J. Lee Sanders, et al

Based on the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:3 l, 32; 19: 1-9; Mark 10:11, 12 and Luke 16: 18, five general conclusions regarding divorce and remarriage have been drawn. They are as follows.

(1) Jesus gave only one reason for divorce (fornication).

(2) If there is a divorce for any cause other than fornication and one or both spouses remarry it is not recognized by God. "In the eyes of God" they are still married to one another.

(3) In the case of remarriage each act of sex would constitute adultery as this would be sex with someone other than a spouse. The word adultery in the Greek text is in the present tense denoting continuous action, thus both would be "living in adultery."

(4) If a spouse commits fornication the innocent party has a "scriptural right" to divorce and remarry. The guilty party can never remarry.

(5) If a person or a couple who have an unlawful divorce in their background wanted to become Christians they must break up their marriage as a part of repentance. Upon breaking up they could return to their first spouse but if this is not possible they must remain single and never remarry.

In recent years there has been much re-study of the whole issue of divorce and remarriage. The above conclusions have seemingly been reached by false reasoning. This comes to light immediately when we contrast what we have been teaching with what Jesus actually said:

We have assumed these are logical deductions, but are they flawed? Let us see.

1. If a man puts away his wife except for         fornication. 1. Only way you can put away is if she is guilty of fornication.
2. And shall marry another 2. "In the eyes of God" one is not really married to a second person but in fact is still married to the first person.
3. Commits adultery 3. Adultery is committed with each subsequent sex act with a second spouse.

Thus, one is "living in adultery."


We teach one cannot put away a spouse unless he or she has committed fornication. If there is no fornication then there can be no divorce even if a spouse goes through the process of having it legalized.

What we fail to recognize is that when Jesus said, '"What God has joined together let not man put asunder," he is not saying "What God has joined together is impossible to put asunder." God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) but this does not mean he refuses to recognize divorce when it occurs. When Jesus said, "Whosoever shall put away his wife," he recognized divorce as a fact of life. Nowhere does he teach that divorce is not a divorce. Nowhere does the Bible speak of an "unscriptural divorce".

In I Corinthians 7:15 Paul says if an unbelieving spouse leaves a believing spouse the believer is not bound to the covenant of marriage. This is interesting in view of the fact we teach that Jesus gave only one reason for divorce. Here Paul gives desertion as another. It should be obvious there is something wrong with the concept one cannot divorce except for fornication.


We say that Matthew 19:9 teaches that a divorced person does not actually marry a second spouse, but is still married to the first spouse "in the eyes of God." Just as it is impossible to divorce, so it is impossible to marry again. Yet, nowhere do the scriptures say a divorced person can never marry a second spouse. The scriptures teach just the opposite.

When Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman he told her she had had five husbands. Unless all of them died she must have been divorced at times. Each time she remarried it was considered marriage by the Lord for he told her she had had five husbands. They would not have been husbands if she were not married to them. Jesus said the man she was presently living with was not her husband. Why? Because she had never been married to him. Jesus did not tell her she had only been married one time, to the first husband. Thus, in the "eyes of the Lord" this woman was married five times. Our teaching that one cannot remarry is not in harmony with what Jesus taught.


We teach that adultery is committed in sex acts in the second marriage because the couple is not really married. Jesus simply says "commits adultery." He does not say when a guilty party remarries he or she commits adultery in each sex act. We are the ones who say this, not the Lord.

Paul in writing to the church at Corinth states, "Are you married to a wife? Seek not to be divorced, Are you divorced from a wife, seek not a wife. But if you marry you have not sinned." This is very plain. Paul says if you marry you have not sinned even though you are divorced. He does not give the requirements which we impose on couples today. He does not say they sin, live in adultery, when they marry. In view of the wide spread practice of divorce in his day (it was worse with the Gentiles than with the Jews), Paul could have elaborated the conditions that we teach concerning divorce and remarriage. Since the apostle deals with so much pertaining to marriage and divorce in this seventh chapter why did he not bring out at least some of the five general conclusions we teach today?

When Jesus said that "putting away" (divorce) is adultery we immediately think of sex. While the word "adultery" is often used to refer to unfaithful sex activity it has a much broader meaning than this. In Jeremiah 3:6-9 it is used for Israel's unfaithfulness to their covenant with God. It is used frequently in this sense. Backsliding is called adultery in Jeremiah 3:8. Jesus said that lust is adultery in Matthew 5:27, 28. In James 4:4 worldliness is called adultery. In Ezekiel 16:32 idolatry is called adultery. The reason "adultery" can be used in all these different ways is because one of the meanings of adultery is that of unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness is involved in all these things.

With this definition in mind look at Matt. 5:31, 32. Jesus says that "putting away" (divorce) is adultery. He says that by putting away a wife the husband causes her to commit adultery. But how could a husband make his wife commit adultery? She is a free moral agent thus she would have to make that decision. This makes no sense. But if Jesus uses the word "adultery" in the sense of "unfaithfulness" the verse takes on an entirely different meaning. We can now understand that by putting her away he causes her to be put in the position where she can no longer be faithful to her marriage vows even though her desire might be to remain married. What is under consideration is the disruption of the marriage by putting away the wife so she can no longer be loyal to her marriage vows. This was a very common practice among Jewish men. When they got tired of one woman they put her away and got another one thus placing the wife in the awkward position of not being able to continue performing her marriage vows. Thus, sexual activity in a second marriage is not under consideration in this verse but divorce. Divorce is covenant breaking, unfaithfulness, thus the word "adultery" was a fitting word used by Jesus to apply to divorce.

We have already observed that a second marriage is marriage "in the eyes of God". A remarried couple would not be "living in adultery" because adultery is sexual activity with someone other than one's spouse. Sexual relations with a spouse does not constitute adultery. If one were having sexual relations with someone other than their mate they would be guilty of adultery. If he is faithful to his second spouse he cannot commit adultery. Even the guilty party in a previous marriage is considered as married. When Jesus said, "and marries another" in Matthew 19:9 he recognized the guilty party as marrying. We say they're not married, Jesus says they are married. Which will we believe?

We teach that the verb "commit" in Matthew 5:32 is continuous action (living in adultery). In the Greek text this word is in the present indicative mood. It can be translated as one time action or it can be rendered as continuous action. Scholars say the only way to determine which way is by looking at the context. Our brethren, generally speaking, have contended that it can only be translated as continuous action. Thus one keeps on committing adultery. The Greek scholar A.T. Robertson says if the first part of the sentence is strongly one time action then the conclusion of the sentence is one time action. Looking then at the sentence "divorcing" is one time action and so is "marrying another." Therefore "commits adultery" is also one time action. Thus just as one does not keep on divorcing when he divorces and keeps on marrying when he marries, so one does not keep on committing adultery. "Commit adultery" is one time action. This indicates the adultery spoken of here does not have reference to sexual activity in the second marriage. Instead it has to do with the one time action of divorcing. Such action is unfaithfulness (adultery) toward your spouse.

In the Greek language there are three voices which show the connection between the subject and the verb. The active voice shows the subject as performing an action. The middle voice shows the subject as performing some action with reference to himself. The passive voice shows the subject receiving action from another source. Both times in Matthew 5:32 "commit adultery" in the Greek text is in the passive voice thus it receives the action rather than causing it. Adultery is something done to the wife and the man she marries rather than something she and her second husband do. It is something the first husband does to his wife and the man she marries. When the woman remarries, both she and her new spouse have a stigma placed on them by the action of the woman's first husband. The stigma is being divorced and being married to a divorced person. Even with an innocent party divorce always carries a bad connotation. Divorce implies many different things to many different people.

Lenski in his commentary on this passage translated these words with the passive voice in mind. "But I say to you that every man releasing his wife without cause of fornication brings about that she is stigmatized as adulterous; and he who marries her that has been released is stigmatized as adulterous." While both will bear this stigma they are not the cause. It is the conduct of the first spouse that brings the stigma on them and not something they do.

In summation we can only conclude that our teaching, that adultery is committed in sex acts in a second marriage, is a false conclusion.


We have taught that the innocent party in a divorce can remarry but the guilty can never remarry. When Jesus said, "except for fornication" he was not emphasizing the "scriptural right" to divorce. Rather he is pointing out who the guilty party is; who it is that causes the divorce. He is saying, "If you put away your spouse other than for fornication then you are guilty of unfaithfulness to your marriage vows. Although she had every intention of being faithful to you she can no longer honor her vows because you will not let her by putting her away." Jewish men were not putting away their wives for fornication. It could be for the most trivial matter. Jesus then is pointing a finger at Jewish men who were the guilty party rather than the woman who had been faithful.

Jesus does not say a guilty party can never remarry. He can and did as we have already observed in the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman. If the remarried person wants to become a Christian or if he is already one then he needs to understand that he must take his vows seriously and keep them "until death do us part." Christ calls upon Christians to recognize the seriousness of the marriage vows. We conclude then that it is not a matter of a "scriptural right" but that it is a matter of repentance on the part of the guilty party. Repentance involves a change of attitude toward the marriage vows. A guilty party will now have a determination to keep his or her vows.


We teach that if a person or couple with an "unscriptural divorce" in the background want to be baptized they must first break up their marriage. This would be repentance on their part. However, repentance isn't breaking up the marriage but rather a change of attitude toward their vows that says, "I will keep my vows, I will be faithful in every respect to my spouse."

Think for a moment. If you were a gambler, if you were a thief, if you committed murder, if you were a prostitute, you would repent by determining you would never do this again. But if you broke your marriage vows (divorce) then repentance is not enough. You must break up your home. If this is true then this is the only New Testament command that carries with it an earthly penalty. The penalty is living single the rest of your life. Even if one could not "contain" himself he is not to marry (as Paul suggests they do in 1 Corinthians 7:9). In the beginning God said, "It is not good for man to be alone." We should understand it is divorce (breaking vows) that God hates, not marriage.

Perhaps this can be illustrated further by contrasting two men who are guilty of fornication. One is married while the other is single.

1. Commits fornication     l. Commits fornication
2. Breaks up a marriage resulting in a divorce. 2. Breaks up his marriage as a result.
3. Repents, is forgiven 3.Repents, is forgiven
4. Being single he marries. 4.Now being single he remarries.

5. Accepted as he is and is baptized.

5.Told he must break up marriage before he can be baptized, and remain single.

According to our teaching the unmarried fornicator is free to marry but the married fornicator must pay a penalty of remaining single the rest of his life. If the married man cannot remarry why should the unmarried man be permitted to marry? It would seem that the sin in each case is the same and just as serious. Why shouldn't a penalty of celibacy apply to both instead of the one? The idea of breaking up a marriage, and the home where children are involved, is a highly traumatic and emotional situation that does not sound logical or scriptural. We say they must break up their marriage and family but no scripture ever commanded this. In view of the wide spread practice of divorce and remarriage it would seem that somewhere some inspired statement would have been made regarding the breaking up of the home and living a celibate life. Nowhere do we find such teaching. We can only conclude that when we teach men and women to break up their marriage we are in error. We actually become guilty of ordering couples to break their marriage vows.


The emphasis of Scripture is that we are to keep our marriage vows, otherwise we become unfaithful in conduct. If you have broken your vows by divorcing then you have the avenue of repentance and prayer open to you. You must determine to take your present covenant seriously and do your best never to break it. If you truly repent then you will be forgiven, just as any Christian is forgiven of any sin he or she may repent of. There may, as in all sin, be some consequences that will be difficult to bear but there is complete forgiveness. If you are not a Christian then you need to repent and be baptized becoming a Christian (Acts 2:38).

Many live guilt-ridden lives today fearing they are "living in adultery." Others are afraid to be married for fear they will be living in adultery. If you were the cause of the disruption of your former marriage then you can repent and ask for forgiveness, if you have not already done so. If you feel guilty because the one you have married may have been the disruptive force in a previous marriage, there is no need for guilt since you were not the disruptive party. If your previous marriage is one of those complicated situations where you are not certain as to who was responsible for the disruption, you can still ask for forgiveness.

The important thing is that you determine that you will honor your vows with your present spouse and will do your very best to keep them. Sometimes this is not possible because a spouse will not cooperate to bring this about, but at least you have tried. You may live in a situation where your life is threatened by brutality, you have been deserted, or mental cruelty may be causing you to loose your health. Thus you may be forced to divorce or your spouse may get the divorce. While none of these things involved sexual acts nevertheless your spouse is guilty of unfaithfulness. You are not guilty of anything. You have done your best to keep your wedding vows. God knows this. You would not be wrong if some time in the future you decided to marry again. The important thing is to remember to honor and keep your vows the best you possibly can.


NOTE: J. Lee Sanders is an elder (servant) in the church of Christ who has obtained permission to reprint this article written, after much prayer and study, by another elder who wishes his name to remain anonymous at this writing for obvious reasons. Many congregations have yet to recognize the harmfulness of the false teaching of celibacy that is expected of a person who goes through marriage, divorce, and remarriage. As a young Christian, I recognized the absurdity of the doctrine expounded by Pharisaical churches of today that require divorced parties to remain single for the rest of their lives. I highly recommend this article to anyone interested in teaching the truth and relieving the hurt and pain experienced by many couples today. It is absurd to claim to have the mind of Christ and then blatantly slam the door of Christianity in the faces of those who seek Him out. May God bless all who share this article with their neighbors, loved ones, and singles who have been caught up in situations not necessarily of their own making.