Jesus and Divorce

by Max Andrews

It seems that the only provision Jesus allows for divorce, or at least was recorded, was for sexual immorality. Due to the exception clause found in 19.9 the issue of concern is what Jesus means by his use of πορνείᾳ (porneia).  The Matthew passage (except for indecency, μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ, [epiporneia]) raises many questions, mainly what does Jesus specifically mean by πορνείᾳ, as it carries a broad range of terms.  The LXX (Septuagint) uses πορνείᾳ to translate the Hebrew זנות, zenut, which is used for immorality and also specifically for incestuous marriages and other illegitimate forms of marriage.[1]  However, many scholars concede that וחנז does not always mean an illegitimate marriage but a full range of sexual immorality.[2]  Deuteronomy 14.1 [Jesus’ reference to Moses in 19.8] contains the words ךבד צרות, “indecent matter.” צרות literally means “nakedness” and the sexual immorality involved in Jesus’ use of πορνείᾳ is physical adultery.

The sexual impropriety that Jesus permits for grounds of divorce is not any mere sexual sin [i.e. lusting of the eyes], but a physical act of adultery.  In agreement with Jesus’ teaching, divorce ought not to be compulsory.  Divorce ought to be a last resort if reconciliation cannot be made.[3]

In conclusion to Matthew 19, Jesus’ allowance for divorce should be understood in a practical hierarchical sense.  Jesus’ words are clear in 19.8a that divorce is only permitted as a result of sin and human depravity and that God works with our sin to control human depravity.[4]  In 19.8b Jesus gives the absolute ideal to marriage, that it was not so [divorce] from the beginning.  This formula given in 19.8 is only a provision that God makes as an act of grace to control the depravity of mankind.

Background information is essential to developing a grounded doctrine of divorce and remarriage.  Perhaps the most important foundation to understanding marriage and divorce is to understand that it is modeled after Christ’s unity with the church (Eph. 5.25).  The best biblical analogy that models Christ’s relationship with His people is the narrative of Hosea.  The Hosea model is true to the relationship God has in pursuing His adulterous people.  David Instone-Brewer describes the situation as God divorcing His people in the Hosea analogy.[5]  The only problem with the background information that Instone-Brewer uses is God’s divorce laws in Exodus 21 as a model of God’s will.  Thus, when the circumstances come about to where divorce would be permissible God divorces His people (Israel [and Judah]).  The problem with using the Exodus 21 text and applying that to God in a binding law of God’s is that it nearly replaces God’s will using divorce as a last resort and not divorce as a provision for man’s sinfulness.

The majority of the biblical text on divorce [i.e. Mt. 19] has to do with marital fidelity.  Craig Blomberg advocates the position that porneia that it should not mean incest or premarital sex without contextual support, as Jewish girls were married at a young age.[6]  Andreas Köstenberger does well when he states that porneia, as outlined in the Deuteronomical passages, should be understood to be descriptive, not prescriptive.[7]  The historical development and understanding of porneia is crucial to understanding Jesus’ words and original grammatico-historical interpretation of the biblical texts.  As Köstenberger outlines Jesus’ teaching on divorce he immediately refers back to the initial background reference frame of Genesis 2.24 text that the two become one flesh, which ought not to break.[8]

Though it is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, spousal abuse may be grounds for divorce.  This may be inferred from the texts of Mark 10.2-12 and 1 Corinthians 7.15. In Mark 10.5 Jesus refers to the hardness of man’s heart.  This is practical hierarchical accommodation that God has allowed due to the depravity of man, as mentioned earlier, this should be viewed as God’s sovereign control over human depravity.  The inference is derived from 1 Corinthians 7.15, “for the sake of peace.”  Concerning the sake of keeping peace in 1 Cor. 7.15, Instone-Brewer comments,

“A pragmatic solution was necessary that did not necessarily conform with the legalistically correct procedure.  Sometimes the solution suggested by a strict interpretation of the Law did not have the desired effect.  Strictly speaking, an imbecile could not be prosecuted for stealing, but nevertheless stolen goods were confiscated from him and returned to the owner “for the sake of peace.”  Sometimes pragmatism has to rule over the strict application of the law, for the sake of a peaceful society and in order that God’s will be done.”[9]

There are many important factors to early Judaism and Greco-Roman (as well as Near Eastern) societies and laws that are crucial to understanding the historical development of divorce and remarriage in the Bible.  When the texts are taken at a prima facie interpretation, so much information cannot me known such as what information the Pharisees had on the doctrines when He spoke to them and what reference grams Paul used in his instructions on divorce and remarriage.

At which point ought one to strictly adhere to the legal instruction even if it causes death by abuse?  The problem with pragmatic hierarchical application is that the ethical decisions are more than likely lesser of two evils.  However, the pragmatic hierarchy seems to be permitted in Paul’s instruction for the sake of peace.  It surely is not absolute idealism, merely something that is permitted as a last resort.  Others may advocate that in abuse situations the wife needs to get to protection from trusted friends.  The husband should be kept away from the wife until he has sincerely repented and has received counseling from the church.  It would be the decision of the wife and a church leader, or pastor, as to whether the husband has truly repented and it is safe for the wife to return.  As for my personal position on abuse–I’m not sure.  I’m open to either option.  It is a very serious issue and I do not want to haste my study on it (I’ve been studying and thinking over this issue for three years so far).


[1] Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville, TN:  Broadman & Holdman Publishers 1997), 306.

[2] Andreas Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family:  Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway 2004), 228.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, “Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, and Celibacy: an Exegesis of Matthew 19:3-12,” Trinity Journal ns 11.2 (Fall 1990): 164.

[4] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible:  The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm. B. Publishing Co. 2002), 167.

[5] The wording used for “sexual immorality” is taken from the ESV translation.  Further examination and background information for the Greek word translated to “sexual immorality” (πορνείᾳ porneia) will be discussed.

[6] Ibid., 157.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 156-159.

[9] Instone-Brewer, 203.

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4 Comments to “Jesus and Divorce”

  1. I think the only sort of divorce that Jesus allows is the ‘divorce’ of the sort that Joseph tried to get when he found out Mary was pregnant. But that’s not divorce as we think of it; it’s a termination of the engagement. (John Piper’s got some good stuff to say on this re: the greek words used here for ‘divorce’ and etc.) I don’t think divorce is possible given that it’s a covenant put together by God and terminated at the death of one (or both) of the people that enter into that covenant relationship.

    People get legal divorces all the time. But, it seems that the implication of Paul’s statement that ‘what God has joined together, let no man tear asunder’, is that it’s not so much as possible for man to destroy what God has joined together. So, a legal divorce doesn’t imply a *real* divorce; but that’s because there is no such thing. And, moreover, a marriage isn’t a legal institution at all; so, of course, the legal courts can’t have any true say over the matter.

    Besides, isn’t marriage supposed to resemble the relationship between Christ and His Church? If so, then can Jesus divorce His Bride when She cheats on Him (which, of course, She always does)? No, of course not. The same, then, ought to be said of men and women who enter into marriage. Nothing can, or ought, to break the covenant drawn up between the two. To say that something can justify divorce is to misunderstand what marriage is supposed to represent, and it misunderstands the very thing it’s designed to represent.

  2. A proper hermeneutic is to interpret the less clear passages of scripture in light of the more clear. The clearest scripture on Christ’s teaching on the subject of divorce is found in Mark 10. it is the same as Luke 16. To use Matthew as the proof text for divorce is to work do damage to the clearer passages.

    • While I understand your point I don’t believe it does damage. There was a reason why I did Matthew. I believe that’s the one where he mentions porneia. It can’t be ignored. Mk and Lk are categorically incorporated. So no reason to ignore that aspect either.

  3. Just to add to Roger’s comment: it seems clear to me that the context of Jesus’ supposed agreement with divorce is only in light of, and in the situation surrounding, the law’s allowance for divorce in Deut 24. Here the idea is that the husband has found that he’s been “gypped”, so to speak, concerning the sexual purity of the bride. In other words, the bride’s dad sold the bride-groom a bill of goods when he vouched for her chastity. In light of this sinfulness (hardness of heart in Matthew 19), Moses allows the separation of the two that were wed under false pretenses. After all, she’d already given herself to another. So, it simply isn’t the case that this is speaking of adultery in the way we think of it–that is, sexual unfaithfulness after marriage; rather, it is unfaithfulness prior to marriage. The bridegroom has paid a hefty bride price and gotten a raw deal. So, Moses allows him to terminate the marriage contract.

    Since we know from Jesus’ own words that lusting with the eyes is just as bad (indeed the same sin) as acting in the flesh–both are adultery–if we were to ground ‘porneia’ as our normal western conceptions surrounding adultery, every marriage would be on grounds for divorce. This is precisely the point in Jesus’ teaching–stop making distinctions between your actions and your thoughts. Your thoughts are just as damning–it’s about affections of the heart. Or, as the John says in his letter, “little children, keep yourselves form idols.” Adultery, in any form, is idolatry and ultimately cheating on God.

    There is a further implication: adultery between man and wife is a mirrored reflection of the adultery that we as a corporate body (Christ’s bride) and we as individuals commit against our husband, Jesus Christ. But where in this covenant between Christ and his bride is there room for divorce? There isn’t. He simply won’t divorce us for our infidelity–the same is true of all the covenants God makes. The marriage covenant between man and woman is just such a covenant and it isn’t so much as up to the humans involved as to whether that covenant can break. As Roger has said, surely it’s true that people get legally divorced in the eyes of man; however, the actual status of their relationship isn’t governed/instituted/separated by any laws or ordinances beyond the laws of God.

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