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What the Bible says about....

Divorce and remarriage in the
Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament)

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Overview:

There are relatively few Bible verses which deal with divorce. They have been interpreted by Jewish and Christian theologians down through the years as:

bullet Allowing men to divorce their wives for various reasons.

bullet Prohibiting divorce except for adultery, or desertion.

bullet Totally forbidding divorce.

In particular, the Christian Scriptures contain conflicting passages on divorce: some suggest that no divorce is allowed for any reasons; others allow it in the case of adultery. Some imply that only the husband can initiate a divorce; others that the wife can as well.

Some Christian theologians promote non-Biblical grounds for divorce, including relationship breakdown as evidenced by separation for a defined period, or spousal violence. Others teach that the institution of marriage is more important than the people involved, and that divorce should not be permitted. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that a valid marriage is permanent. However, they offer grounds for anullment in which a valid marriage is determined to have never taken place.

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Divorce in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

bullet Matthew 5:31-32: Adultery the only valid grounds for divorce: By the first century CE, the law of divorce based on Deuteronomy 24:1 was being interpreted in many ways: the Shammai school taught that a man could only divorce his wife if she committed adultery; the Hillel school taught that the man could divorce her if he found anything disagreeable in her. Jesus here is making his views known; he agrees with the Shammai interpretation. He says that a wife's adultery is the only valid grounds for divorce. If a man divorces his wife for any other reason, then:

bullet He is forcing her to commit adultery with another man, presumably because she would have to seek the protection of another man in order to survive.

bullet If she marries another man, he is committing adultery.

Jesus does not consider here whether an innocent party in a divorce is allowed to remarry:

"It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."

bullet Matthew 19:3-9: Adultery the only valid grounds for divorce: Jesus returns to the question of grounds for divorce and confirms his stance in Matthew 5. He says that God intended men and women to marry permanently; divorce is not in God's plan. But Moses realized that, in their fallen state, the ancient Israelites needed a temporary civil law which permitted divorce on grounds of adultery. Some liberal theologians speculate that Jesus originally taught that marriage was permanent, and divorce not permitted for any reason. By the time that Matthew was written, the early church had found this standard untenable and had added adultery as the only grounds for divorce. The author of Matthew then put this message into Jesus' words:
"The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."

bullet Mark 10:2-12: There are no valid grounds for divorce, not even divorce: Jesus here implies that all marriages are permanent; divorce is not allowed for any reason. He also implies that either the husband or the wife can initiate a divorce. This does not agree with the historical record; in 1st century CE Palestine, only a husband could end a marriage. Some liberal theologians speculate that the gospel was written by a member of a Gentile Christian church outside of Palestine in the Greco-Roman world where a woman did have the right to divorce her husband. So, the author wrote from his own experience in Pagan territory and put words into Jesus' mouth to reflect Pagan customs. When Matthew later extracted this story from Mark, he modified the text to bring it into accordance with Jewish practice. 

"And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him...And he saith unto them, 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."

bullet Luke 16:18: Remarriage is not permitted: Jesus here condemns remarriage of either the husband or the wife. Both the wife's former and new husband are committing adultery. This passage might be interpreted as allowing divorce as long as neither couple remarries; i.e. it would allow marital separation.
"Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery."

bullet 1 Corinthians 7:10-17: Remarriage is permitted, in some circumstances: Paul apparently wrote this passage in response to some Christians who were married to other Christians and were considering separating from their spouses and leading a celibate life. Paul personally recommends that couples stay together. If they separate, the woman should remain unmarried. Paul makes no ruling on whether the husband should be allowed to remarry after a marital separation. Paul then deals with inter-faith marriages, in which a Christian is married to a Pagan. The Christian spouse should not initiate a separation or divorce; however they should allow their non-Christian spouse to separate if they they wish. and if the Christian is left, he or she is no longer "under bondage." They are apparently free to remarry.
"And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches."

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See also a companion essay on divorce passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)

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References:

The following information sources give additional information on the beliefs of religious leaders on divorce. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. J. Carl Laney, "The Divorce Myth," Bethany House, (1981). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. H.W. House, Ed., "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian views," InterVarsity Press, (1990), Page 25. Read reviews or order this book
  3. "Divorce in Moral Theology," New Advent, at: http://www.newadvent.org/
  4. J.B. Lightfoot, trans., "The Shepherd of Hermas," at: http://wesley.nnu.edu/
  5. "The Shepherd of Hermas," Monachos.net, at: http://www.monachos.net/
  6. "Christians Are More Likely to Experience Divorce Than Are Non-Christians," Barna Research Ltd., at: http://www.barna.org/

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Copyright © 1998 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-MAY-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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