If a Christian divorces his wife without Scriptural grounds and then marries another person, how does the congregation view the previous marriage and the new marriage?
In such a situation, the congregation would view the previous marriage as having ended when the man remarried and would view the new marriage as binding. To understand the reasons for this conclusion, let us consider what Jesus said about divorce and remarriage.
As recorded at Matthew 19:9, Jesus identified the only Scriptural basis to end a marriage. He stated: “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” From Jesus’ words, we learn (1) that sexual immorality is the only Scriptural basis for ending a marriage in divorce and (2) that a man who divorces his wife without that Scriptural basis and marries another commits adultery.a
Do Jesus’ words mean that a man who commits sexual immorality and divorces his wife is Scripturally free to remarry? Not necessarily. When adultery occurs in a marriage, the innocent mate decides whether she will forgive her husband or reject him. If she rejects him and a legal divorce is obtained, both are free to remarry once the divorce is final.
On the other hand, the innocent mate may have a sincere desire to preserve the marriage and thus express her willingness to forgive her husband. What, though, if the adulterous husband rejects his wife’s offer of forgiveness and obtains a unilateral legal divorce? Because she is willing to forgive him and continue the marriage, he would not be Scripturally free to remarry. If he persists in an unscriptural course and marries another person when he is not Scripturally free to do so, he commits adultery again, which would make him subject to further congregation judicial action.—1 Cor. 5:1, 2; 6:9, 10.
When a man who is not Scripturally free remarries, how does the congregation view the previous marriage and the new marriage? Does the previous marriage still continue intact from a Scriptural standpoint? Can the innocent mate still decide to forgive or to reject her former husband? Would the new marriage be viewed as adulterous?
In the past, the congregation viewed the new marriage as adulterous as long as the innocent mate was alive, remained unmarried, and was not guilty of sexual immorality. However, Jesus did not mention the innocent mate when he discussed divorce and remarriage. Rather, he explained that a man who obtains a divorce without a Scriptural basis and then marries another, commits adultery. In such a case, the divorce and remarriage, which Jesus equated with adultery, end the previous marriage.
“Whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.”—Matt. 19:9
When a marriage ends as the result of divorce and remarriage, forgiveness or rejection on the part of the innocent mate is no longer possible. Thus, she would not be burdened with the responsibility of deciding whether to forgive or reject her former husband. Further, the congregation’s view of the new marriage would not depend on whether the innocent mate subsequently died, remarried, or was guilty of sexual immorality.b
In the example considered above, the husband committed adultery, which led to divorce. What if the husband had not committed adultery but got a divorce and then remarried? Or what if the husband had not committed sexual immorality before the divorce but did so after the divorce and then remarried despite his wife’s willingness to forgive him? In all these examples, the divorce and remarriage, which constitutes adultery, would end the previous marriage. The new marriage constitutes a legally binding relationship. As stated in the November 15, 1979, issue of The Watchtower, page 32, “now he has entered a new marriage and so cannot simply end it and return to the way things were before; the former marriage ended with the divorce, adultery and remarriage.”
This adjusted view does not undermine the sacredness of marriage or minimize the seriousness of adultery. A man who divorces his wife without Scriptural grounds and then marries another person without being Scripturally free to do so would be subject to judicial action on the charge of adultery. (If the new marriage mate is a Christian, she would also be subject to judicial action on the charge of adultery.) Although the new marriage would not be viewed as adulterous, the man would not qualify for special privileges of service in the congregation for many years and not before living down any notoriety or reproach associated with his wrongdoing. This would include taking into consideration the current circumstances of the previous mate who may have been dealt with treacherously and any minor children who may have been abandoned by the guilty mate.—Mal. 2:14-16.
a For simplicity, we will refer to the adulterous mate as a male and the innocent mate as a female. However, as recorded at Mark 10:11, 12, Jesus made it clear that his counsel on this matter applies equally to men and women.
b This adjusts our previous understanding that such a marriage would be viewed as adulterous until the innocent mate died, remarried, or was guilty of sexual immorality.