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The Divorce Debate
Written by Bob Williams


Author's Disclaimer

The Bible has much to say about the subject of marriage and divorce, but it is generally agreed that it is a most difficult topic. And it is made even more difficult by the emotions and conflicts of real-life situations. Scholars much wiser than I have debated the issue and still disagree. Therefore, the primary purpose of this lesson is not to present a particular dogmatic position, but rather to simply share information from various viewpoints that may further help others in their own personal study of the issue. Please consider these thoughts with much prayer and diligent Bible study. I invite any comments that might further lead us all to a better understanding of God's will and truth in this matter.

 

Introduction

The Bible teaches that God Himself instituted and approves of marriage. Genesis 2:18, 24 says, "Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.' For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." Hebrews 13:4 says, "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled." And then Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:2, "But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband."

The Bible also teaches that God hates divorce; Malachi 2:14-16 (context is Israel's apostasy) says (NIV), "The Lord is acting as a witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? . . . Do not break faith with the wife of your youth. 'I hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel."

 

Marriage and Divorce in the 1st Century

To better understand the teachings of the New Testament on the subject, it is helpful to understand the historical context of that time (a proper exegesis is always necessary for a proper interpretation and application). The grossly immoral conditions of life in the 1st century are well-stated in Romans 1:18-32. Ray Summers, in describing the conditions of the Roman Empire at that time, said, "Crimes were multiplied; vice made no attempt to hide; a monstrous contest of lust and wickedness was carried on. Marriage came to be a commercial transaction easily affected and as easily dissolved. Seneca said there were women who counted their years not by the number of consuls but by the number of their husbands. Marriage was held in such contempt that laws against celibacy had to be passed" (Worthy is the Lamb, Broadman Press, 1951, p. 91).

About a generation before the time of Jesus, there were two main parties of rabbis: the Shammaites and the Hillelites. Those who followed Shammai were perhaps the conservatives of their day, while those of Hillel were perhaps more liberal. These two groups would meet regularly to engage in great discussions over matters of the Law. One issue that was continually debated was that of marriage and the proper grounds for divorce.

In Deuteronomy 24:1, it says that a man is to give his wife a certificate of divorce if "she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found a matter of indecency in her." The debate of these two groups focused on the meaning of the phrase "a matter of indecency." Shammai and his followers argued that it meant that one could divorce his wife only on the grounds of fornication/adultery. On the other extreme, Hillel divided the words into two parts in order to allow a divorce for either something "indecent" or for any "matter." They therefore allowed a man to divorce his wife for almost any reason: being a poor cook, speaking too loud, or even because someone else was prettier (Mishnah Gittin 9.10). This debate is actually recorded in the Mishnah: "The Party of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he finds indecency in her, for it says: "Because he found in her a matter of indecency" (Deut. 24.1). But the Party of Hillel say: [A man may divorce his wife] even if she spoiled the broth, for it says: [any] "matter" (Deut. 24.1)."

Dr. David Instone Brewer (Research Fellow at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England; in Biblical Divorce and Remarriage) speaks about the common practice of that day:

The differing interpretations by these two parties would have resulted in two types of divorce. A Hillelite rabbi would validate a divorce on any grounds, but a Shammaite rabbi would require proof of sexual immorality. The minimum procedure for a divorce was for a man to write out a certificate and give it to his wife. However, a divorce certificate was an important legal document, because it established the woman's right to her dowry. Her dowry, which usually consisted of a large proportion of their combined resources, had to be returned to her when she was divorced, unless she had been unfaithful.

The husband had to decide which rabbi to go to for his divorce - a Hillelite or a Shammaite. He could go to a Hillelite who would validate a divorce certificate without requiring a trial or any real grounds for the divorce, or he could submit himself and his wife to a Shammaite trial. If the husband had proof of immorality, he may decide to divorce her on the grounds of adultery. This brought him considerable advantages because his wife could be dismissed without the dowry which was normally returned to her when she was divorced. However, this course of action was very difficult and it carried a risk.

One [possible] example of the quiet Hillelite divorce is found in the New Testament, when Joseph decided it was necessary to divorce his betrothed Mary. Although they were not yet married, a betrothal could only be broken by a divorce. Even though he assumed that adultery had occurred, he preferred to avoid the public trial and humiliation involved in proving infidelity. Joseph could probably have proved the supposed sexual immorality, simply by waiting for the birth, and by providing alibis for himself. But this would have meant public humiliation for Mary and a lengthy legal procedure for himself, with the possibility that he would be accused of being the father. Matthew records that Joseph did not want to put Mary to public disgrace, so he decided to divorce her quietly (Matt.1.19). This suggests that he decided to use a Hillelite divorce on the grounds of "any matter" rather than try to prove Mary's apparent sexual immorality. It is significant that Joseph was called "righteous" for this action, showing that this form of divorce was not only acceptable but was considered morally superior in this kind of situation.

 

Jesus on Marriage and Divorce - Matthew 5:31-32

In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus said, "And it was said, 'Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce;' but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity (KJV: fornication), makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Hugo McCord (in a "Firm Foundation" article, December 1998) refers to Matthew 5:32 and says the phrase "commit adultery" is not properly translated. He refers to Thayer who shows that Jesus here used the passive tense of the word (moicheuthenai) meaning: "to suffer adultery, to be debauched." McCord says, "The innocent woman has been victimized, used, and exposed. She has not committed adultery, but she has been left as though she had done so."

Therefore, since Jesus used the passive tense in regards to such, it is not true to His original words to render them in the active tense as is common in most translations. It also appears that many may have made numerous conclusions and laws emanating from the erroneous translation of Jesus' words, thus likely making the conclusions and laws themselves erroneous.

So what did Jesus say in this passage? Using the correct passive tense (in regards to both the woman and the man who marries her), various Greek scholars have suggested something like the following: "But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her stigmatized as if she had committed adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman is stigmatized as if he had committed adultery." Neither the discarded woman nor the man who marries her have committed sin, but they have been wronged by the one who unjustly thrust the divorce upon his wife.

 

Jesus on Marriage and Divorce - Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18

Mark 10:11-12 says, "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." Mark's account (10:2-12) is quite similar to Matthew 19:3-12 and need not be discussed in detail here. However, it can be noted that, while Matthew was written primarily to a Jewish audience, Mark was written primarily to a Gentile audience. This likely explains why Mark's account includes a comment about women divorcing their husbands, something not generally done among the Jews.

Luke 16:18 says, "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery." The Book of Luke has only this one single verse on this subject. It is unique in at least two ways: first, because it seems to be inserted into the midst of a section that has nothing to do with marriage or divorce; and second, because the latter part of the verse is worded in a way quite different from all other accounts on this issue.

As already mentioned, the latter part of Matthew 5:32 has a similar statement, but it is actually in the passive tense. Jesus' statement in Luke, however, is in the active tense, thus saying something quite different, seemingly the opposite of what is recorded elsewhere. Some have suggested that the statement can best be understood in the overall context of Jesus' responding to the Pharisees who were condemning Him for associating with sinners (Luke 15:2). Perhaps Jesus, in the midst of the rest of His teachings, points out that they too are sinners in the blatant way they divorce and marry and divorce again and on and on. In other words, if this interpretation be true, then Jesus is not so much giving instruction here as He is noting their adulterous and faithless attitudes towards marriage covenants (one who marries one who is divorced commits adultery because the one who is divorced likewise has no concern for faithfulness).

 

Jesus on Marriage and Divorce - Matthew 19:3-12

Perhaps the most comprehensive teaching by Jesus on this issue is found in Matthew chapter 19. In v3, the Pharisees asked Jesus, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?" It seems likely they were referring to the teaching of Hillel (divorce for any matter) as opposed to that of Shammai (only for uncleanness). As already mentioned, the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was the oft-debated question of their day; it appears they wanted to test Jesus to see if He sided with the more-common Hillelite view.

Before specifically answering their question, Jesus began by making it clear that God never intended for divorce to occur; marriage is to be a lifelong commitment. Jesus quoted from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to show that God has always wanted and will always want two people to be married and stay married to each other for life. That was His intent "from the beginning" and it has not changed.

The Pharisees persisted and asked further in v7, "Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?" In other words, why did God (through Moses in Deuteronomy 24) give a command regarding divorce if He is really opposed to divorce? This gave Jesus an opportunity to clarify another aspect of the Law. The Jews had determined that divorce was a completely acceptable thing; after all, Moses had even made a law concerning such. But Jesus pointed out that the law was not given because God approved of divorce, but rather because of their "hardness of heart." (It is speculated that the practice of divorce was something they picked up in Egypt; the Egyptians were said to change wives often.) The Israelites had become hard-hearted and were apparently determined to divorce, regardless of God's desire. Therefore a law was given to somewhat control and hopefully hinder their actions, as well as to protect the rights of those women who were put away.

 

Only One Acceptable Reason to Instigate Divorce

Finally, Jesus gave His response in Matthew 19:9: "Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." (The KJV adds: "...and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." This phrase may be an interpolation from Matthew 5:32.) The phrase "except for immorality" is very similar to the phrase "except for the cause of fornication (logou porneias)" in Matthew 5:32, which is in turn remarkably similar to the phrase "a matter of indecency (dabar ervah)" in Deuteronomy 24:1. The Hebrew dabar means "word" or "matter" and the Greek logou (Strong's #3056) is usually translated as "word," or sometimes as "matter" or "thing." The Hebrew word ervah literally means "shameful exposure or nakedness," and thus it seems to be related to the Greek porneias (Strong's #4203), meaning "illicit sexual behavior."

Thus it appears that Jesus used a very similar phrase to that which is found in Deuteronomy 24:1. He did not, as Hillel did, divide the phrase into two parts in order to allow divorce for any matter, and thus His position was actually much closer to the Shammai view. Jesus gave only one allowable reason for divorce: fornication. He said that if a man divorces his wife for a reason other than fornication, and then marries another woman, he commits adultery. It is a sin to instigate a divorce for any other reason, and it is a further sin to then marry someone else after such a divorce.

Fornication (the only allowable reason given by Jesus that one may instigate a divorce) has generally been interpreted to mean adultery in marriage, but it should be noted that Jesus actually used the word porneia, which is a broader word for all types of sexual immorality. While it would include adultery, it can also refer to sexual sin committed before marriage (see Deuteronomy 22:13-21). It includes homosexuality and all manner of perversions. It may even refer to the sinful habit of sexual lusting; remember Jesus referred to such as "adultery" in Matthew 5:28.

(The Hebrew word ervah in Deuteronomy 24:1 appears to have a similar broad meaning. As mentioned above, it literally means shameful exposure or nakedness, and is generally translated as uncleanness or indecency. But no known version translates it as fornication or adultery. Since many sexual sins were generally punishable by death, "uncleanness" would seem to refer to some other shameful act that did not require death, but was still serious enough to be grounds for divorce.)

Finally, in Matthew 19:10, the disciples were apparently astonished and said, "If this is so, it is better not to marry." Apparently the Hillelite position and the Hillelite divorce proceeding had become the norm, and the Jews had become quite used to the practice of divorce. Jewish marriages were generally arranged by the parents. If the selection of a wife was not pleasing to the man, he would typically divorce later and then select a wife of his own choosing. Jesus gave no opposition to arranged marriages, but He forbade the practice of divorcing in order to find a more suitable mate. Thus the disciples determined it would be better not to marry at all if easy divorce was no longer an option. Jesus responded by saying that not all have the ability to live as "eunuchs" (v11-12).

 

Does This Principle Apply to Us Today?

Jesus allowed only one reason to instigate divorce: fornication. Does this principle still apply to us today? Some say that it does not because the true context of the passage is simply Jesus answering a question about the Law. The Pharisees had apparently asked for Jesus' interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 concerning the grounds for divorce and Jesus gave it. If, in fact, that is all He is doing, then it would not truly be applicable in the Christian age (since we are not now under the Jewish Law; our civil law recognizes other reasons for a valid divorce).

It may be, however, that Jesus was also intending that such would continue to be God's law on the matter. Three reasons are given to support such:

  1. Jesus referred to God's eternal intent for marriage in spite of man's common failure to live up to it. Thus His teaching regarding the one reason to instigate divorce would likely be intended for all time.
  2. His response is very similar to that used many times in His sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). There Jesus often referred to the common understanding of OT teaching, but He would then say, "But I say to you." Jesus would thus clarify the true intent of the OT teaching as well as introduce teachings that would also be applicable in the new covenant.
  3. Later, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul teaches about marriage and divorce and says concerning his teaching, "Not I, but the Lord." Most scholars agree that Paul means he is teaching about a subject that Jesus Himself had already addressed, thus apparently indicating that Jesus' command on the subject was to be applicable in the Christian age (not just under the Law of Moses).

 

1 Corinthians 7:10-11 (Paul and Jesus on Marriage and Divorce)

The church at Corinth had apparently written to Paul with some questions on various issues. One of those issues was regarding marriage and divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul says, "But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not send his wife away."

Paul uses two terms in this passage: "leave" from the Greek word choristhenai and "send away" from the Greek word aphienai. According to Thayer's Greek-English Lexigon, choristhenai (Strong's #5563) in 1 Corinthians 7 means "to leave a husband or wife: of divorce;" And, according to Thayer, aphienai (Strong's #863) in 1 Corinthians 7 refers to "a husband putting away his wife." Essentially, the first refers to something you do yourself (choosing to leave), while the second is something you do to someone else (making your spouse leave). The result, though, is the same since both refer to a separation between husband and wife. It should be noted that, as Paul wrote this, according to Roman law, a divorce was considered complete when one spouse left; there was no need for any further legal proceeding. Notice he said that one was "unmarried" after the other had left. Thus, when Paul speaks of leaving or sending away, he is apparently referring to divorce.

The command to the Christian is: stay married; do not leave. But if you do leave (therefore separated/divorced), do not marry someone else. God's true desire in the matter is reconciliation. (This is similar to 1 John 2:1 in that the ideal is first presented: "Do not sin," followed by, "If anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.") Both husband and wife are commanded to maintain their marriage commitment. If one leaves, or sends the other away, it is a sin. If that one then marries someone else, it is apparently a further sin (contrary to Paul's instruction). This is consistent with what Jesus taught when He said that to do so is to commit adultery.

 

1 Corinthians 7:12-16 (Paul on Marriage and Divorce)

Paul then instructs in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, "But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?"

Jesus had discussed what the Law said about marriage and divorce in Matthew 19:9, but that was not all that was to be given on the subject. In v10-11, Paul commented on the subject in connection with what Jesus had already given ("not I, but the Lord"). But then in v12-16, Paul gave further instructions beyond what Jesus had personally given. He specifically said, "I say, not the Lord," which most scholars see as meaning that Jesus did not speak of the issue that Paul herein addresses.

Paul gives this instruction to Christians married to non-Christians. As he refers to them as "the rest," it is commonly accepted that v10-11 then refers to Christians married to Christians. There is, however, another (and perhaps more pertinent) difference between these two groups. As just mentioned, in v10-11, Paul addresses the one who is tempted to leave the marriage. In v12-16, on the other hand, he addresses the one whose mate is leaving (or has left) the marriage.

His command to such at first seems basically the same as in v10-11: the Christian is not to leave his/her mate nor send her/him away. Just because that spouse is not a Christian does not allow one to divorce. Paul states that the marriage is a spiritual blessing to both the unbelieving mate and their children. He further states in v16 that the marriage may likely help in converting the unbeliever (see also 1 Peter 3:1).

But then Paul makes a statement that differs from what was said in v10-11. In v15 Paul says, "Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases." Paul does not command one who is deserted to reconcile for such is not possible except by the one who leaves (thus the command in v10-11). As noted above, according to Roman law (and as Thayer indicates), the marriage was now legally over. To the Christian in v10-11, Paul said don't leave and don't marry another, but to the one already deserted, Paul says, "You are not under bondage."

 

"Not Under Bondage"

What does Paul mean by "not under bondage?" Some hold the view that it refers to a release from marital obligations, but not a release to marry again:

  • David Lipscomb, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (Gospel Advocate Company, Nashville, Tennessee, 1935), states: "The meaning most likely is that the believer can regard the unbeliever's act as final, and need not seek to live with him, while yet in such cases remarriage is not approved. The Christian should be prepared to restore the marriage relation when possible, and this certainly is safe ground."
  • Carl Holladay, in his commentary (Sweet Publishing Company, Austin, Texas, 1979) states: "Although this is taken by some commentators to mean 'is not bound to that husband anymore, and therefore free to remarry,' this is hardly possible. First, because the context demands that it be read 'is not under obligation.' Second, because it is unlikely that he would concede here what he did not concede earlier (cf. 7:11). Here the meaning is that the believing spouse is not obligated to make what are obviously futile attempts to maintain the relationship."
  • Hugo McCord, (Firm Foundation article) said: "[Paul] did give a release from the obligations due to her husband who had left her, but he did not give a remarriage privilege. If he had, he would have been allowing desertion as a ground for divorce and remarriage, whereas Jesus had allowed only fornication."

On the other hand, many understand "not under bondage" to mean that the marriage bond is broken or destroyed and the Christian is free to marry again. Accordingly, the following points are made:

  • Indeed some have said that Paul is merely giving a release from marital obligations, but no such release is not needed from Paul. The unbeliever had already divorced the Christian and left! Therefore it would make no sense for Paul to give any further release to the one deserted other than the freedom to remarry.
  • Some have stated that Matthew 19:9 is everything given on the subject of marriage and divorce, but Paul's comments make it clear that such is not the case; there was more to be revealed than just what Jesus had said. This is consistent with the principle of progressive revelation. For instance, Jesus did not mention that widows are allowed to marry again, but we know such is permitted because Paul states it later in this same chapter (v39). Also, in John 3:16, Jesus said that those who believe in Him will have eternal life. Many have said that this is everything on the subject of salvation and so they disregard Acts 2:38, etc. But they err in doing so because there was further revelation on the matter. Likewise, Jesus gave His instruction on marriage and divorce, but there was more to come later. Jesus and Paul both instructed one who is married not to divorce/put away his/her spouse. But Jesus apparently did not give any command concerning Christians who were deserted. Paul, on the other hand, did. He is therefore not contradicting Jesus, and his words need not be contrived to fit what Jesus said in Matthew 19:9. Paul is simply giving further inspired teaching beyond that which was already given by Jesus.
  • Some claim such a view presents a contradiction with the one reason allowed by Jesus. There is, however, no such contradiction. In Matthew 19:9 (and the other gospel accounts), Jesus essentially said (by condemning those who did): don't instigate a divorce. He commands the believer not to put away a spouse (other than for the cause of fornication). And that's exactly what Paul said in v12-16. To the Christian, Paul said: don't divorce. But Paul also acknowledged that the Christian's spouse may instigate the divorce. Again, this is a situation that Jesus did not cover! Jesus did not give any command about what to do if one's spouse leaves. But Paul did; he said, "Let him leave, you're not under bondage then."
  • The word bondage is from the Greek word dedoulotai (Strong's #1402). Thayer gives this meaning for its use in v15: "to be under bondage, held by constraint of law or necessity, in some matter." It is contended by some that it is too strong a word to be used for the marriage bond, but what bond is stronger? Some say that this particular Greek word is never used concerning marriage, but the context of the entire chapter is the marriage bond. If Paul is not talking about the marriage bond, what bond or bondage is he talking about? In v27 and v39, Paul speaks of being "bound" in marriage; he uses the Greek dedesai (Strong's #1210), which certainly seems to be related to dedoulotai (after all, they are translated most similarly in English). Thayer says dedesai means "to bind, i.e. put under obligation, sc. Of law, duty, etc…. to be bound to one: of a wife, Romans 7:2; of a husband, 1 Cor. 7:27." This is a very similar meaning to dedoulotai. It seems the most natural understanding of "not under bondage" is that such a one is no longer bound by law to the marriage.
  • Paul may be intentionally comparing one who is free from the marriage bond to one who is given freedom from slavery. The rabbis of that day saw many similarities between the certificate of divorce and the certificate given to free a slave. "The essential formula in the bill of divorce is: 'Lo, you are free to marry any man.' The essential formula in a writ of emancipation [from slavery] is: 'Lo you are a freedwoman: Lo you belong to yourself'" (Mishnah Gittin 9.3). According to Dr. Brewer, "When Paul said that the divorced person was no longer "enslaved", his readers in Corinth would have immediately understood that he was referring to the words in their divorce certificate that they were "free to marry any man...." This was the only phrase which had to occur in a divorce certificate, and it embodied the whole purpose of the certificate. The certificate was necessary to prove to any future husband that she was legally entitled to remarry. (Greek and Roman divorce certificates also contained similar phrases.) There can be no doubt that any first century Jew reading the words "not enslaved" in the context of divorce would assume that Paul meant they were free to remarry."
  • In v27-28, Paul said, "Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released (Greek lusin--Strong's #3080). Are you released (Greek lelusai--Strong's #3089) from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you should marry, you have not sinned." Thayer gives this meaning of lusin: "a loosing of any bond, as that of marriage; hence once in the NT of divorce." Concerning lelusai, Thayer says it means: "To loose any person tied or fastened; of a single man, whether he has already had a wife or has not yet married; to loose one bound, i.e. to unbind, release from bonds, set free." Both these words mean to be set free--apparently including the idea of being divorced by one's mate (the divorce being instigated by the mate, similar to the case of v12-16). Whether or not Paul has in mind one divorced or one not yet married ("virgin" as in v28 and v34), he does clearly show that being released is synonymous with not being bound. This is important and relevant in that v28 says that someone who is released (or no longer bound) is allowed to marry without sinning.
  • The most compelling evidence comes by comparing what Paul said to these two groups. The Christians in v10-11 were told not to marry again. On the other hand, the Christians in v12-16 were told they were "not under bondage." If these two statements mean the same thing (as some contend), then why did Paul separate these into two groups? Would not one statement then cover all marriage situations? More importantly, Paul said that Jesus spoke about the first group, but not about the second. If the command to both groups is the same, how can this be?! This is a strong and certain indication that Paul gave a different command to the second group than he did to the first. To believe otherwise would necessitate an explanation of this contradiction.

 

What about the "guilty party?"

A common question arises in regards to one who is guilty of fornication and is therefore put away by his/her spouse (as discussed in Matthew 19:9). Is such a one allowed to ever marry again? It should be obvious that such a one should ask for forgiveness and do his/her best to save the marriage. It is agreed that if the guilty one is forgiven by the offended spouse, then all is well and the marriage may continue with all its benefits. But what if that person has indeed repented to God and to his/her spouse and has made every effort to reconcile, but the spouse refuses and does, in fact, divorce the guilty one? Is that one thus divorced then forbidden from ever marrying again?

There are those who contend that such a one is never again permitted to marry. It is said that because of the nature of the sin, he/she has forever lost the right to enjoy the benefits of marriage. Such a one does not deserve to be married because he/she messed up the first time. It is contended that God has placed the demand of eternal celibacy on one who has thus sinned.

Those who disagree with this position cite the following reasons:

  • In the NT, there is actually no command given concerning the guilty party; neither Jesus nor Paul specifically discussed the "guilty party." There is no specific statement either allowing them to marry again or forbidding such. It is simply not discussed. It is, however, discussed in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 24 shows an example of one who was put away for "uncleanness." That one was apparently permitted to marry again. In fact, the law was clear that the first husband could not come and take her again, thereby ensuring her right to be married to another. (In other ancient Near Eastern cultures, a man could apparently leave his wife and then reclaim her within five years, even if she had remarried in the meantime. The law given by Moses prevented such from occurring.)
  • If the innocent one is free, to what is the other bound? If the marriage bond is broken, thereby allowing one to marry again, then why not the other? The only purpose to forbid marriage to the guilty one would be to punish him/her, but such is not consistent with Biblical teaching on God's forgiveness (Hebrews 8:12; 1 John 1:9). If the person has indeed repented and God doesn't hold it against him/her any longer, why would He forbid marriage for such a one? Is there a Scripture that teaches such?
  • In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives his personal advice against being married "in view of the present distress." But he does not forbid marriage to anyone (other than those in v10 in view of their hopeful reconciliation). In v8-9, Paul spoke about those who were unmarried and those who were widows. The word unmarried is from the Greek word agamos (Strong #22); it is the negative of gamos, meaning "married." It apparently is a reference to people who are divorced as it is contrasted in v34 to those who are virgins (never been married). Paul advises such people to remain single; but he then says, "But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn." Paul makes no qualifications about which divorced people are allowed to marry again. Apparently, if they were truly agomos, meaning that they were no longer tied to another, they were free to marry without sin (as he says in v27-28).
  • Both Jesus (in Matthew 19:11) and Paul (in 1 Corinthians 7:7) acknowledged that not all are able to live as eunuchs (live celibately). That means that some will truly struggle with the temptation of fornication. To such people Paul says clearly that they should marry instead of burn (with passion or, as some interpret, eternally in hell). Would this not apply as well to the one who has already struggled with such? Is the "guilty party" required to continually burn with passion? Is this how God deals with those who sin but then repent? God designed marriage as a remedy for sexual impurity. In 1 Corinthians 7:2, Paul wrote: "But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband." Notice he wrote this statement to people who had previously committed fornication and adultery (6:9). Paul did not forbid marriage to such people! (If marriage is going to be forbidden to all those who commit fornication, will this then be applied to those who commit fornication before ever being married?)

Finally, Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 would imply that anyone who leaves his/her mate should attempt to reconcile. This ought surely to apply to one who, in a sense, left their spouse by being unfaithful. This certainly seems to be God's ultimate will and thus should not be hindered. It may be that the "guilty one" would be responsible to remain unmarried and continue every effort to reconcile until such is either successful or no longer possible (i.e., spouse remarries or dies). However, it is not for others to judge when one has made sufficient effort, but rather the one involved, knowing that God will judge him/her accordingly.

 

"Commits Adultery" Defined as Physical Sexual Act

In Matthew 19:9, Jesus said that one who wrongly divorces and marries another "commits adultery." Since men and women have often failed to live as Jesus commanded, there is (and ought to be) a great concern regarding what Jesus meant by that. That He was clearly and boldly condemning the common practice of divorce "for any reason" is hopefully not under dispute. Jesus plainly taught that to divorce (except for the reason of fornication) and marry again was sinful. What is disputed is the specific meaning of "commits adultery."

It is contended by many that Jesus was referring to the physical sexual act committed in the subsequent marriage. Accordingly, these arguments are made:

  • Such a position seems to be consistent with the proper context of the passage (i.e., Jesus answering a question about the Law of Moses and perhaps applicable to those who had been getting divorces under the regulation of that Law). Dr. Brewer (Biblical Divorce and Remarriage) explains: "This dispute [between the Shammaites and the Hillelites] did not just concern a seemingly obscure interpretation, because if the Hillelite interpretation was incorrect then all the divorces which had been granted by Hillelites on the basis of "any matter" were invalid… This would include virtually all, if not actually all, the divorces at that time, because the Shammaite divorce was so much more difficult to obtain. Jesus was, in effect, declaring that all these divorces were invalid. Jesus then pointed out a further consequence of his teaching: if any of those divorcees had got married (which would probably include virtually all of them), they were not really married, and were committing adultery. They were committing adultery because they were still married to their original spouse, while living with someone else."
  • This position and interpretation is also consistent with the normal meaning of the term and its typical usage. The term is from the Greek moichatai (Strong's #3429). Thayer says it primarily refers to "unlawful intercourse with another's wife." In the Old Testament, the word adultery in taken from the Hebrew na'aph. This word is used many times to refer to the actual sexual act, such as is forbidden in the 7th commandment.
  • It is further contended that the sin of physical adultery occurs continuously throughout the course of the marriage. The term "commits adultery" is in the present tense and thus often refers to an action that is ongoing. It is commonly referred to then as "living in sin" or "living in adultery."
  • Some indicate that the sin of adultery is actually committed only at those times when physical relations occur in the subsequent marriage. Hugo McCord (Firm Foundation article) says it would be more accurate to "speak of the word's denoting the iterative or repetitive or interspersed action of a couple's living in adultery." If this is the case, then one would not really be living in constant adultery, but rather sinning only on such occasions.

The above view thus appears to place the emphasis of "commits adultery" on what occurs with the subsequent spouse. Thus, by this position, Jesus said that one who wrongly divorces and marries another is committing literal sexual adultery with that next wife/husband.

 

"Commits Adultery" Defined as Unfaithfulness to Covenant

Another view places the emphasis of "commits adultery" on what happens more in connection with the original spouse and interprets the term perhaps more figuratively than literally. According to this position, Jesus said that one who wrongly divorces and marries has committed an act of unfaithfulness against his/her first spouse and has broken that marriage vow and/or covenant. Accordingly, the following arguments are given:

  • It is not uncommon in Scripture for Bible terms and words to be used in a figurative sense regardless of their primary meaning. For example, the word "baptism" primarily refers to immersion in water, but it is also used figuratively by Jesus in reference to the overwhelming sufferings of His life (Matthew 20:22) and also by Paul in reference to Moses and the Israelites (1 Corinthians 10:2). Another example of figurative language is found in 1 John 3:15; there it says, "Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer." John was speaking figuratively to show that hatred is just as bad as murder. (In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus similarly refers to the command against murder and then indicates that anger against a brother is likewise sinful.)
  • Likewise, there are several occasions of the word adultery being used figuratively to denote unfaithfulness or the breaking of vows. Israel's unfaithfulness to God is often referred to as adultery. Concerning Israel's sin of idolatry, Jeremiah 3:8-9 says, "And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. And it came about because of the lightness of her harlotry, that she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees." Ezekiel 23:37 says, "They have committed adultery with their idols." Jesus seemed to use the word figuratively in Matthew 5:28 (just before speaking about marriage and divorce) when He said that looking at and lusting after a woman is "committing adultery." He also spoke of people unfaithful to God as an "evil and adulterous generation" (Matthew 12:39; 16:4; Mark 8:38). Likewise, James referred to people who were unfaithful to God as "adulteresses" (James 4:4).
  • The Bible teaches that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman before God. In Proverbs 2:16-17, the writer speaks of an adulteress who "…leaves the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God." Malachi 2:14 as well speaks of "…the wife of your youth [who is] your companion and your wife by covenant." It is thus suggested that Jesus may be intending to use the word 'adultery' to refer to unfaithfulness and the breaking of the vows of the marriage covenant. The Hebrew word na'aph (Strong #5003) normally translated as adultery, is actually translated as "break wedlock" in Ezekiel 16:38 (KJV).
  • It is said that some older versions of the Bible (such as the Great Bible and Tynsdale Bible) actually translated moichatai in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 as "breaks wedlock." Some thus think that this is exactly what Jesus intended by His statement. He is perhaps saying that one who wrongly divorces and marries another is indeed "breaking wedlock." By the act of divorcing and marrying again, that one is being unfaithful to his/her vow and covenant with the first spouse. If husbands and wives would think more about the vows they made to each other and God and the covenant they made with one another and God, if they would seek to be more what God intended them to be (1 Peter 3:1-7; Ephesians 5:21-25; Philippians 2:3-4), then perhaps their marriages would be strong enough to endure those circumstances that would otherwise lead to divorce. Perhaps it is significant that Matthew's account in 5:32ff has Jesus speaking on the importance of keeping vows right after speaking on marriage.

 

Is "Commits Adultery" a Continuous Action?

Regardless of how one chooses to define adultery (whether literal or figurative), there is no question or dispute that the practice of divorcing just to marry someone else is contrary to the will of God and thus sinful. The question that remains is in regards to whether the sinful action is point in time or continuous. Was Jesus condemning the sexual act that would occur continually in a subsequent marriage (thus perhaps warranting another divorce or, at least, a cessation of marital relations)? Or was He focusing His condemnation specifically on the sinful act of divorcing and marrying without a proper cause?

What does the Greek language indicate about this issue? Of primary interest is the fact that "commits adultery" is grammatically in the present indicative. Many have contended that the present indicative has to indicate a continuous action. Furthermore, they have thus promoted the idea that such a one (who wrongly divorced and married again) would be committing the sexual sin of adultery every time they had relations with their new spouse.

But does the present indicative have to indicate a continuous action? Perhaps not; some Greek scholars state that present indicative may be either point or continuous action.

  • Clinton Hicks did a study at Harding University Graduate School of Religion on every occurrence of the present indicative in the gospel of Matthew. He found 719 such occurrences. Of that number, how many were deemed MUST BE CONTINUOUS ACTION? Only 45. 45 times out of 719. A total of 226 were deemed DEFINITELY NOT CONTINUOUS ACTION, while the remaining 448 were NOT UNDER CONSIDERATION. According to Hicks' research, continuous action seems to actually be the least common intent of the present indicative.
  • Greek scholar Carroll Osburn likewise says, "Thus is cannot be said that the present indicative in Matt. 19:9, or any other Greek text, 'cannot mean other than continuous action,' for any such argument blatantly disregards the several idiomatic uses of the present indicative in which continuity is not explicit. Greek syntax requires that each occurrence of the present indicative be understood in terms of its context to determine whether continuity is involved" (Restoration Quarterly, 1981).

Are there any mitigating factors in the text itself that might indicate whether the phrase in question is intended to be point in time or continuous action? According to Greek scholars, there are various rules and procedures that help to dictate such. For instance, if the first part of a sentence on which the subject is conditioned is linear, then the conclusion is generally also linear. Likewise, if the first part of a sentence on which the subject is conditioned is punctiliar, then the conclusion is generally also punctiliar. As one scholar stated it, "The tense of the participle is relative to the time of the leading verb."

So how does this apply to Matthew 19:9 et al? Leaving out the "exception" for the time being, Jesus said, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery." According to the rules just stated, if "divorces his wife" and "marries another woman" are grammatically linear, then "commits adultery" would likely be linear. But, according to some Greek scholars, it's not. Both actions, divorcing and marrying, are punctiliar; they are both point in time actions. So what is the implication? The conclusion would then likely also be punctiliar. "Commits adultery" appears to occur at the same point in time (concurrent) as does the singular point in time action of divorcing and marrying another woman. Olan Hicks has said regarding this, "Thus the use of the present participle in this passage for 'puts away' and 'marries another' means simply that these acts occur simultaneously with the action denoted by the leading verb, which is 'commits adultery'."

There is no doubt but that divorce, whether due to fornication or not, will lead to resulting conditions that are indeed continuous. Similarly, one who 'buys a gun and shoots somebody' 'commits murder'. The resulting condition is indeed continuous; the person remains dead. But the person who committed the murder did so at only one point in time. Thus many Greek scholars would hold that the present indicative no more suggests a continuous act of committing adultery than it does a continuous act of committing murder. The one who wrongly divorces and marries is deemed an adulterer, and perhaps he will always be considered as such. But he is considered as such because of a one time action. He is considered such, not because he has marital relations with his subsequent spouse, but because of the one time he wrongly divorced one woman in order to marry another.

 

What Must be Done to Repent?

It is obvious that Christians should strive to maintain their marriage commitment. Husbands and wives who imitate Christ in their personal lives and who adhere to biblical teachings will surely have successful marriages. However, men and women have often failed to be what they ought to be and to live as Jesus commanded. Despite Jesus' and Paul's teaching to the contrary, some have indeed wrongly divorced and married again. What must such people do to truly repent and make things right with God and with others?

Hopefully all will agree that the guilt of one's sinful behavior continues until that one genuinely repents and confesses such sin (1 John 1:9). However, as mentioned above, there are many who contend that one who wrongly divorces and marries another is continually committing the sin of actual sexual adultery in the subsequent marriage and must therefore divorce the subsequent spouse in order to truly repent and stand justified before God.

There are two biblical examples in the context of the Law of Moses where divorcing a subsequent spouse was apparently necessary in order to truly repent and be right with God:

  • In Deuteronomy 7:3-4, God had commanded His people, "You shall not intermarry with [the heathen nations]; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods." Ezra 9-10 speaks of the people of Israel realizing that they had forsaken the commandment of the Lord and thus determining to rid themselves of the evil influence. Ezra commanded, "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" (Ezra 10:10-11).
  • Matthew 14:1-4 and Mark 6:14-18 tells of the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodius, "the wife of his brother Philip." Such was clearly in violation of the Law of Moses (and apparently God's general law on marriage and divorce). Leviticus 18:16 says, "You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife." Leviticus 20:21 says, "If there is a man who takes his brother's wife, it is abhorrent." Since Herod claimed to be a follower of the Law, John the Baptist declared to him, "It is not lawful for you to have her" (Matthew 14:4).

There is one example from the context of the Christian age in which divorce may have been necessary in order to truly repent and be right with God (though the context is concerning the sin of incest rather than that of wrongly divorcing and marrying another):

  • In 1 Corinthians 5:1, the church was criticized for accepting a sinful situation that "does not even exist among the Gentiles." Paul said that it have been reported that, in the church there, "someone has his father's wife." The man and the woman (either his mother or stepmother) were apparently married (or at least living together) and thus in an incestuous relationship. Such was not only a violation of the Law of Moses, it was also against the Roman law of that time. Paul commanded that the church was to "deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh" (v5; apparently referring to withdrawing from him). It would be presumed that the man should remove himself from the sinful situation/relationship in order to be forgiven and restored to the fellowship of the church.

Others, however, believe that God makes no such demand on those who wrongly marry. The following points are made to show that another divorce is not necessarily required to be right with God:

  • Repentance means to stop doing what is sinful. What act did Jesus condemn as sinful? The act of sexual relations or the act of wrongly divorcing and marrying? The emphasis appears to be on the shameful practice of divorcing for any reason in order to marry another. This He called adulterous, and it is this practice that must cease (such was indeed a common practice of that time). If this is the sin, then repentance means to stop the wrongful practice of divorcing and marrying. Stop breaking up marriages. Observe the teaching of Acts 8:18-24 and 1 John 1:9 - confessing sin and asking for forgiveness. Start living by God's law to remain faithful to a husband/wife and to be committed to that marriage until death.
  • The Bible teaches that God approves of marriage and hates divorce. If one has sinned against God's law of marriage and divorce, how can divorcing again be the solution? Was it not wrong the first time to destroy a marriage and a home? How can it then be right to destroy a second marriage and home to make up for doing it the first time? God still hates divorce. Would not divorcing a subsequent spouse be a further sin against him/her and against God?
  • Those who had been guilty of adultery before becoming Christians were apparently not required to end their marriages. Neither Jesus nor any apostle ever declared that one in an "unscriptural" or "adulterous" marriage needed to end such in order to be saved. Consider 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; some of those who became Christians had been guilty of fornication and adultery. Some had surely violated Jesus' command against marrying again, but Paul gave no command for anyone there to divorce. Some today would require that one desiring baptism must understand all of God's laws on marriage and divorce and submit accordingly before being baptized. But apparently Paul had not followed that practice, because the Christians at Corinth wrote to Paul asking about marriage and divorce! They had all been baptized without a thorough teaching on the issue of marriage and divorce. There is no record of them being commanded to divorce before baptism or in order to be right with God. It can, however, be assumed that they were taught to "repent, and sin no more."
  • Not only is there no record in Scripture of one who wrongly divorced and remarried being told to divorce (or to abstain from marital relations), there is nothing in historical writings about such. As has been already mentioned, divorcing and marrying was extremely commonplace in the Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures of that time. Nevertheless, nowhere in Scripture or any other writing of that time can be found a mention of such a one needing to divorce in order to be right with God.
  • Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:14, "Do not be bound (heterozugountes--Strong's #2086, meaning bound unequally) together with unbelievers." Paul may not have specifically had marriage in mind as he wrote this, but as already stated, there is no greater or more important bond than that of marriage. Surely it is against God's will for a Christian to enter that bond with an unbeliever. But should a Christian then divorce his/her unbelieving spouse in order to be right with God? In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul commands that a Christian should not divorce his/her unbelieving spouse. While he is speaking (most likely) to those who became Christians after already being married, it seems reasonable that his command would also be applicable in this situation. And if so, is this not further evidence that God does not require those who wrongly marry to divorce that spouse?

One other point could be made regarding this particular issue. Romans 7:2-3 says, "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." Though the context of this passage is not about marriage, but rather the extent of the Law, the lesson is still applicable. One is committing adultery as long as there remains a bond to another.

Some teach that a bond always exists with one's original spouse and thus any other marriage constitutes an adulterous relationship. Others suggest that the death of one's original spouse or remarriage (perhaps of either party) breaks that bond. Regardless, it does appear that once that bond ceases, being married to another would no longer be considered as adultery (though sin did indeed occur for which forgiveness must be sought).

 

Conclusion

Many wise and godly people have studied what the Bible says about marriage and divorce and still find it hard to understand every aspect of the issue. All will agree that husbands and wives ought to diligently strive to stay together. And when they strive first to be what God intends for them to be, surely they will have successful marriages.

But what does God require of people who wrongly divorce and/or marry? Not everyone agrees on this. God may indeed at times make some difficult demands on people, but we need to make sure that we don't demand more than He does. Thank God for His wonderful love and grace and mercy given to those who honestly and sincerely seek to obey Him. May God bless those is such situations with wisdom to know what is required by Him and strength to do whatever that may be. And may God bless all of us with a right understanding of His will, in this and in all things.

Copyright © 1998-2015. Bible Lessons Worldwide Ministry. Bob Williams. Columbus, Georgia. Permission is granted to any teacher or preacher to use these lessons to the glory of God. Thanks to generous soul-loving partners, there is never a charge for anything offered by this ministry.

Bob Williams is the pulpit minister for the Rose Hill Church of Christ in Columbus, Georgia. He is an alumnus of York College in York, NE (1977-1979), Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, TN (1982-1985), and Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, TN (1986-1990). Since its inception in 1998, thousands of people throughout the world visit BibleLessons.com every month, and Bob is privileged to conduct in-depth Bible studies with a great many of them.