The Westminster Confession on Remarriage
We disagree (regrettably) with the
Westminster Confession concerning its teaching on marriage and
divorce. Although, we have a high regard for the Westminster
Standards, we cannot agree with the Westminster divines on this
point, because we judge—from Scripture—that they have erred grievously.
In the case of adultery after marriage, it is
lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce and, after the
divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.
Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to
study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God has joined
together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful
desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil
magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage:
wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed;
and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and
discretion, in their own case (24:5-6).
However, Scripture teaches that remarriage
while one's original spouse lives is continuous adultery, for both
the one remarried and his or her spouse:
Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry
another, committeth adultery against her, and if a woman shall put
away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery
Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth
another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put
away from her husband committeth adultery (Luke 16:18).
If, while her husband liveth, she be married to
another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be
dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though
she be married to another man (Rom. 7:3).
The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband
liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to
whom she will; only in the Lord (I Cor. 7:39).
The message of the Bible is very clear: the only
ground for divorce is adultery, and the only options for the divorced
are to remain unmarried or be reconciled with their original spouse:
"Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let
her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the
husband put away his wife" (I Cor. 7:10-11). Divorce (for whatever
cause) does not break the marriage bond. A couple may be divorced
according to the law of the land, and they may—because of that legal
divorce—no longer be living together, but God made them one flesh when
He joined them on their wedding day, and He alone has the power to
dissolve that one-flesh union at death, and only at death. Scripture is
insistent on that point: "the woman which hath an husband is bound by
the law to her husband so long as he liveth" (Rom. 7:2) and "the wife
is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth" (I Cor. 7:39).
Therefore, Jesus demands that the marriage bond be upheld and defended:
"they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined
together, let not man put asunder" (Matt. 19:6).
The Westminster Confession does not teach that
the marriage bond can be broken only by death. It allows remarriage for
the innocent party in a divorce because in the view of the Confession
the guilty party is to be counted as dead: "In the case of adultery
after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce
and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party
were dead" (Westminster Confession 24:5; italics mine).
However, the Bible allows remarriage, if one's spouse is really
dead: "if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her
husband" (Rom. 7:3) and "if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to
be married to whom she will; only in the Lord" (I Cor. 7:39), not if
one's spouse is only potentially or hypothetically dead.
In allowing remarriage for the "innocent party" the
Westminster divines appealed to the "exception clauses" in Matthew's
But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away
his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit
adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth
adultery (Matt. 5:32).
And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his
wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another,
committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth
commit adultery (Matt. 19:9).
The exception of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 refers to
divorce, not remarriage. Note the position of the clause. Christ does
not say, "Whosoever divorces his wife and marries another, except in
the case of fornication, commits adultery." Instead, He says,
"Whosoever divorces his wife, except in the case of fornication, and
marries another commits adultery." The position of the clause proves
that Christ is making an exception in the case of divorce, not
The Westminster divines erred more grievously when
they allowed divorce and remarriage in the case of desertion. First of
all, their definition of desertion is tragically vague: "Such wilful
desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate"
is not what Paul is speaking of in I Corinthians 7:15, the text appealed
to as proof for their view that desertion breaks the bond of marriage,
allowing remarriage for the deserted spouse.
In I Corinthians 7:12-16 Paul is addressing a subject
which did not occur in Christ's public ministry: mixed marriage. If the
unbeliever is content to live with the believer, the believer may not
leave or desert the unbelieving spouse. Paul forbids it. That kind of
desertion is sin, and would not constitute grounds for remarriage (even
under a mistaken appeal to verse 15). However, the Westminster
Confession allows remarriage for all kinds of desertion cases. And
they who are "apt to study arguments" (Westminster Confession
24:6) could—and do—appeal to the vagueness of this paragraph when
seeking to divorce and remarry.
If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and
she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away, and the
woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased
to dwell with her, let her not leave him (I Cor. 7:12-13).
The kind of desertion Paul speaks about is one where
the unbeliever departs because of the piety of the Christian spouse.
In that case, the believer can have a good conscience. The spouse left
because of the godly behaviour of the Christian. There is no
guilt, no need to fear church discipline or disapproval of the saints:
"a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath
called us to peace" (I Cor. 7:15). "If the unbelieving depart, let him
depart" is the message of I Corinthians 7:15.
None of that means that the bond of marriage has been
severed. The unbeliever has sinned in departing. The believer can have a
good conscience, but the marriage bond is still maintained. The same
chapter proves this (I Cor. 7:39). The believer may not remarry because
he is still married ("one flesh") in God's eyes. If the believer
subsequently remarries, even if the state and the church approve, he
commits adultery, if his original spouse is still alive. Then he can no
longer have a good conscience, can no longer be in peace, and must
repent, and end that adulterous relationship.
I Corinthians 7:15 does not say "a brother or a
sister is not bound in such cases" but "a brother or a sister
is not under bondage in such cases." The phrases "not
bound" and "not under bondage" are different. That is obvious in the
AV, but in some modern versions (example, the NIV) in both places, the
text is rendered "not bound." That is an inexcusable mistranslation,
occasioned by an antinomian view of divorce and remarriage! A
Christian abandoned by his unbelieving spouse is not under bondage,
but is certainly still bound. Marriage is a bond, a
lifelong, one-flesh union, but it is never described in Scripture as
being "under bondage!" It is simply unacceptable to say that I
Corinthians 7:15 means that a brother or a sister is not bound—not
married—in such cases. Westminster erred, and that error has borne
When the Pharisees came to Jesus, they asked, "Is it
lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" (Matt. 19:3).
Jesus responded by referring to the original ordinance in Genesis:
Have ye not read, that he which made them at the
beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a
man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they
twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one
flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put
asunder (Matt. 19:4-6).
When the Pharisees objected by appealing to
Deuteronomy 24, Jesus explained that Moses had legislated for the
hard-hearted Israelites: Moses had "suffered" (Matt. 19:8) a situation
in his day of men putting away their wives and remarrying. Such
hard-hearted Israelites could not submit to the law of the LORD (Rom.
8:7), who "hateth putting away" (Mal. 2:16), and was a witness to
their treacherous dealings with the wives of their youth (Mal. 2:14).
But Jesus will not suffer that situation in His kingdom. The
hard-hearted in today's church may want to appeal to Deuteronomy 24, but
Christ's response is uncompromising:
Moses because of the hardness of your hearts
suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not
so, and I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it
be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and
whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery (Matt.
Furthermore, human marriage was instituted to reflect
the heavenly marriage of Christ and His Church (Eph. 5:23-32). Jeremiah
chapter 3 is instructive here. Verse 1 ("They say, If a man put away his
wife. and she go from him and become another man's, shall he return unto
her again? Shall not that land be greatly polluted?") alludes to
Deuteronomy 24:4 (the same passage the hard-hearted Pharisees appealed
to in Matthew 19). Israel, the treacherous (Jer 3:20) wife of Jehovah
had committed adultery repeatedly ("played the harlot with many lovers,
Jer. 3:1) and although He had justly "given her a bill of divorce" (Jer.
3:8), yet God's call is to"return again to [Him]" (Jer. 3:1). Despite
Israel's adultery and her receipt of divorce papers from Jehovah, God
maintains the marriage bond and does not marry another bride: 'I am
married to you' (Jer. 3:14) He says, even
after serving Israel with divorce papers and putting her away for
her spiritual adultery! Amazing grace! The spiritual adultery of
Christ's bride cannot end the heavenly marriage, because Christ remains
faithful. He preserves His spouse, and heals her backslidings (Jer.
3:22). It is for this reason that the adultery of our spouse cannot
break the one flesh union of marriage, and why adultery is such a
grievous transgression: it is a sin against the mystery of Christ and
What was the reaction to this uncompromising
doctrine of marriage? The disciples were stunned: "His disciples say
unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to
marry" (Matthew 19:10).
Would the disciples have been shocked if Jesus had
taught the same as the Westminster divines? Is anybody stunned if
they are told, "Well, you can get married, and if the marriage breaks
down, you can divorce your unfaithful spouse and then marry somebody
else?" Most people think that this is "fair," most people can
live with that and see the reasonableness of it. The flesh can handle
that kind of doctrine. Would Jesus have answered, as He does in Matthew
19:11, "all men cannot receive this saying" if he was allowing the
innocent party to remarry? No, only Jesus' doctrine of the unbreakable
marriage bond elicits the response, "if the case of the man be so with
his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matt. 19:10). There is something
terribly wrong with the doctrine of marriage taught by the church today.
This response of the disciples is not being heard!
We disagree with the Westminster Confession on
this issue because it contradicts the Scriptures. The Confession
contains many excellent statements, and much with which we
wholeheartedly agree. If all who claim to be Presbyterians really held
the doctrines contained in the Confession, the churches would be
in a much better state. We stand with Scripture, and with Christ's, not
Westminster's, doctrine of marriage.
The Westminster Confession itself gives us
leave to test its teachings in the light of Scripture:
The supreme judge by which all controversies of
religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions
of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be
examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but
the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (1:10).
This we do, and we conclude that adultery and
desertion cannot break the marriage bond to allow remarriage. Man may
not and cannot break asunder what God has joined together.