Hi Chuimatai Singlai. Thanks so much for your question! I pray that what follows is helpful.
There’s a few things in your question. I don’t think I can - in good conscience - answer this question directly. I’m not part of your church, nor do I know your pastors/elders/leaders. And, even more, I don’t know the man and the women involved in the scenario, nor the full context of their marriage. One of the big assumptions of the text in 1 Corinthians 5 is that the people to whom Paul is writing would have been gathering in small house churches. People in those churches would have known each other. Many of them would have known each other intimately. It’s much easier to give specific, moral instruction to a group of people whose lives are intimately intertwined; it’s much harder to answer the type of question you’ve asked. In fact, sometimes it can be harmful to make a moral judgment from afar.
So, what I think would be helpful, would be to unpack what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 5 when talking about church discipline and restoration. The main thrust of 1 Corinthians 5 is this: the moral integrity of the church is part of its witness. Paul isn’t giving a list of commands for the Corinthians; he is giving them an aim. And the aim is that not simply their beliefs but also their lives would be a witness to the good news of the gospel, the wisdom of the cross, and the power of the resurrection.
Paul’s metaphor throughout the chapter, which actually begins in chapter 1, is that of family. The metaphor is powerful. Families aren’t abstract bodies of people who don’t care for one another; families are people whose lives are shaped by their identification with their father, mother, sisters and brothers. If you fail to represent the family, that doesn’t mean you’re excluded straight away. That’d be a pretty terrible family. No, instead, the assumption is that the family will gather around you in support, encouragement, and loving judgment - all with the goal of restoring you to right membership.
So, here’s the point: if you’re part of the family of God, you want to increase in your ability to represent the head of the family. The head of the family is God himself revealed in Jesus Christ, imitated by Paul (1 Cor 4:14-16). Which means, if you claim to be a family member but you’re not representing the family name, the church has the God-given right to judge you (meaning, call a spade “a spade!”), but with the goal of restoration. That’s the main thrust of the passage.
So, what are the circumstances in which exclusion from the church-family is necessary, godly, and proper? Paul gives a list of sins which warrant exclusion from the church:
• Sexual immorality
Now, we need to notice two things about this list. First, the list isn’t exhaustive. 1 Corinthians has been called the most “occasional letter” in the New Testament. By this, people mean to say that it is the letter which seems to deal with the most amount of practical problems out of all of Paul’s letters. So, when you go to 1 Corinthians, you can’t just transplant this list of immorality into our context; you need to realise that the things which Paul talks about are specific to the church in Corinth. The church in Corinth was full of sexual immorality, greed, swindling, idolatry, slander, drunkenness. People in our churches might commit these sins, but they might also commit other sins.
Which means, to put it strongly, Paul isn’t just concerned with these sins. Paul is concerned with all sin . It’s not like Paul is saying, “You can be physically abusive as a husband so long as you’re not sexually immoral,” or, “You can be incredibly bitter as a person, but just don’t be greedy!” Paul’s concern isn’t just about this list of sins and not doing them; his concern is that when you’re part of God’s family, you need to increasingly grow into looking like a member of the family. In the case of God’s family, our model is Jesus Christ. This is why there are other passages in the New Testament talking about exclusion from the church (2 Thes 3:14-15; 2 John 10-11; Matt 18:17). The stakes are much higher than a particular list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” it’s about full-fledged growth into Christ-likeness.
Second, exclusion applies to those who persist in sin. The list he gives here contains sins which seem to be particularly damaging to community. It’s hard to worship next to someone who has swindled money from you; it’s hard to take communion with somebody who you know has committed adultery. All that to say, there’s two aims of Paul’s instruction in the passage: (1) that the types of sin which damage community are the ones that are most serious; and (2), those who persist in sin are the ones who are at risk of exclusion from the church family. Exclusion from church is not for those who commit a random sin; it’s for those who persist in sin.
In other words, Paul treads a fine line between commending moral integrity and imploring radical grace - just compare Galatians with 1 Corinthians! And so, the question becomes, “How do I know when to integrate somebody sinful back into our church community?” And the answer is this: don’t wait until they are morally perfect (because we all sin, that’ll never happen!); wait until they issue true repentance, and when they exhibit a real desire to grow into the likeness of Jesus and God’s family.
Which means, to come back to your question (can a church be restored to such man and received him without the Agreement of first wife?), let me give three practical implications:
- Judgment is good. Judgment is actually loving. But, the heart of judgment should be aimed towards restoration. Which means, judgment should be issued as early as possible, because all judgment is an invitation to the right way of life. The longer you withhold judgment from someone, the harder it is going to be for them to turn their life around. The sooner you issue judgment to them, the sooner they’ll be able to step back into representing the family. The question I would have for any church where marriages are breaking down is this, “Are you calling people to the life God has for them as frequently as possible and as early as possible?” Divorce isn’t something that just happens ; usually it is the result of a million small decisions where a spouse begins thinking the wrong things, entertaining the wrong ideas, and begins walking down the path which divorce finalises. If the church really is the family of God, it’s also their responsibility to be so involved in the lives of married couples that divorce doesn’t even seem like an option to them.
- Second, for you Chuimatai, there are going to be people in your church who continue to commit these sins - both the ones listed by Paul, but also other sins which undermine community and mar the reputation of God’s family. If you don’t know them intimately, God does not give you the licence to judge them. Your judgment can actually do more harm than help. Why? Because you’ve got no stake in their life. You don’t really care. You’re just throwing a stone at their moral failure. You could do that, but it won’t help them be restored to the church family. It’ll just make them feel separated from the church family. At the same time, you might know them intimately (like family). If so, God gives you the responsibility to judge them. The more closely you know them, the more helpful your judgment will be! So, my encouragement to you with this particular scenario would be this: if you’re intimately involved in their lives, you’re given the right to judge them and the responsibility to work for their restoration into God’s family. If not, get to know them or leave the question for people close to them and your church leadership (hopefully your church leadership knows them and loves them deeply).
- There could come a day when all three of these people - the divorced spouse, and the newly married couple - worship God as one family in the same room. What a wonderful expression of the grace of God and the power of the gospel. But that’s a process which needs to begin with the man’s repentance, the old spouse’s forgiveness, and the sensitivity of the new spouse.
I hope this is helpful, Chuimatai!
PS. 1 Corinthians doesn’t explicitly talk about marriage and divorce. To understand that, read Matthew 19 and Genesis 1-2. The basic idea of Jesus is that legitimate grounds for divorce is if one party commits adultery. It’s sinful to issue a divorce for any other reason.
But, here’s the thing: even issuing divorce on the grounds of adultery isn’t great. God would actually love there to be a people-group who, even if their spouse were to commit adultery against them, could so love that person such that the marriage was restored. Why? Because marriage ultimately tells the story of God’s love for humanity. God’s vision is that all marriages would last, because God’s marriage to us in Christ is the type that lasts, even amidst our adultery of heart. Divorce isn’t just tragic because it brings humans unhappiness; it’s tragic because it lies about God.