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No Grounds for Divorce?

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Question #1: Dear ICHTHYS, I'm trying to contact Christian ministries about an issue that is extremely important to God, yet is commonly mis-taught by most Christian Teacher's today. I haven't heard your teaching on the subject, and don't know what your position is, but I would greatly appreciate if you would read my tract and let me know if you agree with my conclusions, and if not, why. It seems that every teacher I find, has a different conclusion, but no one wants to discuss the issue with me. It is very important that you teach God's commands properly, since he holds teachers especially accountable.


"What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."


Malachi 2:13"This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14"Yet you say, 'For what reason?' Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15"But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. 16"For I hate divorce," says the LORD, the God of Israel, "and him who covers his garment with wrong," says the LORD of hosts. "So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously." 17 You have wearied the LORD with your words Yet you say, "How have we wearied Him?" In that you say, "Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and He delights in them," or, "Where is the God of justice?"

God makes it clear that He does not approve of divorce. In fact, He says He hates it. If God hates something, shouldn't we avoid doing it at all costs (Gen.2:22-24)?

Matthew 19:6"So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."

God's plan from the beginning was for one man, to be joined to one woman for a lifetime. Once you're joined and make a covenant before God, then you're joined together and no man can separate you. You are bound for life, and cannot divorce for any reason. You can find civil courts that will divorce you, and claim that you're free to remarry, but God says if you do, then you're committing adultery.

Romans 7:2-3 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.

It clearly says here that we are bound until death, with no exceptions, and to divorce and remarry for any reason is adultery. It then compares the importance of the law of marriage being unbreakable except by death, to Christ's death on the cross being necessary for us to be freed from the law, and joined to Him.

I Cor 7:39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

Matthew 19:3 Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?" 4And He answered and said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 5and said, 'FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH'? 6"So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." 7They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?" 8He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9"And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."

Many people misunderstand the exception clause that Jesus gives here regarding immorality or unchastity. What needs to be understood here, is that Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience in these verses, and Matthew is the "Jewish gospel." Most scholars agree that Matthew was directed towards Jews, more so than the other gospels. It has, by far, the most references to Jewish laws and traditions, which is critical in understanding the meaning of the "immorality" being discussed here. In Jewish marriage there was a betrothal period which was similar to an engagement except was more binding than that. They were pledged to be married, but the man could give her a writ of divorce during the betrothal, if he found her not to be a virgin. This is covered in Deut. 22:13-21.

This is the only “divorce” that is allowed anywhere in the Bible, and you'll notice that it is before the consummation of the marriage, or immediately after. Many people try to use the immorality clause to suggest that God tolerates divorce, but this was specific to the Jews, and only before the actual marriage.

There is no provision for gentiles to divorce ever. For us to divorce and remarry under any circumstance is adultery, period!

Response #1:  Thank you for your e-mail and your observations. Divorce and remarriage are certainly questions which occupy much of the attention of contemporary Christians. I always tell people what the Bible says that it is better not to get married in the first place (e.g., 1Cor.7:1, etc.). Since this is not always a realistic possibility, indeed, as you say divorce is something to be avoided. I hope that all Bible-believing Christians can at least agree on these points. Because the point to our lives is not being married or unmarried, but growing in Christ, preparing for whatever ministries God has called us to, and serving the Church of Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities until we are called home in sanctification and in truth.

But if the issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage were as cut and dried as many suggest, why would Paul, for example, take 40 verses in 1st Corinthians chapter seven to deal with them (more than twice the length of his discourse on the Lord's supper)? And this does not exhaust his comments on the topic which he also treats elsewhere (as indicated in your quotations), let alone all of the other biblical passages. This tells me right away that the subject is not "simple". If we wish to follow the Lord humbly and in truth, we have to be willing to delve deeply into everything His Word has to say, even when that is a painstaking and time-consuming experience. The absolute passages you cite, Romans 7:1-2 and 1st Corinthians 7:39, are in fact not phrased so as eliminate any and all other exceptions (and, indeed, death does constitute an exception to the general rule against remarriage, and that is a not unimportant point). For there are instances of justified divorce in the Bible, for example:

But if the unbelieving [spouse] leaves [you], let them leave. The brother or sister [concerned] is not bound (lit., "enslaved) in such cases. For [after all] God has called you [to be] in peace.
1st Corinthians 7:15-16

Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "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 NASB

An important case in point is one of the key passages you cite, Matthew 19:9 (along with Matt.5:32 and the other synoptic instances of our Lord's words on this subject). First of all, the exception of adultery contained therein, while it may possibly apply to betrothal as well, certainly does apply to consummated marriage. For in the context, Jesus is not talking to men who have issues with betrothal but with marriage. They ask, "is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?". Now if you want to say that they were only talking about betrothal (even though that makes no sense in the context), and that therefore Jesus' answer and exception deals only with betrothal, then we have nothing here at all which applies to consummated marriage per se! But in fact, no one hearing or reading this in the original Greek would assume from the verb apoluo that anything else but a normal divorce was in view (i.e., otherwise one would have to make that clear by specifying further). I am afraid that this logically faulty argument (which I have heard for many years) is one that has been adduced only because the exception of adultery that Jesus allows is uncomfortable for those who would have the matter be completely simple by taking the (erroneous) position that “divorce is never justified”.

So while I grant you that there are definite questions and concerns for believers who genuinely wish to know what the Bible has to say both about divorce and more especially remarriage, one cannot make the argument that there are no biblical grounds for divorce whatsoever:

But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife except for adultery and marries another commits adultery against her.
Matthew 19:9


Two further observations about this passage: 1) here we have an exception which not only justifies divorce but also allows remarriage, namely, unfaithfulness by the other party; 2) the man who divorces his wife is only guilty of adultery if and when he marries another woman and not even then if the exception applies. If Jesus were teaching no divorce under any circumstances, there would be no exception given. And the fact that an additional stricture is given here only against remarriage when the exception is not met means, ipso facto, that divorce is sometimes permissible even where there is no adultery (even if it is being discouraged as a regular practice), and that it is instead remarriage that is the problem (i.e., that is when and how “he commits adultery against her”; cf. Mk.10:11-12; Lk.16:18). The rich and powerful of Jesus' day were using their wealth and position to switch out their wives whenever it suited them, and in that place and time divorced women often found themselves in quite a fix, without resources, prospects of employment opportunities in the majority of case, making the act of unjustly divorcing someone you had merely “grown tired of” a particularly cruel and hard-hearted thing to do.

Thus, put in the context of Jesus' day Matthew 19:9 certainly makes a lot of sense. A woman in that society would be ruined if she were "put out" of the house at the whim of the man, and that was indeed a common and terrible occurrence in that time (and continues to be so in much of the non-Christian world). As Matthew is written to a Jewish audience, the possibility of the divorce being initiated by the woman is not even contemplated (although in the other synoptic gospels it is). God does "hate divorce", but a large part of the reason for that is seen in the passage above, namely, because in ancient Jewish society it was a devastating thing for the woman (and it is the woman's rights that are addressed both in the Matthew 19:9 passage as well as in Malachi 2:16). Therefore the primary purpose of Jesus' remarks is the protection of women from abuse, rather than to keep marriages together no matter what (and that is an important perspective to keep in mind when dealing with this issue). So while it is legitimate to get from this passage that divorce is no trivial thing to be undertaken lightly or for frivolous reasons, it is not legitimate to take from it that there must never be any divorce.

We should indeed avoid divorce. And we should only marry with extreme care (and in many cases shouldn't marry at all). But there are definitely times when staying married is far worse than a divorce (leaving aside the issue of remarriage).

To those who are married I give this command – and not I, but the Lord – for a woman not to separate from her husband. But if she does, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband . . . and for a husband not to divorce his wife.
1st Corinthians 7:10-11


Two observations about this passage: 1) since there is no mention of the exception (adultery) here, these must be the rules for all other circumstances. And in all "other circumstances" there are still times when a woman may indeed leave her husband and not be reconciled to him (though she is required to remain unmarried); 2) as one required to love his partner (Eph.5:33), the man has only the exception of unfaithfulness, but one thing that this passage and most others do not address directly, is the question of what to do when the other partner divorces or abandons you.

It may not be difficult for someone who is happily married to suggest to victims of unwanted divorce that their only future option is a single life, but I would certainly want to be very sure of my facts before doing so, and I cannot make that argument from scripture. None of us is perfect. We all need forgiveness. And there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. There are those who have erred earlier and have had pre-marital sex, and few can claim that they are innocent of mental adultery. Jesus told us that mental adultery is the same as overt adultery. Aren't we then "of one flesh" with those with whom we may have fornicated overtly or even mentally, even before an overt marriage (1Cor.6:16-17; cf. Matt.5:27-28)? So what right do we who have ever even indulged mental promiscuity have to marry anyone else? If we take this absolute standard, as it seems we must do if we are going to apply later such a standard to all marriage, who among us who is married can say that he or she is not guilty of compromise here? Of course if there were no forgiveness, where would any of us be, not just on the topic of sexuality? But if there is forgiveness for the one, then surely there must be forgiveness for the other (even if you were right on all counts). This is not a brief for libertinism – may it never be! But we are under grace, even as we must refrain from sin (Rom.6:1-2). How we judge in such matters is important, for we are apt to be judged by the same standard and have it doled out to us just as we have doled it out. And teachers are held to a higher standard.

In my view of what scripture teaches, saying that marriage is in practical terms inviolable under all circumstances does not square with all the scriptures on the subject. But since your point of view will doubtless contribute to less divorce, why should I disagree? Well, apart from the fact that the Word is the Word, such teaching has the potential to doing great damage to believers who, through no fault of their own and against their own will in some cases, find themselves divorced. And there is another problem as well (as is inevitably the case with misinterpretations of scripture, no matter how insignificant or well-intentioned the mistakes may seem). This "inviolable marriage under any circumstances" principle can make it seem that we, as the Bride of Christ, can never individually be divorced from our Lord the Bridegroom, no matter what we may do or how far down the road of unfaithfulness we may proceed. And that is most definitely not the case:

Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we persevere, we will also reign with Him. If we disown Him, He will also disown us; If we are faithless, He will remain faithful, for He cannot disown Himself.
2nd Timothy 2:11-13

Since our Lord can and will divorce us if we prove unfaithful to Him to the point of totally abandoning our faith and denying Him, it is surely unwise to suggest that the standard at the very least does not apply in marital relations (especially since this is precisely what Matthew 19:9 teaches on the fact of it).

Here are some links for further reading on divorce and remarriage (should you be interested in the details of my positions on the matter):

1) What does it mean in 1st Corinthians 7:14, "the unbelieving husband is sanctified"?

2) Divorce and Remarriage.

3) More Divorce and Remarriage

4) Marriage of Believers and Unbelievers

5) Feelings of Guilt about Remarriage

6) A Conversation about Divorce and Remarriage

I hope you will accept this e-mail in the spirit in which it was written, namely, of genuine concern for the precise truth of the Word of God and of deep concern about the ramifications of getting things wrong even to a small degree for the spiritual health of those who listen to what we have to say.

In Him who is the only truth, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob Luginbill

Question #2: 

You're misapplying a couple of verses regarding the Mosaic law in a way that causes them to contradict all of these other absolute verses. You should always take absolute verses to mean what they say, unless there is clear reason to know that they are not meant to be taken absolutely. These verses clearly are absolute, and it would be twisting God's Word to suggest that they don't mean what they clearly say. Jesus specifically said He was referring to the Mosaic Law in Matt. 19 (Deut.22:23ff. and Deut.24:1ff.), both of which passages are speaking about betrothal. The law says that if a marriage is consummated, and no immorality is found in the woman at that time, then " she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days." If he could divorce her for adultery, then it wouldn't say that he can't divorce her all his days, because adultery could occur at any time. He has one opportunity at the time of consummation, but after that, he is bound until death.

Response #2:

I don't understand how you can maintain that Deut.22:23ff. and Deut.24:1ff. refer to the same thing. Deut.22:22 clearly states that the subject is "a women pledged to be married" (Heb., me`orasha), whereas in the Deut.24:1 the subject is a woman whom a man takes "and marries" (Heb., ba'alah). The verb only applies to marriage, and Hebrew perfect tense expresses it as completed fact - this sentence is as clear in Hebrew as it is in the English translations. That this latter discussion is about marriage, not betrothal, is made clear in the following verses as well (i.e., she marries another man, then cannot come back to the first husband after her second divorce). Inasmuch as Matthew 19:8-9 is referring to Deut.24:1ff. as you concede, the exception given by Jesus must therefore refer to divorce and not betrothal. This would seem to be a fatal flaw in your argument. In this entire section, Jesus is responding to abuses of the Mosaic system of divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1-3 clearly is speaking of consummated marriage (i.e., "If a man takes a wife and becomes her husband" – there is no clearer way to say this!), and the exception that Jesus includes in Matthew 19:9 is a translation and deliberate explanation of the justification for divorce found in the Law. That is to say, the Greek phrase, epi porneia, "for sexual misconduct (i.e., adultery)" explains the somewhat more clouded Hebrew phrase in Deuteronomy 24:, 'erbhat dhabar, "the nakedness of a matter" (i.e., sexual misconduct / adultery). In all things obscene, Hebrew tends to use periphrasis in order not to say outright what is meant, and the hyper-legalistic generation of our Lord's day was using this diffidence to re-interpret Moses to mean anything that a husband wanted it to mean. Jesus' purpose in using this phrase in Matthew is indeed to explain to His Jewish audience that they have been bending the truth, and that only adultery of the other party allows a man to divorce his wife and remarry another.

In Deuteronomy 24:1 and following, there is no mention of betrothal. There is no mention of "consummation". In short, there is nothing in the text to suggest that the man who divorces his wife on account of an 'erbhat dhabar is only doing it or only allowed to do it in direct proximity to a marriage. Quite the contrary, the clause which connects the protasis to the apodosis begins in standard Hebrew narrative format with the phrase vehayah, or in KJV parlance, "and it came to pass". This phrase invariably refers to the passage of an indefinite amount of time. And that means, ipso facto, that the situation being described cannot be restricted to the wedding night. If that had been what Moses wanted to say, he would have had to (and would have) spelled it out. Indeed, the context, read in either English or Hebrew, does not indicate any such connection. Further, we see that the reason the second husband divorces his wife is merely that he "hates her". Clearly, he knew she was divorced, and didn't like her enough to stay married to her after the marriage (any length of time applies here as well). The requirement of the Law in both of these cases is not that the husband refrain from divorcing her, but that he give her a "bill of divorce" (and, of course, in this context the first husband is also prohibited from re-marrying her).

Might I suggest that our Lord's complaint about Moses' allowance of the "bill of divorce" because of "the hardness of your hearts" really only makes any true sense if Moses did allow a bill of divorce (Jesus says: "Moses permitted you to put away your wives"). This practice was abused (i.e., it began to be used for any subjective reason whatsoever), and our Lord Jesus is correcting the abuse by pointing out that only adultery is a valid basis for taking the extreme measure of divorce and then re-marrying. For "adultery against the divorced woman" only comes into play if the man remarries, so this is really the true nature of the problem. The real issue is dumping the old wife for the express purpose of moving on to a new wife, a horribly sinful act that did even more damage in the ancient world (because of the restricted roles of and economic opportunities for women, not to mention the stigma) than it does today.

In my observation and experience, people, even non-Christians, usually don't get divorced for the fun of it. Except in those cases where the person is indeed so shallow and sinful as to divorce so as to "move on" to someone else (or take some other sort of sinful advantage, money from the partner, for example), divorce is almost inevitably very painful for at least one of the parties, taken on reluctantly, and only because the relationship has truly become irreconcilable. Divorce under such conditions may not allow for remarriage in all cases, but it is not definitively prohibited, either by Moses (Deut.24:1ff.), or by our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt.19:8-9). Even in the epistles, while the initiation of divorce by the Bible believing Christian is prohibited under non "marriage-breaking" circumstances, there are clearly situations where divorce may occur (1Cor.7:11; 7:15; 7:27). What is always prohibited is the willful tossing aside of one's partner for one's own lustful interests and then acting upon those interests in re-marriage. This has implications for the exception Jesus gives. For we should understand by now that the Matt.19:8-9 exception, adultery, is directed not towards divorce (which is not being prohibited at all), but towards re-marriage.

As I say, I do respect your desire to support the sanctity of marriage, but in all matters we as Christian are bound to follow scripture, even when it disagrees with our point of view. I think that you need to allow that Jesus is indeed making an exception for adultery. Then I would be happy to continue this discussion on some of the other points you have raised.

In our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.

Bob L.

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