This is the first of two posts on the subject of divorce and re-marriage. More than ever these two issues are relevant given the reductionist view of marriage in our culture and the divorce rate in our country. Part 2 will compare Paul’s understanding with that of Jesus’, summarize the results, and offer possible implications.
The majority of these findings come from Divorce and Remarriage: Recovering the Biblical View (now updated and re-published), by William F. Luck. For an equally important treatment, refer to Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, by David Instone-Brewer. Also, sincere appreciation goes to my good friend Louis McBride who not only sat under Bill Luck at Moody Bible Institute, but helped me think deeply about much of this material.
Despite some teaching in churches today, this series suggests that both Jesus and Paul permitted divorce and re-marriage under certain conditions. The following brief study will address important questions that are not typically taken into account on a more traditional view and challenge that view where necessary. Advisement: Due to the sensitive nature of this topic, it is strongly suggested that prayerful and biblically responsible consideration be given to this study before reaching any conclusions.
Why Has Remarriage Traditionally Been Understood As Adultery?
Typically, prohibition against remarriage rests on two main arguments:
- Marriage is permanent.
- Divorce does not dissolve the original marriage, hence subsequent remarriages are adulterous.
It is important at the outset to define “marriage” and “adultery.” Marriage, at minimum, is a bilateral covenant; a contract or agreement between two persons to uphold their end of the covenant. It entails three bonds or unions between a man and a woman.
- Moral bond = the relationship of unconditional love and life-long commitment to the opposite partner. This is the metaphysical relationship between a man and woman. In Jewish culture it occurs at the betrothal stage. A biblical example would be Joseph who is said to want to divorce Mary while still pledged to be married (Mt. 1:18-19).
- Legal/Social bond = The public ceremony that was officiated by community elders/certified licensed officials.
- Sexual/One-flesh bond = This is the sexual union between man and woman. It is not some mystical union whereby the identity of one covenant member becomes lost in the other.
Adultery is marital unfaithfulness. This may or may not take the form of sexual unfaithfulness. Hence, there is sexual and non-sexual adultery. Physical abuse, for example, is a form of non-sexual adultery (see, Ex. 21:10 for essential responsibilities of the husband). Jer. 3:1-10 is an example of non-sexual adultery where Israel commits adultery against God by worshiping idols.
What Does “one flesh” Mean?
The expression, “one flesh” is used nowhere else in the Old Testament except Gen. 2:24. It is used in the New Testament in three places (Mt.19:5; 1 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 5:31).
- Mt. 19:5, 6 – Jesus quotes Gen. 2:24. He explains “one flesh” constitutes a social unit that ought not be broken. But, if the marriage ought not be broken, this implies that it could. It is possible for the bond, moral, legal, and physical, to be broken. Therefore, there is nothing intrinsically permanent to the marriage covenant itself. The permanence is one of intent, not of fact.
- 1 Cor. 6:16 – if “one flesh” is synonymous with the marriage bond, then how do we explain Paul’s use of it as a sexual bond outside of marriage? In this passage, “one flesh” was intended to be used to constitute the illegitimate physical union between a man and a woman, hence Paul’s command to “flee immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18). Being physically united to another without a commitment to that person is considered treason in God’s moral order.
- Eph. 5:31 – Paul cites Gen. 2:24 in the context of the Church’s relationship with Christ and the husband’s relationship with his wife. Just as Christ cares for his Church, so too the husband is to care for his wife. The union between the husband and wife is similar to the union between Christ and his Church, but it is not the same. For example, there is no explicit indication in the analogy regarding the duration of the union. Dissimilarities in the analogy include:
- The husband is not the savior of the wife
- The husband is not the sanctifier of the wife
- The union between Christ and the Church is unilateral (conditioned upon one party, namely, God), whereas the union between husband and wife is bilateral (conditioned upon two parties).
Therefore, an analogy should never be used to illustrate more than one point. In Ephesians 5, Paul is simply saying that the husband must sacrificially love his wife just as Christ sacrificially loved the Church. That Paul goes on to expound a bit on Christ and the Church is due to his high Christology. He’s not intending to teach more than one point to the husband.
Does “cleave” (NASB) or “united” (NIV) Imply Permanence?
Some (e.g., J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth, 1981 and Paul E. Steele and Charles C. Ryrie, Meant to Last, 1983) suggest this term, as used in the OT, implies permanence. However, consider the following:
- Regarding “cleaving”: The word is used of dirt clods sticking together in the rain (Job 38:38) and of Israel’s alliance with the people of Canaan (Josh. 23:12). In Job, the point is not to demonstrate the permanence of dirt clods but the mighty acts of God in designing weather patterns. So, it’s a major leap to go from mud to marriage! Joshua actually indicates that the alliance is not permanent. The context is prohibiting alliances with pagan nations. And the history of Israel clearly shows that this prohibition was not heeded. Did God see these alliances as permanent? Obviously not. The prophets, who are inspired by God, are continually calling Israel to break off such cleavings and return to God. Here is a case where cleaving is immoral and leaving is the order of the day!
- In Mt. 19:5, 6 – Jesus is stressing the importance of men keeping their end of the bargain in the marriage covenant. Jesus never said it was impossible for the covenant to be broken. He only addresses the morality of keeping the covenant, not its duration. That a marriage ought to be life-long is not the same as saying it is life-long.
- 1 Cor. 6:16 – Paul admonishes the Corinthian men to break off relationships with temple prostitutes, which necessarily presuppose a temporary relationship. Who, in their right psychological mind, would think of anyone being permanently bound to a sexual partner from their past? Although our therapeutic age may capatalize on such notions, there’s no biblical warrant for this whatsoever.
Is the Marriage Relationship Really Permanent?
If the marriage union entails some inseparable, mystical union between two souls that lasts indefinitely, then how do we explain Jesus’ teaching in Mk. 12:25 that the marriage union does not extend beyond the grave? Could it be that the marriage union was intended, by design, to be temporary? Life-long and not eternal?
What is lost in a marriage is not individuality but independence. Members of a Christian marriage covenant are two distinct individuals that make up a team or unit who have chosen to live dependently upon each other under the headship of Jesus Christ.
What About the “Certificate of Divorce” in Deuteronomy 24:1-4?
This passage is explaining an aspect of stealing. Here Moses is charging that the man who has stolen the woman’s dignity by illegitimately divorcing her does not have the right to have her back. This passage does not say:
- The woman cannot remarry another.
- The first husband cannot remarry someone else.
The divorce legislation of Deut. 24:1-4 falls within a larger pericope beginning at 23:15 and ending at 24:7, in which we find Moses’ explication on the 8th commandment (namely, prohibition against stealing). This is not to say that marriage partners are mere property or chattel, but more in the spirit of “belonging” (e.g., Song of Songs 2:16). It is possible, therefore, that 24:1-4 is explaining an aspect of stealing whereby the man who has stolen the woman’s dignity by illegitimately divorcing her does not have the right to have her back.
Deut. 24:4 could read “since she has been made to declare herself defiled.” Note the reflexive passive form of the Hebrew Hothpa’el, possibly meaning that the divorce legislation is a provision for the woman to remarry and she is not responsible for her own defilement. Naturally, the fact that the verb “defiled” is a hapax legomenon (one-time occurrence) doesn’t help with any type of dogmatic conclusion, but the Hothpa’el form with the once-only “defiled” is strange. Could it be that Moses went out of his way to make this verb unusual?
Practically speaking, although the stigma of defilement is upon the woman, she may very well be the innocent party in an unjustifiable divorce by the hardness of the man (much in the way that the stigma of a raped woman is more a reflection upon the rapist rather than upon her). Hence, the stigma of defilement (stolen dignity?) in Deut. 24:1-4 does not carry with it the burden of moral guilt upon the woman nor her subsequent remarriage. Therefore, the legislation of divorce in Deut. 24:1-4 could be seen as a provision for the innocent woman, wrongly divorced by her first husband, to remarry (This comports with 1 Cor. 7:15ff.).
Is There a Legitimate Biblical Example of Divorce?
In Ezra 9-10 we find a kind of spiritual apostasy of God’s Remnant who had intermarried with their pagan neighbors. Ezra, taking Shecaniah’s counsel, put all of Israel under oath to do “God’s will” (10:11) and separate themselves from their foreign (spiritually, that is) wives; the high-level principle being that intentional interfaith marriages compromise the believer’s walk and invites disaster into the kingdom of God (cf., perhaps 2 Cor. 6:14 for the corresponding NT application). Scripture does have at least one example that presents divorce as an act of obedience. This seriously complicates the equation of the doctrine of divorce and remarriage. In this passage we find that divorce is the morally proper corrective for spiritual apostasy. However, whether this is a precedent to follow is not clear and application of Ezra 9-10 is tenuous at best.
Jer. 3:1-10 records a different kind of adultery and divorce. God divorces “faithless Israel” due to her repeated spiritual idolatries, which is tantamount to moral adultery. Hence, Scripture speaks of adultery in a variety of ways: moral, physical, as well as sexual. Obviously, there was no sexual adultery between the Northern Kingdom and its “foreign gods” (v. 13). Rather there was a moral adultery involved, which invoked God’s discipline of divorce (v. 8). A spouse can be an adulterer(ess) without being physical with another (see, Mt. 5:28). While Ezra 9-10 (see above) is an instance of divorce as a form of obedience, Jeremiah demonstrates divorce as a form of discipline.
Part 2 asking “Is Paul’s Teaching Consistent with Jesus?” can be found here.