The Remarriage of the Guilty Party

Prof. David Engelsma
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Now the guilty party may remarry. The man or the woman who committed adultery against his wife or her husband, thus causing the divorce in his or her first marriage, is allowed to remarry and to be a member in good standing in the church. The churches that are now allowing this are evangelical, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches. They are evangelical, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches that have a reputation for conser-vatism and orthodoxy.

These churches approve the remarriage of the guilty party. In some cases, they may require confession of the adultery that broke up the first marriage. But they approve the remarriage of the guilty party. (It is not my concern here to examine the popular distinction between "innocent party" and "guilty party" in a divorce, whether this distinction is as valid in every instance as is often assumed.)

Approval of the remarriage of the guilty party has become common in the churches. The Christian Reformed Church synodically approved the remarriage of the guilty party in 1956. This is also the position, evidently, of those who recently seceded from the Christian Reformed Church. They lived peaceably with their church's decision for many years. Objection to the church's teaching and practice of marriage, divorce, and remarriage was not part of their reason for leaving. As I pointed out in the editorial of November 1, 1997, approval of the remarriage of the guilty party is now the policy and practice of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands ("liberated").

How the remarriage of the guilty party is regarded in many conservative Presbyterian churches is fairly indicated in the writings of Jay E. Adams. In a book that is highly recommended in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible (Baker, 1980), this popular theologian and counselor teaches his readers that "remarriage, in general, is not only allowed but in some cases encouraged and commanded. It is looked upon favorably in the NT." To the question, "Who may remarry after divorce and under what conditions?" he answers, "All persons properly divorced may be remarried." "Properly divorced," however, does not mean for this influential marriage counselor those who are divorced on the one biblical ground, namely, the fornication of one's mate. Rather it means "those who are released without obligations." These include a professing Christian who has divorced his unbelieving wife in disobedience to the command of Paul in I Corinthians 7:12. Also the guilty party may be "properly divorced" so as to be free to remarry. "Remarriage after divorce is allowed in the Bible and the guilty party-after forgiveness-is free to remarry." It makes no difference whether the guilty party committed adultery, divorced, and remarried before or after his conversion (pp. 84-96).

The remarriage of the guilty party is approved in many churches that do not blow a trumpet before their practice. In their public utterances, they argue for the remarriage of the "innocent party." Probably, the minister refuses to officiate at the wedding of the remarriage of the guilty party, for the sake of appearance (mainly, his own appearance). But minister, consistory, and congregation allow the remarried guilty party to remain, or become, a member of the church in good standing. They too approve the remarriage of the guilty party. I know whereof I speak.

A Radical Change

The approval in recent time of the remarriage of the guilty party by these conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches is a radical change and a significant development. In the past, these churches have rigorously restricted the right of remarriage to the innocent party. They forbade the guilty party to remarry. They refused to allow the remarried guilty party membership in the church. Especially the Presbyterians extended the right of remarriage to the believer who is deserted by an unbelieving mate on account of the gospel, with mistaken appeal to I Corinthians 7:15, but they too disapproved the remarriage of the guilty party.

For many years, the Christian Reformed Church and other conservative churches criticized the stand of the Protestant Reformed Churches, that Holy Scripture forbids all remarriage after divorce. Their vociferous argument was that the innocent party may remarry. What their argument might be today, we do not know, for they have all fallen silent on the matter of divorce and remarriage. The churches do not like to speak on this subject. Whatever the argument might be, it is certainly no longer a defense of the remarriage of the innocent party. For they now approve the remarriage of the guilty party.

Chickens Coming Home to Roost

The radical change demonstrates that it is impossible for a church to restrict remarriage to the innocent party. Such is the pressure of the world, such is the force of the carnal element in the church, and such is the power of the sinful nature of the saints themselves that a church that opens the door "slightly" to the remarriage of the innocent party will eventually throw it open all the way to the remarriage of the guilty party. And if the guilty party may remarry, men and women divorced for any and every unbiblical reason, including burning the toast, are allowed to remarry.

But there is more to the recent development than this. In the approval of the remarriage of the guilty party the chickens are coming home to roost. The right of the remarriage of the guilty party was implied in the churches' approval of the remarriage of the innocent party. What we witness today is simply the logical, inevitable outcome of the approval of the remarriage of the innocent party. The evil tree now bears its evil fruit. And the fruit is exceeding bitter, both in the dishonoring of God and in the destruction of marriage, family, husbands, wives, children, grandparents, grand-children, and others.

For consider: if the innocent party in a divorce has the right to remarry, the reason must be that the marriage bond has been dissolved. Obviously, one may not remarry, if he is still married to someone else. And this is exactly what the conservative churches have said in the past: the adultery of the guilty party dissolves the bond. But if the marriage bond is dissolved, it is dissolved, not only for the innocent party but also for the guilty party. This is in the nature of the case. A marriage cannot be dissolved for only one of the married companions. If the marriage has been dissolved, the guilty party has every right to remarry. He has as much right as does the innocent party. He is no longer married. It was his own adultery that dissolved the bond, but the bond is dissolved. As one who is unmarried, he has the right from God Himself to marry. It is preferable that he remarry, for it is not good for man to be alone.

The refusal in the past by conservative churches to allow the guilty party to remarry was a mistake. It was a mistake when judged by the standard of their thinking on divorce and remarriage. One can understand why they made the mistake and even, to a certain extent, sympathize with the mistake. The guilty party is a scoundrel. He is unfaithful. He sins against his wife. He is responsible for the breakup of his family. Often, he is also responsible for the breakup of his neighbor's family. The emotional reaction naturally is to refuse him the right of remarriage and, if he does remarry, the right of church membership.

Nevertheless, the conservative churches that approved the remarriage of the innocent party did not base their prohibition of the remarriage of the guilty party on Scripture. Nor did this prohibition reflect biblical thinking on marriage. Therefore, it could not stand the test of time. To say it better, God's judgment in the history of the church has exposed the approval of the remarriage of the innocent party as erroneous by angrily leading the churches to approve the remarriage of the guilty party.

As an unmarried man, in the thinking now of those churches that approve the remarriage of the innocent party, the guilty party has every right to be married. He has been "loosed" from his wife. Does not the apostle teach, "Art thou loosed from a wife If thou marry, thou hast not sinned" (I Cor. 7:27, 28)? Remarriage, therefore, does not exclude him from the church. Likely, he will have to confess the sin of adultery that he committed when he was married to his first wife and also his guilt in breaking up his first marriage, just as any public sinner is required to do. But he may be member of the church as remarried. He did not sin when he remarried. Nor is he living in continual adultery in his second marriage. This would imply that he is still married to his first wife, but the churches have said that that bond has been dissolved.

To be sure, this approval of the re-marriage of the guilty party is a nasty, disgusting business. A fellow church member may break up my and his own marriages and families by committing adultery with my wife. After his wife divorces him, he may very well remarry mine. If he confesses his sin of adultery, and my wife does the same, he may be member with me in the church-living with my wife. What happens to all the children involved, only the devil who is behind the whole business knows. But this is the implication of the position that the innocent party may remarry. And this grim, damnable state of affairs actually obtains in "evangelical" and "conservative" Reformed churches today.

This is what the churches are approving, even though the Word of God teaches, in language that a child can understand, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery" (Matt. 19:9 a). When the guilty party in a divorce marries someone else, he commits adultery. The relationship is an adulterous relationship, so that he goes on committing adultery as long as he maintains it.

Jesus Christ disapproves the remarriage of the guilty party.

Reexamining the Traditional Position

Inasmuch as it is their approval of the remarriage of the innocent party that has brought the conservative churches into open war with Jesus Christ by now approving the remarriage of the guilty party, the churches must reexamine their traditional stand on the remarriage of the innocent party. It is unbiblical to view marriage as a contract, or bond, that man can dissolve by his sin and at his will. Scripture teaches that marriage is a lifelong bond established by God. God makes the two one flesh (Gen. 2:18ff.; Matt. 19:3-9). Only the death of one of them dissolves the bond, so that the other has liberty to marry again (I Cor. 7:39). The sexual unfaithfulness of one of them is ground for divorce in the sense of rightful, even legal separation (Matt. 5:31, 32; Matt. 19:9). But not even the innocent party may remarry. If she does, she and her new husband are guilty of adultery (Matt. 5:32 b; Matt. 19:9 b). She still has a husband. She is still bound to him, "until death do us part," as the form of marriage states.

The thinking that has prevailed in Reformed churches concerning the right of the remarriage of the innocent party always suffered from a fatal flaw. This flaw should at last be recognized. It is the notion that adultery dissolves the marriage bond. This is the notion that was the basis of the churches' approval of the remarriage of the innocent party: her husband's adultery dissolved the marriage so that the innocent wife might remarry. This is also the notion that today compels the churches to approve the remarriage of the guilty party: having dissolved his own marriage by his adultery, the guilty husband has every right to remarry. In view of the importance of sex for marriage and in light of the reaction of the saints against adultery, it is under-standable that the churches took the posi-tion that adultery dissolves marriage.

But the notion is false.

First, experience gives the lie to it: many marriages of the people of God have survived adultery.

Second, the notion rules out the exercise of forgiving grace in the lives of married believers: if adultery dissolves marriage, there is not even the possibility that a betrayed husband or wife forgives the offending marriage companion and is reconciled.

Third, and worst, it flies in the face of the gospel concerning the real marriage, of which ours are symbols: our adulteries against God in Jesus Christ do not and cannot dissolve His covenant with us (see Jer. 3; Ezek. 16).

Let it be shouted from the housetops: adultery does not dissolve marriage. It does not dissolve marriage so that the guilty party may remarry. It does not dissolve marriage so that the innocent party may remarry. Only God puts asunder what He has joined together, and He puts asunder by death (Matt. 19:4-6; I Cor. 7:39).

This must be the stand of the church of Jesus Christ. Only then is she secure against the wickedness of the approval of the remarriage of the guilty party.

The Standard Bearer Vol 74, No. 4 Dec 1, 1997
Prof. David Engelsma is editor of the Standard Bearer and professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological School.
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