Until Death Do Us Part

by Stephen D. Giesen


The issue of divorce has been a long debated topic of discussion among biblical scholars. Most of the problems center around texts, which seem, at least on the onset, to be contradictory. The primary difficulty is centered around the two Matthean exception clauses (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) which seem to be at odds with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament, namely, that divorce, regardless the cause, leads to adultery[1] and that only by the death of the spouse is the marital covenant dissolved (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39). These biblical tensions have been harmonized by most evangelical Protestant circles, however, there are many well-respected scholars who find themselves on opposite sides of the divorce issue. William A. Heth asserts that the Erasmian view of divorce, which sees divorce as a viable alternative for the Christian in certain situations, "is by far the predominant view among contemporary evangelical scholars."[2] Nonetheless, there are many notable exceptions including: Charles C. Ryrie, James Montgomery Boice, G. Bromiley, J. Dwight Pentecost, and J. C. Laney.

It is the goal of this paper to determine the biblical teaching on divorce. It is the hope of this writer that this attempt will not be unnecessarily narrow or dogmatic, but rather faithful to the biblical text and honoring to God. This paper will analyze the various passages that are particularly germane to this discussion. Heth rightly concludes that "the rising problem of divorce and remarriage among evangelical Christians today is largely the result of misinformed counsel that arises out of an inadequate exegesis of the biblical data."[3] This inadequacy is largely spawned by the desire of many to come up with a view that will appease the masses. After all, with roughly one out of two marriages ending in divorce, who in their right mind would want to argue that divorce is an act which God utterly hates (Malachi 2:16). Far more appealing would be any suggestion that would provide an out-clause, making divorce a legitimate course of action.

Because of the controversial and sensitive nature of divorce, we will need to be careful to avoid allowing our emotions to influence our interpretation of Scripture. In other words, we need to let the biblical text speak for itself. It is the hope of this writer that this paper will provide a framework from which to properly understand God's perspective of the indissolubility of the marriage covenant and that more people might uphold the words of Christ, "What God has joined together, let man not separate."


Preliminary Remarks

Due to the unusually sensitive nature of this subject, it is important to make a few preliminary comments. First, we should make it profoundly clear that those who have succumbed to divorce are not unlike those of us who fall to the temptation of a multitude of other sins. The precious blood of our Lord and Savior is abundantly sufficient for any sin committed this side of glory. Thus, those of us who are inclined to view divorced people with condescending attitudes are to be repudiated.

Secondly, many will conclude that those who hold the view presented in this paper are unloving and fail to understand the grace of God. Many will argue that the view presented in this article is legalistic and simply hurtful. To such claims I must briefly respond. First, it is not unloving to desire to uphold the clear teachings of Scripture, even when such teachings demonstrate our fallenness and rebellious nature toward God. In fact, it is through such teachings that we can truly understand and appreciate the grace of God. There is not a sin that can be committed that God will refuse to forgive if we come to Him with a repentant heart.

Concerning the cry of legalism, we must understand what legalism means and how the term is often misused. Biblically speaking, legalism is the enforcement of the Law as a means for salvation, including its natural outworking, sanctification. A broader definition of legalism might include the addition of various codes of Christian practice that go beyond that which can be found in Scripture. For example, to suggest that it is a sin to drink alcoholic beverages is to go beyond the testimony and guidelines of Scripture. While drunkenness is displeasing to God, no where in Scripture can we find the command to reframe from alcoholic beverages that can, if abused, lead to intoxication. Thus, to set up standards in the Christian community that deny a believer the right to drink alcoholic beverages is legalism. On the other hand, in light of the fact that God condemns drunkenness, it is not legalism when the Christian community rebukes and/or disciplines believers who are guilty of drunkenness. In fact, we are commanded to do that very thing. In short, to hold and to enforce a standard which prohibits the believer from doing something that Scripture clearly allows is legalism. Such standards may be well founded and they may be wise standards to live by, but it must be up to the individual to decide whether he or she will commit to such a standard. On the other hand, it is a far cry from legalism to ask believers to live by the standards taught in Scripture. To live by the standards given in Scripture is called obedience, not legalism. To fail to live by the standards outlined in Scripture is sin. Furthermore, it remains a sin despite our efforts to water down and/or dismiss altogether the standards of God. With this in mind, let us examine the issue of divorce and determine how God views divorce.


Anti-Divorce Texts in the New Testament

There are seven passages in the New Testament that are particularly germane to this discussion. These texts include 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 39; Romans 7:24; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Matthew 5:31-32, and 19:3-9. From these passages, including the controversial Matthean passages, the only legitimate conclusion concerning divorce is that the marital covenant is binding until the death of a spouse. It will serve the purposes of this paper to first review these straightforward passages and to subsequently analyze the Matthean passages that are largely the source of the divorce controversy. Before we proceed with these key passages, it is important to note why a couple of other passages are being omitted.

The three main passages which I have chosen to omit because of time and space are Ezra 9-10, Jer. 3:8, and 1 Cor. 7:15. Ezra 10:9-11 was not included because the customary word for divorce is not used. Instead, the word ld=B* which means, "to separate," not "divorce," is used. Thus it would be precarious to use this passage as a proof text for either side of the argument.

Jeremiah 3:8 is a difficult passage which, in my estimation, metaphorically describes how God gave Israel a certificate of divorce. This passage must be understood metaphorically and cannot be taken literally without doing great injustices to the message of Scripture as a whole. An important rule in biblical interpretation is that we should never allow one difficult and/or obscure passage to throw into question the clear testimony of the Bible as a whole. In other words, when numerous passages clearly teach a certain principle, we must not allow one obscure passage to derail the many. With this in mind, it is probably best to omit Jeremiah 3:8 for the purposes of this discussion. This omission is further justified by the fact that many theologians on both sides of the debate concerning divorce agree that Jeremiah 3:8 is metaphorical in nature.

Lastly, 1 Cor. 7:15 (which states that when an unbeliever leaves the marital relationship, the remaining spouse is no longer bound to the departing "unbelieving" spouse) must be understood within its given context, namely sexual relations between husbands and wives. If one spouse leaves, they are not free to return at their convenience and insist on sexual relations (cf. 1 Cor. 7:3-7). If such a scenario were to develop, the abandoned spouse is not required to engage in sexual relations. Thus, Paul is in no way suggesting that the whims and/or maneuverings of unbelievers can dissolve the marital covenant. Paul's ultimate hope in such a situation is that the abandoned believer will not only influence reconciliation, but also, and more importantly, influence the unbelieving spouse to embrace Christ as Savior. Paul writes in the immediately following verses, "How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor. 7:15-16). Thus, not only is Paul not giving allowance for divorce, he is arguing that the abandoned party should do whatever they can to bring about horizontal and vertical reconciliation.

Now that we have briefly explained the omission of a few passages, we can turn to more explicit passages that teach the indissolubility of the marital covenant.

1 Corinthians 7:10-11

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. A husband must not divorce his wife (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is addressing questions in which the Corinthian church had written him for guidance (1 Cor. 7:1). It is in verse 10 that Paul directly deals with the issue of divorce. It is important to note that Paul attributes this teaching directly to the Lord, clearly stating that it does not originate with him. G.G. Findlay writes the following concerning this point:

The parenthesis, 'not I but the Lord' (it is His command, not mine), refers to the indissolubility of marriage to the authority of Christ . . . he (the apostle Paul) is laying down the law, and on Supreme authority . . . He cites Christ's words in distinction from his own (12), not as though his word was insufficient (see xi. 5ff. xiv. 34ff.), but inasmuch as this was a principle upon which 'the Lord' had pronounced categorically.[4]

There are some scholars who assert that Paul's teaching on divorce was more relaxed than that of Jesus', a concept generally referred to as the "Pauline privilege." The "Pauline privilege" is the teaching of both the Roman Catholic Church and the majority of evangelical Protestant churches and proclaims the privilege to remarry in instances where divorce was a legitimate course of action, for example, in cases of adultery. The fact of the matter is that arguments for the Pauline privilege are non-sequiturs. Furthermore, Paul attributes his teaching to the authority of the Lord rather than to himself.

It is also interesting to note that this passage teaches that neither husbands nor wives are to be divorced from the other. This would be in conflict with the general Palestinian Jewish practice that permitted only the husband to initiate divorce proceedings.[5] From this passage, we learn that Christ forbid either spouse to seek a divorce. If there were any exceptions to this teaching on divorce, it would seem that it would have been incumbent for Paul to include the exception in his teaching. Ryrie writes the following concerning this issue:

When the apostle Paul summarized the Lord's teaching concerning divorce, he did not include any exception to the total prohibition of divorce by Christ (1 Cor. 7:11). This seems to say that Christ taught the indissolubility of marriage and that whatever he meant by porneia was an uncommon meaning. Otherwise, Paul might have been expected to include a commonly understood exception to divorce in his summary.[6]

The fact that Paul, throughout his writings, never makes mention of an exception for divorce logically and necessarily leads us to conclude that any idea of an exception for divorce was foreign to Paul.

This passage also demonstrates the fact that though Paul clearly taught that divorce was unacceptable, he knew that man, in his fallen state and rebellious attitude toward God, would divorce. Therefore, Paul included instruction for those who rebel against the godly instituted covenant of marriage. More specifically, Paul taught that those who did divorce should not remarry. It is always the desire of God that reconciliation should take place. This teaching in no way diminishes the foundational principle that divorce was unacceptable.

1 Corinthians 7:39

A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:39).

From this passage it is obvious that the marriage covenant is binding as long as both spouses are living. W. Harold Mare writes the following concerning the concept of being "bound." "A woman is bound" (v.39, devdetai perfect tense) is a strong expression for the unbroken ties of marriage."[7] Plainly stated, only by the death of a spouse is the marriage contract terminated and in such a circumstance, the remaining spouse is free to marry another. Again, the belief that the marriage covenant can be terminated in certain situations, other than the death of a spouse, is foreign to Paul. And, again, if, as some expositors want to believe, 1 Corinthians 7:15 teaches the possibility of divorce in cases of abandonment, then we must be willing to embrace the inevitable conclusion that the Word of God contradicts itself and/or that the apostle Paul is profoundly inconsistent. This writer holds to the non-contradictory nature of Scripture and the profound consistency in the writings of Paul. The conscientious expositor must not rip 1 Corinthians 7:15 from its context, namely, sexual relations within the marital relationship. If one spouse leaves and then makes demands, the abandoned spouse is not bound to fulfill sexual relations as prescribed in 7:3-7.

Romans 7:1-3

Do you not know, brothers, for I am speaking to men who know the law, that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man" (Rom. 7:1-3).

Thus, Paul states the law, as it is, to those who were well familiar with the law. He makes no mention of any exceptions for divorce. Instead, Paul provides a reaffirmation of that which is taught in 1 Corinthians 7:39, namely, that death and only death ends obligation. Paul goes on to write:

So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God (v.4).

Only through death is the sinner freed from the bondage of the law. That death is through our identification with Christ in His substitutionary death on the cross. Christ's death and the subsequent resurrection freed man from the bondage and penalty of the law. Similarly, the death of a spouse frees the surviving spouse from the bondage of the marital relationship. Just as the believer is now entitled to a new relationship with Christ, the widow or widower is entitled to a new relationship with another, though they are to belong to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:39).

Interestingly, if a certificate of divorce were all that was necessary to free a spouse from the marital covenant, it would seem to follow that Jesus did not have to die. Instead, God only needed to supply the believer with a certificate that would terminate their relationship with the Law, and then the believer would be freed from the bondage of the Law. It was, however, necessary for Jesus to die in order to free us from our relationship with the Law, just as it is necessary for a spouse to die if the marital relationship is to be dissolved. To suggest that the marital covenant can be dissolved for any reason other than the death of a spouse is to demean the work of Christ on the cross.

Though Romans 7:1-3 is not a one for one analogy, it does have an important correlation. Everett F. Harrison provides the following comments with respect to this illustration:

The opening word 'so' indicates that illustration is now giving way to application . . . Note that in the case under consideration three essential statements are made: a woman is married to a man; the man dies; then the women is free to be married to another. In the application three statements likewise appear or can be readily inferred: the readers have a binding relation to the law; they have died to the law; and they are now free to be joined to another, even the risen Lord. A glance at these two triadic propositions shows that the parallel breaks down at the second item, for the law, which is assumed master or husband in the application, is not represented as dying, since the readers are said to have died to the law. Paul avoids saying that the law died, something that is never affirmed in Scripture, though the law had a certain course to run (Gal. 3:19). All he is concerned with is the continuing emphasis already made in chapter 6, that death ends obligation[8] (emphasis mine).

If there were exceptions to the indissolubility of the marriage contract, it would seem peculiar that Paul would use this illustration for such a profoundly important theological doctrine. One might quite naturally suggest that just as there were exceptions to the issue of divorce, there must likewise be exceptions to the necessity of sharing in the death of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, to suggest that the marriage contract could be terminated by some other means than the death of a spouse is to also throw into question the security of the believer's salvation, a biblical truth taught throughout Scripture. The marriage covenant between a man and a woman has its corollary in the marriage of the Church to the Lord. John J. Pilch writes the following concerning this matter:

The author of Ephesians repeats the sentiments of Genesis 2 on the indissolubility of marriage and terms it a great mystery 'into Christ and into the Church.' He establishes an analogy: the Church is Christ's flesh and body; the woman is man's flesh, body. Christ loves, cherishes, and nourishes the woman, as he does himself. If a man and a woman live together in marriage according to what this analogy suggests, then the relationship of Christ and Church as one entity - head and body together - is made visible, rendered concrete, true sacrament in the human relationship. The man and woman act out, as it were, the Christ-Church relationship. Because people can see this, they can believe what it says of Christ.[9]

Similarly, James Montgomery Boice writes:

That is why Jesus is portrayed to us in the Bible as the great bridegroom and husband of the church. It is why we who believe on Him are portrayed as His bride. How are we going to communicate this greatest of all relationships if we who are Christians do not demonstrate it in our marriages? On the other hand, if we do demonstrate it there, then the world around will have a real-life illustration of how God works toward us in Christ to bring us to faith and save us from our sins.[10]

This analogy of the indissolubility of the marriage covenant demonstrates the importance of the husband/wife relationship. Marriage is God's object lesson of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The relationship between Christ and the Church and the relationship between a man and his wife are permanent.

It is also helpful to note that the true believer's infidelity to the Lord and/or to their spouse does not result in the loss of salvation and/or the termination of the marital covenant respectively.

The standard of marriage is total fidelity and this regardless of the actions of the other partner. In other words, the standard for God's people is to be the love of God for Israel, which is a love in spite of infidelity, or the love of Christ for His Church, which is the love of one who loves us in spite of our unfaithfulness or our running away.[11]

In summation, Romans 7:1-4 is an excellent passage for demonstrating the indissolubility of the marital covenant.

Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18

Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 further demonstrate Jesus' hard stand against divorce. "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery" (Mk. 10:11-12). Similarly, Luke writes in Luke 16:18, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery." In other words, to get married a second time while the spouse of the first marriage is still living amounts to adultery. Mark's and Luke's account clearly state that anyone who divorces their spouse and marries another commits adultery. If in fact a divorce truly constituted a termination of the marital covenant, then it could not be said that remarriage results in adultery. The fact of the matter is that divorce has no validity in the eyes of God and this is why remarriage results in adultery. Thus divorce from a consummated marriage is biblically prohibited and remarriage is further prohibited because it results in adultery.

It is helpful to note that Jesus' comments on divorce are in response to the questions the Pharisees were putting forth concerning divorce (Mk. 10:2-12). Jesus states the following in verse 9, "Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate." Thus, we again find confirmation that marriage is for life, or as the familiar marriage vow states, "until death do us part."

Heth writes the following insightful comments with respect to New Testament passages concerning divorce:

It cannot be assumed that Mark's or Luke's or even Paul's readers understood the Erasmian interpretation of the Matthean exception phrases in the early stages of the transmission of Jesus' teaching. One can only assume that these other NT writers intended to communicate to their readers precisely what they wrote. That the other evangelists assumed the implicit operation of Matthew's exception phrase (and a very particular interpretation of how that exception was to operate), in addition to what they clearly recorded in their accounts, is not the proper approach to the synoptic differences in the divorce sayings. The exegetical option of a divorce for a particular reason with the right to also remarry is not even remotely hinted at by Mark, Luke, or Paul.[12]

Ryrie insightfully suggests that the inclusion of the exception clause in Matthew's gospel can only be explained as appropriate in light of the fact of the Jewish makeup of the audience that would have originally read the gospel.[13] In other words, because of the common practice of the betrothal among Jews, the matter of unfaithfulness during the betrothal period would have been particularly apropos to Matthew's readers. Such would not have been case with Markan or Lukan readership.

It is a common argument that Mark and Luke's absolute prohibitions of divorce are merely a general law of marriage and Matthew's account is a more complete account listing the exception clause. Though this assertion maintains a high view of Scripture (i.e., Scripture does not contradict itself for it is God breathed and therefore infallible and inerrant), which is important for many biblical scholars, it is biblically unwarranted and is the result of eisegesis. Mark and Lukeís strong statements concerning remarriage become meaningless and contradictory if the marital covenant can be dissolved by any means other than the death of a spouse.


The Matthean Exception Clause

The primary question raised in the Matthean passages is the apparent exception to what is otherwise a complete New Testament prohibition against divorce. The exception, namely, in cases of porneiva [porneiva], appears in both of the Matthean passages but is not found in Mark or Luke's gospel or in any of the writings of Paul. The question at hand is what did Matthew mean by this exception.

The Meaning of the Exception Clause

A considerable amount of attention has been given to the meaning of porneiva Jesus states in Matthew 5:31-32,

It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness (porneia), causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

It is important to reiterate that the reason it is adultery for someone to marry a divorced person is the fact that the divorce is invalid in the eyes of God. In other words, there was a failure to understand the indissolubility of the "one flesh" relationship that occurs at the consummation of a marriage.

The Meaning of Porneiva

The NIV translators chose to render the term porneiva rather ambiguously as "unfaithfulness," and this might actually be the best translation. From Matthew 5:31-32, and its parallel in Matthew 19:9, the point of confusion centers on the exception clause, "except for porneiva." The following are the principle views concerning the term porneiva: (1) some suggest that Jesus used porneiva as a synonym for adultery, (2) some suggest that the term porneiva refers to illegitimate marriages within prohibited degrees of kinship (Leviticus 18:6-18), (3) some suggest that porneiva refers to a persistent unrepentant lifestyle of sexual unfaithfulness, and (4) some suggest that the term porneiva refers to a sexual offense that could occur during the betrothal period when a Jewish man and woman were considered married but had not yet consummated their marriage with sexual intercourse. If during this period the woman was found pregnant and/or guilty of infidelity (as was Mary; 1:18-19), a divorce could occur in order to break the contract.[14]

In some sense, all four views have merit and none of them in and of themselves solve the problem at hand. The term in New Testament times had a rather broad scope of possible definitions including: (1) adultery, (2) incest, (3) sodomy, (4) unlawful marriage, and (5) sexual intercourse in general. From the context of Matthew 5:31-32, the rendering of porneiva as "unfaithfulness," or a least some type of sexual misconduct seems to logically follow. The real point of contention is whether such unfaithfulness occurs during the betrothal period, or after the marriage had been consummated. If during the betrothal period, then Jesus is in no way teaching that people can divorce after a marriage has been consummated. On the other hand, if Jesus is talking about a course of action that is legitimate after a marriage is consummated, then He did indeed teach that the marriage covenant could be terminated.

Though some, notably Charles Ryrie, hold to the argument that porneiva refers to the problem of marital incest, it is probably a less viable solution to the problem than arguments for a more broad understanding for porneiva which occurs during the betrothal period. One good example where divorce was considered without the cause of marital incest is that of Mary and Joseph.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together [i.e., during the betrothal period and before sexual union has occurred], she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly (Matt. 1:18-19).

From this passage we know that Joseph was considering a divorce due to apparent sexual misconduct by Mary during the betrothal period. Thus, as history can demonstrate, the problem of incest was not at issue, but rather unfaithfulness during the betrothal period.

The Betrothal Period

According to Jewish tradition, it was required that a marriage be preceded by a betrothal agreement. Everett Ferguson writes the following:

A father's pledge of his daughter to a prospective bridegroom was formal with witnesses on both sides and her dowry agreed upon . . . The marriage was a contract between families. It was effected in two stages: the betrothal (or "acquisition" of the bride) and the wedding proper (taking the bride into the husband's home). The betrothal had the legal force of marriage and could be broken only by divorce (cf. Matt. 1:18-19). It was accomplished by the bridegroom paying the bride-price (or part of it) or delivering a deed. The customary written contract (ketubah) included the husbandís duties to his wife and the sum due her in the event of a divorce or his death.[15]

Thus, the very legal nature of the betrothal period can be seen. Though the couple was viewed as husband and wife, with attendant responsibilities, the marriage was not actualized until the two were united in sexual relations, generally some twelve or more months later. This waiting period allowed the husband to determine if the bride was with child and thus helped in determining her faithfulness before and during the betrothal period. Ryrie writes:

The betrothal view builds on the fact that in Judaism a betrothed or engaged couple was considered "husband and wife." Jewish betrothal was a legal contract that could only be broken by formal divorce or by death. If the betrothed proved unfaithful during the period of the betrothal or was discovered on the first night not to be a virgin, then the contract could be broken. This is why Joseph was going to divorce Mary when he discovered that she was pregnant (Matt. 1:19).[16]

It is very important to note that the betrothed couple was considered husband and wife despite the fact that they had not technically consummated the marriage. Thus, they could legitimately be called husband and wife despite the fact that the process of the marriage had not come to complete fruition. This is why Joseph could legitimately consider divorcing Mary. In fact, the only reason Joseph could have divorced Mary was because they were still in the betrothal stage. Furthermore, this is why Jesus could allow for the exception of "unfaithfulness" in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:10-11. In these respective passages, divorce meant the termination of the betrothal period, all of which would occur before the consummation of the marriage. In a sense, it was a termination of the engagement period, yet at the same time it was appropriate to call the termination a divorce. Alfred Isaksson appropriately states that:

. . . this is actually not a divorce, but it was a matter of canceling an unfulfilled contract of sale, because one of the parties had tricked the other as to the nature of the goods, when the price was fixed.[17]

Thus, the intent of Jesus' exception was to protect the man from being unduly put in the position where he could not remarry. Because the marriage would not have been consummated if the woman was found to have been unfaithful during the betrothal period, the man was free to divorce and/or terminate the engagement/betrothal and marry someone else.


Context and Background of the Exception

The context and historical background of the Matthean passages play a critical role in understanding the meaning of the exception clause. For our purposes, Matthew 19 will provide us with the best resources for furthering our understanding of the Matthean exception clause. In verse 3 we learn that some of the "Pharisees came to test Him. They asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?'" Ryrie writes the following concerning the Pharisaical line of questioning:

The Hillel-Shammai debate was certainly in the minds of the Pharisees when they asked the Lord if a Jew could divorce his wife for any cause (Matt. 19:3). The school of Hillel interpreted the words rb*D` tw^r+u# [something indecent] in Deuteronomy 24:1 more leniently by disjoining the words and making them read 'uncleanness, or anything else.' Naturally this interpretation, like the evangelical Protestant view today, enjoyed more popularity than that advanced by the more strict school of Shammai, which allowed for divorce only for some immodesty, shamelessness, lewdness, or adultery. By asking the Lord to take sides on this question, the Pharisees hoped to lessen his popularity with the people, whichever side he took.[18]

Ryrie's above suggestion, with respect to motive, might well be the case, however, it is also possible that the Pharisees had something far more devious in mind. More specifically, it is very likely that the Pharisees wished to see the head of Jesus removed in similar fashion to that of John the Baptist. Shepard writes the following concerning this possible motive:

. . . knowing already what Jesus thought about such questions, they wished to bring Him again into direct conflict with Herod Antipas. That wicked ruler was living with Herodias in open adultery. John had denounced their sin and lost his own head. If they could get Jesus to denounce openly this Herod and the wicked Herodias, they might succeed in doing away with Him soon. They had worked that plan successfully in John's case, and that right at the height of his ministerial success. This would be even better than to push Jesus into controversy with one of the Rabbinical schools. They therefore raise the question of divorce in its current form, as reported by Matthew: "Is it lawful for a man to put his wife away for every cause?"[19]

Thus, at a minimum, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to become alienated from a portion of the populace and at the greater extreme, they wanted Jesus' head removed.

Jesus' response to the Pharisaical line of questioning, namely, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" (Matt. 19:3), is of great importance in understanding the divorce texts.

Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Matt. 19:4-6).

It is first interesting to note that Jesus' response, "Haven't you read," was a direct rebuke concerning their ignorance on a subject they should have well known in light of their official positions as guardians and interpreters. More important is Jesus' ensuing comments about which Edersheim writes the following:

. . . the Lord appealed straight to the highest authority, God's institution of marriage. He, Who at the beginning . . . had made them male and female, had in the marriage relation, "joined them together," to the breaking of every other, even the nearest, relationship, to be "one flesh" - that is, to a union which was unity. Such was the fact of God's ordering. It followed, that they were one - and what God had willed to be one, man might not put asunder.[20]

This passage also recalls the account of the creation of man. The words "for this reason" (Matt. 19:5 and Gen. 2:24) imply that God had made them male and female with the purpose that they might be united in marriage. D.A. Carson writes the following concerning this phrase:

The words "for this reason" in Genesis 2:24 refer to Adam's perception that the woman was "bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh" because she had been made from him and for him, i.e., the man and the woman were in the deepest sense "related." The same thing is implied in Genesis 1:27, i.e., the "one flesh" in marriage between a man and a woman is a reenactment of and testimony to the very structure of humanity as God created it. . . . Jesus dealt with the sanctity of marriage by focusing on the God-ordained unity of the couple. . . and it is impossible to go further back than creation for the responsibilities of mankind. If marriage is grounded in creation, in the way God has made us, then it cannot be reduced to a merely covenantal relationship that breaks down when the covenantal promises are broken (contra David Atkinson, To Have and to Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce [London: Collins, 1979], esp. pp. 114ff).[21]

Thus, in some sense, marriage is a reunion that, according to some, results in the making of man again a complete whole.[22] William H. Willimon writes:

Far from being a subservient after thought, the woman is the often-neglected half of the male's incomplete image of God. Separation is sin because it is a violation of this inherent, unifying purpose. Good Jew that he was, Jesus was not able to conceive that a man and a woman could be joined and made "one flesh" in marriage and sexual union and then be separated. That union brings about an ontological transformation, a creation of a new entity that cannot be dissolved through Moses' certificate of divorce.[23]

This brings us to the important metaphysical reality that is brought about in the marriage covenant, namely, the one-flesh relationship between husband and wife.

The Meaning of "One Flesh"

C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch write the following concerning the "one flesh" relationship recorded in Genesis 2:24:

They are the words of Moses, written to bring out the truth embodied in the fact recorded as a divinely appointed result, to exhibit marriage as the deepest corporeal and spiritual unity of man and woman, and to hold up monogamy before the eyes of the people of Israel as the form of marriage ordained by God.[24]

Thus, we must conclude that the new entity created at the consummation of a marriage is one that ontologically cannot be dissolved. Though man, in his rebellion to the statutes of God, divorces according to processes implemented by Moses, it must be understood that God does not accept the institution of divorce. The very idea of "one flesh" being divided is ontologically impossible.

Jesus' initial response to the Pharisees explicitly demonstrates His position on divorce, namely, it is an unacceptable alternative and is antithetical to the "one flesh" unity created by God in the God ordained covenant of marriage. It is interesting to note that even if a divorce should occur, the "one flesh" relationship is not severed and this is why remarriage is disallowed. Only by death is the "one flesh" relationship broken. Ryrie writes:

As marriage was originally planned there was no provision for ending it except by death. This concept was behind the Lord's answer to the Pharisees in Matt. 19:4-6 where he appeals to Gen. 2:24 as the basis of his teaching that marriage is indissoluble.[25]

This teaching set Christ apart from both the liberal school of thought of the Hillelites and the conservative school of thought of the Shammaites. Furthermore, this teaching by Christ elicited the Pharisaical response in Matthew 19:7, "Why then," they asked "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"


Moses' Certificate of Divorce

Jesus' response is particularly important in understanding the teaching on marriage and divorce.

Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way in the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, commits adultery" (Matt. 19:8-9).

The Lord's response did not deal with the particulars of Deuteronomy 24 at all, but rather with God's original intention for marriage and with the action which could result in one or the other party being involved in committing adultery. Ryrie appropriately writes, "The Pharisees were preoccupied with establishing grounds for divorce (and doing the same today is similar to Pharisaism); our Lord was concerned about the indissolubility of marriage."[26]

Because Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is often referred to in discussion concerning divorce, it is perhaps appropriate to briefly comment on this passage.


Deuteronomy 24:1-4

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her away from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land of the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance (Deut. 24:1-4).

It is important to notice that this passage only recognizes that divorce was being practiced, but it never prescribes it.[27] In other words, the above passage is descriptive, not prescriptive, with respect to the act of divorce. Heth appropriately writes:

The first thing to keep in mind about this passage is that it is not really focusing on divorce (as the conservative Shammai and liberal Hillel later thought), but on remarriage after divorce. It is important to point out, as does P. Craigie, that . . . strictly speaking, the legislation relates only to particular cases of remarriage; the protasis [vv. 1-3] contains incidental information about remarriage and divorce, but does not specifically legislate on those matters. The verses do not legislate divorce, but treat it as a practice already known, . . ."[28]

Heth insightfully states that

those who understand biblical case law agree that verses 1-3 reflect an ancient Near Eastern divorce that existed long before Moses arrived on the scene. This practice did not originate with Moses or Yahweh . . . Deuteronomy 24:1-4 did not alter God's original plan for marriage. It simply provides recourse and direction where God's original plan for the permanence of marriage has not been followed.[29]

Heth also points out that the regulation legislated in this passage is grounded upon the continuing existence of the "one flesh" union mentioned in Genesis 2:24. Divorces in the Mosaic economy did not actually result in the dissolution of the marriage bond. As J.D.M. Derrett rightly notes, "Where the Jewish law went wrong was in the failure to perceive that the one flesh persisted after divorce."[30] Again, it is important to re-emphasize that the only reason a second marriage after divorce was considered adultery was that the first marriage was still binding in the sight of God. The "one flesh" entity created at the consummation of a marriage is indissoluble and as long as both spouses are living, divorce is not recognized by God. In fact the very idea of divorce is repugnant to God. The Lord states quite plainly, "I hate divorce" (Mal. 2:16).

It should also be noted that in Deuteronomy 22:19 it is written, ". . . he must not divorce her as long as he lives." Similarly in Deuteronomy 22:29, "He must never divorce her as long as he lives." Thus, Moses commented on and knew the importance of marital indissolubility. Though he makes concessions for divorce in Deuteronomy 24, it was never his intent to prescribe a means by where someone could get a divorce sanctioned by God.

Furthermore, it is absurd to think that God lowered His standards of holiness in order to appease sinful mankind. It is hard to imagine that God would say something to the effect: "Because of mans sinfulness and hard-heartedness, I will lower my eternal standards concerning marriage and allow divorce if man will at least sign the dotted line on a bill of divorce." God's holy standards are enduring and there are no scriptural incidents where God lowers his standards for mankind. He makes provision for forgiveness through the Lord Jesus Christ, but this does not change the fact that sin is sin.


Further Reflection in Matthew

Another argument, from the critical Matthean passage, for the indissolubility of the marriage covenant is found in Matthew 19:10. More specifically, the response of the disciples in Matthew 19:10 conclusively demonstrates that Jesus' teaching on divorce was far more strict than that of the most conservative view of the school of Shammai.

Matthew writes, "The disciples said to Him, 'if this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry'" (Matt. 19:10). This response by the Pharisees is particularly important to note. The disciples reply to the teaching of Jesus is one of great amazement and bewilderment. This bewilderment is a major confirmation that the disciples did not take Jesus to mean that divorce was a legitimate action in cases of adultery. If that had been the case, Jesus would simply have been in agreement with the conservative school of Shammai and the disciples would not have responded in bewilderment. Clearly, what Jesus was teaching was understood to have been far more strict than that even of the school of Shammai. J. Dwight Pentecost appropriately writes the following concerning the disciples reaction to Jesus' teaching on divorce:

Clearly the disciples saw no possibility of obtaining a divorce with divine approval after marriage had been completed. Because the disciples recognized the low state of society and since it was utterly repugnant to them to be inseparably united to a faithless wife, they concluded it was best not to marry at all. Such a conclusion would not have been drawn if they had understood Christ to permit divorce after marriage.[31]

It is very difficult to explain the disciplesí response to Jesus' teaching unless it is understood as a reaction to a teaching that was far more strict than they were accustomed. Thus, the disciplesí response further demonstrates that Jesus taught the indissolubility of the marriage covenant.

Lastly, Jesus' own argument would have been inconsistent if it meant that there was an exception for divorce of a consummated marriage as opposed to the termination of the betrothal contract. In other words, Jesus' own scriptural argumentation is antithetical to the exception clause. In verse 6 Jesus affirms that man is not to separate what God has joined into one. As previously suggested, this union was the reunion of that which God had originally formed. Thus, for Jesus to allude to the creation account and the divine action that causes male and female to become "one flesh" in marriage and then to affirm a situation that allows divorce is contradictory. That Jesus did indeed so regard marriage, namely, as an indissoluble union, a union until death, a divine institution which must not be tampered with, is manifestly demonstrated by the force of His argument.



It has been shown from a number of New Testament passages that the marriage covenant is indissoluble and that a God sanctioned divorce from a consummated marriage is a foreign concept to Christ, Paul, or any of the New Testament writers. The Matthean passages have been the catalyst for much debate with respect to the issue of divorce, however, when the Matthean passages are analyzed in their historical and literary context, one should conclude that the exception clause is only related to that time frame surrounding the betrothal period. Christ utterly repudiated both the Hillel and Shammai schools of thought concerning divorce. The only possibility of divorce allowed by Christ was the termination of a marriage contract during the Jewish betrothal period before the marriage has been consummated. This seems to be the only valid conclusion when all texts are considered. Jesus' argumentation leads to the conclusion argued in this paper, namely, the marriage covenant is indissoluble except in the case of death. Additionally, the disciplesí reaction to Jesus' teaching further demonstrates that Jesus' teaching was far more uncompromising than that which they were previously familiar. Lastly, from all of the New Testament passages, it is clear that an exception for divorce from a consummated marriage was foreign to Matthew, Mark, Luke, the apostle Paul, and Jesus.

As strict as the scriptural teaching on divorce is, we must never forget that we have a loving and forgiving God. The blood of Jesus Christ is infinitely sufficient for the sins we commit in this life. We live in an imperfect world that is bountifully corrupt and we must recognize that there will always be divorce, as well as multitudes of other sins, this side of glory. Because God is perfect and holy, it follows that His standards are high and difficult for man, in his fallen state, to meet. Though God's standards are difficult to meet, all things are possible with God. God has not and cannot, by virtue of His nature, lower his standards of holiness. Therefore, as believers, we must pursue the righteousness and holiness to which we have been called. As the body of Christ, we must not grow lax on the biblical teachings on divorce. As Willimon suggests, "There will always be a note of judgement in the church's dealings with divorce. If it were not there, we run the risk of dishonesty and unfaithfulness." [32] At the same time, we must be accepting and loving to those who have fallen to this unfortunate sin.

Lastly, it is comforting to know that despite the fact that some Christians will divorce and further sin by remarrying, God, in His abounding grace and love, seems to often bless the remarriage. This fact is not a license to divorce and/or remarry, but is rather a further demonstration of God's grace! Marriage is sacred in the sense that its existence and rightness are beyond human manipulation. Thus, may we tenaciously cling to Jesus' words, "What God has joined together, let man not separate" (Matt. 19:6).


1.      What if a woman finds herself in a marriage where the husband beats her and she fears serious, if not fatal, injury? Certainly God would want the woman to get a divorce and escape from such a horrible and life threatening marriage.

It is always interesting that despite the fact that only death dissolves a marital covenant, many people continue to consider various exceptions. While the above scenario is a very serious and all too common one, the Bible does not waver in its position. Only death ends the marital covenant. On the other hand, you are right, God would not have a woman stay in an environment where she is being beaten. In such a case, the biblical thing to do is to separate. Any spouse that is the victim of abuse should escape harms way. Separation, however, is different from divorce in that no steps are taken to dissolve the marriage. Instead, separation is maintained until the abusive spouse seeks counsel and/or professional treatment for their inappropriate behavior. This is a time when both spouses need love and emotional support from not only a trained counselor, but also from their marital partners. Only when all parties are convinced that it would be safe for the wife to return to her husband should such steps be taken. We must remember that God always desires reconciliation. This is why divorce is utterly unacceptable to Him.

2.      What if the husband or wife is abusing the children, either physically, mentally, sexually, or otherwise?

Here again, as profoundly unacceptable and disturbing such behavior is, divorce is not the answer. Getting the children out of that environment is obviously the first step. Then answers and counsel should be sought in an attempt to help an individual that would behave in such a manner. But again, even in this horrible case scenario, reconciliation and a reunited family is what would please God the most. It may take years before the pieces can be put back together, but love and commitment to one another must not cease.

3.      What if a couple has separated and either the wife or the husband is maliciously bringing about financial ruin for the other spouse. If the only legal way to put an end to such behavior is a divorce, would not God understand the need and therefore allow for a divorce?

No! If such destructive behavior is going to be stopped, it must be stopped by some other means than divorce. Though most people seem to rely on their financial prowess more than God, the fact remains that God is the source of our hope and our refuge, not our bank accounts. Again, reconciliation and modified behavior is what should be sought, not divorce.


As might be deduced by now, despite the horrific stories that can be cited to argue for the need for divorce, divorce is never an option in the eyes of God. Separation might well be in order, but it should always be done so with the hope of future reconciliation. Only death ends obligation.

1 The conclusion that divorce leads to adultery assumes remarriage of the parties involved.

[2] William A. Heth, "Another Look at the Erasmian View of Divorce and Remarriage," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society vol. 25 num. 3 (September 1982): 263.

[3] William Heth, "An Analysis and Critique of the Evangelical Protestant View of Divorce and Remarriage," Master of Theology Thesis (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1982), 4.

[4] G.G. Findlay, "St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians," in The Expositors Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Printing Company, reprinted 1990), 825.

[5] Craig S. Keener, The Bible Background Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 467. Keener notes that in contrast to Jewish Palestinian practice, in Roman society, either partner could divorce the other.

[6] Charles C. Ryrie, "Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage," Grace Theological Journal vol. 3 num. 2 (Fall 1982); 183.

[7] W. Harold Mare, "1 Corinthians" in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, general ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 237.

[8] Everett F. Harrison, "Romans," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, general ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 76.

[9] John J. Pilch, "Marriage in the Lord," The Bible Today num. 102 (April 1979): 2012.


[10] James Montgomery Boice, Genesis: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 116.

[11] James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 139.

[12] Heth, "Another Look at the Erasmian View of Divorce and Remarriage," 266.

[13] Ryrie, "Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage," 187.

[14] Louis A. Barbieri, "Matthew," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (USA: Victor Books, 1983), 62.

[15] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, second ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 66-68.

[16] Charles C. Ryrie, "Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage," Grace Theological Journal vol. 3 num. 2 (Fall 1982): 187.

[17] Abel Isaksson, Marriage and Ministry, cited in Charles Ryrie's "Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage," Grace Theological Journal vol. 3 num. 2 (Fall 1992); 187.

[18] Ryrie, "Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage," 183.

[19] J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), 452.

[20] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. 2 (New York: Longmans, Green, 1912), 332-333.

[21] D.A. Carson, "Matthew," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, general ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 412.

[22] Problems with this suggestion are obvious. In other words, if marriage makes men and women whole again, then we have to hold to the biblically unwarranted position that asserts that people who are not married are less than complete, lacking the full image of God in which they were created.

[23] William H. Willimon, "The Risk of Divorce," The Christian Century (June 20-27, 1970): 668.

[24] C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprinted 1991), 90.

[25] Ryrie, "Divorce and Remarriage," 179.

[26] Ibid., 184.

[27] Ibid., 179.

[28] William Heth, "An Analysis and Critique of the Evangelical Protestant View of Divorce and Remarriage," 52.

[29] William Heth, Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, ed. by H. Wayne House (Downers Grove, Illinois, 1990), 58.

[30] J.D.M. Derrett, The Law in the New Testament (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1923), 377, cited in William A. Heth, "An Analysis and Critique of the Evangelical Protestant View of Divorce and Remarriage," (Master of Theology Thesis: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1982), 52.

[31] J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 358.

[32] Willimon, "The Risk of Divorce," 666.

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