Posted by: mattcolvin | April 20, 2013

Divorce: Misunderstandings and History


In the last two meetings via Skype of my men’s Bible study, I have discussed Jesus’ divorce and remarriage halakha; I gave my opinion that Jesus does not permit remarriage after divorce at all, hard though that may seem.

Some further thoughts about that discussion:

  • I am quite aware that this view of mine involves me in nearly impossible pastoral difficulties in our society of frequent premarital sex, adultery, and easy divorce. Yet I would remind everyone that for 1900 years, the church taught something very close to, and just as hard as, my view. While in practice, Roman Catholic annulment may be granted too easily, in theory it is only a recognition that a true marriage never really existed between two persons – it is not the dissolution of a marriage that really exists. We may hold that the halakha of Christendom during most of its existence has been mistaken or unbiblical, but I do not think we can call it impossible or unloving.
  • In many ways, the case for a permissive divorce regime by appeal to the pitiable cases of innocent victims of adultery or spousal abuse – “Why would God punish her twice?” – relies upon an individualistic perspective. Individualism has always led to permissive, liberal divorce regimes. In the 19th century, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was an abusive husband who wrote in letters to a friend that he had twice raped his wife. When he wanted to divorce her so that he could marry someone else, he had to come to liberal and individualistic America and get the divorce in Indiana’s courts. So an individualistic approach is a very American one, and it is ingrained in our thinking. Yet a moment’s reflection should show us that Jesus does not want us to think about the question in terms of individuals: “So then, they are no longer two, but one flesh.” (Mt. 19:6) If a marriage has taken place, then we are dealing with a new, two-headed creature, not with two individuals.
  • I have read, and appreciate, Greg Bahnsen’s theses on divorce. The conclusion of that paper strongly resembles (though it does not exactly match) Ray (now Bishop) Sutton’s book Second Chance in that both would permit divorce and remarriage for any victim of spousal sins that were capital crimes in the OT, or that strike at the essence of marriage.
    In theory, I agree with this article’s approach to the question: a close, careful examination of Jesus’ and Paul’s words should yield a divorce halakha that is consistent both internally (with itself) and externally with the rest of the New Testament. But in practice, Bahnsen’s misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 7 leads him to define porneia wrongly, as including abandonment. This then opens the door for him to appeal to metaphorical passages of the OT in order to include other non-sexual sins. The result is, in effect, a broad divorce halakha. It is not “any cause” divorce: Bahnsen and Sutton limit the grounds for divorce to only certain sins. It also is not “no fault” divorce: grounds must be adduced. But in practice, the acceptable grounds are so expansive that it is actually quicker and easier to list the circumstances under which divorce is not permitted than to enumerate the conditions under which it is. To wit, on Bahnsen’s view, you may divorce your spouse unless he/she has been perfectly pure sexually during the marriage, and has always given you the required provisions of shelter, raiment, and marital affection. Thus, abandonment, physical abuse, and many other non-sexual sins are oddly included under the heading of “porneia”. This expansion stretches the meaning of that Greek word beyond the breaking point. But doesn’t Bahnsen demonstrate that the label porneia is applied to Israel’s national idolatry, political apostasy, and other non-sexual sins? Yes, but we have no right to take such metaphorical meanings and read them into a legal context discussing actual marriage between men and women. Unlike the hieros gamos of the Babylonians, YHWH’s “marriage” to Israel was never a matter of actual sexual intercourse. Rather, sexuality was a metaphor for non-sexual national behavior. Bahnsen cannot use this pattern of metaphor as proof that non-sexual sins constitute non-metaphorical, legally actionable porneia.

Thus, my proposal is that Paul and Jesus are actually completely at one in their divorce halakha: they do not allow it at all. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 permits believers to allow an unbelieving spouse to leave if he is unwilling to continue after the believer’s conversion, but this permission is not a permission to divorce, but a recognition that the marriage has been ended by the “death” and new creation of the believer. The porneia exception in Matthew 19 is an exception for porneia in a narrow, technical sense: namely, incest. That is, where a marriage was illegal in the first place, it must be dissolved. But nothing done after the marriage can legitimate divorce.

You can read my old entry about David Daube’s brilliant interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7 here. It clears up all the old, intractable puzzles that have bedeviled Christian interpreters over the centuries. It solves them by appeal to Jewish background. It makes better sense of the Greek, and results in satisfying “aftershocks” as other odd locutions suddenly make sense.

The result is a strict divorce halakha. This is hard to swallow, to be sure. But it needs to be. All looser divorce halakhoth are defeated by two main objections. In my view, neither of these objections can possibly be answered by Christian defenders of divorce. They are:

  • There is no way that such a divorce halakha would have elicited the reaction of shocked dismay that is recorded from Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 19:10. Try it out. Jesus: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for if she has been unfaithful, or abandoned him, or assaulted him, or refuses to have sex with him, or abuses the kids, causes her to commit adultery.” What would the disciples have said? I think they would have replied with something like this: “Um, OK, that’s kind of strict, but at least we know there’s a way out if things get really bad.” But what we actually have recorded contains none of those exceptions, and evokes a quite different reaction: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” No divorce halakha acceptable to modern North American churches could possibly have produced this dismayed reaction from the disciples of Jesus. Therefore, they cannot be what Jesus taught.
  • Let us suppose, argumenti gratia, that Jesus and Paul taught something like Bahnsen’s halakha. We will then be up against an insoluble historical puzzle: How, then, can we explain the origin of the early Church’s uniform prohibition against remarriage during the lifetime of the divorced spouse? How did the early church overthrow a more permissive halakha in favor of a stricter one? Note especially that such a declension from permission into rigor could not take place except by overthrowing the judicial precedents of the apostolic age. It would not have been enough for the Church to lose sight of the true meaning of a few texts of Scripture. No, they would have needed to overcome the protests of persons whose divorces and subsequent marriages had received apostolic approval: “But the apostle Paul approved of my divorce!” This puzzle is formally parallel to N.T. Wright’s argument for the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection: If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the rise of the post-Easter church is historically inexplicable. Just so, if the apostles and Jesus permitted divorce and remarriage on the grounds acceptable to the modern church, there is no way that a stricter halakha could come about within 100 years of the apostles.
  • There are, to be sure, plenty of instances where the Church has erred, sometimes for hundreds of years. So it is with icons, clerical celibacy, communion in one kind, and prohibition of paedocommunion. But in all of these cases, we can demonstrate the genesis of the error and find evidence of the original, correct practice before the error’s introduction. In all these cases, there is record of an outcry, resistance, and pockets of continued opposition to the erroneous practice. But in the case of the early church’s prohibition of divorce, we find none of these things. I conclude that the early Church’s strict prohibition of remarriage after divorce was of apostolic and dominical institution.

Lest I be misunderstood, I recognize that we are in a social and ecclesiastical pickle. Many years of lax divorce in North America have filled churches with millions of people who Scripture says are committing adultery by continuing in their illicit new marriages. I do not pretend to know what to do about this. In that respect, this blog entry – and that is all it is, a blog entry – is extremely unpastoral. I can only suggest that if I am anywhere near the truth, the Church will need to move to a stricter divorce halakha, and this move cannot be made in an instant.



  1. Great discussion. So, basically, you pretty much work through it no matter what! I think Ray Sutton’s book still has much wisdom, but I think I agree on this point.

    • Well, I should clarify that in my opinion it is necessary for an abused spouse to flee from the house of an abusive spouse, and take refuge elsewhere. The question is whether such a victim is free to remarry. It’s to that latter question that I think the answer is “no”.

      • So a spouse could walk away (or run away) in the case of severe abuse. What if the abusive spouse is unrepentant and declared an unbeliever or pagan? Can she marry, or does she remain bound to a state of separated singleness, praying for herself to be so gifted, and for her abusive spouse to quickly (and convincingly) repent or die?

      • Frank,

        Paul is pretty clear in 1 Corinthians 7 that the most important consideration in the case you consider is “Will this help me win my abusive, unbelieving husband for Christ?”, not, “Will this let me have sex and a chance at a happy marriage again?”

        Also, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that apostasy from Christ brings about a legal and spiritual death and resurrection that would make the apostate a new person and end the marriage. That happens by baptism, but not by apostasy.

      • The chapter starts with a perfect solution to the temptation of sexual immorality. The exchange of authority over each other’s body is a two-way street, and if one spouse remains safely blocks away and deprived sexually, it’s OK to find a new spouse to come together with. Not all (or even most) have Paul’s gift. It’s better to marry than burn with passion and no self-control. I think the wife in verse 10 leaves on improper grounds and so must remain unmarried or reconciled to her husband. Then Paul includes even the scenario when the spouse isn’t a believer: still, do not leave even for that reason! But the unbeliever _is_ free to leave and thus unbind the believer from marriage. The appeal in verse 16 about possibly saving the unbelieving spouse is made to the believing spouse before and/or after the unbelieving spouse leaves. The believing spouse is free (if not encouraged) to attempt to win-over the unbelieving spouse yet also free to eventually recognize that return and reconciliation won’t happen, taking into account either a new gift of singleness or an OK to marry without guilt and in the Lord.

      • But I follow your thought.

  2. “The porneia exception in Matthew 19 is an exception for porneia in a narrow, technical sense: namely, incest. That is, where a marriage was illegal in the first place, it must be dissolved. But nothing done after the marriage can legitimate divorce.”

    How in Matthew 19 is the contextual meaning of porneia that narrow—only incestuous sex within an illegal “marriage”—that it excludes sexual relations (adultery) with others beyond a legal spouse? Do you mean primarily and especially but not exclusively incest when you wrote: “namely, incest”?

    Are you and David Daube saying that incest between Christians—Christians having “no relations from before”* conversion—is only incest and illegal when it flouts the perceptions or consciences of weak or pagan neighbors? I’m confused why conversion could do away with sexual/marital relation proscriptions but not, say, financial prescriptions of grandchildren to widows (1 Timothy 5:4). Does anyone think Paul would commend or even condone if not condemn the idea that a single child or grandchild could marry the widow…in any society?


  3. Frank, I’m sorry to have taken so long to answer these questions.

    1. How is porneia so narrowly defined here? The operative phrase is “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Incestuous unions (and other non-unions, such as homosexual “marriage” or the woman “marrying” an amusement park ride) are not things which “God hath joined together”. Therefore they may be put asunder by men.

    2. “Are you and David Daube saying that incest between Christians—Christians having “no relations from before”* conversion—is only incest and illegal when it flouts the perceptions or consciences of weak or pagan neighbors?” Daube is saying that. He says that Paul, like the Rabbis, was concerned not to give the impression that Christianity was a “lighter sanctity” – that is, pagans should not see conversion as a way to get divorced, or as a way to marry someone they were forbidden from marrying as a pagan.

    Am I also saying that? I’m not so sure. I agree with Daube that the Corinthians thought that conversion freed them to marry someone who was within forbidden degrees prior to the conversion. That is absolutely the best explanation of their pride (“puffed up”) in the sin. I agree with you that it is troubling to imagine that Paul agrees with the Corinthians about this.

    Nonetheless, it IS formally parallel with some of Paul’s other judgments: for instance, eating meat sacrificed to idols should be avoided “because of the other man’s conscience”, even though we know that an idol is nothing. So I am willing to entertain Daube’s position even though I am not sure I buy it completely.

  4. Truly insightful. Thanks a lot.

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