New Testament Teaching on Marriage and Divorce
An Essay presented as part of the requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Divinity with Honours in New Testament within the University of Queensland
4. Divorce
It has already been noted that our Lord, in dealing with the subject of divorce, treats it in relation to the true nature of marriage. In the foregoing discussion, it has been noted that the marriage contract initiates and safeguards the "one flesh" relationship. However, just as it has been clear that the latter is far more than just a legal contract, so it is also clear that the essential bond of marriage cannot by its very nature be dissolved by legal agreement. The formal divorce may, indeed, repudiate the marriage covenant, but cannot remove the unity of being which the marriage has brought into existence.
The Mosaic law is stated as having "permitted" divorce "because of your hardness of heart" and seeking by the "certificate of divorce" to protect the woman from her former husband (Mt. 5.31; 19.7-8; Mk 10.4-5). Marriage, however, is not to be understood in terms of a permissive legislation but in terms of the will of the Creator in the beginning (Mt. 19.8; Mk 10.6). Jesus in his teaching was concerned with the various sins which violate the ordinance of marriage. The sin which is especially accounted for in the Mosaic law was "hardness of heart" (sklhrokardia – in LXX usage it corresponds to "uncircumcision of heart", Dt. 10.16; Jer. 4.4), especially the hardheartedness of the husband who in any case was the party taking the divorce. The woman did not have any particular rights in the matter and could not herself initiate a divorce. Vincent Taylor has rightly stated, "The implication is that the words express a merciful concession for the woman's sake".22 However, this hardheartedness which pursues divorce is itself sinful. Its cruelty was somewhat mitigated by provisions which protected the woman. The teaching of Jesus on divorce, therefore, is not a condemnation of the Mosaic legislation, but of the hardheartedness which necessitated it. This legislation could thus not be taken as the ideal since its aim was to prevent a worse sin.
However, against the sin of hardheartedness which led to divorce must be seen the sin of adultery which followed it on the remarriage of either of the partners. For the moment, the teaching of Christ will be considered apart from the Matthaean exceptive clauses which receive fuller consideration later. Apart from these clauses, the teaching of the gospels states quite clearly that remarriage after divorce involves adultery, the responsibility for which may be seen in several aspects: the man who divorces his wife makes her commit adultery (Mt. 5.32); the man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against his wife (Mk 10.11; Mt. 19.9; Lk. 16.18); the woman who divorces her husband and marries another (as was allowed under Roman but not under Jewish law) commits adultery (Mk 10.12); the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Mt. 5.32; Lk. 16.18).
The clear implication is that, serious though the repudiation of the marriage vows surely is, the formal divorce does not dissolve the essential marriage union. The sexual relations entered into within the second marriage are thus an infringement of the bond of the first marriage which, in fact, still exists – hence, they involve adultery. E.P. Gould has written, "Any formal sundering of the tie leaves it really whole; the union being of this natural, physical kind, not accomplished by any formal procedure, but in the sexual act uniting man and woman, no formal procedure can break it, but simply leaves it as it was".23 The second marriage is thus a mere formality which makes no real difference to the fact that "the deepest and holiest element in the physical life of man" is thus desecrated.24 Divorce is wrong, because it seeks to dissolve a bond established by God himself (Mt. 19.6; Mk 10.9) and because it sanctions adultery on the false assumption that the marriage bond has been so dissolved.
The Pauline teaching is based on that of Jesus. The marriage tie is dissolved by death – "A wife is bound (dedetaicf. v. 27) as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord" (1 Cor. 7.39). This agrees with the teaching of Rom. 7.2,3 – "For the married woman is bound (dedetai) by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning her husband. So then if, while her husband is living, she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress, though she is joined to another man." The second marriage is valid because the former marriage has been terminated by death.
In 1 Cor. 7.10-11, Paul sets out as the command of the Lord to the married, "that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife". It is clear that the Christian solution to marital problems is to be reconciliation, not divorce. However, while divorce itself is discountenanced, no thought of remarriage to another after divorce is to be entertained. The fact that reconciliation is to be sought suggests that the formal divorce has not severed the marriage bond, whatever the reason for the separation in such a case may have been.
J. Héring affirms that "the commandment of the Lord applies to Christian marriages. The indissolubility of Christian marriage is affirmed, as well as the prohibition of a second marriage for the wife who even so may have been divorced".25 However, this statement is open to very serious question. Paul is applying the Lord's command to Christian marriages, in which the divine ideal should be realised, but, since this command has to do with the essence, and not merely the convenience, of marriage, its application is universal. That the Christian ideal is not always realised elsewhere is an indication, not that this ideal does not have universal validity, but that the marriage relationship is complicated by human sinfulness, even where this does not manifest itself in adultery.
At this point, however, account should be taken of the earlier consideration in which it was stated that the deepest reality of the "one flesh" union is only possible where both parties are believers and the union hence involves the spiritual dimension, but the bond on the physical and personal levels still exists in other cases. The stability of the marriage from other points of view certainly depends on personal and spiritual factors, but deficiencies at these levels can hardly be said to dissolve the bond.
However, Paul evidently considers that the case where a Christian is married to an unbeliever may not be dealt with in terms of a specific commandment of the Lord (v. 12ff). While he is careful to distinguish his own opinion as such, he later states that he thinks he has the Spirit of God in such judgments (v. 40, cf. v. 25). While there is a radical difference between Christian believer and pagan partner in such cases and it may be affirmed that there can hardly be spiritual union, there are still no grounds for breaking the marriage covenant. The Christian is not to seek divorce from the pagan partner, but evidently is to live fully in the marriage relationship, if the partner so consents.
Because the marriage union is real, the unbelieving partner is "consecrated" through the believer and may in fact be brought through to salvation, though some in Corinth may have thought the reverse would be the case. But the question arises concerning the attitude of the Christian where the unbelieving partner has sought divorce. Paul answers this question, "let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace" (v. 15). There has been considerable debate over this so-called "Pauline-Privilege". The matter hinges on the sense in which the believer is seen to be "not under bondage" (ou dedouletai).
A. Robertson and A. Plummer consider that "the Christian partner is under no slavish obligation to refuse to be set free".26 There is, however, no indication what implications this may have concerning freedom or otherwise to remarry, unless the phrase "to be set free" infers on other grounds that the divorce has actual validity in such cases. F.W. Grosheide similarly states that "the Christian is under no obligation to prevent his departure", but further affirms, "If the believing party were under obligation to prevent the departure he would be subject to the unbeliever and would virtually be forced to abandon his or her faith since only by doing that could divorce be prevented". If the divine peace cannot be maintained in a reconciliation which does not deny the Christian's faith, "divorce is permissible" though "Paul does not state that he should seek or even desire it".27 However, there is no consideration that "divorce" may justify remarriage.
J. Moffatt interprets quite differently at this point. He considers that the prohibition of divorce does not hold where the pagan insists on divorce. "Naturally it is implied... that he or she was now free to remarry (v. 39)".28 J. Héring takes a similar approach – "the rule formulated by the Apostle allows of an exception: if the pagan leaves the Christian partner the marriage is nullified, and the Christian can marry again – that is, of course, with a member of the Christian Church (en KurioV, v. 39)".29 This needs to be seen in the light of Héring's affirmation noted earlier that it is Christian marriage that is indissoluble. The terms of his present statement should be noted – remarriage is possible because the former marriage is "nullified". Evidently, only in Christian marriage is there thought to be the divine union which cannot be dissolved. Presumably, other marriages involve the formal contract, which, when terminated by divorce, frees the parties for further marriage, the former marriage not having been valid in the sight of God. Some such view as this seems to be implied by Héring's interpretation.
There are a number of points in the passage which require fuller consideration. It may be questioned whether, in fact, cwrizw is intended to refer to divorce and not merely to separation. It is true that the more usual New Testament word is apoluw. There is evidence in the Greek writers for the use of both of these words with reference to "divorce". The idea of "loose, set free" is most clearly present in apoluw, which would therefore seem to imply such a severing of the marriage contract as to make way for remarriage. Further, while in a number of New Testament instances it seems fitting to render it "send away" (as, e.g., in Mt. 14.15), it nonetheless derives this meaning from the sense of "release, dismiss". It is thus not parallel in these instances to cwrizw in the sense of "go away, depart". However, the latter quite graphically signifies division and in Mt. 19.6 (= Mk 10.9) is set in direct contrast to sunzeugnumi. It seems unlikely that, within the cultural context of the Epistle, "separation" would be taken to mean a division between the married parties which would not permit them to remarry. This is at least clear in v. 11, where it is stated, however, that the Christian is not to remarry. Whatever Paul expects of the Christian in v. 15, it is hard to deny that this "separation" may well involve the remarriage of the non-Christian.
Closer attention needs to be given to the phrase ou dedouletai. There is no evidence that the verb doulow was ever used in Greek literature of the marriage bond. When Paul clearly refers to the latter, he uses the verb dew (as Rom. 7.2; 1 Cor. 7.27,39). The verb here may be taken to mean "be under constraint, under compulsion", presumably to take a particular course of action, though what this may be is not immediately evident.
A great deal of the teaching of this chapter must be seen in the context of Paul's strong sense of the imminence of the end of the world. In view of "the present distress" he considers it good for men to remain in the condition in which they now are, married or unmarried (vv. 26-27). "The time has been shortened" (v. 29), he says, "the form of this world is passing away. But I want you to be free from concern" (vv. 31-32). This in fact is why he advocates celibacy – he does not want them distracted by rightful marital responsibilities but seeks their undistracted devotion to the Lord (v. 35).
It may well be that v. 15 also needs to be viewed in terms of this emergency situation. The Christian partner is not to seek divorce, nor, however, can he afford to spend time and energy seeking reconciliation with a pagan spouse who seeks divorce. Far from implying that the Christian would remarry, the consistent advice of Paul in this context, though not expressed here, would be that the divorced Christian in such a case should remain unmarried. The question of whether the Christian could in good conscience remarry in spite of the pressures of emergency (as v. 2) is not specifically answered at this point. Some difference from the case of v. 11 is certainly implied.
Apart from the exceptive clauses, then, the teaching of the New Testament is categorically against divorce since this does not recognise the deep bond involved in marriage and remaining after divorce, and hence leads to adultery. Even where divorce by an unbelieving partner must be accepted by a Christian in view of the present distress, it is not clearly stated that this dissolves the marriage bond and hence makes way for remarriage. While the principle of the matter is left open, in the light of the New Testament teaching on marriage such a conclusion would be hard to sustain.

End Notes:
22 op. cit., on 10.4f.
23 op. cit., on Mk 10.11
24 T.H. Robinson, The Gospel of Matthew (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1928), on 5.31-32
25 op. cit., on 1 Cor. 7.11.
26 op. cit., on 7.15.
27 op. cit., on 7.15.
28 op. cit., on 7.15.
29 op. cit., on 7.15-16.