Check out the new Convergence Church Network! 

Visit and join the mailing list.

All Articles

B.        Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage


1.         Mark 10:2-12


The relevant passage is in vv. 11-12 where we read: “And He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.’”


Somewhat of a surprise here “is the reference to the wife’s action of divorcing her husband in verse 12. Since this option was not normally granted to women under Jewish Law, this part of the saying is usually regarded as a Markan adaptation of the tradition to the legal situation of the Greco-Roman world, where wives could initiate divorce” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament [Harper Collins, 1996], 352).


2.         Luke 16:18


Luke’s version is shorter but similar to Mark’s. “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.”


[Note well that in both the Markan and Lukan statements, “the prohibitions of remarriage . . . are applied specifically only to the partner – male or female – who initiates the divorce; a reasonable case can be made that the silence of these texts concerning any restrictions on the spouse who is wrongly divorced implies the freedom for this ‘innocent’ party to remarry” (Hays, 373).]


3.         Matthew 5:31-32


Again, several things call for comment:


a.         This text deals with divorce initiated by the man; the rights of the woman are not discussed. Matthew's gospel is addressed to a Jewish audience among whom the divorce of a man by his wife was so rare that ancient law made no provision for it (see Josephus, Antiquities, XV:259). We will operate on the assumption, however, that the woman has the same rights as the man.


b.         Jesus says that unchastity (NASB) or marital unfaithfulness (NIV), literally, porneia (from which we get the word pornography), is the only legitimate ground for divorce. [Other texts where it is found include Mark 7:21; John 8:41; Acts 15:20,29; 21:25; Rom. 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:13,18; 7:2; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3; Rev. 2:21; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2,4; 18:3,9.] Meaning? Suggestions include:


(1) Unfaithfulness during the betrothal period (a 12 month engagement during which the two were legally bound; cf. Deut. 22:13-21; Mt. 1:18-19). If this is what the term means, then clearly the exception has little if any relevance for us today.


(2) Unlawful marriage to an unbeliever; but see 1 Cor. 7:12-16 where Paul says the believer is not free to divorce an unbelieving spouse merely for unbelief.


(3) Marriage within the unlawful degrees of Lev. 18:6-18, i.e., marriage to a near relative. It does appear that porneia means incest in 1 Cor. 5:1 (and it may mean that in Acts 15:29). However, “Leviticus 18 prohibits not only incest (vv. 6-18) but also intercourse during menstruation, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality (vv. 19-23). Thus, even if it is correct that porneia in the apostolic decree alludes to Leviticus 18, there is no reason to restrict the meaning of the term to incestuous marriage; it is a summary term for all the sexual offenses proscribed in the holiness code of Leviticus 18-20” (Hays, 355).


(4) Adultery (however, the Greek word for adultery, moicheia, is not used here, and in Mt. 15:19 Matthew distinguishes porneia from moicheia.


(5) Any and all kinds of sexual infidelity that includes, but is not limited to, adultery (e.g., incest, bestiality, homosexuality, etc.). The latter view is most likely correct.


How do we explain the fact that Mark makes no reference to any exception, not even for porneia, whereas Matthew does? Hays says that “Matthew’s exception clause stands as a clear sign of a process of moral deliberation, in which Mark’s radical vision of marriage as indissoluble one-flesh union is accommodated in the interest of creating a workable rule for the community’s life” (356). How would that affect our view of biblical inerrancy? Others argue that Mark's sole concern was to point out that the concessions for divorce drawn from Deut. 24 were abrogated. There is no longer to be divorce for any of those reasons. He does not discuss adultery because adultery was not grounds for divorce in the OT. Mark would have contradicted Matthew only had he said, "There are no grounds for divorce (as permitted in Deut. 24), not even adultery." Still others suggest that the difference between Mark and Luke on the one hand and Matthew on the other is in some way (?) traceable to the fact that the former were addressing a Gentile, Greco-Roman audience, whereas the latter was addressing a Jewish audience. I must admit that at this stage I have not come across an entirely satisfactory explanation.


c.         Jesus does not say that porneia necessitates divorce; no one is required to put away his or her spouse should it occur. Nothing, not even adultery, necessarily puts a marriage beyond repair.


d.         To divorce a spouse on any other grounds is to make him/her commit adultery (v. 32b). Note well: the wife does not become an adulteress simply by being divorced. Jesus envisions her getting remarried, in which case both she and her second husband commit adultery. Why? Because God still regards her first marriage as binding. Only adultery severs the marital bond. The point is that a man or woman who has no biblical right to divorce has no biblical right to remarry.


4.         Matthew 19:3-12


a.         The Pharisees wanted to trick Jesus by compelling him to take sides with either the narrow, conservative perspective of the school of Shammai (only the most heinous of marital offenses) or the broad, liberal viewpoint of the school of Hillel (any indiscretion, from not being physically attractive to being a poor cook!).


b.         Jesus eludes their trap and appeals rather to the original divine ordinance given in Genesis (vv. 4-6). Marriage is a divine ordinance that is ideally indissoluble. It is not a contract of temporary convenience. “Divorce is contrary to the divine institution, contrary to the nature of marriage, contrary to the divine action by which the union is effected. . . . Divorce is the breaking of a seal which has been engraven by the hand of God” (JM, 33). When you choose divorce for unbiblical grounds you are saying No to God . . . not to your spouse, not to the minister who officiated your wedding, not to your kids, but to God.


c.         "How can that be," ask the Pharisees, "if Moses commands divorce?" (v. 7). "You are wrong," responds Jesus. "Moses did not command divorce. He permitted it. Furthermore, it was because of the hardness of heart, as a result of sin, that he permitted it." Thus divorce, both then and now, is a departure from the original design for marriage. It is a concession, not a command. If there is divorce, it is not because God intended it that way. It is, rather, because you are sinful.


d.         And what about remarriage? Some allow for divorce in the case of adultery (and perhaps desertion) but disallow remarriage. But if a man or woman is permitted to divorce his/her partner for sexual immorality, it must be due to the fact that the marital bond is dissolved. And if the marriage is dissolved, what reason can there be for forbidding remarriage?


e.         Jesus has done three things: (1) He has abolished the OT death penalty for adultery. (2) He has made divorce permissible (though not mandatory) on the grounds of sexual immorality. And (3) He has abolished all grounds for divorce that were thought to have been permitted by Deut. 24. Whatever reasons for divorce were recognized under the the phrase some indecency in Deut. 24, Jesus says: "No more!" His disciples understandably respond: "If marriage is permanent and life-long, except in the case of adultery, maybe it would be better not to marry in the first place." Jesus responds in vv. 11-12.


C.        Paul on Divorce and Remarriage


Paul's teaching on the subject is found in 1 Cor. 7:1-16. The background for Paul's words here is important. A summation of the sort of belief system prevalent at Corinth is as follows:


"As priests before God we (Corinthian Christians) must remain ceremonially clean and pure; therefore, we will abstain from all sexual relations, making ourselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom (Mt. 19). Wives and husbands must cease sexual contact, those who are not married must remain single, and those already married may wish to divorce their spouses lest they succumb to the temptation of sexual passion. This would especially be true of those who are married to unbelievers who are already unclean because of their unbelief. In a word, we find it morally necessary to abstain from sex. It is sinful to have sexual intercourse. It is good not to touch a woman."


Paul's initial response (v. 1) is to say that celibacy (a life in which one does not touch a woman) is a good thing, but not because sexual intercourse is evil. Celibacy is good if and only if one has been gifted by God for such a life (v. 7). However, for those not called to be celibate, for those who cannot suppress their sexual desires, marriage is recommended (vv. 2,9), and within marriage sexual relations are not only good, they are essential (vv. 3-5). Paul then addresses two cases: one on which the Lord Jesus did speak (v. 10) and one on which Jesus did not speak (v. 12).


1.         When husband and wife are both Christians (vv. 10-11)


The false belief among the Corinthians was that since sex, even in marriage, is defiling, it would be better to divorce than to expose oneself to the temptation. Evidently the Corinthians were actually divorcing one another to avoid sexual relations.


N.B. This, by the way, is why Paul says nothing about adultery being grounds for divorce (as Jesus did). Paul is dealing with people who, far from engaging in illicit sex, were opposed to sexual relations with anyone in any context. In other words, the Corinthians were divorcing each other in order not to have sex. Thus a discussion of divorce on grounds of adultery would make no sense to them.


If, however, they do divorce (v. 11a) in violation of what both Jesus and Paul have taught, they must not remarry. Why? Because the marital bond is still intact and remarriage would constitute adultery.


Therefore, in vv. 10-11 Paul is addressing a problem traceable to a false asceticism in Corinth, according to which abstinence from sexual relations with one's spouse was necessary for holiness. This ascetic view of the Christian life had led some in Corinth to divorce their spouses for fear of succumbing to the temptation of sex. It is divorce for that reason which Paul prohibits. The question of adultery is foreign to his point and thus his teaching is not in conflict with that of Jesus. If, in spite of his instruction, a divorce occurs, remarriage is forbidden. There are only two options: remain single or be reconciled.


Some have suggested that in vv. 10-15 Paul is only speaking about separation and not genuine divorce. They base this on a distinction between the Greek words he uses. They argue that the word aphiemi, found in vv. 11,12, and 13, means “divorce,” but the word chorizomai, found in vv. 10,11, and 15 means “separate.” But as the Feinbergs note, “in verse 10 Paul says that his teaching is from the Lord and that wives should not divorce husbands. Thus must refer to the teaching we have seen in the Gospels. However, in Matt 19:6 and Mark 10:9 when Jesus prohibits divorce (‘whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder’), the word for ‘put asunder’ (divorce) is again chorizo, not aphiemi. All of this suggests that Paul is thinking of divorce, not separation, when he uses chorizo in 1 Corinthians 7” (341). Also, “both chorizo and aphiemi appear in verse 11. Even though chorizo is used of the woman, the verse tells her in the circumstances envisioned to remain unmarried or to reconcile. How could remaining unmarried be an option if she had not divorced (chorizo)? Considerations such as these cause us to conclude that Paul speaks of divorce, not mere separation” (341).


2.         When one spouse is a Christian, the other an unbeliever (vv. 12-16)


Paul now addresses the case in which two non-Christians get married and one is subsequently saved (cf. v. 39). Some in Corinth believed marriage to an unbeliever was spiritually defiling, in some sense, both for themselves and their children. Paul says emphatically "No!"


What Paul means in v. 14 by the terms sanctified and holy with regard to the unbelieving spouse and their children is not our immediate concern. However, two comments are in order. First, that it does not mean the unbelieving family members are saved is clear from v. 16. Second, it does suggest that something along the lines of a sacred environment is created in such a home that increases the opportunity and potential for salvation to extend to the entire family unit.


His primary point is two-fold:


a.         The Christian spouse is not free to divorce his/her unbelieving partner (vv. 12-13).


b.         However, if the unbeliever chooses to leave, if the unbeliever initiates divorce, the Christian "is not under bondage" (v. 15). Not under bondage to what? I believe he means not under bondage to pursue the deserting spouse, not under bondage to discharge marital responsibilities, not under bondage to the obligations stated in vv. 2-5. "Paul is saying that it is not necessary for the believer to contest the divorce action or engage in legal maneuvers to prevent it. Since God has called us to peace, the bitterness and strife of contesting a divorce or separation must be avoided" (J. Carl Laney, 86).


I also believe Paul means "not under bondage" to the marital covenant and thus free to remarry. Keener writes: "An innocent party unable to preserve the marriage against the spouse's will is not to be held responsible for the divorce or forbidden to remarry. For our churches to hold the innocent party responsible and forbid remarriage is to deny Paul's teaching and to oppress the broken. But incompatibility, even spiritual incompatibility, is not grounds for divorce" (And Marries Another, 55).


Hays agrees: “It is difficult to come away from this chapter thinking that Paul would place a categorical prohibition on remarriage for the believers described in verses 12-16; rather, he would invite them to engage with him in a process of discernment about how they could best serve God in the ‘present necessity’ (v. 26), in the time that remains” (361).


Paul is explicitly dealing with those cases where the unbelieving spouse deserts the believer. What would be Paul's position in those cases where a believing spouse deserts another believer? In other words, Paul evidently believed that when a non-Christian deserts a Christian, the latter is free from the marital covenant and thus allowed to remarry. Would the same principle obtain if both parties were Christians? What do vv. 10-11 have to say to this?


My understanding, therefore, is that the teaching of the NT (Jesus and Paul) allows (but does not require) divorce on two grounds: sexual infidelity and/or desertion of a believer by an unbeliever. If divorce has been secured on either of these grounds, remarriage is permitted.


Question: "What about divorce and remarriage on other grounds not mentioned by Jesus or Paul?"


·      Is divorce (and remarriage) permissible when the wife is being repeatedly sexually and/or physically abused by her husband?


·      Is divorce (and remarriage) permissible when one spouse's financial irresponsibility reaches such proportions that it threatens the well-being of the wife/husband and their children?


·      What should we say to those who were divorced prior to their conversion to Christ, especially when such divorce was obtained on non-biblical grounds?


·      What of this reason: “It is better for the children that we divorce lest they suffer the pain of living in a home with so much discord and so lacking in love”? Response: a) Let’s ask the kids which one they prefer! b) Is it really better for the kids? Certainly parental discord is damaging to children. But it can’t begin to compare with the destructive effects of the loss of a father or mother from the home through divorce. c) To say it is better for the children if the parents divorce poses a false dilemma. It assumes there are only two options, either divorce or the status quo. Since the latter is considered intolerable and therefore unthinkable, divorce seems like the only way out. The third option of restoration of the relationship between husband and wife seems like a utopian dream that people with any degree of common sense would never consider. d) This argument is blatantly hypocritical. They try to justify their decision to divorce based on their love for their kids. But if people really cared all that much about their children they would move mountains to do whatever necessary to heal the relationship. They’re not getting divorced because they love their kids. They’re divorcing because they selfishly love themselves. This is little more than an act of selfishness disguised as a noble act of self-sacrifice for the good of the children.


·      “This divorce is God’s will. I know it is because I prayed about it and God gave me a real peace in my heart.” Here we encounter the ultimate rationalization: divine sanction. Are we now to believe that God has spoken in His Word prohibiting divorce except for sexual immorality and desertion, only to reverse himself in your case by means of a private, subjective revelation. God does not speak out of both sides of his mouth! God does not speak with forked tongue!