Response to Peter Goodgame – Part 6.5: The New Testament on Divorce

Wedding_ChupahThis post isn’t really in direct response to Peter Goodgame’s articles, but it’s one I’ve been wanting to write for a while, and Peter’s article on Yeshua’s teaching on marriage and divorce seemed like a good jumping-off point.

There is an unfortunate tendency among some commentators to separate Paul’s teaching on marriage and divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 from Yeshua’s in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-12. However, there is every reason to believe that Paul was commenting on and expanding on Yeshua’s own teaching. In 1 Corinthians 7:10, Paul makes a point of stating that what he was conveying was the Lord’s own command, followed by the statement in v. 12, “But to the rest I say–not the Lord–that . . .” That pretty much states that Paul’s teaching up to that point was indeed from the Lord Yeshua. Moreover, as we look carefully at vv. 1-11, we see that they are all parallel to Yeshua’s own teaching on the subject:

Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. . . Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. (1Co. 7:1, 7, cf. 8) “. . . and there are also eunichs who have made themselves eunichs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Mat. 19:12)
But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. . . However each man has his own gift . . . (1Co. 7:2, 7, cf. 9) “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. . . He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” (Mat. 9:11, 12)
The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1Co. 7:3-4) “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has brought together, let no man separate.” (Mat. 19:6)
But to the married I give instructions—not I, but the Lord—that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband) . . . (1Co. 7:10-11) “Because of the hardness of your heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives . . .” (Mat. 19:8—but Deu. 24:1 does not permit a wife to divorce her husband)

“. . . everyone who divorces his wife, except for reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery.” (Mat. 5:32)

. . . and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1Co. 7:11) “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Mat. 19:9)

Now note the difference between wives and husbands: The woman should not leave (chooristhenai) her husband, while the husband should not divorce (aphienai) his wife. While many commentators conflate the two, Paul is rabbinicly trained and giving an official legal ruling–he would not be careless in his verbage. Moreover, he states that a woman who leaves her husband must either be reconciled to him or remain unmarried, but has no such instructions for the husband. Why? Because as we saw in the last post, the Torah does not allow a woman to initiate a divorce. While Mark’s paraphrase of Yeshua’s teaching for a Roman audience includes the possibility of a woman divorcing her husband (10:12), that Gospel account had not been written yet when Paul penned 1 Corinthians, so he was working from an early tradition of Yeshua’s words, most likely passed down in Aramaic.

fa357_get-documentPaul therefore recognizes that a woman in Greco-Roman society could divorce her husband, but doesn’t recognize the validity of such divorces within the community of believers, since such divorces were not allowed by the Torah or by Yeshua’s own interpretation of the Torah. Therefore, the woman could leave her husband, but could not be released from him to marry another unless he provided the document of divorcement.

Starting in verse 12, Paul is forced to extrapolate from Yeshua’s teachings to deal with a topic that hadn’t come up in Judea or Galilee: What if one spouse came to faith before the other? Should they remain married? This wasn’t a trivial question: The whole procedure of baptism and the concept of being “born again” came from the conversion ceremony that changed a Gentile into a Jew. When a Gentile converted and went into the mikveh (immersion pool), he was considered to have died, and in his place a new Jew was born (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 48b, 62a). All contracts with the former Gentile were considered annulled by his death–including marriage contracts (a point Paul builds on in Romans 7). Unless the husband and wife converted together, they were not only considered divorced, they were considered separated by death!

Paul’s response is to say that if the unbelieving spouse was content to stay with the believer, the believer should not be the one to initiate a divorce, since they may very well bring about the salvation of their family by their continuing influence (1Co. 7:12-16). However, “if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (v. 15). This means that the abandoned believer was not bound to remain unmarried.

This is entirely consistent with Mark 10:12, which as we saw in the previous post, clearly puts the sin on the initiator of the divorce. The one divorced without wanting it has no sin, unless they committed some sin of immodesty (pornea doesn’t necessarily mean adultery).

Some will argue that I’m being too lenient here, so let’s do a bit more analysis of Paul’s writing on the subject. Paul describes three distinct categories of unmarried women: Unmarried (agamos), widows (chera), and virgins (parthenos). We know these are three separate categories because he counts unmarried and widows as two separate categories in 1 Corinthians 7:8, and unmarried and virgins as two separate categories in v. 34. Obviously, widows and virgins are separate categories. Therefore, “unmarried” refers to a woman who isn’t married, isn’t a widow, and isn’t a virgin–which pretty much leaves us divorcees. Moreover, Paul uses the term of a woman who leaves her husband in v. 11, so that cements that he means the term to refer to women who were unmarried due to separation from their husbands.

So what does Paul say about such women, provided that they were divorced by their (presumably unbelieving) husbands? “But I say to the unmarried . . . that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry, for it is better for them to marry than to burn. . . [And] if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (vv. 8-9, 15).

So then, to initiate a divorce for anything less than some kind of sexual impropriety or other betrayal of the marriage covenant (and I will happily include abuse in that category), leaving your spouse in order to marry another–whether another person in particular or just another in general (“I fell out of love. I need to find my true soul-mate.”)–is a sin on par with adultery. Why? Because you covet someone other than your own spouse, which is adultery of the heart (Mat. 5:28). Indeed, since it goes against the direct command of the Lord, I would argue that such a person is acting like an unbeliever, whatever confessions of faith they may claim.

However, if someone is divorced against their will in such a situation, they have not sinned, and while it is good if they choose not to remarry, they are not bound to do so, or to wait forever in the vain hopes that their ex-spouse will return. In fact, since Scripture explicitly forbids remarrying your former spouse if they have been married to another in the meantime (Deu. 24:2-4), no one is required to continue to hope for reconciliation once their spouse has been remarried!

Over the years, I’ve met many–men and women both–who have been the victims of a “no-fault” divorce, and who have been told that they should give up any thoughts of marrying another, that they should wait around–for decades, if necessary–for their ex-spouse to come to their senses and return to them. This goes against everything the Bible says about marriage and divorce. God did indeed give laws on divorce “because your hearts were hard,” but he gave them to protect the divorcee, to enable them to move on and rebuild their lives if they were abandoned by their husbands. For Yeshua to have taken away that protection would have been a horribly hateful thing to do to women in a time when they were almost completely dependent on their husbands or other male family members for support. How would that be “Loving your neighbor as yourself”?

Again, thank you to Peter Goodgame for raising this issue, which gave me the opportunity and impetus to finish working out the theological issues and to put them into print. I’ll return to address his points again in the next post.



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