Scriptural and Early Christian Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage


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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.

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18 Comments

  1. 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,
        Michelle

  2. Ok
    Here is my question
    I was for the betrothed argument
    And i don’t know if I’ve really changed it.
    But
    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
    And
    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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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