Whether married couples divorced because of adultery may remarry – the offended party particularly – has been a vexed question among Christians in the last few decades. Living under permissive civil divorce laws, Christians feel a strong tension between contemporary values and Malachi’s testimony of how God views divorce; many think it unfair for a spouse to be betrayed, sue for divorce and still be ‘punished’ with legal inability to remarry, so they conclude that holy Scripture surely cannot mean that. Undoubtedly, they reason, the victim has rights not available to the offender.
Seeing what St Paul says in Romans, however, I think it is true that death’s the sole condition on which spouses can remarry:
Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man. So then 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.
To illustrate the principle that the law applies till death, the apostle gives the example of a woman’s marriage to her husband and under what circumstances marriage with another man doesn’t earn her the title of adulteress. The example, to be effective, must somehow be clearer than what it shows, or it serves poorly as an example. That marriage is binding on a husband and wife so long as they both shall live, therefore, is as clear to Paul as it is that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives.
One wonders, by the way, what should happen to the adulterous spouse, if the one offended can’t off and remarry someone else. Well, in France what happened was that, if you committed adultery and your husband pardoned you, you’d rebuild the relationship, but otherwise you’d enter a convent. This rule, when applied to both genders, keeps divorced adulterers from getting off as if it’s nothing, but leaves a chance for the injured spouse to try to forgive and rebuild the marriage.
What churches must do is fight the discourse of rights divorced from duties, which has become a matter of my rights versus your rights, my good versus yours, and whichever has the most power wins under the guise of greater virtue. Such a world is conceived by Machiavelli, not God, and this is what’s muddied the waters on a whole range of marriage issues. To be sure, rights exist, but only with duties. We may as well acknowledge that fact and be up-front about it. And then, having taught the word of God, churches may actually (gasp!) practise church discipline and at least not fill the diaconate with adultery.