Is Marriage Indissoluble? A Look at Two Passages from “Rabbi” Paul

What do we mean when we say that marriage is indissoluble? More importantly, is this an accurate way to express the biblical witness about marriage? I will not answer that second question in this post (does that make my title clickbait?), but I do want to examine two passages from Paul that appear to answer it very clearly.

When people assert that marriage is indissoluble, they generally mean that nothing except death can end a marriage union. Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 are two passages cited most often as evidence for this assertion.

These parallel passages certainly do offer vital biblical evidence that must shape our understandings about divorce and remarriage. I have come to believe, however, that sometimes our thinking and speaking about these passages is not as careful as it should be. In our haste to cite these passages as being “clear,” we may not read them with the diligence that the Scriptures deserve.

Let me start by suggesting that neither passage quite says that only death can end a marriage union. Neither passage says that there is a “marriage bond” that holds every marriage together till death, or that the one-flesh marriage union is a sort of glue that cannot be broken by man. Rather, both passages say something slightly but significantly different. Here is the shorter passage:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 7:39-40)

What does “bound” mean? What sort of reality is implied by words such as “bound” and “free”? If we had only this passage and not the near parallel in Romans 7, we might be able to conclude that the passage is talking about some “marriage bond” or one-flesh union that is indissoluble—some mysterious ontological oneness that is impossible to separate.

But the language of “bound” and “free” is a hint that these passages are talking about different realities. The longer passage makes this clearer:

Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Rom. 7:1-3)

How is a married woman bound to her husband? “By law,” Paul says. To understand these passages well, we must remember that we are dealing not with metaphysical realities but with legal codes—with law.

By what means does law bind someone? Here it is instructive to look at how δέω, the Greek word translated “bound” in both Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, is used elsewhere in the New Testament. Here are a few typical examples: A colt was “bound” most likely with a rope (Matt. 21:2), Peter was “bound” with two chains (Acts 12:6), a woman was “bound” by Satan with sickness (Luke 13:16), and Paul declared that the word of God was not “bound” or prevented by persecution from spreading (2 Tim. 2:9). A wife, however, is not supposed to be bound to a man by a rope, a chain, sickness, or political oppression.

The closest NT parallel to how δέω is used in our two passages is probably found in Jesus’ words in both Matthew 16 and 18:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19, emphasis added; cf. Matt. 18:18)

In these passages, “bind” and “loose” are terms “used in rabbinic literature for declaring what is and is not permitted.”1 The way the law binds someone, then, is by declaring what is and is not permitted.

The words for “bind” and “loose” in these Matthew passages are the same words that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 7:27: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” He then repeats the same word “bound” a couple paragraphs later in one of our key passages: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.” (1 Cor. 7:39).

Paul, bound, teaching in Rome. Is this the way a wife is “bound” to her husband? (Image from Sweet Publishing /

Paul, trained under the Rabbi Gamaliel, is using the language of rabbis.2 He is not declaring a spiritual or scientific law that describes an unchangeable reality. Rather, he is “declaring what is and is not permitted” under the law, probably referring to the law of Moses.3 Legal rulings are not made against things that are impossible to do. To the contrary, any law, even a divine one, can be broken.

The law typically describes what could but shouldn’t happen and then says what will happen or should happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. (Read that fast three times in a row!) It is important not to confuse these different dynamics.

The language of “binding” in 1 Corinthians 7 and Romans 7 indicates, first of all, that something could but shouldn’t happen. Paul says that the law does not permit a wife to leave her husband while he is alive. The fact that this law was necessary implies that it is indeed possible for a husband or wife to separate from their spouse. It is possible for them to violate the law that binds them together.

This does not mean, of course, that as soon as a law is broken it has no say over the person who broke it. The Romans passage says one thing that certainly will happen if what shouldn’t happen does happen. Paul says that if a woman breaks the law that binds her to her husband, then “she is called an adulteress” (Rom. 7:3). Who calls her an adulteress? Paul does not explicitly say, but the implication is that it is the law, first of all, who calls such a woman an adulteress. Since her husband is still alive, the law’s requirement that she be faithful to him is still binding on her. This law, still in effect even though broken, labels her an adulteress. This will happen. Humans are free to disregard the law binding husband and wife, but they will also suffer the legal consequences if they do so.

What about the phrase “as long as he is alive” (Rom. 7:2; cf. 1 Cor. 7:39)? This phrase does not address the question of whether or not it is possible for humans to end a marriage. Rather, it describes how long “the law is binding on a person” who is married (Rom. 7:1). At any point before death, a married person can break the law that binds them to their spouse, violating the union that was supposed to last until death. At that point, the law says what will happen: They will stand guilty of adultery.

How should a person guilty of adultery be held accountable? What does the law say should happen next? In neither passage does Paul answer this question. Neither passage says what should be done if a marriage is broken prematurely by sexual unfaithfulness.

We know from Leviticus—“for I,” like Paul, “am speaking to those who know the law” (Rom. 7:1)—that the law of Moses did not simply say, “It is impossible for a woman to separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “A woman must not separate from her husband.” Nor did it simply say, “If a woman unites with a man besides her husband she will be called an adulteress.” No, the law had more to say than what Paul records in either of our passages.

This is what the law of Moses originally taught about adultery: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). Under this law, what should happen after adultery was death, which ended the marriage union and left the violated marriage partner alive and free to remarry. In addition, as Moo reminds us, this same law of Moses also recognized situations when a husband was permitted to divorce his wife and remarry:

Any body of law that Paul may be citing—Roman or OT (cf. Deut. 25:1-4 [sic; should be Deut. 24:1-4])—allows for remarriage on grounds other than the death of the spouse. His readers, who “know the law” (v. 1), would certainly recognize this possibility without it in any way spoiling the effectiveness of Paul’s analogy.4

It is probably significant that in both of these passages Paul refers to how a wife is bound to her husband until he dies. Under the law of Moses (unlike Roman law), a wife, unlike her husband, had no right to initiate divorce. For a husband, his marriage could end not only through the natural death of his wife but also in at least two other ways: 1) his wife could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) he could divorce his wife if he “found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1). In this sense, under the law of Moses a woman was “bound to her husband as long as he lives” in a way that her husband was not bound to her.

Yet, even for the woman, the law of Moses recognized at least two ways that her marriage could end apart from the natural death of her husband: 1) her husband could commit adultery and die by capital punishment, or 2) her husband could divorce her for some offense less than adultery (Deut. 24:1), leaving her free to remarry. The latter scenario, at least, is an exception to Paul’s statement about what the law required for a wife.

Is Paul misrepresenting the law? It is better, I suggest, to conclude that Paul accurately summarizes what the law under normal circumstances required of a wife, without meaning to deny any exceptions implied by specific case laws dealing with special circumstances.5

For Jews in Jesus’ day, legal divorce had largely replaced the death penalty in cases of adultery. It was understood that it was divorce that should happen next after adultery.6 It was also understood that divorce ended the marriage, so that the woman no longer had a husband and the man no longer had a wife. Therefore, in such a situation, the law cited by Paul that bound a wife to her husband was understood to no longer apply, for she was no longer “a wife” (1 Cor. 7:39) or “married woman” (Rom. 7:2). Rather—as had been the case under the Law of Moses after the death penalty—the wronged marriage partner was free to legally remarry.

(There was a severe gender inequity in how this was applied. Men generally were not liable to be charged with adultery, since polygamy was still legal under Jewish law. Thus, it was women who were divorced when suspected of adultery, but men were not. After a divorce adulteresses, like their former husbands, were free to remarry. But there was a stigma in marrying an adulteress and, as a reasonable precaution, adulteresses were not permitted to marry their lovers.7)

Christians today, even more truly than the Jews of Jesus’ day, are no longer bound by law to carry out capital punishment for adultery. We are under Christ’s new covenant. Jesus warned that the provision for divorce found in Deuteronomy 24 was given because of the “hardness of heart” of God’s people (Matt. 19:8), so it is unlikely that he thought this exception still applies under the new covenant—certainly not in the broad way that it was interpreted by many in Jesus’ day.8 But, leaving that question aside, we still have the other “unnatural” way that a woman could find herself released from the law that bound her to her husband: By her husband committing adultery.

What should happen next after a husband or wife commits adultery in our time? Again, neither of the passages we are discussing here answers our question.

In Corinthians 7:39-40 Paul had no reason to answer our question because the main reason that he cites this law about marriage, apparently, is to show that it is lawful for widows to remarry. Since he is discussing widows, the question of adultery is irrelevant. In Romans 7:1-3 Paul had no reason to answer our question because he is introducing the law of marriage primarily to make a similar point, one relevant to his theological argument: just as death ends a marriage and frees one to remarry, so Christians have died to the law so that they can be married to Christ. Again, his focus is on the fact that the law is not binding on a married couple after one of them dies. He is not concerned to detail exactly how the law was binding on a husband or wife whose marriage had been damaged by adultery. He does mention an adulterous wife in passing here (the language may imply she had remarried), but he says nothing about what should happen next.

What should happen to the adulteress? What should the wronged husband do? What were either of them permitted or required to do? Again, neither passage answers such questions.

If you are waiting for me to answer those questions in this post, I will (once again) leave you disappointed. Those are crucial questions, but my purpose here is different. My goal is to invite us think more diligently about these two passages, for they are often cited as being among the most “clear” New Testament passages on divorce and remarriage. I agree that these passages are indeed very clear on what should not happen. But I am proposing here that they say little about what should happen if the law that binds wife and husband together has been violated.

If I were to paraphrase the main point of what Paul is saying in both Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39, it might look like this:

The law requires that a woman remain faithful to her husband as long as he lives; after that, she is allowed to remarry any Christian man she wishes. If she unites with another man while her husband is still alive, the law declares that she is an adulterer, but it doesn’t say that about a woman who remarries after her husband is dead.

I have often heard that these two passages from Paul are “clearer” than the exception clauses of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 regarding the topics of divorce and remarriage. For the reasons described above, I am not sure this is so.

Specifically, I don’t think these passages are clearer than Jesus’ sayings are regarding the question of whether divorce is permitted in the case of adultery. Unlike Jesus’ exception clauses, these passages from Paul don’t even mention the topic of divorce. (Read them again if that statement surprises you.)

Since they don’t even mention divorce, how can they be clearer than Jesus’ sayings on the topic? How can we use them to cancel out his words?

Before I close, however, let me underscore two things that are indeed clear in both these Pauline passages.

First, God’s intent is that our marriages last for life. This was clear in the law of Moses not only from its prescriptive laws, but also from the creation account that Moses recorded. This is also a consistent message from Christ and the witness of the NT.

Second, God still holds humans accountable today when marriages end before death. Whether or not marriage itself is truly indissoluble (“incapable of being undone”9) may be a question that these specific passages do not answer. But there is no question that married people are bound together by a divine law that is indissoluble (“perpetually binding or obligatory”10). Almost every marriage that ends before death does so because one of the spouses has sinned by breaking God’s law11, and anyone who breaks God’s law should fear being held accountable by him.

Now may that same good God, the God who redeems law-breakers, teach us from the whole biblical witness—not just a couple of the “clearest” passages—how to respond faithfully when unfaithfulness is found in our marriages.

It is a weighty thing to teach on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The cost of broken marriages has been tremendous and is growing.  Many people are confused and looking for true and loving counsel. Sincere Christians have long disagreed on minor and major points of interpretation and practice. My own understanding is still incomplete. For these latter reasons, this topic is even more difficult for me to handle than the series on homosexuality I shared last fall, where my biggest challenge was to present my understandings courageously, compassionately, and clearly.

On the other hand, it is a blessing to be able to ponder this topic at a time when I have no burning personal need to do so, besides a long-standing desire for better understanding of God’s word and will. It is a joy to know he is able to give us whatever understanding we need!

I have been intentionally seeking resources from a variety of perspectives so that my preferences and assumptions have a chance to be tested. My personal preference is usually to consider “small” exegetical questions one at a time (though in context, of course), rather than trying immediately to answer the big theological or practical questions. Hence my last two posts, one on the term “one flesh” and this on two short parallel passages.

I have also been puzzling over Jesus’ use of “one flesh” in Matthew 19 and his central statement there: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). I hope to be able to share more here if God entrusts me with more understanding. If not, I won’t!

Meanwhile, you can help in two ways: 1) Pray God will guide me, both in my thinking and in knowing when to write and when to wait. 2) If you read anything here that is contrary to Scripture, please show me from Scripture where I am wrong. I am eager to be increasingly true to Christ and the Scriptures.

Also, if you have a favorite resource that you think is exceptionally helpful for understanding the biblical witness on divorce and remarriage, you are most welcome to mention it, though I cannot commit in advance to giving it the time it may deserve.

Thank you for reading, and please share your insights in the comments below!

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  1. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 626. Luz agrees: “The primary meaning is ‘forbidding’ and ‘permitting’ with a halakic decision of the rabbis, that is, the interpretation of the law.” See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, ed. H. Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 365.
  2. Gamaliel was influenced by the famous rabbi Hillel—the one who argued for “any cause” divorce as discussed in Matthew 19, as opposed by Shammai who argued for narrower grounds for divorce. McRay suggests that Paul seems to have been influenced by the Hillel point of view in how he felt free to make legal adjustments for new situations “which the law did not envision,” such as dealing with mixed marriages (1 Cor. 7:12). See John McRay, Paul: His Life and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 45.
  3. Most commentators agree that this is the law Paul is referring to, and it makes best sense to me.
  4. Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, 2nd ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 438, n. 649.
  5. Paul’s approach matches some marriage contracts from near his time. These sometimes stated that a marriage was for life, while nevertheless assuming the possibility of divorce and remarriage. Here, for example, is a translation from a Greek marriage contract from Egypt in 92 BC: “And it shall not be lawful for Philiscus to bring in any other wife but Apollonia, nor to keep a concubine or boy, nor to have children by another woman while Apollonia lives.” Notice how “while Apollonia lives” matches Paul’s language in Romans 7:2: “while he lives.” (David Instone-Brewer, “1 Corinthians 7 in the light of the Graeco-Roman Marriage and Divorce Papyri,” Tyndale Bulletin, 2001, Accessed May 28, 2020.)
  6. Roman law required this for its citizens, too; a husband who refused to divorce his adulterous wife was to be punished.
  7. David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 121-23.
  8. Jesus’ exception clause was likely an allusion to the Shammaite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. But he offered an authoritative rewording of the text that narrowed it to allow divorce only on the grounds of sexual immorality, not merely shameful behavior. The way Jesus expressed his exception suggests that he narrowed the exception originally permitted in Deuteronomy 24:1 and thereby disagreed not only with the “liberal” Hillelites but also, to a lesser degree, with the “conservative” Shammaites.
  9. Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” abridgement of first definition,
  10. Unabridged, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, s.v. “Indissoluble,” third definition,
  11. I say “almost” because some people have been tragically separated from their spouses by events such as war, with no way to know if they are still alive. By far the majority of marriages that end before death do so because one or both of the spouses have been unfaithful to their spouses.
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20 thoughts on “Is Marriage Indissoluble? A Look at Two Passages from “Rabbi” Paul”

  1. Dwight I really commend you for studying this in depth like this. I’m reading it with fascination. It’s quite easy to know how you feel in a conservative Mennonite Church where you rarely if ever have to truly deal with the issue and on rare occasions when it comes up you can just encourage the people to attend a different church so you don’t have to question your beliefs. It’s quite another when you attend a church that has a high percentage of first time believers (which I absolutely love by the way) and many of them are remarried maybe even multiple times and sometimes even after they become believers either because God had more important matters to address in their life or they haven’t learned yet how to listen to him. Now you have to figure out what you’re going to do with the messes that are created and you can’t send them to the church in town because you are that church. Plus I don’t believe Jesus is really in favor of that method of dealing with it. And I think we forget how much he loves people. So again I commend you for working through this before you are forced to and pray that God will truly reveal himself to you through this.

    1. Thank you, Nelson–for reading, commenting, and praying for me. And God bless you as you seek to faithfully serve (as Jesus would) the real-life people who are coming to your church!

  2. You KNOW that Paul was a misogynist so don’t expect much from him when it comes to women’s roles. It was also the tenor of the times. Remember the woman taken in adultery and Our Lord saving her from brutal punishment. Women were property, pure and simple. If they stepped out of line it was their funeral (sometimes literally). Even today in Orthodox Jewish communities men and women are separated in worship.

    1. Hi Madelyn! I’m honored as always that you took time to read and respond.

      You know me well enough to know that I don’t share your assessment that Paul was a misogynist. 🙂 But your comment does remind me that parts of my post could have left that impression. That was a weakness on my part. So I’ll add this: Paul, like Jesus (Luke 16:18), applied his instructions about divorce equally to both men and women. Consider these instructions from 1 Cor. 7:10-14:

      “The wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. …If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.”

      We also see this gender equality within marriage earlier in the chapter (vv. 3-4), when Paul writes this culture-shattering instruction:

      “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”

      I join you in mourning that this mutual love and respect has not been practiced by many of God’s people in ancient or present times.

      I hope you are doing well in these strange times. It would be great fun to sit down together in your house and catch up on the past 10 years of our lives!

      1. Let me know if you’re ever in this neck of the woods and we will make that dinner happen. My dog loves children and would be happy to meet yours. (The cat on the other hand is antisocial when it comes to strangers regardless of gender, religion, or race.)

        1. Indeed!

          (And I’m resisting guessing what the names of your pets are… perhaps named after composers, of course, but also perhaps, based on their personalities, named according to your impressions of two historical personages we’ve mentioned in this conversation. But I’ll resist saying what I’m thinking.)


  3. I think I similarly expanded on the most important point, that neither Jesus nor Paul are to be understood as opposing Moses. However, the Gentile Christianity from early Church Fathers into the first few centuries made exactly that mistake. Like Israel separated from Judah, not just politically, but religiously from Jerusalem, so Gentile Christians who intentionally separated from Messianic Judaism, contra Acts 15, were bound to make similar errors.

    But my explanation simplified by tying to an absolutely centrally clear understanding of “an eye for an eye.”

    1. Hello Carlton. Thanks for taking time to read and comment, and for sharing your own post. I confess I don’t agree with your argument that Jesus simply agreed with Moses on divorce in particular or on other topics more generally. My understanding regarding Jesus’ exception for divorce is that he took the narrow Shammai interpretation of the Deuteronomy exception and then made it narrower still by using the term “sexual immorality (porneia)” rather than the broader term “shameful.” Thus, while Moses and Shammai allowed divorce for anything shameful that could be equated with adultery (the Shammaites included a woman going in public with her hair disheveled or her arms bared), Jesus narrowed the exception to the sort of clearly sexual immoral behaviors mentioned in Leviticus 18 and 20.

      That said, I share your concern that some Christians have seen Jesus as leaving no exception for divorce. I don’t think that is so, based on what to most people is the obvious reading of his exception clauses. So, in that general sense, Moses and Jesus are alike in both allowing divorce, though Jesus’ grounds for divorce are narrower.

  4. Hi Dwight,

    I am wondering if you have considered the possibility that the two exception clauses in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 refer to the initial sin of FORNICATION and not ADULTERY ? I ask that because you wrote:
    “Specifically, I don’t think these passages are clearer than Jesus’ sayings are regarding the question of whether divorce is permitted in the case of adultery”

    75% of modern day Bible translations have incorrectly translated PORNEA into “Sexual immorality” or “adultery” instead of FORNICATION ! I believe a correct translation is:

    Matthew 19:9 (KJV) And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication (PORNEIA), and shall marry another, committeth adultery (MOICHEIA) and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery (MOICHEIA)

    So what is fornication and does it apply to nearly every marriage today where one spouse has been unfaithful ?

    OK …. now I’ve put an expectation on myself to be helpful by talking and TBH I am a little fearful ? of fumbling about. So if I think I am offering no value, I mean no offense if I wrap it up. I’ll call you.

    75% of English Bible Translations incorrectly replace the word fornication with terms like “sexual immorality” and then Pastors teach and people assume that means adultery which it doesn’t. This is the main verse they use to justify leaving their marriage, and they use an incorrectly translated verse which contradicts all the other teachings of Jesus and Paul on the topic – that should be a red flag to anybody trying to depend on that one mistranslated verse to justify a divorce. The true application of Matt 19:9 can be understood as applying to Jewish weddings . see here clause
    and here
    (in the section titled “But what about ‘exception clause’ in Matthew?”)

    Below are 6 scriptures showing that remarriage when a prior spouse is living causes adultery. People think God will keep forgiving you each time you have sex with your non covenant (2nd or 3rd) spouse. That is called hyper-grace or cheap-grace and perverts the grace of God into a license for immorality. Only death breaks a marriage covenant as per Rom 7:2-3, 1 Cor 7:39 (both listed below) and upheld in the traditional wedding vows.

    [Rom 7:2-3 NKJV] 2 For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to [her] husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of [her] husband. 3 So then if, while [her] husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man.
    [Mar 10:11-12 NKJV] 11 So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. 12 “And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
    [Luk 16:18 NKJV] 18 “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from [her] husband commits adultery.
    [Mat 5:32 KJV] 32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication [NOT ADULTERY], causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
    [Matthew 19:9] (KJV) “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication [NOT ADULTERY] , and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”
    [1Cor 7:39 NKJV] 39 A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

    1. Hi PJ,

      Thank you for taking time to read and respond to my post. First, yes, good people disagree on this topic and so I appreciate your humility and want to display the same.

      Your comment is long, and I only have time for a brief response. On the question of whether porneia means fornication or adultery: I have not been able to find anyone earlier than about 1700 AD who taught that Jesus’ exception refers only to pre-marital sexual sin, such as in a Jewish betrothal period. The early church clearly understood that Jesus was referring to unfaithfulness within marriage.

      On the other hand, Jesus probably did intend to include unfaithfulness during betrothal in his exception. If not, he would have been disagreeing with Joseph, who planned to “divorce” Mary after he thought she had been unfaithful. Therefore, Jesus could not use the word moicheia in his exception, or he would have been leaving Joseph condemned. Instead, he had to use the more general term porneia, which normally included all sorts of sexual sins committed by both single and married persons.

      Those are some reasons why I believe Jesus was indeed including adultery in his exception.

      Thanks again for taking time to engage. God bless!

  5. Thank you for your reply Dwight.
    Perhaps the betrothal application might be unhelpful. So I’d like to set that aside and dig deeper into the Greek text to firstly ascertain how pornea/pornei has been translated until very recently in modern translations that deviate from the view held for millennia by many (Erasmus excepted).
    I present you with two excellent papers on the topic for your perusal. They are obviously long so if you are interested I appreciate it will take time to read them. In one case a solid argument is made for fornication being the only exception, in the other case no exception is made!
    Basically this implies that any case for translating pornea to adultery (or sexual immorality) has a very limited basis.

    1. Hi again, PJ. (By the way, you are welcome to use your full name, since I have not withheld mine.)

      I am actually already familiar with both papers you have shared. I own the first one in its book form (which contains the key portions of the paper). I have examined the second one, too. I don’t find either of them convincing. To be honest, I find both of them to be textbook cases of writing that has all the outward trappings of scholarship (copious footnotes and overwhelming amounts of data) but which lacks enough good sense to know what the data actually indicates. I think there are good reasons why very few scholars have found either of these authors to be convincing.

      I don’t have time to give a more detailed response now, except that I will try to give a brief explanation of why I don’t find McFall convincing. His main argument is that Erasmus added a Greek word to Jesus’ exception clause in his edition of the Greek NT, a word not actually present in the ancient manuscripts, and that he did so to make the exception clause say “except.” I think this is a red herring. If Erasmus actually added a word (and I think he probably did), that was certainly a bad thing to do. However, the fact remains that Jesus’ exception clause had been read as an exception for centuries (since the early church) before Erasmus tried to clarify Jesus’ statement. The early church certainly did read Jesus as giving an exception for divorce in cases of adultery, even if they disagreed among themselves over whether the exception also included freedom to remarry. Therefore, McFall’s central thesis, in my view, is a castle built on a cloud; it looks very impressive at first glance, but it is quite irrelevant to the actual facts on the ground.

      I don’t mean to be harsh, but those are my honest impressions and, as I said, very few scholars have been convinced by either Jennings or McFall.

      Thanks again for your interest, and may God give us all more wisdom to understand his word. Blessings!

      1. Hi Dwight,
        Thank you for your reply and the suggestion I use my full name. On a public forum I don’t feel comfortable doing so for various reasons I would be happy to explain privately to you where I would use my full name.
        It seems you are very well versed on this topic and I apologise for not doing my homework and realising that before stepping in to make my suggestions to you.
        As you are so widely read then I suspect you are also familiar with other leaders or teachers who believe porneia should be translated to fornication in Matt 5:32 & 19:9 . For example David Pawson has a book and various talks. Also Chaplain Stephen Wilcox and the marriage ministry he has setup over the past 20+ years. My next suggestion was to discuss an aspect of Stephen’s “Restoration of Christian Marriage” paper and others he references here
        but that too is very long !
        So I copy a small section of Stephen’s paper (p37/74) here in recognition that porneia does appear to in one instance refer to incest, a form of fornication.
        “In the New Testament, fornication (root Greek word “porneia”) refers generally to illicit sex of unmarried persons outside of a marriage covenant or its spiritual counterpart. Fornication (porneia) may also be used to describe sexual sin in an overall sense that includes any and every form of sexual vice including adultery (moiceia), but if so, that occurs specifically only in 1 Cor. 5:1. That case involved a form of incest, which is not considered adultery (moiceia), but rather fornication (porneia). That is not the case in Matthew’s two accounts involving marriage, divorce and remarriage.”

        I wonder why Jesus used both porneia and moiceia in Matt 5:32 and 19:9 if instead he really meant to convey adultery instead of fornication ?

        1. Hi PJ,

          Please accept my apology for my slow response. In answer to your last question: I do not believe Jesus meant to convey adultery instead of fornication. Rather, I believe he meant to include both. I believe his exception covers both adultery and also pre-marital sexual sin, such as what Joseph believed Mary had committed (otherwise his exception would have left Joseph condemned for planning to divorce Mary). What this means is that it was not possible for Jesus to use moicheia in his exception clause. He had to use a broader term, one that included both adultery and pre-marital sexual sin. Porneia was the perfect word to do just that, for it normally referred to a broad range of sexual sins.

          It simply isn’t reasonable to insist that if Jesus meant for his exception clause to refer to adultery he should have used moicheia. Such a claim badly misunderstands both how porniea was used in Jesus’ day and how betrothal was taken so seriously that it could be ended only by “divorce.” If Jesus was going to give an exception for divorce, it had to include both betrothal and marriage contexts, and porneia was the best word to refer to sins in both contexts.

  6. The early Church interpreted “porneia” as including adultery as grounds for separating. What they did NOT see in the Gospels was the ability to remarry.

    The first and most consistantly held Tradition of Matthew 19:9 was that “porneia” was grounds for a just “putting away” of a spouse, yet without a remarriage. This is because the Father’s, Doctors, and Council’s interpreted the Scriptures all together and in the Spirit of knowing the will of Christ.

    Jesus gave one reason why Moses’ toleration of divorce was given: “out othe the hardness of their hearts”. He did not say or imply Moses’ practice of divorce was abused. He said it was permitted because of hardness of hearts.

    So the Church understands Matt. 19:9 as St Paul related in 1 Cor. 7 if a spouse does separate, then they must live single.

    1. Hi Michael. Thanks for reading and commenting! I fully agree with you on the point about “porneia” including adultery. That was indeed the universal understanding of the early church, and arguments to the contrary have only weak support either historically or exegetically.

      On the question of remarriage, the witness of the early church is more challenging to interpret than often acknowledged, it seems to me. The position most commonly found in the writings is that divorce is allowed (or required) in cases of adultery, but that remarriage is not. But some of the writings are actually not as clearly against all remarriage as often assumed, and there are some that clearly show some church leaders did approve of remarriage after adultery. In addition, there were quite a few imbalanced views on sexuality and marriage in general within the early church; would we today invite someone to teach on divorce and remarriage if we knew he forbade widows from remarrying, or if we knew he permitted husbands to physically discipline their wives? It is also not clear to what extent a prohibition on remarriage was held early on versus gradually becoming the standard position; most of the clearest prohibitions come later.

      Here are just two examples of many historical reasons why we should be slow to just say “the early church said remarriage is wrong and therefore we should, too.” 1) The earliest extra-biblical writing to discuss divorce and remarriage, the Shepherd of Hermas, says Christians married to unbelievers should divorce them. That is clearly contrary to Scripture, so why should I assume the author got it right in his apparent total prohibition of remarriage? 2) Augustine argued against all remarriage after divorce in various writings, and it was his influence perhaps more than any other that helped make that position standard within the Catholic church going forward. But near the end of his life he made several comments in his writings admitting that he was not confident about what he had taught on the subject, acknowledging that it was a matter open to interpretation.

      As for Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, in that text he is addressing Christians married to Christians; if they divorce, they should stay single or be reconciled. But he gives different instructions to Christians married to unbelievers (7:12-16), and I’m pretty certain he would consider and adulterer an unbeliever. For such reasons, few scholars believe Paul was addressing situations matching Jesus’ exception clause when he gave the instruction about not remarrying.

      You might have noticed I’ve continued to write on this subject in more recent posts. Feel free to browse them if you want to read more of my understandings. May God give us wisdom on this difficult topic, and may he help us to faithfully love our spouses!

      1. Thanks for the respectful responses to me and everyone else commenting. And most of all, thank you for not asserting an absolute stance against the Catholic Teaching. I understand you have personal conclusions that conflict some, but you seem to reserve going as far as “contempt” for our doctrine.

        If we continue writing one another, I think you will see I acknowledge alot of issues within the Church that cause a muddied environment for discerning Teaching clearly. A modern interpretation of “porneia” in Matt. 19:9 being an “unlawful union” greatly lacks historical support. Although the concept is not without reason and doesn’t violate the outcome of the Early Church Tradition. The problem is it cannot be both, and there is little to substantiate an Apostolic Tradition with the “unlawful” translation.

        Your remarriage points do not seem strong enough to overule the strong concensus in the early Church. It is likely true that remarriage happened, and even within the universal Church. We know this through Origen, who testified that the practice was against Scripture (specifically referencing Matt.19:9). So Origen clearly saw it as an abuse, which we all know happens in every generation.

        Shepherd of Hermes does have some questionable instructions, although a requirement to “divorce” on account of adultery can be argued as supported by the Gospel, since doing nothing, and continuing relations would be condoning. Divorce in the Shepherd’s view is a disciplinary measure of separation, and not a dissolution of the Bond.

        “Forbidding widows to marry” might have had Tertullian… but not a Saint or doctor, or Council. The claim from Augustine, I have not seen! I would have to read what you have read carefully!

        You have made a bold presumption with St Paul! That he considered an adulterer an unbeliever?! The Church has always Taught that believers MUST seek Baptism. And Baptism lawfully constitutes whether or not a spouse was Christian at the time of wedding. Paul condemns some who do not provide for family as “worse than unbelievers” in Timothy. Serious sins do not equal unbelief.

        I don’t believe that those scholars have much support in what you claim. Paul explicitly expresses “not I, but the Lord commands” when he relates the Gospel about divorce for believing (Baptized and willing to be married, and consummated) Christians.

        Thanks for the invite to other discussions. I will try to look up! Thanks for your “open to dialogue” approach! And I like your good words for God’s wisdom and love of spouses.

        1. Hello again, Michael. Yes, the complexity of evidence is so great on the topics of divorce and remarriage, both in the Bible and in church history, that humility and grace are essential!

          Just a couple quick responses:

          * About Shepherd of Hermas, my point was that he required divorce (or separation, if you prefer) from all unbelievers, not merely from adulterers. That was directly contrary to the apostle Paul.

          * About Augustine and his uncertainties about his own divorce teachings, here is an article well worth reading:


          1. Thanks Dwight,
            I tried to find what you were referring to in the Shepherd. Is this what you meant?

            9. “Not only,” said he, ” is it adultery if a man defile his flesh, but whosoever acts as do the heathen is also guilty of adultery, so that if anyone continue in such practices, and repent not, depart from him and do not live with him, otherwise you are also a sharer in his sin.
            10. For this reason it was enjoined on you to live by yourselves, whether husband or wife, for in such cases repentance is possible.”

            If so, this may not be equal to “unbelief”, but rather practicing idolatry.

            I have read some of St Augustine’s commentary on his own investigations and Teachings about divorce and remarriage. I believe he recognized the complexity of the issue very well. He did not “retract” anything he had taught, but expressed humility concerning the necessity of others to bring to the table their wisdom. He lived in a formative time of the ECFs, and the Church had areas of growth to receive Teachings of Bishops and address them with authority. Yet, he had produced the largest body of work on the subject to his time. The Church always has a twofold mission; she must profess and uphold the deposit of faith, while implementing practices to particular generations and cultures which inevitably oppose Christ in various ways, which do not violate God’s laws.

            1. Yes, Michael, I believe that is the relevant passage from Shepherd of Hermas. Fr. Theodore Mackin, S.J., in his book Divorce and Remarriage, the second volume in his series Marriage in the Catholic Church (Paulist Press), gives this summary of the relevant passage:

              The angel then complicates the matter further by instructing Hermas about a Christian spouse’s obligation in case of a metaphorical kind of “adultery”: What if a Christian spouse lapses into the adultery of paganism? The answer is that here too if he or she refuses to repent, dismissal is obligatory lest the religiously faithful spouse participate in the apostate’s sin.

              I can see where the author of S of H could reach this conclusion based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 5:11: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”

              But I doubt strongly that such a separation was meant to include dismissing one’s own spouse from one’s home and marriage. The passage above was directed to the church community at large, but later Paul directly addresses how Christian spouses should relate to their own unbelieving spouses: “If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.” (1 Cor. 7:12-14)

              It is possible, I suppose, that Paul envisioned separation from formerly believing spouses that lapsed into paganism (particularly if they still claimed to be believers), while also urging Christians to remain united to spouses who had never become Christians. But such a simple explanation is challenged by what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:39 about only marrying “in the Lord,” and also by what he wrote in his next letter to Corinth (2 Cor. 6:14-15): “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?” Those passages forbid marriage to a unbeliever; yet Paul in 1 Cor. 7:12-13 still urges remaining married to an unbeliever, if the marriage is already a fact.

              It seems to me that the best way to synthesize these teachings is to say an apostate (re-paganized) spouse should be excluded from the communion of the church, but not from the union of marriage. (Contrary to S of H.) This also fits well with the instructions given by the apostle Peter: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” (1 Pet. 3:1-2) Here husbands that “do not obey the word” could include both those who have never believed and those who have lapsed into unbelief.

              Anyway, my main point here is that the writings of the church fathers are a mixed bag when it comes to marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Some things line up well with possible interpretations of Scripture, others are unlikely (S of H an example), and others directly contrary.

              Peace to you.

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