courts ruled?
Or, if a bank robber stole $10,000, buried it, learned the gospel, and was baptized, would he be allowed to spend the money?
This agonizing subject fills me with self-doubt. It’s tempting to avoid it, but I cannot (Acts 20:27). I get angry that God would put me in this position! Then I remember that it is not God who is to blame, but rather Satan, who has darkened the minds of society. Not long ago, people read the Bible and married “for better or worse.” Divorce was rare. This would not have been a challenging doctrine. Society has changed, not God.
Still I hesitate and wonder about the mercy of Jesus. I can imagine Him sitting with a couple in a second marriage, saying in His compassionate way, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way…” (John 8:11). But, Jesus also demands repentance (Luke 13:5). He said, “…and sin no more.”
It would be easier to stomach the idea that splitting up a married couple is compatible with the will of a merciful God, if I could only see an example of it in the Bible. Then, I discovered two—Ezra 10 and Mark 6. It is immaterial why these marriages were defined as sinful in their context of the Law—it’s the principle that there are situations where God demands a married couple split up.
This teaching may turn off many to the gospel. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:7–42) proves that those involved in unions Jesus defines as adultery are deeply loved by God, and deserve a chance to hear the truth and repent and be saved. Giving up one’s spouse and living a single life is drastic, but “there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12). —John Guzzetta