Biblical Evidence for the Prohibition of Divorce

Friday, May 11, 2007

[from pages 205-214 (the complete chapter 14) of my book, The Catholic Verses; Bible verses: RSV]



Matthew 19:9: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”

The Catholic teaching on this passage and on the question of marriage and divorce in general can be summarized as follows: a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble; that is, it cannot be undone as long as both spouses are alive According to Matthew 19:6, the spouses “are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” 

Nearly all Protestant churches today, although typically frowning upon divorce, allow exceptions for adultery or abandonment or similarly serious marital difficulties. The traditional stigma of divorce has lessened greatly in Protestant circles just as it has in the secular culture, and divorce is permitted under more and more circumstances. This has been the general trend since World War II and even before; and today, divorce rates among Evangelical Protestants are virtually as high as that of the general public. 

To understand the present disagreement between Catholics and Protestants on divorce, it is useful to examine the basis of the supposed loopholes or exception clauses found in Jesus’ teaching on the subject. TheGreek word for unchastity in Matthew 19:9 is porneia, which is defined in standard Greek lexicons and other Bible study aids as “unlawful sexual intercourse.” Catholics hold that Jesus is here contrasting a true marriage, with a state of concubinage or some other illicit union. If there is not truly a marriage present, then a separation can take place, but it is not truly a “divorce” because there was no marriage there to begin with.

Many people use this verse, along with Matthew 5:32, to justify divorce based on the occurrence of adultery, yet the ordinary Greek word for adultery (moicheia) is not used. This supports the Catholic case that Jesus is referring to something else, for if adultery was the plain intent and meaning (the passage being about marriage in the first place), surely moicheia would have been used, as it is in many other places (thirty-five times in one of its forms).

The Greek word porneia and its cognates are never translated in the KJV New Testament as “adultery” but as “fornication" or "fornicator” (thirty-nine times), “harlot” (eight times), “whore” (four), and “whoremonger”(five). Likewise, every variant of the English fornication in the KJV is always a translation of some form ofporneia.

The same holds true for adultery and its variants, which always are translations of some form ofmoicheia (which, in turn, are never translated as anything other than “adultery”). We also see the two Greek words distinguished from each other in the same verse (Matt. 5:19; Mark 7:21; Gal. 5:19).

The opinion rendered in Gerhard Kittel’s standard lexical work, in its comments on moicheia and its cognates, appears to be consistent with the “strict” Catholic interpretation of the biblical teaching on marriage and divorce:

Marriage is a lifelong partnership, divorce is contrary to God’s original purpose (Matt. 19:6 ff.), and remarriage after divorce is adultery (Mt. 5:32, 19:9; Mk 10:11-12; Lk 16:18) . . . Paul upholds the teaching of Jesus in the lax Hellenistic world (1 Cor. 5:1 ff., 6:9). (Kittel, 606)

Kittel’s comments on porneia are even more noteworthy:

As regards divorce, debate arises concerning Mt. 5:32 and 19:9. In Mk 10:9; 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10 Jesus teaches the indissolubility of marriage as God’s unconditional will . . . The problem in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9 is perhaps that Jewish Christians who keep the law are required to divorce adulterous wives and hence cannot be responsible if these contract a new relationship which is from a Christian standpoint itself adulterous. Divorce itself is not conceded. (Kittel, 920)

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia also takes a very strict line (quite unpopular in many Evangelical circles today):

A question of profound interest remains to be treated: Did Jesus allow under any circumstances the remarriage of a divorced person during the lifetime of the partner to the marriage? Or did He allow absolute divorce for any cause whatsoever? . . . If we had only the Gospels of Mark and Luke and the Epp. of Paul, there could be but one answer given: Christ did not allow absolute divorce for any cause (see Mk 10:2 ff.; Lk 16:18; Gal 1:12; 1 Cor 7:10). (Orr, III, 1999)

The article then tries to explain the Matthean passages (note how they are deemed as seemingly contradictory, rather than complementary with Mark and Luke) by recourse to a theory of textual change:

Two sayings attributed to Christ and recorded by the writer or editor of the First Gospel (Mt 5:32; 19:9) seem directly to contravene His teaching as recorded in Mark and Luke . . . A critical examination of the whole passage in Mt has led many scholars to conclude that the exceptive clause is an interpolation due to the Jewish-Christian compiler or editor through whose hands the materials passed. Others think it betrays traces of . . . literary revision and compilation . . . Certainly much is to be said for the view which is steadily gaining ground, that the exception in Matthew is an editorial addition made under the pressure of local conditions and practical necessity, the absolute rule being found too hard. (Orr, III, 1999)

It is very widely maintained in the Christian church that there should be no divorce for any cause whatever . . . (Orr, II, 866)

The author of this second article (“Divorce”) argues that this strict position (note how different things in Protestant circles were in 1929, when the first edition of this work was published) is contrary to Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, which, in his opinion, allow for divorce and remarriage, but that Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:15 concerning desertion does not allow for divorce and remarriage of the innocent party, and that only once in the first 800 years of the Church did anyone interpret Paul differently:

That no use was ever made of such construction of Paul in the whole era of the adjustment of Christianity with heathenism is good evidence that it was never there to begin with. (Orr, II, 866)

Thus we see that the history of Christian teaching on divorce is surprisingly strict by today’s standards. Yet some Protestants, although they might believe that God sometimes speaks to them individually, refuse to consider what God may have been speaking to the great mass of Christians over the past two thousand years. Catholics, however, believe that Christian history and historical exegesis and moral beliefs of Christians stillmean something for us today.

Baptist Greek scholar A.T. Robertson also prominently mentioned the same textual theory in his comments on Matthew 19:9 and 5:32 (although he himself disagrees with it):

Here, as in 5:31 f., a group of scholars deny the genuineness of the exception given by Matthew alone. McNeile holds that “the addition of the saving clause is, in fact, opposed to the spirit of the whole context, and must have been made at a time when the practice of divorce for adultery had already grown up.”

McNeile denies that Jesus made this exception because Mark and Luke do not give it. He claims that the early Christians made the exception to meet a pressing need. . . . . . (Robertson, I, 155, 47)

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church allows for more possibility that this was indeed the case:

[T]he Lord . . . abrogated the Mosaic toleration of divorce (Mt. 5:31 f., 19:3-9; Mk 10:2-12; Lk 16:18) and condemned remarriage. The "Matthean exception" permitting remarriage (19:9), which conflicts with the other Gospels, the rest of the NT and the general tradition of the Western Church, is perhaps to be understood as an early gloss to render the Christian law easier. (Cross, 889)

To summarize this at-times confusing material: according to the several reputable Protestant reference sources surveyed here, a significant number of Bible scholars hold that Jesus’ recorded teachings concerning divorce in Matthew contradict His teaching in Mark and Luke because of the “exception clause” in Matthew. Some, therefore, have concluded that this clause was a later addition to the actual inspired biblical text. Also, some of these sources concede that the “strict interpretation” of St. Paul’s teaching on divorce was held for the first eight hundred or so years of Church history.

One must be very careful, if taking this textual approach, not to deny biblical infallibility and inspiration. If it can be demonstrated that a portion of the text was not actually in the Bible in the first place (an interpolation, or textual error, or text only in late manuscripts, such as Mark 16) then this poses no problem for inspiration. But if it is part of the Bible, it must be synthesized with the rest of the Bible in a harmonious whole, and cannot be contradictory.

The fascinating thing in the above citations is that the problem comes up at all. Obviously, people were concerned about an alleged contradiction or a vexing hermeneutical difficulty, because they thought it was so clear that Jesus and Paul did not allow exceptions, except in Matthew, where the text is then questioned as a later addition. In other words, the Bible is not so crystal clear and self-interpreting as Protestants are wont to believe. And perhaps the “strict” Catholic view concerning marriage and divorce is not as utterly unfounded as many are led to believe.

The eminent Protestant Bible scholar James Dunn goes further; in fact too far, if his position is that the apostle Matthew himself deliberately altered received Christian tradition: up to and including the very sayings of Jesus, and thus contradicted inspired Scripture elsewhere. This is unacceptable and must be deemed as an erosion of a high, inspired view of Holy Scripture; nevertheless, it is helpful to elucidate the controversy over how Matthew 19:9 can be harmonized with the other passages to arrive at a coherent viewpoint on marriage and divorce:

Some sayings have been interpreted differently in the course of transmission . . . We must note also how some sayings of Jesus have been deliberately altered in the course of transmission – altered in such a way as to give a clearly different sense from the original . . . Note also the way in which Jesus’ clear cut verdict against divorce preserved in Mark 10.11 has been softened by the addition of the unchastity clause in Matt. 19.9 . . .

[T]he unconditional ruling of Jesus in Mark 10.11 is amended by Matthew to allow the possibility of divorce in cases of unchastity. (Dunn, 73-74, 247)

Moving from biblical teaching to the history of Christian teaching throughout the centuries, we find that the early Church took a very “strict” view of divorce and remarriage, which is a relevant consideration for the many Protestants who see themselves as hearkening back to the beliefs and practices of the early Christians. In his book about the first five centuries of the Church, Early Christianity, Protestant historian (and famous Luther biographer) Roland Bainton stated, “Second marriages were not permissible unless the first partner died prior to the baptism of the survivor” (p. 56). 

The Catholic Encyclopedia provides an overview of Sacred Tradition on the question:

The testimonies of the Fathers and the councils leave us no room for doubt. In numerous places they lay down the teaching that not even in the case of adultery can the marriage bond be dissolved or the innocent party proceed to a new marriage. They insist rather that the innocent party must remain unmarried after the dismissal of the guilty one, and can only enter upon new marriage in case death intervenes. (Herbermann, V, 56-57)

That article goes on to document this view from numerous patristic sources, including the Shepherd of Hermas, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Basil of Cæsarea, John Chrysostom, Theodoret, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine.

The leading magazine of Evangelical Protestantism, Christianity Today (founded by Billy Graham), confirms these beliefs of the early Church. Michael Gorman, in his article entitled, “Divorce and Remarriage From Augustine to Zwingli” (December 14, 1992) wrote:

In the early church, many voices addressed the subjects of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, but their message, on the whole, was quite unified. Christian marriage, they said, is an indissoluble bond. Divorce, with the implicit right of remarriage, was not an option for Christian couples (though Origen admits some toleration existed), but permanent separation was. Remarriage after separation was considered punishable adultery or bigamy . . .

Luther and Calvin allowed divorce on a number of grounds, but historically, many Protestant denominations and individuals have been stricter in their beliefs and practices concerning divorce. In Protestant churches today, however, there are ever more permissive attitudes towards divorce and remarriage. This goes far beyond the teaching of the Bible itself (even if one accepts an “adultery clause”) and is another instance of the decay of biblical orthodoxy and traditional Christian morality among many Protestants.

[Footnote 6] It must also be noted that individual Catholics have also fallen prey to the cultural watering down of strictly interpreted marriage vows and traditional Christian opposition to divorce, and statistically, they divorce at nearly the same rates as the rest of society. Official Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, however, has never wavered; furthermore, statistics also show that regular churchgoing Catholics divorce at a much lower rate.

[from my original manuscript but not included in the published edition of the book] Too often, Catholics marry outside the Church or they enter into "second marriages" without the benefit of an annulment (a declaration that the proper conditions for a valid, sacramental marriage were not present from the beginning). It is also almost certainly true that some annulments being granted are done without proper cause. The process is likely being abused, because the numbers of annulments in the United States have so greatly increased. On the other hand, as Catholics understand less and less what is involved in a sacramental, Catholic marriage, it is more likely that annulments will increase, because of that very ignorance.

Christianity Today’s issue of December 14, 1992 featured a survey of more than a thousand of its readers. Here is what it found with regard to views on remarriage:

Seventy-three percent accept the remarriage of a Christian if the former spouse committed adultery or remarried . . . Only 4 percent of the subscribers completely rule out any remarriage for a Christian after divorce.

The majority believe that fornication (73 percent) and desertion by a non-Christian spouse (64 percent) are two scriptural grounds for remarriage. At the same time, a significant minority believe Jesus taught that believers should not remarry after divorce (44 percent) and that God designed marriage to be permanent, and remarriage constitutes adultery (44 percent). Less than four out of ten believe there may be reason for remarriage other than adultery or desertion.

Christians – Catholics and Protestants alike -- need to get back to the biblical teaching on marriage and divorce that was held by the early Church. One Protestant proponent of the early Church view is William A. Heth, professor of New Testament and Greek at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and coauthor with Gordon Wenham of Jesus and Divorce (Thomas Nelson). In that same issue of Christianity Today, in a piece entitled “Remarriage: Two Views,” he debated another Protestant professor, and argued:

Even though marital separation or legal divorce may be advisable under some circumstances (persistent adultery, abuse, incest), Jesus calls remarriage after any divorce adultery . . . textual studies now confirm that the original text of both Matthew 19:9 and 5:32 contain Jesus' additional unqualified statement that finalizes his teaching on the subject: "And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Paul's "let them remain unmarried or else be reconciled" (1 Cor. 7:10-11) says the same thing . . . Where Paul specifically mentions the possibility of remarriage, in both instances he notes quite explicitly that one of the spouses has died (1 Cor. 7:39; Rom. 7:2-3).

Finally, in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28, Paul is not telling divorced individuals to feel free to remarry. He is telling engaged or formerly engaged couples who have come under the ascetic teaching at Corinth to feel free to marry should they so desire (see vv. 33-38).

Christians who are serious about conforming their lives to the commands of God in the inspired Bible need to ponder all of these things very carefully. It’s not enough to merely coast along with the spirit of the times. St. Paul commands us to “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). The Catholic Church and more traditional Protestant churches that still disallow divorce can work together to try to influence our culture and to be “salt”: to preserve it from further moral and familial decay.




Cross, F.L. and E.A. Livingstone, editors, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1983.

Dunn, James D.G., Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, London: SCM Press, 2nd edition, 1990.

Herbermann, Charles G., editor, The Catholic Encyclopedia, New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1913; sixteen volumes.

Kittel, Gerhard, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, translated and abridged into one volume by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985.

Orr, James, editor, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., five volumes, 1956.

Robertson, Archibald T. [Baptist], Word Pictures in the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930, 6 volumes.