“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?


If you want to support more writing like this, please leave a gift:


[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.


Save page
Save in your favorite format (above). Share, email, or print (below).

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

  1. Maybe you wrote it and I missed it, or maybe it seems to imprecise or not explicit and therefore not really as credible, but some would note, setting aside verb tense etc, that the very fact that Jesus is adjuring the hearer that what God joined “man should not separate” is an indication in fact that man can separate it, even if he shouldn’t. However, that view, according to some, is a logical inference from the text. If the permanence view held, it seems Jesus would have said something like what God has joined man cannot separate even though he pretends to.

  2. Thanks Dwight for tackling this subject. I’ve enjoyed reading most of your posts.

    In referring back to how it was in the beginning, Jesus seems to be referring to how the woman was created for the man. A rib was taken from the man and used by God to create the woman. Adam’s conclusion was that “this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”, referring to the woman. She was literally one flesh with the man and joined together by God in a physical sense. Do you believe this literal, God-joined creation could have been undone by either the man or the woman?

    I’m persuaded God could have undone it, but I’m doubtful Adam would have been able to. As long as Eve remained alive, she was literally part Adam and Adam was part Eve.

    I believe the phrase “what God has joined together” Jesus spoke to the Pharisees, effectively moved the debate away from all the human reasoning pertaining to divorce and remarriage that was present at the time and caused the audience to grapple with something much deeper. How does God view this? I think this is evidenced by what the disciples told Jesus when they realized that what Jesus was getting at was quite serious. They said, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

    1. Hi Gary. Thanks for taking time to read some of my thoughts, and for responding so graciously! This topic is one that has engendered a lot of disagreement, and I realize I am presenting a view that is somewhat different than what has been officially endorsed within our lifetimes in our circles. So, may God help us be both wise and patient in our reflections.

      In response to your comments and questions: It seems to me that God does indeed give man the power to undue some things he has done. Consider, for example, our union with Christ, as depicted in verses such as the following:

      “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Cor. 6:15-17)

      “…Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” (1 Cor. 12: 12-13).

      “…He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. ” (Eph. 5:28-32)

      This union is even more real (“literal”), close, and permanent than our union with our earthly spouses. And it, too, is accomplished by God (“by one Spirit…” 1 Cor. 12:13). Yet, I think you agree with my non-Calvinist understanding that humans can indeed break this bond, despite its intimacy and intended permanence.

      In the same way, I do not think the “one-flesh” relationship of marriage is beyond being dissolved by human sin. Yes, Adam was “one flesh” with Eve in a way that it was impossible to be with mere animals, for she was taken from his very body. But I don’t see that this implies an unbreakable bond. (Do you have specific exegetical reasons for thinking so?) For one thing, Paul cites the same passage when he warns against forming one-flesh unions with prostitutes, even though I am sure he did not think all such one-flesh unions were necessarily permanent.

      I’m not sure whether you read my post on the term “one flesh,” but here is a link, in case you missed it: https://dwightgingrich.com/one-flesh-does-not-imply-unbreakable-bond-jdr-4/

      The disciple’s response is indeed significant. I do think it shows the disciples were shocked at the rigidity of Jesus’ position on divorce. I am not convinced it shows that he left no exception for divorce and remarriage. I hope to address the disciples’ statement in a future post, so won’t try to explain my thinking further here.

      Thanks again for your gracious comment. I welcome your prayers, and also your future interaction if there is any specific exegetical point where you think I am not handling biblical evidence fairly. (I find there are many conflicting assumptions when people discuss this topic on a systematic theological level, so I’m aiming to begin with exegesis.) God bless!

      1. Thanks for the reply Dwight!

        I am in agreement that this topic has engendered a lot of disagreement and the fact that there was disagreement even in Jesus’ day has led me to the conclusion that how we approach this subject is of great importance.

        I feel Jesus’ handled the Pharisees’ question about divorce in a brilliant way, in that He turned long debated human views of divorce into a question of how His Father designed marriage in the beginning. In essence, He moved the discussion from the human construct of divorce to the more important question of what it means for God to join two people together into one. I believe in doing so, Jesus was attempting to restore an understanding of marriage in His New Testament Kingdom back to its original pre-fall design.

        Focusing on understanding Jesus’ intent in turning the discussion into one of how His Father designed marriage in the beginning forces me to start with a look at how God made the woman (wife) using a physical part of the man (husband). He could have created the woman in the same way He created the man and their union would have been more like our marriages today in that God doesn’t literally take a rib from us men and make wives for us. And so, I think we do well to consider that God chose the method He did for a purpose and focus on attempting to understand what that purpose was. Coming at it from that angle causes me to ask questions like was it possible for Adam or Eve to physically undo what God had joined together in one? I think the obvious answer is that it wasn’t possible for either of them to do so. Therefore, in my view, it would follow that God wanted them to understand their union as undoable because of HOW He joined them together.

        This leads me to the conclusion that God alone decides what is joined together and I say this based on what Jesus did by taking His audience’s minds to a point in time where there were no human constructs like divorce or remarriage and establishing what I like to call the “In the beginning model”.

        Having said all that, I do recognize that Jesus added something to the discussion by introducing what is known as the “exception clause”. But even with the exception clause it appears the disciples understood the “In the beginning model” Jesus was introducing to be so restrictive that the only option they saw if a man wasn’t ready to commit to a life long God-joined union was to not get married in the first place. It doesn’t appear they asked any questions or commented about the exception clause being grounds for remarriage. In essence, it appears that the concept of what God joins together, in their minds was the major point, that up to that point, had been given very little consideration. That is why I have attempted to move away from the common arguments for and against divorce and remarriage to trying to understand what Jesus meant by “what God has joined together”.

        I hope this explains in part the exegetical approach I take when thinking about this topic. I’m very open to hearing how this approach might be defective or missing something important that I’m not presently seeing.

        Blessings,

        Gary

        1. Hi Gary, and thanks again for taking time to write out your thoughts.

          I am in agreement with much of what you wrote, particularly the main point that Jesus wanted to turn the discussion about divorce back to God’s original creation design. The Jews in his day were badly off track. They were misreading Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as a text that gave grounds for legitimate divorce, when in fact it does no such thing. It only acknowledges that divorces were happening and restricted a certain kind of remarriage (a man taking a former wife back to himself after he had divorced her and she had been married to someone else).

          In fact, I think it is important to note that the position of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day on divorce was completely unlike anything we know in our churches today–even completely unlike anything taught in most evangelical churches today. According to Gordon Wenham, the majority position in Jesus’ day was that of Hillel, which meant that most Jewish religious leaders were teaching that a man had a right to divorce his wife for virtually any reason he might want to. In honesty, I don’t know of any Christian leaders in America who are teaching such a message. And it is a radical understatement that Jesus was not directing his words about divorce to a crowd that held beliefs such as conservative Anabaptists hold today! His words were tailored to his audience, and in at least 3 of the 4 passages where he addressed divorce, he was specifically responding to the Jews’ egregious misuse of Deuteronomy 24.

          Thus, according to Wenham (who says remarriage is always wrong for Christians today; perhaps you know his name and his influence on this topic among some conservative Anabaptists, including in BMA), even if Jesus was just aligning with the more conservative camp of Shammai, that would have been enough to surprise his disciples. In reality, I believe he was taking a position even more conservative than Shammai, permitting divorce and remarriage (as I understand him) only for explicit cases of sexual immorality, not merely for acts such as a wife going in public with hair disheveled or arms bared, which Shammai called “adultery.” Given my understanding of such historical contexts, I see no need to explain the disciples’ response by proposing that Jesus disallowed all divorce or even just all remarriage.

          My focus in this series so far, however, has been not on what is permitted, but what is possible. Going back to Genesis again, I confess I don’t see there any indication that it is impossible to separate what God has joined. As I noted in my posts, terms like “cleave” and “one flesh” are clearly used of separable unions in other biblical passages. And, as I mentioned in my comment above, the Bible uses equally strong language about our union with Christ, even using similar language about being one body/flesh, but I believe that, too, can be broken by persistent human unfaithfulness. (I’m curious what you think about that comparison.)

          What I see in Genesis is imagery that strongly says what Jesus said: that we *should not* separate what God has joined. But Jesus never said humans *cannot* separate what God has joined, and I don’t see that in Genesis, either.

          This is my best understanding of Jesus’ words at this point. Thanks for your graciousness in interacting here.

          God bless!
          Dwight

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.