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Does Divorce Terminate Marriage?

Brenton C. Ferry

Some people believe that divorced couples prior to the death of one spouse are still married "in God's eyes," because passages like Matthew 5:31–32 call remarriage "adultery." More moderately, others believe marriage is dissolvable, but only on condition of adultery or abandonment.[1]

According to variations of this view, if you are divorced and remarried, then you have more than one wife, and you are not eligible to serve as a deacon or elder. According to this view, the reason why Paul tells Christians to reconcile with their divorced spouses or to otherwise remain single, is because such couples are actually still married to one another "in God's eyes." (Though Paul's use of the description "unmarried" actually assumes the opposite.) According to this view, the reason why Paul says a spouse is "bound" for life to the other is not simply because divorce is against God's law, but because illegal divorce is impossible to effect.

When I was in college, I worked for a man who was divorced. His church would not let him get remarried, because "in God's eyes" he was still married to his former wife. To get remarried would have been to enter into a life of perpetual adultery. I heard of a man who was divorced, then remarried, then had a family with his second wife, then adopted the view that he was still married to his first wife "in God's eyes." Then he divorced his second wife (to whom he was never actually married "in God's eyes"). Then he remarried his first wife and brought her into his second home where everyone lived together! As a pastor I have had to counsel a person against divorcing his second wife for this reason.

Does divorce really terminate marriage? In all circumstances, yes! If not, divorce would be an impossible sin to commit. Then what do we make of passages like Matthew 5:31–32 which refer to remarriage as adultery?

First, in Matthew 5, the word "adultery" is used loosely, simply as a place-holder for the seventh commandment. Jesus means only to say remarriage is a violation of the seventh commandment (which encompasses all sexual sin, not just adultery proper). For example, earlier he likens anger and name-calling to murder. But that is not to say that anger and name-calling are equal to murder. He only means such behavior falls under the jurisdiction of the sixth commandment. Similarly, he likens lust with the eyes to adultery. But that is not to say that lust with the eyes is equal to adultery. Rather, lust with the eyes violates the seventh commandment. Likewise, when Jesus likens remarriage to adultery, he means it violates the seventh commandment. He is not implying that the former marriage was never terminated. Only that the seventh commandment was violated.

Second, Christ is limiting the scope of his discussion to non-contact sins that fall short of the worded commandments mentioned. Name-calling and anger fall short of literal murder, and do not imply the death of the victim. Looking at someone with the eyes falls short of literal adultery, and does not imply sexual contact. Remarriage falls short of literal adultery and does not imply a continuation of the former marriage. So again, it is contrary to the movement of the passage to infer that the charge of adultery implies an intact marriage.

Third, Jesus is using a figure of speech called irony, in which a sense contrary to the strict meaning of the word is used. Isn't it ironic that you can "murder" someone by simply calling him a name or being angry with him? Isn't it ironic that you can commit "adultery" with someone by simply looking at her? Isn't it ironic that you can commit "adultery" against someone to whom you are not even married? The force of irony depends on a non-literal use of the word "adultery." Far from implying the continuation of marriage, the force of irony depends on the literal termination of the marriage, just as the sense of irony depends on the fact that the ones hated and lusted after were never actually touched by their perpetrators.

Therefore, to infer that the charge of adultery implies the indissolubility of the marriage is like saying that someone is literally "dead in God's eyes" if you call him a fool. It is like saying you can literally get someone pregnant by looking at her with lust. Rather, the whole force of Jesus' teaching rests on the terminated state of the marriage. You can sin against your spouse even if you are no longer married to one another! The option of divorce and remarriage is no avenue of escape from the reach of the seventh commandment.

Divorce really terminates marriage. That is why God hates it. That is why it is a sin (in all but two circumstances). To infer that the charge of adultery implies the indissolubility of marriage is to miss the point.


[1] John Murray, Divorce (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R), 25. Murray says, "Illegitimate divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond and consequently the fact of such divorce does not relieve the parties concerned from any of the obligations incident to marriage. They are still in reality bound to one another in the bonds of matrimony and a marital relation or any exercise of the privileges and rights of the marital relation with any other is adultery. Whatever the law of men may enact, this is the law of Christ's kingdom and to it the laws of men should conform."

Brenton C. Ferry is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, serving as pastor of Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Ordained Servant, March 2008.

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