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

Before I begin discussing Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage, I want to clarify a few things about my approach. In this post I’ll make two points about interpreting the Bible on the topic of divorce and remarriage:

  • First, I’ll discuss the futility of taking a hyper-literal approach.
  • Second, I’ll propose one point of confusion in Bible interpretation that divides “liberal” and “conservative” camps.[1]

Finally, I’ll use this second point to introduce the question that will guide me as I examine Jesus’ words in forthcoming posts.

Hyper-Literal Bible Interpretation

I want to begin by emphasizing, as strongly as possible, something that I think is utterly essential to acknowledge: Understanding the NT teaching on divorce and remarriage is not as simple as just taking the words of Jesus and Paul at face value. In fact, if one takes a hyper-literal approach to all the NT teachings on divorce—taking them all as universally-true statements, without any exception—then one ends up with multiple contradictions.

Here are just three examples:

  • Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). On face value, in the minds of most readers, this leaves no room for divorce, period. But Jesus also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). Debates of theologians aside, most people reading that for the first time would conclude that divorce is permitted for a husband whose wife has been sexually unfaithful. Which is true?
  • Matthew 19:9 includes the exception noted above. But Mark 10:11, which records the same historical event as Matthew, has Jesus condemning divorce without exception: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” Full stop. So, did Jesus give an exception or didn’t he?
  • Paul wrote, “If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her” (1 Cor. 7:12). Wait a minute: What does Paul mean by “if…she consents to live with him”? Doesn’t that condition contradict Jesus’ unqualified prohibitions of divorce?

The debate over whether the NT ever permits remarriage, then, cannot be reduced to a debate between those who, in simple faith, take the Bible’s teachings at face value and those who, with hardened hearts, try to weasel around its clear teaching. (Simple faith and hard hearts, of course, do play important roles.) Rather, I suggest, it is more foundationally a debate over which of the Bible’s statements about divorce have the best claim to be taken at face value, without qualification—the prohibitions (almost always general statements[2]) or the exceptions (always directed to specific circumstances).

Again, no one takes all the NT divorce teachings at face value, as being universally true without qualification. It is impossible to do so. And because it is impossible, God clearly did not intend for us to do so. We are misunderstanding him, somewhere, if we try to do so.

With those facts clearly before us, we should free each other for an honest, humble discussion about how best to synthesize the Bible’s varied teachings on divorce.

Should Versus Could

How do Christians end up with such different perspectives on divorce and remarriage? One reason, of course, is that they disagree about which texts should control our reading of other texts. (See above.)

Another underlying cause for disagreement between “liberal” and “conservative” camps, it seems to me, is that one emphasizes the “could” of Scripture while the other emphasizes the “should.” The only way to read Scripture well, however, is to appropriately acknowledge both. Let me explain.

A “liberal” approach to divorce and remarriage emphasizes the passages of Scripture that say a marriage could be ended, whether rightly or wrongly. Since it is clear that marriage is not necessarily permanent, it must not be necessary to try to make it permanent, right? (Wrong.) This approach sometimes cites the divorce exceptions of Jesus and Paul (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15), but, in truth, finding specific biblical grounds for divorce is no longer very important. What really matters is just the basic fact that a marriage could come to an end. Such endings may be unfortunate, but they are to be expected and we should just try to navigate them with as much grace as possible, moving on to better relationships when old ones fade.

A ”conservative” approach, in contrast, emphasizes those Scriptures that say a marriage should never be ended by anything besides death. Since it is clearly necessary for marriage to be permanent, marriage must necessarily be permanent, right? (Wrong.) This approach acknowledges that some Scriptures seem to talk about marriages ending, but it quickly overrides all such texts with other passages that seem to indicate that even when a marriage is formally ended by divorce, obligations remain. These passages mentioning obligations are then universalized to apply to all divorce situations, no matter what exceptions may appear in a face-value reading of other Scriptures. Thus, any remarriage is always an “adulterous marriage,” or perhaps should not be called a marriage at all.

Neither approach, it seems to me, reads Scripture fairly.

To be honest, I’ve never been seriously tempted by the “liberal” approach. It shows utter disregard for God’s word and for basic human fidelity, despite the apparently loving motives of some who promote it.

The “conservative” approach, however, is more or less what I grew up with. (Please be patient with my simplistic summaries.) Because I this is the approach I have been taught for most of  my life, it is the position I will test in my forthcoming posts.

Did Jesus Teach That Marriage Is Indissoluble?

The basic question I’ll consider in my posts is this: Did Jesus believe that nothing besides death can truly end a marriage? Did he believe that marriage is indissoluble?

I’ll begin with the NT’s fullest account of Jesus’ teaching on the subject, found in Matthew 19. I’ll start by examining several of his “should statements” about the permanence of marriage, statements that are sometimes misinterpreted, it seems to me, as proof that a marriage could never be fully broken. After discussing key excerpts from Matthew 19, I’ll aim to synthesize Jesus’ other teachings, too. Throughout, I will focus on my basic question: Did Jesus believe marriage is indissoluble?

This series, then, will not try to address the rights and wrongs of every imaginable potential divorce situation. Rather, I’m testing a more foundational point. If Jesus really did believe a validly-contracted marriage cannot be dissolved by anything but death, then the “conservative” approach is fundamentally correct and all apparent exceptions must be read as not truly being exceptions after all.

But if we discover that Jesus never actually said anything that indicates he thought marriage is indissoluble, then this shapes how we must read what he did say. It means we have no reason to preclude, with the “conservative” approach, that Jesus’ exceptions cannot be taken at face value.

This series, then, is more about testing a key assumption many readers bring to Jesus’ words than it is about expounding the full meaning and significance of Jesus’ divorce teachings as might be done in a sermon. It is about testing the starting point of our thinking rather than trying to give a lot of practical guidance or application of Scripture to human life. That said, what I plan to share is anything but just theoretical. Answering the question Did Jesus believe marriage is indissoluble? is just about the most relevant thing I can imagine for anyone who is dealing with a marriage that is currently on the rocks.

Before we begin digging into this question, however, I want to emphasize as strongly as I can that Jesus’ main message about marriage was persistent and clear: God intends marriage to be for life, and any time a marriage union is separated, that marriage has fallen short of God’s creation design. Period. This was the heartbeat of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, and it must be the heartbeat of the church’s teaching, too, when taken as a whole.

My inquiry does not question this divine purpose at all. Rather, it focuses on what happens when humans fail to live up to it. Is it possible for humans to separate what God has joined? And is it possible for one marriage to end, other than by death, in such a way that remarriage may be an option that God blesses?

In short, my posts will address the question of what could happen to a marriage if it falls short of what God’s word clearly shows should happen.


I have one more post to share before I dig into Jesus’ words. In my next post I’ll summarize the general perspective on marriage permanence that I have reached after my study on this topic over the past couple of years. I call this perspective “radical faithfulness,” and I’ll contrast it with the positions I’ve called “liberal” and “conservative” in this post.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you.

What are your thoughts on a hyper-literal approach to the NT teachings on divorce and remarriage? Have you observed confusion between the “should” and “could” of Scripture on this topic? What parts of Jesus’ teaching on the topic do you hope I dig into as I investigate Jesus’ view on marriage permanence?

Thanks for reading!


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[1] I’m using scare quotes because I’m not attempting to precisely define, identify, or affirm either group. In my usage here, “liberal” simply means more permissive of divorce and “conservative” less permissive. Readers will have differing opinions on which position, if either, best conserves biblical doctrine and God’s liberal grace.

[2] I say “almost” because the prohibition in 1 Corinthians 7:11 is tied to a specific circumstance.


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18 thoughts on “Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)”

  1. If there are only two camps, I would lean toward Hyper-Literal! I am looking forward to reading your future posts! It seems that many people are in the Hyper-Literal camp, and tend to switch as soon as a close family member divorces and remarries! I think if people study the issue and then make a decision, before a situation arises where it is family and you want to justify the decision!

    1. Thank you for reading, Marland. Yes to your last comment: It is better to have thought meaningfully about this topic before you have family directly involved in a difficult marriage situation. Unfortunately, fewer people have that luxury nowadays. May God give us wisdom!

  2. I’m finding this totally enthralling! From what you’ve hinted at, I suspect that my current conclusion on the matter is going to be in line with what you’re leading up to. Time will tell I guess 😂. I believe literal is good, providing the hermeneutics and exegesis are correct. Uh, them are some big words for me 😳. Something I will say at the moment, that you may have alluded to… in my observations, most people are more interested in finding a way to get the bible to say what they want it to say and have everything in tidy little boxes that they can control.

    This can be in both sides, either justifying divorce and remarriage or outlawing it. Problem is the human condition is messy and Jesus entered into that messiness to bring salvation. God doesn’t fit in a tidy little box of our making.

    Something I have found relevant, to the discussion is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians I believe, where he takes church members to task for taking each other to court. I don’t think it specifically mentions divorce, more it covers the broader scope of legal issues. What I this hugely relevant is the fact that if two “christians” are married and then can’t get along and split up for reasons other than infidelity, how does that work. On one hand you say you have a vital relationship with Jesus, and on the other hand you can’t figure out how to do some conflict resolution.

    As a Christian,”this out not to be”, to quote Paul. I think in these cases there are deeper problems and divorce is not necessarily going to solve anything! Anyhow I will cut the sermon off there 😎. I’ll be watching for further developments.

  3. You wrote: “Understanding the NT teaching on divorce and remarriage is not as simple as just taking the words of Jesus and Paul at face value. In fact, if one takes a hyper-literal approach . . .”

    I’m not sure I agree with the way you link “face value” with “hyper literalism.”
    Face value doesn’t have to be hyper-literal; it could be (and usually is) simply a literal understanding (literal as in sensus literalus–interpreting texts according to basic literary rules of analysis). Hyper-literal is taking a text and wresting it from its context, ignoring authorial intention, and foisting wooden-like and unintended meanings upon it. I fear that by setting it up this way (by linking the two) the well of face value interpretation is poisoned such that the literal (literary) interpretation is besmirched.
    Further, isn’t it true that hermeneutical principles would call us to realize the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture? In some sense that is the “face value” of the text. And while divorce and remarriage statements in Scripture are admittedly very difficult to understand (at least in all situations and circumstances), yet as basic (and even common sense) principles are applied, much (even on this thorny subject) is clear.
    But clear, as we interpret faithfully: as we seek the interpretation exegetically not eisegetically; as we recognize the analogy of faith (find the unity within, allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture); and this in conjunction with basic components of sensus literalus (historical, grammatical and literary analysis), taking into consideration hyperbole, genre, allowing the clear to interpret obscure etc.).
    Most of this hermeneutical jargon is instinctive and assumed, though not usually articulated. None of this jargon is hyper-literal (indeed it would principle itself against such); yet it is often using a “face value” (plain sense) principle, just not simplistically so.

    An example: In your first case of hyper-literalism’s contradictions, you state Matthew 19:6: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” You set this up as contradictory if taken hyperliterally and synonymously “at face value.” I would agree that it would be a hyper-literal statement to say this prohibits any divorce for any reason, ever. But such an interpretation is not a “face value” one. A face value interpretation would recognize that this is a general axiom. This shows God’s intention and it is written with a sort of parallelism; “wherefore, they are no more two, but one flesh; what God joins, no man should separate.” This would be the literal (literary sense), and as I see it, this would be the face value sense.
    Am I staining gnats? On such a sensitive and delicate subject, I don’t think so. In the face of the plethora of convoluted and variated arguments, the adroit justifications for divorce and remarriage, the hermeneutical gymnastics justifying contemporary and changing sexual ethics, we may have to fall back to a “face value” interpretation of the words of Jesus and Paul; but I trust not a hyper-literal one.

    1. Hi Christian. Thanks much for taking time to read and for attempting to add some nuance here to my thoughts.

      If I understand you well, we are not far apart on what we both see as the ideal way to read Jesus’ words–with consideration for genre, hyperbole, historical and literary contexts, and more. I am grateful for that.

      On the question of what constitutes a “face value” reading, I suppose there is room for some disagreement. I see Merriam-Webster defines the idiom “at face value” to mean “as true or genuine without being questioned or doubted.” That doesn’t perfectly match how either of us are using the term, although it does overlap with the idea of just going with a “first impression” reading of what something means.

      Whatever we call it, the approach I am challenging is what I see many people doing, which is reading in a way that does *not* naturally consider things like hyperbole or the possibility of something being a general axiom that includes assumed exceptions. For example, my experience is that most conservative Anabaptist readers do indeed think Jesus is universally banning all divorce with his statement “let not man separate.” They would think we are dodging the “clear meaning” of the text to suggest that he is not forbidding every possible kind of divorce. Do we want to call that sort of reading a “face value” reading? I suppose it depends on whose face is doing the reading!

      I’m with you in wanting to aim for the sensus literalus, as you call it–a literal reading in the sense of it being a literary one. It would be wonderful if this would indeed be(come) the “face value” reading approach for which conservative Anabaptists were known. It seems to me that a hyper-literal approach and a hyper-“liberal” approach both alike fail to honor the text with a careful reading.

      Again, thanks much for taking time to engage, and for adding some nuance here in your comment. I welcome your responses to future posts as I wrestle with an admittedly complex topic.

  4. I don’t know of many who take an unqualified prohibitionist view on divorce. Perhaps I am missing something, but for example: the 18 articles, the 63 confession, the FCM Confession: As I read them, none of these absolutely prohibit divorce ever for any reason. I suspect most Mennonites with traditional views on this hold positions similar to Allen Roth’s in the official BMA position paper: “In Mt. 19:9, a very good case can be made for the position that divorce in certain limited cases is permitted but not remarriage; ie. that the exception clause modifies only the first part of the verse, not the last part.”

    1. Okay, good point, and thanks for pointing out where I over-spoke. While some conservative Mennonites do indeed take a position that permits separation in cases of severe abuse or adultery but prohibits all divorce, more would probably agree that legal divorce may be necessary for practical reasons in some cases. A rare footnote in Daniel Kauffman’s Doctrines of the Bible reveals some uncertainty on this point: “It is held by some that where the cause for separation is scriptural the securing of a divorce is not wrong in itself, for the reason that without a legal separation conveyances of property can not be made where one party is unwilling to join in executing such titles.”

      That said, to return to my point in my post, the only way they come to this reading is by rejecting a hyper-literal (preferred?) reading of “let not man separate,” and the reason why this hyper-literal reading is rejected is because of (grudging?) acknowledgement that “a very good case can be made” from the exception clause that divorce is not always wrong. Further, of course, in this reading the separation/divorce does not truly separate the marriage, for remarriage is never permitted, despite that possibility being present in the most literal, face-value reading of Jesus’ exception statement.

      So, again, my larger point in that section of my post is that *no one* is able to sustain a hyper-literal reading of all of Jesus’ individual statements about divorce. Acknowledging that certainly does not make the best synthesis self-evident, but it is a necessary starting point, given the tendency to take a simplistic proof-text approach on this topic.

      Thanks again for engaging.

      1. I read your recent post and I confess I find the face book medium very disjointed and unhelpful. A couple of paragraphs and then a coterie of fragmented comments all over the map–and this on an extremely important and dangerous subject. Moreover, I think that a subject as significant as this needs voices that can form proper accountability for you. You will not get that on this face book format.

        The blog here, I hope is some better; I will try to pick up with where we left off (just over a day but 100 comments later) on the subject above. Let me make it clear: I am not seeking to be an alternate voice for accountability–especially on this subject. I just wish to complete the discussion we were having and feel the impress to challenge what are logical and semantic problems and feel frankly disturbed that so many of the voices expressed are preaching devotional homilies to the choir heedless of where these ideas will lead.

        In my mind, there is a problem associated with this whole approach, There may be an avenue to reassess church doctrine and seek to reconfigure and restudy it. But challenging doctrinal and confessional beliefs that are fairly precious and delicate in the eyes of many and then a subsequent facebook montage of 1700 disparate voices is not the proper place, in my view. But now back to our discussion: you may not have time to engage but if you like:

        You’re making the point: “no one is able to sustain a hyper-literal reading of all of Jesus’ individual statements about divorce.” But isn’t this a kin to saying that no one can consistently erroneously read Scripture?

        And as I see it, so far, in the examples mentioned that have come up in your and other comments, this inconsistency between hyper-literalism and non-literalism has not been found among the broad category of say moderately conservative Mennonites.
        You said that it is hyper-literal to read the clause, “Let not man put asunder” as an absolute prohibition of divorce in all cases. I agreed with that, except I would not refer to such a literalistic reading as a “face value” one (and you now acknowledge that many conservative Mennonites do not interpret it that narrowly). But then you accused the conservative view (You mentioned D. Kauffman; we will call this the DK view) while reading the phrase “and marry another” along with the exception clause in Matt 19: 9 of not taking it in its “most literal, face value reading” which presumably would permit remarriage in cases of “porneia.” But you are admitting he is not being hyper-literal there either (in your view “most literal” and “face value” are synonymous with hyper-literal, right?). Perhaps, then, we could congratulate the proponent of the DK view for not being hyper-literal in either phrase, neither in 19:6 “let not man put asunder; nor in 19:9: “. . . and shall marry another, committeth adultery.”
        How then is the DK view–that divorce may be permissible in certain limited circumstances along with the prohibition of remarriage (the idea that the remarriage clause is not meant to apply to the exception clause) not a valid interpretation. My question at this point is not about the “right” interpretation; nor is it about the semantics of the words often tr. “divorce” (apoluo, aphiemi )—do these terms by their definition include the right to remarry (though, judging by the many comments, that certainly needs more discussion—many posts on the blog presume to know for sure yet give/show no Greek semantic analysis). Rather I am asking about consistent methodology, as in literal vs figurative, progressive, pragmatic or what have you.
        Perhaps you should be satisfied here: the DK Mennonite interpretation is not hyper-literal in either clause. So, could you admit that for now the DK view—though you seem predisposed against it—is at least, so far, not inconsistent (and in that sense not invalid)?

        P.S. I am sure that I am being an annoying gnat here. I probably will not continue long; I find that much of what you say brings up huge issues that need large essays and deep exegetical analysis rather than quick little responses that are inevitably simplistic. There really is no place in a comment section for that. But I would finally urge you: Be Careful.

        1. Hi Christian. I knew when I began that some people would be unhappy I am sharing, while others have been waiting rather eagerly to hear my thoughts. That is the nature of things with this topic, unfortunately. All I can say is that I have listened to others a long time on this topic before I decided I am ready to hazard writing, that I have the blessing of my church fellowship in my writing efforts, and that I have peace before God.

          I have not yet really begun discussing the meaning of Jesus’ words on the topic. I don’t want to get derailed from that goal. I invite you to keep reading as I share my posts. Thank you for your interest.

    2. Divorce, without remarriage, is not divorce. The person is still ‘bound’ (See: Corinthians 7) rather than actually unbound or free and it is inconsistent pick-and-choose literalism. I would almost be more tolerant of a hyper-literal view than this kind of arbitrary approach that’s structured around Protestant ‘fundamentals’ of the past century or so. I mean, the only real defense for this kind of hardline position is indoctrination and not knowing any better. That and blinding idealism that becomes very cruel and unloving in practice.

      1. Yes, it was certainly universally understood in biblical times, both by Jews and Greco-Romans, that divorce always included the right to remarry. The same is also an essential fact of the definition of divorce under any legal system and in common usage today. So I agree: any true divorce permits remarriage.

        In this sense, any religious group today that permits legal divorce but insists that the divorced person is still not free to remarry is playing “Calvin ball”–making up private rules that won’t make sense to anyone outside their religious system. That doesn’t make it impossible from an ethical standpoint to give a thumbs-up to legal divorce while prohibiting remarriage, but it does mean anyone who does so better expect others to be confused by their aberrant use of the term “divorce.”

        1. A lukewarm, let’s strike a compromise that doesn’t actually make sense, stance is the worst kind. You can’t straddle the fence here. It is either divorce or it is not. A person is either bound or they are free. And, if marriage can’t be dissolved, the abuse does not create a right to abandon marital duties and obligations, there is no having this both ways.

        2. From my own research, practically all the early church considered remarriage adultery even in a case of divorce over sexual immorality. I think we need to at least consider their viewpoint. Not only were they just a few generations removed from the apostles, they were also fluent in Greek and Latin as well as familiar with Jewish customs.
          It wasn’t until the Reformation that remarriage (besides death) was considered acceptable, perhaps in reaction over the Catholics unjust view of marriage.
          Not saying I understand everything, having questions myself. It seems in debates about doctrines no clear solution is ever found that seems logical to everyone. I do think we can see the results of teachings however, and see if they produce good fruit. That is one of the greatest reasons I’m skeptical of the divorce exception that the Protestants consider logical.

          1. Hi Alan. Thank you for taking time to read and respond. (And thanks for sending the correct email; I edited it in your comment here as per your correction.)

            The record of the early church on divorce and remarriage is a challenging one to handle well. It is certainly taught by some writers today that the early church agreed virtually unanimously that remarriage was always wrong. As I’ve dug deeper into the evidence, however, I have found that there was debate and disagreement over this question in the early church. True, the majority of early writers warned against remarriage. But not all did, and some who did mentioned other church leaders at the time who disagreed with them. Some also had a general bias against all remarriage, even after the death of a spouse. Further, there is clear evidence that some parts of the church in the Middle Ages, especially in the East but also at times in the West, permitted some remarriage after divorce.

            I would love to have time to blog on this at some point. For now I’ll just drop a few links for those who are curious enough to dig deeper.

            This one focuses on Augustine, showing he was much more uncertain about prohibiting remarriage than often acknowledged, and briefly presenting evidence of others in his time and before who permitted remarriage.
            https://www.academia.edu/33471933/_Augustines_Doubts_on_Divorce_Reconsiderations_on_Remarriage_Augustinian_Studies_48_2017_161_182

            This article surveys the early church evidence broadly, revealing variety of thought:
            https://kevinpendergrass.org/early-church-fathers-marriage-and-divorce/

            This one responds directly to the summary of early church evidence that Heth and Wenham presented in their book Jesus and Divorce, a summary that is often cited by those arguing against all remarriage. This article challenges their reading of the evidence:
            https://bible.org/seriespage/18-divorce-teachings-early-church

            This one is by an Orthodox scholar, presenting an Eastern perspective on church history that is often poorly understood by modern Protestant writers:
            https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/divorce-annulment-communion

            At minimum, we must stop using the term “the Erasmium view” to describe the view that allows remarriage after divorce. That idea and practice was already more than 1000 years old in parts of the church before Erasmus lived.

            Thanks again for reading and engaging. Hopefully we can continue learning together.

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