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    Divorce & Remarriage
    by Mike Sullivan

      "But I say unto you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason EXCEPT FORNICATION..." (MATTHEW 5:32; 19:9)

    When our Lord is recorded in Matt.5:32; 19:9 as saying, "except for 'porneia'" which is the Greek word for fornication, He is referring to fornication within the Jewish betrothal period.  This passage is too often misinterpreted to mean "adultery" within the consummated marriage state. To try and make "fornication" (Gk. porneia) and "adultery" (Gk. moicheia) have the same meaning is untenable, especially when both are used in the same verses (Matt.5:32; 15:19; 19:19; Mark 7:21, 1 Cor.6:9, Gal.5:19, Heb.13:4).  These two different words with two different meanings clearly describe two different sins. "In the environment in which Jesus worked and in which the Gospels were written, a very careful distinction was drawn between what was unchasity and what was adultery." (Abel Isaksson, Marriage And Ministry In The New Temple, p.132).  Furthermore, to interpret Jesus in Matthew 5:32 & 19:9 as giving grounds for divorce in the case of "adultery" contradicts Christ's teaching in Mk.10:1-12 & Lk.16:18 where divorce is NEVER  an option.  It would also contradict the teaching of Paul who claims to be giving Christ's own command for "no divorce", and does not mention any exceptions, let alone "adultery" (1 Cor.7:10-11,39)!

    The exegete should not expect that Mark and Luke would be so careless as to forget or neglect such important information (i.e. whether or not Jesus taught that "adultery" is grounds for divorce) in their gospels knowing that the audience of their day didn't have the convenience of reading Matthew's gospel along with theirs as we do today. They clearly understood Christ to be teaching that divorce is not God's will, "Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate" and that remarriage after an unfounded divorce results in adultery, "...Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery."  The reason Mark and Luke do not mention the exceptive clause is they were addressing a predominately gentile audience while Matthew was addressing a Jewish one where fornication during the betrothal period was treated just as seriously as adultery in marriage (see Deut.20:7; 22:20-21,23-24).

    For an illustration of what our Lord is referring to here in His reference to Gk. porneia or fornication during the betrothal period and how it relates to the Pharisees question regarding a "bill of divorce", one should examine Joseph's situation and the language used. "...Mary was betrothed to Joseph...Joseph...was minded to put her away" (same Gk. word aphiemi used by Paul to describe divorce in 1 Cor.7:11 and Matt.1:18-19).  Isaksson describes this practice in the O.T. and during Christ's earthly ministry like this:

      "The wedding of a virgin was to be celebrated on the fourth day of the week, so that the husband could at once bring any complaint before the court sessions held on the fifth day of the week about his wife's not having been a virgin, although he had taken her to wife on this condition and paid the higher price that had to be paid to get a virgin." (ibid. p.135)  "A man was not considered to have acted justly if he did not bring forward any complaints he might have about his wife's not having been a virgin.  He "was not to overlook his wife's not having been a virgin but was to accuse her in court and divorce her, if he wished to be regarded a just man." (ibid. p.137)  "...the betrothal meant that the marriage was legally valid.  The betrothed girl is called wife and if the husband wishes to be free of her, he must give her a bill of divorce." (ibid. p.137)  "A clause of the marriage contract has not been fulfilled, in that the girl was not a virgin, as the man was informed when the contract was drawn up and he paid for her the sum that had to be paid for a virgin. ...The husband is the party who has right on his side. He has fulfilled his obligations. The party who has acted unjustly is the girl's father, if he knew that his daughter was not a virgin but nevertheless asserted that she was and accepted as high a price for her as that which had to be paid for a virgin.  The girl had also committed a crime in "playing the harlot in her father's house" (Deut.22:21) (ibid. p.137).

    Joseph "being a just man" therefore probably was only being consistent with his historical culture and practicing that which Mary's son, the Son of God, permitted later in Matthew's gospel (Matt.5 &19).

    As demonstrated above, since betrothal in the O.T. and the time of Christ was the first part of the marriage contract and therefore made the marriage legally valid and BINDING, so much so that a "putting away" or bill of divorce was given, there is no reason why Christ wouldn't have reason to address it in the context of the Pharisees' question regarding divorce.  The text the Pharisees refer to and the "uncleanness" they debated about in Deut. 24:1, Christ addresses as fornication. "Uncleanness" here means disgrace, shame, or nakedness. This proves that the issue disapproved of by the husband was that of an extremely serious nature and not a trivial or general one as the Pharisees' liberal interpretation allotted for - "for every cause."  W.E. Best comments:

      "Therefore, the one exception given by Christ in Matthew 5 and 19 is the only acceptable ground for the bill of divorcement granted in Deuteronomy 24:1-4." (W.E.Best, Woman Man's Completion, p. 51) 

    I would agree with James Montgomery Boice when he wrote of Matt.5:32:

      "...although a man may divorce a woman immediately after marriage if he finds her not to be a virgin, (in which case he was allowed by the law to remarry and was not to be called an adulterer - Deut.24:1-4), he may not divorce her for any other cause. If he does, he forces her into a position in which she may be forced to become an adulteress by doing so." ..."Against this background it is evident that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 only refers to a case in which a bride or her family has deceived the husband. And it grants divorce in this case and in this case only." 

    This would be consistent with the context of Deut.24:1-4, and, as S.A. Kaufman points out, the context of Deut.24:1-4 that many have missed, falls within the 23:20-24:7 section which expands the eighth commandment: "Thou shall not steal."  The situation in Deut.24 was that the first husband was permitted to put away the woman because immediately after marriage he found out that she was not a virgin.  The parents, in effect had stolen money that was not rightfully theirs from the man due to the fact that he had paid the dowry price for a virgin.  He was thus permitted to divorce her without any financial consequences - he paid her no divorce money and most probably kept her dowry.

    The above interpretation is consistent with the apostolic teaching in the N.T. where Paul gives NO grounds for divorce in his epistles, let alone for "adultery".  


    A)  "Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband.  Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Romans 7:2-3)

    B)  "A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:39)

    We have noticed in our study of Polygamy (cf. my link Polygamy Is Not Sinful) and the O.T. that a man could marry more than one woman and not be charged with "adultery" and hence stoned, but according to the Scriptures, a woman could not marry more than one man (a practice called polyandry), and that if she were involved with another man, she was charged with adultery and stoned.  The reason the man is not mentioned by Paul in Rom.7:2-3 & 1 Cor.7:39 is because a man, according to the law could marry another woman while his first wife was still alive and not be guilty of adultery (Ex.21:10;  Lev.20:14;  Lev.18:17;  Deut.21:15-17; Deut.22:28-29; Deut.25:7-10). 

    In the matters of divorce and remarriage, it is Paul's pattern of writing in 1 Cor.7 to apply something to both the wife and the husband if it applies to both.  Both the wife and the husband are admonished not to divorce (1 Cor.7:10-11).  Both the husband and the wife are commanded not to divorce in the case that they are married to an unbeliever (vs.12-16).  But only the wife is told that she cannot be joined to another  as long as her husband is alive (vs.39).  Therefore, the Biblical position on remarriage would be the following:   If a woman gets divorced by her husband, she may not remarry another because she is bound to her first husband as long as he lives.  If a man is divorced by his wife, he may remarry another, but he must pray for his first wife's return and accept her back as a wife if she returns  (1 Cor.7:11).  If a man divorces his wife unjustly, he may not remarry another, for it would then be considered "adultery" (Mk.10:11).    

    The lack of understanding the lawful institution of polygamy has definitely muddied the issues surrounding remarriage today.  Let's, however, delve into the various views and interpretations of texts related to divorce and remarriage and see what we can glean in light of what we have already learned.   

      "But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart, a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.  But God has called us to peace" (1 Cor.7:15).

    Some have tried to use 1 Cor.7:15 as a proof-text to teach that remarriage is acceptable for the believer if "willful desertion" has occurred on the part of the unbelieving spouse. Out of poor exegesis, they oddly try and somehow tie 1 Cor.7:39 & Rom.7:2-3 to 1 Cor. 7:15 with the conclusion that the believer is now "free" to remarry and not "under bondage" to a life of singleness as they imagine the text must mean.  The problem with this misinterpretation is that "bondage" to a life of singleness and "freedom" to remarry isn't even Paul's point in 1 Cor.7:15. 

      "When Paul is speaking about the biblical-legal aspect of being "bound" to one's partner in marriage (or bound by a promise of marriage to one's betrothed as in 1 Cor. 7:27), he uses the verb deo (Rom. 7:2; 1 Cor. 7:39).  But he uses a different verb when he refers to the kind of duty or subjection (douloo) the believer is freed from in 1 Corinthians 7:15." (Heth, Bill, Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, IVP Publishers, p.112) 

    So, then, what is the "bondage" that the believer is "freed" from in 1 Cor.7:15?   

    If facing separation or divorce, the Christian in his or her seeking to be reconciled to the unbeliever, is not "under bondage" (vs.15) to change the unbeliever's mind about the divorce.  This freedom from bonds is related to the preceding chorizestho "let him separate" and means that the Christian is not under bondage:

      "to preserve the union through legal maneuvers or by pursuing the unwilling partner all over the Roman Empire.  The word enslave has to do with how the partners relate. Is the believer to function like a slave in relationship to the partner who is unwilling to maintain the marriage?  Paul answers, 'No!'  The word enslave is set in contrast with the words 'at peace.' Peace in the midst of a difficult situation is God's portion for a rejected Christian partner, not a new marriage.   Paul is simply saying in verse 15 that Christ's prohibition against divorce does not enslave the believer to maintain the union against the wishes of an unbelieving partner who insists on ending the marriage." (J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth, Bethany House Publishers, pp. 43-44) 

    The overly sensitive believer here (as opposed to some in Corinth at that time who possibly thought that they could divorce unbelievers, see vs. 12) should not feel fearful of our Lord's prohibition of divorce but lay hold of His peace knowing that he or she did all that they could possibly do. They are not to blame if they cannot reconcile the unbeliever back to them, rather the hardened, insistent unbeliever is.  Perhaps during this trying time the believer acted out of bitterness and strife by contesting the divorce or separation. He or she must avoid this and "live in peace".

    What if a faithful Christian woman
    has been deserted and divorced by her husband? 

    Paul's theology in the case that an unbelieving husband divorced his faithful Christian wife is consistent with what he had earlier stated, "let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband" (vs.11), and "A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord" (vs.39).   

    What if a faithful Christian man
    has been deserted and divorced by his wife?

    There is not one verse in the entire Bible that teaches that a man in this situation could not remarry another woman while his first wife was still alive. However, it would be wise to inform his potential second wife that should his first wife seek to be reconciled to him he is to accept her back (1 Cor.7:11).  If reconciliation is possible in this instance, he may be well-advised to relocate to a country where polygamy is lawful and thus, more accepted.  

      Now concerning virgins:  I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy.  I think that in view of the present distress it is well for a person to remain as he is.  Are you bound to a wife?  Do not seek to be free.  Are you free from a wife?  Do not seek marriage.  But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin.  Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that" ( 1 Cor. 7:25-28)

    Let's put on our "thinking caps" for these texts.  What I'm going to do here is simply cite the text again twice with parentheses describing how some interpret it, and then I'll do it once again to describe what I think Paul is teaching here. 

    Interpretation #1

      "Art thou bound unto a wife (are you married)?   Seek not to be loosed (don't seek a divorce).  Art thou loosed from a wife (are you divorced)?  Seek not a wife.  But and if thou (divorced man) marry (a second wife), thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned." (KJV)

    This interpretation usually teaches that if a Christian's (man or woman) spouse has committed adultery or abandoned them, they may not only divorce, but remarry.   This view sees Paul addressing two men in two different scenarios.  One apparently married, exhorted not to divorce, and the other apparently divorced, being exhorted that remarriage would not be a sin.  Teaching that a woman in this scenario can remarry while her first husband is still alive is a false interpretation of this text as we have seen in Rom. 7:2-3 & 1 Cor.7:11, 39.  It is true, however that a man may remarry while his first wife is still alive, under certain circumstances.  I don't believe, however that Paul is even addressing remarriage here as I will point out in interpretation #3.  

    Interpretation #2

    Some support the NIV translation - "Are you married?  Do not seek a divorce. (exhortation to the first individual - "married" )  Are you (different individual - "virgin") released from a wife or unmarried? (in a state of singleness or "virgin")  Do not look for a wife. (exhortation for the "virgin" to stay single) but if you (exhortation for male single "virgin") do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned."

    This interpretation sees the passage dealing with two kinds of individuals - "married" and "virgins" based on the context of verses 24-26:

      "Brethren, let every man ("married" or "Concerning virgins" - vs.25), wherein he is called, therein abide with God.  ... I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man ("married" or "virgin") to remain as he is." 

    This interpretation would argue:

      "The perfect tense of the verb 'released' refers not to freedom from marriage by the divorce of a spouse, but rather a state of freedom from matrimonial ties.  Paul is addressing his comments in verses 25-35 to unmarried persons, precisely virgins (7:25).  ...Paul's main point set forth in verse 25 is the principle of marital status quo. Whether you are married or single, the Apostle Paul says stay that way!  To argue that Paul is advocating the remarriage of divorced persons, and that this may be done without sin, is to violate the context of the passage and contradict the clear teaching of Paul elsewhere, and the teaching of Jesus in the gospels." (J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth, Bethany Publishers, p. 88)

    This interpretation has some exegetical warrant to it, but Laney is mistaken both   theologically and exegetically in tying the man to Rom.7:2-3; & 1 Cor.7:39 and, thus in concluding that a man who remarries would be guilty of   "sin"

    Interpretation #3

    "Art thou (betrothed 'virgin') bound (by a promise of marriage or engaged) unto a wife? (better translated 'woman' here) seek not to be loosed. (do not break off or seek to be released from your promise or engagement due to the present distress)  Art thou (single man - a 'virgin' who is not engaged) loosed (free of an obligation or promise to marry) from a wife? (woman) seek not a wife. (or woman)  But if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned.  Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you."

    I believe that this has the most exegetical warrant of all the interpretations I have seen.  According to the context of vs.25, Paul is now addressing only one kind of individual that is "virgins".  I don't see that he's addressing married and divorced individuals or married individuals and virgins.  There are only two kinds of virgins; engaged [1] virgins and single virgins, not already engaged. Paul now offers his advice to those virgins in verses 25-38.  The context and the Greek support this interpretation. The "thou" of verses 27-28 is referring to the "now concerning virgins" of vs.25. Since "virgin" in the rest of the N.T. is commonly used to refer to a betrothed woman (Lk.1:27; Matt.1:18,23; 25:1-13; 2 Cor.11:2), and gune Greek for "wife" or "woman" can just as easily be translated "of a betrothed woman" (see Strong's) this interpretation should be seen as the Biblical one as its theological interpretation does not violate Christ's and Paul's teachings.  It is supported by the Greek and is contextually congruent with verses immediately preceding and, as will now be demonstrated, the verses immediately following.

    Unfortunately, the betrothal debate is usually only considered by most exegetes in 1 Cor.7:36-38.  A lot of worthy theologians such as Hodge and Calvin interpreted this section as Paul giving advice to the father of a girl who is beyond the marriageable age. I once held this interpretation but after further study of the context of the passage and the Greek, I changed my position. Once again, since "virgin" in the rest of the N.T. is commonly referring to a betrothed woman (Lk.1:27; Matt.1:18,23; 25:1-13; 2 Cor.11:2) and huperakmos (Gk.) defined as "highly sexed" (see Liddell and Scott), Paul is advising the betrothed man to marry his virgin (fiancée) if he finds his passion hard to control during their engagement. This is consistent advice from Paul, even within this chapter, while giving advice to the widows, "But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn."  There is nothing in the context or the Greek to support that a father of a virgin is in view here. This is why the RSV and NIV translations read, "If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly, toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry - it is no sin." (RSV)  "If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to..." (NIV)

    This interpretation of Paul addressing the situation of a betrothed "virgin"   in verses 36-38 is consistent and fits with the previous context of betrothed "virgins" in this entire section (verses 25-38).  Paul has already spoken of the problems of the married and formerly married (widowed and divorced) in verses 1-24.  He then addresses this entire section (25-38) to the situations of engaged couples and singles who need counsel regarding the present distress. As William Heth points out:

      "In the rest of the N.T. 'virgin' is commonly used of a betrothed girl (Lk.1:27; Matt.1:18,23; 25:1-13; 2 Cor.11:2), and throughout verses 25-38 Paul addresses the men and his special notations are to the women (cf.vv.28b 34).  The question these engaged couples ask Paul is whether or not to fulfill their promises of marriage in view of the present distress.  So when Paul says in verse 28, 'But if you should marry, you have not sinned', he is not speaking to divorced individuals as a good number of Erasmians suppose.  He is speaking to those who are bound by a promise of marriage (=engaged) in verse 27.  It is to this group that Paul says, 'But if you should marry, you have not sinned.' (v. 28a)" (William Heth, Jesus And Divorce: The Problem with the Evangelical Consensus, Thomas Nelson Pub., p.147).

    Some men and women feel that they can remarry another even if they are guilty of putting away their first spouse.  They appeal to 2 Cor.5:17 and interpret it to mean "the old (sin of divorce) has gone...the new (forgiveness means I can marry again in 'the Lord,' now) has come."  No one is doubting that the Lord can forgive the sin of divorcing a spouse, but this does not mean that remarriage to a new partner, even though he or she may be a "Christian" would not then be considered adultery by our Lord.  In defense, I hear, "God didn't consider my former marriage valid since my partner and I weren't Christians."  Where does Scripture teach this?  It is simply not taught anywhere.  Some have pointed to the case of Herod marrying his brother's wife to prove that God does consider the validity of non-Christian marriages. God records Herodias as Philip's wife after her marriage to Herod.  Some would say that this example of the marriage of  two unsaved people shows that the idea that God has nothing to do with the marriages of nonbelievers is simply not true. In context, wasn't Christ contending with the Pharisees (unbelievers) over matters of divorce, remarriage, and adultery (Gk. moicheia)?  God's holy standard for marriage is binding upon all, Christian and non-Christian alike.  I hear, "that's not my God of love."  As Christians, we are not allowed for subjective human definitions of God's love to overturn the plain meaning of Scripture which should determine everyone's concept of His love.

    2 Cor.5:17, however can and does apply to the Christian in the above situation (having sinfully divorced his or her spouse) if he or she truly has ears to hear its message.   Regarding divorce and remarriage, as a new creation in Christ, you now have the divine resources necessary to obey our Lord's commandments as is fitting of Christ's true disciples.

    For a comment on this article, see Bennie Holbrook's, 1 Corinthians 7

    HEM Comments

    [1] That is to say, betrothed virgins as there was no concept of 'engagement' in the ancient world whereby a couple could break off a relationship if they felt they were incompatible. Betrothal in the ancient world was marriage without physical consummation.

    Author: MS

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