Counsel on Divorce

Matthew 5:31-32 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’;[1] 32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:8-9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

When Jesus said the only grounds for divorce was/is adultery, the context was his speaking to Jewish men, who were divorcing their wives for insignificant reasons in the extreme, such as cooking a bad meal. In the context and historical setting, Jesus dealt with the issue at hand. The context and historical setting were that Jesus was dealing with a stiff-necked people who were abusing the basis for divorce under the Mosaic Law. Jesus was not dealing with any exceptions to the rule that might come up in life.

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason? (19:3). A hotbed of discussion surrounded the various interpretations of Moses’ divorce regulations. The leading Pharisaic scholars of Jesus’ day debated the grounds for divorce that Moses established, who allowed a man to divorce his wife because he “finds something indecent about her” (Deut. 24:1). The debate focused on the meaning of “indecent.” The Mishnah tractate Gittin (“Bills of Divorce”) reflects back on the debate between different schools of thought among the Pharisees at Jesus’ time and records the differing interpretations (m. Giṭ. 9:10). The more conservative school of Shammai held to the letter of the Mosaic law and said, “A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her.” The more liberal school of Hillel interpreted “indecency” to mean that “he may divorce her even if she spoiled a dish for him.” The esteemed Rabbi Akiba, who belonged to the school of Hillel, later added, “Even if he found another fairer than she,” demonstrating that divorce be granted for even the most superficial reasons.[2]

However, the Apostle Paul was in a different context and historical setting. Thus, under the influence of Holy Spirit, he offered an exception. Notice how Paul words things,

1 Corinthians 7:12-15 English Standard Version (ESV)

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.

The first thing to notice is Paul saying, I am inspired by God, so I can say this and the Lord (Jesus), did not touch on this, but I am. Let us take a look at the context and historical setting.

If she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife (7:11). Paul lays out the two options available to Christians if they separate from their spouses: either remain unmarried or seek reconciliation. Remarriage of a Christian divorcee comes under Jesus’ specific teaching (e.g., Luke 16:18). This is in contrast with the Roman legal situation. A divorce settlement from Egypt dated 13 B.C. (after it became a Roman province) declared, “From this day it will be lawful for Zois to marry another man and for Antipater to marry another woman, with neither party being liable to prosecution.”[3]

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 (7:12–13).Within the Christian community at Corinth, and almost certainly elsewhere, Paul faces the issue of men and women converted to Jesus Christ but the spouse remains an unbeliever. Clearly this may cause tensions within the marriage. If the unbelieving partner is willing to remain married, there should be no move to seek a divorce. The Christians at Corinth may have pointed to Old Testament examples where Jews married non-Jews and brought God’s displeasure (e.g., 2 Chron. 21:6) and therefore thought it appropriate for a Christian to seek a divorce.

If the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. [ In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved ] God has called us to live in peace (7:15). In a divorce the husband was expected to hand back the dowry he had received over from the bride’s family at the time of marriage. For example in a divorce settlement of 13 B.C., the husband had to hand back “the items he received as her dowry, namely, clothing valued at 120 silver drachmas and a pair of gold earrings.” A (Christian) husband might try to be difficult and retain such a dowry, but Paul reminds the Christian to live in peace and to let the (unbelieving) wife go.[4]

Under verse 15 of chapter 7, a husband or wife is not enslaved to a spouse who has left him or her and has refused reconciliation.  If the husband or wife, who has been left by the other has done his or her due diligence of trying to reconcile (7:10-13), and they have an unbeliever who will never return, nor ever remarry, the brother or sister is not enslaved and are free to remarry under Paul’s words, not Jesus, because Jesus was not dealing with this particular circumstance. Jesus and Paul were not contradicting each other, just as Paul and James did not contradict each other over faith and works. Paul is complimenting Jesus’ words because he is dealing with an entirely different context and historical setting. However, if anyone argues that Paul was not offering an exception clause to Jesus’ words; then, Paul would be contradicting Jesus. There is no reason for Paul to talk about ‘not being enslaved’ to their husband or wife if he were not offering an exception clause to Jesus’ words about divorce, nor would there be a reason for Paul to say, ‘these are not Jesus words, they are mine.’ In other words, Jesus did not touch on this circumstance, ‘I, an inspired apostle am dealing with it.’ Thus, Paul is offering an exception, so there is no contradiction.

The College Press NIV Commentary is correct in its analysis

Having established a case in 7:14 for remaining married to an unbeliever, Paul now acknowledges the exceptions. Beginning in this verse, Paul teaches that his instructions are completely different if the unbelieving spouse is not happily married. That is, if the pagan mate wants to stay married to a Christian, the Christian cannot divorce him or her, but if the pagan mate wants out of the marriage, so be it!

The very perspectives and divine rules which would keep a Christian married to another Christian (7:10–11) or a Christian married to a happily married pagan (7:12–14) are revoked in the case of a believer married to an unhappily married pagan. Let them have their divorce, Paul writes. In such circumstances the Christian brother or sister need not operate under the same constraints as given in earlier situations. The reason that the Christian is not bound in these situations of inevitable divorce from an uncooperative pagan is that the foundation and principles of a godly marriage are not present. Marriages can be held together by loyalty to God or they can be held together by self-interest, but nothing godly is accomplished by trying to keep a non-believer in a marriage where there is no peace. Peaceful relationships are a two-way matter (cf. Rom 12:18), and Paul excused the Corinthian believers from any need to coerce non-believing mates into staying in the marriage.[5]

[1] Deut. 24:1

[2] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 117.

[3] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon., vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 137.

BGU 1103 (A. S. Hunt and C. C. Edgar, Select Papyri [Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1956], 6). A translation may be found in Shelton, As the Romans Did, 50, no. 61; Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization, 2:344.

[4] Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon., vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 137.

[5] Richard Oster, 1 Corinthians, The College Press NIV Commentary (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1995), 1 Co 7:15.