Divorce and re-marriage: what Jesus really meant

I’ve generally tried to avoid contention in this blog, but writing a dissertation on a contentious topic makes this unavoidable for at least one post! I’ve been looking at divorce and re-marriage in order to shine a light on what this says about the role of scripture & authority in the Anglican church, but have found myself much more drawn into the divorce and re-marriage debate than I expected.

When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to divorce for any cause?”, there was nothing vague about the wording of their question: they wanted to draw him into an ongoing debate. At the time, there were two rabbinic factions, following teachers from the previous century. Shammai had said that divorce could be allowed only for adultery; Hillel said that it could be for any cause – even if the wife merely spoiled the food. Hence, Jesus was really being asked: who’s right on this issue – Hillel or Shammai?

Jesus avoids the terms of the debate and says they were both wrong, because in the beginning man and wife became ‘one flesh’. Thus, he is effectively saying that there is a sanctity in marriage that neither Hillel nor Shammai were recognising.

In recent times there have been a couple of evangelical authors, namely Craig Keener and David Instone-Brewer, who have argued, strenuously, that conservative Christians have usually understood this wrongly. The early church read Jesus in the gospels as permitting divorce only for adultery and never allowing re-marriage, and they have been followed down the centuries by both conservative Catholics and evangelicals. However, these two authors argue that a first-century audience would have heard Jesus’ words quite differently.

They argue two main points. Firstly, in first-century Israel, divorce implied permission to re-marry, so the idea that you could have one without the other is meaningless. Secondly, they argue that, in practical terms, other grounds for divorce were recognised, such as those of abuse or neglect.

These are good arguments and merit attention – but as I have delved deeper, I have found that they are not as solid as they sound. For example, it is often stated that “Jewish law required divorce certificates to include the freedom to remarry”, and the Mishnah is quoted to back this up. The problem is that the Mishnah was written between one and two centuries after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD – and the only rabbinic school to survive that disaster was that of Hillel (who promoted the any cause divorce) and not Shammai. It is hard to see how Shammai, permitting divorce only for adultery, would have been quite so free as Hillel in granting the adulterous wife the freedom to marry anyone she liked. Thus the Mishnah, produced by Hillel’s descendants, is not a reliable source of information for the divided world of early first-century Israel.

Secondly, when Jesus refers back to how things were back at the beginning, it was a much weighter statement than is often realised: the rabbis recognised that the earlier the reference, the stronger the argument. Thus, how it was at creation trumps Moses’ law, so that the sanctity of marriage implied by the ‘one flesh’ over-rides the pragmatism of Moses. The exception for adultery arises because it has an altogether different effect on the ‘one flesh’ of marriage than either abuse or neglect, however wrong those two are.

You may at this point be thinking, “But real life is so much more messy!”. This is true – but if we are to understand things from a Christian perspective, we must at least start from an understanding of what Jesus said, and what he meant by what he said.

12 thoughts on “Divorce and re-marriage: what Jesus really meant

  1. I have often had conflicting feelings about this subject. I know people including Christians who have divorced their spouses because the marriage has really broken down and in some cases abuse has occurred. I know instances where serious mental or physical harm could have taken place if the couple had not separated. On the other hand Jesus said what he said. Was this meant to be an ideal that Jesus recognised we would not always be able to achieve and is there forgiveness where you do divorce? Surely there must be forgiveness just as for any other sin. And yet I know churches that would allow a repentant murderer to serve in the church but not someone who has been divorced. That cannot be right. On the other hand I know a situation that I came across in my chaplaincy where a church allowed an adulterer to marry the woman he had committed adultery with. This caused great upset to the innocent first wife and cannot be right either.


    • Hi John,

      I think you’ve expressed the pastoral issues very cogently. I may have a look at this further in another post in a few weeks… in the dissertation I’ve focussed more on what Jesus said and on recent responses to that, but will need to at least touch on the pastoral issues in the yet-to-be-written conclusion!


  2. My understanding is that Instone-Brewer considers that divorce for abuse or abandonment or neglect were allowed not only for practical reasons but on the basis of Ex 21:10-11 and that this aspect of the debate does go back as far as Shammai. I don’t claim to know whether Instone-Brewer is right about that, though.

    I’ve read Instone-Brewer’s book (well, bits of it) and found parts of it a lot more convincing than others. In particular, I think it’s weakest when it tries to argue its way round the statement (by Jesus) in both Matt 5:32 and Luke 16:18 that “the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery”.

    On the other hand, I have also read “Jesus and Divorce” by Gordon Wenham and William Heth, who come to the opposite conclusion from Instone-Brewer. But again, I found some parts much more convincing than others. In particular, it’s weakest when it argues that “not bound” in 1 Cor 7:15 means something completely different from “free” in v39 of the same chapter.

    The bit of Wenham & Heth’s book that I found most helpful was what they describe as the preteritive view of the debate in Matt 5, from which I derive the idea that the Pharisees are trying to engage Jesus in a debate about the correct legalistic interpretation of individual words in isolated verses, and Jesus won’t have any of that, and refers back to the overarching sweep of God’s word, His purposes, the nature of covenant, and that sort of principle. That rings true to me – it fits with other times He refused to get into their debates. And that makes me feel I shouldn’t be trying to find the correct legalistic interpretation of individual words in what He said about divorce either.

    All of which leaves me feeling neither side of the debate has succeeded in convincing me. Of course, it all became a lot less personally important to me when, having spent years coming to terms with the prospect of a divorce I didn’t want, I suddenly found I wasn’t going to be a divorcee after all. That feels like a cop-out, though. And in any case, at my age, a lot of the men I’m likely to meet are going to be divorcees themselves, so it could become a live issue for me after all.

    Thanks for raising it. Sorry for such a long comment. Can you tell I’ve put an awful lot of thought into this over the last few years?

    • Hi Ruth,

      Many thanks for your comment – really appreciate your contributing to this!

      The problem with much of what Instone-Brewer writes is that it’s not clear how far and to whom the arguments went back. I wasn’t entirely sure that the Ex 21 argument really did go back to Shammai – although they did accept divorce for infertility, which is a different issue.

      I was generally more convinced by Heth & Wenham – their emphasis on what the early church believed about what Jesus taught is a strong argument, and Instone-Brewer is not good at explaining this away. He writes about the ascetic tendencies of the early church – but does not explain how this asceticism came about when it was so much at odds with both the prevailing Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures.

      This is a difficult subject to get into because it is so contentious – and there’s a polemic tone to much of what is written. It’s pretty clear that Instone-Brewer’s mind was made up at the start and that everything was going to be pushed in that direction – but then this is even more true with Heth & Wenham.

      See you around.

  3. Hi Rich

    Oh yes, I agree that both the Instone-Brewer book and the Heth & Wenham one are written by people whose minds were made up already. I found Heth and Wenham were quite scathing about the people they disagreed with, which I found grated somewhat.

    Interestingly, I found the Heth/Wenham stuff about the church fathers one of the least convincing bits. It’s very hard to get at what was going on in the very early church, and by the time we get to the church fathers who were writing stuff down, many of them taught that remarriage wasn’t permissible for widow(er)s either, which is clearly unbiblical (1 Cor 7:39). That seemed to me sufficient evidence of asceticism to make their prohibition of remarriage of divorcees at best rather unreliable as evidence of God’s will. The church fathers’ teaching that divorce (but not remarriage) after adultery was not only permissible but compulsory seemed to me to lack grace, too.

    Maybe I reacted so strongly because I spent so long trying to seek reconciliation after his adultery, and I was so convinced it was what God wanted. Also, naturally the right of widows to remarry is of personal importance to me!

    I’m interested by what you say about the fathers’ asceticism being at odds with Greco-Roman culture. Well, yes, most of the culture, but don’t we see at least the beginnings of a pocket of it in the Corinthian church? Have you read Fee’s commentary on 1 Cor? Wenham & Heth refer to it – there were people (probably mostly women) in the Corinthian church teaching that it was good for married people to abstain from sex, which sounds pretty unhealthily and unbiblically ascetic to me. (I’ve got the Fee commentary if you want to borrow it, BTW.)

    Finally, I’ve been struck by something from a sermon by John Ortberg, quoting Jeremiah 3:8 (God divorces the northen kingdom of Israel) in connection with the Bride of Christ stuff all over the NT, and saying that in some ways God can be considered to be a remarried divorcee Himself. It doesn’t entirely follow, of course. The Covenant is possibly better compared to a polygamous marriage than a monogamous one – God’s people are supposed to have no other gods, but God’s faithfulness to His people doesn’t necessarily involve not having any other peoples. It stuck in my mind, all the same.

    Hope things are going well for you. See you around, some time.

    • Hi Ruth,

      It’s an interesting question, the extent to which the early church fathers are a guide… to some extent they must be, as they were much closer to Jesus in time… and yet there are certain areas where they really did seem to be some way off. There was a widespread belief (eg in the Shepherd of Hermas) that repentance was possible only once, based on a verse in Hebrews, and apparently ignoring Jesus dialogue with Peter about forgiving seventy times seven times.

      Your comments about asceticism in the Corinthian church are a helpful reminder, actually. I’d like to borrow the Fee commentary at some stage, that would be great.


  4. Hi Rich

    Oh yes – that repentance only once thing is dreadful, isn’t it? I noticed that too in the Wenham/Heth book.

    Glad you found my comments helpful. You’re very welcome to borrow my copy of Fee but it’s a massive tome so not terribly suitable for posting if there’s a more convenient way of getting it to you. When are you next likely to be near Cheltenham?


  5. In Christian circles, divorce is often seen (although not outwardly described as) the unforgivable sin; it taints people in such a way that they are seen as just slightly outside of the full effect of grace and, as has been noted above, sometimes prevented from fully engaging with every aspect of Church life.

    Having Christian authors research and tackle the subject, in some ways, is helpful, but for the divorcees or remarried people in churches it does nothing to rectify the feeling that they don’t really belong there.

    • Hi Jammin, thank you so much for your comment. It sounds like you have had some painful experience here? I’m really sorry if you or anyone close to you has been made to feel like they don’t really belong. I value your taking the trouble to comment here.

      • Hi Rich,

        No worries. I know exactly what it’s like from both perspectives having been a Christian from age 7 and growing up in Church and then at age 26 suddenly finding myself on the outside. I suppose my point was that although it’s good to have the debate, don’t forget the people who are looking in waiting to be accepted again 🙂

  6. Rich –
    Thanks to you and your commenters on this issue. Ya’ll have covered the debate adequately (imo) and have therefore saved me several hours so I can get on with primary tasks. I’m teaching Matthew 19 in BSF this week and the insights have been helpful. While I tend to stick with the traditionally orthodox conservative views in my teaching of God’s Word, I like to be aware of what’s out there when I am approached by those with questions. I’ll lock the “Any Cause Divorce” concept in my mental vault for when it comes up, and may even refer those who are interested to your blog.

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