summary book “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church”


by David Instone-Brewer

Summary: Bert de Ruiter, 2005

 My aim in writing this book is to share insights which enabled me to understand the issue of divorce and remarriage through the eyes of the first readers of the NT. My hope is that the church will rediscover the Biblical principles that divorce should only occur when marriage vows are broken, and that only the wronged party may decide whether this will happen. (vii, viii)

Chapter 1: Confessions of a Confused Minister

That what defines a broken marriage is broken vows. The Bible does not regard the victim of divorce as the sinner. It is the person who is guilty of causing the marriage to break up whom Jesus addressed when he said: “Those whom God has joined, no-one should separate.” (8)

Although the break-up of a marriage is always due to sin, it is not the divorce itself that is the sin – the sin is the breaking of the vows which causes the divorce. (8)

Chapter 2: A Marriage Made in Paradise

The most impressive differences between the laws of Israel and other ancient Near Eastern nations were in the laws of remarriage. In other countries it was difficult for an abandoned woman to get remarried, but in Israel this unfairness was corrected by giving her the right to receive a divorce certificate from her husband.  The Law of Moses (Deut. 24:1) limited the damage which divorce inflicts by forcing men to give their ex-wife a certificate that allowed them to remarry.(20)

This certificate confirmed that her husband had divorced her and meant that it was safe for another man to marry her. He didn’t have to worry that her first husband would return one day to demand his wife back. (17) The certificate contained the words: “You are now free to marry any man you wish.”

The law of Moses did not say that it was acceptable to break up a marriage; it merely prescribed the legal process which was necessary after the break-up has happened. (18)

Chapter 3: God the Reluctant Divorcee

In the OT if someone was found to have committed adultery their punishment was not always the death penalty, but it did result in the death of a marriage. (Deut. 24:1)

 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her…he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house…”(Deut. 24:1)

The words ‘some indecency’ in this text could be more literally translated ‘a thing of nakedness’ or ‘a cause of sexual immorality’ and it most likely refers to ‘adultery’.

Adultery is not the only sin that can end a marriage. Many marriages are killed by neglect or abuse. The Bible does have a law which addresses this situation.

Exodus 21:10, 11 allows the victim of abuse or neglect to be freed from the marriage.

“If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing or her conjugal love. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.” (Ex. 21:10, 11)

Before we dismiss this as irrelevant to our marriages today it is important to remember that this is case law, not statute law, which means that the principles are more important than the details. Case law is a collection of decisions made by judges in actual cases which established a new legal principle. These rulings can be applied to other cases which share something in common with the case which established the principle.

This verse is case law, so we have to ignore the details about slavery and polygamy and look for the principles which apply to all marriages which involve neglect. The Rabbis reasoned that if a slave wife had the right to divorce a husband who neglected to supply food, clothing and conjugal love, then a free wife would certainly also have this right. And they argued that if one of two wives had this right, then so did an only wife. Furthermore, if a wife had these rights, then a husband was also entitled to the same right to divorce a wife who neglected him. The Biblical principle which is established is the right of someone to divorce their partner if they neglect their vow to give you food, clothing or conjugal love.

This means that the OT recognizes four grounds for divorce. The first three are neglect of food, clothing and conjugal love (by either husband or wife) (Ex. 21:10, 11) and the fourth is committing adultery (Deut. 24:1)

These four obligations were the same as the vows exchanged by couples in Jewish marriages. They promised to feed, clothe, exchange conjugal love and be faithful to each other. (25)

In the OT there were very sensible laws about divorce. Each partner had to keep his or her four marriage vows to feed, clothe, share conjugal love and be faithful. The principles behind these details are that they had to supply material support (food and clothing) and physical affection (conjugal love). Abusive situations were covered by these laws because physical and emotional abuses are extreme forms of neglecting material support or physical affection. The only person who could choose to enact a divorce was the victim. If your partner broke his or her marriage vows, you could choose to divorce them, or you could choose to forgive them and try to salvage the marriage. (26)

The OT prophets described God as a divorcee. (Jer. 3:8) God had married Israel at Mount Sinai, then brought his bride across the threshold of the Jordan into Palestine. There he gave her food (milk and honey) and wool for clothes, and of course he loved her and was faithful to her. But in Palestine, Israel was introduced to many other gods and started to worship them, offering them sacrifices of food and ornaments. The prophets described this worship of other gods as spiritual adultery. (Hos. 1-3) (27)

Ezekiel was particularly interested in the grounds for God’s divorce. God kept all four of his marriage vows: he loved Judah, and gave her food and clothing fit for a queen (Ez. 16:8-13) and of course he was faithful to her. But, in contrast, Judah broke all four marriage vows: she did not return God’s love; she committed adultery with idols (16:15); she presented idols with the food which God had given her (16:19); and she decorated idols with the cloth and jewels with which God had honored her (16:16-18). (30)

In Mal. 2:14 -16 God does not criticize the legal process of divorce, or the person who carries it out, otherwise he would criticize himself, because he had to divorce Israel. God hates the breaking of marriage vows which result in divorce. He says that breaking these vows is being ‘faithless’ because it breaks the marriage ‘covenant’ or ‘contract’. In the OT marriage is a contract so it can be ended if one party breaks the stipulations which were agreed in it, but the only person who has the right to end a contract is the victim of broken promises. (31)

Chapter 4: The Church Can’t Do Without It

As well as endorsing the moral laws of the OT, Jesus amplified them by identifying the principles behind them and applying these principles to the whole of life. The principle behind: “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery” is to avoid the causes of these sins, as well as the sins themselves. Jesus did not reject the OT, but he did reject the new interpretations which had diluted the OT’s moral principles. We can also legitimately ignore the details of OT law, but we may not neglect any of the principles. (40)

Chapter 5: Divorce on Demand?

During Jesus’ lifetime the new groundless divorce gradually grew in popularity until, by about the end of the 1st century, it had totally replaced divorces based on OT grounds. This new type of divorce was invented by Rabbi Hillel and was called the ‘Any Cause’ divorce after the phrase which inspired it in Deut. 24:1. Hillel asked the question: Why did Moses use the phrase ‘cause of sexual immorality’ when he could simply have said ‘sexual immorality’? Hillel reasoned that the seemingly superfluous word ‘cause’ must refer to another, different ground for divorce and since this other ground is simply called a ‘cause’, he concluded that it meant “Any Cause” (44)

The Hillelite Rabbis came to two main conclusions about the new ‘Any Cause’ form of divorce. Firstly, they concluded that an ‘Any Cause’ divorce could only be carried out by men. Secondly, they said that it could be used for any cause, such as your wife burning a meal, so although the ‘Any Cause’ divorce was theoretically based on some kind of fault, this fault could be such a small thing that it was, in effect, a groundless divorce. For an ‘Any Cause’ type of divorce you didn’t need any proof and you didn’t have to present your case in court. All you needed to do was write out a divorce certificate and give it to your wife. (45)

Very soon the ‘Any Cause’ divorce had almost completely replaced the traditional OT types of divorce. We can see how respectable it had become by the time of Jesus’ birth because Joseph considered using this means to break off his betrothal to Mary (Mt. 1:19). Joseph did not want to put Mary through the disgrace of a public trial so he decided to use the quiet “Any Cause’ divorce because it did not require any proof of wrong-doing. (46)

Not everyone accepted this interpretation of Deut. 24:1. The disciples of Rabbi Shammai said that Hillel had interpreted the Scriptures wrongly and that the whole phrase ‘a cause of sexual immorality’ meant nothing more than the ground of ‘sexual immorality’. The interpretation of this short phrase ‘a cause of sexual immorality’ was a matter of huge public debate. The disciples of Shammai wanted people to restrict themselves to divorces based on OT grounds. But the common people preferred Hillel’s interpretation which added the new ‘Any Cause’ divorce. (46,47)

By the time of Jesus, almost every divorce was an ‘Any Cause’ divorce, but the Rabbis were still arguing about it. These rabbis decided to ask Jesus what he thought

“Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for ‘Any Cause’?”  (Mt. 19:3)

They wanted to know what Jesus thought about the new ‘Any Cause’ type of divorce and how he interpreted Deut. 24:1. (48)

Jesus was asked if he agreed with the new Hillelite “Any Cause’ divorce, but he wasn’t really interested in this debate where they had both gone wrong. When the Rabbis eventually got Jesus back to their question, he gave the same straightforward interpretation of Deut. 24:1 which Shammai taught, that is, he said that the phrase “a cause of sexual immorality” meant “nothing except sexual immorality’. And, to emphasize this, Jesus said that if someone got divorced on the basis of any other interpretation, then they were not properly divorced and so, if they remarried, they would be committing adultery. (Mt. 19:9) (49)

Most interpreters have not recognized that Jesus is quoting the Rabbinic legal phrases “divorce for ‘Any Cause’ and ‘nothing except ‘Sexual Immorality’”. As a result they think that Jesus was asked “Is it ever lawful to divorce?” and that he answered “No –except for sexual immorality”.

Jesus was answering the question in plain language, and he wasn’t making a universal statement. Therefore, when he said ‘nothing except ‘sexual immorality’ he was saying that he phrase ‘a cause of sexual immorality’ did not include the extra ground for ‘any cause’ and he didn’t mean ‘there is no divorce ever, in any part of the Bible, except for sexual immorality’. If he had been making this universal statement he would be contradicting Paul who allowed divorce for abandonment (1 Cor. 7:15).
Jesus gave the Pharisees a straightforward answer about where he stood in their debate (on Deut. 24:1), but actually he was not very interested in this subject. He was much more interested in marriage than in divorce. (50)

In Matthew 19:8 Jesus refers to ‘hard-heartedness’. This word occurs in only one place in the context of divorce: Jer. 4:4, where Jeremiah warned Judah that God might divorce them like he divorced Israel, because of their hard-heartedness in their adultery. Jesus thought that people were being too quick to divorce so he reminded them that Moses only meant divorce to occur when there was ‘hard-heartedness’- i.e. a stubborn refusal to repent and stop breaking marriage vows. (53)

Jesus did not just say that ‘Any Cause’ divorces were invalid but emphasized their invalidity by saying that people with ‘Any Cause’ divorces were not really divorced at all. Therefore, if they remarried after this type of divorce, they were actually committing adultery because they were still married to their previous partner. (54)

A summary for a modern generation of Jesus’ teaching during this debate would be something like:

All divorce based on ‘Any Cause’ (i.e. groundless divorces) are invalid, because the phrase ‘a cause of sexual immorality’(Deut. 24:1) means nothing except ‘Sexual Immorality’. Moses never commanded divorce but allowed us to divorce a partner who is hard-hearted (i.e. who unrepentantly breaks marriage vows, as in Jer. 3-4) (57)

Jesus laid the foundations for a new approach to divorce. He did not replace the OT, or rewrite it, but he emphasized its principles and compassion, saying that the injured partner should forgive the partner who breaks their marriage vows and then repents and that you should only divorce a partner who sins in a hard-hearted way, i.e. one who breaks their vows stubbornly and unrepentantly. (58)

Chapter 6: When Your Partner Walks Out

Most of Paul’s teaching on marriage and divorce is found in his first letter to the Corinthian church in about AD 55. Paul contradicted both the Jewish and the Roman laws by teaching in 1 Cor. 7 that marriage was optional.

In 1 Cor. 7:3, 4; 32-34 Paul reminded the readers what their marriage vows were. They had promised to feed, clothe and share conjugal love with their wives, and Paul emphasized that if they neglected conjugal love they would ‘deprive’ their partners.

With regard to the vows to feed and clothe each other Paul summarized these obligations in a single category which we might call ‘material support’. Similarly, the Rabbis had different regulations concerning the neglect of physical affection and of material support. They also defined exactly how much the man had to spend on food and cloth and how much cooking and sewing the woman had to do. Paul did not specify quantities and simply said that they had to ‘please’ each other. (vs. 32-34)

Although Scripture did not specifically mention abuse, this was implied in the law against neglect. If a husband was not allowed to starve his wife or refuse her money for clothes, then he certainly could not beat his wife or rape or imprison her. Similarly, if a wife could not refuse to cook or sow for her husband, she certainly could not beat or poison or torture him. (64)

The Roman divorce-by-separation was very easy – all you had to do was walk out of the house if your partner owned it, or tell your partner to get packing and leave the house if you owned it. There was no need to cite any grounds for ending the marriage and, having separated, you were both legally divorced and free to remarry. (64)

Paul had to remind his readers about the law of the OT, pointing out that Biblical divorce was always based on the grounds of broken vows, unlike the Roman groundless divorce. Therefore Christians should not practice the Roman divorce-by-separation , i.e. they should not simply separate from their partner and consider themselves legally divorced. (1 Cor. 7:10)

Paul’s point in these verses is that Christians should not use this Roman form of divorce-by-separation because it was groundless, so it was too easy to divorce someone against their will when they had done nothing wrong. (67)

Paul and Jesus have the same message for two different cultures:

  • Believers should never cause a divorce – i.e.      they should not break their marriage vows.
  • Believers should not use a groundless divorce –      i.e. Jews should not use the new Hillelite ‘Any Cause’ divorce, and no-one      should use the Roman ‘divorce-by-separation’.

Jesus added that believers should do all they can to save a marriage, which includes forgiving a partner who breaks vows and then repents. And Paul added that believers who have wrongly enacted a divorce-by-separation should attempt to be reconciled and not remarry because this would make the divorce irreversible. Paul said further that if someone is divorced against their will, they may accept it. There is nothing they can do to reverse the divorce, and God has called them to peace. (69)

Chapter 7: Till Death Us Do Part?

Does marriage last forever?

In Mt. 19:9 Jesus seems to imply that a divorced person is still married. However, Jesus is specifically referring to the new ‘Any Cause’ divorces rather than all types of divorce. He condemned the ‘Any Cause’ divorces as un-Biblical and invalid – and said that if you get remarried after an invalid divorce, you are technically committing adultery. So rather than Jesus saying in this text that marriage lasts a lifetime, in context he is simply emphasizing that the ‘Any Cause’ divorce was not a valid one. (73)

There is not Biblical foundation for the suggestion that marriage is always a lifelong turn out. (74)

There is no reason to believe that God changed his mind about divorce between the OT and the NT. In both Testaments God is on the side of the victim of marriage break-up, and allows the victim to divorce a partner who is unfaithful or neglectful or abusive. (80)

Chapter 8: Four Biblical Grounds for Divorce

 We have already seen that God gave clear and fair laws in the OT to limit the damage caused by the sin of neglect and abuse – the victim was allowed to decide whether or not they wanted the marriage to end. Would God really have abandoned this wise and practical approach in NT times, or is it a principle for the church today? (84)

If Jesus believed that neglect and abuse (as mentioned in Ex. 21:10, 11) were valid grounds for divorce, why didn’t he say something about them?

Rather than indicating that Jesus did not accept the validity of divorce for neglect and abuse, his silence about it highlights the fact that he did accept it, like all other Jews at that time. (85)

If it is the case that Jesus did accept other valid grounds for divorce, how do when he said (in Mt. 19:9) there was no divorce, except for sexual immorality?

The Gospels imply that Jesus meant adultery was the only valid ground which is found in Deut. 24:1, not in whole of Scripture. The whole debate in that passage was concerned solely with divorces in Deut. 24:1. (85)

Jesus used exactly the same words as the Shammaites in exactly the same context (a debate about Deut. 24:1) with exactly the same people (the Pharisees) in the same time and place (1st-century Palestine), so we have to conclude that Jesus and the Shamaites meant the same thing – i.e. ‘there is only one valid type of divorce in Deut. 24:1. Neither Jesus nor the Shammaites implied by this that ‘there is only one valid type of divorce in the whole of Scripture. (87)

In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul referred to the three grounds for divorce in Exodus 21 when he replied to the Corinthians’ question about leaving their partners. He reminded those who wanted to stop physical relations with their husband and wife that they had made a vow to share ‘conjugal love’ with them (vs. 3-5) and later in the chapter, when he suggested that people should postpone their marriage plans because of the famine, he reminded them that marriage involved promising to clothe and feed their partner, which he summarized as being ‘anxious about worldly things, how to please’ each other. (vs. 32-34)

Paul’s readers would immediately have recognized his references to these grounds for divorce, even if they were not Jews, because they had also become the basis for Greek and Roman marriage and divorce law. This law spread throughout the Persian empires, through to Greek culture and eventually to Roman law. These three grounds for divorce were written into both Jewish and Graeco-Roman marriage contracts. This meant that if you were suffering neglect from your husband or wife you could present your case in any court – Roman, Rabbinic, Egyptian, or, as far as we know, any of the other provincial legal systems of the 1st-century civilized world. Therefore, although Paul does not specifically say that these three areas of of neglect can be grounds for divorce, the fact that he talks about them as obligations implies that he accepted them and agreed with them. The Scripture text from which they come (Ex. 21;10,11) is primarily concerned with releasing the neglected person from the marriage – i.e. the three obligations are merely a secondary meaning which are inferred from the grounds of divorce he would not have used these verses as a basis for his teaching on the obligations within marriage. (88)

In summary, Paul accepted all four OT grounds for divorce. He accepted ‘unfaithfulness’ as a ground because this was allowed by Jesus (Deut. 24:1) and he also accepted ‘neglect of food, clothing and conjugal love’ in Ex. 21:10,11. (89)

How can we apply and define these four grounds for divorce in the 21st century?

We should look for the principles which are behind the requirements, because a husband who never lets his wife buy makeup, medical supplies or occasional leisure items such as books or CDs has not, strictly speaking, neglected her food or clothing. Similarly, a man who makes love to his wife once a week but never shows her any other kind of affection could be said to fulfill his obligation to provide ‘conjugal love’, but it would be very legalistic to say that he was fulfilling her needs. The principle behind ‘food and clothing’ can be called ‘material support’ and the principle behind ‘conjugal love’ can be called ‘physical affection’. When neglect becomes positive harm it turns into abuse – neglect of material support becomes physical abuse and neglect of physical affection turns into emotional abuse. (90)

The Hebrew word for ‘love’ in Ex. 21:10 is very difficult to define because it occurs so rarely, but the most likely meaning is ‘conjugal love’, which is how the ancient Rabbis interpreted it. The Rabbis extended this ‘love’ to include respect. (91)

Although the obligation of providing ‘conjugal love’ in Ex. 21:10 can be regarded as the foundation of a principle of ‘physical affection’ or even perhaps ‘respect’, it should not be spread so broadly that the concept of life-long marriage is weakened. (92)

The grounds for divorce in the Bible include the principles of material support and physical affection. God’s ideal for marriage is for a husband and a wife to be faithful to each other and, as we saw in the OT, for them to support each other with food, clothing and conjugal love. If these vows are broken then there are grounds for divorce. But we should not forget that Jesus emphasized forgiveness, so we should not advice someone to divorce her husband the first time he breaks his vows. However, if he continues to sin hard-heartedly (i.e. stubbornly or without repentance) Jesus said she may divorce him. (93)




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