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Variety of Bible-based beliefs:

We are faced with a dilemma:

bulletVarious Christian groups -- conservative Protestants, liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics have reached different beliefs about under which conditions the Bible permits divorce, if any.
bulletEven those groups who interpret the Bible as permitting divorce may or may not allow remarriage.
bulletEach of the authors and webmasters who has written on these topics seem to conclude that their belief alone is the correct interpretation of the Bible.

The main positions are:

  1. Neither divorce nor remarriage are allowed. (A conservative Protestant view)
  2. Divorce is OK, but remarriage is forbidden -- described below. (A second conservative Protestant view)
  3. Divorce is OK in cases of adultery or desertion; remarriage is OK. (A conservative/mainline Protestant view)
  4. Divorce is OK for many reasons; remarriage is OK. (A mainline/liberal Protestant view)
  5. Divorce is impossible, unless the marriage never existed. (Roman Catholic)
  6. Divorce is OK in cases of marriage breakdown; remarriage is OK. (Religious liberal and secular view.)

This essay describes the second position: that the Bible allows divorce, but forbids divorced people to marry again. A divorced person is expected to remain celibate and without a partner for the rest of their life, or until their former spouse dies -- whichever occurs first.

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This view has been well argued by author William A. Heth. 1,2 His position is that in Matthew 19:3-12, Jesus recognized three ages in Hebrew and Christian history during which different rules were in place regarding divorce and remarriage:

bulletDuring the time before the Mosaic law was given, marriage was regarded as permanent.
bulletAfter the Mosaic Law was given, divorce and remarriage was permitted but not approved of by God.
bulletDuring the interval which started with Jesus' ministry on earth, and which continues today, marriage once more is recognized as permanent. Remarriage is not permitted, except after the death of one spouse.

Although divorce is permitted, neither party is free to remarry. Only if one dies may the other ex-spouse marry. As far as this view of the Bible is concerned, a married couple can separate. They can even obtain a divorce from the courts. But God considers that the bonds of the original marriage contract continue. Thus, any remarriage would be illicit.

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Key passages from the Hebrew Scriptures:

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages relating to divorce and remarriage:

bulletGenesis 2:24: Marriage is permanent: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." The key words in this verse are "leave," "cleave," and "one flesh." Leave and cleave are terms which are often used elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures when referring to covenants between persons or between one person and God. One essential feature of a covenant is its permanence. It is intended to be honored for all time. In addition, the term "one flesh" defines marriage as a permanent kinship relationship. One permanently inherits a whole group of in-laws to add to their families of origin. 3

Leviticus 18:6-18: Prohibition of sexual intercourse within a family: This lengthy passage forbids sexual activity among near-family members. Its language talks about a person approaching a "near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness." This is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Specific forbidden kin relationships include one's parents, step parents, siblings, step-siblings, son or daughter, step-child, aunt, uncle, etc. The act of marriage, in effect, makes one spouse's parents and siblings become the parents and siblings of one's spouse...and vice versa. "Extended relationships come into being through the marriage of two formerly unrelated people." 4 This passage "does view the circle of relationships established by marriage to endure beyond the death of the person who forms a link in the relationship...It follows that those relationships are not invalidated by divorce either." 5 Thus, a husband and wife's unique relationship continues forever, is not terminated by a divorce.

bulletDeuteronomy  24:1-2 Permission to divorce and remarry, but only for ancient times: "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife." This passage allowed a man to divorce his wife (or wives). She could then remarry another man. However, it did not allow a woman to divorce her husband. It is unclear what the term "uncleanness" means. Presumably it does not mean that she had committed adultery, because then she would have been executed by stoning.

The passage does not approve of divorce. It merely accepted it as a practice that had been imported by the ancient Hebrews from adjacent Middle-Eastern Pagan cultures, where it was a universal custom. Heth quotes C.J.H. Wright who pointed out that Israel "...did not live in a hermetically sealed isolation from the rest of humanity..." 6 They picked up customs from their neighbors and made them their own. Because it violated other passages in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, it does not reflect the will of God.
bulletEzra 9:1-2: Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in mixed-marriages to separate: "...The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass." Ezra was a scribe who had led a small group of Jews from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. He found that many Jews had entered into inter-faith marriages with women from nearby Pagan countries. He felt that if these marriages continued, the Jewish people would quickly lose their national identity and start to worship other Gods. Noting that the Mosaic law forbade inter-faith marriages between a Jew and a Pagan, he probably looked upon these marriages as illicit and unlawful. He was in effect, nullifying the marriages as if they had never been contracted. The normal Hebrew word  "to marry" is laqah (Ezra 2:61). But when Ezra refers to these inter-faith marriages, he used terms like "to take" (nasa in Exra 9:2) and "gave a dwelling to" (yasab as in Ezra 10:2). Nothing in the passage indicates that the Hebrew men remarried.
bulletMalachi 2:10:  Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in mixed-marriages to separate: "Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god." Malachi is faced with the same problem as Ezra, described above. Jewish males were marrying foreign women who followed different religions. "Daughter of a strange god" refers to a foreign woman who worshiped a Pagan deity or deities rather than Yahweh. In Verse 12, he predicted that God would "cut off" (that is, murder) any man who remained in a mixed marriage. Malachi probably viewed these marriages as illicit and invalid. He may have called on the husbands to simply separate from their wives. There is no indication that divorce or remarriage took place.
bulletMalachi 2:14-16: Divorce is treacherous behavior: "... the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant....let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away..." Malachi is condemning Hebrew men for abandoning their wives after many years of marriage, presumably so that he could marry a different woman. Here, marriage is referred to as a covenant between God, the husband and wife. One property of a covenant is that it is permanent. Another covenant was the contract between God and the ancient Hebrews at Sinai. See Numbers 30:2, Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, and Psalm 15:4. He quotes God as saying that he hates divorce (putting away).

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Key passages from the Christian Scriptures:

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages relating to divorce and remarriage:

bulletMatthew 5:31-32: No divorce allowed: "It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement. But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." Divorcing one's wife, in most cases, would cause her to seek a second husband. By remarrying, she would be committing adultery. Her former husband would be responsible for "making his wife and her second husband commit adultery against him." 7 However, if he divorced her because she had committed fornication in the past, then she would have already been an adulteress. Her husband's action would not drive her into adultery because she has already committed the sin. Since marriage is forever, a man who married a divorced wife also commits adultery.
bulletMatthew 19:4-9: No divorce allowed: "...Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." The Pharisees were challenging Jesus' beliefs about divorce. They asked him to interpret the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 which allowed a husband to divorce his wife if he "found some uncleanness in her." Jesus delivers the sentence that is heard near the end of most Christian marriage ceremonies: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." It is absolute and unambiguous. Then, Jesus states that at the time of the world's creation, prior to God delivering the Mosaic Law, divorce was not allowed. However, God permitted the Hebrews in Moses' time (and later) to divorce their wives, perhaps because they could not have accepted a prohibition on divorce at that time. Jesus then delivers a new law which over-rides the Mosaic Law. Marriage is to be considered permanent and is only broken by the death of a spouse. Jesus' final statement is essentially a repeat of Matthew 5:31-32.
bulletMark 10:2-12:  No divorce, on any grounds: "And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery." This passage refers to the same incident as was described in Matthew 19. However, this time, Jesus states that remarriage is not permitted under any circumstances -- even if the wife committed adultery.

The sentence about a woman divorcing her husband is curious. Jesus, an observant Jew, was answering a question posed by a group of Pharisees, in the presence of his followers -- all of whom were observant Jews. Yet he discusses a practice common among Pagan Gentiles and forbidden among Jews: a woman divorcing her husband.
bulletMany liberal theologians believe that this sentence was invented by the author of the Gospel of Mark, and was not actually stated by Jesus.
bulletMany conservative Christians suggest that Jesus made this statement, but that the author of Matthew left it out, since he was directing his Gospel to fellow Jews.
bulletLuke 16:18: No divorce, on any grounds: "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery." This appears to be a third version of the same incident with the Pharisees. Here, Jesus does not specifically condemn divorce. But he forbids remarriage.
bullet1 Corinthians 7:10-12: No divorce, on any grounds: "And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. Paul wrote this passage in response to questions raised by the church at Corinth about divorce and remarriage. He says that God does not allow divorce. If a couple divorces against the will of God, then their only options are to remain single, or to reconcile and restore their marriage.
bullet1 Corinthians 7:10-15: Special case where an unbeliever wants a divorce: "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace." This is a continuation of the above passage. It covers the situation where a believer is married to a non-Christian, and the non-Christian insists on a divorce. Some theologians interpret this as Paul exercising his "pastoral privilege" by changing the teachings of Jesus to allow divorce in this one case. However, it is unlikely that this is his intent because it would negate what Paul has just written in verses 10 to 12. It is more likely that Paul means that if the unbelieving spouse demands a divorce, that the Christian is not required to resort to legal means to preserve the marriage; he or she is to leave the unbeliever at peace, by not contesting the divorce. Although the possibility of remarriage is not specifically mentioned here, one can conclude from other writings by Paul and from other biblical passages, that remarriage is not allowed.

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Indicators from the early Christian movement:

During the first five centuries of Christianity, the modern concept of divorce followed by remarriage was unheard of. However, in the Pagan and Jewish cultures which surrounded the Christians, both were allowed, and happened frequently. Even Origen (circa 182-251 CE) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) who wondered how serious a sin that remarriage was, still wrote against it. It was only Erasmus (1466-1536 CE), a Roman Catholic scholar, who advocated that couples be allowed to divorce and remarry in the case of adultery or desertion. This belief was accepted by Martin Luther (1483 - 1546 CE), and became embedded in the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1648.

One might infer that the strong and near universal stand in the early church against remarriage after divorce goes back to the teachings of Jesus.

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The message of the Bible is consistent:


Genesis 2:24 implies that marriage is permanent.


Divorce and remarriage was permitted from the time that the Mosaic Law was given until Jesus ministry. However, it was against God's will and intent for marriage.


Ezra and Malachi apparently did cause couples in inter-faith marriages to at least separate. Some feel that this was a form of annulment -- a recognition that a real marriage never existed in fact.  Others point out that the couples may have been forced to divorce, but that there is no indication that they were allowed to divorce or remarry.


Jesus statement, quoted in Matthew and Mark: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" indicates that God is a third party to each marriage contract. Thus, humans cannot, on their own, break the contract through remarriage.


Paul instructed the members of the church at Corinth that the only two options open to a separated or divorced couple are to seek reconciliation or to remain celibate.

Couples may decide to separate, and even obtain a civil divorce. However their original marriage covenant remains in force. They must either reconcile or remain separate and celibate until one dies.

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Interpreting the Bible for today's society:

With the possible exception of couples in an illicit relationship, God seems to prohibit all remarriages.

Even though remarriage is forbidden for almost everyone, marital separation is not. Separation and celibacy may be the only option available to a conservative Christian who wishes to follow this particular interpretation of the Bible.

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  1. W.A. Heth & G.J. Wenham, "Jesus and divorce: The Problem With the Evangelical Consensus," Hoddder & Stoughton, (1984). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. H.W. House, Ed., "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian views," InterVarsity Press, (1990), Page 25. Read reviews or order this book
  3. Ibid, William A. Heth, Page 76.

  4. Ibid, Page 80.

  5. Ibid, Page 82.

  6. C.J.H. Wright, "An eye for an eye: The place of Old Testament ethics today," InterVarsity, (1983), Page 174.

  7. Op Cit, House/William A. Heth, Page 93.

  8. Ibid, Page 95.

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Copyright © 2002, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-16
Latest update: 2002-APR-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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