Understanding the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses on divorce and remarriage can be a complicated one. In this article, which can possibly turn out to be a Part 1, we would examine the religious beliefs and policies of Jehovah’s Witnesses on this topic and a recent change that has been made.
The Watchtower, October 1st 1956, paragraph 16
Since this uniting sexually with an illegal person makes a married person one flesh with someone outside the marriage union, it is only adultery that really breaks the marriage union, snapping the yoke with which God has made the married couple one flesh. Therefore Jesus said that only adultery is the ground that God allows for divorce. Unless adultery has broken the yoke of marriage, a divorce would not be proper or would not really take effect before God.
Divorce courts of this world, when decreeing a divorce on grounds other than adultery, are not actually putting apart what God has bound together. The divorced persons are still one flesh with each other, still man and wife. Thus neither one is free to remarry, for to remarry would mean to commit adultery. A man who divorces his wife on unadulterous grounds exposes her to adultery by a remarriage and also exposes himself in a like way. A man who marries a woman not divorced for adultery by herself or by her husband commits adultery with her, uniting himself with flesh that still belongs to another man.[Bold mines]
The Watchtower, October 1st 1956, paragraph 39
All in all, it is the duty of the Christian congregation to take note of the basic reason for a divorce by a member or by a married couple of the congregation. If the reason is unscriptural, the congregation must observe the course of the divorced afterward……It cannot excommunicate any member just for divorcing on unscriptural grounds, but if that member [innocent mate] remarries before the death or immorality of the divorced mate, the congregation would disfellowship this member for adulterous remarriage. [Bold mines]
The Watchtower, August 1st 1980, pages 30-31, Questions From Readers
When a friend of mine became a Christian, his wife divorced him and refuses even to see him. Though he realizes from the Bible that he is not free to remarry, he has been dating someone. What does the Bible indicate about such dating, and how can I best help him?
Watchtower’s Answer:To do otherwise would show disrespect for the marital arrangement and for its Originator, Jehovah, and would set a bad example as to Christian conduct…..Spiritually qualified persons should offer Bible-based counsel to one who is dating while not being Scripturally free to marry, trying to “readjust” such a one…..) Thus they may be able to turn him from a course that could lead to his breaking God’s law against adultery, for then he may have to be disfellowshiped from the congregation.
Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock (1981), page 169
A divorce freeing a Christian for remarriage should be obtained by innocent mate if possible, or by guilty mate with innocent mate’s consent; both now free to remarry. If the guilty one unilaterally obtains a divorce, does this of itself free that one to remarry? No; if he does, it is an adulterous marriage. (Luke 16:18)…… In all cases of adulterous marriages in the future, even after reinstatement, it will be a rare case if one is · recommended to serve in an official position in the congregation-at least until the death or remarriage of the first mate. [Bold mines]
Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock (1991), pages 135-136
Courting or dating when one party is not free to marry is wrong. (w80 8/1 pp. 30-1 ; w68 4/15 pp. 255-6)
Strong counsel and repeated warnings should be given, and if the counsel is ignored, the individual(s) may be marked. (2 Thess. 3 : 14, 15) When such action has escalated to the point where it has become shocking and repeated efforts to help adjust the situation have been ignored, there may be basis for taking disfellowshipping action. (Gal. 5:1 9 ; w83 3/15 p. 3 1 ; w73 9 /15 pp. 574-6) If a person who has entered into an adulterous marriage is eventually reinstated, it would be a rare case for him to be recommended to serve in a responsible position in the congregation, at least not until after the remarriage or death of the [innocent] mate he put away without Scriptural basis. In any event, a considerable number of years should have passed. (1 Tim. 3 : 2 , 12,13 ; w83 3/15 p. 29; w80 9/15 p. 31) [Bold mines]
Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock (2010), pages 130-131
If a divorced person remarries and he was not Scripturally free to do so-in other words, if adultery and rejection by the innocent mate had not occurred- he has entered into an adulterous marriage. In Jehovah’s eyes, he has married someone while still bound to another. Entering into such a marriage would call for judicial action.
If the disfellowshipped one was eventually reinstated, the elders would be very cautious in extending any special privileges. He could share in the cleaning and repair of the local Kingdom Hall. He may eventually give student talks in the Theocratic Ministry School if his doing so would not disturb others. However, he would not be assigned to help with literature, accounts, magazines, attendants, or similar privileges in the congregation as long as the innocent former mate is alive, unmarried, and has not been guilty of por”nel’a.-w83 3/15 p. 29.
Shepherd the Flock of God (January 2019), Chapter 12, paragraph 10
Adulterous Marriage: If a divorced person remarries and he was not Scripturally free to do so—in other words, if adultery and rejection by the innocent mate had not occurred—he has entered into an adulterous marriage. In Jehovah’s eyes, he has married someone while still bound to another. Entering into such a marriage would call for judicial action.—See 12:76.
Shepherd the Flock of God (January 2019), Chapter 12, paragraph 72
Scriptural freedom to remarry requires three conditions: (1) sexual immorality (por·neia); (2) a rejection (refusal to reconcile) by the innocent mate; and (3) a legal, final divorce. (Matt. 5:31, 32; 19:9; Heb. 13:4) For example, if an individual contemplating remarriage confesses that he has been guilty of sexual immorality after his former mate legally divorced him or if his former mate has admitted to committing sexual immorality since the legal divorce, both are Scripturally free to remarry.
These last two (2) policy statements in the January 2019 revision of the Shepherd the Flock of God (also known as the Elders’ Manual) was repeated in each revision up to April 2021.
In summarizing the above, Watchtower’s policy on divorce and remarriage for the past 65 odd years has been:
- The basis for an innocent mate to remarry occurs when the other mate commits adultery
- One mate is Scripturally free to remarry if they or the other mate commits adultery
- Where one mate divorces or leaves the other mate without giving a divorce (for reasons other than adultery of that mate or the other mate), both mates cannot remarry and if they do, they both can be disfellowshiped for adultery. For example, if a victim of domestic violence leaves her husband, she cannot date or remarry. If she does divorce and remarry, she can be disfellowhiped. Oftentimes, its the innocent wife who suffers one way or the other, by either remaining single or getting disfellowshiped.
- If one mate divorces for “unscriptural reasons other than adultery and then proceeds to remarry”, that mate has entered into an adulterous marriage and subsequently be disfellowshipped. That mate do have the legal freedom to remarry but not the “scriptural freedom to remarry”.
Watchtower’s New Light
The November 30, 2021 Announcements to Bodies of Elders (available on avoidjw.org) addressed the question “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?
The response in part is:
“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 rejected 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 unscriptural divorce and remarriage, which Jesus equated with adultery, ends the previous marriage.”
“When a marriage ends as the result of [an unscriptural] divorce and remarriage, forgiveness or rejection on the part of the innocent mate is no longer possible.[The opportunity to grant forgiveness or rejection by the innocent mate only occurs when there is an extra-marital affair while both mates are married.] 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. 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.” – Bold mines
Basically the act of an unscriptural divorce and remarriage is adulterous in itself. However the new and 2nd marriage is not adulterous. The Announcement goes on to say “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.”” – Bold mines
Who Is Affected?
Watchtower’s policy on divorce and remarriage for the past 65 odd years basically remains the same. The Shepherd the Flock of God, October 2021 edition (also available on avoidjw.org), maintains the same three conditions for Scriptural freedom to remarry, as in the January 2019 edition. Paragraph 10 of Chapter 12 in the October 2021 edition still maintains that it is a religious offense to remarry when a congregation member is not Scripturally free to do so. If the new marriage mate is baptized, he/she would also be dealt with judicially.
The updated understanding is that the offense has been changed from “entering to an adulterous marriage” to the offending mate being “guilty of adultery”; and that “Remarriage brings a Scriptural end to the previous marriage; forgiveness or rejection on the part of the innocent mate is no longer possible.”
In other words, Watchtower is saying that the offense of adultery can occur in two settings: an extra-marital affair while both mates are married; and by an unscriptural divorce and remarriage. The extra-marital affair setting allows an opportunity to grant forgiveness or rejection by the innocent mate; the latter setting does not. Both settings can end the previous marriage.
This new light or adjustment now allows the innocent rejected mate, who was given an unscriptural divorce, to be scripturally free to remarry, without being disfellowshipped. But Watchtower does not say this either in the November 30, 2021 Announcements nor in the updated Shepherd the Flock of God, October 2021 edition. Why? Because the Governing Body who signed off on this new adjustment, is aware that there are thousands of married sisters who suffered in one way or the other for years and even decades by following the previous policy; and did not remarry just to avoid being punished by disfellowshipping.
This new light or adjustment now means that the abusive husband outlined in the earlier example now has the “scriptural freedom to remarry” and continue the cycle of domestic violence.
What can the Governing Body say to these affected wives? “Well it was your choice, we are not the ones who suffered by not remarrying; you did. We got what we wanted and it was your undivided time and attention devoted to spiritual activities. We sincerely hope that with this new adjustment, you can continue to remain spiritually strong as we are in the last days of the last days”. Any such similar responses for opportunities missed and time lost reflects the coldhearted, heartless, unchristian and unChrist-like spirit of the Governing Body.
Watchtower has a known history for not apologizing when changes in doctrine adversely affects the lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses. 1975 is a classic example. The child abuse issue pandemic is another matter that they have not apologized for. One should not be surprised if no apology is also given for this new adjustment on divorce and remarriage.
I’m a little confused here by your statement: “This new light or adjustment now allows the innocent mate, who was given an unscriptural divorce, to be scripturally free to remarry, without being disfellowshipped.” Are talking here in the case of “an unscriptural divorce” where the guilty party does NOT remarry? Because earlier it’s stated: ““In all these examples, the divorce and remarriage, which constitutes adultery, would end the previous marriage.”
Where does it say that divorce without remarriage dissolves the marriage “scripturally”?