Is Divorce and Remarriage Ever Acceptable?
What Should We Make of the Lack of Explicit Exceptions about Divorce in Mark and Luke?
One area of controversy in the Christian faith, and within evangelicalism, concerns divorce and remarriage.
Most evangelicals say that God allows divorce and remarriage in some circumstances while a previous husband or wife is still alive, including in cases of marital infidelity. In what follows, I will refer to this as “the majority view.” This is the view that I will be supporting in this article.
By contrast, a minority of evangelicals say that God never allows divorce and remarriage while a previous husband or wife is still alive. I will refer to this as “the minority view.”
Actually, to be precise, those evangelicals who hold the minority view can be divided into two camps. Some say that God disallows all divorce and all remarriage while a previous spouse is still alive. Others say that He disallows all remarriage but does sometimes allow divorce while a previous spouse is still alive.
The question I am most interested in answering in this article is whether God ever allows remarriage when a previous spouse is still alive. So, for my purposes, the distinction between the two groups that hold the minority view is not important, since both groups claim that God always disallows remarriage while a previous spouse is still alive.
To keep the following discussion as uncomplicated as possible, I will speak as if all those who hold the minority view disallow all divorce and all remarriage, even though some of them allow some divorce. This will simplify the discussion without affecting any argument that I make or conclusion that I reach.
Several times in the Gospels we find Jesus teaching on the subject of divorce and remarriage. The following are the relevant texts:
“But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version except where otherwise stated.)
“3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’
4 He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’
7 They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’
8 He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’”
“2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’
3 He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’
4 They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.’
5 And Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’
10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.
11 And he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’”
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
1 Corinthians 7
Paul’s teaching on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 is also relevant for our topic.
However, to prevent this article becoming too long, I won’t discuss what he has to say. Nevertheless, leaving out Paul’s teaching on this issue won’t affect the following arguments or the conclusions that I reach.
THE MAIN ARGUMENT FOR THE MINORITY VIEW
Those who support the minority view on divorce and remarriage use a number of arguments to try to make their case. However, from what I have seen, there is one argument that they find especially persuasive.
This argument concerns the fact that in Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18, quoted above, Jesus mentions no exceptions to His prohibition of divorce and remarriage. In these passages He just says that divorce and remarriage is wrong without qualifying what He says in any way.
Those who hold the minority view take this to mean that there can be no exceptions to the prohibition of divorce and remarriage while a previous husband or wife is still alive.
THE EXCEPTIONS IN MATTHEW 5:32 AND 19:9
Although Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18 mention no exceptions, in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 Jesus gives what looks like an exception to the prohibition of divorce and remarriage while a previous spouse is still alive.
5:32: “. . . except on the ground of sexual immorality . . .”
19:9: “. . . except for sexual immorality . . .”
Those of us who take the majority view believe that these verses do indeed refer to an exception. And we believe that the passages in Mark and Luke must be interpreted in such a way as to allow for an unexpressed exception to the prohibition of divorce and remarriage.
By contrast, those who take the minority view believe that these verses in Matthew must be interpreted in such a way as not to allow any exception to the prohibition of divorce and remarriage.
THE SCOPE OF THIS ARTICLE
I am convinced that the main argument of those who take the minority view is a weak one. I believe it is much easier to say that Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18 allow for an unexpressed exception than it is to say that Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 don’t really give an exception.
In what follows, I will not try to give a broad discussion of the issue of divorce and remarriage. Instead, the scope of this article will be much more limited. I will simply attempt to refute the main argument of those who take the minority view. I am sure that it is too simplistic, and that it fails to take account of how the Bible often allows for unexpressed exceptions to things in a way that isn’t found in modern Western culture.
LESS OF A CONNECTION BETWEEN TRUTHFULNESS AND PRECISION
Something that modern Christians often fail to recognize is that the authors of the Bible, and Jesus, expressed themselves in the particular ways of speaking that were customary in ancient Jewish culture.
Since we first learned to talk, we have been taught to speak about things in certain ways. We have been taught that some ways of speaking are truthful and that other ways are misleading. Most of us reach adulthood without ever having been exposed to another culture that speaks about things a bit differently. So we tend to simply assume that the ways of speaking about things that we are used to are universal.
This, however, is a big mistake. Importantly, what the authors of Scripture regarded as true or false ways of expressing things doesn’t always coincide with what people today regard as true or false ways of expressing things.
For our purposes, the key point we need to grasp is that in Scripture there is often much less of a connection between truthfulness and precision than exists in modern Western culture. The biblical authors were frequently far less precise about things than we tend to be.
This relative imprecision reveals itself in various ways. There are examples of astonishing imprecision in quantity (e.g., Matt. 12:40). There is hyperbole that goes far beyond what we are used to in our culture (e.g., Mark 10:29-30). The New Testament contains some amazingly imprecise quotations of the Old Testament (e.g., Gal. 4:30). And there are remarkable examples of unexpressed conditions (e.g., Matt. 19:28).
There is another way too in which this general principle of imprecision can be seen, and this is in the way the Bible allows for unexpressed exceptions to things. (Unexpressed exceptions also sometimes involve unexpressed conditions and/or hyperbole.)
I think every culture, including modern Western culture, will allow for some unexpressed exceptions. There are times when we say something with the understanding that there will be exceptions to what we are saying, but we don’t bother mentioning the exceptions.
However, Scripture sometimes does this in ways that we wouldn’t find in our culture. There are places in the Bible where something is stated without exceptions being mentioned, where we would mention that there are exceptions.
Here are some examples of this:
In Matthew 5:42 Jesus teaches:
“Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
In fact, it should be obvious that many situations arise when we shouldn’t give to someone who asks us for something or wants to borrow from us. For example, if someone asks us for money to buy illegal drugs, we should certainly refuse!
In this verse Jesus, in line with ancient Jewish cultural habits, sees no need to mention that there will be many exceptions to the principle that He is outlining. We wouldn’t speak like this in our culture. We would tend to convey the same information differently, perhaps by saying something like: “Be very generous in giving and lending things to people.”
In Matthew 23:2-3 Jesus teaches:
“2 The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you . . .”
In fact, we know from the Gospels that Jesus actually opposed a lot of the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, especially their strict rules that went beyond the written Law of Moses.
What Jesus means is that His audience should do what the scribes and Pharisees teach when their teaching is good. But the “whatever” here clearly allows for numerous unexpressed exceptions. In modern Western culture, we wouldn’t tend to speak like this. We would mention that there were exceptions to the principle that is being given.
In Mark 1:5 we read about John the Baptist:
“And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Actually, we know that there were many Jews, including Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t go to be baptized by John. Mark’s point is that large numbers of people went to be baptized by him. But “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem” allows for many unexpressed exceptions, to a degree that would be unusual in our culture.
In Luke 16:15 Jesus states:
“For what is highly admired by people is revolting in God’s sight.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
In fact, we can think of many things that would have been highly admired by people in Jesus’ day but which wouldn’t have been revolting in God’s sight. For instance, helping someone who has been hurt in an accident is just one of a multitude of examples that could be given.
Again, in line with His Jewish culture, Jesus allows for numerous exceptions to the principle He is outlining, although He doesn’t refer to these exceptions. We wouldn’t speak like this in our culture. We would probably express the same concept by saying something like, “Much that is highly admired by people is revolting in God’s sight.”
In John 14:11-12 Jesus says:
“11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
12 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do . . .”
The works of Jesus that He refers to in these verses surely include the miracles that He is found performing throughout John’s Gospel, as commentators widely agree.
It would therefore certainly be a mistake to take these words of Jesus in v. 12 literally. If we did, we would have to say that every Christian should work the sorts of miracles that He Himself worked. However, that would contradict other biblical passages, especially 1 Cor. 12:9-10, 28-29.
Instead, the idea in these words of v. 12 seems to be that being a believer in Jesus is the only qualification that people need in and of themselves to work miracles. For someone to actually work a miracle, God would still need to take the extra step of granting the ability to perform the miracle in that specific case. But believing in Christ qualifies us to potentially work miracles if God enables us.
Understanding Jesus’ words in this way is not a forced interpretation, and this is apparently what He means. But what is clear is that Jesus allows for many unexpressed exceptions to these words of v. 12. There are many who believe in Jesus who will not in fact do the works that He did.
Again, this passage provides an example of unexpressed exceptions that wouldn’t be found in our culture. If our ways of expressing things had existed back in Jesus’ day, it makes sense to think that He would have worded things differently. He would have conveyed the same information, but with different wording.
In Colossians 1:19-20 Paul writes:
“19 For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
In this passage, Paul explicitly says that God was pleased “to reconcile to himself all things.” And the “all things” he has in mind are said to be “on earth or in heaven.” There can be no doubt that he is including human beings in what is talking about.
However, Paul cannot have meant that literally all human beings will be reconciled to God, since that would contradict so much else in his letters. See, e.g., Rom. 2:5, 9; 2 Cor. 2:15-16; Gal. 6:8; Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2 Thess. 1:6-9.
Instead, he must mean that all things will be reconciled to God apart from one unexpressed, exceptional group of beings, comprising some people and some angels, that will experience eternal destruction.
The way that Paul has expressed himself in this passage fitted well with how people spoke in his culture. But this is not how people in modern Western culture would phrase things. We would express the same concept differently.
In Titus 1:12 Paul quotes a saying:
“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”
And in the next verse he states that this is a true saying.
It makes sense to think that these vices were common in Crete at the time. But there were surely many exceptions to what Paul says here. A modern Westerner – at least one who wanted to speak truthfully – would phrase things differently.
In Hebrews 4:15 the author says about Jesus:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
In fact, there are many ways in which Jesus would not actually have been tempted. For example, He would never have experienced temptations that are particular to a husband or a father. More importantly, because He had no sinful nature, He could never have been tempted in a way that aroused inherently sinful desires, as we often are.
Someone might want to argue that this verse should really be taken much more literally than I have done. They might claim that Jesus was supernaturally enabled to experience all sorts of temptations that He wouldn’t have encountered in the normal course of His life.
This, however, would surely be a mistake. The whole point of the author’s argument in this part of Hebrews is that Jesus shares in our humanity. He knows what it’s like. He’s been there and done that. Any suggestion of experiencing temptations other than those He experienced in the normal course of life would therefore not fit the context.
What the verse is telling us is that Jesus, as a real human being, experienced temptation in a wide variety of ways. Nevertheless, the phrase “in every respect” allows for many unexpressed exceptions. If our ways of speaking about things had existed in the first century, it is reasonable to think that the author would have worded things differently. The same information would have been conveyed, but with other words.
The above examples have shown that Jesus and the biblical authors sometimes allowed for unexpressed exceptions to things in a way that we don’t find in modern Western culture. We tend to feel it necessary to mention exceptions more than they did.
It is important to take account of this when comparing Jesus’ statements on divorce and remarriage in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The fact that in Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18 Jesus mentions no exceptions to His prohibition of divorce and remarriage is not nearly as significant as those who take the minority view tend to assume. It is not difficult to think that these passages could allow for unexpressed exceptional situations where divorce and remarriage are in fact acceptable in God’s sight.
Comparison with Jesus’ teaching on seeking signs
There is actually an interesting comparison that can be made with Jesus’ teaching about seeking signs in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.
In Mark 8:11-12 we read:
“11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.
12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.’”
Note that in Mark 8:12 Jesus simply says that no sign will be given.
In the parallel passage in Matthew 12:38-39, however, we are told:
“38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’
39 But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’”
Note how in Matt. 12:39 Jesus says that no sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
Matthew 12:39 shows how it would be a mistake to assume that Jesus’ saying in Mark 8:12 allows for no exception. Rather, we should understand Mark 8:12 to allow for an exception – the sign of the prophet Jonah – even though that exception is not mentioned.
It is not difficult to think that the same could be true of Jesus’ sayings on divorce and remarriage. We could understand things in this way:
Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18 give the general principle that divorce and remarriage is not allowed. Although these passages don’t mention any exceptions to the principle, it is unwarranted to assume that this means there are no exceptions. Matthew 5:32 and 19:3-9 go into a bit more detail by giving exceptions to the principle, thus showing that there are exceptions to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and remarriage.
As I have said, it has not been my intention in this article to defend at length the majority evangelical view that there are exceptional situations when divorce and remarriage are acceptable in God’s sight.
Instead, I have concentrated my attention on what seems to be the argument that those who hold the minority view find most persuasive. Those who say that divorce and remarriage is never right while a previous spouse is still alive usually seem to find the lack of explicit exceptions in Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18 to be what carries the most weight on this issue.
This, however, is a mistake. Once we take account of how the Bible allows for unexpressed exceptions in a way that we don’t find in modern Western culture, this argument becomes much weaker.
Read more articles by Max Aplin
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