Scriptural and Early Christian Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage

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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.” 

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? He 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. And 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.

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  1. Desmond Danielle Sims

    Good job. Stay connected to God always. Amen

  2. Hello – my best friend is divorced for about 13 years now. Years ago before the Most High began teaching me HIS truth, in error I thought because she was the “innocent party” that there was an exception to all remarriage is adultery, and suggested that she should find a widower and not pursue a marital relationship with men who are also divorced. Ignorance is not bliss and my foolishness has caused so much confusion and chaos… She is currently involved with a man whose wife of 34 years recently passed, that in itself seems too odd for words. Nonetheless, I am concerned for the eternal welfare of my best friend, she says she is a believer but it seems that she does not have ears to hear or eyes to see… Not to mention that her home church pastor is a divorced man remarried with a former (wife of his youth) still living, and he thinks I the one who is in error here. Please if you could provide me with some scripturally sound reference in addition to this article, which is very thorough but quite long, I would appreciate that.
    I am sure that the resounding opinion is that I should probably just mind my business and be happy for my friend – but I just can’t… I am troubled in my spirit about all this and our friendship is suffering horribly also. Please help!

    • @Michelle. Thanks for sharing. Many churches today are caving in on this teaching. I like Eph 5:22 – 33 in this context. Marriage is to be a type of Christ and His bride, the church. Christ would never divorce his bride and look for another one. And when we do that, we break the type God intended marriage to be. Finally, marriage is not the ultimate goal for human beings. Serving God is. And we should be willing to give up marriage in order to obey God.

      • Thank you for replying… I spoke with my best friend and I am going to email this article to her. Please pray with me that she will have eyes to see and ears to hear. My only concern is how disregarding the truth may impact her eternal fate. I love her and I have been trying to keep quiet and “mind my own business”, and I have prayed that the Most High will release me from this burden. However, no matter how I try to study other things and steer clear of this subject – it seems to pop back up.
        Thank you again… Praying that you continue fearlessly in your pursuit to bring your readers to a better understanding of scripture.
        Shalom & Love,

  3. Ok
    Here is my question
    I was for the betrothed argument
    And i don’t know if I’ve really changed it.
    My question is
    If they leave you, the unbeliever…you’re saying you can’t remarry.
    But wouldn’t they probably go start another relationship??
    Then what??
    Then could you remarry?
    Or no still

    Thank you
    God Bless

    • @Fred: They may leave you. They may start another relationship. But that doesn’t change the vows that you made.

      • Thank you for answering.

        I have one more

        If the wife was committing adultery and you tried to work it out but she still decided to leave.
        Would there but a right to remarry then do you believe or should the husband not remarry?

        Thank you for your time

        God Bless
        And a Happy New Year

        • @Fred, I think Ephesians 5:22 – 33 helps to understand some of these questions, even though it doesn’t speak directly about divorce and remarriage. God uses marriage as a parallel of Christ and the Church. I believe that when a person turns their back on Christ, Jesus leaves the door open for them to return, even if they “marry” the world. You should do the same. Read the book of Hosea and meditate on the story of Gomer and the parallel that God drew there between Hosea’s marriage and the children of Israel. I know that these are tough questions and hard answers. But I do know several people who have separated and remained single because their spouses were unfaithful. It is important to find a believer’s fellowship and close Christian friends who will stand by you when the going gets tough (and it will). If you want help to find such people, or just someone to pray with you, feel free to call our toll-free number [855-367-8788]. Note that this only works in North America. If you can’t use the number, leave a note here and I’ll send you and email address.

        • Thank you for your quick response and your insight.
          I have read them
          And understand the seriousness of marriage 100%

          From reading the article
          To be ok with remarriage at all the husband would have had to put away the wife for sexual immorality before she left to be able to remarry?

          Last question I promise

          I’m just trying to make sense of it

          Thank you for your time

        • @Fred. Throughout church history, there have been various interpretations. Edersheim, a converted Jewish scholar, promoted the viewpoint that Jesus was speaking about a betrothal agreement when he gave the exception clause. According to that, there would be no way out for a married person. Other leaders, even conservative ones like Menno Simons, did leave room for a man to put away his wife because of adultery. These leaders tended to leave more room for a man to put away his wife than the other way around, even though men tend to be unfaithful more than women do. I feel that when we start opening doors for divorce and remarriage, we start down a slippery slope that has no end. Like I said in my last post, marriage is a figure of Christ and his bride, the church. Divorce and remarriage destroys this picture. I feel that we are better off to take the “no remarriage” position rather than take chances. I feel that for me to break my vows to my wife, even if she breaks her vows to me, would be wrong for me. That also is the position of most of the groups sponsoring this site and the church I am part of. I realize that this isn’t what you were hoping to hear from me, probably. But I think it is the only safe position. Thanks again for your comments and questions, and God bless you in 2019.

  4. I am currently separated from my husband due to his continued use of prostitutes. We attempted counseling, but he did not repent and he continued to seek out prostitutes. He says he wants to reconcile, yet does not provide me access to this email and text messages. Nor does he adequately financially provide for our children and for me, even the minimum Mount the state would require for child support. We are currently entangled I’m the legal process.

    I want to be obedient to Christ, above all things. And I believe that God led me to as much information as I needed to leave in good conscience. I have no desire to remarry, or even to consider remarriage. Much of my church leadership encourages me to consider reconciliation, since God hates divorce. They do not condone his use of prostitutes, and they encourage him to repent. However, nothing in his provision or behavior leads me to believe there is true repentance.

    I am continuing to search scripture for my answers, but I am left confused by my leadership as to how to move forward. What does Scripture teach about living in continual sin and whether I should initiate reconciliation under those circumstances?

    • Hi Tammy. Have you read this whole article? I think it answers some of your questions. I know its long and perhaps a bit tedious, but its worth reading all the way through (all seven pages!) For more discussion, call the toll free number at the beginning of this comments section.

  5. My husband was killed. We have 2 small children. 7 and 8. A few weeks later after my husbands death, I’m with his older brother. We’ve fallen in love. He wants to marry me and raise his brothers children. He has left his wife, they neither have any children. He is divorcing her. Neither one of us understand this because before my husbands passing, his brother and I could not stand each other. Are we to question this? Is this Gods plan? Are we wrong to have fallen in love? I must say after 3 months we are still together. His wife and him were having problems way before my husbands death. She had an affair and he never forgot it. She “was” also my friend for years.

    • Do you think it is safer to go by your feelings than by God’s word? The Bible is clear that someone who divorces their partner and marries another is committing adultery. I can see that your husband’s death left you very vulnerable, but that still doesn’t change what the Bible states about such a situation.

      • Are you sure that someone should value the lord above their own feelings? Because I feel that if this were true, then He would tell us who to love in the first place, and not wait until we’ve made a wrong decision to tell us what to do. I believe that we are living our own lives with god simply watching over us, not disapproving of our every action.

        • @Shannon, The problem too often is that we don’t pay any attention when God tries to warn us of a wrong choice. And of course, there are situations where the other person makes bad choices after the fact.

  6. kimberley taylor

    i remarried before coming to this knowledge can i return to my first spouse with Gods approval or must i LEAVE?

    • Hi Kimberly. This is a tough question and better answered by your local church if you have one. Feel free to call our toll free number at 855.367.8788 for more discussion or reply here if you want to continue the discussion off line by e-mail.

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