While the Scriptures take the marriage covenant very seriously, they permit divorce and remarriage in some situations. To learn exactly what these circumstances are, we’ll begin with the Old Testament regulations of divorce and remarriage. Then we’ll consider the words of Jesus on this subject. And finally, we’ll look at the instructions given by the apostle Paul.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 tells us that when a man finds “some uncleanness” in his wife, divorces her, and they both marry new mates, they cannot ever undo this new marriage to remarry each other.1
We know little about the rate of divorce in Israel between the time of Moses and the exile into Babylon over a thousand years later. However, at the beginning of the New Testament era, men were divorcing their wives for the most trivial reasons imaginable. In the rabbinical literature of that time, burning a husband’s food was listed as grounds for divorce! While the conservative school of Shammai taught that the provision of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 required a serious moral violation, most rabbis belonged to the far more lenient school of Hillel. In their view, any man who wanted a divorce should be able to obtain one easily. Even the rabbis who followed Shammai believed that it was violation of a man’s masculinity to live as a celibate. In practice, therefore, both schools advocated remarriage for any single male, no matter what the grounds for his divorce were. 2
Of course, while this may have been the rabbinical consensus, it certainly doesn’t reflect the biblical view of marriage! The rabbinical schools of Christ’s day were often wrong in their interpretation of the Old Testament. They made the Law into a works system for salvation and created loopholes by which clever people could get away with terrible wrongs. It appears that these Jewish scholars, all of whom prided themselves on their loyalty to Moses, were often out of tune with the deep spirituality of the Law.
In this cultural and religious context, the Lord’s statement that people who divorced on lesser grounds committed adultery when they remarried was shocking. It even amazed the disciples, as evidenced by their response 3 ( Matthew 19:10 ). Jesus’ teaching clearly ran contrary to the easy-going divorce and remarriage customs of His time. He declared that the only grounds for a valid divorce was porneia (sexual immorality—Matthew 5:32 ), a term that encompassed a broad range of sexual sins. Later, Paul added another legitimate reason for divorce—the willful desertion of a Christian by a non-Christian mate ( 1 Corinthians 7:15 ).
While the New Testament explicitly makes both sexual infidelity and desertion by an unbeliever grounds for a Christian’s divorce and remarriage, it doesn’t offer a detailed description of how a Christian should deal with an intolerable marital situation that doesn’t involve either of these circumstances. It appears that Paul had such situations in mind when he wrote:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
To sum up, there is general agreement among evangelicals that apart from the death of a mate, the New Testament gives only two situations in which a marriage can be terminated with the right to remarry: illicit sexual activity, and abandonment by an unbelieving mate. There are no other rightful grounds. Although it may be necessary in some other situations for a Christian to separate from or divorce his or her mate, Scripture requires him or her to remain unmarried until reconciled. From the very beginning, God recognized the profound value of unconditional commitment between spouses in marriage. He mercifully provided a way out of relationships that have already been shattered by adultery and abandonment, but He never intended an “easy out.”
- This raises three questions:
a. What is the “uncleanness” that apparently gave the husband grounds to divorce his wife?
The meaning of the term “some uncleanness” is not clear. The expression is often translated “nakedness” or “something shameful.” Basically, we don’t know all that the term represented, but it must have been a serious matter short of adultery.b. What is the reason for the restriction that they could never remarry each other?
No reason is given for the restriction forbidding the remarriage of two people once they had entered a new marriage. It certainly would prevent a man from divorcing his wife and marrying another woman as an experiment, thinking he could obtain a second divorce and return to his first mate if he chose to do.
c. Why did the Law of Moses permit this disruption of a marriage?
Jesus Himself stated that the Mosaic law allowed divorce “because of the hardness” of men’s hearts (Matthew 19:8). Because of the strongly patriarchal nature of ancient Israeli society, if a man disliked his wife for any reason, he had the power to make her life unbearable. He could marry other wives, treat them with respect and favoritism, and treat his first wife like a slave. If he did, she had no recourse other than to call upon the support of her family. Back To Article
- In Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament under the discussion of porneia, we are given evidence that even the strict school of Shammai believed it to be shameful for a divorced man to remain unmarried. Interestingly, according to Kittel, the school of Shammai taught that a sexual offense of some kind was the only grounds for divorce, but it advocated remarriage for all divorced men, even for those who obtained their divorce on trivial grounds. It appears that these Jewish scholars were convinced that almost all unmarried men would find sexual release somewhere, and that the best solution was a new marriage. Back To Article
- Since Jewish culture considered it shameful for a man to remain unmarried after either the death of a spouse or a divorce, divorced men of that time quickly married new mates, regardless of the circumstances of the divorce. Back To Article