Monday, May 17, 1999

Marriage and Divorce: Comments on the Biblical Texts

Marriage and Divorce: Comments on the Biblical Texts

By Stephen F. Noll

The texts below are the most important indicators of a consistent biblical teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. The texts are first presented with exegetical comments and then some conclusions are drawn.

The foundation of marriage in creation

Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Comment: God ordains marriage as the union of man and woman in the flesh. The "one flesh" would refer both to sexual intercourse and indirectly to the procreation of children as offspring of that union and the resulting family unit. The "union of heart and mind" is more implicit, although Song of Songs may be seen as commentary on this verse. Marriage is neither an ideal nor a sacrament but is a covenant. While the institution of marriage cannot be broken, individual covenants can be (cf. vows). Monogamy is implicit in creation and is made explicit by Jesus when marriage is seen as a type of the covenant between Christ and the Church.

The sin of adultery

Exodus 20:14: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Comment: Adultery is a violation of the Decalogue and a capital crime. It is not simply the physical act of adultery but the willful violation that incurs the highest penalty. In the New Testament, adultery is a sin which can be forgiven and repented of (John 8:3).

The provision of divorce

Deuteronomy 24:1-4: When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter husband dislikes her and writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance.

Comment: While God does not ordain divorce in the Law, he does not deny its reality either. It is hard to see how this is compatible from a sacramental view of marriage. The text teaches that once a marriage is ended by divorce and remarriage, there is no going back, for financial or emotional reasons. To do so is an abomination. While Jesus critiques the reality of willful divorce, he may assume the reality of remarriage under certain conditions.

Divorce of foreign wives

Ezra 10:11: Now then make confession to the LORD the God of your fathers, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.

Comment: Ezra concludes that one covenant obligation (election) can trump another (marriage). God was calling for divorce, not annulment, i.e., the Bible does not make such a distinction.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce

Mark 10:2-12: And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away." But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Comment: Jesus focuses on the perfect will of God and the willfulness of man. He confirms God’s perfect will in creation, which he understands to be exclusively monogamous. He concludes that a later law cannot annul this will (cf. Galatians 3:17). Yet if the Law is also God’s will, it is a contingent or permissive will because of the hardness of the human heart. Therefore Jesus rejects any justification for divorce based on the Law. It is only a manifestation of sin. Once again he uses adultery as a graphic metaphor of the magnitude of that sin.

Matthew 5:27-28,31-32: "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Comment: As in Mark 10, Jesus focuses the issue of adultery on the human heart in verses 27-28. The connection of verses 27-28 and 31-32 is this: a second marriage is similar to adultery within a marriage. Jesus is rejecting willful divorce by a husband. Likewise, he is saying that to marry someone who is willfully divorced may interfere with the possibility of her reconciliation with her husband. (Isn’t this Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:11?) Jesus does not address the question whether this applies to a divorced woman whose husband has (willfully) remarried.

Matthew 19:9: "And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery."

Comment: In the exception clause, Jesus assumes that some divorce is not willful but justifiable. Porneia probably means adultery, a case in which the wife has willfully broken the marriage covenant. Since the husband does not sin in divorcing his wife in this case, does it not follow that he would not sin in contracting a second marriage? Both Matthew 5 and 19 assume that, according to the Law, only a husband can initiate divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7:10, Paul extends Jesus’ teaching to include the prohibition of a wife separating from her husband.

Paul on "one flesh"

1 Corinthians 6:16: Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, "The two shall become one flesh."

Comment: Paul is certainly recognizing the deep spiritual implications of physical prostitution, but surely he is not saying that the man is becoming an organic unity with a prostitute.

Paul on separation and divorce

1 Corinthians 7:10-13, 15: To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband) — and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace.

Comment: Paul understands Jesus’ teaching, consistent with Matthew 5 and 19, to mean that a Christian wife may not separate from her husband nor a Christian man divorce his wife. Verse 11 addresses the case in which she has willfully separated and must await or actively seek reconciliation. Just as Jesus considered divorce for porneia as justifiable, Paul says that divorce in the case of an unbeliever’s separation is also justifiable. Since in the case in verse 11, it is not justifiable for the person to remarry, it follows that in the case in verse 15, it is justifiable for the divorced Christian to remarry.


The following are narrowly drawn conclusions based on the exegesis of the texts above. It may be appropriate for moral theology to extend or shape these principles in the light of pastoral circumstances and particular historical settings (e.g., some suggestions given in parentheses).

1) Marriage of one man and one woman is God’s general and perfect will for His creatures. Marriage is a spiritual covenant, a psycho-physical union that normally leads to offspring and the family unit of society.

2) Marriage is God’s primary will, divorce a secondary provision for human sin. Thus divorce can never be justified by the mere initiative of the husband (or in our society, of the wife).

3) Jesus calls His disciples to a higher righteousness in which they live out the purposes of the creation covenant. Thus it seems inconceivable that two believers, seeking to follow Jesus, can divorce in the will of God. If a Christian couple claims that they are incompatible or that their marriage is dead, one or both of them is sinning.

4) If one Christian partner willfully separates from or divorces his spouse, the partners are not free to remarry but should seek reconciliation. During this period, it is wrong for anyone else to seek to marry one of the separated partners. (I wonder if Paul would put a time limit as to how long he would expect them to remain single in this situation?)

5) Marriage may be ended justifiably on grounds of sexual sin or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. (If abuse or abandonment of the "body" of one’s partner is the common sin linking these two biblical cases, physical abuse of spouse or children might be included as a legitimate ground for divorce.) If divorce is justifiable in this case, it follows that remarriage is also justifiable.

6) Remarriage by one partner ends any possibility of reconciliation of the original marriage. The innocent party to divorce may remarry with a clear conscience. The guilty party might remarry after repentance.

7) Remarriages are not the same as first marriages. Individual relationships may be better the second time around, but God’s perfect will in monogamous marriage is defectively imaged in a second marriage.

This piece was originally written in 1996 to assist the faculty of Trinity School for Ministry in evaluating the qualifications of applicants for the faculty.

Copyright 1999 Stephen F. Noll.

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