Doctrine Ch.12 - Remarriage

The New Testament hardly mentions remarriage, so how can we know what it teaches about this? The key lies in Jewish and Roman regulations, which assumed that most people would remarry. The relative silence in the New Testament is therefore very significant!

When Linda and Glynn Wolfe married, they held the world record for remarriage—for Linda it was her twenty-third wedding, and it was Glynn’s twenty-ninth. It ended with his death a year later in 1997. His son John said that his father married so many times because he was a Baptist minister and didn’t believe in “living in sin,” but he was very picky and stubborn so the marriages didn’t last long. Linda reportedly started looking for another husband after Glynn died.1

       The Roman world of New Testament days was familiar with multiple remarriages. Seneca complained (in about AD 60) that “there are women who number the years … by their husbands; they divorce to marry and they marry to divorce.”2 Paradoxically, we can blame the morality campaign of the Emperor Augustus just before Jesus was born. He was concerned that too few legitimate citizens were being born, so he made it illegal to delay remarriage. Anyone who didn’t remarry within two years of being widowed or within eighteen months of being divorced could suffer financial penalties.3

       The Jewish world had similar ideas, though for different reasons. Jews regarded it as impious to remain single because the first command in the Bible is “be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen 1:28). If your marriage ended without a minimum of two children, you were expected to remarry. Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai was badgered by his fellow rabbis because he wouldn’t remarry. Eventually they stopped when he said, “I am married—to the Scriptures.” But normal Jews didn’t have this excuse.4

5-minute summary

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Required by law

Both Roman and Jewish societies expected anyone who was divorced or widowed to remarry. This was even expected of older widows, who were expected to marry for both financial and emotional support. The example of Anna, who spent her life in worship after being widowed, was highlighted as remarkable both because of her piety and because she remained single (Luke 2:36-37). Paul urged younger widows in Timothy’s church to get remarried because single widows might be tempted into sexual immorality or spend their time in idle gossip (1 Tim 5:11-14).

       What about divorcées in the church—could they remarry? On the face of it, the answer is no, for four reasons:
1. Jesus said that people who remarried were committing adultery (Matt 19:9).
2. Paul said a divorcée should not remarry (1 Cor 7:11).
3. Married people are “one flesh,” which sounds permanent (Matt 19:5).
4. Paul said that marriage can only end with death, not divorce (1 Cor 7:39; Rom 7:2).

       A list like this sounds convincing, but each of these reasons is based on misunderstandings.

       First, Jesus’ teaching concerned the newly invented “any cause” type of divorce. He said this was nonbiblical and invalid, so that any remarriage after this was adultery because the first marriage hadn’t actually ended.5 But this doesn’t mean that Jesus regarded biblical divorces as similarly invalid.

       Second, the divorcée whom Paul told not to remarry was one who had divorced without any biblical grounds. She was told not to remarry because she should seek reconciliation. However, if her ex-husband refused reconciliation, this reason for forbidding remarriage no longer applied. In the same chapter, Paul told other deserted believers that they were “not bound” (1 Cor 7:15). First-century readers would have recognized his unusual use of “bound” (which was normally only used concerning slaves), though Jews often used this concept with regard to a divorce certificate.6 They would have realized that Paul was saying that this person was free to remarry—and therefore that he allowed remarriage after a divorce based on biblical grounds such as abandonment.

       Third, the phrase “one flesh” does sound permanent—and it is supposed to. It emphasizes that sexual union involves the whole person, and that’s why it should be reserved for marriage. Paul uses the same concept when persuading people to desist from becoming “one flesh” with prostitutes (1 Cor 6:16). He is using this phrase to show that a sexual union should be permanent, but sin can stop it being so. If Paul thought that a “one flesh” relationship with a prostitute was unbreakably permanent, he’d have to tell virtually every male Roman convert to avoid marriage, because they had already become “one flesh” with the first women they slept with.

       Finally, 1 Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:2 do say that marriage ends with death, but they don’t rule out divorce as a way of ending a marriage. Neither verse mentions divorce, because this wouldn’t fit the context. The first is addressed to widows, so we wouldn’t expect it to say anything about divorce (1 Cor 7:39-40), and the second concerns a spiritual marriage to the “law” or “Christ,” so divorce doesn’t fit into this context either. Paul reasons that a Jew is like someone married to the law, and he can’t marry Christ except by death—which ends his marriage. In this extended metaphor, he says that Christ’s death (which we share) can end his marriage to the law. If Paul tried to include divorce, it would stretch this metaphor to the breaking point.

No explicit command

Therefore, at first glance the New Testament does appear to forbid remarriage, but on further investigation it is actually very quiet on the subject. It doesn’t explicitly forbid remarriage, but nor is there any clear permission or encouragement. This is surprising, because we’d expect there to be clear teaching on such an important issue. The most likely reason for this absence is that there was no need to teach Jewish or Gentile converts about this, because Christian teaching didn’t oppose what they already knew. Roman law penalized those who didn’t remarry, and Jewish religious law regarded you as impious if you didn’t remarry. So both societies assumed that you would remarry, and without specific teaching, Christians would assume they were allowed to. If Jesus or Paul had wanted to oppose this general assumption, they’d have to say so very clearly, but they weren’t opposed to it, so they didn’t need to say anything. It would be like telling believers they were allowed to pay taxes.

       Unfortunately, later church fathers taught very differently because they had lost touch with the social roots of Jewish beliefs. By the second century, Christians were distancing themselves from the increasingly immoral and sexually corrupt Roman society, so they started to read the New Testament differently—without the social background of the first Christians. As a result, they thought there were four reasons against remarriage (as listed above), just as modern readers do.

       Actually, although Paul doesn’t specifically write about remarriage after divorce, by a convoluted process we can uncover what he thinks about it. In 1 Corinthians 7:39 he quotes the last sentence of a standard Jewish divorce certificate: “You are now free to marry anyone you wish.” Paul quotes this in relation to widows, not divorcées, so he wasn’t using it to state anything about divorce. He quotes this divorce certificate because Jewish law obliged childless widows to marry their brother-in-law in order to produce an heir, and he wanted to rescue them from this obligation. By quoting the divorce certificate, he invited his readers to reason: if a divorced person can marry whomever they wish, then surely a widow (who is often more vulnerable) should also be allowed this right. This reasoning is sound, and is a wonderful release for widows who might otherwise have to marry someone they didn’t like. For our inquiry, it is significant that this reasoning assumes that a divorcée can remarry. In other words, Paul never bothers to state that a divorcée can remarry (because there was no need for him to do this), but he does assume it. Also, he knew that his reasoning would only work if his fellow believers also assumed that remarriage was allowed.

       This long, convoluted, and complicated process of reasoning has finally brought us to what Jesus and Paul regarded as too obvious to state clearly: that someone with a valid divorce is free to remarry. It’s like a study into dental care that takes years and costs the earth to show what most people would regard as obvious: that poorer people spend less on dental care than others. This may well be obvious, but it is also valuable for justifying policy in that area. And for someone who is divorced, the knowledge that remarriage is permitted is worth the extended brainwork necessary to get this simple answer.

1^ See “Glynn Wolfe,” Wikipedia (
2^ De beneficiis book 3, section 16 (
3^ The lex Iulia et Papia (
4^ Tosefta Yebamot 8.4 (
5^ See more details in my books at
6^ As in the discussion at Mishnah Gittin 9:3 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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