Another Look At The Biblical Reasons For Divorce

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Recently I was asked by someone who wished to remain anonymous to post an article on the subject of biblical reasons for divorce.

Since I felt that the author of this article does a much better job of explaining the biblical teaching on divorce than I ever could, I chose to repost it for everyone.

I included an addendum on the end that covers specifically the issue of divorce and ministry.

I hope it helps all of you who are dealing with the biblical reasons for divorce.

What Does the Bible Really Teach About Divorce?

by David Instone-Brewer

What Does the Bible Say?

The New Testament presents a problem in understanding both what the text says about divorce and its pastoral implications. Jesus appears to say that divorce is allowed only if adultery has occurred:

“Whoever divorces a wife, except for sexual indecency, and remarries, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).

However, this has been interpreted in many different ways.

Most say that Jesus allows divorce only for adultery.

However, some argue that Jesus originally didn’t allow even that.

Only in Matthew does he offer an out from marriage:

“except for sexual indecency.”

Beyond what Jesus says, Paul also allows divorce. He permits it for abandonment by a nonbeliever (1 Cor. 7:12-15). Many theologians add this as a second ground for divorce.

Some pastors have found this teaching difficult to accept, because it seems so impractical—even cruel in certain situations.

It suggests there can be no divorce for physical or emotional abuse, and Paul even seems to forbid separation (1 Cor. 7:10).

As a result, some Christians quietly ignore this seemingly “impractical” biblical teaching or find ways around it.

For example, they suggest that when Jesus talked about “sexual immorality,” perhaps he included other things like abuse. Alternatively, when Paul spoke about abandonment by a nonbeliever, maybe he included any behavior that is not supportive of the marriage or abandonment by anyone who is acting like a nonbeliever.

Many have welcomed such stretching of Scripture because they couldn’t accept what they believed the text said.

However, does the literal text mean what we think it does?

While doing doctoral studies at Cambridge, I likely read every surviving writing of the rabbis of Jesus’ time. I “got inside their heads” enough to begin to understand them.

When I began working as a pastor and was confronted almost immediately with divorced men and women who wanted to remarry, my first response was to re-read the Bible.

I’d read the biblical texts on divorce many times in the past, but I found something strange as I did so again. They now said something I hadn’t heard before I read the rabbis!

‘Any Cause’ Divorce

The texts hadn’t changed, but my knowledge of the language and culture in which they were written had. I was now reading them like a first-century Jew would have read them, and this time those confusing passages made more sense.

My book, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Church (InterVarsity Press) is a summary of several academic papers and books I began writing with this new understanding of what Jesus taught.

One of my most dramatic findings concerns a question the Pharisees asked Jesus:

“Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3).

This question reminded me that a few decades before Jesus, some rabbis (the Hillelites) had invented a new form of divorce called the “any cause” divorce.

By the time of Jesus, this “any cause” divorce had become so popular that almost no one relied on the literal Old Testament grounds for divorce.

The “any cause” divorce was invented from a single word in

Deuteronomy 24:1. Moses allowed divorce for “a cause of immorality,”

alternatively, more literally, “a thing of nakedness.”

Most Jews recognized that this unusual phrase was talking about adultery.

However, the Hillelite rabbis wondered why Moses had added the word “thing” or “cause” when he only needed to use the word “immorality.” They decided this extra word implied another ground for divorce—divorce for “a cause.”

They argued that anything, including a burnt meal or wrinkles not there when you married your wife, could be a cause! The text, they said, taught that divorce was allowed both for adultery and for “any cause.”

Another group of rabbis (the Shammaites) disagreed with this interpretation. They said Moses’ words were a single phrase that referred to no type of divorce “except immorality”—and therefore the new “any cause” divorces were invalid.

These opposing views were well known to all first-century Jews. Moreover, the Pharisees wanted to know where Jesus stood.

“Is it lawful to divorce your wife for any cause?”

They asked. In other words: “Is it lawful for us to use the ‘any cause’ divorce?”

When Jesus answered with a resounding no, he wasn’t condemning “divorce for any cause,” but rather the newly invented “any cause” divorce.

Jesus agreed firmly with the second group that the phrase didn’t mean divorce was allowable for “immorality” and for “any cause,” but that Deuteronomy 24:1 referred to no type of divorce “except immorality.”

This was a shocking statement for the crowd and the disciples. It meant they couldn’t get a divorce whenever they wanted it—there had to be a lawful cause.

It also meant that virtually every divorced man or women were not divorced, because most of them had “any cause” divorces.

Luke and Matthew summarized the whole debate in one sentence:

Any divorced person who remarried was committing adultery (Matt. 5:32; Luke 16:18),

because they were still married.

The fact that they said, “any divorced person” instead of “virtually all divorced people” is typical Jewish hyperbole—like Mark saying that “everyone” in Jerusalem came to be baptized by John (Mark 1:5).

It may not be evident to us, but their first readers understood clearly what they meant.

Within a few decades, however, no one understood these terms anymore.

Language often changes quickly (as I found out when my children first heard the Flintstones sing about “a gay old time”).

The early church and even Jewish rabbis forgot what the “any cause” divorce was because soon after the days of Jesus, it became the only type of divorce on offer.

It was merely called divorce.

This meant that when Jesus condemned “divorce for ‘any cause,’ ” later generations thought he meant “divorce for any cause.”

Reaffirming marriage

Now that we know what Jesus did reject, we can also see what he didn’t reject.

He wasn’t rejecting the Old Testament—he was rejecting a faulty Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament.

He defended the true meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1.

Moreover, there is one other surprising thing he didn’t reject: Jesus didn’t reject the other ground for divorce in the Old Testament, which all Jews accepted.

Although the church forgot the other cause for divorce, every Jew in Jesus’ day knew about Exodus 21:10-11, which allowed divorce for neglect.

Before rabbis introduced the”any cause” divorce, this was probably the most common type.

Exodus says that everyone, even a slave wife, had three rights within marriage—the rights to food, clothing, and love. If these were neglected, the wronged spouse had the right to seek freedom from that marriage.

Even women could, and did, get divorces for neglect—though the man still had to write out the divorce certificate.

Rabbis said he had to do it voluntarily, so if he resisted, the courts had him beaten till he volunteered!

These three rights became the basis of Jewish marriage vows—we find them listed in marriage certificates discovered near the Dead Sea.

In later Jewish and Christian marriages, the language became more formal, such as “love, honor, and keep.” These vows, together with a pledge of sexual faithfulness, have always been the basis for marriage.

Thus, the vows we make when we marry correspond directly to the biblical grounds for divorce.

The three provisions of food, clothing, and love were understood literally by the Jews. The wife had to cook and sew, while the husband provided food and materials, or money.

They both had to provide the emotional support of marital love, though they could abstain from sex for short periods.

Paul taught the same thing. He said that married couples owed each other love (1 Cor. 7:3-5) and material support (1 Cor. 7:33-34).

He didn’t say that neglect of these rights was the basis of divorce because he didn’t need to—it was stated on the marriage certificate.

Anyone who was neglected, regarding emotional support or physical support, could legally claim a divorce.

Divorce for neglect included divorce for abuse because this was extreme neglect. There was no question about that end of the spectrum of neglect, but what about the other end?

What about abandonment, which was merely a kind of passive neglect?

This was an uncertain matter, so Paul deals with it. He says to all believers that they may not abandon their partners, and if they have done so, they should return (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

In the case of someone who is abandoned by an unbeliever—someone who won’t obey the command to return—he says that the abandoned person is “no longer bound.”

Anyone in first-century Palestine reading this phrase would think immediately of the wording at the end of all Jewish, and most Roman, divorce certificates: “You are free to marry anyone you wish.”

Divorce and Remarriage

Putting all this together gives us a clear and consistent set of rules for divorce and remarriage.

Divorce is only allowed for a limited number of grounds that are found in the Old Testament and affirmed in the New Testament:

  • Adultery (in Deuteronomy 24:1, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
  • Emotional and physical neglect (in Exodus 21:10-11, affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7)
  • Abandonment and abuse (included in neglect, as affirmed in 1 Corinthians 7)

Jewish couples listed these biblical grounds for divorce in their marriage vows. We reiterate them as love, honor, and keep and be faithful to each other.

When these vows were broken, it threatened to break up the marriage. As in any broken contract, the wronged party had the right to say, “I forgive you; let’s carry on,” or, “I can’t go on, because this marriage is broken.”

Does God Allow Remarriage?

Therefore, while divorce should never happen, God allows it (and subsequent remarriage) when your partner breaks the marriage vows.

Reading the Bible and ancient Jewish documents side-by-side helped me understand much more of the Bible’s teaching about divorce and marriage, not all of which I can summarize here.

Dusty scraps of parchment rescued from synagogue rubbish rooms, desert caves, and neglected scholarly collections shone fresh light on the New Testament.

Theologians who have long felt that divorce should be allowed for abuse and abandonment may be vindicated.

Moreover, more importantly, victims of broken marriages can see that God’s law is both practical and loving.

David Instone-Brewer is a senior research fellow in rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He is married with two daughters. You can get his book here. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context

Thoughts on Divorce and Ministry

We have all heard the interpretations taken from 1 Timothy 5:2 and Titus 1:6, That if a man is divorced it disqualifies him for ministry.

However, is that what these passages say?

They both say that a man is to be the husband of one wife. Now those that would say that this prohibits a man from ministry after divorce assume that this means one wife for a lifetime.

Their same interpretation would prohibit a widower from serving as well.

Along with that, if they were to use the same standard for all the qualifications listed in these passages, then any man who has or had unruly kids in their lifetime would be disqualified. Any man who ever followed his own will would be excluded, who is or who had been greedy, inhospitable, had or has an anger problem, who had ever been drunk, is or ever had been drunk, would not be qualified either.

Well, there goes the entire human race!

The Bible Interprets the Bible

This doctrine prohibiting divorced people from serving in ministry violates other significant tenets of the Bible.

Here are just a few.

Justification (just as if had never happened) is by faith, not works lest any man should boast. If we are justified by faith, which means just as if it never happened, then why is what never happened being taken into consideration?

The cleansing power of Jesus. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all unrighteousness. So why would Paul be calling what God had called clean, unclean?

Finally, God throws our sins into the sea of forgetfulness. So once again, why would God be mandating against something that He has forgotten?

What did Paul mean by saying that an Elder should be the husband of one wife?

Paul had already made it clear in 1 Cor. 7:32 that he felt it was better to stay unmarried and be able to focus only on the things of the Lord than to get married.

So it only makes sense that Paul, who was laying out practical considerations for those that would lead a church, to not want a man to have more than one wife.

Polygamy was still prevalent in the day of Paul, and a man who had to care for more than one wife, would not have time to properly care for the church of God.

Final Thoughts

So concerning divorce and ministry. If a sinner can receive forgiveness for a sin, and if a Christian can receive forgiveness for a sin, and then subsequently enter into ministry, then so can a divorcee’.

There are no big sins or little sins.

If a murderer, drunkard, blackmailer, or thief can get forgiveness and turn from that sin, and enter into ministry, so can someone who has been divorced. Moreover, dare I say it? Even if they made the same mistake more than once!

Look at Aimee Semple McPherson.

Married three times, divorced twice, widowed once. She was mightily used by God in ministry.

Moreover, she is not the only one. Thousands across this nation refuse to bow to the judgmentalism of self-righteous hypocrites.

If God can use a sinner saved by grace, then He can use anyone, including you, and including the same hypocrites after they repent.

Now that is something to think about!

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Duke Taber
Pastor Duke Taber is an alumnus of L.I.F.E. Bible College and Multnomah Biblical Seminary. He has been in pastoral ministry since 1988.Pastor Duke specializes in healing hurting churches and bringing revival, renewal, and restoration of the presence of God to the body of Christ in America to make the church spiritual again.Pastor Duke has a few limited dates available to speak in other churches. If your church needs a fresh move of the Spirit of God or has gone through a painful and wounding season, click here.Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world. He is currently starting a brand new church in Mesquite NV called Mesquite Worship Center.
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