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

Greetings, friends! After months of silence, I have finally prepared some blog posts for you. I hope you will find these thought-provoking and helpful, as their preparation has been for me.

My Study on Divorce in Anabaptist History

A major focus of my blogging in the past couple years has been on Anabaptist understandings of Jesus’ exception clause about divorce and remarriage in cases of sexual immorality (Matt. 19:9; cf. 5:32). The historical evidence (see here and here) clearly shows that early Anabaptists agreed Jesus’ exception permits both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. While their interpretations of the Bible’s divorce teachings were simplistic at points (and some also had erratic practices), I was impressed by their trust in the apparent clarity of Jesus’ teaching.

My historical study also convinced me that when American Mennonites officially abandoned this early Anabaptist belief and practice (in the late 1800s to early 1900s), they did so for social and pragmatic reasons more than because of any fresh or deeper study of Scripture. It appears they were primarily motivated by the widespread social concern about the “divorce evil” in America at the time, a concern that engaged churches of all denominations—and also political leaders, all the way up to the president. (Can you imagine a president today addressing Congress and warning that because “the divorce laws are dangerously lax” there is “a diminishing regard for the sanctity of the marriage relation”?)[1]

Yes, Mennonites did develop new ways of explaining the Bible’s teachings on divorce. (They also suddenly began complaining about how confusing Jesus’ exception clauses are.) But it appears that their stricter position on divorce was adopted before their new biblical interpretations were comprehensively developed or published. In other words, doctrinal conclusions probably controlled the exegesis more than the other way around.

That history really deserves a book-length treatment. Maybe someday?

(In many ways this history reminds me of what is happening today as Christians react to broader cultural concerns, such as that over racial conflict. Christians of varied camps typically begin with their conclusions, often influenced by non-Christian sources, and then develop biblical paradigms for defending those conclusions. In neither case—divorce then or racial conflict now—do many Christians have the liberty of starting without bias from Scriptural evidence to form well-balanced doctrine. Back to my topic…)

My Study on Divorce in the Bible:
Starting with Paul

Meanwhile, my historical study had another effect: It stirred and freed me to take a fresh look at the biblical evidence for myself. What does the Bible actually teach about divorce and remarriage? This, too, deserves a book—especially for fellow Anabaptists who, like me, share a church history that includes (1) sharply contradictory teachings from our most important historical leaders and documents and (2) a tendency to prioritize divorce teachings as a boundary-marking doctrine.

Are divorce and remarriage always forbidden? Is separation sometimes okay, but never divorce? Is divorce sometimes okay, but never remarriage? Is remarriage okay only in cases of sexual immorality (based on Jesus’ exception)? Is remarriage also possible in cases of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (based on Paul’s teachings)? Are there other similar legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage? Questions abound not only among biblical scholars but also—often unspoken, sometimes fiercely debated—among conservative Anabaptists.

Where, then, is the best place to begin a biblical study on divorce and remarriage? There are strong opinions about this! Some insist we begin with what Genesis 2 says about marriage. Others argue we should begin with the “clearest” of Jesus’ statements—defined as the ones with the least data, the ones with no mention of exceptions. A very good case can be made for beginning with Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel that was the teaching manual of the early church—which includes Jesus’ exceptions. An equally strong case can be made for starting with Paul’s writings, which may have preceded the writing of the Gospels and which provide apostolic interpretation of Jesus’ words.

I’ve concluded there are pros and cons to any starting point. What matters most is that one considers all the relevant biblical material well.

My study first centered on Jesus’ words, and I gradually started gaining more light there. Then early this year I dove deep into Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, especially his statement in verse 15: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (ESV). Does “not enslaved” mean free to remarry?

I carefully crafted a long series of blog posts (about 40 pages) digging into this question. I learned a lot from some of the best scholars and dug further into a few sub-questions on my own.  I gained confidence about what Paul meant, confidence that remains with me today. Then I shared my conclusions with over fifteen respected friends and acquaintances, intentionally choosing some likely to agree and some likely to disagree.

Their response reinforced several things to me. First, this is a topic with entrenched opinions and social consequences, and people are slow to change their minds. Second, most people lack either interest or ability to dig into a highly technical discussion on the topic, no matter how clearly I try to write. And third, most Anabaptists will have a hard time listening well if one starts with Paul rather than Jesus, even if one presents biblical reasons for doing so.

My Study on Divorce in the Bible:
Jesus and Expectations about Simplicity

These observations made me hit pause on my plans to share my posts online starting in April. As I regrouped, I decided the best thing to do might be to start over, beginning this time with Jesus and aiming, if I can, to write a little more simply.

Simplicity, of course, has its own dangers. Readers from conservative backgrounds often have many valid concerns and questions about divorce and remarriage that are not sufficiently addressed by most writers. Many authors leap to conclusions too quickly, leaving cautious readers behind. On the other hand, many conservative Anabaptists are highly skeptical of anyone who uses a lot of words to argue their point. Anything that hard to prove probably isn’t true, right? Isn’t the Bible clear? Isn’t Satan the author of confusion?

This is a catch-22 situation of the worst sort and honestly can be quite discouraging for someone who is sincerely searching and teaching the Scriptures. I’m trying to come to peace with the fact that there is no way to please everyone, and I won’t try to do so in this series. (I also need to give up the goal of fully pleasing myself, a hurdle equally unattainable and equally able to keep me from sharing my words.)

So, here goes: I’ll start sharing my thoughts, imperfect as they are, and see what sort of a “series” we end up with.

In an ideal world, a short explanation about divorce and remarriage would be all we would need. Nearly twenty centuries of contradictory interpretations have spread layers of paint and grime over the Bible’s words, however, hiding its original artwork from clear view. Our job, then, is to be art restorers, patiently removing misinterpretations and misunderstandings while leaving the original undamaged. To do this well, we need to leave our preferences behind and invite the Spirit to enlighten the eyes of our hearts, even if this means seeing some things differently than we have before.

As I revisit Jesus’ words, I mean no disrespect to those Mennonite church leaders of a century or so ago, who adopted and articulated the strict no-divorce position that many of us inherited. Nor do I mean any disrespect to those of you who share the same view today. Rather, I ask for myself the freedom to evaluate inherited teachings by Scripture—the same freedom that was exercised both by the first Anabaptists and by those Mennonite leaders who adopted the more recent teachings we inherited.

I extend this freedom to you, too. Every generation is entrusted with this freedom and responsibility, which should be carried out humbly—under God’s word, submitted to the Spirit, and with an ear to fellow saints past and present.

Why Am I Writing?

Why, then, am I writing about divorce and remarriage? Three quick clarifications:

  • No, thank God, I am not digging into this topic because of any difficulties either in my own marriage or of anyone close to me.
  • No, I am not writing because I am a flaming liberal who is intent on deconstructing the clear teachings of Scripture. (For the record, I still fully affirm what I wrote in my series on Jesus and homosexuality, where I reached a decidedly orthodox and counter-cultural conclusion.)
  • And yes, one reason for this study is simply that I enjoy puzzling over tough questions of biblical interpretation. This certainly qualifies. I’ve had unanswered questions about divorce for years. (See here for a bit of my story.)

More importantly, though, this is a topic with real-life implications, with people who urgently need what Paul called “sound doctrine”—teaching that is both true and healthy. If I can help even a few people hear Jesus better and experience his life more fully, I will have achieved my main goal.

I realize I may have raised a lot of questions in your mind with this opening post—questions about me, about your own beliefs, or about what the Bible says. I still have questions, too, and have no desire to pose as an expert who can answer all divorce and remarriage questions.

You are welcome to share your questions and insights in the comments below. I look forward to learning from you and probably even hearing good reasons to revisit a few of my conclusions.

Do comment, but please be patient about jumping to conclusions or demanding answers. First we must engage the task of carefully reading Jesus’ words. God is faithful, and by his Spirit he will guide us together into as much understanding as we need to please him.

I plan to share a blog post at least once a week, at least for the next six weeks or so. The next two posts will also be introductory, then we’ll start walking slowly through Matthew 19. Please be patient if it takes me a while to get to your favorite Bible verses. 🙂

Thank you for reading, and welcome back!

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

[1] These are the words of Theodore Roosevelt, spoken to Congress on January 30, 1905. Evans Holbrook, “Divorce Laws and the Increase of Divorce,” Michigan Law Review 8, no. 5 (1910): p. 387, accessed 6/15/2022, The “divorce evil” was mentioned frequently in Mennonite periodicals that year, as they tracked the comments and decisions of public figures and church denominations. On November 18 of the same year the Mennonite Church officially adopted the position “That a person holding a divorce obtained for the sake of re-marriage, or being married a second time, and continuing to live with a second companion while the first companion is living should not be received into the church.”

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18 thoughts on “Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)”

  1. I’m grateful that you are continuing on with this topic. I was afraid the dry spell meant that you were laying it aside. I will pray for Spirit direction & wisdom for you, not only as you continue to study but also as you wrestle with how to share your thoughts with your audience. Yours is a valuable voice and I appreciate the thoughtful and gracious manner in which you present your studies and in following up with the corresponding comments/questions. Thank you.

  2. So excited for this! Currently experiencing the divorce of my parents who were/are at the very least, professing believers. Adultery was certainly a factor, although there was a lot more hurt involved as well, and I’m not sure I would attribute adultery as the sole/primary reason for their divorce. I presume this will lead to remarriage in the future for them both.

    I’m certainly curious to learn about your research, study, and exegetical work, especially from a more Conservative Mennonite perspective theologically. I come from more Augustinian/Calvinistic, Bapti-costalism (yes, that is the best way to describe it! Certainly a mix, but quite Conservative as well). Nonetheless, I’m very intrigued! May the Lord use this for His glory! 🙂

    1. Oh, I’m sorry, Brianna, about your parents. Peace to you as you experience what this means for you as a daughter.

      What you said about them being “at the very least, professing believers” is what makes this situation even more tragic and complicated. Can you really imagine Paul thinking that a true believer would ever commit adultery? And yes, such “big” sins are almost always preceded by “lesser” ones, so that sorting causes gets complicated.

      Am I a Conservative Mennonite? 🙂 To some Mennonites, Yes, definitely, and to others, Certainly not! But that is indeed the heritage that shaped me from my youngest days, and I still affirm much of what I learned in that stream. I’m probably just about as mixed as you, though–with the exception that Calvinism is a mixed bag for me.

      Amen to your last sentence!

  3. Thanks for working on this. Looking forward to reflecting the questions. Only thing is, it’d be nice if they would all drop at once =).

    1. Yeah, I’m not sure what the best way is to pace things. If I hold to once a week, though, it gives me more time to finish up ones that should land in 6 to 10 weeks. Thanks for your interest.

  4. We have a son that his wife was unfaithful and left him. She later divorced him. He was single for a number of years. But he meet a single lady and they ended up getting married.
    I’m from an anabaptist background so I have a lot of questions.

    1. I am sorry to hear about your son’s situation. Thanks for letting me know of how this topic personally involves you.

      …And your last sentence just about sums things up for a lot of us, right?

  5. Thank you for tackling a subject that most in our circles have very strong opinions on. As an anabaptist who is also divorced I look forward to reading this series.

  6. Well written, Dwight. I have no need for more personal ‘liberty’, and even just the weight of God’s statements in Malachi 2 should give us enough pause to stop and think hard about our intent with a possibly changing stance. That said…there are some very definite obscurities to our current position in this area, and I’m looking forward to more of your processing. Thanks for the effort.

  7. Thank you for your clear reading and interpretation of the Bible on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. I have been married to my second husband for 30 years. I grew up in the church, divorced — we both had “grounds”, — and I remarried a short time later, my first husband remarried 10 years later. A family member is now telling me 30 years later that I should divorce my second husband because my remarriage was a sin and I am continuing in sin, a perpetual adulterer in that my second marriage was adultery. I did leave the church after my divorce but I came back after 15 years, repented of my sin surrounding my previous marriage and divorce, made amends to my former husband and children as possible and am now living in faithful obedience in this marriage. I beleive that if I leave this marriage, I would be sinning. My family member is not providing a basis for her telling me to divorce. I can only guess she believes my first marriage was indissoluble and my second marriage didn’t exist. This is very complicated. I have not seen anything yet in your writings to suggest that someone who is remarried should divorce their subsequent spouse. Do you have anything to point to that issue? I haven’t seen anything in the Bible that says that should be the case or am I missing something?

    1. Dear May,

      Thank you for this comment and question. While I hesitate to give personal marriage counsel in this format, I am happy to give a general response based on what you have shared here. First, peace to you as you ponder such a complicated and personal question. Ultimately, you will give account to God and not to your family member on this matter, but that only makes the question more serious.

      Yes, I agree that most people who argue that all second marriages should be broken up (as long as a first marriage partner remains alive) do so based on the beliefs that (a) it is impossible for any authentic marriage to be ended by anything besides death and (b) any marriage that begins as an act of adultery results in an ongoing “state of adultery” as long as that marriage (or “marriage,” in that view) continues.

      In short, I am not convinced by the biblical arguments made for either belief. My series on Jesus and divorce is incomplete at this point, but you’ve probably seen that one of my main concerns has been to argue against the idea that marriage cannot be dissolved by anything besides death. Clearly, it should not be, but I believe it can be. In particular, I believe the Bible indicates that adultery is such a serious sin against a marriage that the one who commits adultery has no grounds to assume or demand that the marriage continues. Rather, the normal biblical picture is that adultery ends a marriage. In your case, the fact that both you and your former husband have since become sexually involved (and married) to other partners means that neither of you have grounds to expect the other to be bound to that (former) marriage.

      As for whether a marriage begun as adultery produces an ongoing state of adultery, I am not convinced by the biblical arguments for that, either. I agree that to begin a wrongful second marriage (leaving one’s spouse without due grounds and marrying another) is an act of adultery, so that it is right to call a person who does this an “adulterer/adulteress” (“if while her husband is alive she gives herself to another man, she will be called an adulteress”; Rom. 7:3 NASB). I also believe that as long as there is no true repentance for such an act, that the guilt of adultery remains. But it appears to me that the Scriptures nonetheless treat such a second marriage as a true marriage, though wrongfully begun. Is it possible that in some cases such a marriage should be ended, if an adulterer immediately repents of their wrongful marriage, and if the first spouse is forgiving and wants them back? Perhaps, though in such a situation the repentant spouse is going to be breaking a vow made with one or the other of their marriage partners; it is not the case that there is one “true” marriage and one “imaginary” one. And in a case such as yours, where both you and your former husband have since remarried, trying to restore your first marriage (which would require re-marriage; you are not currently married) would mean breaking more vows than would be kept.

      (It may be worth pondering more what it means to call someone an “adulterer,” by comparing this title with other titles like “murderer” or a “thief.” In all three examples, someone earns their title by committing a one-time sinful act. So, if it is right to call a person a “murderer” or “thief” or “adulterer,” does that mean they are guilty of continually murdering, thieving, or committing adultery? No, that’s not what those titles imply–including in that Romans 7 passage I quoted above. Just because someone has rightfully been called an adulterer does not mean they are necessarily currently guilty of ongoing adultery. There are also differences between these three titles. It is impossible for a murderer to undo their sin; they cannot bring a dead person back to life. A thief, on the other hand, may be able to restore the stolen possessions, perhaps even restoring four-fold, like Zacchaeus. What about an adulterer? What they have destroyed is unseen–the sacred trust in their marriage. There is no way for them to simply bring it back to life or restore it. In fact, such a restoration requires two people, and their first partner may not even want to attempt it.)

      Some people make a different argument about a “state of adultery” based on Jesus’ teachings. Jesus says that the one who divorces and remarries “commits adultery.” In the Greek (similar to the English), this verb is in the present tense. Some argue that this Greek present tense indicates an ongoing action (continuing in the present) rather than a one-time event. But my study of Greek grammar does not support this. It is more accurate to say that a Greek present tense views an action from “inside,” as it unfolds, without indicating anything about how long that action lasts or whether it currently continues. Further, in each of Jesus’ statements where he says someone “commits adultery,” that verb “commits adultery” is tied grammatically to verbs that refer to specific one-time events: divorcing and marrying. Without going too deep into Greek grammar, the structure of the clauses indicates that “commits adultery” refers to the same time/event as “divorces” and “marries.” Thus, I don’t think the Greek tenses of Jesus’ verbs indicate an ongoing “state of committing adultery” any more than they indicate an ongoing “state of committing divorce” or an ongoing “state of getting married.” Rather, all three verbs refer to isolated, one-time events.

      Finally, divorce and remarriage happened frequently both among Jews and Gentiles in New Testament times, so that there were certainly divorced and remarried people among those who came to faith in Christ. Yet, though both Jesus and Paul spoke strongly against wrongful divorce and remarriage, neither said anything about wrongfully remarried people needing to separate.

      For reasons such as these, I do not think the Bible teaches that remarried people should divorce. That is my best understanding as I’ve pondered this question. Again, peace to you, May, as you seek to be faithful to God and to your husband.

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