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Until divorce do us part?


"…and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery." Matthew 19:9




According to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament, under what conditions is a divorced person permitted to remarry? This paper examines what Jesus and Paul have to say on the question, and uncovers their uncompromising conclusion:

Only death can dissolve a valid marriage.


Definitions from Strong's Concordance

Certain Greek terms appear frequently throughout the passages relevant to this discussion, and so below are provided some definitions obtained from Strong's Concordance. It's important to keep in mind, however, that a great deal of controversy has surrounded this topic, the passages we will discuss, and the meaning of many of these words. Consequently, it is possible to find significant differences among scholars in their interpretation of these terms. Strong's Concordance certainly should not be considered as having the last word in defining these terms. However, I refer to this source here because it is well known to many Protestants, and therefore allows me to avoid accusations of using a source biased toward a Catholic position.

Including these definitions here will allow the reader to refer easily (by Strong's number) between Scripture passages and the underlying Greek terms.


630 ajpoluvw, Apoluo: 1. to set free. 2. to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer). 3. a petitioner to whom liberty to depart is given by a decisive answer. 2b. to bid depart, send away. 3. to let go free, release. 3a. a captive i.e. to loose his bonds and bid him depart, to give him liberty to depart. 3b. to acquit one accused of a crime and set him at liberty. 3c. indulgently to grant a prisoner leave to depart. 3d. to release a debtor, i.e. not to press one's claim against him, to remit his debt. 4. used of divorce, to dismiss from the house, to repudiate. The wife of a Greek or Roman may divorce her husband. 5. to send one's self away, to depart.
3428 moicaliv, Moichalis: 1. an adulteress. 2. as the intimate alliance of God with the people of Israel was likened to a marriage, those who relapse into idolatry are said to commit adultery or play the harlot. 2a. fig. equiv. to faithless to God, unclean, apostate.
3429 moicaw, Moichao: to have unlawful intercourse with another's wife, to commit adultery with.
3430 moiceiva, Moicheia: adultery.
3431 moiceuvw, Moicheuo: 1. to commit adultery. 1a. to be an adulterer. 1b. to commit adultery with, have unlawful intercourse with another's wife. 1c. of the wife: to suffer adultery, be debauched. 1d. A Hebrew idiom, the word is used of those who at a woman's solicitation are drawn away to idolatry, i.e. to the eating of things sacrificed to idols.
3432 moicov, Moichos: (perhaps a primary word.) 1. an adulterer. 2. metaph. one who is faithless toward God, ungodly.
4202 porneiva, Porneia: 1. illicit sexual intercourse. 1a. adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc. 1b. sexual intercourse with close relatives; Lev. 18. 1c. sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman; Mk. 10:11. 2. metaph. the worship of idols. 2a. of the defilement of idolatry, as incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols.
4203 porneuvw, Porneuo: 1. to prostitute one's body to the lust of another. 2. to give one's self to unlawful sexual intercourse. 2a. to commit fornication. 3. metaph. to be given to idolatry, to worship idols. 3a. to permit one's self to be drawn away by another into idolatry.
4204 povrnh, Porne: 1. a woman who sells her body for sexual uses. 1a. a prostitute, a harlot, one who yields herself to defilement for the sake of gain. 1b. any woman indulging in unlawful sexual intercourse, whether for gain or for lust. 2. metaph. an idolatress. 2a. of "Babylon" i.e. Rome, the chief seat of idolatry.
4205 povrnov, Pornos: 1. a man who prostitutes his body to another's lust for hire. 2. a male prostitute. 3. a man who indulges in unlawful sexual intercourse, a fornicator.
5563 Cwrivzw, Chorizo: 1. to separate, divide, part, put asunder, to separate one's self from, to depart. 1a. to leave a husband or wife. 1b. of divorce. 1c. to depart, go away.

Jesus on divorce and remarriage

[Mat 5:27] "You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery (3431)'."
[Mat 5:31] "It was also said, `Whoever divorces (630) his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce (630)."
[Mat 5:32] "But I say to you that every one who divorces (630) his wife, except on the ground of unchastity (4202), makes her an adulteress (3429); and whoever marries a divorced (630) woman commits adultery (3429)."
[Mat 19:9] "And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity (4202), and marries another, commits adultery (3429), and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery (3429)."
[Mark 10:4-9] They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away." But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, `God made them male and female. `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."
[Mark 10:11-12] And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery (3429) against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (3429)."
[Luke 16:18] "Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery (3431), and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery (3431)."

Analysis of Jesus' teachings on divorce and remarriage

Three gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) quote Jesus stating flatly that remarrying while one's previous spouse survives constitutes adultery.

Jesus teaches that God instituted marriage as a permanent covenant between man and woman, in which the two are bound together by God and become "one flesh". Moses permitted divorce and remarriage, but this was a divine concession to human hardness of heart, and was to be a temporary provision only.

Jesus places His new teaching ([Mat 5:32] "But I say to you…") squarely in opposition to this temporary concession of Moses. (In fact, He places it in opposition also to Roman society, which likewise permitted divorce and remarriage.) He abrogates the provision for divorce with remarriage and restores marriage to its intended status as permanent until the death of one spouse. Jesus solemnly prohibits anyone from interfering with the unity that God establishes between spouses. Some sort of exception to this rule is noted in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, and will be discussed next.

The passages which some interpret to offer a justification for divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:32, 1 Corinthians 7:15) must be reconciled with the many explicit passages which unambiguously prohibit such behavior. The position held by many Protestants basically is that implied beneath these explicit prohibitions is an exception which is referred to at least in Matthew 5:32. However, this claim rests on the shaky assumption that the many explicit prohibitions against divorce with remarriage contain this usually unstated exception. Below we will find that this position can not be reconciled with the various passages in question, and that a better explanation upholds the absolute indissolubility of marriage without the need to bend many passages to fit one.

The issue hinges on discovering the meaning of the "exception clauses" in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.

[Mat 5:32] "But I say to you that every one who divorces (630) his wife, except on the ground of unchastity (4202), makes her an adulteress (3429); and whoever marries a divorced (630) woman commits adultery (3429)."
[Mat 19:9] "And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity (4202), and marries another, commits adultery (3429), and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery (3429)."

The exception offered depends on behavior described in the Greek as "porneia" (4202), often translated as "unchastity" or "fornication". Strong's offers several possible meanings for this word, the first of which is "illicit sexual intercourse", such as incest, homosexual behavior, bestiality, etc. While Strong's suggests the word may also bear the meaning of "adultery, fornication", this latter meaning does not appear to apply in these Matthew passages, since Jesus repeatedly uses a different word, "moichao" (3429), in these same passages to denote adultery. Strong's definition for "moichao" is narrow and specific: adultery (see 3429).

Reinforcing the conclusion that "porneia" does not mean "adultery" in these passages is the fact that the other Gospel accounts of this teaching are unanimous in their use of "moichao" to denote adultery, whereas the only two Gospel passages recording the so-called exception clause use "porneia" for the behavior which presumably justifies divorce and subsequent marriage.

So, then, what is the meaning of the exception clause? A clue lies in the fact that neither of the exception passages actually assigns blame to the wife -or to the husband, for that matter. Isn't that interesting? Many people have assumed that Jesus referred to "unchastity" or "fornication" as sins of the wife which justified the husband severing the marriage bond by divorce. But that is nothing more than an unjustified assumption on the part of some readers. "Porneia" here does not refer primarily to adultery or any other sin. Instead, it refers to an underlying condition which renders the union not a real marriage at all: an invalid marriage in which no sacramental marriage bond exists or ever did exist. Does this mean that the partners are living objectively in a state of fornication or adultery, since they are not really married? Yes.

What sort of condition can invalidate a marriage? Well, anything that would have made it impossible for the couple to enter into a true, sacramental marriage. For example, the case of the man "living with his father's wife", a case condemned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:1. And what term does Paul use to describe this situation? "Porneia"! Beside the point that incest possibly is at issue in this case, it is clear that Paul regards the "father's wife" as a previously married woman, and therefore incapable of contracting a new marriage. The two are not free to marry precisely because one of them is already bound to someone else.

Someone may argue, "but the exception clause specifically mentions a case in which the marriage bond may be dissolved". This is false, and Jesus' own words prove it!

[Mat 5:32] "…and whoever marries a divorced (630) woman commits adultery (3429)."

If a woman's supposed "unchastity" leads to a dissolution of the marriage bond, then logically she is no longer married and is free to marry again. If so, then why does Jesus accuse her subsequent husband of adultery? The answer is that Jesus understands the marriage bond to continue even after divorce, and consequently He states flatly that a man is not free to marry a divorced woman. This principle applies to divorced men as well. This conclusion meshes perfectly with all these passages dealing with divorce, and is sealed with Jesus' warning:

[Mark 10:9] "What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

To summarize, the key to unlocking these passages lies in the fact that the exception passages based on the term "porneia" refer only to unions that are not valid marriages. In this case no indissoluble union exists, and the partners are not bound to each other.

The above teaching admits no case in which a true marriage bond may be broken (prior to the death of a spouse). However, in keeping with the exception passages, a union may be dissolved when the purported marriage is proven invalid, such as in the case of an incestuous union, or if one of the partners has a surviving spouse of a previous valid marriage. Such conditions correspond to the Gospel's use of the term "porneia" (4202), translated variously as "unchastity" or "fornication". These conditions do not dissolve a marriage bond. Instead, "porneia" implies a true marriage bond never existed in the first place. Since the partners were not truly married, they each are now free to marry -provided there are no further impediments that would invalidate a subsequent marriage.


Paul on divorce and remarriage

[Rom 7:2-3] Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
[1Cor 7:10-11] "To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate (5563) from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband)--and that the husband should not divorce (863) his wife."
[1Cor 7:15] But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace.
[1Cor 7:39] A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
[Eph 5:21-33] Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Analysis of Paul's teachings on divorce and remarriage

v1: the advantage of permanent virginity: It's good to remain single, if you can resist temptation. Otherwise, you are free to marry.
v2-7: conjugal rights of the married: You belong to each other. Do not refuse each other indefinitely.
v8-9: Paul's advice to the unmarried, and to widows: It's good to remain single, if you can resist temptation. Otherwise, you are free to marry.
v10-11: The Lord's command to the married: A wife should not separate from her husband, but if she does, she may not remarry. Similarly, a husband should not separate from his wife.
v12-16: Paul's advice to "the rest": A believer should not divorce an unbelieving spouse who agrees to live with him. The unbelieving spouse is "consecrated" or "sanctified" through the believing spouse, and the children consequently are "holy". If the unbelieving spouse desires to leave, the believing spouse "is not bound".
v17-31: the value of remaining in the state in which he was "when called": e.g., slave, free, married, single.
v32-38: Paul expands on his advice to the unmarried: it's advantageous to remain unmarried, but this is optional.
v39-40: Marriage lasts until death: A wife is bound to her husband "as long as he lives". After his death, she is free to remarry, yet "only in the Lord".

Notice that chapter 7 is divided logically into clear teachings directed toward three groups of people. Aside from some general comments made to all Christians in verses 1, and 17-31, Paul speaks to: 1) the unmarried and widows; 2) the married; and, 3) "the rest". Well, who else is there beside the unmarried, the widows, and the married? Who are "the rest"?

We can determine the answer to this question by analyzing his advice to this group. We note here that Paul addresses only cases in which a believer is married to a non-believer. Now, such a marriage may be valid, may be "in the Lord", but this is not necessarily the case. In fact, since Paul already addressed "the married" as a separate group, and is now addressing "the rest", he is clearly speaking to people whom he considers are not actually married, but whom for some reason don't fit neatly into the category of the "unmarried". It is a logical conclusion that Paul is speaking here to Christians who are partners in invalid marriages: unions in which the couple lives as husband and wife, but not in a true, valid marriage -again, not to imply that all marriages with unbelievers are invalid.

Without directly addressing the question of validity in specific cases, Paul generally recommends (but does not command) that the believing partner in this invalid marriage not divorce his unbelieving spouse. Clearly Paul is providing guidance for a situation in which the believer is not constrained by an indissoluble bond.

So why remain "married" to this unbelieving spouse in an invalid marriage? Paul's reasoning is that the believing spouse has an opportunity to bring about the sanctification of the spouse and children. However, he acknowledges that if the unbelieving spouse will not agree to live peacefully together, the believer is not bound to live as though a valid marriage existed.

By contrast, believing spouses in valid marriages are addressed in Paul's uncompromising statements to "the married", in which he stresses the indissoluble nature of the marriage bond, which prohibits spouses from remarriage until after the death of one's spouse. This teaching is explicit also in Paul's Epistle to the Romans:

[Romans 7:2-3] "Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress."

In a nutshell, Paul teaches that a valid marriage can be dissolved only with the death of one of the spouses, but that those in invalid marriages are not morally bound to remain in such a union.

Paul illustrates a profound analogy between Christ and the Church, on one hand, and husband and wife, on the other. He compares the union between Christ and His Church with the union between husband and wife. Jesus gives "Himself up for her" to the point of death, so that He might ultimately be joined with her in perfection of holiness.

Just as Jesus did not abandon His people to their infidelities, but conquered their unfaithfulness with His faithfulness, mercy and love, Christian marriage likewise is characterized by a selfless love that does not fail. This love does not forget its vow of exclusive, unconditional fidelity, nor does it abandon hope even in the face of betrayal and infidelity.

This love remains constant even if unrequited. Together or separated, the lover remembers his vows and holds them sacred until death dissolves them.

Divorce and remarriage, while one's spouse survives, is utterly incompatible with Paul's concept of Christian marriage, and contradicts the love of Christ for His Church.

In the new economy, God maintains His covenant with man even in the face of man's unfaithfulness. Likewise, in Christian marriage, the marriage covenant is "unto death", and remains indissoluble even in the case of a spouse's infidelity.


"So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." 1 Corinthians 13:13



26 June 2001
John Robin

Note: All Scripture passages in this article are quoted from the Revised Standard Version.