Marriage and Divorce – how Scripture can be complicated


Along with the marriage topic from earlier, I thought it would be good to talk about how something simple like Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce could be more complicated than what we’d expect.


What did Jesus teach about marriage and divorce? I’d kind of like to know the answer to this question. Did he teach:

  1. Do not divorce at all because doing so makes your partner commit adultery.
  2. You can divorce and remarry, but only for marital unfaithfulness, otherwise it is adultery.
  3. Divorce is okay, but it is remarriage that is at issue. If you remarry, you commit adultery.

So which is it?

Luke is less complicated so let’s start there. Luke 16:18 reads:

18 “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (RSV)

Divorce is not forbidden, but remarriage is. It causes one to become an adulterer. Let’s put aside the question as to why this is the case and just accept it at face value. In fact, divorce and remarriage is only approached from the man’s perspective as to whether he divorces his wife or marries a divorced woman. It says nothing about if the woman does such a thing.

Now let’s take a look at Mark 10:2-12:

2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, `God made them male and female.’ 7 `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” 10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (RSV)

In Mark, Jesus teaches that divorce itself is not allowed for a man or a woman, looking in particular at verses 9, 11 and 12. But here both perspectives are in view, the man divorcing his wife or a woman divorcing her husband. Neither is allowed.

Let’s look at Matthew 19:3-12:

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” 8 He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” (RSV)

Let’s leave aside the eunuchs for now because I don’t think we need to address it and I’m not brave or stupid (see Al’s last comment on the other column) enough to address “Christian” sexuality. This is still from the perspective of the man only, but there is an exception clause. Both divorce and remarriage are allowed to the man whose wife commits adultery.

Or is that what the text says in Matthew. There are a few ancient Greek manuscripts that take out the exception clause and do not allow for divorce at all. There are also manuscripts that pick up Luke’s marrying a divorce woman clause indicating that such a situation also amounts to adultery.

So what is the answer? Maybe it is helpful to understand what the question is.

One thing Jesus was dealing with in his day was the question about divorce and when it was lawful. This is what the Pharisees are trying to get him to answer, which side he comes down on.

From the Mishnah, Gittin 9:10 reads:

The School of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything [Deuteronomy 24:1]. And the School of Hillel says: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. R. Akiba says: Even if he found another fairer than she, for it is written, And it shall be if she find no favour in his eyes…[Deuteronomy 24:1]

They want to know if he reads “indecency” as most important and sides with the stricter school on unchastity only or if he sides with the more lenient school that thinks any reason, even a bad meal or a better looking woman allow for divorce.

Here are two more examples to show how ridiculous it could be at times among rabbis:

Talking about a bill of divorce, Gittin 8:2 says, “If he put it into her hand while she was asleep and she awoke and read it, and, lo, it was her bill of divorce, it is not valid unless he shall say to her, ‘Here is thy bill of divorce’. If she was standing in the public domain and he threw it to her and it fell nearer to her, she is divorced, but if nearer to him she is not divorced; if half-way, she counts both as divorced and not divorced.”

Gittin 6:6 reads, “It once happened that a man in sound health said, ‘Write out a bill of divorce for my wife’, and he went up to the top of the roof and fell down and died. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel said: The Sages said, ‘If he fell down of himself the bill of divorce is valid; but if the wind blew him down, it is not valid’.”

This is an important cultural context to understand Jesus’ words. He saw all the nonsense and sided with those who favored no divorce. Whether he actually taught that there is an exception like the stricter school of rabbinical thought said is impossible to know. Yet he directs people toward the purpose of marriage.

From the perspective of God’s radical love, we find that an analogy for sending his people into exile is an analogy of divorce. God divorced his people Israel and sent them away into exile (Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 3:8). But he does something so radical after this. In Hosea 2, God, after asking Hosea to marry an adulterous woman, does the same thing with his people. Although she went after another husband (idolatry), she will return to God (2:7), who will allure her and get her to come back to him (2:14). She will once again be his wife (2:16). What is remarkable about this is that this violates God’s own law in Deuteronomy 24:4 in which he says it is an abomination for such a thing to happen. God cares so much about his wife, Israel, that he will violate his own law to show mercy and compassion. This is the intent Jesus had in mind, even if we do not know exactly what he taught.

My overall point is not to teach you about rabbinic Judaism or even about what your marriage should be. It is to show the complexity of Scripture. Sometimes we don’t even know the right questions to ask, but assume it is very easy to interpret.

So what did Jesus teach about marriage and divorce?

[In a future column, I’d like to discuss both the Christian Affirmation and the Emergent Church.]


20 Responses to “Marriage and Divorce – how Scripture can be complicated”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    What a great article, Duane. Thank you.

    I saw the first part of the title and swallowed my gum. Then, the rest of the title came into focus after someone performed the Heimlech (sp?) on me, and I realized your genius in selecting a topic to hammer home your point from last week: Scripture is not easy to interpret. And that, coming from someone as educated AND intelligent as you speaks volumes.

    (Although I could give you some tracts I’ve seen that claim to explain this whole issue real simple-like, so any dummy can understand.)

    What a refreshing feeling it is when one discovers that many of our (formerly-believed-to-be-religious) enemies are, in fact, honest people trying to uncover the complexities of Scripture from “their” natural biases, and that our reading them can help us tremendously in our need to look at the text with fresh eyes.

    Wow. That last paragraph was one sentence. I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed about that!

    Thanks so much, Duane. Looking forward to more in the future…

    (P.S. You know I was trying to be funny with the brave/stupid comment, right? I’d love for you to tackle that touchy [no pun intended] subject, but I don’t know if you’d be willing to take that risk!)

  2. R&B Says:

    In a way, I hate this subject.

    About an hour before I read your article (a great one, by the way), I sat in a Dairy Queen and listened to a good friend tell of how his wife had loaded up their furniture into a U-Haul and left him. Did I mention it is/was his third wife? Prayers and counseling, and more prayers and more counseling … for what … so that this couple can end up on the ash heap of that great institution we know as “marriage”?

    I guess it’s why marriage is ultimately such a great subject, Duane … and Sandi. Because it’s in the grit and grime of life where Christianity really lives. While certainly there is a place for the theological ivory towers, Christianity really lives in the streets. In the streets, where things are not so very cut and dried, where grace must abound or we lose our freaking minds.

    So the readers will know, I’ve been married nearly 23 years. I still love being married. My brothers (three of them) all have been married for 15+ years or more with no divorces. I have no mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, or even cousins that have been divorced. Somehow, somewhere, that must make a statement. Maybe God has smiled on our family. Maybe somewhere along the way, we just “got it”. I don’t know. But I do know there is a mountain of pain and self-imposed anguish that we have been spared.

    So, for the record, let me say that I HATE DIVORCE! I get downright redneck about it. Rarely does anyone benefit by it. Rarely is there a legitimate substantive reason for it, at least in my experience. I’m sure that you can hear the BUT …

    I have some good friends that came to our church, out of the CofC. His first wife had left him. Committed adultery, the whole nine yards. She was divorced as well. Their church would not condone them marrying. I counseled, indeed taught, about grace, a concept they were rather unfamiliar with.

    My friends married. They are doing really, really well. They have a son. The doctors told her she couldn’t have children. She did. God has blessed them and blessed them. So, are they adulterers? Or are they the recipients of God’s second-chance-giving Grace? Should I have welcomed them into our church? Or should I have shunned them as broken vessels?

    Jesus had a habit of telling those he forgave to “go and sin no more”. I guess that’s kind of where I am coming from on this subject.

    Thanks, Duane, for a really great article and am looking forward to articles about the Affirmation and the Emerging Church.


  3. Duane McCrory Says:


    Yes, I knew you were just trying to be funny, but I don’t really think I’m able to tackle that difficult topic right now. Thanks for your comments! That is what I intended for this post.

    Some might notice that I did not take a side on what I think Jesus taught and that is because I really don’t know. I also did not follow on and say what the implications might be. I think the topic becomes very complicated and is very different in our culture than it was in the time of Jesus and the time the gospels were written. That’s why I thought it necessary to throw in the part about God’s mercy toward Israel. When we’re dealing with people, cookie-cutter answers just don’t work and can’t work. Life is messy.

  4. Duane McCrory Says:


    Thanks again for your thoughts and especially the personal information about the couple that is doing really well. When we’ve become a church that cannot forgive, we might as well close our doors because we’ve missed the point of God sending his son to offer us forgiveness.

  5. Raul Riviera Says:

  6. FreeThinker Says:

    Whew! As an Atheist, I’m glad I don’t have to make sense of all this!

    Love is natural … forcing a suernatural angle seems to complicate things.

  7. Al Sturgeon Says:

    🙂 It does seem overly complicated, doesn’t it?! Kind of reminds me of trying to play golf – where you analyze your swing and try a million little tricks and finally some old golfer says, “Just shut up and hit the ball!”

    My humble opinion is that there is much about love that is natural, and yet simultaneously, the concept is still huge and complex. I guess that’s why it is so fascinating and why we love music and movies and books and art and everything else that tries to communicate it.

    Thanks for commenting.

  8. Duane McCrory Says:


    Thanks for posting a comment. I guess I’m wondering what you mean by “love is natural.” Please clarify if you have time to post again.

    I guess the angle I’m coming from is that love is more than just a feeling but also involves action. I see and counsel with many married couples on the verge of divorce (some Christian but many are not) and what might have started out as a feeling somehow has not lasted. That’s why I ask for clarification if that is what you mean by “love is natural.” Thanks.

  9. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I respect your opinion and your education. Yours is truly a dizzying intellect.

    I just don’t buy the fact that we have to minutely observe and comprehend every little factoid of rabbinic Judaism to figure out what Jesus was really saying.

    To say that we have to comprehend all of this “outside reading” in order to fully “get” the Bible equates to saying that the Bible is not the pure and perfect Word of God.

    We complicate the Word of God when we try to make it fit our situation.

  10. R&B Says:

    “We complicate the Word of God when we try to make it fit our situation.”

    I’ve always seen the Bible as a witness to who God is. As a secondary thing, it is a “life manual”. If it doesn’t fit our situation, what good is it?

    I think Duane makes some really good and valid points about Biblical interpretation. It can be a bit of a minefield. But the tracts Al was talking about have a point, too. We shouldn’t over analyze to the point scripture has no effect.

  11. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I agree. But I hope everyone remembers that Duane’s main point is that our conclusions should not be held arrogantly. I must come to a conclusion and act upon that conclusion, but I must (a) hold my conclusion a bit loosely, realizing that it may be necessary upon further thinking to change it someday, and (b) recognize that my conclusion will not be the same as everyone else’s.

  12. Joe Longhorn Says:

    You’re right. My statement didn’t really get my meaning across. Let me try again:

    Things get complicated when we take a sinful situation and try to justify it using the Word of God.

    That’s hard to do!

  13. Duane McCrory Says:


    I completely agree with your last comment. If you see that as something I am trying to do, then I must not have communicated my point clearly enough. I’m in the middle of something right now, but will clarify later.

  14. Duane McCrory Says:


    I really hope that people don’t really think that I have a “dizzying intellect.” I might get dizzy sometimes, but I hope people do not see me coming off as arrogant. I bring up the issue in this column because I really, honestly, and sincerely do not know what it is exactly that Jesus said and therefore taught. I do see a conflict between saying there is an exception in which divorce is okay, i.e. marital unfaithfulness in the Matthew text, and saying that divorce causes adultery in any and every circumstance in the Mark text. Take each text at face value and that is what you have. The core issue that Jesus brings us back to is fairly easy to understand—he believes in the sanctity of marriage and goes back to Genesis to talk about it.

    This does not mean I don’t have any way to resolve the conflict, but it does not amount to being able to determine Jesus’ original words. I do not consider that to be necessary. What I do believe is that knowing the context and the problem Jesus was addressing helps us apply the principle today when we deal with the issue at hand. Believe it or not, the Bible itself actually does this.

    Two examples in the same passage will have to suffice for now to illustrate my point. Take a look at Mark 7:

    7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God )– 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.” 14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

    Mark believes it is necessary for his readers/hearers that he explains the Pharisees’ tradition about washings before they can understand the context in which Jesus is making his statement concerning what is clean or unclean. He also explains the word “Corban” because his readers/hearers do not know what that means.

    One might argue that since Mark does not do this with the marriage text, it requires no further contextual explanation. Rather than go into detail on our differences in culture and understanding of marriage (actually, please read Sandi’s last article and you will see how we have a fairly new understanding of the reason for and nature of marriage), I would say that in a situation in which one only has the gospel of Mark, and not Matthew or Luke, it is easy to understand—i.e. no divorce for woman or man for any reason. But we do not have that luxury. We have two other gospels, one of which (Matthew) is telling about the same event in the life of Jesus, but quoting Jesus as allowing an exception.

    Since this is so long, if you don’t want to see two more examples, just skip to the end.

    By way of illustration, here’s another example. You could read all of Luther’s 95 Theses that he is purported to have posted on the Wittenburg Church and understand what they mean, provided they are translated into English. You could even intellectually assent to them, at least the ones that were not contextually specific, but that is my point. Take a look at theses 16-24:

    16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.
    17. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.
    18. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.
    19. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.
    20. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words “plenary remission of all penalties,” does not actually mean “all penalties,” but only those imposed by himself.
    21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.
    22. As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life.
    23. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.
    24. For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that
    indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty.

    Several things are not very clear at all unless you understand the historical context. One must understand what indulgences were, what the office of pope is and the power he exercised at that time, what the understanding of purgatory is, and the like. One would also have to understand what the preachers were doing that Martin Luther condemns in thesis 21. In addition to all of this, it would be helpful to understand the historical context of the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire into individual kingdoms (this is not quite the right word, but I can’t think of the right one right now), if you will, to know how Luther could do such a thing and not be executed by the power of the papal office. I say helpful, because it would help understand the historical implications as to why this helped kick off the Protestant Reformation.

    Scripture has a context. The life of Jesus had a context. The book of Matthew was written in a certain context for a certain group of people and the book of Mark was written in a different context for a different group of people, though both were Christians.

    To pretend that none of this matters when we look at the text and find differing statements of Jesus and to pretend that there are no differing statements does not lead to greater understanding of the text.

    One other example might help to clarify. When we read Thomas Jefferson write in the Declaration of Independence that one of the truths “we hold to be self-evident” is that “all men are created equal,” he means exactly that. All MEN are created equal, not all women, but even more precisely, all WHITE MEN. We could look idealistically back to that time and suppose that what he really meant was that all people were created equal, but that would not then mean that that was what he thought. Sometimes I think our American ideals about “self-evident” truths influence our thinking about Scripture. We think everything in Scripture is “self-evident” and, if not, then it must not be the pure, unadulterated word of God. Where in Scripture does it say that all texts must be easy to understand? 2 Peter 3:15-16 suggests that there are at least parts of Paul’s letters that are difficult to understand.

    I realize I might come off as argumentative on this last paragraph, but I hope not. That is not my intent. I do not mind issuing a public apology if need be. Let me know how you feel, Joe.

    Please don’t misunderstand. I do not think we need to understand everything about rabbinic Judaism to understand the Bible, but it will certainly help us understand why Jesus said what he did so that we can then translate the principle he espouses in our current context. That is what I believe it means to be faithful to the text.

    When it comes to what is necessary for saving faith in Jesus Christ, I agree with you that the Bible is easy to understand. When it comes to practice and teachings, especially where there are at least apparent contradictions, I don’t think it is easy to understand. Tracts that flatten out the differences in an attempt to eliminate contradictions in Scripture do not really appeal to intellectuals. (I’m not including myself in this, but college students who are non-Christians is what I have in mind here, those who are honestly seeking truth and are tired of people glossing over the contradictions they know to be present in Scripture.)

    I write too much. Sorry for my ramblings.

  15. R&B Says:

    “Things get complicated when we take a sinful situation and try to justify it using the Word of God.”

    Much better, Joe. Many attempt this very thing.

    A perspective that we must keep in mind is that we all are right in our own eyes (see Judges). Without this perspective, we tend to justify ourselves with Biblical snippets often taken entirely out of context.

  16. R&B Says:

    “To pretend that none of this matters when we look at the text and find differing statements of Jesus and to pretend that there are no differing statements does not lead to greater understanding of the text.”

    Precisely, and well said. It does matter.

    A thought occurred to me as I was mulling over this subject today: “is Jesus just stating a fact?”. In a sense, Jesus is just saying that if you divorce and remarry you are committing adultery … without necessarily applying a value judgement. What He is saying just is. Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to save. He knows this as He’s talking. Perhaps He’s just being matter-of-fact in His statement.

    It’s interesting, Sandi, that He said nothing about homosexual marriage at all (so what happened to your third article?) … does His silence recognize or not?


  17. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Sandi posts articles on Tuesdays. Last Tuesday was titled, Part 1 of 3. Unless something comes up, Part 2 should be today, and Part 3 next week.

    And btw, Sandi’s topic is Liberal Politics, not religion, and her articles aren’t intended to be a referendum on the perspective of Jesus – even though religion can sift its way on to the comment board in all shapes and forms.

  18. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that you were trying to make a sinful situation fit within a Biblical context. That’s not it at all. What I was trying to say is that someone could easily to take your approach to attempt that. They take the “what was Jesus really saying” approach to scripture.

    Oh… the line about a dizzying intellect was a nod to the classic battle of wits between Westley and Vizzini in the movie The Princess Bride. I didn’t mean to disparage. Just a lame attempt at humor.

  19. Duane McCrory Says:


    It’s been awhile since I’ve seen that…sorry, missed the reference.

    I’ve seen that approach to Scripture and do have issues with it. Even the book I referenced last column, Struggling with Scripture, has two of the three authors arguing that the homosexuality Paul condemns does not apply to today because it was a different culture with different practices. It was the third author that I respect and does not at least openly take that approach in the book. Not that I don’t respect the other two, I just don’t know them and have not read them before. I sympathize with their attempt to be faithful to Scripture as far as their understanding goes, but there are problems that I have with their conclusions and the way they attempt to interpret Scripture. I think that approach is trying to get around what Scripture says rather than struggling with how to apply what it says, but that is my opinion.

  20. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Deepak Chopra’s been lurking on our blog!

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