Defining the Issue
How words are defined is the very heart of religious discussion and debate. One who defines baptism to mean sprinkling, pouring or immersion will be at odds with someone who limits its definition to immersion. Just so, how one defines the terms "married," "divorced," "bound," and "adultery" will go a long way toward determining where he stands on divorce and remarriage. As in the case of baptism, our goal should be to define these terms as the Bible uses them. A marriage is a family relationship formed by a covenant. Malachi 2:14 speaks of one's wife as "your companion and your wife by covenant." A covenant between equals consists of terms agreed upon, promises made to keep those terms, and a ratification. In Galatians 3:15, Paul speaks of the final element of a covenant when he says, ". . . even though it is a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it." Paul argues that covenants must be ratified to be in force.
Different cultures have different customs in regard to ratifying marriage covenants, but all cultures have some form of ratification. In the Hebrew culture ratification took place at a wedding feast. In fact, the Greek word for marriage, "gamos," was originally a word which described this feast. In Genesis 29 we have an example of a wedding feast. Jacob's marriage to Leah was ratified when, at the conclusion of the feast, he entered the bridal chamber. His entrance was witnessed by those who attended the feast, and from that moment on Jacob and Leah were considered husband and wife.
In America, ratification of a marriage covenant is a legal process. When two have agreed to marry, they secure a license from the state and are considered married by all when that license is properly exercised.
Having properly defined marriage, defining divorce becomes axiomatic. A divorce involves the breaking of the ratification of a marriage covenant. In biblical times, the divorce was secured by a writing of divorcement (Deuteronomy 24:1-2; Matthew 5:31-32; 19:7-9). This was a notification to society that the marriage previously ratified had been undone. In modern times divorce, like marriage, is a legal process. Two are divorced when their marriage is dissolved by the state.
This is true even if a couple do not divorce for biblically sanctioned reasons. Such people are called "unmarried" by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:11 when he commands them to "remain unmarried or be reconciled." Jesus spoke of a man as committing adultery when he divorced his wife and married another (Matthew 19:9). He didn't dispute they were divorced, but obviously didn't teach divorcement in and of itself freed one to marry another.
Why wouldn't a divorced person be free to marry another? Or, to ask it another way, if they are divorced how does one commit adultery by marrying another? The answer is found in the definition of the word "bound." Although a person is divorced, he may still be bound to his first mate. The word "bound" means "obligated." When one marries, he is obligated (bound) to keep the promises he made to his wife. It is these promises that constitute the marriage covenant. When a person divorces, these are the obligations he is released from. However, when two marry they assume obligations beyond the promises they make to one another. God places obligations upon people who marry. Consequently, even if two divorce and thus end their marriage covenant, they may continue to be bound to the obligations God placed them under when they married. Paul told divorced people, "remain unmarried or be reconciled" (1 Corinthians 7:11). These were still obligated to one another even though they had dissolved their marriage covenant through divorce. In Romans 7:2-3, Paul says, "For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then if, while her husband is living, she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress, though she is joined to another man."
According to the text just cited, and Matthew 19:9, those who divorce and marry another (except for sexual immorality) commit adultery in the second marriage. It is a fundamental law of language that words should be understood in their primary sense unless the context forces us to choose secondary uses. The word "adultery" primarily denotes sexual immorality, and nothing in the context of Matthew 19:9 or Romans 7:2-3 suggests we should understand it any differently when it is used in connection with divorce and remarriage.
Common sense demonstrates the word "adultery" refers to sexual immorality in these two passages. If a man who is married has a relationship with another woman he commits adultery in the sense that this act is sexually immoral. Jesus, in Matthew 19:9, and Paul, in Romans 7:2-3, are saying that if the same man divorces his wife and marries another, he still commits adultery with the second woman. The legal covering does not change the sinfulness of the deed or the nature of the sin committed. In both cases, sexual immorality is what is under consideration. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines "adultery" as "Voluntary sexual between a married person and a partner other than the lawful husband or wife." Clearly, Jesus' use of the word in Matthew 19:9, and Paul's use of it in Romans 7:2-3, fall within the bounds of this definition. Both of them are saying that the second wife is an unlawful sexual partner.
"Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery," is not a difficult sentence to understand in English, Greek, or Hebrew. What is difficult is accepting the responsibility this passage lays upon us in the midst of a society that offers easy, no fault divorces.