When you say that someone may divorce their spouse due to fornication, does it matter who actually files the papers? A woman I know moved out of her house, filed divorce papers, and then started dating another man. Her husband didn't know for sure if she was committing adultery since he did not have access to her new house, but he did see the new man coming and going from her house. The husband was not a disciple of Christ at the time and was not that familiar with the Bible. It didn't occur to him to counter file the divorce papers accusing her of adultery. He simply went along with the papers she had filed. His ex-wife is now living full-time with that other man. The husband has since been baptized. Anyway, he is wondering whether he is free to remarry. Thank you for your time.
Your question is one that is the current fad to debate among preachers. There are those who adamantly declare that not only does it matter who files, but also who files first. Others declare that it doesn't matter who files first, so long as the innocent party does file. Still, others say that filing has nothing to do with the issue since that is secular, it is who desired the divorce. I doubt that I'm clever enough to find the safe path through all the land mines brethren have laid. I'm certain that whatever I say will be misconstrued, misquoted, and ridiculed. But you asked a fair question, so let me attempt to give a biblical answer to it.
First, let's get rid of the distracting issues. It doesn't matter that the gentleman was married and divorced prior to his becoming a Christian. God's laws apply to everyone. If they only applied to Christians, then the world would be better off never listening to the gospel because it would place them under the law. "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31). God can command repentance because man has violated God's laws. That command is issued to all men in all places. Therefore, all men in all places are accountable to God for following His commands.
That is the point that Paul was making regarding marriage in I Corinthians 7:14. "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy" If God's laws concerning marriage only applied to Christians, then the world is filled with illegitimate marriages and children born of illegitimate relations. However, this is not the case. Marriage is a sanctified covenant between two people -- whether they are members of the Lord's church or not. Children born in a marriage relationship are legitimate, even if one or both of their parents are not Christians.
Now, let us look at what has gotten us into our current mess. Beginning in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, states switched their divorce laws to implement the concept of no-fault divorces. "No-fault divorce laws allow one person to dissolve a marriage without the consent of the spouse." ["No-fault Divorce Laws May Have Improved Women's Well-being," About.com]. Prior to this either both parties in marriage had to agree to the divorce, or the person filing for divorce had to prove just cause to dissolve the marriage over the spouse's objections. For thousands of years, marriage was viewed as a covenant relationship as taught in the Bible. "Yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant" (Malachi 2:14). Today, that covenant can be dismissed at a whim. It is easier today to break a marriage covenant than for a business to cancel its contract. Let me put this bluntly: the no-fault divorce laws in the United States are in direct violation of God's laws concerning promises, vows, oaths, and covenants.
Not that most people care, but it does cause difficulties for Christians trying to live under God's laws while everyone does their own thing. The snag comes in trying to resolve what is with what should be. When the Jews, trying to trap Jesus, asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" (Matthew 19:3), notice that no-fault divorce wasn't under consideration. Even those who thought any reason would do to file for divorce still understood that some reason ought to be given. Today, a person can file for a divorce for no reason, and since no reason is involved, there is no need to prove that lack of reason is just.
This has caused a quagmire. In the past, the person who thought the other spouse was guilty of violating the marriage covenant would file for a divorce. Evidence would be asked for and examined and then a determination would be made as to whether the marriage should continue. Today, it is easy for the person who wants to break the covenant to file for a divorce. They can remove their spouse from any consideration. There is no compelling reason to solve the problem. A quick divorce is seen as a way to minimize long drawn out battles. In far too many cases, the innocent spouse is caught unaware of a problem until he or she receives the divorce papers. Hence, the filing of divorce has shifted from something innocent parties tended to file to something guilty parties tend to file to speed up their misdeeds.
Because of this fundamental shift, I have difficulty taking Christ's words regarding divorces for one or many causes in an era where the innocent party generally filed for a divorce and saying the minute details must be applied to our messed up laws.
The fundamental law regarding marriage is that marriage is for life. Period. "For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man" (Romans 7:2-3). Paul also stated, "Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband" (I Corinthians 7:10). This refers back to Jesus' first answer to the Jews' question in Matthew 19. "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:4-6).
But people being the lawbreakers that they are, will destroy their marriages. "They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." " (Matthew 19:7-8). Divorce was never commanded by God. It was reluctantly permitted because people would not honor their commitment. The Jews' stubbornness in regard to this was one of the reasons for God's anger with His people. ""Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one's garment with violence," says the LORD of hosts. "Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously"" (Malachi 2:14-16).
Jesus shifted the Jewish perception of granting a divorce for any reason back to more reasonable grounds. "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery" (Matthew 19:9). Only in the case of sexual infidelity could a marriage end and allow the one faithful to the marriage covenant to marry again.
Would people still divorce for other reasons? The answer is, "Of course." God covered this in Paul's letter to the Corinthians. "But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife" (I Corinthians 7:11). In the case of divorce for the reason of fornication (sexual relations outside the bounds of the marriage covenant), God would permit the faithful ex-spouse to marry another. However, in all other cases where a marriage ends, the parties involved must remain unmarried or rejoin in marriage at a later time.
In no case does God approve of divorce. However, He did regulate it to minimize the damage divorce causes in society. God wants godly offspring (Malachi 2:15). Broken homes tend to generate violent societies (Malachi 2:16). It is not conducive to raising moral, upright children to adulthood.
In everything that I have read regarding divorce, the allowance for remarriage is based on whether the person was faithful to the marriage covenant or not. The filing for divorce is incidental. Before no-fault divorces, we could almost always assume that the faithful spouse generally filed for the divorce. If the unfaithful tried to file, he or she would almost always lose their case in court. As a result, we could almost guarantee that a person who was divorced was at fault because the divorce was tried. But let us assume that the unfaithful spouse did in the past manage to file for divorce and was unjustly granted the divorce, did that mean he could marry again under God's law? The answer is "No!" The criteria for remarriage was not based on who filed and was granted a divorce. The criteria were whether they had kept or had broken the marriage covenant.
"But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery" (Matthew 5:32).
"And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery" (Matthew 19:9).
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:11-12).
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery." (Luke 16:18).
"For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man" (Romans 7:2-3).
"Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him" (I Corinthians 7:10-13).
- A faithful spouse who divorces a faithful spouse cannot marry again because that constitutes adultery (Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:3; I Corinthians 7:11).
- A faithful spouse who divorces an unfaithful spouse may marry again without committing adultery (Matthew 19:9).
- A faithful spouse who was divorced by a faithful spouse cannot marry again because that constitutes adultery (Matthew 5:32; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:3).
- An unfaithful spouse who was divorced by a faithful spouse cannot marry again because that constitutes adultery (Matthew 5:32; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:3).
- A third party cannot marry a divorced person because that constitutes adultery (Luke 16:18).
In the last three cases, the divorced person would have been found to be at fault before a judge, which is why the divorce was granted. Today we have people being divorced but without judgment as to fault. I'm inclined to say that the judgment needs to be made, and by a better source than what is available in civil courts. "I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?" (I Corinthians 6:5). Especially in this case where there is a question of whether marital unfaithfulness was the cause of the divorce, a judgment by brethren in the church needs to be made. If the marriage ended because of unfaithfulness to the marriage covenant, then only the one who remained faithful to the covenant can remarry another if he or she desires to do so. This gets to the core of the issue and avoids getting caught up in technicalities of civil law.