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Virtue Ethics: Application to Remarriage Question

Christian teachers are surprisingly unified in opposition to divorce in principle. In contrast, the practical application of this view on the ministry level is shockingly diverse, even within shared traditions and fellowships. Subsequent marriages after a divorce and the question of whether they should be sustained or terminated engender special confusion. Approaching Jesus’ teachings on divorce from the perspective of Christian virtue ethics demonstrates that a person in a second marriage should not divorce to avoid adultery, but rather should stay faithful to their current marriage to cultivate the virtue of fidelity. This post will argue the case for sustaining subsequent marriages. A future article will then offer rebuttals to various arguments that I myself have been making for over a decade before reversing my position.


A fitting test of the practicality and applicability of the virtue ethic model is in the confusing world of divorce and remarriage. For the purposes of this project, marriage is defined as the historic sacrament of the church, a mysterious means of grace. While it is recognized both that marriage existed as a social reality before the Christian church and in the increasingly post-Christian climate is being forced to carry on as a secular contract, it is fitting that a discussion of Christ and marriage have in mind the sense of marriage carried on by his church for two millennia. As attested by many a churchman at many a wedding, “The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.”1

No splitting of hairs will take place in this paper as to the further meaning of the terms marriage, divorce, or remarriage. While some dither about the term ἀπολύω as discontinuous with the modern conception of divorce, I agree with Craig Blomberg’s assessment that it “must be translated ‘divorce’ here and throughout [Matthew 19]. That is what is meant in the Shammai-Hillel debate, in the Herodias affair and in the Sermon on the Mount’s antithesis to Deut 24:1. There is not a shred of contextual evidence that Jesus introduces a new meaning for the term anywhere in his dialogue; he could hardly have expected anyone to understand him differently.”2

Likewise, marriage will not be bifurcated into categories of divine approval. Jackson and others in parts of the Church of Christ fellowship have argued that there is a difference between a legitimate marriage approved by heaven and an illegitimate marriage, which is to be treated as no marriage at all.3 Some will even speak of marriage as existing or not existing “in God’s eyes,” separately from what might be apparent to the ordinary observer.4 However, this paper will primarily concern marriage as discussed by Jesus in the Gospels. In such cases, Jesus speaks of marriage, even if begun from an immoral starting place, still as marriage (“whoever divorces his wife … and marries another commits adultery,” Mt 19:9). It, therefore, seems appropriate to adopt similar patterns of plain speech, rather than attempting to subdivide marriage into special categories.[note]As Blomberg states against a dichotomy of marriages, “What Jesus rather is saying is that because all marriages are divinely made unions, they ought not be dissolved.” Blomberg, 169.[/note]


How then might a Christian virtue ethic inform the question of divorce? In virtue theory, the virtue of fidelity is opposed to the vice of infidelity and as well as blind loyalty. Ethicists from Aristotle to Lewis consider it a subclass of the cardinal virtue of justice, the right treatment of the other.5 Augustine, in framing all the virtues as loves, states, “Justice is love serving only the loved object.”6 Justice is therefore expressed in rendering the singular fidelity that is due to the object of love such as what is promised in the sacrament of marriage.

The early Christian community takes shape around the virtue of fidelity expressed in its concern for the poor and the elevation of women.7 It is only “through a hermeneutic of fidelity” that New Testament passages on marriage and divorce may be properly understood.8 “The call to fidelity in marriage was a call to support women who, in other dispensations, could have been abandoned unilaterally by their husbands. Prohibiting divorce, therefore, prohibited men from treating their wives as objects to be disposed at will. By affirming the marital bond, the Christian community gave witness to its own confident insistence on fidelity and therefore equality.”9 The connection of marriage and fidelity is not newly minted in Christianity but rather is already present in the prophetic literature which enjoins faithfulness to “the wife of your youth” (Mal 2:14-16). This insistence on the virtue of fidelity leads to a much clearer case for the continuance of subsequent marriages after divorce.

To be clear, few would dispute that Christian doctrine must generally object to divorce and remarriage. 10 The point of debate arises from the question of what to do when the divorce and subsequent marriage has already taken place. If the divorce and subsequent marriage are both sinful actions per such passages as Matthew 19:9, how does the guilty repent? In certain conservative church circles, the answer has been to recommend or, worse, command the dissolution of the second marriage.

The shortcoming of this view is in its model of ethics. If virtue ethics takes center stage for the Christian, then the question changes shape. Instead of asking about how to render restitution, virtue ethics asks what behavior will form a person into what they ought to be. Divorce produces the vice of infidelity rather than the virtue of fidelity and with it justice. Divorce ends the covenant of marriage before death and is, therefore, an act of unfaithfulness. It denies the other person the substance of the promise made in marriage. It is injustice.

No part of these statements is any less true of a subsequent marriage than the first. If divorce of a first spouse shapes a person in the vice of infidelity rather than the virtue of fidelity, then divorce in the case of a second marriage continues that moral trajectory, reinforcing the effect. As Craig Keener will state, “we should recognize that two wrongs (a second divorce) will not create a right.”11 The virtue ethicist can go further and claim that two wrongs not only fail to produce right but inevitably succeed in shaping a person wrongly. Subsequent acts of infidelity to oaths cannot restore a person to a state of fidelity, but they can and do formalize the moral development of the vice of infidelity.

Returning to the text of Jesus’ statements, Shelly points out that one commits adultery “against” someone, not “with” someone (Mark 10:10-12).12 If the vice under consideration is infidelity against a spouse, then repentance cannot take the form of repeating the same vice against a subsequent spouse any more than one repents of lying by telling subsequent lies. Repentance and its works must instead take the shape of a person not committing adultery/infidelity against their current spouse. Only through acts of faithfulness can a person become faithful. One does not start becoming faithful by an act of faithlessness.

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