Scriptural and Early Christian Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage

In this article we will look first at what the Scriptures say about divorce and remarriage; then we will look at early Christian writings to see if what they believed matches what we read in the Scriptures.

As we study these writings, we will use the following procedure.

  1. When we consult a passage of Scripture, we will consider the whole passage, not just selected sections of it.
  2. We will read each sentence for exactly what it says, not reading in meanings that are not there, and not supposing the author really meant to say something different.
  3. We will note any word or sentence that could reasonably be interpreted in more than one way.

Key Scriptures from the Old Testament

Let’s begin by reading some of the Old Testament scriptures that shed light on the subject of divorce. The teaching of the New Testament is most important to us; but since some New Testament passages quote from the Old Testament, we will look at those Old Testament passages first.

One Flesh

The first of these passages is right at the beginning in the Book of Genesis, after woman was created and given to man. Genesis 2:24 says,

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

This is an interesting statement, since nobody had a father and mother at this point. Adam and Eve were both directly created by God, so the first part of the statement would not have applied to them. Since the words about “leaving father and mother” could not have been instructions to Adam and Eve, they must have been inserted by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of readers through the ages.

If you read Christian books and magazines about marriage, or hear people talk about it, you will likely hear terms such as “partnership,” “the marriage partnership,” or “marriage partner.” However, the Bible never refers to marriage as a partnership; rather, it refers to it as a single entity. The Bible says that in marriage, the two become “one flesh.”

A partnership always involves at least two people. You cannot have a partnership with just one person, “one flesh.” Traditionally, in a partnership, the partners always remain somewhat independent of each other; for example, tax laws have historically required business partners to report their income separately, and to pay taxes as individuals. The Genesis account describes marriage as “one flesh,” not as a joint venture between two partners.

A Certificate of Divorce

The passage above dealt with marriage and what it represents. Let’s move on to Deuteronomy 24:1–4, which deals with divorce.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled. For this is an abomination before the Lord.” (NKJV)

What does this passage tell us about divorce in Old Testament times? Try to study these verses in sequence, without reflecting on what you remember from the New Testament. Let’s study these verses one phrase at a time.

“When a man takes a wife, and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house . . .”

There was a procedure that allowed for divorce in Old Testament times. Remember, we saw nothing in Genesis about divorce; all we read in Genesis was that a husband and wife are to become “one flesh.” Yet Deuteronomy makes allowance for divorce. What are the conditions under which a man may divorce his wife?

“When . . . it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her.”

Note that this verse did not permit a man to divorce his wife for any cause he wished—only if he found “some uncleanness in her” that caused her to find “no favor in his eyes.”

Let’s consider what parts of this statement could be considered ambiguous or confusing, leading to more than one possible interpretation. What about the word “uncleanness”? Does that mean adultery? Does that mean she committed immorality before he married her? Or does it mean something else? The text doesn’t explain it any further here, so we need to note this question and remember it for later. What does it mean to find “uncleanness in her?” Let’s see if other scriptures clarify what this “uncleanness” is referring to.

Another question we could ask is, “Did God make a provision for a wife to divorce her husband?” What does the passage say? It says, “When a man takes a wife and marries her . . . .” Nowhere in this passage does it say anything about a wife divorcing her husband.

According to the passage above, God allowed divorce only in a very narrow situation: if a man found uncleanness in his wife, he could divorce her. It says nothing about her divorcing him. We are prone to read into passages things that are not there, merely because we think they should be there. We need to guard against this tendency, or we can be guilty of adding things to the Bible.

Why would God make an allowance for divorce one-sided, available only to the man? As is often the case with God’s commands, He doesn’t explain it, but it may have to do with the headship order, in which the man is the head of the woman. To illustrate this idea, consider the President of the United States and the Secretary of State. Both are highly honorable, responsible positions. However, under the U.S. constitution, the president has the power to fire the Secretary of State, but the Secretary of State does not have the power to fire the President. The relationship between a husband and wife in the Old Testament seemed to be something like this.

Under Old Testament law, a wife who found herself living in an intolerable situation could flee, perhaps returning to her parents, but God gave her no right to divorce her husband.

Notice how no one is taken to court in the Old Testament divorce; the only formality is the requirement that the husband place a certificate of divorce in his wife’s hand before sending her away. This contrasts sharply with practices in the Western world today, where the wife often sends her husband away and keeps the house, making her, in effect, the head of the home.

At the end of verse 4, we read that the husband cannot take his ex-wife back after she has been married to another man. This rule applies whether the other man divorces her or dies. In this case, she is said to be defiled (a word which may be included in the “uncleanness” referred to earlier in the passage).

God Hates Divorce

In Malachi 2:14–16, we read,

“The Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away.”

This passage has a different twist. If we have been interpreting Deuteronomy 24:1–4 to mean that God approves of a man divorcing his wife, we need to rethink that interpretation in light of this verse, where God says He hates “putting away,” or divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1–4 stated the procedure for divorce and limited the circumstances when it was allowed. From the wording of Malachi 2—“thou hast dealt treacherously”—we might deduce that the husbands of that time were divorcing their wives for reasons other than the “uncleanness” of Deuteronomy 24, perhaps just because they found someone they liked better.

Notice that Malachi, like Deuteronomy, says nothing about wives divorcing their husbands. According to the Old Testament, God allowed divorce in only one circumstance, and only by the husband. He never made any allowance for a wife to divorce her husband.

Conclusion

The Old Testament position is not politically correct or acceptable to modern society, even in most religious settings. However, the purpose of this article is not to make people happy or tickle their ears, but to faithfully present the Scriptures and the early church beliefs and practices on this matter. This article is provided as a resource, and is not intended to dictate what individuals or churches should do. It is the responsibility of each church and its elders to weigh the facts and choose positions that please God and honor His commandments.

Key Scriptures from the New Testament

“But I Say To You . . .”

The first New Testament discussion of this topic occurs quite near the beginning, in Matthew 5:31–32:

“It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (NKJV)

Earlier, when we looked Deuteronomy 24, we noted that the wording was unclear; it allowed a man to divorce his wife if he found “some uncleanness” in her, but it didn’t elaborate on what that “uncleanness” was. Here in Matthew 5, Jesus clears up that ambiguity. Jesus’ words make it clear that even if Moses did not intend “uncleanness” to be limited to sexual immorality, God did.

Jesus says here that if a man divorces his wife for any reason other than sexual immorality, he causes her to commit adultery—he is responsible for her sin. Jesus adds that whoever marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.

Let me clear up two words here found in the New King James. Jesus says, “If a man divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality . . . .” The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” is porneia, which simply means sexual immorality. It is a broad term that can refer to unlawful sexual relations between two unmarried people, between a married person and an unmarried person, or between a married person and another married person who is not their spouse; it can also refer to prostitution or bestiality.

Jesus says if a man divorces his wife, except for one of these sins, he causes her to commit adultery. The word translated adultery here is the Greek verb moichao, which refers specifically to a married person engaging in sexual relations with someone other than their spouse.

Now let’s look at what Jesus taught here—without reading anything into the text that it doesn’t actually say.

First, does Jesus say anything here about a wife divorcing her husband? He doesn’t, does He? Many people misread Jesus’ words here to say that if a woman divorces her husband for any reason other than adultery, she causes him to commit adultery. That reading implies that Jesus was expanding the existing allowance for divorce.

Remember, in the Old Testament, no allowance for divorce was made in Genesis; it says “they shall be one flesh.” Later, in Deuteronomy, we saw that God permitted a husband to divorce his wife if he found “uncleanness” in her. He did not permit a wife to divorce her husband if she found uncleanness in him. (It seems God intended to deal with the husband’s sin directly.)

With this precedent, we arrive at the teachings of Jesus. Did Jesus leave the rules about divorce as they were in the Old Testament, did He narrow the scope for divorce, or did He expand it? In the Matthew 5 passage, it seems clear that Jesus did not expand the scope for divorce; if anything, He narrowed it, by clearly defining “uncleanness” as limited to sexual immorality.

Jesus did not say, “You have heard that a man could divorce his wife for sexual immorality, but I authorize a wife to divorce her husband for sexual immorality as well.” Most people today assume that if husbands can divorce their wives, wives can divorce their husbands. However, that is not what Jesus said, and that is not the way His audience would have understood His words.

Jesus was teaching on a mountainside to a mostly-Jewish crowd; and there is nothing in His words that would have led his Jewish listeners to conclude that He was expanding the options for divorce. The women would not have come away thinking, “Oh, He’s saying we can divorce our husbands now.” Jesus had said nothing like that.

Jesus said, “Whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Does He make any exception to this statement? No, He gives no exception whatsoever. That’s because in the Jewish culture, a divorced woman was either divorced lawfully (meaning she was an adulteress) or she was wrongfully divorced by her husband (in which case she was not free in God’s eyes). Either way, if a man married her, he would be committing adultery.

Again, this straightforward interpretation of Jesus’ words is both politically incorrect and, in most places, religiously incorrect. It directly contradicts the practice of most churches today; but it does not contradict what Christians practiced for the first 1,800 years of church history. Some people feel that we now have a better understanding than Christians did in earlier centuries, and so God’s eternal plan can be altered or changed. But God’s plan for marriage has never changed!

What God Has Joined

Another passage where Jesus discusses this topic is Matthew 19:3–9. It begins,

“The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

In His answer to the Pharisees, Jesus goes back to the very beginning, appealing to the interjection in Genesis about two becoming one flesh. Jesus is saying this spiritual concept is foundational to our whole understanding of marriage; God does not see a marriage as two separate individuals, but as a union—one flesh. No human is to separate that bond, because God has joined it permanently.

The text above continues with a further question from the Pharisees, followed by Jesus’ response:

“They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away [divorce] your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, except it be for fornication [porneia], and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away [divorced] doth commit adultery.”

In this passage, does Jesus say anything different from what He said in Matthew 5:31–32? No, His instructions are exactly the same, but He explains them a bit more. God’s purpose for marriage in the beginning, Jesus says, was for one man and one wife, for life. Moses permitted husbands to divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, even though divorce did not please God. In this passage, Jesus again limits divorce by saying,

“Whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, except it be for fornication [porneia, sexual immorality], and shall marry another, committeth adultery.”

Jesus is saying that if a man divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality and gets remarried, he is committing adultery. Once again, He makes no exception for women.

“Whoso marrieth her which is put away [divorced] doth commit adultery.”

It brings me no pleasure to share what Jesus said here; I know Jesus’ words have put many people in awkward and painful circumstances, and my heart goes out to them. But I would do you no favors by tickling your ears, and telling you something other than what Jesus said.

The Disappearing Exception

Now let’s move on to Mark 10:3–12. Here we find something much like what we just read in Matthew.

“And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away [divorce] his wife? tempting him. 3And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? 4And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. 5And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. 6But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. 7For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; 8And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. 9What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

This appears to be either a second account of the Matthew 19 incident, told in slightly different words, or else an account of another incident where the Pharisees asked a similar question. However, Mark adds this detail:

“And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. 11And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. 12And if a woman shall put away [divorce] her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”

This answer of Jesus differs from the one in Matthew in a significant way. In Matthew, Jesus said, “. . . except . . . for fornication [porneia].” Here He doesn’t say that. He just says,

“Whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.”

Matthew’s exception is missing here. Furthermore, Jesus clarifies that if a woman divorced her husband, as allowed under Roman law but not Jewish law, she would be committing adultery. No exceptions.

Luke 16:18 includes another report of Jesus’ words on this subject. This one is brief, simply saying,

“Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” So Luke basically repeats what Mark said, once again mentioning no exception.

This raises a difficulty in understanding Jesus’ intent, since Matthew reports an exception to the ban on divorce, while Mark and Luke do not. To clear up this uncertainty, we will now look at the early Christian writings to see if they offer any help.

Early Christian Understandings of Scripture on Divorce

A Simple Approach

If you want to know what the early Christians believed on nearly any subject, you can simply look at all the New Testament passages that deal with that subject, apply those passages very literally and very seriously, and the result will match what they believed on that subject. Divorce and remarriage is no exception to this rule.

Two Big Questions

Our investigation of the scriptures on divorce and remarriage has left us with two significant questions:

  1. What is the significance of the word porneia, (sexual immorality)?
  2. Why does Matthew record an exception, while Mark and Luke do not?

General Quotes on Divorce

Just as in modern Western society, divorce was common in Roman culture during the early church era. Tertullian wrote,

“Where is that happiness of married life, ever so desirable, which distinguished our earlier [Roman] manners, and as a result of which for about 600 years there was not among us [Romans] a single divorce? Now, women have every member of the body heavy laden with gold; . . . and as for divorce, they long for it as though it were the natural consequence of marriage.” [1]

This passage shows that the early Christians had to deal with this issue just as we do in modern Western culture.

In the following sections, we will look at some typical quotes that help us understand how the early Christians understood the Gospel passages we just read, and how they applied them to the subject of divorce.

Athenagorus, an apologist writing about the year 175, wrote:

“A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. ‘For whosoever puts away his wife,’ says He [Jesus] ‘and marries another, commits adultery;’ not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to marry again.”[2]

Tertullian wrote,

“Christ prohibits divorce, saying, ‘Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery; and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband, also committeth adultery.’ In order to forbid divorce, He makes it unlawful to marry a woman that has been put away.”[3]

Origin wrote,

“As a woman is an adulteress, even though she seem to be married to a man, while the former husband is still living, so also the man who seems to marry her who has been put away, does not so much marry her as commit adultery with her according to the declaration of our Saviour.”[4]

Finally, the Apostolic Constitutions:

“If a layman divorces his own wife, and takes another, or one divorced by another, let him be suspended [banned from communion].”[5]

Early Christians and the Exception Clause

After hearing those quotes, you might be thinking, “What about the exception clause for porneia?” The early Christians, including some of the writers just quoted, addressed that question. Following are some quotes where they discuss this.[*]

In about the year 205, Tertullian wrote,

“The Lord holds it more pleasing that matrimony should not be contracted, than that it should at all be dissolved: in short, divorce He prohibits, except for the cause of [porneia].”[6]

Again, around the year 207, Tertullian wrote,

“I maintain, then, that there was a condition in the prohibition that He now made of divorce; the case supposed being that a man put away his wife for the express purpose of marrying another. . . . ‘put away,’ that is, for the reason wherefore a woman ought not to be dismissed, that another wife may be obtained. . . . Permanent is the marriage that is not rightly dissolved. To marry, therefore, whilst matrimony is undissolved, is to commit adultery. Since, therefore, His prohibition of divorce was a conditional one, He did not prohibit absolutely; and what He did not absolutely forbid, that He permitted on some occasions, when there is an absence of the cause why He gave His prohibition.” [7][†]

In about the year 245, Origin wrote,

“After this our Saviour says, not at all permitting the dissolution of marriages for any other sin than [porneia] alone, when detected in the wife, ‘Whosever shall but away (sic) his own wife, saving for the cause of [porneia], maketh her an adulteress.’ But it might be a subject for inquiry if on this account He hinders any one putting away his wife, unless she be caught in [porneia], for any other reason, as for example poisoning, or for the destruction . . . of an infant born to them, or for . . . murder . . . . To endure sins . . . which seem to be worse than adultery or [porneia], will appear to be irrational; but again on the other hand to act contrary to the design of the teaching of the Saviour, every one would acknowledge to be impious.”[8]

Novatius wrote in about the year 235,

“Christ . . . said that a wife must not be put away, save for the cause of adultery. . . . Laws are prescribed to matrons [married women], who are so bound that they cannot thence be separated.” [9]

Finally, sometime in the years 304–313, Lactantius wrote,

“He who marries a woman divorced from her husband is an adulterer. So is he who divorced a wife for any cause other than adultery, in order to marry another.” [10]

These passages show that the early Christians did recognize a limited exception for divorce, just as Jesus did in Matthew. That exception allowed a husband to divorce his wife for porneia, or sexual immorality.

Early Christian Understanding of Porneia

The quotes also make it clear that the early Christians, who spoke Biblical Greek as their everyday language, understood porneia as referring, not specifically to sexual relationships before marriage, but to any sexual immorality. This would include premarital sex, of course, but it would also include adultery by a married person, as well as any other sexual perversion.

A classic example of this is the following passage from Irenaeus. Referring to the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well, he wrote,

“That erring Samaritan woman . . . did not remain with one husband, but committed [porneia] by many marriages.” [11]

In light of this evidence, Christians today who claim that porneia only means premarital sex are clearly mistaken. As these quotes illustrate, the people who lived soon after Christ, and spoke the same Greek language He did, used porneia as a broad term that included adultery.

Divorce as a Christian Obligation

Interestingly, the early Christians did not teach merely that a man was permitted to divorce his wife for adultery, but that he had an obligation to divorce her. This requirement did not apply to a wife who fell into adultery once and repented. Rather, it was applied to woman who was sleeping freely with multiple partners or carrying on a continued affair with another man. If the husband knew about such an ongoing situation and remained in the marriage, he was seen as essentially cooperating in wife-swapping

In about the year 150 or a bit earlier, Hermas wrote an allegory called The Shepherd. The following dialogue is carried on by some of the figures in the allegory:

“I said to him, ‘Sir, if anyone has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and he detect her in adultery, does the man sin if he continue to live with her?’

“And he said to me, ‘As long as he remains ignorant of her sin, the husband commits no transgression in living with her. But if the husband know that his wife has gone astray, and if the woman does not repent, but persists in her [porneia], and yet the husband continues to live with her, he also is guilty of her crime, and a sharer in her adultery.’

“And I said to him, ‘What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices?’

“And he said, ‘The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery.’

“And I said to him, ‘What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband?’

“And he said to me, ‘Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God. In case, therefore, that the divorced wife may repent, the husband ought not to marry another, when his wife has been put away. In this matter man and woman are to be treated exactly in the same way.’” [12]

(That final sentence seems to refer to the previous one; just as a divorced wife cannot remarry, the husband who has divorced her should not remarry, leaving open the possibility for her to repent and return to him.

In a work refuting the followers of a heretic named Marcion, Tertullian writes,

“Well, then, what is a husband to do in your sect [the Marcionites], if his wife commit adultery? Shall he keep her? But your own apostle [Paul], you know, does not permit ‘the members of Christ to be joined to a harlot.’ Divorce, therefore, when justly deserved, has even in Christ a defender.”[13]

These quotes show that their writers saw divorce as an obligation for a man whose wife is living in ongoing unrepentant adultery; in such a case the husband, as head of the household, is responsible to take action rather than overlooking the sin.

One passage from the Apostolic Constitutions, compiled in the 300’s, both forbids divorce when the woman is blameless and requires it when she is living in adultery.

“Nor let it be esteemed lawful after marriage to put her away who is without blame. For says He, ‘Thou shalt take care to thy spirit, and shalt not forsake the wife of thy youth; . . .’ For the Lord says: ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’ For the wife is the partner of life, united by God unto one body from two.

“But he that divides that again into two which is become one, is the enemy of the creation of God, and the adversary of His providence. In like manner, he that retains her that is corrupted [by adultery] is a transgressor of the law of nature; since “he that retains an adulteress is foolish and impious.’ For says He, ‘Cut her off from thy flesh;’ for she is not an help, but a snare, bending her mind from thee to another.” [14]

Common Questions on Divorce and Remarriage

After looking at what the Scriptures say and what the early Christians believed on divorce and remarriage, people often have further questions. The rest of this article attempts to address the most common questions I have received on this subject.

Jewish Betrothal and the Exception Clause

In an attempt to harmonize Jesus’ marriage teaching on divorce in Matthew 5 with His teaching in Mark and Luke, some people claim the Matthew passage refers to the Jewish betrothal period, rather than to what we would call marriage today.

According to this argument, the Greek word porneia, when used in Matthew 5 and 19, refers specifically to premarital sex, rather than to sexual immorality in general. It is argued that the Gospel account tells of Joseph’s intention to “put away,” or divorce, Mary when he thought she was immoral, even before they were married; thus betrothal in Jewish culture must have been a binding relationship which could be broken only through divorce. Jesus, so the argument goes, was referring to this betrothal period when He mentioned an “exception” for divorce. Matthew, writing primarily to Jews, recorded these words of Jesus; Mark and Luke, who wrote for Gentile readers, left them out, since they were irrelevant to their audience.

Although this theory seems ingenious at first glance, it has several serious flaws. The first is that the Greek word porneia never had a limited meaning at all; it always meant sexual immorality in general. No one in the first century who heard Jesus say, “He who puts away his wife except for porneia . . . .” would have thought He was saying, “except for unchastity during betrothal.”

This is clear in the quotes we looked at from the early Christians. These writers spoke the same Greek as the writers of the Gospels, and none of them ever suggested that Jesus was referring to betrothal in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. In fact, I don’t think anyone put forth such a theory until the late 19th or early 20th century. It is a very modern interpretation, with no historical support whatsoever, so if it is correct, that means that for 1,800 years the entire church was mistaken about the meaning of Jesus’ words, including personal disciples of the apostles themselves.

Rejecting the interpretation of the Christians who actually lived in the Apostles’ era is historically questionable all by itself; but it’s also extremely inconsistent. The whole betrothal interpretation depends on the idea that Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish audience, but the book itself identifies neither its audience nor its author. The only way we know the identity of the author is that the early Christians tell us it was written by Matthew in Hebrew for the Jews and later translated into Greek for the rest of the church. Does it really make sense to accept the early Christians’ testimony regarding the author and audience for the book, but then reject their testimony on what it says?

Furthermore, the claim that parts of the New Testament apply only to certain religious or ethnic groups means adding things to Scripture that are not there. Matthew never says, “Now, the following section is only for Jews,” nor are there statements like that anywhere else in the New Testament. The idea that the New Testament contains a patchwork of teachings intended only for specific groups, so that we must pick and choose which ones apply to us, is supported neither by the words of the New Testament itself nor by the early Christians.

My final objection to the betrothal theory is based on Jesus’ statement that Moses allowed Jewish men to divorce their wives because of the hardness of their hearts. The early Christians seemed to understand Jesus as saying that during the Old Testament era, God permitted divorce, even on grounds other than porneia, because of the hardness of their hearts. However, the betrothal interpretation interprets the passage to say that divorce exclusively for porneia had been permitted in the past, but was now forbidden.

The problem with taking the position that divorce in the case of porneia is always a sign of hard-heartedness is that God describes Himself as divorcing Israel for her unfaithfulness. One example of this is Isaiah 50:1:

“Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.”

God makes it quite clear in the Old Testament that His relationship to Israel was not just a betrothal; she was officially married to Him through the Mosaic covenant. If we say divorcing a wife for repeated unfaithfulness is wrong, and that it was permitted for Jewish husbands only because of their hard hearts, aren’t we suggesting that God Himself is a bad example for divorcing Israel on the same grounds?

Resolving Differences in Documents

Although I’ve shown why I do not see the betrothal interpretation as helpful, I have still not explained why Matthew mentions an exception, while Mark and Luke do not. What light do the early Christian writings shed on this discrepancy?

Interestingly, none of the early Christian writers ever talk about this. As we’ve discussed earlier, I believe it’s clear from their writings that the early Christians did allow and even expect a husband to divorce his wife if she was practicing adultery. They seem to have simply taken the exception for granted, considering it to be understood even in Mark and Luke where it was not specified. In fact, some of the early Christian writers did the same thing themselves: in some passages Tertullian says, “Divorce is unlawful. Any second divorce is adultery.” Yet later, in another work, he makes it clear that cases where the wife is unfaithful are exceptions to that rule.

At first, the silence on this matter from the early Christians seems odd, but on second thought, their way of dealing with the differences between the passages on this issue is the natural approach most of us use when faced with two documents discussing the same subject, one more detailed than the other. We automatically give the more detailed writing precedence over the one with fewer details.

In my law practice, if I’m reading two contracts between the same parties involving the same subject matter, but one provides more details than the other, I naturally give credence to the details that are included in the one but omitted from the other, and any court would do the same; it’s simple common sense. To give the abbreviated account precedence over the detailed one would be absurd.

The only real discrepancy between the records of Jesus’ teachings on divorce is that Matthew simply gives a more detailed account than Mark does. On the other hand, Mark mentions some details Matthew leaves out; for example, Mark mentions that the disciples asked Jesus about His words when they went to a house apart from the Pharisees. Does anyone suggest that since this house isn’t mentioned in Matthew, maybe that part didn’t really happen? Of course not. We simply use Mark’s extra detail to fill out Matthew’s account.[‡]

An illustration of how this works is in the differing accounts of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry as recorded in Matthew 21:4–7 and Mark 11:4–7. Matthew records a donkey and a foal, while Mark mentions only the foal. The common-sense interpretation of that difference is that there were two animals, and that Mark mentioned only the one that played a key part in the story. No serious student would attempt to “correct” Matthew’s more-detailed account with Mark’s less-detailed one.Again, harmonizing two accounts in this way is so natural that we do it all the time without thinking about it. There is no reason to treat the accounts of Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage any differently. If Matthew records a detail Mark omits, we should simply accept it as true, and if Mark records a detail Matthew admits, we should accept that, too.

“Not Under Bondage”

Another question people often ask is how we should understand Paul’s instructions regarding an unbelieving spouse in 1 Corinthians 7. Verses 10–15 read as follows:

“And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: 11But and if she depart [leave her husband], let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away [divorce] his wife. 12But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. . . . 15But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.”

Verse 39 of the same chapter adds,

“The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”

Some people have claimed, based on 1 Corinthians 7, that if you are a Christian with an unbelieving spouse who does not want to live with you, you are free to divorce and marry someone else.

The first problem with that teaching is that it directly contradicts Jesus Christ, who banned divorce with one and only one exception—for a husband to divorce his wife for sexual immorality. The second problem is that Paul actually says nothing of the sort in this passage. Although he is addressing a situation Jesus did not address, Paul never mentions remarriage, and he says nothing that contradicts Jesus.

To start with, let’s look at the different terms Paul uses in this passage as he addresses the responsibilities of a husbands and wives. First he says a wife should not “depart” from her husband; then he says a husband should not “put away” his wife. “Depart” and “put away” are translated from two different Greek words here, and the KJV translators did an excellent job of capturing the sense. “Depart” simply means simply to leave, while “put away” refers to divorce.

Paul, like Jesus, does not permit a wife to divorce her husband, but he recognizes that there may be dire situations where she must physically leave him. Even then, Paul says, she is not free to remarry. Her only options are to remain unmarried or, if possible, to reconcile with her husband.

Next, Paul addresses how a Christian should respond if an unbelieving spouse leaves him or her. In this case, Paul says, a believer is “not under bondage.” In other words, the believing spouse is not bound to pursue the departing unbeliever.

What Paul does not say is that a Christian in this situation is freed from the marriage bond. Nor is he saying the Christian is free to remarry; later in the same chapter, he repeats that a wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. Notice that Paul does not say a husband is bound to his wife as long as she lives. All this dovetails exactly with Jesus’ teaching that only a husband may initiate divorce, and only for porneia.

Once again, all the Scriptures on the subject harmonize with each other, with no contradictions. As I have said before, when one looks at what the early Christians believed on a topic, one finds that their view always accounts for everything in the New Testament. When they read the Scriptures, they did not have “problem verses” that must be avoided or neutralized with elaborate explanations. Here, as with other subjects, their interpretation follows the natural meaning of the text and takes into account everything the Bible says on the topic.

“Bound by the Law”

Another passage where Paul addresses these topics is in Romans 7:2–3:

For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.

Under what law is the woman bound to her husband “as long as he lives”? Not under Roman law, which allowed either spouse to divorce, but under God’s law. Just as in the other scriptures we examined, only one thing can release her from that bond:

“. . . but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.”

Jesus said anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery, and Paul agrees with this:

“So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.”

Again, the only condition under which remarriage is permitted for a wife is if her husband dies. Abandonment does not free her from the “law of her husband” and allow her to remarry. This is not a popular teaching, but if your heart is honest and open, I trust you can see that this is what the Scriptures say.

The church today is in a state of enormous apostasy. The divorce rate among professing, Bible-believing Christians is the same or slightly higher than that of the world. Instead of obeying the clear instructions of God on this matter, the church has, for the most part, simply followed the world, and when divorce became acceptable in the world, it was soon accepted in the church. This state of affairs is an abomination to God, and Christ will not receive a Bride who refuses to be faithful to His teachings.

[*] The Ante-Nicene Fathers, following the usage of the King James Version, translates porneia as “fornication.” As we discussed earlier, porneia was a broad word that referred to any sexual immorality. For clarity, I’ve left porneia untranslated in these quotes.

[†] Tertullian was known for his strictness on most subjects, so it’s notable that even he understood Christ’s words as allowing an exception for divorce on the grounds of porneia.

[‡] An illustration of how this works is in the differing accounts of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry as recorded in Matthew 21:4–7 and Mark 11:4–7. Matthew records a donkey and a foal, while Mark mentions only the foal. The common-sense interpretation of that difference is that there were two animals, and that Mark mentioned only the one that played a key part in the story. No serious student would attempt to “correct” Matthew’s more-detailed account with Mark’s less-detailed one.

[1] “Apology,” in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4th ed., Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 2004, Vol. 3, p. 22–23.

[2] “A Plea for the Christians,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, pp. 146–147.

[3] “Tertullian Against Marcion,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, p. 404.

[4] “Origen’s Commentary on Matthew,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 9, p. 511.

[5] “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, p. 503.

[6] “To His Wife,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, p. 45.

[7] “Tertullian Against Marcion,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, p. 405.

[8] “Origen’s Commentary on Matthew,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 9, p. 511.

[9] “Treatises Attributed to Cyprian,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, p. 589.

[10] “The Divine Institutes,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, p. 190, translated from the Latin.

[11] “Ireneaus Against Heresies,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 445.

[12] “The Shepherd,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, p. 21.

[13] “Tertullian Against Marcion,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, p. 405.

[14] “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, p. 456.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed