“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I examine Jesus’ words with a focus on this question: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Here are my posts so far:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)


Summary of this post: I ask whether Jesus meant “let not man separate” or “let not man try to separate,” as some propose. Based on clues from literary and historical contexts, I argue that Jesus’ first listeners understood him to be prohibiting the full dissolution of marriage—and that Jesus expected to be understood this way. I note that some proponents of marriage indissolubility acknowledge such a conclusion is reasonable, yet point ahead to Jesus’ statement about remarriage being “adultery” as proof that marriage is indissoluble. I promise to address this statement and acknowledge some complexities of this divorce discussion. 


Before I jump into today’s post, I feel I should clarify some potential misunderstandings about my goals in this series:

  • If you are confused about my purposes or beliefs, please read my post promoting radical faithfulness in marriage.
  • I’m trying to choose my post titles carefully. When I say a certain expression “does not imply an unbreakable bond,” I do not necessarily mean “implies a breakable bond.” Similarly, when I say “implies a breakable bond” in today’s post, I definitely do not mean “proves a breakable bond.” That said, after a while, enough non-implications plus implications do add up to a beyond-all-reasonable-doubt sort of proof. I’m definitely not there yet, though, in this series, so thank you for not saying I’ve claimed something I’ve not yet claimed!
  • I’m somewhat conflicted about naming and quoting people that I’m disagreeing with, especially when I know them personally. I’ve been on the receiving end of enough critique to know that public critique—even when it is respectful and perhaps especially from friends—can be uncomfortable and even potentially debilitating. I’m also aware it is easy to be misunderstood and that none of us still agrees with everything we’ve ever said or taught in public. That said, (a) it is standard, respectful academic procedure to sharpen thinking by quoting and evaluating the public teachings of others, (b) such public discussion of the public teachings of others seems consistent with the NT’s picture of the greater accountability expected of church leaders, and (c) for the purposes of my series it seems that direct quotations will help some readers better understand the significance, within the conservative Anabaptist context, of the questions I am discussing.
    Please know I have a lot of respect for many of the people I’m quoting and disagreeing with in this series! Many of them, to paraphrase Jesus’ parable (Matt. 13:23), are bearing gospel fruit thirtyfold and sixtyfold, compared to my own tenfold (on a good day).
    If I quote you in this series and you think I’m misunderstanding you or quoting something you no longer affirm, please let me know. I will be happy to do my best to correct any misrepresentations. I hope we can learn from each other, and I sincerely wish you God-speed in your kingdom work and worship.

Thank you for reading these clarifications. And now… on to today’s post!


Introduction: Should Not or Cannot Separate?

“Let not man separate” is the command that Jesus gives after summarizing the union that God designed for husbands and wives (Matt. 19:6). Since it is God who has joined a husband and a wife, separating marriages is a sin against God, not merely against humans.

This clause “let not man separate” offers a classic illustration of how Bible readers can get confused between the “should” and “could” of Scripture. The most obvious way to Jesus’ command is that he is saying humans should not do something that they could do. As commentator R. T. France noted, “the argument here is expressed not in terms of what cannot happen, but of what must not happen: the verb is an imperative: “let not man separate.”[1]

Bible teachers who believe marriage is indissoluble are often discontent with that simple reading, however.

John Piper, for example, waffled in his comments on this verse. First, he gave this summary: “Jesus… says that none of us should try to undo the ‘one-flesh’ relationship which God has united.” But later, citing this same statement of Jesus, Piper said “only God, not man, can end this one-flesh relationship.”[2] So which is true? Man should not separate, or man cannot separate?

To be fair, Piper’s two statements are indeed consistent with each other—but only because Piper added “try to” to Jesus’ prohibition on separating husbands and wives. Is this fair? Did Jesus mean “let not man separate,” as his words are recorded? Or did he actually mean “let not man vainly try to separate” or perhaps “imagine they have separated”?

The sign reads “STAY BACK,” not “It is impossible to go beyond this point.” Photo by Danne.

How Did Jesus Expect to be Understood?

How would Jesus’ hearers have understood him? I see at least four reasons why Jesus’ hearers would have understood him to be implying that a marriage can, indeed, be dissolved.

First, nothing Jesus has said so far suggests that marriage is indissoluble. Remember, when Jesus says we are not to separate “what God has joined,” he is pointing back to what he just said—that God made humans “male and female” and therefore a man shall “hold fast” to his wife and they shall become “one flesh.” As noted in previous posts, none of this language implies that marriage involves an unbreakable bond. To the contrary, all this language was used elsewhere to refer to bonds that can be broken. This suggests that there is a real possibility that “what God has joined” could be “separated.”

Second, the words joined and separated are virtual opposites, and the way Jesus paired them reinforces the idea that they should be understood that way. For example, I could say, “I’m sleeping, so stop talking,” and we could debate whether talking has the potential to undo my sleeping or whether talking has some other possible effect that concerns me. But if I say, “I’m sleeping, so don’t wake me up,” then it is clear: waking me up will end my sleeping! (Let’s not get distracted about why I’m talking in my sleep.) Similarly, Jesus’ direct pairing of the opposite terms joined and separated puts the burden of proof on anyone who argues that the latter does not undo the former.

Third, in no other case, to my knowledge, does Jesus forbid humans from doing something that is actually impossible to do. I’ve actually looked, and I can’t find such an example. The closest, perhaps, might be this: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3). On a literal level, true, it is impossible for your left hand to know what your right hand is doing! But that statement uses obvious hyperbole and is thus very different from Jesus’ straightforward command against separating what God has joined. On a practical level, there is nothing hyperbolic whatsoever about the possibility of separating a husband and a wife. It is a possible, common event.

Fourth, Jesus was engaging Jews on a question about divorce, and virtually everyone at the time—Jews and Greco-Romans alike—understood that divorce completely dissolved a marriage, freeing one for remarriage. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” was the question. “What God has joined together, let not man separate” was Jesus’ answer. Significantly, Jesus’ term “separate” (χωρίζω) was frequently used in both informal and legal contexts at the time to refer to divorce. True, it can have a more general meaning, and it probably does carry broader implications here. But Jesus’ hearers would certainly have heard it as referring most directly to divorce—thus, in their understanding, obviously referring to the full dissolution of a marriage.

Judging by these four reasons, Jesus’ command to not separate strongly implies that marriage is not an unbreakable bond. His listeners heard him clearly imply that marriage can indeed be dissolved by humans. What is more, Jesus, as a fellow Jew and a master teacher, knew that his listeners would understand him this way. In short, Jesus was using ordinary words in ordinary ways to forbid an ordinary occurrence: the full breakup, destruction, and dissolution of a marriage.

Cornes’ Concession

That much is relatively clear. And it is important to pause here and emphasize that, up until this point in Matthew 19 (verse 6), all Jesus’ words are consistent with one conclusion: Marriage can, indeed, be dissolved by humans.

On this point Andrew Cornes is admirably clear and honest. Even though he ultimately argues for “the impossibility of true divorce or remarriage,” at this stage in his analysis of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees, Cornes pauses to make the following statement:

Jesus has not (yet) said that husband and wife cannot be separated, that this is an impossibility. He has only said that they must not be separated. He has spoken only of the moral obligation not to divorce and stated that it would be a sin against God to divorce one’s partner or to cause the break-up of a marriage. In the next verses, however, he goes considerably further.[3]

(In fact, Cornes wrote this comment right after his discussion of Mark 10:9. Since Mark’s account varies slightly from Matthew’s, Corne’s comment covers not only all Jesus’ statements we’ve discussed so far but also his comments about Moses, which Matthew includes in verses 7 to 8.)

Was Jesus Prohibiting Only the External Separation of Marriage?

Those who don’t think Jesus meant humans can truly separate what God has joined, then, come to that conclusion either based on alternate readings of terms like one flesh or because of what Jesus says later in the passage. For example, here is the assessment offered in Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View, a multi-author book that some conservative Anabaptists recommend:

Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 is sometimes thought to refute the above point [that a marriage “union is permanent until death”]. Since He commands us not to separate what God has joined together, it is reasoned that it is possible to separate what God has joined together. After all, why would He prohibit us from doing something that is impossible? But by looking at the matter in its fuller biblical context (as is the intent of this book), we will see that Jesus must have been prohibiting the external separation of marriage. The vows spoken at a wedding can certainly be disregarded, and a marriage certainly can be separated in civil and legal ways, but these external disruptions of marriage do not and cannot destroy the morally binding one-flesh union created by God. Otherwise, no reason would exist for Jesus to call remarriage after divorce “adultery.”[4]

This paragraph is so full that I can’t offer a comprehensive response here. The authors wrote a book to try to prove their argument and it could take a book to respond. That said, I want to make several quick observations.

First, yes, it is theoretically possible that Jesus could have meant don’t legally or physically separate a union that it is impossible to truly separate. It is possible, and it can appear almost certain, if you bring particular assumptions to the text. The four reasons I presented above, however, strongly indicate that Jesus knew his first listeners would not understand him this way. I see no reason to abandon the most natural reading unless forced to do so.

Second, notice how these authors, right at the climax of their argument, described marriage as “the morally binding one-flesh union created by God.” This pile-on of emotion-laden terms is a non-argument obviously intended to help convince the reader. I say “non-argument” because “morally binding” merely shows one should not separate a marriage, not that one cannot. And the only term in that clause that could perhaps indicate that marriage is indissoluble—“one-flesh”—actually does not, as we have seen.

Third, and most important, the one actual argument the authors offered is based on what Jesus will say later in this account, when he calls remarriage after divorce “adultery.” If it is possible to separate a one-flesh union created by God, then how could Jesus call a post-divorce marriage “adultery”? This is a good question. In response, I’ll plant two small seeds now, with plans to develop them in future posts:

(1) Yes, Jesus calls remarriage after (some) divorce “adultery,” but what is the biblical picture of what adultery does to a marriage?

(2) What about the exception Jesus gave to the statement that remarriage is adultery? Would not even one exception show that marriage is not truly indissoluble?[5]

For reasons such as these, I find the arguments that Jesus was merely prohibiting the external separation of marriage unconvincing. Certainly he did forbid that, but I believe he was prohibiting complete separation, too.[6]

As Mrs. Reagan learned in her campaign against drug use, something remains possible to do even after you’ve been told to “just say no” to it. (Yes, I know the comparison with Jesus’ divorce command is imprecise.) Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Complexities and a Conclusion: “Let Not Man Separate” Implies Marriage is Dissoluble

Before I finish this post, I want to observe that there is inevitable complexity about talking about marriages that have been ended. For example, when Jesus says one who “marries” another “commits adultery,” he affirms that a remarriage is indeed a marriage even as he condemns it (Matt. 19:9, etc.). Similarly, Paul says a divorced Christian wife “should remain unmarried or else be reconciled” to her Christian husband (1 Cor. 7:11). His words show that it is possible in one breath to talk about marriage having ended (“unmarried”) but about obligations still remaining.[7]

Both examples underscore again the necessity of distinguishing between the “could” and “should” of Scripture. It must also be noted that neither Jesus nor Paul apply the above statements to all divorce and remarriage situations; Jesus did not say all divorces and remarriages are adultery, nor did Paul say obligations remain after every kind of divorce.

Given these complexities, I acknowledge I puzzled long and hard over how to express myself in this post. I encourage both “sides” (those arguing for marriage indissolubility and those arguing against) to be kind to each other as we try to discuss a question of some philosophical complexity. Almost certainly, no matter which position we take, we will say some things that appear superficially contradictory (like Jesus and Paul did!). We must be gracious with each other while pushing for greater accuracy and clarity.

This post has uncovered points that will require further consideration. That said, I want to end by underscoring my main point in this post: Everything Jesus has said thus far in his conversation with the Pharisees (Matthew 19:3-6) suggests we should take Jesus’ command in its most natural, comprehensive sense: Humans can indeed dissolve the union that God creates in marriage, but they must not do so.


Will further evidence override this conclusion? In my next posts I plan to continue walking through Matthew 19, looking for more clues to what Jesus believed about marriage permanence.

I invite your prayers for my continued study and writing. Thank you for reading my words here, and feel free to add your insights in the comments below.


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[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 718.

[2] John Piper, “Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper,” Desiring God Foundation, 7/1/1986, accessed 6/14/2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/divorce-and-remarriage-a-position-paper

[3] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), p. 192. I have much respect for Cornes even though ultimately I have come to disagree with him on the point of whether marriage is dissoluble. Cornes’ book includes exceptionally helpful reflections on singleness in the Bible and the church.

[4] Steve Burchett, Jim Chrisman, Jim Elliff, and Daryl Wingerd, Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View (Kansas City, MO: Christian Communicators Worldwide, 2009), p. 17.

[5] Yes, I know I haven’t proven this point yet, but I’m tipping my hand to the reading of Jesus’ exception clause that I find most convincing.

[6] It might be worth mentioning in passing that in Mark’s account of Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about divorce, they never hear him call divorce and remarriage adultery; only the disciples hear Jesus give this teaching after they question him privately “in the house” (Mk. 10:10-11). This eliminates the possibility, at least according to Mark’s version of events, that the Pharisees would have deduced from Jesus’ adultery statement that marriage was—contrary to all their understandings as Jews—indissoluble.

[7] A helpful chapter on this topic (“Are Divorced People Still Married in God’s Eyes?”) is included in the following wide-ranging, yet accessible, book by Jim Newheiser: Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 230ff.


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Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

This post is a sort of “extra” in my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, glancing back to Genesis 2:24 to ask what it indicates about whether marriage is indissoluble. Here are my posts so far in this series:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)


Summary of this post: I ask whether Genesis 2:24 is a prediction or a command, and whether the union it describes is necessarily permanent. Based on Greek and Hebrew grammatical considerations, and based on how both Jesus and Paul used this verse, I argue that it functions as a creation norm for marriage. That is, Genesis 2:24 describes both what normally happens (norm as normal), and also what should happen (norm as standard). Thus, we should let this verse prompt us to ask Am I living in line with God’s creation norm? rather than using it to assert a doctrine of marriage indissolubility.


Introduction: What Does Genesis 2:24 Say?

The post I’m sharing today is less directly focused on Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage. It is also perhaps a bit more philosophical than some of my posts. For these reasons, some readers might want to skip it, waiting for my next post on Jesus’ command, “Let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).

On the other hand, if you’ve noticed how some Bible teachers quote Genesis 2:24 and claim it says marriage is indissoluble, and if you wonder whether that’s really what the verse is saying, then please continue reading.

In my last three posts I examined three terms Jesus used as he discussed Genesis 2:24. These are—to use KJV language for the moment—“cleave,” “one flesh,” and “hath joined.” Before I move further into Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, I want to consider Genesis 2:24 as a whole. I’m about to quote the verse again and, as you read it, ask yourself: what are the three verbs in this verse (“leave… cleave… become”) describing? Are they:

1) A prediction of what happens and cannot be undone?

2) A prediction of what happens with no comment on whether it can be undone?

3) A command about what should happen but might not?

Here is the verse, as quoted by Jesus:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and [shall] hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. (Matt. 19:5, ESV)

Is this verse saying that a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes one flesh with his wife, and that this cannot be undone? (Option 1)

Is it saying that a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes one flesh with his wife, but without comment about whether these can be undone? (Option 2)

Or is it issuing a command, saying a man (at least one who marries) must leave, cleave, and become one flesh with his wife? (Option 3)

Or are none of these three options really the best way to think about Genesis 2:24?

“Fresh love.” Photo by Engin Akyurt. Used with permission.

Does Genesis 2:24 Show Marriage is Indissoluble?

Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s look at what some Bible teachers have concluded based on this verse. Here is what John Coblentz wrote in a booklet from Christian Light Publications:

Whatever else we may conclude from these Scriptures, we can safely say that marriage is the joining of a man and woman in a lifelong bond.[1]

A “Statement of Position on Divorce and Remarriage” from the Southeastern Mennonite Conference asserted the following immediately before presenting Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:24:

The indissolubility of the marriage bond is a principle that is basic to a consistent interpretation and application of Bible teachings in relation to problems issuing from divorce and remarriage. When confronted with the question of divorce, Jesus based His response solidly on God’s ordinance in creation…[2]

Clair Martin, after discussing Genesis 2:24, shared this definition of marriage in a booklet published by the Biblical Mennonite Alliance:

Marriage is a universal process of divine origin and regulation in which an unmarried man and an unmarried woman, by mutual consent, are permanently made to be one flesh by God.[3]

J. Carl Laney wrote the following while discussing Genesis 2:24:

Marriage… is a permanent relationship until death. There is no allowance made in Genesis 2:24 for divorce and remarriage.[4]

And Joseph Webb concluded his discussion of the passage with these assertions:

God, who originated marriage and established the rules by which it was to operate, created the first union with Adam and Eve… This “one flesh” condition… is called a covenant for life… Any offspring of Adam who has become a part of such a covenant must understand this and realize that either partner can violate this covenant repeatedly but it is scripturally impossible to break it.[5]

All five of these excerpts affirm Option 1 above; they either assume or explicitly argue that Genesis 2:24 is a prediction of what happens and cannot be undone—a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes permanently one flesh with his wife. Is that what God, through Moses, said in this verse?

In the rest of this post, I’ll suggest an answer based on a brief consideration of both grammar and how Jesus and Paul put the verse to use when quoting it.

Observations From Grammar

In both the Greek NT and the Greek OT versions of this verse, all three verbs of Genesis 2:24 are in the future tense (“shall leave… shall cleave… shall become”). This does not solve our dilemma, though, for future tense Greek verbs are commonly used not only to predict future events (Options 1 and 2) but also to give commands (Option 3). In fact, the most common way that commands are recorded in the Greek OT Law of Moses is with future tense verbs.

In the Hebrew OT, these verbs are in the imperfect tense. This indicates, according to commentator Gordon Wenham, that they express “repeated customary action.”[6] Andrew Cornes explains further:

The narrator here is describing what regularly happens when men and women marry. It would probably be better, therefore, to translate with the English present tense: ‘Therefore a man leaves… cleaves… and they become’ (so RSV).[7]

By this analysis, either Option 1 or Option 2 fits best with Genesis 2:24—the verse is making a prediction about what happens in marriage. In this view, the verse functions as an “origin story” about how the practice of marriage covenants began: Humans do this (“leave… cleave… become one flesh”) because of how Eve was made from Adam’s side.

These basic grammatical observations, then, suggest that it is best to view Genesis 2:24 as a prediction (or a description of a “repeated customary action”), not a command. But can marriage covenants be undone? We can’t find an answer to this question by analyzing the grammatical forms of verbs.

Observations from Jesus’ and Paul’s Use of Genesis 2:24

What can we learn from Jesus’ and Paul’s use of this verse? Interestingly, they each used the verse slightly differently.

Paul seemed to see an inevitability in the verse: He used the verse to prove (“do you not know?”) that “he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). It was not that a man should become one flesh with a prostitute; rather, if he had sex with her, he inevitably would become one flesh with her, even though he shouldn’t, and even though he should separate from that union after it was formed.

Jesus, on the other hand, deduced a “should” from this verse: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Yet he based this “should” on what he presents as an accomplished fact, a fact drawn from Genesis 2:24: “What God has joined together…” In other words, it is not that a man should leave, cleave, and become one flesh with his wife. Rather, it is because these are already true that no one should separate a husband and wife.

“Faithful love.” Photo by itsmeseher. Used with permission.

Genesis 2:24 as a Creation Norm

Perhaps the best way to think of Genesis 2:24, then, is to see it as presenting a creation norm. I’m using norm here in both senses of the term—what normally happens (norm as normal), and also what should happen (norm as standard).

First, and primarily, the verse conveys a norm by expressing what normally happens as a result of God’s creation design of male and female (Option 2, explicit). Because of God’s creation design, men and women leave their birth families, pair up, and are intimately joined, especially through sex. This is so central to God’s creation design that we can rightly say that God joins couples in marriage.

Second, this verse conveys a norm by implying that this human practice of joining in marriage is good; it is something that should be affirmed, protected within marriage, and not undone (Option 3, implied). Just as God’s creation design of male and female implies that same-sex “marriages” are contrary to God’s will, so his design of male and female implies that normally, within marriage, sexual couplings should not be separated.

In sum, design implies intended function; one norm indicates the other.[8]

What is missing from both Jesus’ and Paul’s discussions, however, is any sense that God’s creation design is not merely a norm but also fatalistically deterministic. Neither, when quoting Genesis 2:24, says that the one-flesh unions that result from God’s creation design are indissoluble. Thus, there is no reason to assume that Option 1 above is correct; there is no reason to conclude that a man cannot break his one-flesh union with his wife, stop cleaving to her, and return again to his father and mother (or to a single life)—even though this is clearly contrary to God’s creation norm.

Conclusion: Don’t Import Indissolubility into Genesis 2:24

The key question that both Jesus and Paul lead us to ask, then, is this: Are we living in line with God’s creation norm for male and female unions? Are we saving one-flesh union for couplings that are fitting for Christians (Paul)? And are we being careful to not separate one-flesh marriage unions (Jesus)?

It is these sorts of questions—not imported assumptions about it being impossible to separate what God has joined—that we should take away from our reflections on Genesis 2:24.


Thank you for reading! Please leave a comment if you have additional insight into what Genesis 2:24 does or does not say. In my next post, I plan to return to my discussion of Jesus’ words. Does “let not man separate” imply marriage is an unbreakable bond?


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[1] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 1. Coblentz also cites Genesis 24:4, 58, and 67 (Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca) before this statement. In context, Coblentz seems to be saying that marriage involves both an unbreakable bond and covenant obligations that can be broken without breaking the marriage bond.

[2] “Statement on Divorce and Remarriage,” (Southeastern Mennonite Conference, 1983). Available online, as copied by a student of Mark Roth: https://www.anabaptists.org/tracts/divorce2.html

[3] Clair Martin, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: A Biblical Perspective, 24-pg. booklet (Biblical Mennonite Alliance, n.d., based on series of messages given in 2007), 2. Martin says “a friend” shared this definition.

[4] Carl J. Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), p. 20.

[5] Joseph A. Webb, Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce (Longwood, FL: Webb Ministries, 2003), pp. 8, 27. I have removed Webb’s non-traditional use of typeface.

[6] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Volume 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 27, n. 24.a.

[7] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 60.

[8] After writing this section I read a similar interpretation in a book by David Bennet: “Jesus is clarifying that for a male and a female to become husband and wife—by leaving their families behind and becoming sexually one, forming a new kinship unit—that is not just ‘how things normally go’ but how God has made them and wishes them to be understood: what scholar Bernd Wannenwetsch has called ‘the norm as ought.’” See David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 240-241. Bennett provides this citation: Bernd Wannenwetsch, “Creation and Ethics: On the Legitimacy and Limitation of Appeals to ‘Nature’ in Christian Moral Reasoning,” in Anthony Clarke and Andrew Moore, eds., Within the Love of God: Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), www.oxfordscholarship.com.


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“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I examine Jesus’ words with a focus on this question: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Here are my posts so far:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)


Summary of this post: I argue that “what therefore God has joined together” in Matthew 19:6 does not indicate that marriage is an indissoluble bond. Neither the definition nor the grammatical form of the verb “has joined” indicate permanence. Further, the word “therefore” shows that Jesus is summarizing what he already said about God’s design for a man to “cleave” to his wife and become “one flesh” with her. Since neither of those terms indicate permanence, neither does Jesus’ summarizing statement “what… God has joined together.”


Introduction: “What God Joins, Man Cannot Unjoin”?

When Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question about divorce, he began by quoting and explaining Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. We don’t have to guess what point he wanted to make from these passages, for he immediately continued with a pointed command: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).

I’ll discuss the command clause (“let not man separate”) in my next post, but first I want to discuss the opening clause of Jesus’ statement: “What therefore God has joined together.” There are several ways that some Bible readers use this clause to argue that marriage is indissoluble.

First, some people use this clause to draw distinctions between unions that God joins and unions not united by God. In this thinking, only validly-contracted marriages are joined by God. Some Bible teachers then assert that unions joined by God are indissoluble in a way that other unions are not. As one Facebook meme I saw shouted: “WHAT GOD JOINS, MAN CANNOT UN-JOIN!”

An image I downloaded from a Facebook group. I do not know who created it. Note the sentence in all caps at the bottom. Notice also the claim (which I disproved in my last post) that Paul is distinguishing between “one flesh” and “one body” in 1 Corinthians 6.

What sort of unions are joined by God? Some people emphasize that God joins only unions between believers, so that unions between unbelievers or “mixed marriages” of believers and unbelievers are less binding or permanent. This view has been fairly common throughout church history. It is addressed most directly by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, so I won’t discuss it more here.[1]

A more common view among conservative Christians I know is that the only sort of marriage that God joins is one which is a first marriage for both partners. According to this view, only such a marriage is a validly-contracted marriage, and a validly-contracted marriage cannot be broken in God’s eyes.

Second, grammatical arguments have also been used to assert that “What… God has joined together” refers to an inseparable bond. For example, Laney claimed the following:

The term for “joined together” means “yoked together,” and the aorist tense points to the permanence of the bond… A good paraphrase of verse 9 would read, “Stop severing marriage unions which God has permanently bound together.”[2]

None of these arguments withstand scrutiny, however, when we look closely at Jesus’ grammar and flow of thought.

The Grammar and Meaning of “Joined Together”

Let’s begin with Laney’s grammatical claim. Unfortunately, he did not demonstrate a good understanding of the Greek aorist verb tense. Rodney Decker, in his introductory Greek grammar, notes that the aorist “can often be represented in English with a simple tense, usually a simple past.”[3] Further, it gives no indication about how long an action takes place or how long it lasts:

The aorist simply refers to a situation in summary without indicating anything further about the action… It describes a complete situation, referring to it as a whole without commenting on whether or not it involves a process.[4]

That Laney was wrong is almost embarrassingly evident based on a simple scan of this verb tense elsewhere in the NT. One example just to prove the point: At the beginning of this same chapter we read that Jesus “entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (Matt. 19:1). The verb “entered” here is in the aorist tense, yet obviously Jesus did not remain permanently in this region. Neither can we conclude from the aorist tense of “joined” that a husband and wife are “permanently bound together.”

What about the meaning of the word “joined”? The Greek verb translated “has joined together” (συζεύγνυμι) is found in the NT only in this account (Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:9). It is used once in the Greek OT (LXX), in Ezekiel 1:11, where it translates a Hebrew word that simply means “to unite,” with no indication of permanence.[5]

Ezekiel described the living creatures in his vision as having wings that were “joined to” (ESV: “touching”) the wings of the creatures beside them. (Image from Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org, used by permission.)

The Greek verb συζεύγνυμι is a compound word formed from prefix σύν (“with” ) and the noun ζεῦγος. This noun is used in the NT to refer to a “pair” of turtledoves (Lk. 2:24) and a “yoke” of oxen (Lk. 14:19), both of which can be separated. A related verb (ἑτεροζυγέω, “to unite unequally”) is used in 2 Corinthians 6:14 in the warning, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” Such unequal yokes can be separated, however, for God instructs his people to “go out from their midst, and be separate from them” (2 Cor. 6:17).

Laney’s arguments, then, both fall flat.

The Flow of Jesus’ Thought

Equally significantly, the context of Jesus’ statement does not suggest that he was meaning to distinguish between marriages joined by God and marriages not joined by God. Are we really to imagine Jesus was thinking, “What God has joined together—but only the marriages he has joined together, not the others!—let not man separate”? Nothing in the context of Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees suggests that this thought was in his mind.

It is crucial not to miss the word “therefore” in the clause “What therefore God has joined together.” This word shows that Jesus is drawing on what came before. He is referring back to what he just said as he quoted from Genesis.[6]

“What… God has joined together,” then, is Jesus’ way of referring back to God’s creation of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). In other words, Jesus is not referring to God joining each individual couple at the time of their wedding, when they exchange vows. Rather, the joining that Jesus is referring to is something God did at creation, when he made male and female and designed for a man to “hold fast” to his wife and for the two to become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

In previous posts I argued that neither “hold fast” nor “one flesh” carry the idea that marriage cannot be dissolved. If this is so, then there is no reason to believe that Jesus’ statement summarizing these realities (“What therefore God has joined together”) indicates marriage is indissoluble, either.

“What therefore God has joined together” (Matt. 19:6). Image by Didier Martin, used with permission from https://freebibleimages.org/illustrations/dm-creation/.

Conclusion: “God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply Permanence

In Matthew 19:4-6, then, Jesus is drawing principles from creation that are true of marriage in general. Yes, he will later emphasize that some who divorce and marry another are actually committing adultery (Matt. 19:9), raising questions about how God is involved in such unions and what should happen to such marriages. (I plan to address this verse in due time.) But Jesus’ initial point here is more basic: Man should not separate what God, by his creation design of male and female, has joined.

In short, then, the clause “what God… has joined together” simply indicates that something has been united and gives no suggestion that this unity cannot be broken. Those who claim otherwise are using bad grammar or missing the flow of Jesus’ thought, and are importing ideas not actually stated in the text.


Thank you for reading! Your responses, as always, are welcome. In my next post, I plan to pause to take a more general look at Genesis 2:24, which has been foundational for everything Jesus has said so far in Matthew 19. Does this verse imply marriage is an unbreakable bond?


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[1] This view raises a host of interpretive challenges I will not try to address here. For example, it is indeed true that God seems to have higher expectations for marriages between believers than for mixed marriages (compare 1 Cor. 7:10-11 with 1 Cor. 7:12-16). But that probably has less to do with anything about marriage being indissoluble than about the higher expectations God places on believers for living together in peace. A careful discussion of that passage will have to wait for another time.

[2] J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), p. 56.

[3] Rodney J. Decker, Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), p. 120.

[4] Decker, ibid., p. 272.

[5] In Ezekiel 1:11 each living creature in Ezekiel’s vision is described as having two wings that are “adjoined to” the wings of its neighboring creature (NETS, A New English Translation of the Septuagint, International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Inc. {New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007}, 948, https://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/38-iezekiel-nets.pdf). The ESV says the wings “touched” each other, and the underlying Hebrew word is used of curtains “coupled” with clasps (Ex. 26:6), trade partnerships (2 Chron. 20:35), temporary military alliances (Dan. 11:6), and persons currently “joined with all the living” who know they will die (Eccl. 9:4-5).

[6] This also means that we should not look ahead in the passage to determine what Jesus meant by “what… God has joined together.” For example, some might assert that Jesus was thinking of what he was going to say about some marriages being adulterous (Matt. 19:9), but this is contradicted by Jesus’ use of the connecting word “therefore” (οὖν), which points backward, not forward.


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