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Divorce & Remarriage – What Does the Bible Really Say?

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 29-03-2014


by John Austin

Divorce and remarriage is a subject that’s deeply misunderstood by Christians. The misunderstanding has caused harsh judgment, ostracization, persecution, harassment, and even abuse from Christians against other Christians who have been divorced or remarried, without any questions being asked about their specific situations.

Unfortunately, some Bible teachers have spread the false idea that there is no biblical grounds for divorce or remarriage, ever. According to them, a husband can cheat on his wife, abuse her, act violently toward her, neglect her, and she must still be married to him. Also, a wife can continually cheat on her husband, berate and abuse him, and he must still be married to her.

These teachers even go so far as saying that if an abusive or unfaithful spouse initiates a divorce, the other spouse must remain single for the rest of their lives, even if God did not equip them to be celibate. (Celibacy is a gift according to Matthew 19:12 and 1 Corinthians 7:7.)

For those who teach this doctrine, the sayings of Jesus regarding “except for fornication” are reinterpreted to say that Jesus wasn’t talking about marriage. He was talking about engagement (betrothal).

The overwhelming majority of biblical scholars reject this view because it doesn’t fit with the whole teaching of Scripture or the context in which Jesus was speaking.

Other Bible teachers say that the only exception for divorce and remarriage is adultery. They base this idea on a few of Jesus’s statements in the Gospels. But this view ignores the context of those statements as well as what Paul had to say about the subject.

The fact is that not every case of divorce is the same, so each one cannot be treated the same. In the same way, not every case of remarriage is the same. So not all cases of remarriage should be treated the same. This is the fundamental mistake that many Christians make about this subject. They make a universal judgment on divorce and remarriage and apply it to every person and every situation.

There are actually four grounds for divorce and remarriage in the Bible.

1) Desertion. One biblical ground for remarriage is if a spouse deserts – or divorces – a Christian against the Christian’s will due to spiritual incompatibility. Here is what Paul said about this situation in 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 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. 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. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 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. But if the unbelieving partner divorces, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not bound. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Notice 1 Corinthians 7:15:

But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is NOT BOUND in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.

The ancient world didn’t know legal separation like we do in the modern world. So Paul is talking about a person who effectively divorces their spouse due to spiritual incompatibility.

In such cases, Paul says that the spouse who is following the Lord and is deserted (divorced) against his or her will is not legally bound to the marriage. Meaning, they are free to remarry.

This is why Paul says that such people have not sinned if they remarry:

I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Have you been unbound from a wife? Do not seek a wife.  But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 1 Corinthians 7:26-28

2) Neglect. Exodus 21:10-11 gives biblical grounds for a Hebrew servant to divorce their spouse. This law is often overlooked (or ignored), yet the ancient Jews applied it to all marriages. Therefore, it wasn’t an issue needing attention. Failure to provide clothing or food was considered neglect and grounds for divorce and remarriage.

3) Abuse. Another ground for divorce in Exodus 21:10-11 is the failure to carry out conjugal love, which indicates abuse. The ancient Jews considered this also to be a biblical ground for divorce and remarriage.

4) Adultery. The ancient Jews understood adultery to be sexual intercourse of a married person with someone who is outside the marriage. Since the sexual union unites two people in marriage (Genesis 2; 1 Corinthians 6), sexual intercourse with a person outside the marriage breaks the marital bond. When this bond is broken, the other spouse is free to remarry. (The partner who committed the adultery, of course, can be forgiven. Because adultery is not the unforgivable sin.)

The phrase “and marries another” in Matthew 19:9 indicates that divorce as well as remarriage are allowed when adultery takes place. But there is more to this text than meets the eye.

One of the leading scholars on this subject is David Instone-Brewer. Here is his discussion of the context behind Jesus’s words in the Gospels about divorce and remarriage. He also agrees that there are four biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage.

The new ‘Any Cause’ divorce

A few decades before Jesus’ ministry a new form of divorce called ‘Any Cause’ was introduced by lawyers of the Hillelite party of Pharisees. They derived it from the phrase in Deuteronomy 24.1 where divorce is allowed for “a cause of indecency”. The term ‘indecency’ (literally ‘nakedness’) was understood by all rabbis to refer to adultery, but the Hillelites said that this still left the term “a cause” (literally ‘a thing’). They said that this word indicated a separate type of divorce which was based on ‘a cause’ which could be any cause from a burnt meal to wrinkly skin. They called this the ‘Any Cause’ divorce and, because it could be based on anything, there was no need to present any proof in court— the man simply had to hand over a divorce certificate and the marriage was over.

Other rabbis (such as the rival party of Shammaite Pharisees) said that the phrase ‘a matter of indecency’ did not refer to two types of divorce (adultery and ‘Any Cause’) because the phrase as a whole means ‘nothing else than indecency’.  Most of the people, however, preferred the Hillelite interpretation because it provided easy divorces and no embarrassing court appearances. Philo lists ‘Any Cause’ as the only basis for Jewish divorce, and Josephus names it as the type of divorce which he used.  By the middle of the first century there is no mention of any other type of divorce in Judaism, and after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, when Jewish law became centralised and much more uniform, it was the only type of divorce available.

Four Biblical Grounds for Divorce

Before the ‘Any Cause’ divorce became popular, Judaism had four grounds for divorce based on the Old Testament:  adultery (based on Dt.24.1) and neglect of food, clothing or love (based on Ex.21.10f).

These latter three grounds were recognised by all factions within Judaism and allowed divorce by women as well as men. They were based on the Mosaic law that a slave-wife could be free of her marriage if her husband neglected her, and the rabbis assumed that if an ex-slave had these rights then so did a neglected free wife or a neglected husband.

The rabbis carefully defined how much money the man had to provide the woman for buying food and clothing, and how much work the woman had to do in producing them. The rabbis even laid down how often couples had to take part in physical acts of love which varied according to the occupation of the man — they allowed longer periods of abstinence for traders (who went on business trips) and for scholars (i.e. themselves).

In practice they divided these three grounds into two, which we might call emotional support and material support, and Paul was presumably alluding to them (and to Ex.21.10f) when he reminded the Corinthians that they owed their spouses both physical love (1Cor.7.3-5) and material support (1Cor.7.33-34).

The rabbis specified different courses of action when these two types of neglect occurred, both of which led eventually to divorce if the erring partner did not change their ways. They did not specify abuse as a ground for divorce because this would be regarded as the most severe form of neglect. These grounds were listed in early Jewish marriage certificates where they formed the basis of marriage vows.

Asking Jesus about ‘Any Cause’

All these types of divorce fell into disuse a few decades before AD 70 because everyone chose to get divorced with the new and easy-to-use ‘Any Cause’ divorce. Although the concept of the three obligations of marriage continued to be expressed in the language of marriage certificates, the term ‘Any Cause divorce’ disappeared completely because even the lawyers referred to it simply as ‘divorce’.

During Jesus’ ministry, the debate about the ‘Any Cause’ divorce was still raging, so they asked him his opinion: “Do you think it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for ‘Any Cause’” (Mt.19.3). Jesus was more interested in talking about marriage than divorce, so he started by emphasising that marriage should be monogamous and lifelong (vv.4-6) and when they asked why Moses commanded divorce for adultery he said that Moses merely allowed it, and only in cases of stubborn unrepentance (‘hardheartedness’, vv.7-8).

Eventually Jesus answered their question about the ‘Any Cause’ divorce by quoting the Shammaite slogan that the phrase ‘a cause of indecency’ means “nothing except indecency”.  Jesus was not a Shammaite, because he disagreed with them in many other matters, but he said that their interpretation of the phrase “a cause of indecency” was correct, as would most modern interpreters of the text.

Jesus rejected the ‘Any Cause’ divorce as a non-biblical invention, so that anyone who had divorced using this interpretation (which included almost every divorced person in Israel) had an invalid divorce. He emphasised this in a most dramatic way by saying that anyone who had remarried after such a divorce was now committing adultery, because their previous marriage had not yet ended.

The abbreviation necessitated by writing this teaching in a Gospel makes it difficult for a 21st century reader to follow. Mark’s version (Mk.10.2-12) does not even include the Hillelite and Shammaite slogans, “for ‘Any Cause’” and “nothing except indecency”. A first century reader would mentally supply these phrases just as a modern reader supplies the phrase “alcoholic beverages” into the question “Is it lawful for a 16 year-old to drink?”.

Luke’s version (Lk.16.18) is so dramatically abbreviated that it makes no sense unless we remember that virtually all divorces were for ‘Any Cause’, so that everyone who remarried could be said to be committing adultery.

Matthew provided a fuller account because by the time he was writing the debate was already waning and people needed reminding about the issues. But even Matthew’s account is confusing for modern translators almost all of whom thought that Jesus was asked about “divorce for any cause” instead of the specific ‘Any Cause’ divorce.

NT Grounds for Divorce

Which grounds for divorce did Jesus accept? He was never asked this question, and he does not tell us, though we know from his answer to the question about the ‘Any Cause’ divorce that he allowed divorce for adultery. In the absence of further evidence, we have to assume that he accepted all four Old Testament grounds for divorce, as did all other Jews.

There are many aspects of Jesus’ teaching for which we have no record — e.g. he never affirmed monotheism or condemned rape— because there was no need to record everything which his audience already agreed with. When Jesus did disagree, he was not shy to say so. When he was asked about the ‘Any Cause’ divorce Jesus took the opportunity to point out several matters in which he disagreed with other Jews, including monogamy (all Jews except the Qumran sect allowed polygamy), optional divorce for adultery (which most Jews regarded as compulsory), and optional marriage (which all Jews regarded as compulsory).

Fortunately Paul is not as silent as Jesus, because he has to remind his partly-gentile audience about the obligations within marriage, as mentioned above.

– David Instone-Brewer

The two books that go into this subject in detail are:

Divorce and Remarriage in the Church by David Instone-Brewer

And Marries Another by Craig Keener

If this subject interests you, these are the two best books on the subject.

P.S. Sometimes this question comes up: “Should a person who remarried outside of God’s will divorce his or her current spouse and try to remarry the person they were first married to, if they are still single?” Missionaries face this question all the time in cultures where multiple marriages are practiced.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 to follow the Lord where you are presently (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). Based on Paul’s words, the judgment of many missionaries is to encourage the person who falls into that situation to ask forgiveness if they divorced their spouse on unbiblical grounds, and to begin following the Lord where they are presently in life with their current spouse.

Just remember one thing. However you judge another person, God will judge you the same way (Matthew 7:1-12). Be careful, therefore, about throwing stones because we all live in glass houses.

– John

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