Old Testament Teaching

Human society is based upon marriage and the family. Anything which undermines these institutions is contrary to God’s will.

Divorce is contrary to God’s ideal will

But the law allows divorce as a concession to human weakness

Jesus confirms this in Mark 10:2-5 “Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ ‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied. They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’ ‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied.” See Deut 24:1; Isa. 50:1; Jer 3:8; Matt 1:19. 

However, a man was never to be allowed to divorce his wife if he falsely accused her of unfaithfulness or had been obliged to marry her after raping her (Deut 22:13-19, 28-29).

God also hates other sins

He hates idolatry (Deut 16:22, 12:31). So Ezra told those who had married foreign wives, against God’s will, that they should send them away in case they led their husbands into idolatry.  Ezra 10:3 “Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law.” Here divorce was the lesser of two evils compared with idolatry.

He hates violence (Ps 11:5) “The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates.”

He hates pride, dishonesty, false witness, divisiveness and all kinds of evil (Prov 6:16-19) “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.”

He hates hypocrisy (Isa 1:14) “Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.”


In OT teaching divorce is contrary to God’s ideal will but:

  • He allows it as a concession to human weakness.
  • In the ancient world only husbands were allowed to divorce their wives. No restrictions were placed on this except where a husband falsely accused his wife of unfaithfulness or had been obliged to marry her after raping her.
  • Divorce, although hated by God, is not therefore in the most serious category of human sin about which no concession is made in scripture.

New Testament Teaching

Historical Background

It is important to understand the situation Jesus was addressing:

Marriage in Jewish Society

Marriage was a sacred duty and should only be delayed or avoided in order for a man to study the Law full time. Men were obliged to obey the law to be fruitful and multiply.

However, women were regarded as possessions at the disposal of a father or husband. A woman had virtually no legal rights. She could be divorced for any reason at the will of her husband. He simply gave her a bill of divorce in front of two witnesses. It stated: “Let this be from me your writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that you may marry whatever man you will.”

There were two interpretations of Deut 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…”  The school of Shammai interpreted “something indecent” as only adultery or unchastity. The school of Hillel interpreted it as allowing a man to divorce his wife if she burnt his food or put too much salt in it; if she went out without a headcovering; if she talked to a man in the street; if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s parents or was troublesome and quarrelsome.  Rabbi Akiba said that the phrase “becomes displeasing to him” meant a man may divorce his wife if he found a more attractive woman. Unsurprisingly, the school of Hillel was dominant in Jewish society.

Consequently, divorce had become very common and women were unwilling to marry because of it.

A wife could force her husband to divorce her if he contracted a terrible disease such as leprosy or intended to make her leave Israel or worked as a tanner which involved the collection of dog dung. Also the courts might press a man to divorce his wife if he was impotent (or refused to consummate the marriage) or was unable to support her properly.

Under Rabbinic law divorce was compulsory for adultery or sterility. Desertion was not a cause for divorce unless a witness corroborated that the partner concerned had disappeared and was presumed dead.  In the case of insanity in either partner, divorce was impossible.

Marriage in Greek Society

Scholars have said that one of the main reasons ancient civilisations died was a low view of women.  In Greek society extra-marital sex for men, including with prostitutes, was accepted and expected. A man was expected to have mistresses. However women were expected to live in seclusion, not even joining the men for meals and never going out alone. They were expected to be morally pure and faithful.  A man could divorce his wife merely by dismissing her in the presence of two witnesses. He did however have to return her dowry.

Marriage in Roman Society

Originally, Roman society was based on the home and family. Divorce was rare. Prostitutes were despised. Wives took their full part in society, unlike Greek women.  But Greek influence spread throughout the empire and, with it, widespread divorce. Women were known to have many husbands: one had eight in five years. Another had ten.  Marriage was treated with cynicism.  In order to rescue the greatly threatened institution of marriage unmarried people were taxed and they could not enter into inheritances.

The Teaching of Jesus

Jesus allows divorce if one partner is sexually immoral.

Matt 5:31-32 “‘It has been said, `Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” 

Matt 19:3-12 “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ ‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator `made them male and female’, and said, `For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’ ‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’  Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’” 
(cf. Mark 10:2-20)

Jesus went back to first principles. Adam and Eve were created for each other exclusively: there was no-one else around!  But note, Jesus is giving a principle, and ideal, not an absolute law.  After all, he allows that there are exceptional circumstances where divorce is allowed. Similarly, Moses gave a concession, not a law.  The ideal is that marriage is a relationship which cannot be broken.

A parallel may be drawn with the Sabbath. Exodus 20:10 says “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work….”  But it is obvious that a total ban on work was impractical, especially in an agricultural context.

Jesus clearly expects even a wrongly divorced woman to be obliged to remarry in Jewish society

Matt 5:31-32 “anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress.”  She would not be an adulteress if she did not remarry.  It falls short of the ideal but she is “forced” into it.

The Teaching of Paul

Paul reluctantly allows separation (with no specified restrictions) but not divorce.

1 Cor. 7:10-11 “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”

Paul allows divorce in the case of desertion for religious reasons

1 Cor 7:12-15  “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

Summary of the Explicit Teaching of the New Testament

The Bible allows (but does not require) divorce by an innocent party if his/her spouse is guilty of “marital unfaithfulness” (porneia). The term includes any sort of sexual misdemeanour.

The implication of Matt 19:9 is that a man who divorces his wife on the grounds of porneia does not commit adultery by remarrying. Also the phrase “causes her to become an adulteress” in Matt 5:32 surely implies an expectation of remarriage, meaning that these statements are to be understood in the context of remarriage.  Consequently it seems the passages imply freedom for the innocent partner to remarry in the case of porneia by the other partner. Divorce without a right to remarriage was not known in Jesus’ day.

If an innocent party is divorced by his/her spouse on grounds other than porneia but the spouse goes on either to commit sexual misdemeanour or to remarry, the innocent partner would be free to remarry because his/her partner had at that stage fallen into porneia.

Jesus appears to accept that if a wife is forced into divorce she will remarry. The original husband is responsible for the new marriage being less than the ideal, i.e. strictly-speaking adulterous. The implication seems to be that someone forced into a divorce is free to remarry even though it is not God’s ideal.

Separation is open to a believer if it is the lesser of two evils, e.g. in the case of cruelty. Compare Acts 5:27-28 when the apostles disobeyed the strong teaching of Rom. 13:1-7 as the lesser of two evils.

When a believer is divorced by an unbeliever on religious grounds, the believer is said to be free. The context does not mention remarriage but is to do with the “holiness” of the children. The implication is surely that the innocent party is “free” to be remarried.

Divorce in Church History

The early church Fathers probably rejected divorce with the right of remarriage. But by the 6th century the Eastern church (and the Orthodox Church today) allowed divorce and remarriage for various causes. The Orthodox Church speaks of the “moral death” of a marriage.  Causes include: attempts against the partner’s life; adultery or bigamy; even frivolous conduct leading to suspicion of adultery; intentional abortion without the husband’s consent; impotence; desertion by the husband for two years, incurable lunacy for four years; prolonged disappearance, and leprosy.   The Roman Church elevated marriage to the status of an indissoluble sacrament but developed a system of dispensation and annulment by which marriages may be dissolved. The continental Reformers believed Scripture allowed divorce and remarriage in certain circumstances. Archbishop Cranmer proposed a revised canon law which would have allowed divorce for adultery, malicious desertion, prolonged absence without news, attempts against the partner’s life, and cruelty.Other Considerations

Jesus is addressing a situation of gross and widespread abuse by men of the biblical teaching on divorce which had led to the grave injustice of women being divorced against their will for trivial reasons.  Dr R T France writes: “It is important to remember that the issue was not ‘divorce’ in the modern sense of a legally approved annulment of a marriage on the initiative of either partner (or both), but the right of the Jewish man (not the woman) to repudiate his wife by a simple unilateral declaration against which there was no appeal.”

He goes back to first principles. But his teaching, as on other issues, is a matter of principle and ideal, not of law. Professor R V G Tasker writes: “It is strange that Christians, who have been ready enough to see that Jesus, in dealing with other matters of conduct, is not legislating, have often been reluctant to bring the same consideration to their interpretation of his teaching on marriage and divorce”  Every effort should be made to reach the ideal of marriage and the church should do all it can to uphold this ideal. But no-one really reaches it and, in cases of serious failure, sometimes divorce is the lesser of two evils. Remarriage is assumed by Jesus in his teaching on divorce.  Divorce is always an evil but it is forgivable. Remarriage after divorce falls short of the ideal and, compared with this ideal, is technically adulterous. But it is no more serious than other sins (including other failings in marriage) and it is forgivable.  Dr David Atkinson writes: “The Deuteronomic law was framed largely to prevent cruelty; Matthew points to unlawful sexual misbehaviour; Paul seems to allow divorce as a consequence of desertion in some circumstances. These may well serve as paradigms in clarifying the extreme seriousness with which the question of divorce should be approached. They suggest the sort of circumstances which might allow the moral permissibility of divorce in the last resort. Recognition of the persistent ‘hardness of heart’ in an as yet sin-affected society requires the recognition of the human impossibility of healing some broken relationships. Divorce in some extreme circumstances with repentance, can be allowed as a lesser evil.”

  • The explicit teaching on divorce and remarriage should not be isolated from the biblical teaching on the nature of God. It is difficult to believe that God who is love and a God of mercy, forgiveness and new beginnings would condemn an innocent partner, divorced outside the exceptions specified in the NT, to a life of loneliness, heartache and possibly frustrated love. Surely the same consideration would apply to a guilty partner who is penitent. After all, the woman caught in adultery should, according to the OT law have been stoned to death. Adultery is inherently sinful. Yet Jesus said he did not condemn her and that she should go and sin no more.

No other sin (except a crime requiring life imprisonment) sentences someone to suffer for the rest of their lives when they could opt out of that suffering. Even if a man killed his wife and was imprisoned for a number of years for manslaughter the church would not object to his subsequently remarrying. In fact he could be married in church. How strange then that a divorcee (even an innocent partner) is, in the eyes of some Christians and churches, wrong to remarry.  Such an attitude is surely unjust. Yet God is a God of justice who hates injustice.

Jesus’ dealing with the woman caught in adultery indicates that there are exceptional cases, in matters to do with marriage and sexual relations, where the law is not to be applied. He strongly condemns adultery on several occasions but refuses to support the biblical penalty on this occasion.   By the same token it seems that there will be times when remarriage is the lesser of two evils even when the divorce is outside the explicit biblical causes.  

In these considerations it is important to remember that we are dealing with a man and a women living together in the context of marriage, not behaviour which is inherently sinful and can never be justified, including by the lesser of two evils argument.

The question may be asked as to whether all married couples are joined together by God. Some marriages are not real unions at all. Professor Tasker writes: “men and women remain the same frail creatures who often find it extremely difficult to achieve in a particular marriage relationship the unity which could alone be truthfully described as ‘a joining together by God’.  Jesus, we may surely believe, expects his followers, far from perfect themselves, to recognise this frailty, and to treat it with sympathy; and it may well be that those who fail to do so have not yet fully learned the lesson of the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery found in John 8:1-11. It is difficult, then, to feel that this section of Matthew’s Gospel gives us any ground for supposing that Jesus expected his church to become an ‘anti-divorce society’, which would make no provision for the ‘hardness of men’s hearts’ or would debar from communion those, often more sinned against than sinning, whose marriages have been dissolved. Nor have we any reason to think that [Jesus] would have approved of the somewhat naïve assumption made by some sacramentalists, that any marriage which happens to have begun with a religious ceremony is ipso facto a union which Godhas created.”

Dr France gives a salutary warning, commenting on Matthew 19: “There is an undeniable tension between the absolute idealism of vv. 4-8 and the acceptance of a reality which falls short of this ideal in v. 9 (in its Matthean form), and the danger is that we will do as Jewish legalism had done and build our expectation on the concession rather than the ideal. But Christian ethics in a fallen world will always be subject to tensions; sinful situations sometimes make it impossible to choose between courses none of which leaves no room for regret. What is important is that in so doing we do not lose sight of the ideal, and that we accept the ‘lesser evil’ for what it is, an ‘evil’, even where it is the best course open to us in the circumstances.”

  • However, the merciful, loving forgiveness of the Lord is relevantly expressed in his words to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11).

See article on Divorce  by Herbert Waddams in A Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. J Macquarrie, SCM Press, London 1967, p. 91.

See article on Divorce in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Paternoster, Carlisle 1984, p. 323.

R T France, Matthew, Tyndale NT Commentaries, IVP, Leicester 1985, p280

R V G Tasker, The Gospel according to Matthew, Tyndale NT Commentaries, Tyndale Press, London 1961, p.181

D J Atkinson, article on Divorce in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Paternoster, Carlisle 1984, p. 326

It is likely that the death penalty for adultery had fallen into disuse anyway.

Tasker, op. cit., p.181-2

France, op. cit., p. 282
Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ . Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction