Does Jesus permit divorce ‘for any reason’ in Mark 10?

The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 18 in Year B is Mark 10.2–16. I think it is impossible to preach on this passage without dealing with the question of the consequences of Jesus’ teaching for our own attitude to and the Church’s practice in relation to divorce and remarriage, and this will make it an unusual Sunday. That reflects the place of this passage in Mark: it is the only time where Mark portrays Jesus as giving specifically ethical teaching, so preaching on this might feel closer to preaching on Paul than preaching on the gospels usually does.

We should note from the outset that, in the ancient world, ‘divorce’ always meant ‘…with the freedom to remarry while the previous partner is still living’, so I will not repeat that assumption at every point.

The passage raises specific questions for us, both in relation to Jesus, the gospels, and contemporary pastoral practice:

  • Why did Jesus’ teaching here seem so shocking?
  • How do we reconcile the clear difference between the unqualified prohibition on divorce here and the qualified prohibition in the parallel passage in Matthew 19?
  • How does Jesus’ draw on Old Testament teaching, and what does that model for us?
  • Does the practice of our churches (for me, the Church of England) fit with Jesus’ teaching here, or have we set it aside?
  • How does the apparent harshness of Jesus’ demands shape our pastoral practice—in particular, those who have experienced the pain of divorce?
  • More generally, can we read this passage and hear Jesus’ teaching faithfully, without allowing our own prior decision to skew our reading? If we either end up with Jesus as a 1950s moralist, or fitting with contemporary culture, that would suggest we have not read well.

None of these questions can be answered without carefully locating Jesus’ teaching within the debates of his day—and, as we shall see, the text itself points us to doing this.

The lectionary selection omits the opening comment of chapter 10 (I know not why) which signals Jesus’ departure from Galilee and his journey southward, though with the crowds still following. It might seem odd to make this detour to the east, but for those wishing to avoid contact with (despised) Samaritans, it would be common to cross the Jordan and head down the Jordan valley, before crossing near Jericho and climbing the Judean hills to reach Jerusalem. Hence, in Mark 10.32, we read that Jesus led the way ‘up to Jerusalem’.

Some early manuscripts omit the opening ‘Some Pharisees came…’ so that those asking the question are unspecified. But the parallel in Matt 19.3 does include a similar phrase, though not in exactly the same wording, so it is unlikely that those manuscripts which do include it simply did so to harmonise the two. The Pharisees have previously challenged Jesus about Jesus’ eating habits (Mark 2.16), his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2.23–24), and, in a passage with several parallels to this one, on their (non-) habit of hand washing. What is striking here is that, in all these previous examples, Jesus has been more ‘liberal’ than the Pharisees; he rebukes their harshness and fastidiousness, and puts human reality at the centre of his responses. Does he do the opposite here?

The NT has no distinct word for ‘divorce’; as elsewhere, the verb here is ἀπολῦσαι, to release, leave, or send away. It can have a mundane sense, as in Acts 28.25, ‘they began to leave…’ but it can also have a technical, legal sense, to release a prisoner (Mark 15.6), to release from a painful condition (Luke 13.12) or to dissolve a marriage relationship, as here. Paul uses the related verb luo in 1 Cor 7.27, and appears to assume that divorce is perfectly possible, as well as the verb aphiemi early in 1 Cor 7.13.

David Instone-Brewer has written extensively on this, including his Grove booklet on divorce and remarriage. He also has a chapter on this passage in Reading Mark in Context, in which he explores the parallel issues in Second Temple Judaism. He makes a number of vital points.

First, the debate around divorce was particularly intense. David explains in summary the Rabbinic literature from the period: the Mishnah and Tosephta record the oral traditions, many of which go back to the first century, and the Talmuds record these traditions and the debate around them.

The debate about divorce occurs in the largest single part of the oral traditions in the Mishnah—a series of more than six hundred disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who lived in the first century BC, and whose disciples were amongst the ‘Pharisees’ that we read about in the NT. The School of Hillel was in general the more ‘liberal’ on most matters, and Shammai the stricter. In the first century, the School of Shammai outnumbered that of Hillel, but their uncompromising attitude meant that they were allied with Zealots during the First Jewish War with Rome, and were wiped out with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Thus the opinion of the School of Hillel prevailed, and thus came to define the position of Rabbinical Judaism.

The debate about divorce turns on the interpretation of Deut 24.1:

The School of Shammai say, A man should not divorce his wife except that he found in her a thing of indecency, as it is said: For he finds in her an indecent thing [Deut 24.1]. And the School of Hillel say, Even if he spoiled her dish, since it says: For he finds in her an indecent thing [Deut 24.1] (m Git 9.10) (Reading Mark in Context p 152).

The reason for the difference in view arises from the odd wording of Deut 24.1 in Hebrew מָ֤צָא בָהּ֙ עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר, which says literally ‘he finds in her indecency of a thing’. The Shammaites took this in the sense of both our English translations, and the Greek LXX (εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα), to mean she has committed adultery or some other act of sexual impropriety, but the Hillelites decided that the addition of the word davar introduced a separate category, so the text should be understood as ‘adultery, or any other displeasing thing’.

This is particularly significant, since the Hillelites were arguing for a change in divorce practice. Prior to this dispute, both men and women could divorce, but only on specific grounds. One was that of adultery, following Deut 24.1, and the other (for women) was a husband’s failure to provide her with food, clothing, and marital love, based on Exod 21.10–11. Thus we find reference to this in marriage contracts of the time:

According to the law of Moses and the Judeans and I will feed you and clothe you and I will bring you (into my house) by means of your ketuvah and I owe you the sum of 400 denarii…together with the due amount of your food and your clothes and your bed (P Ladin 10, AD 126) (p 153).

Notice that the payment by the husband to his bride was a deposit of guarantee; if he failed to provide for her, and she divorced him, then she retained the ketuvah in compensation. We should also note that the ‘certificate of divorce’ specified in Deut 24 was in the interests of the woman; it required a witness, so the man could not simply abandon her, and allowed her to marry again.

But the Hillelites introduced two changes, firstly making divorce something only men could do, and secondly introducing what we might now call ‘no fault divorce’, in which the marriage could be ended without proof of a serious break-down of relationship. In fact, both men and women in the first century appeared to welcome this—for women, it meant that, in the case of divorce, there did not need to be an intrusive investigation to see whether the grounds for divorce had been met.

Both the Jewish writers Philo (Spec 3.30) and Josephus (Ant 4.253) refer to this practice—and Josephus himself made use of it, divorcing and remarrying twice. And when we read in Matt 1.19 that Joseph intended to divorce Mary ‘quietly’, he was intending to make use of this Hillelite provision.

What does this all mean for our reading of the lectionary passage?

First, given the importance of this debate, and the evidence for it, then we cannot ignore this as background for reading this text.

Secondly, we can see that the Pharisees are not asking ‘Are there any grounds for divorce?’ in a neutral or disinterested way; they are specifically asking Jesus ‘Do you agree with Hillel or Shammai? Do you take the stricter or more lenient view?’ In the parallel in Matt 19.3, they are not asking ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ but ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any cause”?’

Thus we see that Jesus’ answer is ‘I agree with the School of Shammai against the School of Hillel’. Where, quite often, Jesus appears to take a more ‘liberal’ approach to the interpretation of Torah, here he appears to take a more ‘strict’ approach, when it comes to matters of marriage and divorce. But he is being quite consistent in his approach to the interpretation of OT texts. Where the Pharisaic debate is on the details of the grammar of a particular verse, Jesus is interpreting OT law details in the light of more fundamental principles—as he does elsewhere. And it turns out that God’s intention of lifelong, faithful, male-female marriage as the basic unit of human society is, in his reading, a pretty fundamental principle. It is this which forms the background to the regulations in Deuteronomy, so they must be read in the light of this.

Jesus’ ruling here is (we see from Matt 19.10) felt to be shocking—and we can see why. Hillelite practice was widespread, since it was so attractive, and so Jesus was, in his declaration, effectively making many existing divorces and remarriages illegitimate. This might even have affected some of the Twelve themselves! And it shows us that Jesus was perfectly capable of challenging the dominant views of the Judaism of his day, so we should not suppose that he was in any sense trapped in his own culture.

But why does Jesus’ teaching here in Mark appear to be more harsh and absolute than Jesus’ teaching in the parallel in Matt 19? Reading the passages side by side, we can see that Matthew’s account fills in details at every point, and Mark’s is highly abbreviated. Both the wording of the question in Matthew, and Jesus’ response including the exception ‘in the case of adultery’, make the connections with the Hillel-Shammai debate even clearer. Perhaps Matthew, writing in a more predominantly Jewish register, is wanting to make the connections clear.

But if Mark was written to a mixed Jewish-Gentile audience in the 60s, before the destruction of the Temple, then the debate was still lively, and the details would not need to be spelled out. If we were to have a discussion ‘Should children under the age of 16 be allowed to drink?’ then we would assume that ‘drink’ meant ‘alcoholic drink’ without the need to specify it. But if someone was reading this from another time or culture, they would think it rather odd that we were debating whether children could drink water! Context matters.

For Matthew, if he is writing after 70, then he would need to make the context more obvious; the dispute was over, since the Shammaites did not survive the destruction of Jerusalem—and ignorance of this debate explains why the Fathers, commenting on this text, are not aware of the context which we now know well.

(We might also note, in passing, that Jesus also prohibits polygamy, which most of those in the land of Israel permitted, but the community at Qumran, and Diaspora Jews did not, not least because Roman law prohibited it. At Qumran, they read Gen 7.9 ‘two by two’ as a reference back to Gen 1.27, so that male and female must be strictly in pairs; in the Diaspora, the LXX includes the word ‘two’ in Gen 2.24 to make this clear in another way. By going ‘back to the beginning’ in talking about male-female marriage, Jesus is agreeing with these readings.)

What are the practical consequences of reading this text in its first-century context in this way?

First, we need to recognise that Jesus is not speaking de novo on divorce and remarriage, or using the creation account to rule out all divorce: he is siding with Shammai in taking the stricter, more demanding position. Shammaites did think divorce was permissible, but only on limited grounds—and initiated by both men and women. I think that the current formal position of the Church of England—that people might remarry after divorce under certain strict conditions, matches this reading, even if actual practice doesn’t.

(We should note that the language of ‘two become one’ does not itself imply the indissolubility of marriage. The idea that there is some kind of ontological fusion, where partners in a marriage lose their individual identity, and become one entity, is unwarranted and pastorally very unhelpful. Jesus does not say that a couple cannot be separated; he says they should not.)

Secondly, if we take the integrity of Jesus’ teaching seriously, then we need to understand this as the best thing for human flourishing, both for individuals and society. It is hard to see how we could then interpret this teaching as justifying, for example, forcing a wife to stay married to an abusive husband, or the social shaming of those who experience divorce. Both of those things are contradicted by the actual regulations in the OT.

Thirdly, if Jesus is telling us that marriage is so important, then we need to recognise the pain and distress when it goes wrong for any reason. Our response should match that of Jesus in John 8.10–11: ‘Does no-one condemn you? Neither do I. Go your way and sin no more.’

Fourthly, if marriage really does matter, then we need to organise our priorities around it, for ourselves and others, not merely penalise those for whom it has gone wrong. If it really does matter, how can we prioritise marriage relationships? One of the greatest forces putting pressure on committed, covenant relationships in Western culture is the move to dual-income couples driven by the consumerist agenda. In our marriage, we have never both worked full time, and for much of our married life we have both worked part time; our marriage and family has been more important than our ‘careers’.

And how can we help people grow in the dispositions, habits and skills that enable life-long relationships to endure?

These kinds of questions surely emerge from Jesus’ teaching here—when we take it in the context of the whole of the gospel.

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113 thoughts on “Does Jesus permit divorce ‘for any reason’ in Mark 10?”

  1. This is a good and well-informed article making many valuable points. But what many (including David Instone-Brewer) do not point out is that Jesus is addressing men—it was the question he was asked, and the text repeatedly makes it clear it was the question he was answering.

    The Judaean Desert Documents published in the 2nd half of the 20th century contain 10 marriage and divorce documents contemporary to NT times and all the scholars who have published on them believe they are representative of the situation into which Jesus spoke.

    They make it clear, as does the text of Scripture, that marriage carried asymmetrical responsibilities and divorce was based on the respective failure in those: For the woman to be sexually pure, and for the man to provide for her. Thus the wife’s grounds are in Exodus 21:10–11, and the husband’s in Deuteronomy 24—as Ian ably explains. Jesus was not asked about the wife’s grounds for divorce because there was no rabbinic dispute about these. He simply makes a general rule in Mark 10:12—the only point he address the subject.

    Once this hermeneutic is employed all the Scripture teaching falls into place.

    Just one error in the article I think: Jesus did not give an exception for adultery—it was for sexual immorality—a small but very important point.

    • It can be seen that these asymmetrical roles are rooted in the ANE, and particularly in ancient Israel culture, where women had few employment opportunities and land was inherited—the husband wanted to be sure the child was his.

      Exodus 21:10–11 demonstrates that if a husband took a second wife—polygyny (not polygamy) was permitted—she could divorce him. Some extant prenuptial agreements articulate an expectation of faithfulness to the one wife.

      So the question is—do these asymmetrical roles and the divorce rules that follow on from them apply in today’s culture? The goal of the Hillelites was, in effect, to equalise the roles and thus the rules.

      The reservation I have is that God uses these roles to illustrate his relationship to his people from Eden to the eschaton—and beyond.

    • Thanks Colin. I do actually highlight the issue of men, in the sense of noting that under the Hillelites the situation had shifted and divorce became a male prerogative. But perhaps it needs noting more clearly.

      I suppose the question is: given that the debate here is about a man’s right to divorce, what does the passage assume about a woman’s right to divorce?

      • Ian,
        The woman’s right to divorce is in Exod 21:10-11. David Instone-Brewer makes the point that this was never in dispute: The Shammaites and Hillelites agreed. The Judaean Documents support this analysis. Thus Jesus was never asked about it. David does not make it clear in his work that he has simply assumed that such gender distinction does not apply today.

        It might be said that we cannot assume the gender asymmetry status quo in our exegesis, I suggest the opposite. In fact, do we know any brand new ‘out of the box’ teaching in the NT not found or prefigured in the OT? The church’s divorce teaching is just such, and I suggest on that basis alone it is not safe.

        • David’s understanding of gender neutral divorce grounds grants the wife’s wider divorce grounds to the husband (as the Hillelities wanted). In a modern society this has some basis I think. But it decreases a wife’s security in the marriage so there are considerable pastoral issues with this. I did not deal with these in my PhD.

  2. If Matthew had substantial material to add to Markan pericopae (outside the exercise of his editorial tendencies) he would do so – but he doesn’t. Why? Well, writing when they do, it is Mark who holds all the aces for closeness to the historical Jesus. Matthew respects Mark and wants to provide a new improved Mark, and key ways of improving Mark are:
    (a) to add (rabbinically) accretions from other Christian texts (or OT) at the appropriate points;
    (b) to acknowledge subsequent discussion and thus supplement and improve the Markan text;
    (c) to expand bare maxims illustratively.

    In order to grant importance to Matthew’s slight alteration of Mark here by the addition of ‘for any cause’ (which doubtless does indeed refer to the contemporary debate), one would have to:
    (a) show a pattern that Matthew can sometimes be closer to the historical Jesus than Mark is in Markan pericopae (NT study works with history of traditions and redaction criticism not with Tatian-like amalgamation of texts into one picture);
    (b) show how this addition by Matthew is anything more than the result of the fact that Matthew states an exception and Mark does not. In other words, it is because the answers in Mark and in Matthew are different that the questions have to be different. Matthew knows of this exception from his sources and/or subsequent discussion.

    The reason that actual practice does not match the principle of ‘strict conditions’ is that it never does and should never be expected to. If one gives an inch, people (those who possess human nature) will take an ell (slippery slope principle). We were promised safe-legal-rare abortions too; they have never been sighted even in one month across numerous countries. However, that is irrelevant compared to the main principle of following Jesus at least at the point of his saying that has most unanimity on authenticity if not detail.

    The Samson-like emptying of power from the C of E can be located here among other places (Honest to God; contraception) but I consider this one the most important. While this stays in place, the chance of revitalisation or renewal is minimal (so think of all the wasted time and effort, when what is needed is awe / holy fear and a recognition of how huge these matters are); such renewal as happened in the 1970s and 1980s was on the understanding that these Jenkins laws were a wrong thing. It is unbelievable that the illogical tendency to view things as less wrong because of (sic) the passage of time has not been anticipated and factored in.

  3. No-fault divorce is
    (a) non-existent in reality, hence it is a lie
    (b) uber-abusive as a principle because it means the innocent can be deserted with impunity by the selfish and shallow. That on top of the fact that even before the recent proposals for change (which 80% of correspondents opposed) the law already supported the divisive and deserted the already-deserted: a principle they were so pleased with that they amplified it.

    • A step in the direction of complete marital inequality, so that once again a husband (or wife) can simply say ‘I d you’ and does not even have to give a reason nor even to say it 3 times. That is progress in civilisation? It sounds more like unreconstructed barbarism (and at present it appears that it is committed twice as often by women as by men). Chauvinism (caveman) redivivus.

  4. The alphabet people should embrace celibacy. Divorcees can always move on to the next (adulterous) relationship.

    No judgement – but this won’t hang together for very long. Either evangelicals expect more from opposite-sex couples or they accept same-sex marriage.

  5. And when we read in Matt 1.19 that Joseph intended to divorce Mary ‘quietly’, he was intending to make use of this Hillelite provision.
    Not evident to me. Why was his intention inconsistent with the Shammaite understanding?

    We should note that the language of ‘two become one’ does not itself imply the indissolubility of marriage.
    I would have thought that it does. What is the significance otherwise? What God has joined together, let not man put asunder. Of course, the marriage partners do not lose their individual identity, but that ‘does not itself imply’ that the union is not ‘some kind of ontological fusion’.

    For Matthew, if he is writing after 70, then he would need to make the context more obvious; the dispute was over, since the Shammaites did not survive the destruction of Jerusalem—and ignorance of this debate explains why the Fathers, commenting on this text, are not aware of the context which we now know well.
    If this is to be interpreted as an argument for post 70 authorship, then conversely, if Matthew predates AD 70, the argument that Jesus’s teaching needs to be interpreted in the light of the Shammaite/Hillelite debate is correspondingly weaker.

    If we take the integrity of Jesus’ teaching seriously, then we need to understand this as the best thing for human flourishing, both for individuals and society. It is hard to see how we could then interpret this teaching as justifying, for example, forcing a wife to stay married to an abusive husband, or the social shaming of those who experience divorce. Both of those things are contradicted by the actual regulations in the OT.
    This seems to undercut the argument. If Jesus’s teaching is Shammaite, viz. no divorce except on the grounds of Ex 21:10-11, then it needs to be shown how this allows for a woman to divorce her husband on the grounds that he is ‘abusive’. What does that extra-biblical word mean here anyway: not allowing her to flourish? Surely there is a need to specify what ‘the actual regulations in the OT’ are, if not Ex 21:10-11 itself?

    I am inclined to agree with Colin, including his observation that marriage was asymmetric. The asymmetry is also reflected in Pauline teaching on authority within marriage and in the Church (e.g. Eph 5:22-24), which is explicitly based on the Torah (Eph 5:31, I Tim 2:13-14). In other posts Ian re-interprets this teaching in the light of modern understandings of equality, partly on the basis that, unlike Jesus, he regards Gen 3 as non-historical. The exposition here seems inconsistent with the position taken in those other posts.

    • If two become one, their oneness is not something unchangeable? 1 Cor 6 convinces me that (as common sense would suggest, and as I had never previously doubted) one flesh refers to [sexual] union. And it is only a society that cannot see the most obvious thing of all, that that is an awesome thing, that could doubt it.

      Their previous twoness was certainly something hard to change, as therefore is their present oneness. Marriage is a huge step and coincides with this change from 2 to 1. But I cannot see how one can stop being 1 with anyone with whom one is 1.

      As for Hillel and Shammai, Jesus was well capable of thinking (a) off his own bat, (b) from first principles.

      The word ‘abusive’ is quite broad and vague. There are clear instances where it must apply, and others where it is dished out liberally without proper contextual understanding. E.g. a husband says ‘I d you’, the wife reacts with appropriate emotion, the husband then calls the wife abusive for shouting. You see what I mean?

      • ‘As for Hillel and Shammai, Jesus was well capable of thinking (a) off his own bat, (b) from first principles.’

        Where do I deny that?

        The point here is that the context makes a massive difference in understanding the meaning of Jesus’ language here.

        • Entirely agreed. But my point is different: that there would always be a limited number of options available when it comes to something like divorce, whichever age or culture we are in. We can speak of current debates, but any intelligent / honest people involved in the current debates will already be working from first principles anyway, and from the full synoptic range of options. Jesus was one of those, and his context is creation rather than anything more limited. But his hearers will be seeing things through the lens of Hillel/Shammai, into which context he speaks.

    • ‘Not evident to me. Why was his intention inconsistent with the Shammaite understanding?’

      Because that would require a legal process, which would be public.

      ‘What is the significance otherwise?’ It is about the affective, social, psychological, and personal union symbolised and expressed by sexual union. Scripture frequently (OT and NT) notes that divorce can happen; sometimes it says it happens wrongly. Catholic teaching says is *cannot* happen. This is not a correct reading of Scripture.

      ‘If this is to be interpreted as an argument for post 70 authorship…’ All I am noting here is that locating Jesus’ teaching in this debate offers a plausible explanation for the differences between Mark and Matthew.

      Given that Matthew often compresses Mark’s accounts, though includes a fuller version of Jesus’ teaching, such an explanation is needed. ‘Matthew softens Jesus’ teaching’ is lazy and will not do.

      ‘This seems to undercut the argument.’ Not at all. In the past some have argued that marriage is indissoluble. Therefore a woman should stay married even if her husband abuses here…on the basis of Jesus’ teaching here. I hope you can see the problem with that. If Jesus is affirming Shammai, then we cannot read his teaching in this unqualified way, as it has been in the past.

  6. Luke’s sayings on divorce are under ‘additional sayings’. This is wrong. Jesus is saying he will never divorce us. If Moses ultimately only pointed to Jesus then divorce is another thing that Jesus will touch and heal. Like the prohibition on blood as food. Jesus instructs us to drink his blood. The forbidden thing becomes clean. Jesus is pledged to us in marriage never to be divorced. Everything is made holy. In him.

  7. The idea of ‘the pain of divorce’ needs critical examination. Three quarters of the time what we have is desertion against the other’s will. Therefore the pain is largely not the pain of divorce (which is an odd phrase that wrongly treats ‘divorce’ as somehow inevitable, an irresistible force and supposed agent despite not being alive, unlike the 2 participants) but the pain of desertion. But that latter pain is an unnecessary pain, because if it were not regarded as so acceptable it would not happen, and in eras where it was not then it did not. So the pain being spoken of is a pain part-caused by each person who colludes in the present post Christian regime.

      • It’s the pain that requires pastoral awareness.
        It’s the idea that needs critical examination.

        The pain would arise in pastoral situations far less if divorce were not artificially normalised (part of everyday discourse rather than being shocking and unmentionable, which would do justice to its enormity) when it has never needed to be nearly so normal even within living memory (which is statistical reality, and therefore unarguable). People feel free to do it only because the story they are sold is that it is now (unlike previously – as though these things were time-dependent) part of normality. Anyone who normalises is (a step or two down the line) part of causing that pain.

        • Although of course the soap operas as tools of the sexual revolution create an idea of what normal life is like, which media types use to normalise the kinds of lifestyles that they have fallen into (always assuming they are aware of any other). Because the soap opera storylines are so gripping and involving, it is very possible for people to inhabit these far more than they inhabit any actual happenings in actual life. Job done from the revolutionaries’ point of view. All it takes is to see something as part of normality, as a key option, in the first place. That is why family and peers are the most correlated factors.

  8. “Three quarters of the time what we have is desertion against the other’s will. ”

    Can you tell us what evidence you have for this fraction Christopher?

    • I read it somewhere about the same time as my Church Times letter which tried to refute Bp Harries, so about 2 years ago. I cannot now remember where. What I do know is:

      (a) Joint divorce petitions would be cheaper and more problem-free than one sided ones, and yet for some reason they do not happen nearly so often. Why would this be unless there was understandable anguish on one side about the petition?

      (b) Contested ones happen so rarely because the authorities are amoral and it would be fiendishly expensive to contest.

      (c) Wives file twice as often as husbands. Brinig and Allen, American Law and Economics Review 2000. This is a meta-analysis of the USA over more than 100 years and 25 data sets. Only once did the men do so more than the women within these 25 data sets.

  9. I thought I would do this ‘block’ reply to these comments:
    The rejection of Matthean authority makes it difficult for me to engage with your argument—but just to say that divorce/separation/remarriage is key to the Bible’s teaching about the relationship of God and his people told through the marital imagery from Genesis to Revelation. It is a conceptual metaphor built on the understanding of mundane human marriage—if divorce/remarriage was not allowed in human marriage the metaphor fails.

    Joseph would have paid the bride price to Mary’s father to begin the betrothal which was a binding contract to marry her—unless she lost her virginity to another. Such had to be proved under the Shammaite understanding, a public process as Ian points out—but not with the Hillelite understanding.

    Hebrew Bible scholars argue that the Genesis 2:24 “two become one flesh (‘basar’)” means become one family—signified when on marriage the wife takes her husband’s name. In ancient Israel it was not thought it had any other ontological meaning.

    It seems the overwhelming academic consensus is that the Shammaite/Hillite argument is behind the Pharisees question.

    Jesus’s teaching is Shammaite—i.e., no divorce on grounds of Deuteronomy 24 (not Exodus 21). Jesus did not refer to the latter, which is the woman’s grounds for divorce—he was not asked about it. Exodus 21:11 makes clear that a woman can divorce her husband for abuse— “marital rights” seemingly embracing emotional support.

    Genesis 3? Surely it is an allegory—an extended metaphor telling a profound truth. Otherwise, where is the guarded gate of Eden now?

    “Jesus is saying he will never divorce us” —the NT never describes the church as yet being married to Christ—we are in the betrothal period. This is reflected in 2 Timothy 2:11–13. Although not articulated as marital imagery this teaching precisely reflects the betrothal understanding of first century Palestine.

    • when I said “no divorce on grounds of Deuteronomy 24” it should of course be, “no divorce except on the grounds of Deuteronomy 24”

      Jesus specifically repeats this for the NT era in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:31-32)

    • 1. Joseph was intending to divorce Mary on grounds of sexual infidelity – the one reason Jesus accepted for divorce. But the argument above is that Jesus came down in favour of the Shamaaite position.
      2. Hebrew Bible scholars have to reason on the same basis as the rest of us. To argue that “the two become one flesh” means become “one family”, before Adam and Eve even had children, is to interpret without any obvious support from Scripture itself. The phrase “one flesh” occurs nowhere else in the NT, and our understanding needs to be informed by NT teaching, e.g. I Cor 7:4, Eph 5:29.
      3. Much the same applies to Ex 21:11, where the word translated “marital rights” is a hapax legomenon. How, in these circumstances, can it ‘seemingly’ embrace emotional support? Again, the NT may offer some guidance at I Cor 7:3. Whatever interpretation is subjectively imposed on the word needs to be objectively supported.
      4. The ‘overwhelming academic consensus’. Again, I take the consensus with a pinch of salt. In my view, the essential context for Jesus’s teaching is his teaching on the Law as a whole, Matt 5-7, where he is at pains to emphasise that its requirements are more demanding than everyone was assuming. It represented the standard of righteousness which God demanded but no one could reach. Only he fulfilled all righteousness (Matt 5:17, 5:20). It’s the same with marriage (Matt 5:32): The Torah gives us the ideal, which sin-corrupted humanity falls short of, but the gospel offers grace, forgiveness instead of condemnation, on condition that we remain mindful of God’s righteousness and, being freed from the chains of the law, still strive to live up to it (sensu Matt 5-7).
      5. ‘Otherwise, where is the guarded gate of Eden now?’ You are forgetting the Cataclysm which destroyed the original earth (i.e. land) – Gen 6:13, 7:11f, 9:11, II Pet 3:5f. Obviously Eden, being part of the original landmass, was part of what was destroyed. Geologically, the destruction took place at the end of the Hadean. That is why there are no rocks from the Hadean period, in contrast to the Moon, where most of the crust is Hadean.

      • In the context of Gen 2 itself, the force of ‘therefore’ in ‘Therefore … a man shall cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’ is that the woman had come out of the man: she was originally one flesh with him. Sexual union is in that light a re-union.

        If Gen 2-3 is ‘allegory’, such that Eve was not formed from the rib of the first Adam, then Gen 2:23f ceases to be a description of the ontological truth, of the origin of human male and female and the mystery of marriage, and any theology based on it is just make-believe.

  10. Two sundry points:
    “What God has put together …” —is surely a reference to the institution of marriage, not individual marriages (as Craig L. Blomberg argues). Thus, Jesus is saying we should not make our own rules for marriage (contra today) or divorce (contra church history).

    In Scripture marriage is created by a contract (covenant, if we must). The marriage-act is not seen in Scripture as creating a marriage—it is an act only to be performed within a marriage. A driving licence means you can drive, driving a car does not give you a licence. Sex with a prostitute does not make you married to her.

      • Christopher,

        Before I answer that, can you explain Ezekiel 16:35?
        “Therefore, O prostitute [i.e. Israel] , hear the word of the LORD.”

        And how the members of the tribe of Israel became a members of a prostitute?

        • Because idolatry is adultery (as I say in my long post below)? It is no accident that both are in the decalogue as both are pretty ultimate.

          • Christopher,
            Yes, you have it. So, Israel (actually Judah at this stage) was not going with prostitutes—in their idolatry/immorality they WERE the prostitute. The members of the tribe of Judah were members of a prostitute. It is of course the same imagery as Revelation where members of the unbelieving world belong to the ‘prostitute.’

            If we look at 1 Corinthians 6:15–16 we can see that Paul is drawing on Genesis 2:24 to describe the Corinthians relationship to Christ (as does Ephesians 5:31–32). Despite many seeing that the ‘one flesh’ union of Genesis 2:24 to be about sexual intercourse, our relationship with Christ is not based on such, but rather the volitional affinity union of covenantal marriage.

            But then Paul says in their behaviour, like Israel of old, they have chosen by their idolatry/immorality in their volitional affinity union to belong to a/the ‘prostitute.’ They were not going with prostitutes—they WERE the prostitute. Neither the logic nor the language of these two verses fits the concept that Paul here was speaking of individual Corinthians going with prostitutes.

            Incidentally, the strong parallel with Ephesians 5:32–33 to my mind strengthens the possibility of Pauline authorship of Ephesians.

          • Paul can make allusions but it is essential that this particular allusion would have been readily grasped by the hearers.

            (1) Would it have been?

            (2) Were not the Corinthians known for their immoral milieu?

  11. David’s understanding of gender neutral divorce grounds grants the wife’s wider divorce grounds to the husband (as the Hillelities wanted). In a modern society this has some basis I think. But it decreases a wife’s security in the marriage so there are considerable pastoral issues with this. I did not deal with these in my PhD.

  12. Colin
    “—the NT never describes the church as yet being married to Christ—we are in the betrothal period.”
    Not so. The first few verses of Romans 7 contradicts that view.

    Philip Almond

    • Hi Phil,

      I suppose you are thinking of Romans 7:4 “so that you may belong to another”?

      We are betrothed to Christ in the present era, as Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians 11:2 —we are yet to be presented to christ as a virgin at the eschaton, thus Revelation 21:2.

      • Phil,
        The Bible’s marital imagery is amazingly consistent from Genesis to Revelation—it never contradicts itself, and never once clashes with its own teaching on human marriage and divorce—consistently presenting God as being bound by his own marriage rules.

        It is the Bible’s dominant conceptual metaphor by a long way. I could give a great many examples, but a striking one is Jeremiah 3:1-8.

        • Phil,
          But you are right to point out the Romans 7 teaching.

          You will of course realise that Jeremiah 3 is quoting Deuteronomy 24:1-4 —Jeremiah explaining how God’s divorce of Israel is according to human marriage law, a law that allowed remarriage to any number of subsequent husbands, but prevented a return to the first husband under any circumstances. Israel could not come back!

          —and yet God in Christ, contra the Deuteronomy teaching, offered a ‘remarriage’ to Israel (as promised in Jeremiah 3:12) —notably via the Samaritan woman in John 4.

          How is this to be? Paul explains in Romans 7:1–4 when he refers to the ‘law of marriage.’ Our death ‘in Christ’ enabled God to break the Deuteronomy 24 law of the old marriage and have the elect (including elect Jews of northern Israel) be betrothed to him. Paul in those verses is not talking about the Mosaic Covenant. E. P Sanders, James Dunn, and Tom Wright point out that the old marriage is not to the MC—as Reformed teaching has it.

          • The phenomenal whole Bible integrity of its marital imagery is powerful testimony to its single authorship. If we adopt a confessional position such as Christopher outlines, we lose that.

          • Re the big picture of God’s marriage with Israel: The divorce concept is always readily understandable. That doesn’t mean it has to be actualised, enshrined in and (ugh) hallowed by law that provides it with undeserved credibility.

          • To be clear Colin. are you saying God broke covenant?

            The reformed position as I understand it that God fulfilled all covenants as God in Christ. Sure, there are whole bible longitudinal metaphors, of which marriage is but one, like a multi-facetted diamond.

            Were the covenants unconditional or conditional? Yes!
            They rise and rise in intensity and like the bursting of a dam, flood abroad with the unconditional new covenant.

            Or, there is not a straight line marriage covenant metaphor through the scriptures, but something like a rolling cycle of faithfulness, unfaithfulness, turning back, reconciliation, restoration.

            God can’t give up, even if his people are living lives *separate and apart* from him or committing spiritual adultery, restoration and reconciliation are always possible.

            To stretch a couple of points from recent English Divorce law
            1 As far as God is concerned, there has not been an irretrievable breakdown, reconciliation always possible.
            2 Or decree nisi would not be made absolute by God, as petitioner.

            And as far as marriage is concerned as the metaphor, it is yet to be consummated by Christ, so it is something which could be voided, but not subject to divorce.

            How does your view of a divorcing God fit with the theological metaphor of the life of the prophet Hosea?

            Last, I’d suggest that although there are distinctions between longitudinal Biblical metaphors there are no contradictions, as there are no contradictions in the character and Person of God, as reliable, consistent, trustworthy, as revealed from Genesis to Revelation. God of his unbreakable word.

  13. Your comments on working part-time comes across as being rather condemnatory. The reality is for many couples working part-time is unfeasible, particularly for those in low paid jobs. They simply don’t have a choice otherwise they couldn’t pay their rent or mortgage. And of course most employers expect most of their employees to work full-time, thus reducing any choice even more.

    Sorry but I would find this hard to take if I was married from someone who has spent a large part of his ‘career’ living rent-free!

  14. Dealing with the debris caused by bad laws is only sometimes able to heal, and quickly becomes overwhelming. Whereas replacing the bad laws with good ones is the way to save untold precious millions from such chaos.

  15. Christopher, I get your points on the ‘normalisation’ of divorce and ‘no-fault’ clauses etc which undermine the continuity of family relationships and social cohesion.
    However, is it your settled view that divorce is not permissible for any reason and that this is Jesus’ teaching and should also be that of the church?

    If not, for what reasons do you think divorce could be permitted? Could you envisage any situation and circumstances where divorce might be the right thing to do pastorally?

    • Jesus is surely accurate when he sees this as such an extremely solemn matter. Without that basis there is no point discussing.

      The common denominator in the texts is that the marital/sexual bond/union is everything, is something ultimate. So (Christ in Mark and in Paul) – what is all this about ideas to the contrary? If you are actually one flesh, one flesh of all things, then what a strange and profane idea to think that that could not be indissoluble. If anything goes wrong then there is only one solution: mend it (reconcile: 1 Cor 7). I.e. The central Christian message of forgiveness. People speak of speaking or feeling forgiveness without doing forgiveness. No. Forgiveness is an act and that act is reconciliation. Remarriage is a case of ‘don’t make me laugh’, because it means the entire awesomeness has been bypassed, there has been a misunderstanding at a basic level.

      In reality this is known to be the case when husband and wife experience dissolving into one another, and effectively taking on a new joint identity. This is a matter of experienced reality, which one can (pretty much) feel happening: it is that stunning and that immediate. You are not at the end who you were at the beginning.

      This is presumably the reality spoken of by ‘one flesh’, which is clearly (1 Cor 6) a sexual matter.

      Some denominations refer to ‘soul ties’ – sexual intimacy (naturally) changes the person that you are, your identity.

      And of course there is the illustration of 2 pieces of paper glued together – they can’t be ‘parted’ without devastation. And no remotely sensible person would see any reason to have anything to do with that.

      Because this is so ultimate, then it follows that trivialising of it deserves extremely short shrift. Trivialising tries unsuccessfully to remove the transcendent from the equation (what God has put together, let not man…) which is of the essence of sin – it is exactly the same structure as the prohibition of idolatry, because idolatry is exactly that – behaving as though the physical world is all there is and sidestepping the question of how there could ever be a physical world, sidestepping the transcendent, sidestepping the necessary awe. This is always the Biblical perspective (e.g. it is the answer to Job).

      If you marry someone you have presumably selected them out of many, and your identities are inseparable because of your shared ultimate experiences at the crucial points of your lives. You can’t deny your history because your history is you, the inner you. Take away your history, and there is nothing left. Your life from A to Z through time is in perfect continuity.

      I cannot conceive how anyone upbeat or optimistic or positive (i.e. right with God) could ever entertain such ugly or sickening thoughts – they *would* not do so. They would be instinctively loving, and love is (day by day) healing. These are precisely the people who care for others and care about the effects they have on others. And that is why the opposites of these things: despair (aka pessimism, aka negativity) are sinful, because they are selfish, self-centred, and debilitating with no thought for their effect on others. But such awful things as the present topic would never arise from people right with God. But if people are not right with God, then there is only one solution: become so. Whereas the solution touted is: remain in your state of not being right with God and instead rush around doing any number of divisive things. That is a *solution*? ‘Solutions’ are by their nature ‘resolutions’ that remove conflict. So don’t call something that retains either conflict or division a ‘solution’: it’s a misnomer.

      We are all supposed to treat ‘abusive husband’ (or wife as the case may be) as the stock case. Family and church community (the very things that the sexual revolution tries to remove) are contexts that prevent things getting that far. Doesn’t anyone consider: if people love each other so much as to marry each other and select each other above numerous others, their rating of each other in the love league could scarcely change so dramatically. If there are unresolved issues before marriage, those are brought into marriage. The sexual revolution is designed to produce premarital issues. Avoid that, and you have more of a girl/boy next door scenario, (a) growing up together, (b) within wider groups of friends, (c) marrying relatively young. A successful prescription, as we can see in the generation that is dying round about now in their nineties. Don’t we want people to be happy? But they don’t always know in advance what paths lead to happiness. So analyse and tell them.

      People are free, and they are free to apostasise or turn their backs on what is obviously good or right. Some will, but few (Esolen, Defending Marriage, final chapter is good on this) within the structures of a healthy society. Some of those in this category are: (a) active breakers of the bond – the Matthean exception; (b) those who embrace sin in any settled way.

      I am convinced that the cliche ‘abusive marriage’ is far too general, and specific description is essential. A typical scenario may be that people get frustrated or anguished because of the stresses brought about by marrying and having children much later than was normal (combined with both parents working and at an age when they are slowing down; also combined with menopause and its swings and illogicalities, sometimes coinciding with teenage children); spouses perhaps blame each other, thus falling into unforgiveness which is such a killer, because it would just be too awesome to admit one’s own responsibility where children and ultimate issues are at stake.

      Does anyone honestly think that 2 steadfast people would ever come to such a dreadful point as is now being discussed? No, of course not, because they are steadfast. But if they are not steadfast that is a sin, and if it is a sin, the solution is to get rid of that sin.

      To do otherwise is to commit oneself to an unresolved end on this earth; a restless deathbed. Not only that, but to harm all family and friends; not only that, but not to care that one is doing so. So: a no brainer.

      The simplicity of this central message is missed because it is so distant from anything we now imbibe.

      Your question was about my theory of ‘d’, but we are best sticking with Jesus’s (which is also mine). Particularly as it is his best attested teaching, so to deny it is to deny Jesus in a head-on manner.

    • Certainly I don’t think that Jesus presents ‘d’ as impermissible, just as impossible: a contradiction in terms.

  16. Hi Geoff,

    There does not seem to be a reply button to your comments, but in brief Israel broke the conditional (e.g., Exodus 19:5) Mosaic Covenant, not God. So, God legitimately divorced them (that is, as a nation). The OT text could not be clearer. The same happened in Eden, when Adam was ‘exiled’ (Genesis 3:23–24 uses the same Hebrew verbs that are employed to describe a divorce)—and many accept that Eden was a pre-echo of the promised land.

    Sometimes those of a Reformed persuasion who have studied covenant theology carefully admit the clash between the biblical text and the Reformed position, e.g., William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: An Old Testament Covenant Theology (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2013), 129, 259.

    • Geoff,

      PS: Reception history was not the focus of my study, but I think you will find English divorce law was derived from the modification that Erasmus suggested to the Roman Catholic position—the one that the Reformers by and large accepted. All three (RC, Erasmus, and thus Reformed) were based on post-apostolic, misunderstandings that Ian points out in the article that is the subject of this blog.

    • Hello Colin,
      I realise, if I remember correctly, that this was the general topic of your doctorate, but I remain unpersuaded that God divorced, even when he had genuine grounds.
      The curse in Genesis was combined with God’s remedy, which he fulfilled. Estrangement and separation of themselves do not amount to a divorce.
      Are you really saying that God divorced his covenant breaking people even though he led and guided and provided for them with his presence at their centre, the tent of meeting with Mediator Moses, Holy Spirit guidance, and Rock(Jesus) from which living waters flowed.
      God’s covenant with Abraham was unconditional, unilateral even, fulfilled by him.
      Even when the covenants were conditional, ultimately they were fulfilled by God in Christ, as the last Adam/true Son. I’d suggest that was truly retrospective and retro-active for all OT believers.
      What do you do with Hosea, the whole biblical context, that, in cycles, rolls forwards, like a wheel, as I mentioned above. Or with God seeing his people as the apple of his eye, or singing over them? Even after divorce??
      Indeed, Eden, is seen as prefiguring the Temple (Beale) and the Promised land and new heaven and earth, but I’m not sure how that equates to a divorce with eviction from the marital palace home.
      I’m much more in line with Luther when his eyes were opened to The Song of Songs with his theological application.
      God’s metaphor of marriage, as far as I am aware, for the reformed, was not because his bride was lovely and beautiful and rich, but to make them so.
      Faithful One, so unchanging.
      Thanks for taking the time to respond.

      • Geoff,

        Of course, it is Jeremiah and Isaiah that say that Israel was divorced according to the Deuteronomy 24 rules—not me.

        What is more, the whole NT marital imagery is betrothal imagery based on the fact that God in Christ is a bridegroom seeking a bride, not a husband seeking reconciliation with his separated wife.

        And divorce is not just in the text of the OT, it underpins its narrative.

        The text is careful to distinguish between northern Israel and Judah—and indeed their fates in the narrative were different. Jeremiah 3 explains northern Israel’s Assyrian exile as a divorce complete with certificate—and indeed, she did not come back.

        Thus Isaiah 50:1 consoles Judah saying that she was not divorced in her Babylonian exile, as northern Israel had been in her Assyrian exile—for her it was only a separation. Judah had not received her divorce certificate so she could come back. And she did.

        The Hosea imagery is more complex, but nonetheless tells precisely the same story. Divorce for Israel, separation for Judah—but the promise of a future remarriage!

        This is the new covenant that Jeremiah explains is going to be “not like” the old (Mosaic) covenant (Jeremiah 31:29–34). The differences are fundamental—look at the text carefully.

        The unconditional new covenant does not pass from father to son as did the MC, and fulfils not that conditional MC, but the unconditional Abrahamic covenant, as Paul explains in Galatians 3:15–19.

        For a detailed analysis of the Hosea imagery see #6.8.1; #6.9.1; and #6.10.2 in this free download of my PhD:

        • Geoff,

          You might ask: What then happened to Judah?

          Hosea to Malachi in our OT was called ‘the book of the twelve.’ Hosea opens the twelve with marital imagery, and I suggest Malachi closes the twelve with marital imagery, opening with Malachi 1:2.

          Now compare Malachi 4:5–6 with Matthew 23:37–38.

          What do you make of these proclamations?

        • More than assertion is needed when saying that Isa 50:1 shows God ‘saying that she was not divorced in her Babylonian exile, as northern Israel had been in her Assyrian exile—for her it was only a separation. Judah had not received her divorce certificate so she could come back. And she did.’
          – How do you know that it is Judah being addressed, and in a sense distinct from northern Israel?
          – Why do you interpret God’s questions as negative statements?
          – Who is “your mother” in the verse?
          – What do you think a certificate of divorce from God would have looked like if you think none was in fact issued? A tablet of stone? What was it in northern Israel’s case?

          The Babylonian exile was more than a separation. It was a violent act of judgement. Much of Jerusalem was burned to the ground. Much of the population was butchered. God himself left the city (Ezek 10:18) and never came back (until, temporarily, in the person of Jesus). Most of exiled Judah never came back: hence the Diaspora, i.e. the Jews in Persia at the time of Esther and throughout the eastern Roman Empire at the time of Paul.

          And what about the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of the Jews from Israel in AD 70? Are you going to say that that too was ‘only a separation’? If so, the distinction between divorce and separation has no meaning. You make it not on the basis of actual history but in order to maintain your interpretation that God received Judah back in marriage in 537 BC.

          In your view, apparently, God was married to two women – northern Israel and southern Israel (Judah)! Well, you did say that polygyny was permitted. But I don’t see how such a view is consistent with thinking ‘the Bible’s marital imagery is amazingly consistent from Genesis to Revelation’.

          The Babylonian exile and the still more traumatic exile AD 70 took place in real history. In one of your papers you write ‘Adam and Eve were miraculously created and formed in a marriage by God’, yet above you characterise the account as ‘allegory’. How can you consistently interpret history in relation to theological concepts that you derive from an account of an origin that you think did not actually happen and was therefore not miraculous? (The point I made yesterday 8:58 pm.)

          All the above inconsistencies, it seems to me, arise from the habit of divorcing theological reasoning from real history. It’s widespread and theologically catastrophic.

        • ” The unconditional new covenant does not pass from father to son as did the MC, and fulfills not that unconditional MC, but the unconditional Abrahamic covenant —–.” In which case, are we to assume that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews either was merely speaking figuratively or simply got it wrong when he declared : “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah (Hebrews 8:8)”?

          • Hi Colin,

            I am bit puzzled by your comment. Hebrews is saying the new covenat is new. That is, not the same as the Mosaic Covenant. You would be disappointed if you traded in your car for a new one and they wheeled out your old car resprayed?

  17. I have read David Instone-Brewer’s book and while I find it an excellent source of references to Jewish and patristic literature I do not agree with his conclusions. Any study of the divorce and remarriage scriptures should heed two things: (1) divorce, in the Bible, is a matter for the couple, who must then inform the authorities (rather than petition them, as today); (2) Jesus treats divorce and remarriage separately and does not suppose that the former automatically confers the right to the latter; when he spoke he discussed the first issue and then moved on to the second. (Ancient Jewish certificates of divorce handed by the man to the woman state “you are now permitted to any man”; this was important for the woman to know in view of the penalty for adultery, but does not necessarily reflect God’s view.)

    So, what did Jesus say?

    “Anyone who divorces his wife and [kai] marries another woman commits adultery against [ep] her. And if a woman who divorces her husband marries another man, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12).

    “Anyone who divorces his wife and [kai] marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).

    “Anyone who divorces his wife, not for porneia, and marries another woman commits adultery [and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery – in some Greek manuscripts]” (Matthew 19:9).

    So Jesus is clear – remarriage after divorce (during the lifetime of the ‘ex’) constitutes adultery, with a possible rider relating to porneia in Matthew 19:9.

    What about that rider?

    Jesus never contradicts himself. In two of the gospels there is no exception, and each gospel writer has no certainty that his readers are going to read another account. So there is no exception. But what then does Matthew 19:9 mean?

    It means that Jesus is declining to discuss the particular situation in which a man divorces for porneia and then remarries. He is discussing only situations in which the divorce is for something other than porneia. He says in Matthew 19 that remarriage after such a divorce is adulterous and he says nothing in that conversation about remarriage after a divorce for porneia.

    Why did he do that? Because he is talking to Pharisees who tended to divorce for minor matters such as mispreparing food. (See the Midrash – ancient Jewish commentary on scripture – denoted Sifré Deuteronomy, part 269; also the Mishnah, tractate Gittin 9:10.) Also because porneia is related to erwat davar, which is a Hebrew phrase found in the Jewish divorce regulation in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus is not engaging in a scripture study with these Pharisees; he is in a heated discussion with them about their use of excuses to divorce unwanted wives. To preclude diversion he narrows the discussion down at its beginning.

    A further point: the Greek rendered as “if a man divorces, and marries another woman…” can equally well mean “if a man divorces in order to marry another woman…” But the latter meaning is excluded because the woman’s adultery in Mark 10:12 takes no account of whether she instituted the divorce in order to marry another man or not.

    In Matthew 5:32, Jesus states that “anyone who divorces his woman, except for porneia [illicit sexual relations], causes her to be adulterous, and anyone who marries a divorcee commits adultery.” In the final clause we see that God takes marriage so seriously that a woman who is thrown out cannot remarry even if she is innocent of porneia!

    The church should accept that sometimes even Christian married couples break up, but they must then live singly – as Paul says very clearly in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. (The fact that Paul uses a different word here for divorce is not significant; recall that divorce refers in scripture to a final decision for the couple, not the authorities.)

    Today the Roman Catholic church accepts divorce in practice but, in order to deny that it has changed its doctrine, it calls it annulment, a term which should be reserved for situations in which the couple were not free to marry in the first place. Rome seeks excuses why the marriage supposedly never was valid – “I don’t believe he was ever sincere.” But people must keep their word, as that is what matters to God (Galatians 3:15). Rome is nevertheless correct to insist that remarriage during the lifetime of someone else you have been married to is wrong. More protestant churches should take that view.

    What about somebody who says he is becoming convinced that Jesus is Lord, but whose first – childless – marriage ended in divorce, and who has since married a virgin with whom he now has young children? Meanwhile his first wife has also remarried. Must this man, to enter the church, really dump his second wife and their children?

    This issue must have been raised often in the early church, but it is not addressed in any of the New Testament letters. Why is that? There is sin in either course, and God, in the Bible, is not in the business of weighing sins against each other – the New Testament is about how to deal with sin. The man I have described and the leaders of the congregation he is involved with must consult God themselves. If a man approaches God with a readiness to obey, God will make clear what course to take. In situations in which sin is weighed against sin, one size does not fit all.

    • Thanks, Anton,
      A great analysis through the use of the mischief rule of construction, that is, what was the *mischief* or error Jesus was addressing and to whom?
      The only place I’ve seen the *rule* (or method) mentioned was in John Stott’s first, unreconstructed, edition of his book, Basic Christianity. But it is one *rule* in a canon of construction (interpretation of statute) at law.

    • Anton,
      I believe your analysis pushes a post-apostolic Confessional position through a first century text. We are to believe that Jesus in these brief comments:

      In all these verses uses “adultery” literally, not rhetorically (e.g., Matt 5:28) or metaphorically (e.g., Matt 12:39)—when in fact “adultery” is used these non-literal ways a great many times in Scripture.

      In the process he changes the definition of adultery held for millennia across the whole ANE and throughout Israel’s history: A married woman having sexual intercourse with a man not her husband—thus a man could not commit adultery against his own wife.

      Cancels the woman’s right to a divorce in Exodus 21 that contemporary Jewish society fully accepted, therefore diminishing her protection.

      Repudiates the Bible’s marital imagery, including his own role as a bridegroom offering a remarriage to adulterous Israel and Judah.

      – and expects his audience to get all that. The fact that there are so many MS versions of these verses indicates that the early scribes had a problem of making sense of what Jesus is saying.

      Once it is accepted that adultery can mean covenant unfaithfulness (as in Matthew 12:39 and a great many other places) these verses then fit their first century context: A man divorcing his wife for not legitimate reason is breaking the covenant he had with her.

      • Spiritual adultery in the scriptures of Jesus’ day, in which Israel or Jerusalem went “a-whoring after other gods”, got its terminology from adultery in marriage, not the other way round. Jesus changed no meaning of words. He simply demanded a higher moral standard from his followers than was in Mosaic Law, as he says explicitly in Matthew 5:20. Unlike others, his followers are given the Holy Spirit to help them fight the good fight.

          • I didn’t miss it. Everybody in ancient Israel knew what the prophets meant when they spoke of Israel committing spiritual adultery by going a-whoring after pagan gods. What do you go to a whore for?

            Adultery is sex outside your marriage. Otherwise the metaphor used by the prophets would not have been comprehensible to its intended audience. Jesus would have used a different word or phrase if he meant something different. Adultery committed by a husband with a whore, and by a wife with a secret lover, carried different penalties in ancient Israel, because a man had the right to know that the children he was toiling the fields to support were his – but adultery between man and wife has never changed in meaning. I am not indulging in eisegesis.

        • Matthew 5:31-32 actually affirms the Deuteronomy 24 teaching for the church age – it is difficult to see how that can be read that any other way? A point that Douglas Moo makes who, with other NT scholars, see the same in Matthew 19 .

          • I’ve outlined the relation of Matthew 5:31-2 to Matt 19 in my main post above. It is one conclusion in an essay I’ve written on the subject, but I’m not going to put 12,500 words into a blog comment and the bare bones of the reasoning are present above. My main demand is that the differing scriptures not contradict each other.

          • Anton,

            You say “Adultery is sex outside your marriage.”
            Although the modern definition, it is simply not the biblical understanding. There are no exceptions to the definition I gave in any Hebrew Bible teaching or in the narratives, or anywhere in the NT.

            Your misunderstanding about this key aspect of first century context means our exegesis simply does not work.

            This lack of grasp of the context is the point Ian makes in his email.

          • Colin: please specify your definition of adultery. It is rather a poor show to attack mine repeatedly while failing to give yours in few words.

        • Not quite, I think. “A-whoring after other gods” was not a metaphor but alluded to actual rites of fornication in order to promote agricultural fertility. This is what went on under every green tree and on every high hill. The adultery aspect related to the fact that Israel was betrothed to Yahweh and fornication outside marriage – whether or not in these rites – represented unfaithfulness to him.

          • I was referring to the actual practices that Israel went in for and Yahweh objected to, as was surely clear when alluding to ‘under every green tree and on every high hill’, if you know the OT. Jer 2:23 and 3:2f are explicit enough, surely. A general observation about ‘the pagan pantheon’ is no answer. Can you not just take the point?

          • If you consider that you have superior knowledge of the old Testament to me and are able to deploy it to win the argument then just do so, rather than claim to be one side and referee at the same time. That is not legitimate rhetoric.

            Jeremiah 3:2 could refer at least equally well to sacrifices to pagan gods conducted at the places referred to, while 3:2-3 speaks of Jerusalem as a prostitute, not as the client of one.

            Look at an even sharper passage which uses the same imagery, Ezekiel 16. Verses 20-22a read, “You took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough? You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them to the idols. In all your detestable practices and your prostitution you did not remember the days of your youth…” This makes very clear that child sacrifice in Israel is spiritual adultery and that the prophet is not referring to pagan temple prostitution. If that isn’t enough, try Chapter 23.

          • “You took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough? You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them to the idols. In all your detestable practices and your prostitution you did not remember the days of your youth…” This makes very clear that child sacrifice in Israel is spiritual adultery and that the prophet is not referring to pagan temple prostitution.
            It’s not either or but both/and. Fornicating with cult prostitutes was by the same token adultery against Yahweh, because Israel, unlike Canaan, was married (spiritually, if you will) to Yahweh. The child sacrifices were sacrifices of real children, the ‘prostitution’ fornication with real cult prostitutes. Fornication here is not a metaphorical characterisation of the infanticide. And it did not chiefly take place in temples, but under every green tree and on every high hill.

            Ezek 16:15-16 (same chapter) goes into further detail – women offered themselves in decorated shrines. Ezek 16:17-19 – they fornicated before gold and silver images which were dressed in embroidered garments, laying out food before them and filling the air with incense to generate a numinous atmophere. This went on not only in the rural areas but (Ezek 16:25, 30f) in ‘high places’ and brothels at the head of every street.

            The chief god that led Israel astray was not some innocuous moon god but Baal (named differently according to region – ‘Baal’ was the Bible’s catch-all title). He had a consort called Asherah. In Israel the belief was that Yahweh/Baal was married to Asherah, and fornication with women next to the pillars and ‘asherah poles’ that represented the two deities was doing nothing more than what the two deities did themselves. The first recorded instance is in Num 25:1-3. It involved physical fornication. To ‘spiritualise’ all this – and spiritualising what was actually physical and literal, especially in prophecy, is a very common approach these days – is seriously to downplay the abomination. It is no coincidence that the present apostasy in the West is taking place at the same time as fornication has been normalised.

          • The harlot is Jerusalem. God simply could not make it any clearer. We presumably agree that Jerusalem was committing spiritual adultery and that this is one thing described in these passages. The question is whether there was also physical adultery/fornication going on as part of pagan religious ritual in ancient Israel. No doubt there was a certain amount of illicit sex going on – there always was and sadly always will be – but sex rituals are nowhere explicit. And assertion is not argument.

            Just how novel is the West’s apostasy? I suggest that what has happened is that most unbelievers have stopped going to church, whereas before the 1960s many used to. Such people believed in Christian morality, not Christ. But you need divine help to keep those laws, and eventually the wheels came off the cart. Most pre-1960s Western Christianity might better be called Trinitarian Judaism, a religion of works; in protestant lands as much as Catholic.

  18. John the Baptist, always one to be aware with crystal clarity of the real urgency, spoke out against only one thing in our main source Mark: marital/family adulteration.

    The significance of this is that Jesus grew up within the ambit and influence of John the Baptist, and doubtless caught this understanding partly from him.

  19. I would echo Christopher Shell’s summation of Anton’s analysis of the biblical material, as indeed that of other contributors. However, much of the debate has been (understandably) academic and while it may have caught the essence of what Jesus believed and taught, it seems to me that little or nothing of the foregoing discussion captures the real essence of Jesus’ profound pastoral insights into the powerful undercurrents of the human psyche.
    ” He (Jesus) did not need man’s testimony, for he knew what was in man John 2:25).” And an invaluable feature of this knowledge was to know when to draw the discussion to a close and maintain silence.
    In his essay, Ian (Paul) referred in passing to John 8: 10 – 11 . “Does no-one condemn you?Neither do I. Go and sin no more” . But where does she go? Back to her husband (assuming he wants her)? Does she live on her own ( an unlikely possiblity at that time)? We are only informed that she is forgiven and she is not to sin anymore.
    In John 4 (the Samaritan woman episode) Jesus confronts the woman concerning her dubious relationships. There is no word of condemnation; no call to repentance.Now no doubt we can assume these as given. But is the “argument from silence” in this context meant to be taken automatically as a negation? Later we are told that “many of the Samaritans — believed in him because of this woman’s testimony (4:39). Moreover at the heart of her testimony was the fact of Jesus’ exposure of her sinful past; hardly the confession of someone deeply troubled by the practicalities she was going to face in the future!
    If we are of the opinion that, given the clarity of Jesus’ teaching the resolution of the issues pertaining to divorce/adultery are cut and dried, perhaps we need to look again at His teaching on “the adultery of the heart” (Matthew 5:27f). And perhaps we ought to give serious consideration to expurgating AKD (adulterous King David) from the text of scripture! I often wonder why Jesus never referred to this despicable episode in his otherwise (fairly)exemplary life?

    • Hello Colin Mc,
      Not sure why it should be expurgated.
      I see it as a reason to look forward to David’s greater son and Messiah, Jesus, King of Kings, the King without flaw and eternally peerless, a King utterly faithful to his Bride. A longing of the people, fulfilled.
      King David’s blood on his hands barred him by God from building a temple, and counting his army was also a no-no and was a falling away of his total trust in God against goliath. David started well, but didn’t end well.

      • Geoff,
        My final sentence was meant to be an ironic rejoinder to what I have perceived to be a tendency to towards intellectual rigour at the expense of an honest -to- God perception of our own human frailty. I am wholly in sympathy with your summary of David’s character and the limitations of his reign. In fact, I would go as far as to say that his flaws and failings actually serve to illuminate the greatness of his reign. And they serve to remind us that the “King without flaw” did not retreat into a ghetto of superficial piety or self righteousness; not least when he boldly declared: “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

          • I don’t! That is I don’t believe that they are at odds “in the scriptures”. I do think however that there has been a tendency in this discussion to so magnify “the right answer to the question” that we lose sight of not only Jesus’ understanding of and, yes, compassion for those who are wrestling with these issues but also the foibles of our own characters. “Let him who stands take heed lest he falls”.
            I was pleased to see that you did address the issue in your final paragraph. You are right to say that “one size does not fit all”. But I would humbly suggest that the “shoe” is considerably wider than your illustration might suggest. Blessings!

          • I agree (Colin) that even evangelicals differ over the pastoral conclusions to be drawn from these scriptures. I give reasons for my conclusion in my main comment and ask simply that anybody who disagrees state *specifically* where they believe my reasoning is wrong and why.

  20. Reply to Colin Hamer re the new covenant
    Colin I am fully aware that the new covenant is “new” . Indeed Hebrews speaks of of the old as being “obsolete”. My riposte was to your assertion: ” The unconditional new covenant does not pass from father to son as did the MC —.” The form of the new covenant in Hebrews 8 is taken virtually verbatim from Jeremiah 31 -including a direct reference to Judea and Samaria! The writer to the Hebrews does not “update” this to exclude the possibility of “fathers and sons”. Neither, I would suggest, does Paul in Romans 11.

    • Hi Colin M
      Yes – and Jer 31:29-30 makes it clear it does not pass from father to son. This is one key difference from the MC.

      I am not sure what your point is? The NC will be offered to Judah and Samaria, and the Gentiles, not a re-worked MC.

      • Colin I am in complete agreement with your second sentence. And given your contextualisation of the expression ” from father to son”; I would also concur with this. As the context was not included in the original post, I (wrongly) took it to refer to what others see as God having no further dealings with Israel as a nation.

      • Colin I am in complete agreement with your second sentence. And given your contextualisation of the expression ” from father to son”; I would also concur with this. As the context was not included in the original post, I (wrongly) took it to refer to what others see as God having no further dealings with Israel as a nation.

  21. It is probable that this book would add something to the discussion:
    God’s Unfaithful Wife (Ray Ortlund, Jr.): A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery (NSBT Vol. 2)

  22. Comment to Anton – I firmly suscribe to your reasoning in this instance. I just wanted to affirm that for many in positions of Christian leadership, the issues involved in these topics penetrate to the depths of the soul and are not susceptible to easy solutions.

    • Oh indeed! Here, from the long version of my essay on the subject, is the section titled “Answers to hard questions for new converts”:

      Q: I was married and divorced, and my ‘ex’ is alive; now I have become a Christian. Am I free to marry another, since the Bible tells me that I am ‘born again’?
      A: No. Morality is universal; the difference between believers and non-believers is that believers *acknowledge* the right way to behave – a way which God knows, because he made us. You are not free to renege on financial contracts signed before your conversion that you find irksome, and slaves who converted to Christianity were expected not to walk out on their owners (Philemon). You should acknowledge Jesus’ teaching on remarriage. Your new faith might help you to be reconciled with your ‘ex,’ but if that is impossible then you must stay single (and celibate) so long as your ‘ex’ lives. Do not pray that your ex dies! Don’t think of your single status as a ‘life sentence;’ God says that there is much good about the single state, which he will help you to explore. He takes delight that you have become one of his own. You would do better not to ‘go dating’ – why meet someone you want to marry but can’t?

      Q: My spouse and I wish to divorce each other. We are Christians so we need to know what the Bible says, but our wish to tear up our contract and be free to marry others is mutual. Tearing up a payment-for-goods contract is surely acceptable if circumstances change so that it suits both sides, so presumably we can do the same?
      A: How much coercion went into your consensus? And, apart from any children you have, why do you not wish to try to rekindle your love? This should not be beyond Christians, who are given inner means to set good examples. A payment-for-goods contract is a private matter and a one-off transaction, but marriage is an open-ended public covenant. God does not wish to punish you – the effects of hard-heartedness are penalty enough – but he has to show people that marriage must be taken seriously.

      Q: I am a Christian who was married and divorced; now my ‘ex’ has died. May I marry again?
      A: Yes, ever since your ‘ex’ died. Any future spouse should be Christian (and should not, of course, have a living ‘ex’).

      Q: I am living with a partner whose former spouse is alive; my partner and I have not decided whether to make a permanent commitment to each other. I have just become a Christian. What should I do?
      A: You must separate, even if you have children with your current partner.

      Q: I am living with a partner and I have a surviving ex-spouse; my partner and I have not decided whether to make a permanent commitment. I have just become a Christian. What should I do?
      A: You must separate from your partner, and if you and your ‘ex’ are unable to get back together then you must live singly and celibately while your ‘ex’ is alive. God says singleness has advantages, which he would help you to explore, so take heart.

      Q: My husband divorced his first wife and married me. Then we divorced. Now I am a Christian. Because my ex-husband’s first wife was alive, were we not really married? Would that mean I am free to marry another?
      A: No. You were genuinely married to this man, who had taken two wives even though he had rejected one. Remember that God didn’t ban polygamy even though he disapproved of it. As you were married, you are not free to marry again while the man you married is alive.

      Q: I am a Christian and divorced. If my ‘ex’ remarries, does that free me to remarry?
      A: No. According to Jesus your ‘ex’ is committing adultery. You would be doing the same if you remarry. Jesus views you not as either divorced from someone or married to them, but as both divorced from them *and* married to them.

      Q: I want to divorce and be free to remarry. Can I achieve that by committing adultery with a prostitute one night? I gather this has been a common practice.
      A: That is because a certificate of divorce today is written by the authorities, whereas in the Bible it was written by the husband. Don’t you realise what you are revealing about yourself by asking this question? The answer is No.

      Q: The marriage I am in is the second marriage for me (or my spouse), and the former husband/wife is still alive. I have become a Christian. In the gospel Christ says that my marriage is adulterous, but where he mentions remarriage he does not regard the contract as void (since a certificate of divorce is needed to end it and children are legitimate), and Christ also sees divorce as sinful. What should I do?
      A: I am glad you see that there is a problem. This question must have been asked many times in the early church, but it is not addressed in any New Testament letter. There is sin either way but scripture sets out how to deal with sin, not how to weigh sins against each other. You must consult God yourself. It is up to him to decide what sin to forgive – provided that you are genuinely sorry – and what sin you must avoid. One size does not fit all and if you approach God with a readiness to obey, so that it is his will and not yours, then he will make clear the course you should take. Do not make a hasty decision, but conduct your present marriage in the light of what you now know that the scriptures say, and observe how your relationship changes. Pray hard! I would expect God to take account of the welfare of any children (of either marriage); whether you told your current spouse about the first; whether you divorced *in order* to marry your current spouse (in which case the wronged spouse should also be consulted); and your responsibility to show Christ to all who are personally involved – and to the world – in your actions. If your spouse also converts then you should seek God’s will jointly.

      Q: In retrospect I believe my husband was not sincere when he took his wedding vows. His subsequent behaviour clearly suggests that. Doesn’t this mean that it is not a genuine marriage, so that I am free to marry someone else if I wish?
      A: But you’ve just called him your husband! The vows you took were not conditional on his; you pledged yourself to him for better or worse. According to you, your husband’s philandering would not be adultery if he did it often enough, in which case how could you call your children legitimate? Your marriage is unhappy, not invalid.

      Q: I am a divorced Christian (my ‘ex’ is alive), and I have met somebody else and we wish to marry. Is this all right in a church that permits it?
      A: At the end of your life you will answer to Christ, not to churchmen, so you should read his word for yourself in the Bible. When you read it, don’t confuse what you want to be true and what you believe to be true. If you want to read commentaries to help you then make sure you look at a broad cross-section, because choosing congenial commentaries is as selective as choosing churches with congenial views. My answer to your question is No, as explained above.

      Q: I am a polygamist living in a land where polygamy is acceptable. I have become a Christian. What should I do?
      A: On the basis of Exodus 21:10 I suggest that you continue with all of your present wives – for their sake, for although God took account of polygamy in the Old Testament it is not what he intended. You must provide for them all, as presumably you have been doing, and you may marry again only if all of your wives die before you. (Obviously you must not murder them.) Thereafter you must be monogamous.

      • I am wondering what we might say to someone who asks why Jesus lays down such an absolute teaching on no remarriage (if partner is alive). And does this not contradict a foundational creation declaration is that ‘it is not good to alone’? I have in mind someone who made a disastrous and brief marriage when very young (under the damaging influence of some highly dysfunctional home upbringing). She has worked through to a place of deep faith and considerable healing and maturity. By any other measure she is now better prepared and ready to enter a secure marriage than before. But according to this teaching she faces a lifetime as a single person and never having children. What would you say to her?

        • To see how seriously God takes all vows, read the horror story about Jephthah in the Book of Judges, and then Galatians 3:15. God cannot make exceptions without cheapening the vows of others.

          Any Christian should be completely happy in themselves, due to their closeness to Jesus. If not, it is due to heeding one’s own flesh. But God says that singleness has many advantages, which he would gladly help such a person to explore, so she should take heart.

          • I find this very idealistic to be honest Anton. But you again say, ‘God says that singleness has many advantages’. Where does he say this? Thanks.

          • 1 Corinthians 7. This is about faith, not idealism. Remember too that our time and place in which faithful Christians have not suffered persecution is an exception, and persecution the rule – as we shall perhaps soon find out.

          • David you are kind. I have to say that I find Anton’s Q&A session so simplistic that it verges on the abusive. Can you see a Ministry Division pastoral letter exercise that said such things allowing the person who had written like that to proceed towards training for ordination?

          • 1 Cor 7 is Paul’s pastoral advice to a world he believed was on the brink of the eschaton. And his context is the belief that the world is on the brink of the eschaton. Who makes long terms plans when the world is about to end. So saying single and focused on discipleship makes total sense. ‘Many advantages’? – one in particular in a very particular context. And even Paul leaves the choice to marry to the individual. But it was God who said it was not good to be alone though.

          • I don;t get David R’s ‘idealistic’ idea. A high proportion of Scripture is God making high demands of humanity, or at least expecting good things. Is all of that ‘idealistic’?

          • Bonhoeffer warned about against ‘cheap grace’ but sharply warned about attempts to live by idealised notions of Christian community. He called these ‘wish dreams’. They are the way we wish or demand the church ‘ought’ to be. But they are not based on lived actual reality. They impose another. They are not a means of grace – rather they condemn and weigh down. Jesus warned about that kind of teaching. “The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together). That has been my experience – including the shattering. I am in no doubt about Anton’s sincerity, but cannot imagine any church actually living by his manifesto above – still less finding it a means of grace, mercy or hope. I think Bonhoeffer would call it a wish dream.

          • Andrew

            No, more’s the pity. If more ordinands took God’s word seriously – particularly its view of what is and is not sinful – then the church would not be in the mess it is in today.

          • Anton. The issue here is not whether the bible is being take seriously – but how it is interpreted. Someone who disagrees with you can be just as serious about the Bible and sin as you are – possibly even more so.

          • David Runcorn is absolutely correct. This isn’t about people not taking the Bible seriously on this matter Anton, but what should be the correct interpretation of these issues both theologically and pastorally. You may of course, disagree with their take but I don’t see you can assert their failure to consider scripture deferentially and with respect.

          • Fine. Let’s start with my summary exegesis above, from which my pastoral advice flows. Where exactly do you think it is wrong, and why? And what advice would you give in the cases I discuss, and why?

            Calling my advice close to ‘abusive’ is not constructive, by the way. I consider that some people I can read in print are giving advice on this subject that directs believers toward hell, but it is equally bad manners to say so in an exegetical discussion.

          • Anton. It is reasonable to ask for a response to where folk disagree with you. I think that Colin Hamer and others here have already offered some challenges to your position. Nor have you responded to some of my comments. I do not support your view on divorce and remarriage because I do not start from your view of scripture. This is a much bigger discussion and not possible here. As to your pastoral principles … I wonder if you actually know any churches that apply your beliefs and prohibit remarriage after divorce, so where a not insignificant number of its members are committed to lifelong singleness (despite God declaring in the beginning it is not good to be alone) – but who are all ‘completely happy in themselves, due to their closeness to Jesus’ ?
            Christian marriage vows are not for comparing with the story of Jephthah. Vows, like covenants, do not mean the same thing wherever they are mentioned in the Bible. Do you really think pastorally supporting a previously divorced parishioner as they vulnerably open themselves to the possibility of the gift of new love in marriage is sending them to hell? Does not your approach to scripture require you to insist on the death penalty for adultery?
            No, I do not think divorce and remarriage are unforgiveable sins. I believe in forgiveness, healing and God-given new beginnings for people in a world where bad things happen for a variety of reasons, including, but not only, our own capacity for sin and waywardness.

          • David, it is possible to be on the ‘evangelical’ side of the liberal/ evangelical divide (to adopt hopelessly inadequate shorthand) and still cringe when hell is invoked in this context. I too believe in forgiveness, healing and God-given new beginnings, remembering Jesus’s precious words in Matt 23:23 (where ESV’s ‘justice’ is krisis, a word I would here translate ‘discernment’) – not speaking about marriage but still pertinent.

            I am obliged to remember such words, knowing two friends whose first marriages proved disastrous (for whatever reason, and they may have been partly to blame), remarried and went on to lead fruitful lives. In one of these cases I also knew the other party, who did not want divorce; it was terribly painful for her.

            I am single. I reached the very threshold of marriage twice. The breakdown was painful for me too. I did not choose singleness, but after decades of struggle had to accept that God chose it for me, in accordance with Matt 19:12 (a saying that should not be applied lightly). How God orders our lives is a mystery. But whether we are single or married, happily or unhappily married, marriage is not the be-all and end-all. One day we shall be like the angels, and like our brother Jesus himself, and though from an earthly perspective that may not be a comfort, we are assured that the marriage feast in heaven will be one of exceeding joy. It is all a mystery. We all fail, we must all give account, and there is no reward for not applying forgiveness in relationships. But in the pain there may be growth, and the one to whom we must give account himself abounds in mercy. Bless you.

          • So you decline to reason together with me about the scriptures. In other words, you say I am wrong but you won’t say why on the basis of any mutually agreed starting point, nor explain your own position. That concludes this discussion (apart from pointing out that death for adultery is part of Mosaic Law, which was never bending on gentile nations).

          • Anton. Fraid so. But I did explain why. We would need get into the whole understanding of scripture. I also pointed out there were responses to your views that you have yet to respond to. Sometimes the reasons are practical too. My life is full, as I’m sure yours is. I am away for the next three weeks. Sorry be so frustrating.

          • Of course there were responses to my comments that I have not responded to. I don’t recall being asked a question. Try me – if you are prepared to do the same.

          • Anton. You will find a number of questions in my recent posts to you here actually. of which the one that most interests me is: ” I wonder if you actually know any churches that apply your beliefs and prohibit remarriage after divorce, so where a not insignificant number of its members are committed to lifelong singleness (despite God declaring in the beginning it is not good to be alone) – but who are all ‘completely happy in themselves, due to their closeness to Jesus’ ?” In there words do you know a community where your pastoral thesis is actually proving to be sustainable, grace-filled, fruitful and joyful way for God’s people in a broken world?

          • How can you expect one man who knows few churches to answer that? Western churches are uniformly in a bad way because they are polluted by worldly thinking. Jesus Christ is going to give us a dose of persecution to cleanse his bride soon, and then we shall see a more scriptural church here. Weep for our nation but not for the church.

            What I can do is point to individual Christians who take the point of view I advocate and are content with their lives.

            Now, how can you reconcile your view with Luke 16:18?

          • Anton. Well I only asked. A reasonable question surely. I do not know where you worship or if you have any ministry roles. It does mean that your sincerely held but pastorally very severe convictions on this subject are ones you have not seen lived out in practice in the Christian church. Jesus does talk about recognising things by their fruit. In over 40 years of local church ministry I have simply seen too many wonderfully Christian lives and ministries go through heart-breaking marriage break down but flourish in the healing gift of faithful remarriage. God blesses this! It bears good fruit out of brokenness. This, for me, the gospel. As to Luke 18, I think Matt 19 gives the fuller context of this saying. ‘Any cause’ is the very specific issue Jesus is addressing in his own time and context. I think this is not the only subject where the meaning and context of the ancient text is crucial to understand if we are to discern what it asks of us today. But, sorry, holiday beckons.

          • Hi David R

            The New Testament scholarly mainstream. as you probably know, looks to Mark first when seeking the Jesus of history, and sees Matthew as redacting Mark off his own bat (given that he tweaks rather than making wholesale changes to Markan material). Yet the Jesus you present here is not like the one in Mark 10.

  23. The more I think I learn about Jesus and from Jesus, the more I sense he wasn’t really into making marriage and divorce stricter or harsher. All the astonishing things he is recorded as saying and doing argue against him just selecting schools and improving their inadequate rules in this situation. Rather, he seems to have had a consistent habit of blasting empty legal self-justification, and focusing instead showing and explaining his genuinely easy-yoke solution to the real problem: the enduring hardness of the human heart. I think he wanted to rescue, forgive, restore and heal people caught up (or out) in the nation’s perennial adulterous mess and its resort to inadequate legalistic responses; to help people, and especially their children, to be more loved and more loving; to help people, whether married, divorced or single, to re-think and grow up into a good, godly life, fully and powerfully. Maybe something along the lines of “Blessed are the once married, the frequently married, the badly married, the technically married, the never married – because right now you can change course and get in on a married way of life, far beyond your wildest marital expectations and experiences, with me and my God for ever. It’s real. It’s true. It works. I lay down my life for the love of you. Now will you come and join me at the reception?”

  24. If one read through the NT for the first time and got through Revelation chapter one. The reader might suppose that the 7 churches overseen by the 7 Stars might be characterised by the gifts of the Spirit. Eg love Joy peace patience etc. Instead we find the churches are variously in one chaotic state or another. Therefore I believe there is no situation where a true church will ever be a perfect example of correct belief and doctrine. And if one is touted to be so, fronted by some perfect leader with perfect doctrine; run from its cultish clutches.

  25. I have just begun reading some of Ians work. Am very pleased to see his balanced view.
    I am really pleased to see that he studied David Instone Brewers work. I am currently going through a divorce, after 30+ years of abuse as I didn’t understand that abuse was about selfish control etc and not just hitting your spouse-all the while lying as you say how much you love them. I have still never heard it preached about, which is not helpful. 55 years of an “eclectic ” faith, Baptist, Presbytarian and Pentecostal and silence of how having a high view of marriage. I think it should mean congregations are taught to expect to be treated with kindness and respect. I separated 3 years ago, and after completing my Diploma in Theology, I finally have the courage to divorce him. I expect to be shunned by much of the Church, but its worth it to get out of Hell’s jail.
    I realize I’m bringing the tone down, but sometimes I wonder if details of doctrine can be misapplied and can sidetrack the general population from the big picture of showing who Jesus is , and loving Him. Abuse certainly does.

  26. I think Anton is right. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that remarriage while a former spouse is alive is always adultery. I was not raised to believe this. In fact, I am surrounded by divorce and remarriage in my family, and one reason I didn’t want to believe it is because it meant that people I had always thought of as good and decent moral Christian people were in adulterous marriages that they should have never entered in to. However, in the end I realized that the standard of right teaching is the Bible alone and not my personal experiences. Having set aside my experiences in favor of simply analyzing the Biblical data, I could not escape the conclusion that the only way to harmonize all of the Biblical teachings on marriage, divorce, and remarriage is to assume that permission to divorce does not equal permission to remarry. Those who try to make this assumption are forced to go through all sorts of exegetical gymnastics to make sense of all that Jesus and Paul teach on the subject. When you realize that they are not the same, then all of the passage make more sense. The bottom line is that the Bible seems to teach that in rare circumstances a Christian is permitted to divorce, but a Christian is never permitted to remarry while the first spouse is alive because to do so is adultery. The fact that very few churches teach this is a scandal.

    There are two verses which clinch this view in my mind. The first is 1 Cor 7:10-11

    10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

    The second is Romans 7:1-3

    Or do you not know, brothers[a]—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.[b] 3 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.

    Attempts to say a woman does not commit adultery if she is divorced and remarried in light of the above scriptures is not persuasive, and it is reasonable to believe that a man is held to the same standard. Paul says explicitly that she should remain unmarried if she separates from her husband. A lot of attention is given to what Jesus says on the topic, especially in the Matthew account, but Paul’s statements are also inspired scripture and settle the case for me. They actually help to make sense of what Jesus says. Admittedly, the pastoral implications are massive and hard to contemplate, but it doesn’t matter. We must be faithful to the Bible above all else since that is God’s revelation to us.


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