How would you counsel someone who has committed adultery (and subsequently been divorced by his spouse) regarding any future relationship with the person with whom he committed adultery?
Here is a classic case that illustrates the importance of this hermeneutical principle- we are to interpret the historical in light of the didactic and not the didactic in light of the historical. That is, our wisdom here will come from God’s law as it is rightly recorded in the Bible, not from God’s history that is rightly recorded in the Bible. That David married Bathsheba has no more bearing on the right thing to do than that David committed adultery with Bathsheba. Both are historical realities. Neither is biblical wisdom.
There are, of course, nearly countless permutations on the ethics of divorce and remarriage. There are likewise varying understandings of what the Bible teaches. One principle has long been the strong majority report in the church for centuries- that divorce is permissible to the victim of either adultery or when a believer is left by an unbelieving spouse. Without these circumstances we are left with illegitimate divorces that tangle the whole question. And even here, with adultery taking place we have at least this tangle- what about the guilty party?
When we speak of the guilty and innocent party in the context of divorce we haven’t lost sight of the universal reality of sin. That is, it isn’t as though only one party sins. But there is a guilty and innocent party in a biblical divorce. If a man’s wife is a horrible shrew, but does not give him biblical grounds for divorce, and he commits adultery, even though her shrew-ness may have contributed at some level to his sin, he is still the guilty party, and she the innocent, in the divorce. She may have been more guilty in the marriage, but he is guilty of the divorce. Can he remarry?
The tension here is that we want on the one hand to recognize the guilt, but also want to affirm forgiveness for the repentant. Though I confess that I cannot provide chapter and verse I have always counseled guilty parties in a case of divorce to not pursue another relationship at all at least until the innocent party has remarried. This leaves open the possibility for reconciliation. (Two important points here. First, one of the great evils in these kinds of situations is when well meaning people counsel the innocent party this way- “God permits you to divorce, but the better choice would be…” We give freedom with the right hand and then bind with the left. If God permits it, so must we. Never let us try to be more pious than God. Second, however, the Bible is clear that a couple that has divorced, and if one or both parties remarry someone else, the original couple cannot latter remarry.)
If the innocent party has remarried, and the adulterous spouse has repented to the wife and to the church publicly, I would suggest he or she is free to remarry. That said, I would have a hard time imagining encouraging someone to marry someone in such a circumstance. I would not want one of my children to marry someone who not only was willing to dishonor him or her by engaging in sexual intercourse when they weren’t married, I surely wouldn’t want my children to marry someone who has already shown a willingness to commit adultery. That doesn’t mean the adulterer can’t be forgiven. A man who embezzles from the church can certainly be forgiven. That doesn’t mean we make him the church treasurer. It does mean, which is precisely why the divorce is allowed to begin with, that trust seems virtually unattainable. In short, I wouldn’t, as an elder in the church, forbid such a marriage. I would, however, likely counsel against it.