It seems to me that most Christians have chosen to ignore Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage. I realize that the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage is not crystal clear, and that even conservative Christians hold to a number of different interpretations of the Biblical teaching. That said, I think it’s abundantly clear that Jesus only permitted divorce and remarriage in a very narrow set of circumstances.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Mt 19:3-10, ESV)

It’s pretty clear that Jesus opposed no-fault divorce, which is tantamount to our modern “irreconcilable differences.” Jesus only provided one justification for divorce, and it has to do with some kind of sexual sin (opinions differ as to what constitutes this sin). Unfortunately, I would venture to say that most confessing Christians get a divorce for irreconcilable differences as opposed to sexual sin.

It’s also pretty clear that if Jesus allowed remarriage for the divorced at all, He only allowed it for those whose divorce was justified. That would limit remarriage to the person who divorced his/her spouse for sexual sin. It does not include the person who committed sexual sin, nor those who divorced for reasons other than sexual sin. And yet, improperly divorced Christians get remarried with the sanction of the church all the time. I am not personally aware of a single case in which an improperly divorced Christian was prohibited from remarriage by church leadership.

What got me thinking about this was an article I read a few months ago regarding a former pastor. His former wife divorced him for infidelity, and he has since remarried. Surely, if Jesus’ teaching against remarriage applies to anyone, it is to a person in this precise situation. If the church will allow an adulterer to remarry, then who would it possibly prohibit? It seems that no one is prohibited from remarrying these days. Jesus’ teaching is simply ignored.

You might be thinking at this point, “Of course he should be allowed to remarry so long as he repented. That’s what forgiveness is all about.” But Jesus didn’t say that those who wrongly divorce can get remarried if they repent of their divorce. He said that those who wrongly divorce are guilty of adultery if they remarry. There is no “unless they repent” clause. If repentance allowed for remarriage, then to whom does Jesus’ teaching apply? It would only apply to the unrepentant. Since genuine Christians will repent, then every genuine Christian could remarry and Jesus’ teaching would be effectively nullified.

I’m not the only one who recognized there was no repentance clause in Jesus’ teaching. So did His disciples. That’s why they reacted to Jesus’ teaching by saying, “If that’s the case, then it’s better to never marry.” The disciples’ understood Jesus to mean that the grounds for divorce and remarriage were very narrow, and few would “qualify.” Jesus didn’t correct their understanding by saying, “Hold your horses, boys. You misunderstood. When I said those who remarry following an unjustified divorce commit adultery, I was only referring to the unrepentant. If you repent regarding your unjustified divorce, you can remarry.” If Jesus’ teaching was conditioned on repentance, He could have said so. He didn’t, because His teaching was not conditioned on one’s repentance. God may forgive the sin of divorce when one repents, but there are still consequences for that sin that remain – one of which is the inability to remarry. While those guilty of unjust divorce do need to repent of their sin, there is no reason to believe that such repentance erases the consequences of their sin. While God may forgive them for what they did, that forgiveness is not grounds for a new marriage.

My purpose for this post is not to shame anyone who has already remarried following an unjustified divorce, or to explore every possible exception and circumstance. Rather, I am speaking to those who seek to be married, the married, and the divorced who have not remarried, encouraging them to be obedient to Jesus. I am also speaking to pastors who have – for too long – been silent on this issue. It’s time we start taking Jesus’ teaching seriously and apply it in the real world. Obedience matters, especially when it hurts.

If you are interested to learn more about this topic, I will be releasing a paper soon that is the culmination of over one year of study on this topic. Stay tuned.