What About Divorce and Remarriage Before Baptism?

By Weylan Deaver

It goes without saying our society has put a chasm between itself and Bible teaching on marriage and the family. Divorce is pandemic, and often followed by second or third marriages entered without any regard for what Jesus taught on the subject (e.g. Matt. 19:3-10, etc.). The pressure exerted by Satan on the church can be tremendous. The devil would like nothing better than to get Christians to compromise the gospel without realizing that is what’s happening. While the devil tempts us to fold up, God tests us to hold out and lift high the banner of divine truth—even if most turn a deaf ear (2 Tim. 4:1-4). While the world runs rampant in sin, the church is trying to reach out to save some souls. This leads to inevitable contact with couples in a second, third, or fourth marriage who may want to become Christians. There are two basic approaches to such a scenario.

The first approach says that Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage (cf. Matt. 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-11) applies to everybody—Christian and unbeliever alike. Jesus’ gospel is for those in the church, as well as those outside of it, and the same commands, truths, and principles apply to all. Therefore, if a couple finds themselves in a marriage out of harmony with what Jesus taught, repentance demands they cease their unscriptural marital relationship. Put simply, they must get out of the marriage. Dissolving a sinful marriage is easier said than done, and may incur a plethora of difficulties, but the question needs asking, “How badly do I want to go to heaven?” Remember Jesus remarked, “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:12, ESV). Tragically, most are not willing to do whatever it takes to be saved.

The second approach says that God has separate requirements for Christians, which the world is not expected to obey, and that Jesus’ teaching on divorce fits in this category. In other words, when Jesus said, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9), he was teaching something unbelievers were never obligated to listen to. Therefore, unbelievers are free to marry, divorce, remarry, divorce, and remarry again (ad infinitum) and, if they ever decide to become Christians, they can be baptized and keep whatever spouse they have at that time. Only after baptism do they become accountable to Jesus’ teaching, and they are expected to obey it from then on.

We believe this second view is fraught with error (not least of which is that Jesus’ original comments in Matthew 19 were directed to unbelieving Pharisees, not Christians). Consider but two brief arguments showing the second view to be wrong.

Argument #1

The combination of two simple verses should conclusively settle the matter. “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). Those words were initially spoken to unbelieving Jews (should they have replied, “Jesus, we’re sure glad you’re not talking to us!”?). Whatever else the New Testament says about divorce does not contradict what Jesus here plainly taught. All Scripture harmonizes with itself. Here is the second passage: “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (John 12:48). Notice Jesus’ words are specifically said to be what judges those who refuse to receive them. What will judge the unbeliever? Jesus’ words will. And, Jesus’ words include what he taught about divorce! Put in logical form, the argument reads:

  • All unbelievers alive today are people who will be judged by Jesus’ words (John 12:48).
  • The words of Matthew 19:9 are Jesus’ words.
  • Therefore, all unbelievers alive today are people who will be judged by the words of Matthew 19:9.

Any Christian or church that believes pre-baptism marriages can be washed away, or that a pre-baptism unscriptural marriage can be turned into holy matrimony by baptism, has got to ignore this argument, or else try to falsify it. Yet, we see no way it can be successfully disproven.

Argument #2

Any position which implies an untruth is itself a false position. God is the God of all truth, and truth is consistent with itself. No Bible teaching implies error. No error can be proven by the Bible. And, any position implying an unbiblical conclusion cannot be true and should be abandoned.

The view that unbelievers are not accountable to Matthew 19:9 (etc.) implies error. How? Suppose Mike (a Christian) marries Jane (also a Christian). All sides agree Mike and Jane are bound to abide by Matthew 19:9 (since both are Christians). Suppose that Jane divorces Mike because he is too much into sports. All would agree that this divorce is not authorized by Matthew 19:9, and is contrary to what Jesus there taught. Now suppose that Jane marries Bill (an unbeliever). What would Jane and Bill’s relationship be? On Jane’s side, she is a Christian who had no right to divorce her first husband, and thus, had no right to marry Bill. Per Jesus’ teaching, she is now in adultery. But what about Bill? Those who insist that Matthew 19:9 does not apply to Bill (an unbeliever) must say one of two things. Either (1) Bill is in a God-sanctioned marriage to Jane, or (2) Bill is not in a God-sanctioned marriage to Jane.

If (1) Bill is in a God-sanctioned marriage to Jane, then that would imply that Matthew 19:9 does not even apply to the believer (Jane), in which case Jesus’ teaching on divorce applies to no one today. Any position which implies Jesus’ teaching on divorce is not applicable to anybody is a false position.

If (2) Bill is not in a God-sanctioned marriage to Jane, then what is it that would make Bill’s marriage wrong, since Bill’s marital status is allegedly not dependent on being in harmony with Matthew 19:9? If it is true that unbelievers are not under Jesus’ teaching, then no one can appeal to Jesus’ teaching to either justify or condemn an unbeliever’s marriage. If Bill and Jane’s marriage is adulterous, then Bill (an unbeliever) must be amenable to Matthew 19:9. But, if Bill and Jane’s marriage is not adulterous, then Jane (a believer) must not be amenable to Matthew 19:9. Either way, the belief under review runs aground, smashed on the rocks of inconsistency. That which implies error is itself error.

“What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). A marriage is real only if God does the joining, and a divorce is actual only if God does the separating, and God joins and disjoins only according to his will, which is revealed as the New Testament! Does God join Bill to Jane (since he is an unbeliever), but not join Jane to Bill (since she is a believer out of harmony with Jesus’ teaching)? Are we to believe that Bill and Jane’s relationship is half adultery (i.e. on Jane’s part) and half holy matrimony (i.e. on Bill’s part)? Scripture knows nothing of such a hybrid marriage monstrosity. Every marriage is either adulterous or non-adulterous; there is no half-and-half. We can state a formal argument thus:

  • Any doctrine implying that a marriage can be simultaneously adulterous and non-adulterous is a false doctrine.
  • The view that unbelievers are not under Matthew 19:9 (etc.) is a doctrine implying that a marriage can be simultaneously adulterous and non-adulterous (see above).
  • Therefore, the view that unbelievers are not under Matthew 19:9 (etc.) is a false doctrine.

Far more can be said on the issue, but if the view under consideration can be falsified by one or both of the above arguments, then that is sufficient. A doctrine need not be disproven from multiple angles before we give it up. All it takes is one sound argument. And, if there is a single sound argument proving that a position is wrong, then the position is wrong, no matter what else may be marshaled in its defense. There seem to be far too many congregations who think Jesus’ teaching (at least on divorce) does not apply to people until after conversion. Yet, we have shown that to be error. If society had not drifted so far away from biblical teaching, the church might not be divided on this issue. But society has drifted. And the devil wants to take the church along with it. If we believe John 12:48, then we must believe that Matthew 19:9 will judge the unbeliever. It is that simple. If we do not believe Matthew 19:9 will judge the unbeliever, then we trample John 12:48. What will it be? “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Heb. 13:4).