A Biblical View of Marriage and Divorce

Answers to Questions About Remarriage and Divorce
by the author of The Divorce Myth

The History of the Issue

All the church fathers except one (Ambrosiaster) agreed that remarriage after divorce, whatever the cause, constitutes adultery. Even in the case of adultery, the faithful spouse did not have permission to remarry. This remained the standard in the church until the 16th century when Erasmus suggested that the “innocent” spouse not only had a right to divorce an unfaithful spouse, but could also contract a new marriage. This view was accepted by the Reformers and is the standard Protestant evangelical position on divorce and remarriage today.

The Crucial Questions

1. Does the exception in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 allow for remarriage after divorce in the case of porneia? No. There are three possible places the exception clause could appear: at the beginning of Jesus’s statement (making separation mandatory in the case of porneia), in the middle (allowing divorce only) and at the end (sanctioning both divorce and remarriage). If the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 applies both to divorce and remarriage, these are the only two places in the New Testament where such an exception appears in the middle of the sentence and modifies both the preceding and following verbs.

2. What is the meaning of porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9? Many evangelicals have mistakenly equated porneia with “adultery.” But there is another word (moicheia) which Jesus would have used if He had intended to allow for divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery. It has been argued that porneia refers to (1) any kind of sexual misconduct, (2) unfaithfulness during betrothal, or (3) incestuous marriage as forbidden in Leviticus 18:6-18. Each of these views is possible. Which would best fit in a Jewish context in a Jewish gospel? Since porneia does refer to incest in the New Testament (1 Cor. 5:1; Acts 15:20, cf. Lev. 17:8-18:16), and was a serious problem in the lives of the Herods (Archelaus, Antipas and Agrippa II), it is quite possible that Jesus was arguing the permanence of marriage except in the case of an illicit or illegal (ie. incestuous) marriage. John the Baptist had recently lost his life due to his condemning the incestuous marriage of Antipas to his brother’s wife who was also his niece. The questioning of Jesus by the Pharisees was probably motivated by a desire to see Jesus get into similar trouble. See The Divorce Myth, pp. 71-78, for complete argumentation.

3. Why was no exception recorded in Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18? In Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the other Synoptic Gospels no exception to the permanence of marriage is given. There is no “exception” clause. Divorce and remarriage is said to constitute adultery in every circumstance. It has been suggested that Mark is a summary of the more complete record of what is found in Matthew, thus he leaves out the exception. But take a close look. Mark gives us details which are not found in Matthew. Mark’s account is actually the fuller or more complete account. Because the laws of Leviticus 18:6-18 did not apply to Gentiles, Mark saw no need to include the exception in his gospel to Roman readers. The exception is not found in Mark or Luke because it had no application to Romans or Greek Gentiles.

4. How did Paul understand the teaching of Jesus regarding marriage and divorce? Paul definitely regarded marriage as permanent (Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:39). According to Paul, death and death alone could end a marriage. He has a word from Jesus that divorce is not allowed (1 Cor. 7:10-11). Paul, a first century theologian and Greek scholar, interprets the words of Jesus as not allowing for divorce or remarriage. Only two alternatives are presented those who have been divorced: (1) reconciliation to one’s spouse, or (2) the single life. One who has been divorced should seek reconciliation or actively pursue the single life. A new marriage is simply not an option which Paul recognizes.

5. What is the meaning of Paul’s words, “not under bondage” (1 Cor. 7:15)? While many have interpreted these words as allowing for remarriage in the case of desertion, Paul doesn’t mention remarriage in this verse at all. He knows of the concept of remarriage, but sees it as applying only to widows (1 Cor. 7:39). It is quite unlikely that Paul would prohibit divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 and then allow it in 7:15. The words “not under bondage” mean “not enslaved.” A deserted believer is not so bound to preserve the union that he or she must follow the deserter around like a slave seeking to maintain the marriage. Being enslaved is contrasted with being at peace. Rather than being a slave to an unwilling spouse, the believer can be at peace in the midst of a difficult situation.

6. What is the meaning of the words, “but if you marry, you have not sinned” (1 cor. 7:28). The key to any verse is its context. Paul is speaking about engaged virgins in 1 Corinthians 7:25-38. He has been arguing the advantages of the single life. Some people who had plans to marry were wondering if it was s sin to go ahead with the marriage. Paul is simply saying that those engaged virgins (parthenoi) who are in a state of marital freedom (lelusai, v. 27) commit no sin should they go ahead and marry.

Conclusion

Marriage was designed by God to be a permanent relationship (Gen. 2:24, “cleave” implies a permanent bonding). Divorce is a sin that God hates (Mal. 2:16). While divorce was regulated in the Old Testament (Deut. 24:1-4), it did not originate with God and never meets with His approval. Both Jesus and Paul forbade divorce (“What God has brought together let no man put asunder,” [Matt. 19:6] and “But to the married I give instruction . . .that the wife should not leave her husband . . . and that the husband should not send his wife away” [1 Cor. 7:10-11]). Why should Christians evangelicals approve what Scripture disapproves? To approve divorce and remarriage may well in fact to encourage it for it allows people to anticipate a way out of an unhappy relationship. If there were no loop-holes most people would commit themselves to making their marriage work.

Marriage is a picture of the believer’s relationship with Christ (Eph. 5:31-33). Is our relationship with Christ temporary or permanent? Can a true believer ever be separated from Christ (Rom. 8:35-39; Jn. 10:28)? If marriage were a dissoluble relationship, it would be a less than accurate representation of the indissoluble relationship between Christ and His church.

For further study see my book, The Divorce Myth (Bethany House 1981).

Leave a Reply