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DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE

BELIEF 1: THE BIBLE FORBIDS BOTH

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Variety of Bible-based beliefs:

We are faced with a dilemma:

bulletVarious Christian groups -- conservative Protestants, liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics have reached different beliefs about under which conditions the Bible permits divorce, if any.
bulletEven those groups who interpret the Bible as permitting divorce may or may not allow remarriage.
bulletEach of the authors and webmasters who has written on these topics seem to conclude that their belief alone is the correct interpretation of the Bible.

The main positions are:

  1. Neither divorce nor remarriage are allowed -- described below. (A conservative Protestant view)
  2. Divorce is OK, but not remarriage. (A second conservative Protestant view)
  3. Divorce is OK in cases of adultery or desertion; remarriage is OK. (A conservative/mainline Protestant view)
  4. Divorce is OK for many reasons; remarriage is OK. (A mainline/liberal Protestant view)
  5. Divorce is impossible, unless the marriage never existed. (Roman Catholic)
  6. Divorce is OK in cases of marriage breakdown; remarriage is OK. (Religious liberal and secular view.)

This essay describes the first position: that the Bible forbids divorce and remarriage under all circumstances. This is a common viewpoint of Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christian denominations. Some terminate the memberships of members when they divorce. Other congregations limit the positions that divorced persons can hold in the church.

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Key passages from the Hebrew Scriptures:

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages relating to divorce and remarriage:

bulletGenesis 2:24: Marriage is permanent: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." The word translated as "cleave" is a translation of the Hebrew word "dabaq" which means to make a permanent alliance with another person. It is used elsewhere in the Bible in this context: Joshua 23:12, Ruth 1:14, and 2 Samuel 20:2. In its noun form, the word refers to soldering two pieces of metal together: i.e. making a permanent joint. Some theologians have suggested that this term refers to permanent actions -- those that cannot be undone. Thus, the passage implies that divorce is forbidden.
bulletDeuteronomy 22:13-19 Divorce prohibited if the a husband accuses the wife of not being a virgin: "If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: And the damsel's father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him; And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days." If a man accuses his wife of not being a virgin when she married him, and she is able to prove that she was a virgin, then he had to pay her father 100 shekels of silver, and was prohibited from ever divorcing her. The passage continues, by saying that if she cannot prove her virginity, that she was stoned to death. Interestingly enough, this passage allows a husband to arrange the murder of his wife in certain circumstances, and thus obtain a divorce through her death.
bulletDeuteronomy 22:28-29 Divorce not allowed for seducers of virgins: "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days." A man who engages in sexual intercourse with a virgin, and subsequently marries her, would never be permitted to divorce her.
bulletDeuteronomy  24:1-2 Permission to divorce, but only for ancient times: "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife." This passage allowed a man to divorce his wife (or wives). However, it did not allow a woman to divorce her husband. It is unclear what the term "uncleanness" means. Presumably it does not mean that she had committed adultery, because then she would have been executed by stoning.

The passage does not approve of divorce. It merely accepts it as a practice that had been imported by the ancient Hebrews from adjacent Pagan cultures, where it was a universal custom. Author J. Carl Laney speculates that if God had generally prohibited divorce, that the ancient Hebrews would not have honored the law. So, God "chose to progressively reveal his displeasure with divorce and direct his people back to his standard." 1,2
bulletDeuteronomy 24:3-4 Divorced & remarried woman cannot remarry her first husband: "And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance." This covers a case where a woman was divorced by her husband, remarries, and is subsequently either divorced again or widowed. She may not remarry her first husband. To do so was viewed as a gross sin that violated the land itself.
bulletEzra 9:1-2: Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in mixed-marriages to separate: "...The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.
2 For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass.
" Ezra was a scribe who had led a small group of Jews from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. He found that many Jews had entered into inter-faith marriages with women from nearby Pagan countries. He felt that the Jews would quickly lose their national identity and start to worship other Gods. The Mosaic Law prohibited such marriages. He decided that those Hebrews must "put away" their wives. The Hebrew text in this place uses the word "yasa" (to cause to go out) rather than the normal term "salah (to send away, to dismiss, to divorce). Similarly, in Ezra 10:11, he uses the word "badal" (to separate oneself from). It is probable that the scribe was recommending marital separation, not divorce. The end result is not clear. The separated individuals may have gone on to marry other spouses. Alternatively, they may have allowed their wives time to abandon the religion of their family of origin, adopt Judaism, and be reunited with their estranged husbands. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 allows such a practice for the case of foreign women who have been kidnapped and confined in captivity as a result of war.
bulletMalachi 2:10:  Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in mixed-marriages to separate: "Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god." Malachi is faced with the same problem as Ezra, described above. Jewish males were marrying foreign women who followed different religions. "Daughter of a strange god" refers to a foreign woman who worshiped a Pagan deity or deities in place of Yahweh. In Verse 12, he predicted that God would "cut off" (that is, murder) any man who remained in a mixed marriage. Again, these marriages may have been considered illicit. Also, the husbands may have simply separated from their wives, and not divorced them.
bulletMalachi 2:14: Divorce is treacherous behavior: "... the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant." Malachi is condemning Hebrew men for abandoning their wives after many years of marriage and marrying a different woman. Here, marriage is referred to as a covenant between God, the husband and wife. One property of a covenant is that it is permanent. The contract between God and the ancient Hebrews at Sinai is one example of a covenant. See Numbers 30:2, Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, and Psalm 15:4.
bulletMalachi 2:16: God hates divorce: "For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away..." God hates a man "putting away" his wife. The Hebrew word in this passage is "salah," a word that often refers to divorce.

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Key passages from the Christian Scriptures:

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages relating to divorce and remarriage:

bulletMatthew 5:31-32: No divorce, except for fornication: "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." See Matthew 19:4-9 below.
bulletMatthew 19:4-9: No divorce, except for fornication: "...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." The Pharisees were challenging Jesus' beliefs about divorce. They asked him to interpret the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 which allowed a husband to divorce his wife if he "found some uncleanness in her." Here, Jesus states that at the time of the world's creation, divorce was not allowed. However, God permitted the Hebrews in Moses' time (and later) to divorce their wives, perhaps because they could not have accepted a prohibition on divorce at that time.

At the end of this passage, Jesus appears to allow remarriage, and thus divorce, for men whose wives have engaged in "porneia." Unfortunately, there is no consensus among present-day theologians about the meaning of the term "porneia:"
bulletReligious liberals tend to define the terms narrowly and precisely to refer to sexual intercourse between two people who are not married to each other.
bulletReligious conservatives often define the words to include a wide assortment of sexual activities, when practiced outside of marriage -- including solitary masturbation, intercourse, oral sex, and homosexual behavior.

Jesus also condemns remarriage, unless the individual is divorced for "porneia."

bulletMark 10:2-12:  No divorce, on any grounds: "And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. 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." This passage refers to the same incident as was described in Matthew 19. However, this time, Jesus states that divorce is not permitted under any circumstances.

The sentence about a woman divorcing her husband is curious. Jesus, an observant Jew, was answering a question posed by a group of Pharisees, in the presence of his followers -- all of whom were observant Jews. Yet he discusses a practice common among Pagan Gentiles and forbidden among Jews: a woman divorcing her husband.
bulletMany liberal theologians believe that this sentence was invented by the author of the Gospel of Mark, and was not actually stated by Jesus.
bulletMany conservative Christians suggest that Jesus made this statement, but that the author of Matthew left it out, since he was directing his Gospel to fellow Jews.

In this passage, Jesus also condemns remarriage.

bulletLuke 16:18: No divorce, on any grounds: "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery." This appears to be a third version of the same incident with the Pharisees. Here, Jesus does not specifically condemn divorce. But he is critical of remarriage.
bullet1 Corinthians 7:10-12: No divorce, on any grounds: "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. Paul wrote this passage in response to questions raised by the church at Corinth about divorce and remarriage. He says that God does not allow divorce. If a couple divorces against the will of God, then their only options are to remain single, or to reconcile and restore their marriage.
bullet1 Corinthians 7:10-15: "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." This is a continuation of the above passage. It covers the situation where a believer is married to a non-Christian, and the non-Christian insists on a divorce. Some theologians interpret this as Paul exercising his "pastoral privilege" by changing the teachings of Jesus to allow divorce in this one case. However, it is unlikely that this is his intent because it would negate what Paul has just written in verses 10 to 12. It is more likely that Paul means that if the unbelieving spouse demands a divorce, that the Christian is not required to resort to legal means to preserve the marriage; he or she is to leave the unbeliever at peace, by not contesting the divorce.

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Harmonizing Matthew and Mark:

Conservative Protestants generally believe that all scripture is inerrant, was written by humans who were inspired by God, is "God-breathed," and is useful for instruction. How then do they handle the apparent inconsistency between two reports on the Pharisee challenge to Jesus:

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Matthew 19:4-8: which seems to allow divorce, in the case of fornication, and

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Mark 10:2-12:  No divorce, on any grounds.

By the 1st century CE, grounds for divorce were a hotly debated topic. The liberal school of Hillel, a leading 1st century BCE rabbi, said that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. The conservative school of Shammai, a contemporary of Hillel, taught that divorce was only allowed on grounds of adultery. In other matters in his ministry, Jesus had adopted the teachings of Hillel. But in this case, a casual reading would indicate that he accepted an intermediate position: that a man was forbidden to divorce his wife, unless she was guilty of fornication (porneia in the original Greek). This would be more liberal than Shammai (who forbade divorce except for adultery) and less liberal than Hillel (who allowed divorce for many reasons).

Permitting divorce for "porneia" in Matthew 19:9 seems to conflict with the verses before it, where Jesus condemned divorce. He said: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." Similarly, it conflicts with the comments made by his disciples later, in Matthew 19:10. They seem to imply that they interpreted Jesus' position as totally prohibiting divorce. The problem phrase is "except it be for fornication." If these words could be eliminated from the biblical text, or interpreted in some radically different way, then Mark and Matthew's report on the incident could be harmonized.
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Perhaps the phrase about fornication did not form part of Jesus' actual statement. Perhaps it was added later by a copyist. Recall that when conservative Protestants believe the Bible to be inerrant, they are not referring to:
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The King James Version of the Bible, or

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The New International Version of the Bible, or

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Any other English translation of the Bible, or

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The most ancient surviving biblical manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic.

They are referring to the original autograph copy: the handwritten version by the biblical author. None of these have survived. Before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century CE, all Bibles were hand copied. A copyist could have easily inserted the phrase "except it be for fornication," in order to make the text agree more closely with the evolving beliefs of his particular wing of Christianity. Or someone might have written the phrase in the margin of a Bible, and the copyist might have incorporated it into the text. Although the conservative Protestant concept of inerrancy allows for this type of forgery or error, believers are very reluctant to accept that it has occurred in this instance. Accepting the existence of an error would place the reliability of the Bible itself in jeopardy. If it cannot be trusted here, it may not be reliable elsewhere.

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Perhaps "porneia" does not mean fornication in either the broad conservative sense, or the narrow liberal sense. Perhaps it refers to something entirely different. "An increasing number of scholars are interpreting Matthew's 'except for porneia' to refer to marriage within the prohibited relationships of Leviticus 18:6-18." 3 That passage forbids sexual activity among near-family members. It refers to a person approaching a "near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness." This is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Specific forbidden kin relationships include one's parents, step parents, siblings, step-siblings, son or daughter, step-child, aunt, uncle, etc. Perhaps Jesus thinking was that these are illicit marriages which should never have been implemented. When detected, it is permissible to terminate them through divorce.

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Conclusions:

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God's original plan is for marriage to be permanent.

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There was no provision in the Hebrew Scriptures for a woman to divorce her husband.

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According to Jesus, divorce was not permitted prior to the time of Moses.

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During the latter part of the second millennium and the first millennium BCE:
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God allowed Hebrew men to divorce their wives because they would not have obeyed the more strict intent of God, which was to make marriages permanent.

bullet

Men who unjustly accused their wives of not being virgins when they married were specifically prohibited from ever divorcing them.

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Men who seduced a virgin and who later married her, were also prohibited from divorcing her.

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A man who divorced his wife could not remarry her later, if she had married another man during the interim.

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Termination of inter-faith marriages was allowed on two occasions when the Hebrews were in danger of losing their religious identity.

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Jesus condemned all divorce, except in the very rare event of an illicit marriage between persons who were too closely related.

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Interpreting the Bible for today's society:

God seems to prohibit essentially all divorces, and thus all remarriages. The only exception would be a couple who are too closely related. This tends to happen in soap operas, and rarely in real life.

If the number of Jews or Christians were to shrink to the point where their religious identity was threatened, then perhaps some would argue that the situations experienced by Ezra and Malachi would be replicated, and that enforced divorce of inter-faith couples should again be justified. But there is little possibility of this situation happening in the near future. The percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christians is decreasing by less than one percentage point per year; they are in no danger of becoming a small minority until the mid-20's, at their current rate of decline.

Even though divorce and remarriage are forbidden for almost everyone, marital separation is not. Separation and celibacy may be the only option available to a conservative Christian who wishes to follow this particular interpretation of the Bible.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. 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. Ibid, Page 35.
  4. J.C. Wenger, "Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: The Permanence of Marriage," at: http://www.bibleviews.com/

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Copyright © 2002 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-8
Latest update: 2006-AUG-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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