October 31

Synopsis: Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible

(The following is taken from my position paper on divorce and remarriage, a position that relies heavily on Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible by David Instone-Brewer.  My conclusions are offered in this post; a full treatment can and should be studied in Instone-Brewer’s scholarly work.)

1. Biblical Grounds for Divorce

Although opinions on what qualifies as legitimate reasons for divorce range from no grounds to divorce for just about any reason, the teaching of the Bible indicates that there are four legitimate grounds for divorce:

  1. adultery,
  2. desertion,
  3. emotional neglect, or
  4. material neglect.

Adultery.  Immorality is a legitimate basis for divorce based on Jesus’ teachings in Mt 5.32 and Mt 19.9.  In both of these statements by Christ, the word porneia is used; this will be discussed below.  Infidelity, combined with a lack of repentance by the sinning partner, allows – but does not require – the innocent spouse to divorce.

Desertion.  Paul does not recognize desertion as a legitimate method of divorce, a practice that was the only thing necessary to divorce in Greek culture.  But,  in 1 Cor 7.10-15, he does say that an irreversible separation creates a situation wherein divorce is allowed.  Christians are never to desert their spouses – not even unbelieving spouses – but are commanded to remain single if they do separate and always to seek reconciliation with their partner.  If desertion does happen to a believer, (whether deserted by a believer or an unbeliever), the remaining, believing partner is allowed to divorce since “God has called us to peace” (1 Cor 7.15).

This phrase is an interesting one.  Instone-Brewer explains:

It was used in pre-70 c.e. rabbinic Judaism to indicate that a pragmatic solution was necessary that did not necessarily conform with the legalistically correct procedure . . . Sometimes pragmatism has to rule over the strict application of law, for the sake of a peaceful society and in order that God’s will be done . . .

“Strictly speaking, deserted believers were not free to remarry under the laws of Scripture.  They were free to remarry only if they had a valid divorce based on one of the four grounds named in Scripture . . . Paul cut through this legal problem by declaring ‘God has called us in peace’ . . . Paul’s general principle is therefore that a man or woman who has been divorced against his or her will should be free to remarry.”

Paul, then, while not approving of desertion as a legitimate means of divorce, nevertheless grants to the deserted believer the right to remarry (since desertion was de facto divorce.  The application in our culture requires the additional step of obtaining a legal divorce, but the principle remains the same for the non-separating believer.

Emotional Neglect.  Emotional neglect as a basis for divorce was described previously. The rabbis did not directly or immediately allow for divorce in such situations, but instead began to financially punish the offending spouse in hopes of getting him or her to fulfill their responsibilities to their spouse.  A present-day application of this practice would involve church discipline and excommunication in such a situation before divorce would finally be allowed.

Material Neglect.  What is true for emotional neglect is also true for material neglect.  It is important to note, however, that emotional or material neglect implies deliberate, willful, malicious withholding of what the offending spouse has to give.

For all of the above justifications or allowances for divorce, it must be added that repentance on the part of the offending spouse eliminates the “right” of divorce.  Repentance here is understood in its biblical sense: it is not merely or primarily remorse and guilt, but is rather a deep conviction of the sinfulness of the behavior accompanied by a sincere and demonstrated desire to change.  Judas, for example, felt remorse (Gr., metamellomai).  This is merely an emotional change that he felt but does not reflect a change of choice or a change of heart.  Repentance (Gr., metanoia ), in contrast, involves a change of mind that manifests itself in a change of purpose.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology explains:

Judas recognized that Jesus had been wrongly condemned. He regretted his betrayal (Matt. 27:3), but he did not find the way to genuine repentance. We find the same differentiation in 2 Cor. 7:8-10. Paul did not regret that he had written a sharp letter to the Corinthians, for the sorrow caused to its recipients had led them to true repentance (metanoia), to an inner turning to God. There is no need to regret such a repentance, for it always serves only our salvation.”

2. The Meaning of Porneia 

The meaning of porneia, you will remember, is what prompted me to revisit this issue and make it the subject of this series.  The woman who wanted to make viewing pornography grounds for divorce did so without an understanding of the New Testament culture or the principles of biblical interpretation, also known as hermeneutics.

The hermeneutics used here, as described by Instone-Brewer, are these:

Scripture should be read through the filters of the language and culture to which it was first addressed.

“The morals and laws of Scripture should be compared with those of the cultures for which the Scripture was written.

“The primary meaning of Scripture is the plain sense, as it would be understood by an ordinary person in the culture for which it was written.”

Following these principles, porneia in Mt 5.32 and Mt 19.9 is simply another term for adultery.  Instone-Brewer explains:

Although moicheia [adultery] and porneia [immorality] are not necessarily synonymous, the two are clearly related in some way in this passage, and there is no indication that they are used to contrast each other . . . porneia is being used to allude to the OT phrase ‘indecent matter’ (Deu 24.1).  In Mt 5.32 Jesus appears to cite the OT text in exactly the same way as the Shammaites, using their reverse word order: ‘matter of indecency’ instead of indecent matter’ as the OT text.  Both the Hillelites and Shammaites understood this very general word ‘indecency’ as a reference to adultery . . .

“In the context of the Jewish debate about divorce, porneia could have no meaning other than adultery.”

3. Paul’s Exception

Does Paul include desertion by a believer in his statement or does he limit it to only those cases wherein a believer is deserted – and thus effectively divorced – by an unbeliever?  Some have limited it to the latter while others, such as Jay Adams, have sought to broaden the scope to include desertion by either a believer or an unbeliever.

Instone-Brewer disagrees with Adams’ reasoning at this point.  He believes that Adams “is using the NT as if it were a collection of laws that can be mixed and built upon as though they were a body of systematic legislation.  Nevertheless, he agrees with Adams’ conclusion: desertion by a spouse, whether a believer or not, legitimizes divorce.

Paul commands believers who separate to reconcile with their spouse; he does not anticipate believers refusing to do so.  If a Christian did refuse, however, he or she would face excommunication by the church; if there were still no repentance, then the desertion becomes irreversible and divorce is allowed.

4. Remarriage

Some have argued that remarriage is allowed only following the death of one’s spouse even if divorce occurred years before the death.  This is not consistent with the beliefs and practices in the first century, however, when remarriage was common.

Remarriage was allowed following any legitimate divorce.  Jesus did not hesitate to confront and correct the false teachings of the Pharisees on other matters, but He (and Paul) was silent concerning remarriage.  His silence may be construed as agreement.  Says Instone-Brewer:

[T]he inherent weakness of this position (that it relies on an argument from silence) does not necessarily make it less persuasive.

“This silence is not as total as one might think because the whole purpose of a Jewish divorce certificate is to allow the woman to remarry, and the only necessary wording of the certificate is ‘You are allowed to marry any man you wish.’  Therefore, when the Pharisees mention divorce certificates to Jesus, his silence concerning them is deafening.”

Similarly, Paul’s use of the phrase “not bound” reflects the language of the divorce certificate and implies that the innocent believer in a divorce situation is free to remarry.  For women, this meant that – for the first time in their lives – they were free to marry or not marry.

Remarriage, therefore, is assumed to be the right of any person who has divorced for valid, biblical reasons.

5.  New Testament Emphasis

In a paper devoted to divorce and remarriage, it is appropriate that it conclude with the focus and emphasis of the New Testament concerning this subject.  Two points are vital.

First, divorce is not desirable and should be avoided and restricted as much as possible.  As Instone-Brewer observes, “both Jesus and Paul emphasized that believers should hold marriages together, even at great cost to themselves.”  Marriage is an earthly depiction of a heavenly reality; as such, it should never be treated lightly or dismissed casually.

Second, the New Testament recognizes the presence of divorce but never encourages or promotes it.  It focuses on the believer keeping vows and not one what one should do if a spouse is disobedient.  Instone-Brewer concludes,

The overall emphasis of the NT calls believers to a very high view of marriage.  The believer is called to commit himself or herself totally to marriage, even to the point of putting up with repeated breaking of marriage vows by a weak partner.  If, however, the partner is ‘hard-hearted’ and does not genuinely repent and struggle to change one’s ways, the biblical remedy is divorce . . . Christian are called to suffer in marriage, if necessary, but they are also given a solution, if necessary.”