No Grounds for Divorce?
Question #1: Dear ICHTHYS,
I'm trying to contact Christian ministries about an issue that is
extremely important to God, yet is commonly mis-taught by most Christian
Teacher's today. I haven't heard your teaching on the subject, and don't
know what your position is, but I would greatly appreciate if you would
read my tract and let me know if you agree with my conclusions, and if
not, why. It seems that every teacher I find, has a different
conclusion, but no one wants to discuss the issue with me. It is very
important that you teach God's commands properly, since he holds
teachers especially accountable.
BIBLICAL MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
"What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."
ONCE THE MARRIAGE HAS BEEN CONSUMMATED, TO DIVORCE IS SIN!
Malachi 2:13"This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the
LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer
regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14"Yet you
say, 'For what reason?' Because the LORD has been a witness between you
and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously,
though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15"But not one
has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit And what did that one do
while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit,
and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. 16"For
I hate divorce," says the LORD, the God of Israel, "and him who covers
his garment with wrong," says the LORD of hosts. "So take heed to your
spirit, that you do not deal treacherously." 17 You have wearied the
LORD with your words Yet you say, "How have we wearied Him?" In that you
say, "Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and He
delights in them," or, "Where is the God of justice?"
God makes it clear that He does not approve of divorce. In fact, He says
He hates it. If God hates something, shouldn't we avoid doing it at all
Matthew 19:6"So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore
God has joined together, let no man separate."
God's plan from the beginning was for one man, to be joined to one woman
for a lifetime. Once you're joined and make a covenant before God, then
you're joined together and no man can separate you. You are bound for
life, and cannot divorce for any reason. You can find civil courts that
will divorce you, and claim that you're free to remarry, but God says if
you do, then you're committing adultery.
Romans 7:2-3 For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while
he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law
concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is
joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her
husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress
though she is joined to another man.
It clearly says here that we are bound until death, with no exceptions,
and to divorce and remarry for any reason is adultery. It then compares
the importance of the law of marriage being unbreakable except by death,
to Christ's death on the cross being necessary for us to be freed from
the law, and joined to Him.
I Cor 7:39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her
husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in
Matthew 19:3 Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, "Is
it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?" 4And He
answered and said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the
beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 5and said, 'FOR THIS REASON A MAN
SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO
SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH'? 6"So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." 7They said
to Him, "Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE
AND SEND her AWAY?" 8He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart
Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has
not been this way. 9"And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except
for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."
Many people misunderstand the exception clause that Jesus gives here
regarding immorality or unchastity. What needs to be understood here, is
that Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience in
these verses, and Matthew is the "Jewish gospel." Most scholars agree
that Matthew was directed towards Jews, more so than the other gospels.
It has, by far, the most references to Jewish laws and traditions, which
is critical in understanding the meaning of the "immorality" being
discussed here. In Jewish marriage there was a betrothal period which
was similar to an engagement except was more binding than that. They
were pledged to be married, but the man could give her a writ of divorce
during the betrothal, if he found her not to be a virgin. This is
covered in Deut. 22:13-21.
This is the only “divorce” that is allowed anywhere in the Bible, and
you'll notice that it is before the consummation of the marriage, or
immediately after. Many people try to use the immorality clause to
suggest that God tolerates divorce, but this was specific to the Jews,
and only before the actual marriage.
There is no provision for gentiles to divorce ever. For us to divorce
and remarry under any circumstance is adultery, period!
Response #1: Thank you for your e-mail and your observations. Divorce and remarriage are
certainly questions which occupy much of the attention of contemporary
Christians. I always tell people what the Bible says that it is better not to
get married in the first place (e.g., 1Cor.7:1, etc.). Since this is not always
a realistic possibility, indeed, as you say divorce is something to be avoided.
I hope that all Bible-believing Christians can at least agree on these points.
Because the point to our lives is not being married or unmarried, but growing in
Christ, preparing for whatever ministries God has called us to, and serving the
Church of Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities until we are called home in
sanctification and in truth.
But if the issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage were as cut and dried as
many suggest, why would Paul, for example, take 40 verses in 1st Corinthians
chapter seven to deal with them (more than twice the length of his discourse on
the Lord's supper)? And this does not exhaust his comments on the topic which he
also treats elsewhere (as indicated in your quotations), let alone all of the
other biblical passages. This tells me right away that the subject is not
"simple". If we wish to follow the Lord humbly and in truth, we have to be
willing to delve deeply into everything His Word has to say, even when that is a
painstaking and time-consuming experience. The absolute passages you cite,
Romans 7:1-2 and 1st Corinthians 7:39, are in fact not phrased so as eliminate
any and all other exceptions (and, indeed, death does constitute an exception to
the general rule against remarriage, and that is a not unimportant point). For
there are instances of justified divorce in the Bible, for example:
But if the unbelieving [spouse] leaves [you], let them leave. The brother or
sister [concerned] is not bound (lit., "enslaved) in such cases. For [after all]
God has called you [to be] in peace.
1st Corinthians 7:15-16
Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have been unfaithful and
have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel. Now, therefore, make
confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do his will and separate
yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives."
An important case in point is one of the key passages you cite, Matthew 19:9
(along with Matt.5:32 and the other synoptic instances of our Lord's words on
this subject). First of all, the exception of adultery contained therein, while
it may possibly apply to betrothal as well, certainly does apply to consummated
marriage. For in the context, Jesus is not talking to men who have issues with
betrothal but with marriage. They ask, "is it lawful for a man to divorce his
wife?". Now if you want to say that they were only talking about betrothal (even
though that makes no sense in the context), and that therefore Jesus' answer and
exception deals only with betrothal, then we have nothing here at all which
applies to consummated marriage per se! But in fact, no one hearing or reading
this in the original Greek would assume from the verb apoluo that anything else
but a normal divorce was in view (i.e., otherwise one would have to make that
clear by specifying further). I am afraid that this logically faulty argument
(which I have heard for many years) is one that has been adduced only because
the exception of adultery that Jesus allows is uncomfortable for those who would
have the matter be completely simple by taking the (erroneous) position that
“divorce is never justified”.
So while I grant you that there are definite questions and concerns for
believers who genuinely wish to know what the Bible has to say both about
divorce and more especially remarriage, one cannot make the argument that there
are no biblical grounds for divorce whatsoever:
But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for adultery and marries
another commits adultery against her.
Two further observations about this passage: 1) here we have an exception which
not only justifies divorce but also allows remarriage, namely, unfaithfulness by
the other party; 2) the man who divorces his wife is only guilty of adultery if
and when he marries another woman and not even then if the exception applies. If
Jesus were teaching no divorce under any circumstances, there would be no
exception given. And the fact that an additional stricture is given here only
against remarriage when the exception is not met means, ipso facto, that divorce
is sometimes permissible even where there is no adultery (even if it is being
discouraged as a regular practice), and that it is instead remarriage that is
the problem (i.e., that is when and how “he commits adultery against her”; cf.
Mk.10:11-12; Lk.16:18). The rich and powerful of Jesus' day were using their
wealth and position to switch out their wives whenever it suited them, and in
that place and time divorced women often found themselves in quite a fix,
without resources, prospects of employment opportunities in the majority of
case, making the act of unjustly divorcing someone you had merely “grown tired
of” a particularly cruel and hard-hearted thing to do.
Thus, put in the context of Jesus' day Matthew 19:9 certainly makes a lot of
sense. A woman in that society would be ruined if she were "put out" of the
house at the whim of the man, and that was indeed a common and terrible
occurrence in that time (and continues to be so in much of the non-Christian
world). As Matthew is written to a Jewish audience, the possibility of the
divorce being initiated by the woman is not even contemplated (although in the
other synoptic gospels it is). God does "hate divorce", but a large part of the
reason for that is seen in the passage above, namely, because in ancient Jewish
society it was a devastating thing for the woman (and it is the woman's rights
that are addressed both in the Matthew 19:9 passage as well as in Malachi 2:16).
Therefore the primary purpose of Jesus' remarks is the protection of women from
abuse, rather than to keep marriages together no matter what (and that is an
important perspective to keep in mind when dealing with this issue). So while it
is legitimate to get from this passage that divorce is no trivial thing to be
undertaken lightly or for frivolous reasons, it is not legitimate to take from
it that there must never be any divorce.
We should indeed avoid divorce. And we should only marry with extreme care (and
in many cases shouldn't marry at all). But there are definitely times when
staying married is far worse than a divorce (leaving aside the issue of
To those who are married I give this command – and not I, but the Lord – for a
woman not to separate from her husband. But if she does, let her remain
unmarried or be reconciled to her husband . . . and for a husband not to divorce
1st Corinthians 7:10-11
Two observations about this passage: 1) since there is no mention of the
exception (adultery) here, these must be the rules for all other circumstances.
And in all "other circumstances" there are still times when a woman may indeed
leave her husband and not be reconciled to him (though she is required to remain
unmarried); 2) as one required to love his partner (Eph.5:33), the man has only
the exception of unfaithfulness, but one thing that this passage and most others
do not address directly, is the question of what to do when the other partner
divorces or abandons you.
It may not be difficult for someone who is happily married to suggest to victims
of unwanted divorce that their only future option is a single life, but I would
certainly want to be very sure of my facts before doing so, and I cannot make
that argument from scripture. None of us is perfect. We all need forgiveness.
And there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. There are those who have erred earlier
and have had pre-marital sex, and few can claim that they are innocent of mental
adultery. Jesus told us that mental adultery is the same as overt adultery.
Aren't we then "of one flesh" with those with whom we may have fornicated
overtly or even mentally, even before an overt marriage (1Cor.6:16-17; cf.
Matt.5:27-28)? So what right do we who have ever even indulged mental
promiscuity have to marry anyone else? If we take this absolute standard, as it
seems we must do if we are going to apply later such a standard to all marriage,
who among us who is married can say that he or she is not guilty of compromise
here? Of course if there were no forgiveness, where would any of us be, not just
on the topic of sexuality? But if there is forgiveness for the one, then surely
there must be forgiveness for the other (even if you were right on all counts).
This is not a brief for libertinism – may it never be! But we are under grace,
even as we must refrain from sin (Rom.6:1-2). How we judge in such matters is
important, for we are apt to be judged by the same standard and have it doled
out to us just as we have doled it out. And teachers are held to a higher
In my view of what scripture teaches, saying that marriage is in practical terms
inviolable under all circumstances does not square with all the scriptures on
the subject. But since your point of view will doubtless contribute to less
divorce, why should I disagree? Well, apart from the fact that the Word is the
Word, such teaching has the potential to doing great damage to believers who,
through no fault of their own and against their own will in some cases, find
themselves divorced. And there is another problem as well (as is inevitably the
case with misinterpretations of scripture, no matter how insignificant or
well-intentioned the mistakes may seem). This "inviolable marriage under any
circumstances" principle can make it seem that we, as the Bride of Christ, can
never individually be divorced from our Lord the Bridegroom, no matter what we
may do or how far down the road of unfaithfulness we may proceed. And that is
most definitely not the case:
Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with Him, we will also live with Him;
if we persevere, we will also reign with Him. If we disown Him, He will also
disown us; If we are faithless, He will remain faithful, for He cannot disown
2nd Timothy 2:11-13
Since our Lord can and will divorce us if we prove unfaithful to Him to the
point of totally abandoning our faith and denying Him, it is surely unwise to
suggest that the standard at the very least does not apply in marital relations
(especially since this is precisely what Matthew 19:9 teaches on the fact of
Here are some links for further reading on divorce and remarriage (should you be
interested in the details of my positions on the matter):
What does it mean in 1st Corinthians 7:14, "the unbelieving husband is
Divorce and Remarriage.
3) More Divorce and
4) Marriage of Believers and
Guilt about Remarriage
A Conversation about
Divorce and Remarriage
I hope you will accept this e-mail in the spirit in which it was written,
namely, of genuine concern for the precise truth of the Word of God and of deep
concern about the ramifications of getting things wrong even to a small degree
for the spiritual health of those who listen to what we have to say.
In Him who is the only truth, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
You're misapplying a couple of verses regarding the Mosaic law in a way that
causes them to contradict all of these other absolute verses. You should always
take absolute verses to mean what they say, unless there is clear reason to know
that they are not meant to be taken absolutely. These verses clearly are
absolute, and it would be twisting God's Word to suggest that they don't mean
what they clearly say. Jesus specifically said He was referring to the Mosaic
Law in Matt. 19 (Deut.22:23ff. and Deut.24:1ff.), both of which passages are
speaking about betrothal. The law says that if a marriage is consummated, and no
immorality is found in the woman at that time, then " she shall remain his wife;
he cannot divorce her all his days." If he could divorce her for adultery, then
it wouldn't say that he can't divorce her all his days, because adultery could
occur at any time. He has one opportunity at the time of consummation, but after
that, he is bound until death.
I don't understand how
you can maintain that Deut.22:23ff. and Deut.24:1ff. refer to the same
thing. Deut.22:22 clearly states that the subject is "a women pledged to
be married" (Heb., me`orasha), whereas in the Deut.24:1 the subject is a
woman whom a man takes "and marries" (Heb., ba'alah).
The verb only applies to marriage, and Hebrew perfect tense expresses it
as completed fact - this sentence is as clear in Hebrew as it is in the
English translations. That this latter discussion is about marriage, not
betrothal, is made clear in the following verses as well (i.e., she
marries another man, then cannot come back to the first husband after
her second divorce). Inasmuch as Matthew 19:8-9 is referring to
Deut.24:1ff. as you concede, the exception given by Jesus must therefore
refer to divorce and not betrothal. This would seem to be a fatal flaw
in your argument. In this entire section, Jesus is responding to abuses
of the Mosaic system of divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1-3 clearly is speaking
of consummated marriage (i.e., "If a man takes a wife and becomes her
husband" – there is no clearer way to say this!), and the exception that
Jesus includes in Matthew 19:9 is a translation and deliberate
explanation of the justification for divorce found in the Law. That is
to say, the Greek phrase, epi porneia, "for sexual misconduct (i.e.,
adultery)" explains the somewhat more clouded Hebrew phrase in
Deuteronomy 24:, 'erbhat dhabar, "the nakedness of a matter" (i.e.,
sexual misconduct / adultery). In all things obscene, Hebrew tends to
use periphrasis in order not to say outright what is meant, and the
hyper-legalistic generation of our Lord's day was using this diffidence
to re-interpret Moses to mean anything that a husband wanted it to mean.
Jesus' purpose in using this phrase in Matthew is indeed to explain to
His Jewish audience that they have been bending the truth, and that only
adultery of the other party allows a man to divorce his wife and remarry
In Deuteronomy 24:1 and following, there is no mention of betrothal.
There is no mention of "consummation". In short, there is nothing in the
text to suggest that the man who divorces his wife on account of an 'erbhat
dhabar is only doing it or only allowed to do it in direct proximity to
a marriage. Quite the contrary, the clause which connects the protasis
to the apodosis begins in standard Hebrew narrative format with the
phrase vehayah, or in KJV parlance, "and it came to pass". This phrase
invariably refers to the passage of an indefinite amount of time. And
that means, ipso facto, that the situation being described cannot be
restricted to the wedding night. If that had been what Moses wanted to
say, he would have had to (and would have) spelled it out. Indeed, the
context, read in either English or Hebrew, does not indicate any such
connection. Further, we see that the reason the second husband divorces
his wife is merely that he "hates her". Clearly, he knew she was
divorced, and didn't like her enough to stay married to her after the
marriage (any length of time applies here as well). The requirement of
the Law in both of these cases is not that the husband refrain from
divorcing her, but that he give her a "bill of divorce" (and, of course,
in this context the first husband is also prohibited from re-marrying
Might I suggest that our Lord's complaint about Moses' allowance of the
"bill of divorce" because of "the hardness of your hearts" really only
makes any true sense if Moses did allow a bill of divorce (Jesus says:
"Moses permitted you to put away your wives"). This practice was abused
(i.e., it began to be used for any subjective reason whatsoever), and
our Lord Jesus is correcting the abuse by pointing out that only
adultery is a valid basis for taking the extreme measure of divorce and
then re-marrying. For "adultery against the divorced woman" only comes
into play if the man remarries, so this is really the true nature of the
problem. The real issue is dumping the old wife for the express purpose
of moving on to a new wife, a horribly sinful act that did even more
damage in the ancient world (because of the restricted roles of and
economic opportunities for women, not to mention the stigma) than it
In my observation and experience, people, even non-Christians, usually
don't get divorced for the fun of it. Except in those cases where the
person is indeed so shallow and sinful as to divorce so as to "move on"
to someone else (or take some other sort of sinful advantage, money from
the partner, for example), divorce is almost inevitably very painful for
at least one of the parties, taken on reluctantly, and only because the
relationship has truly become irreconcilable. Divorce under such
conditions may not allow for remarriage in all cases, but it is not
definitively prohibited, either by Moses (Deut.24:1ff.), or by our Lord
Jesus Christ (Matt.19:8-9). Even in the epistles, while the initiation
of divorce by the Bible believing Christian is prohibited under non
"marriage-breaking" circumstances, there are clearly situations where
divorce may occur (1Cor.7:11; 7:15; 7:27). What is always prohibited is
the willful tossing aside of one's partner for one's own lustful
interests and then acting upon those interests in re-marriage. This has
implications for the exception Jesus gives. For we should understand by
now that the Matt.19:8-9 exception, adultery, is directed not towards
divorce (which is not being prohibited at all), but towards re-marriage.
As I say, I do respect your desire to support the sanctity of marriage,
but in all matters we as Christian are bound to follow scripture, even
when it disagrees with our point of view. I think that you need to allow
that Jesus is indeed making an exception for adultery. Then I would be
happy to continue this discussion on some of the other points you have
In our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.