Marriage is a wonderful blessing and sacrament instituted by God so that a man and woman may become one flesh and grow closer to God. Upon making the vows and consummating their union, the couple unites as one “until death do they part.” Nothing at all can separate this special union that God has made holy. There are times when it is acceptable to part, though, such as an abusive relationship or endangerment to the children by either spouse. Even though the cases in which divorce are acceptable is rare, even then, Jesus tells us that it is unlawful, even adulterous to attempt to re-marry (except in cases where the first marriage was unlawful itself, see annulments at the end of the article). Let’s look at these places in the Bible where Jesus and St. Paul talk about divorce and re-marriage.
Mosaic Law and Divorce, Jesus’ Restoration of Sacredness to Marriage:
There are multiple places in the Gospel where Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees on whether or not it is lawful to divorce. (I quote Mark, but see also Matt 19:6-9 and Luke 16:18):
“2 The Pharisees approached [Jesus] and asked, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?" They were testing him. 3 He said to them in reply, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They replied, "Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her." 5 But Jesus told them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female. 7 For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate." 10 In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. 11 He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (Mark 10:2-12 NAB)
Jesus is saying here that divorce was originally allowed because of the hardness of the peoples’ hearts. This means that people were so adamant about ignoring God’s natural laws that Moses created a law (something he was allowed to do, authority given to him by God) that allowed divorce. Though nothing from the Old Covenant shall be stricken from the Law, Jesus commands that if you do divorce, attempting to re-marry would be equivalent, in God’s eyes, to adultery.
This is permanency until death is reiterated in many passages. Paul, writing to the Romans states:
“2 Thus a married woman is bound by law to her living husband; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law in respect to her husband. 3 Consequently, while her husband is alive she will be called an adulteress if she consorts with another man. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and she is not an adulteress if she consorts with another man.” (Romans 7:2-3 NAB)
And again to the Corinthians:
“10 To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband 11 --and if she does separate she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband--and a husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11 NAB)
A living example:
Jesus approaches a pagan woman in the Samarian town of Sychar and talks with her. During the discussion Jesus reveals a bit of His plan for salvation for the Gentiles, but during this Jesus makes it a point to reveal something about her marriage to prove another point:
“16 Jesus said to her, "Go call your husband and come back." 17 The woman answered and said to him, "I do not have a husband." Jesus answered her, "You are right in saying, 'I do not have a husband.' 18 For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true." (John 4:16-18 NAB)
This example here shows what Jesus thinks of re-marriage. In fact that re-marriage is not a marriage at all. This teaching can be hard to hear for some, but Jesus asks us to trust in Him and believe. All He asks of us is for our own eternal good.
Matthew’s “except in cases of adultery” clause:
Some Christians point to Matthew 19:9 to justify divorce at least in the case of infidelity—or unfaithfulness (first example given is from the New International Version and the second from King James Version):
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." (Matthew 19:9 NIV)
“And I say to you, Whoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery: and whoever marries her which is put away does commit adultery.” (Matthew 19:9 KJV)
These Christians point to the clause, “except for marital unfaithfulness/fornication,” and justify divorce on these grounds. Let’s look at the New American Bible translation though:
“’9 I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.’" (Matthew 19:9 NAB)
It seems that one word here is translated differently than others. Let’s look at the original Greek and find the word used. For space I’ll only show the clause in dispute:
“…mē epi porneia…” or literally “except for unchastity/unlawfulness”. The word “porneia” is translated in many places as unchastity such as in Matt 15:19, Mark 7:21, and Acts 15:18-19. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 it is translated as immorality, particularly incest and unlawfulness. So using it with the understood context of all these words it would seem that it could be translated as any or a combination of the three since all these are implied by the word itself.
So does this mean the only way to divorce is to commit adultery? If so, this would seem to encourage this sin and punish those who were faithful (and want a divorce). What an odd workaround that would be suggested by Jesus. God does not contradict in cases of morality when correctly understood. So no, adultery is not a just cause for re-marriage after divorce.
Logically then it would seem to have the most likely translation of unlawfulness. For this to carry on there must be a way to determine the unlawfulness of a marriage. Only Christ and the leaders He appointed to the Church are given the authority in this matter, and they came up with the process of annulment based on Scripture and Tradition.
What can one do if faced with divorce and you wish to remarry?
The first thing that can be tried is a declaration of nullity, otherwise known as an annulment. What an annulment is not, is a church sanctioned divorce. Annulments and divorces are not synonymous in any way (although the confusion by the secular world is understandable).
An annulment is the process that determines whether or not a lawful marriage happened in the first place due to circumstances before and at the time of the wedding.
So what determines if a marriage was unlawful? Our Church Fathers determined them with Scripture and sacred Tradition using logic. Examples of things that could make a marriage unlawful include (but are not limited to): Previous marriage, incestuous relationship (bride and groom are directly related), informal ceremony (for Catholics only), un-openess to children at the time of marriage, one or both parties entering the marriage against their will, etc…
If any of these things are found, the marriage can be considered annulled, or in easier terms to understand: The marriage never existed in the first place, because something prevented it from being a marriage. In this case, the two are free to marry.
Sometimes no impediment to marriage can be found. If this is the case, the Church has no authority to break apart what God has joined (remember, an annulment means that there wasn’t a marriage in the first place, so there was nothing to break apart). A civil divorce, though it may seem to on the outside, does not actually break the marriage. The government cannot and does not have the power to break apart what God has joined. Only the death of the spouse can finalize a marriage.
If annulment isn’t granted:
Even Jesus can understand the pain that divorce can cause in the divorcees themselves. Not everyone is meant to re-marry; even some are meant to focus totally on Him through other ministries. Just as the infertile couple may be called to adoption or teaching to fulfill a spiritual parenthood, so may the recently divorced be called to a spiritual marriage and devotion to God. Some ways this can be done is a strong prayer life, caring for the poor, working with people in unfortunate circumstances and other acts of service.
Jesus Himself was betrayed by those closest to Him just like some betray their spouse, but through Jesus’ sacrifice, our suffering can have meaning through Him. If you choose to follow God’s will and are still inflicted with sadness, unite your sufferings on Jesus’ cross, following Him with your own cross. God will not give you more than you can handle if you are faithful to Him.
“13 No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13 NAB)
I used the NIV, AKJV, and NAB Bibles for quotations.