Well, you all asked for it. This will likely be my longest blog post ever, but the topic deserves nothing less. So grab a drink and settle in (or feel free not to, if you’re not interested in the issue).
Before I dive in, let me make one or two disclaimers: What I am offering here is my biblical argument against the possibility of the dissolution of covenantal marriage (i.e. divorce). I am not going to say much here about pastoral care for marriages, for couples in trouble, and for divorcees. I have things to say about those matters as well, but most of you have been asking strictly for my view on what the Bible itself teaches about divorce, so that’s all I’m answering in this post.
Second, by way of full disclosure, you should know that I know that my view is a minority view, and that some people who have biblical and theological minds much more powerful and proven than mine disagree with my view (including my doktorvater, D. A. Carson)—though some do agree with me. For that reason I do hold this view with an appropriate degree of humility. In fact, I do not even insist on my view with people in my own ministry (though I ask them to consider it). BUT, something I have a difficult time abiding is people who disagree with me but cannot articulate why. “Well, I just don’t really think I think that way about it” doesn’t cut it. Especially on an issue as sensitive and explosive as this. That all said… here we go.
“This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. So let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Eph. 5:32-33).
A few notes on the front end: I’ve included the full quotations of all the texts to which I’m going to refer (1) for your convenience and (2) to encourage all of us to read them as we go along, because something I notice fairly often when I’m talking about this issue and these texts with people is that quite a few Bible-believing Christians have opinions about divorce and remarriage, and maybe even about the texts, despite the fact that they really haven’t read the texts very closely. On any number of ethical or theological issues, we tend to go right to talking in abstractions instead of sitting down and pouring over the relevant texts in our Bibles. And this leads to some sometimes serious errors in interpretation. So one of the things I want to do here is actually to read most, if not all, of the relevant texts.
Introduction: “Marriage After the Fall vs. God’s Ideal for Marriage” or “Divorce and Remarriage as Evidence of the Fall”
The very fact that we need to speak of the issue of divorce and remarriage is evidence of the Fall. Divorce is not a part of God’s ideal for marriage, but is the result of sin and hardness of heart. We read in Gen. 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Jesus’ interpretation and application of that verse was, of course, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).
But, in fact, all these two passages really speak of is that God made one thing out of two things in marriage: ‘He did it, so don’t undo something he did, so don’t get divorced.’ Of course, merely staving off divorce is not God’s ideal. His ideal is better found in places like Song of Songs and Ephesians 5:22-33. Nevertheless, we do live in a fallen world, divorce does happen, and the Bible has things to say about it, so we need to consider carefully what it says. So let’s look at the most relevant texts:
A. Mark 10:2-12
“And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3 He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’4 They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.’ 5 And Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.’ 7 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and they shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ 10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’”
Mark 10:2 reads, “And the Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce (Greek: apoluo) his wife?’” Here the Pharisees are testing Jesus with the question of divorce, most likely because they believed that the Law sanctioned divorce, and they had perhaps heard that Jesus did not sanction divorce so they wanted to maneuver him into a position where they could show everyone that Jesus disagrees with the Law of Moses and thus condemn him.
So they ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus answers, “What did Moses command you?” In other words: What does the Law say? The Pharisees answer by making a loose reference to Deut. 24:1: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” Now, to understand what the Pharisees are claiming that the Law requires and to understand Jesus’ response to their claim, we really need to go back and read Deut. 24:1-4 (as you should always do when the NT quotes the OT!), which reads:
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”
So let’s begin with this question: What exactly does this passage prohibit? Strictly speaking, it only prohibits a husband from taking back a wife he has divorced after she has been married to another man. Nowhere does Moses prescribe or endorse or even approve of divorce, as the Pharisees seem to claim he does! Moses, in verses 1-3 is describing something that happens, not giving a command for how divorce should work. So, it isn’t until v. 4 that he commands anything, and moreever the command really has nothing to do with whether a husband and wife may divorce at all, but whether a husband can receive back a former wife who has been married to another man.
So, the Pharisees have actually twisted Moses’ description of how divorce sometimes goes down into a prescription for divorce in the case that the husband finds “something indecent” in his wife. Which is why Jesus responds to them in Mark 10:5: “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” That is, to paraphrase: ‘Moses realized that you and your fathers have hard hearts, that are not always obedient and that you would therefore divorce your wives, in violation of God’s ideal laid down in Gen. 2. For that reason he wrote a commandment that is, in effect, designed for damage control.’
Moses realizes that despite the fact that divorce is sin and should not happen, divorce does happen because of hard hearts, and when it happens, there are commandments in place to ensure that things don’t go from bad to worse. A good parallel is the “cities of refuge/manslayer/avenger of blood laws in the Old Testament, which no one would say endorse manslaughter, but rather give “damage control” laws in the case that manslaughter does happen so that no one else gets killed.
In Mark 10:6-9, then, Jesus tells the Pharisees what marriage is supposed to look like. He says: “6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’ [Gen 1:27]. 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and they shall become one flesh’ [Gen 2:24]. So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’”
At any rate, the ‘law’ Jesus gives to his disciples in vv. 11-12 is very unambiguous: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” In other words, if a man divorces his wife and marries another woman, he commits adultery against his first wife because, presumably, the “one flesh union” still exists with his former wife despite the fact that he has “divorced” her. Jesus seems to be saying that God does not see our “divorces” as breaking the covenant union that He has set in place.
B. Luke 16:18
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
1. A bridge between Mark 10:11-12 and Matthew 5:31-32
I want to handle Luke 16:18 here because it serves as an interesting bridge between Mark 10:11-12 and Matthew 5:31-32 for two reasons:
a. It gives another absolute prohibition of divorce and remarriage (cf. Mark 10:11-12). Luke, like Mark, has Jesus making an unqualified prohibition of divorce and remarriage, presumably on the same grounds as Jesus laid out in Mark, namely, that the “one flesh union” cannot be broken (except, presumably, by death), with the result that divorcing a spouse and marrying another is tantamount to adultery, just as marrying a person who is divorced is tantamount to adultery because the divorced person is still “one flesh” with their former spouse.
b. A crucial discrepancy with Matthew 5:31-32.
But there is also a crucial discrepancy between Luke 16:18 and its parallel in Matthew 5:31-32. Whereas Luke 16:18 is clearly an absolute prohibition of divorce and remarriage, it appears, at first glance, that Matthew 5:31-32 is not so absolute because Matthew includes what has come to be called “the Matthean exception clauses” into Jesus’ teaching on divorce: “…except on the ground of porneia” (the ESV renders porneia “immorality,” the NIV has “marital unfaithfulness,” and the NASB and NRS have “unchastity”). Before going any further, let’s look at these two “exception clauses” in Matthew.
C. Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-12
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ 4 He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ 7 They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ 8 He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’ 10 The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ 11 But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.’”
1. Two texts, one key difficulty
I have lumped Matt. 5:31-32 and 19:3-12 together because they present the same fundamental difficulty for understanding the teaching of Jesus on divorce and remarriage. Obviously, Matt. 5:31-32 parallels fairly closely Luke 16:18, and Matt. 19:3-12 is fairly close to Mark 10:2-12. The wording in the parallel accounts (Matt. 5:31-32=Luke 16:18 and Matt. 19:3-12=Mark 10:2-12) are close enough that almost all scholars agree that they have the same teaching moment in view.
Since we covered the issue of the Pharisees’s question about Moses and the certificate of divorce in Mark 10, we’ll skip over that here and get right to the heart of the matter. In both passages from Matthew, brief clauses are included that are found nowhere else in the New Testament:
Matt 5:23b: …parektos logou porneia (“…except in the matter of unchastity”)
Matt 19:9b: …me epi porneia| (“…except on the grounds of unchastity”)
These two brief phrases are the chief cause of centuries of debate over the Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Without these two phrases, the only major question with regards to divorce would really be a pastoral one: “Will you conform your life to Scripture’s teaching or not?” But because of these two phrases we must continue to wrestle with the question of what the Bible teaches regarding divorce and remarriage. So, how have these two brief phrases been understood? What are the main interpretive possibilities?
For the sake of simplifying things a little bit I’ve decided not to explore, here, one important background issue here. Namely, the debate between the Shammi and Hillel schools on divorce (two prominent schools of Pharisees in Jesus’ day). If you’re interested in the relevance of that debate for this question, let me know and I can shoot you an e-mail about it.
At the risk of oversimplification there are two broad streams of interpretation of these “exception clauses”:
a. The “standard” evangelical view: An exception assumed
The majority evangelical view is that what Matthew says explicitly, Mark and Luke simply assume. So, on this reading, Mark and Luke are thought to simply assume that their readers would understand that there was an exception for adultery, while Matthew decides to make this exception explicit. Mark and Luke, it is argued, would have thought that an exception to Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce in the case of adultery was so obvious that they didn’t feel the need to include it in their accounts of what Jesus said.
I’ve had a growing discomfort with this view because it displays what is, in my view, an artificial harmonizing of the Gospels. It tries to force Matthew to agree with Mark and Luke about Jesus’ view on divorce despite the very clear differences that exist between them. I think that it is an oversimplification and, in the end, undermines the force of Jesus’ statements.
Furthermore, Matt. 19:9 (obvious as it sounds) should be read after Matt. 19:6! That is, Matt. 19:9 should be read in light of what Jesus says just before it: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Jesus has just declared what God wants for marriages. It seems odd to assume that after he has just pronounced an absolute ban on divorce among believers, on the basis of Gen. 2:24, that in the next breath he lays out permissible grounds for divorce! For these reasons I’m led to look for a better solution.
b. The minority view: No real exception
It’s when we begin to look at the wording of the so-called “exception clauses” that we begin to see that they likely are not really exception clauses at all.
Almost all commentators assume that in Matthew 19:9 and 5:32 porneia, in the exception clauses, refers to sexual relations outside of marriage. In other words, it refers simply to adultery. But, in the first place, porneia is not the word typically used for adultery in the NT—not in Matthew nor elsewhere. Matthew speaks of adultery six times in his gospel (5:27; 5:28; 5:32; 15:19; 19:9; 19:18), and in each instance he uses the standard Greek word for adultery, moikeia, rather than porneia. This makes one wonder why Matthew would use porneia only in Matt 5:32 and 19:9 if what he really means (according to the majority view) is moikeia.
In three places (5:32; 15:19; 19:9) Matthew uses moikeia in the same sentence as porneia, which makes one wonder what distinction Matthew makes between the words. Carson notes that while porneia can include moikeia, “Matthew has already used moikeia and porneia in the same context (15:19), suggesting some distinction between the words…” (Carson, Matthew, 414).
I suggest that a compelling case can be made that Matthew’s use of porneia in 19:9 and 5:32 does not refer to adultery within marriage, but rather to premarital unchastity. This view would have the advantage of being no real exception to Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce in Mark and Luke, and therefore it can reconcile the teaching of Jesus in the three gospels without artificially harmonizing them.
It also makes understandable the reaction of Jesus’ disciples in Matt. 19:10 to his teaching, since an absolute prohibition of divorce would be a very conservative stance that went beyond even the conservative teaching of the school of Shammai. But, of course, the advantages of this view alone are not sufficient to commend it to us. It remains to be seen whether it is a convincing solution on biblical/exegetical grounds. Here is my case (though it is not original to me):
In Matthew 1:19, Joseph is referred to as Mary’s husband (ho anaer autaes), and likewise Mary is described in 1:24 as Joseph’s wife (taen gunaika autou), despite the fact that the text explicitly states that as yet they were not yet married, but only betrothed. When Joseph realizes that Mary is pregnant, but not by him, he resolves to “divorce” her. Two important observations must be made here.
First, despite the fact that Joseph and Mary are only betrothed and not yet married, the word used here for divorce (apoluo) is the same word used for divorce in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, which certainly illustrates the reality that betrothal, in this context, was a much more serious commitment than is “engagement” in 21st century North America. For this reason, breaking a betrothal was, in a sense, a kind of “divorce.”
The second observation to be made is that Matthew describes Joseph here as a “just or righteous man,” which leads the reader to expect that whatever Joseph decides to do with the news of v. 18 (that Mary was pregnant) he will do what is right. So, prior to Joseph’s encounter with the angel of the Lord we have Matthew portraying as right Joseph’s decision to “divorce” Mary on account of what he perceived to be premarital unchastity resulting in pregnancy out of wedlock.
From these two observations, we can return to Matthew 19:9 and 5:32 to consider Matthew’s use of apoluo, moikeia, and porneia in light of 1:19. To understand the way Matthew uses these words, I find it helpful to envision Matthew composing his gospel and considering how to incorporate Jesus’ teaching on divorce into his gospel.
We have to remember that Matthew is the only evangelist who incorporates the narrative of Joseph’s consideration of what to do about his pregnant “wife,” and his subsequent decision to “divorce” her. So, as Matthew comes to write his account of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, he finds himself with a bit of a problem that Mark and Luke do not face.
Namely, as Matthew comes to incorporate Mark’s account of Jesus’ statement (Matthew almost certainly based much of his gospel on Mark’s), which absolutely prohibits divorce, he realizes that he is creating a conflict between the wording of Jesus’ statement in Mark’s and his own prior approval of Joseph’s decision to “divorce” the woman to whom he was betrothed. So, in order to avoid the obvious inconsistency between what he has said about Joseph and what Jesus says about divorce within marriage, Matthew inserts the so-called “exception clause” in order to exonerate Joseph and show that the sort of “divorce” that one may legitimately pursue during a betrothal (on account of premarital unchastity) is not included in Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce.
2. Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 absolutely prohibit divorce and remarriage except in the case of the “divorce” of a betrothed couple on account of unchastity.
In other words, when Matthew is allowed to interpret Matthew (rather than too quickly asking Mark and Luke to interpret Matthew) and when we avoid oversimplified harmonization, we can see that Jesus, in Matthew, also absolutely prohibits divorce and remarriage (as in Mark and Luke) but allows for the breakup of a betrothal (here called a “divorce”) in the case of premarital unchastity.
D. 1 Corinthians 7:10-16
“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 14 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?”
1. A key distinction: “separate” (korizo) and “divorce” (aphiemi)
a. Paul uses korizo in the context of a statement on divorce only here (cf. Rom. 8:35, 39; Philem. 1:15)
This passage is the only place Paul uses the verb korizo in the context of marriage. He uses it elsewhere only in Rom. 8:35, 39 and Philem. 1:15, which is an illustrative use (“For this perhaps is why he was parted [korizo] from you for a while, that you might have him back forever”) in that it speaks of separation as a sort of disruption or interruption of a relationship that may yet be restored.
b. “Divorce” (aphiemi) is always prohibited in this passage
What must be noted in this passage but which (amazingly) almost never is, is the fact that every time divorce is mentioned in this passage it is prohibited. The only thing given warrant in this passage is “separation,” which, as Philem. 1:15 illustrates, merely refers to the act of distancing oneself from another.
Moreover, verse 15 must be read in light of verse 16. That is, the reason that Paul allows for separation is in hopes that peace will be maintained and that, as a result, the unbelieving husband or wife may be saved. Far from simply giving warrant for divorce, Paul is wisely allowing separation in hopes of reconciliation.
For this reason, I see a very real biblical difference between separation and divorce. I simply cannot find any biblical basis whatsoever for divorce. Even if it is granted (as it is by many) that divorce is permissible in the case of adultery, there is no biblical warrant given for divorce for any other reason, including domestic abuse. That said, I would be the first to advocate separation for a time for a couple that suffers from domestic abuse or other serious issues. Such a separation may last for a long time—even years—as long as it takes for the church to come alongside the offending spouse and lead him or her to repentance. In fact, I can envision situations in which the couple is never reconciled, but that does not mean that the willing member of the couple should ever stop seeking reconciliation along with the help of the church.
In the end, as I mentioned in my previous post, according to Eph. 5:22-33 marriage derives its meaning and takes its cues from the love between Christ and his covenant people, which is the strongest argument, in my view, for the impermissibility of divorce. After all, each of us has offended, betrayed, cuckolded and spurned our divine groom with far more audacity and malice than has any spouse ever done against another. Yet he bleeds for us and continues to call us back into his arms. On what grounds, then, can we accept Christ’s patient, long-suffering, persistent, unrelenting, unconditional forgiveness and desire to reconcile us to himself while refusing to extend such grace to the one to whom we have bound ourselves by a divine covenant?
I have argued that there are no such grounds, and that the spouse we take to ourselves is ours until death parts us, as Christ is eternally ours and we are his.