In Mark 10:11-12 Jesus states that remarriage following divorce results in adultery (see also Matt.
5:32, 19:9; Lk. 16:18). The question has been raised whether this refers to a one time act of
adultery when the marriage is consummated by sexual union or a continuous state of adultery as
long as the second marriage endures.
This is an issue which directly concerns divorced and remarried persons, for if the adultery is
continuous, then the remarried couple is sinning as long as the union continues. No matter what
porneia, the so-called "exception," refers to -- adultery, immorality during betrothal, or incestuous
marriage -- there are many Christians today who have been divorced and remarried for reasons
other than these. How should such persons be counseled? Are they living in a state of continual
adultery? Should they maintain the second marriage or end it?
It has been argued by some that the adultery is continuous. The arguments include: (1) The
present tense of the verb moicha, "commits adultery." The present, repeated or durative
action. Hence, continuous or repeated adultery results from divorce and remarriage. (2) The
precedent of Ezra 9-10 where those who had married unlawfully were commanded to put away
their wives. Hence, a second or adulterous marriage should be ended by divorce. (3) Celibacy is
advocated by Jesus in Matthew 19:10-12 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, 38, 40. Hence, the
solution to any adulterous marriage is to divorce and live alone. (4) Repentance means turning
from sin. Full or genuine repentance from an adulterous union would not be evidenced if the
union were to continue.
One Act of Adultery
While some have viewed adultery as a state, others suggest that it is an act. The adultery
resulting from divorce and remarriage would be a one time act. The marriage union would be
consummated with an act of adultery, but the couple's subsequent intercourse would not be
judged adulterous. The arguments in favor of this view include: (1) The present tense, "commits
adultery," may be used in an aoristic sense expressing the idea of a fact without reference to
progress (D. & M., p. 184; A.T.R., p. 864). Thus, the adultery would be punctiliar action in the
present time -- an act of adultery when divorce and remarriage occurs. (2) The second marriage is
a genuine marriage by the standards of society and possibly by the definition of marriage in
Genesis 2:24. The second marriage would certainly involve a sexual union and social
recognition. Though unlawful in its consummation, the second marriage would be a genuine
marriage and ought not be broken. (3) If the second marriage is a genuine marriage, then the
teachings of Jesus and Paul would apply. Both affirmed the permanence of marriage (Matt. 19:6;
1 Cor. 7:10-11), and Paul points out that the sexual expression of love in marriage ought not to
cease except temporarily (1 Cor. 7:5). (4) The status of the remarried person is not directly
addressed in Scripture, therefore, it would be unwise to speculate on the matter. (5) Two wrongs
(divorce following an unlawful marriage) do not make a right. The damage done in divorce and
remarriage cannot be mended by a second divorce.
As was pointed out in The Divorce Myth, "The context of the passage, which contains a succession
of aorists, and the prohibition against returning to one's former spouse after a second marriage
(Deut. 24:1-4), would point in the direction of the second view" (p. 121). It is objected that this
view appears to be "lenient" and may encourage a couple to remarry, commit adultery, confess it
and go on their blissful way. But it should be noted that even one act of adultery is a serious sin in
God's sight. ". . . for fornicators and adulterers God will judge," (Heb. 13:4). Adultery results in
wounds, disgrace and a reproach that cannot be blotted out (Prov. 6:33). To presume on God's
grace by sinning wilfully against a knowledge of what is clearly wrong, would be to provoke His
wrath. True believers could not sin in such a way without incurring God's disciplinary judgment
Since the present tense of "commits adultery" can be used to argue in favor of either view, it
seems that the matter must be decided on the basis of other clear statements of Scripture. Should
sexual intercourse between married partners cease? No (1 Cor. 7:5). Should marriage end in
divorce? No (Mk. 10:9; Matt. 19:6). By a process of elimination, it appears that to continue a
second marriage, though recognizing that it was entered into unlawfully, would be the best option
for a believer.
There is no place for dogmatism regarding this issue. Ultimately the couple involved must
determine from the Scriptures what is right. Those who choose to end their marriage must be
respected. Those who choose to continue their marriage in good conscience must not be
condemned (Rom. 14:3-12).
Since only death ends a marriage (Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:39), a person who has been divorced and
remarried would have to be considered as living in what might be thought of as a state of
"bigamy." There would be two living spouses, though only one legal marriage. This situation is
certainly not in keeping with God's best for husbands and wives. Man in his fallen state has
departed from God's standard of marriage as a lifetime relationship. The consequence of violating
God's plan for marriage must be acknowledged and His high standard upheld for the next
Any person who has committed adultery by entering into a second marriage after divorce can be
assured of forgiveness and cleansing based on sincere confession of sin -- acknowledging with
God that His standard was violated. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive
us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn. 1:9).
For further study, including application, counseling guidelines and answers to commonly
asked questions, see The Divorce Myth (Bethany House Publisher).
A One Time Act or A Continual State?
J. Carl Laney
Author of The Divorce Myth