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Virtue Ethics: Objections Considered

In a previous post in this series, I proposed a virtue ethics approach to the question of divorce and remarriage. I advocated sustaining second marriages as pivotal for developing the virtue of faithfulness. In this post, I want to consider objections to this view, mostly cobbled together from arguments I made in the past before rethinking my position.

State of Adultery

One common objection is that marriage after divorce creates a state of adultery that must be ended. Advocates of this view argue from the present tense of the Greek verb used for “commits adultery” (μοιχαται, Mt 19:9) and claim that the present tense indicates continuous action.1 In this reading, the adultery is continually committed, as a state, for as long as the marriage lasts.

However, Greek grammarian Daniel Wallace reminds us that the progressive present (or descriptive present) is just one subcategory of the present tense. Alternatively, the instantaneous present (or aorist or punctiliar present) “may be used to indicate that an action is completed at the moment of speaking. This occurs only in the indicative. It is relatively common. … The element of time becomes so prominent that the progressive aspect is entirely suppressed in this usage.”2

A typical example of this usage is Acts 9:34, where Peter says that Jesus Christ “heals” (ιαται) a lame man. The man is neither progressively better nor in a perpetual state of healing. “And immediately he arose.” The healing came to pass and came to its conclusion all in the passage of the moment of speech. The man is not in a state of still healing and therefore still lame as well, but more properly he is a person who has been healed as soon as Peter is finished speaking. Applying this grammar to Matthew 19:9, a person who divorces and remarries without the exception commits adultery and thereby becomes a person who has committed adultery (past tense, not continuing into the future). Blomberg seems to agree with this assessment, writing,

Not one of the textual variants in this verse or in 5:32 uses the nouns ‘adulterer’ or ‘adulteress’ … leaving the interpretation ‘becomes an adulterer/-ess’ particularly misleading. Even if one divorces for unbiblical reasons and remarries, such a person does not enter into an ongoing adulterous relationship. The commission of adultery is a one-time act. Nor does the present tense … lend support to the notion of continuous adultery. In the indicative mood, present tenses are not always progressive. The form of a pronouncement story leads one to expect as its climax a proverbial statement, which will employ gnomic or timeless verbs, not ones that emphasize ongoing action.3

No legitimate Greek authority will claim that every usage of the present tense creates a state that endures indefinitely into the future. With at least one viable Greek reading available, this linguistic argument is far too thin to form a basis for a recommendation of divorce.

Divine-Command Objections

Serious objections are leveled against the virtue approach to this question from the position of divine-command ethical theory, which asserts that good is ultimately whatever God says it is.

This first objection would be that Jesus would more likely subscribe to a divine-command theory over that of virtue ethics. As a Second Temple, Jewish monotheist, Jesus, it is alleged, would be much more influenced by plain statements of torah versus Aristotelian philosophy. In this case, the text itself will claim otherwise. It is the Pharisees who argue from what they consider to be a plain statement of law (Mt 19:7). Jesus instead argues from the historical context of the law, the Creation narrative, and the ultimate reality of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:4-6, 8-12). Elsewhere, Jesus elevates virtue-type characteristics such as a justice, mercy, and faithfulness over more technically reckoned actions such as the proper tithe for a spice rack (Mt 23:23). While he may not be a student of Aristotle, he is no doubt a teacher of being rather than legally codified action. Jesus wants his disciples to aspire to the cross and the kingdom rather than to act out of prescriptive duty.

Second, the divine-command objection may continue, while Jesus might wish to argue from virtue, his disciples must acknowledge his lordship and submit to his command. Jesus has a more perfect knowledge of God’s intent, whereas the Church has only knowledge of God’s revealed will. This objection fails to recognize that Jesus nowhere gives a command for a person to divorce their second spouse. This omitted command is the very inference under dispute. If it were plainly stated by Jesus, then this would certainly alter the Church’s conclusion, but as it is not so stated, the Church must consider the matter differently. Jesus clearly renders a moral verdict on the action, but not so clearly a course of action for repentance. In the absence of such a statement or command, it is reasonable to attempt to resolve the issue using the same ethical strategy that Jesus himself seems to be using.

“Safe Course” Objections

Another type of objection takes the shape of a sort of moral wager stated as follows. While it is possible that the thesis of this post is true, it is also possible that it is false. If divorcing in a second marriage is morally necessary, then failure to do so will result in eternal judgment. If divorcing in a second marriage is not morally necessary, then it is further argued that no harm has been done in getting the divorce. The advocate of this view will tell a person in a second marriage to take the safest possible course of action and divorce their current spouse.

This objection suffers from two serious faults. First, it assumes that the act of divorcing in a second marriage is not itself immoral. If infidelity to a marriage vow is immoral in the first marriage, then it can reasonably be argued that it is also immoral in the second marriage. Second, this argument limits the calculation of “harm” to one set of consequences. It does not weigh the spiritually detrimental effect that this choice may have to each spouse and their children should there be any. Wallerstein observes in her landmark study of children of divorcees, “[Divorce’s] impact increases over time and rises to a crescendo in adulthood. At each development stage divorce is experience anew and in different ways. In adulthood it affects personality, the ability to trust, expectations about relationships, and ability to cope with change.”4 In the ending of a marriage of any sort, there is no harmless option. Divorce is violence, and God hates it (Mal 2:14-16).

Ezra as Exemplar

Another familiar response is to look for biblical precedent and to find it in the case of Ezra. After returning from exile, Ezra finds that many of the Jewish people have married foreign persons. As such, he commands, “send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law” (Ezra 10:3). The precedent appears to be that if a person enters into a marriage against God’s revealed will, then the proper form of repentance is to end that marriage.

The analogy fails as a precedent at several points. First, the post-exilic account is tied inseverably to considerations of holiness (“the holy seed has mixed itself,” Ezra 9:2) and of Israelite identity. Without those two elements being present in the contemporary debate, it is a highly selective reading that would follow Ezra here. Instead, Paul seems to reverse Ezra’s concern for holiness in a mixed faith marriage (1 Cor 7:12-16).5 Second, no exegetical feature of the text guarantees that this specific act of Ezra is being set forward as a good example. To the contrary, the decision to send away the wives is a covenant initiated by the people, not by God: “So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law” (Ezra 10:3). The people initiate the covenant according to the wisdom of Ezra, but it is not immediately clear that God approves. The Old Testament is rich with examples of the people telling God how they will fix a problem, only to end in disaster (notably, Judges 20-21). Third, even assuming that this was a divinely approved response to this scenario, no reason remains to believe that it is a precedent for Christian ethics. While the Hebrew Scriptures are considered canonical and authoritative, most Christian faith traditions acknowledge that the Old Testament is not normative in the same fashion as the New Testament.6 Finally, it should be noted that Ezra is neither the first nor most notable precedent related to this issue in canon. The Bible spends considerably more time discussing a foreign wife named Ruth. Scripture elevates her, magnifies Boaz’s decision to marry her, tells of her legacy in David, and continues her story in the lineage of Jesus himself. This story must not be weighted with any less consequence than Ezra. The world would be far worse if Boaz had divorced his foreign wife.


Preachers will sometimes make an emotional appeal to the notion of restitution to demonstrate that a person must divorce their spouse in a second marriage. By way of a constructed parable, the preacher will ask a person to imagine that a thief wants to repent but keep his stolen wealth. Repentance has not been authentic if the person is not willing to forego the spoil of sin and return justice to the world.

This analogy also fails miserably on at least two counts. First, it assumes that humans have the power to return the world to its right state in every case. Human volition may not undo all sins, a point even Aquinas begrudgingly admits.7 In the case of murder, the dead cannot be risen by the murderer, no matter the depth of his grief. Likewise, divorcing a spouse in a second marriage does not somehow reconcile the previously broken marriage. It multiplies loss, rather than reducing it. Second, this argumentation treats the spouse (not to mention any children) as possessions to be returned, rather than people to be honored and cherished. On this ground alone, the whole line of restitution reasoning should be abandoned.


Marriage is not best cherished by divorce. Divorce harms marriage in essentially every case, and no casuistic rules mitigate this conclusion. The pursuit of the virtue of fidelity as a species of justice clarifies the issue even more fully. The remarried person is still a person striving to become – it is hoped – a better person, and the vice of divorce will not help the human reach the fullness of the person of Jesus Christ.


  1. Frank Johnson Frank Johnson

    I Agree with this teaching, traditions of men have to long been preached in the Lords Church.
    May the Lord Bless you many more years to teach the truth.

  2. Joe Norman Joe Norman

    I strongly agree with almost all of your article. I have been fighting against the “traditional” teachings on MDR for 11 years at least and strongly believe these “traditional” teachings are not biblical and extremely harmful. Souls are lost by this false doctrine that many within the churches of Christ have been teaching and enforcing. It’s not pleasing to God. I am by no means encouraging anyone to divorce for any reason and marry someone else as often as they want either. I just know for a fact that two wrongs never make a right.

  3. Lisa Lisa

    In this article, are the people believers, or unbelievers…

    • Good question. In this article, the people are people. No distinction is being made, as Jesus doesn’t seem to make any distinction in Matthew 19 or any of the other pertinent texts.

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