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Divorce-and-Remarriage

The official catechism for the Roman Catholic Church forbids that Eucharistic communion be given to those who have divorced and remarried and are living in this second marriage as man and wife:

In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”—the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.

Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons:

They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace.

The Catholic Synod of Bishops recently debated this issue, with liberal bishops arguing that exceptions to this rule should be made on a pastoral, case-by-case basis. The synod functions not as a decision-making body within the Church but rather provides the Pope with reflections and counsel through their deliberations and final report. While Pope Francis seems to be with the liberal bishops on this, it’s unclear to me (as an outside Protestant observer) that there will be any change to the Church’s doctrine or practice.

Evangelicals are divided on the question of what exceptions, if any, allow for divorce and then for remarriage. They tend to be united, however, against the Catholic view that a sinful remarriage should also be broken.

In his book This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 170-71, John Piper offers three reasons for this view. I’ve reprinted the relevant section below.


 

I do not think that a person who remarries against God’s will, and thus commits adultery in this way [Luke 16:18], should later break the second marriage. The marriage should not have been done, but now that it is done, it should not be undone by man. It is a real marriage. Real covenant vows have been made. And that real covenant of marriage may be purified by the blood of Jesus and set apart for God. In other words, I don’t think that a couple who repents and seeks God’s forgiveness and receives his cleansing should think of their lives as ongoing adultery, even though, in the eyes of Jesus, that’s how the relationship started. There are several reasons why I believe this.

1. Deuteronomy 24:4 speaks against going back to a first husband after marrying a second.

First, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where the permission for divorce was given in the law of Moses, it speaks of the divorced woman being “defiled” in the second marriage so that it would be an abomination for her to return to her first husband, even if her second husband died. This language of defilement is similar to Jesus’ language of adultery. And yet the second marriage stood. It was defiling in some sense, yet it was valid.

2. Jesus seemed to regard multiple marriages as wrong but real.

Another reason I think remarried couples should stay together is that when Jesus met the woman of Samaria, he said to her, “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18). When Jesus says, “The one you have now is not your husband,” he seems to imply that the other five were. Not that it’s right to divorce and marry five times. But the way Jesus speaks of it sounds as though he saw them as real marriages. Illicit. Adulterous to enter into, but real. Valid.

3. Even vows that should not be made should generally be kept.

The third reason I think remarried couples should stay together is that even vows that should not be made, once they are made, should generally be kept. I don’t want to make that absolute for every conceivable situation, but there are passages in the Bible that speak of vows being made that should not have been made, but they were right to keep (like Joshua’s vow to the Gibeonites in Joshua 9). God puts a very high value on keeping our word, even when it gets us in trouble (“[The godly man] swears to his own hurt and does not change,” Ps. 15:4). In other words, it would have been more in keeping with God’s revealed will not to remarry, but adding the sin of another covenant-breaking does not please God more.

There are marriages in the church I serve that are second marriages for one or both partners, which, in my view, should not have happened, but are today godly marriages—marriages that are clean and holy, and in which forgiven, justified husbands and wives please God by the way they relate to each other. As forgiven, cleansed, Spirit-led followers of Jesus, they are not committing adultery in their marriages. These marriages began as they should not have but have become holy.


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7 thoughts on “3 Reasons Those Who Are Unbiblically Remarried After a Divorce Should Not Leave Their New Spouse”

  1. David A Evans says:

    What exactly do you do with the Book of Hosea, Jeremiah 3, Ezra 9-10. Deuteronomy 24:1-4, is about protecting the land, what land do we have as Christians, exactly??

  2. Brandon Vogt says:

    Piper seems to concede that divorcing and remarrying, presumably while the previous spouses are still alive, is indeed sinful. So the core dispute is not whether entering a second valid marriage is sinful–Piper, Catholics, and almost all other Christians agree that it is. The contentious question is whether such a person continues sinning as long as they remain in the (presumably sexual) relationship–or whether the relationship becomes un-sinful (even “holy”) at some point.

    This is the heart of the disagreement: Catholics and some Protestants agree with Christ that it’s always sinful to be in a sexually-active relationship while your valid, original spouse is still alive, while Piper believes it stops being sinful at some particular point.

    The pivotal question for Piper, which he never touches upon, is this: at what specific point does a relationship that began as sinful–more specifically, adulterous–become “clean and holy”?

    For Catholics, we agree with Jesus that what God has joined, no man can separate (Mk 10:9). When a couple validly marries, their marital bond lasts until “death do them part.” Even if they contract a civil divorce, they’re still married in the eyes of the Church. Thus, if they attempt to contract a second valid marriage, that’s not what they’re actually seeking–because “second valid marriages” are impossible. Each person remains married, in the eyes of God, to their original, valid spouse, until that spouse dies.

    Yet as we all know, millions of people do attempt to contract second valid marriages. So what then? How should Christians seeking to be faithful to Christ respond? Well, contrary to what Piper suggests in this article, there are more than two options. He suggests the only alternatives are either to continue the (presumably sexual) relationship as-is, or separate completely.

    Yet nobody, whether Catholic or Protestant, is suggesting that divorced and remarried people necessarily, and in every case, leave their spouse.

    For Catholics, some other possible alternatives may include pursuing the annulment process to investigate whether the first marriage was truly valid (if it wasn’t, the new couple can have their “new” marriage validated by the Church, technically making it their first marriage); remaining with the new partner but in a non-sexual relationship; or ceasing sexual activity until the original spouses pass away, and then having their union validated by the Church. The Catholic Church doesn’t require that divorced and remarried people separate from their new partners and, in most cases, that would not be prudential–especially if children are involved.

    So I think Piper’s position is doubly misguided. First, he offers no principled reason to assume that what began as a sinful relationship can transition into being un-sinful–he just asserts the possibility without defending it. Second, he presents a false dilemma between two options, stay in a sexual relationship or leave the spouse, when more options are available, options that satisfy the demands of fidelity both to Christ and one’s partner.

    1. steve hays says:

      As I recall, Brandon is a Protestant convert to Rome.

      Brandon is misrepresenting the issue. Piper didn’t concede that divorce and remarriage are inherently sinful. Rather, he was explicitly dealing with those who didn’t have biblical grounds to get divorced, then remarried. Brandon is reframing the issue in Catholic terms. But that is not Piper’s frame of reference.

      Likewise, he recasts the issue in terms of validity or invalidity. Hovering in the background is the Catholic notion of annulment. That’s another example of Brandon dragging Catholic categories into a Protestant debate.

      He then tendentiously says Catholics and some Protestants agree with Christ, as if Protestants who disagree with Rome disagree with Christ. Nice example of begging the question.

      Not surprisingly, he quotes Mark rather than Matthew. Matthew is inconvenient for his position, since that quotes Jesus giving infidelity as legitimate grounds for divorce (and, by implication, remarriage).

      Likewise, Brandon equates marriage in the eyes of Rome with marriage in the eyes of God. Sorry, but Protestants don’t grant that equation.

      Then, as a loyal convert to Rome, he touts annulment, which is a scandalous ruse.

      BTW, Cardinal Kasper said last May that “I’ve spoken to the pope himself about this, and he said he believes that 50 percent of marriages are not valid.”

      That’s referring to Roman Catholic marriages. Perhaps Brandon should refocus his attention on the shambles of his adopted denomination.

    2. steve hays says:

      Brandon’s defense of his denomination’s traditional position is ironic considering the fact that Pope Francis is laboring to liberalize the position of Brandon’s sect. That was abundantly clear in the closing speech he gave at the Synod, where he targeted “a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – ‘traditionalists’ and also of the intellectuals.”

      That’s clearly a slam at the bishops who tried to hold the line on traditional policy and theology.

  3. Doug says:

    Since marriage and divorce do not happen in a vacuum, the ill consequences of actions and detrimental effects on others must also be taken into account. It is for this reason that some, such as Luther, advised aberrant marriage partners to flee to distant lands, rather than stay in the proximity of former spouses or family members.

  4. Doug says:

    Also, we speak in terms of how the Church should handle re-marriage and divorce. We should also note that the civil government has a responsibility in the matter of protecting marriage and restraining infidelity, as Christ implied when the woman caught in adultery was brought to him. It was the determination of God that proven adulterers be punished with death. In the case of adultery, the Law required the punishment of both parties to the crime, yet in this case the woman was the only one brought forward. When Christ said, “He who is without sin cast the first stone”, the all-male prosecutors withdrew charges. I think we can safely assume they were all partners in the crime with this woman. Thus Christ upheld the legitimacy of civil restraint in regards to protecting marriage while at the same time as Savior, he exercised grace.

  5. David says:

    Interestingly,

    Regarding Point 3, to swear to one’s own hurt is not equal to swearing to one’s own sin. If Rev. Dr. Piper believes the agreement should not have been made because it is a sin, then that is different from saying the agreement should not have been made because it was beyond one’s wisdom at the time. To make this clearer, consider making an agreement with a sinful person, if they cheat you, then you keep the agreement because you’re a righteous person and breaking the agreement now could mar your testimony of being honest and faithful to your word – even if you didn’t understand the full implications of the agreement. But, consider an agreement to join another person in planning and committing theft. Then you are fully allowed to break such an agreement, and the Psalm does not apply. In fact, you can only be a righteous man/woman by breaking such agreements with sin.

    Therefore, regardless of what the other points are, this point does not apply as he intended.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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