Having already set the table with the basic arguments for two major positions regarding divorce and remarriage, I am going to try to step fully into each perspective and refute the other from its vantage point. Taking on the glasses of those who oppose divorce in all instances, I offer the following responses in blue to the major reasons presented by the pro-divorce side (not intended to be a pejorative term).
1. Jesus’ clearly gave an exception multiple times (Matt. 5:32 and 19:9).
Matt. 5:32 is part of a famous sermon that would have been heard everywhere Jesus preached. He also repeated the exception clause (except for fornication) in the lengthiest passage in the NT dealing with divorce (Matt. 19:3-12). The most natural reading of this clause permits divorce today. This is probably the strongest reason to allow divorce because not only is it repeated, but it appears to be the obvious meaning of the text.
First, it should be noted that if this argument fails, then the strongest leg of this position is gone. Why is that so? Because without this 3-word expression (μη επι πορνεια), we have Jesus’ words from three gospels repeatedly rebuking divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:32; 19:3-12; Luke 16:18; and Mark 10:2-10) in unqualified terms. This is Jesus’ only qualification when he otherwise prohibits divorce. Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 7:15 are less clear and are only found in one epistle as compared to four places in three gospels.
In response to this statement of Jesus’ I would include the observations previously noted about Matthew’s “exception clause.” They are copied here with some added comments.
- When asked by the Pharisees if a man may divorce his wife for every cause, Jesus’ first answer is phrased in such a way that the reader does not expect any exceptions (Matt. 19:1-6). The exception clause did not come immediately to his lips, but rather a firm denial of divorce.
- After his first answer denying divorce, and after the exception clause answer, when clarifying with his surprised disciples in the house, he confirms no divorce and no remarriage without an exception (Mark 10:10-12).
- The disciples were surprised by Jesus’ answer which means that he did not take either the liberal (divorce for any reason) or conservative (divorce for adultery) school. Their response (“If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”) as well as their asking him privately (“in the house they asked him again” Mark 10:10) indicates surprise. What can account for that? In Romans 9, a key argument for unconditional election is that the objections Paul answers (9:14 and 18) will only be raised if unconditional election is the theological conclusion Paul is arguing for. We know the true interpretation of the passage because of the response of the hearers. The same applies here since the disciples, like the Pharisees, would have expected Jesus to side with Hillel or Shammai. What reason would they have for being surprised if Jesus sided merely with the conservative position that divorce is bad, but there are valid reasons for being divorced? This question must be addressed for the divorce position to stand confidently. In fact, if someone from this position holds firmly to the clarity of the exception clause, then their opponent could just as viably hold firmly to the clarity of the disciple’s surprise. To paper over their response to Jesus’ sounds as convincing as those who oppose divorce and remarriage without a full recognition of how formidable the exception clause is to their position.
- Matthew 1:19 gives an example of divorce within the betrothal period. Matthew could have recorded the exception clause that Mark and Luke left out because he had already illustrated it for his readers in the first chapter. Joseph was righteous, but he was going to divorce a woman with whom he had never been intimate.
- Deut. 22:23-29 shows that adultery during betrothal and before physical relations was a far more serious crime than fornication after. Adultery during betrothal could have deserved death. Whereas pre-marital relations could have deserved marriage. In the NT, a number of the death penalty offenses were changed, but the point here is that adultery during betrothal was a potential that had to be dealt with in the law. Jesus knew the law as well as human nature, so it would make sense that he deal with betrothal adultery here.
- Mark and Luke were written to larger and Gentile audiences who would not have understood betrothal so it makes sense that they did not include the exception clause. Those who support divorce in some instances need to offer a viable reason for why Mark who, in a relativity brief, fast moving gospel, extends his treatment of divorce yet leaves out three Greek words that make such a huge difference. Mark saw this topic as worthy of extended discussion, yet he left out the three words that would have made the entire thing understandable!
- 1 Cor. 7 explains divorce using Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce (7:10) yet does not reference the exception clause which would be an obvious fit here. If Jesus’ was allowing for divorce why is Paul silent about fornication as grounds and unclear even about desertion? This observation does not disprove the divorce position, but it should cause the exegete to pause especially in light of the other flags.
- Romans, 1 Corinthians, Mark, and Luke were written to groups of Christians before Matthew was written. They all treat divorce, and yet none of them allow for divorce on the grounds of fornication. It is difficult to understand why these other sources would not mention this major difference for the many believers that would never have access to Matthew’s gospel. All the Gentile readers for many years would have had access only to documents which do not allow for divorce because of fornication. How many years passed before Matthew was in common circulation among Gentile churches? Probably, enough time would have passed for these believers to form an ethical culture before they read the first gospel. Then, according to the divorce position, they would all be allowed to divorce and remarry in cases of fornication where previously they had been bound. Again, it is merely a cause to slow down the train of confidence, not to win the debate. But it should at least slow the train.
In conclusion, the exception clause when viewed in light of the Jewish background of its original recipients, other flags in Matthew 19, and observations from the rest of the NT is not nearly as clear as may be taken with a first reading. We can validly say, “It probably allows for divorce” or “It possibly allows for divorce”, but to say that it unequivocally settles the matter is too much dogmatism in light of the entire textual evidence.
2. Allowing divorce and remarriage for the injured party is a demonstration of mercy and grace.
This is a theological reason culled from dozens of statements throughout the Psalms about the lovingkindness of God. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for missing the major points of the faith one of which was mercy (Matt. 23:23). The fruit of His Spirit include love and kindness. The merciful will inherit the earth. God endures the wicked and even gives them many blessings for a long time before the final judgment. David served Mephibosheth. And on and on, the proof texts and examples go throughout Scripture of God’s delight in mercy. What could be more gracious and merciful than allowing someone bruised through a terrible marriage to get relief with a divorce and then peace with a second marriage to a godly Christian?
This argument is as much pastoral as it is theological. If we were locked away with books handing down decisions for others to put in place, we may not put as much store by this particular reason. But we all have prayed with and counseled friends, brothers, sisters, and parents who have lived in painful, abusive, unfaithful relationships.
From an exegetical standpoint, however, this argument is not conclusive. Allowing divorce and remarriage is only merciful if it is the will of God. If it is not the will of God, then the most merciful thing is to strengthen the wounded spouse for healing and perseverance while hoping for our Lord’s return. Many of His choicest servants have lived and died in bitter pain only to awaken to the joy of Aslan’s country. While I find this argument very persuasive when I am actually speaking with people, when I am in my study, there is no meat to it.
3. The binding that Paul references in 1 Cor. 7:15 probably means “bound to marriage.”
He uses that same picturesque term in 7:39 where it clearly refers to being bound to marriage. If we are bound to marriage there, why would 7:15 not refer to marriage? This seems like the most natural, surface reading of the passage. On top of that, other interpretations of this passage stretch the natural flow of language and the context.
First, we should notice that if this verse represents Paul admitting divorce for desertion it is the only place in the Bible by any author where desertion is grounds for divorce. The argument is furthermore based on two words “bound” and “peace” rather than a grammatically clearer phrase such as Matthew’s exception clause.
Secondly, even if the binding refers to marriage, could it not mean bound to continue trying to reconcile? The believer may relax his efforts at coaxing his spouse to counseling or inviting her to church. He is called to peace that allows him to resign himself to his wife’s departure without any guilt that he needs to do more.
Another way to understand the binding speaks of bound to guilt. If a man’s wife wants to leave him, and he tries to keep the covenant, he need to be driven to despair in his guilt, but live at peace knowing that God has granted his beloved peace even in the midst of the storm. Romans 7:3-4 seems to support that view since the death to the law there frees the believer from the guilt brought on by the law. A Christian is freed from that. In 1 Corinthians, Paul could be reminding them of that same truth: “Do your best to work out the marriage, brother, and then trust that God is not angry with you. You are not right to feel constantly guilty as if you could have forced her to repent.”
Finally, Paul’s words to the believer are passive. It is the unbeliever who actively divorces the believer. The believer is merely unbound (a passive voice). What unbinds him? The unbeliever’s action of divorcing the believer. The believer is not given permission to dissolve the covenant since the divorce that loosed him from guilt and bondage to reconcile was already committed by the unbeliever. So, even if the bondage refers to marriage, the believer has been passively loosed from it by the active divorce of the unbeliever thus the ethical conclusion is the same.
The binding could refer to marriage, but since the active agent of the divorce is the unbeliever (“the unbelieving partner separates…” 7:15), the believer does not receive from Paul in this verse the right to initiate. The binding could also refer to reconciling the marriage or to guilt about the divorce. Ultimately, it would seem that each of these options arrives at the same place.
If this passage allows for believers to initiate divorce it does not allow for it explicitly. At best, this passage is doubtful owing to its shortness (one word not repeated or expanded on) and equivocal language.
4. 1 Cor. 7 sets up several “rules” and then offers exceptions to those rules. So, we should expect an exception to the prohibition to divorce.
There is an exception to staying single: Marriage is better than ongoing temptation (7:1-2). There is an exception to paying your conjugal debts: fasting (7:5). Marital and family issues are so varied and complicated, there must be exceptions. Even though the general rule is no divorce, there are sad, sickening, and even terrifying circumstances that call for exceptions. Paul knew about human nature and so he included exceptions for these kinds of abuse and desertion.
This argument carries very little force. It would be nice icing on the cake if the cake were already baked. But that begs the question of whether the cake is in the oven or whether we are fasting that day. We can admit that 1 Cor. 7 has a number of exceptions to its rules because that does not prove that this rule has an exception. There are other rules in chapter 6 as well as later in chapter 7 that do not have exceptions.
5. Ezra seemed to bless divorce under certain circumstances (Ezra 10:1-14).
Ezra as the spiritual leader and the people both took responsibility to break up marriages. The reasons for divorce may have changed for the NT, but the barest conclusion to take away from this account is that divorce is sometimes blessed by God.
It is unclear if God blessed these divorces. He may have been pleased with the wholehearted spirit directed toward His glory (Ezra 10:1), but not been pleased with all the actions taken in his name. Questionable decisions were made by others in the OT without a rebuke in the text.
This may have been God’s directive for the nation of Israel at that time. He knew the situation and all factors involved. If He chose to ordain those divorces, then we must fit that into His other legal claims that are no longer binding on NT believers. The laws of levirate marriage as well as laws regarding marriage of slaves (Exodus 21:4-11, etc.) would be two examples of marital ethics that have been expressly changed for NT believers.
6. God divorced Israel in Jeremiah 3:8.
When Israel sinned against her “husband” the offended party acted to give a certificate of divorce.
Proposition 1: God had the right and exercised the right to divorce His bride for her unfaithfulness.
Proposition 2: I must be like God.
Conclusion: I have the right and may exercise the right to divorce my bride for her unfaithfulness.
Whatever “divorce” God offered Israel, it was entirely consonant with his eternal and unchanging love for her. It also fit with his explicit desire 4 verses later that she return to Him. God’s divorce of Israel appeared to be temporary and did not abate His wooing, open love for Her. It certainly did not cause Him to choose another wife.
We who live in a modern state of legalities may not understand what exactly God’s divorce paper meant to Israel, but we can easily see that He did not dissolve the covenant. So we must not throw out the substance of the argument which is clear—God never changed His manner of love toward Israel—because legal terminology has changed over millennia.
7. This is the most common position today as well as being found in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The accumulated wisdom of years means the evidence must be very strong to oppose it. They had the Holy Spirit as well as we. So, why would we depart from the position that is far more common?
Interestingly, the Baptist Confession does not have the paragraphs that allow for divorce. Also, the WCF admits that divorce during betrothal was a valid claim to be considered. (See WCF 24.5)
This argument does not have the force of Scripture so it deserves to be treated lastly. But it does deserve at the least real caution when a man arrives at a conclusion that godly brothers who love and know Scripture oppose. However, since many of these giants of the faith had other obvious hermeneutical errors such as paedo-baptism, it is not too difficult to imagine them being wrong on a less clear issue.