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

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage. In this series I am studying Jesus’ words with one question foremost: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble—that nothing besides death can truly end a marriage? Here are the posts in this series so far:

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

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

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

Summary of this post: In this post I will argue that “one flesh” in Matthew 19:5-6 does not indicate that marriage is a bond that can be broken only by death. Paul’s use of this term in 1 Corinthians 6:16 to refer to union with a prostitute shows that a one-flesh relationship is not necessarily permanent. In fact, one-flesh oneness can occur both in unions which should never be broken (Eph. 5:31) and in unions which must be broken, no matter how entangling (1 Cor. 6:16). One-flesh language in Paul and elsewhere should be understood to emphasize the unavoidable depth of a sexual union, not its unavoidable duration.

Introduction and Assertions that One Flesh Indicates Permanence

When Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ challenge about divorce, he quoted Genesis 2:24 as a foundational text about God’s design for marriage:

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

Immediately after quoting this text, Jesus emphasized its final clause: “So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Matt. 19:6). One flesh is a term that raises a lot of questions and varied interpretations. I discussed the term in a general sense in a past blog post,[1] but here I’ll focus on one question: Does one flesh imply permanence?

Some Bible teachers argue that a one-flesh union is inseparable. In addition, some argue that a one-flesh union is possible only in a person’s first marriage; only in a validly-contracted marriage does God join a couple together into a permanent, one-flesh union. The hugely-influential Mennonite book Doctrines of the Bible (1928), edited by Daniel Kauffman, put it like this:

The fact is that when two are married they are “one flesh” as long as both live, and during this time neither can become “one flesh” with some one else. To assume to do so makes both adulterers…[2]

In this thinking, one flesh virtually means one person, so separation is truly impossible.[3] Some have even compared a one-flesh marriage to scrambled eggs, asserting that a true one-flesh marriage can’t be unscrambled.

Andrew Cornes is one scholar who seems to think that one flesh indicates an unbreakable bond. He emphasized that “become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) does not describe a “process” but an “accomplished fact”:

The first thing to emphasize is that the expression is passive… It is not something which a couple can or should do; it is something which happens to them… The consummation of their marriage is part of what causes this to happen, and obviously they can choose to consummate their marriage or refrain from doing so. Nevertheless it is not they who make themselves one flesh… St Paul does indeed say that sexual intercourse is (at least to some extent) the catalyst which brings about this change into one flesh. But the change itself—the “being one flesh”—is certainly broader than that. It is not that husband and wife are one flesh when they are sexually united and cease to be one flesh when their bodies are apart. In marriage they become, permanently, one flesh.[4]

I agree, at least in part, with most of what Cornes said here. It may indeed be true that the Hebrew grammar of Genesis 2:24 implies that God is the ultimate active agent in uniting man and woman as one flesh.[5] It may also be true that the verse depicts becoming one flesh as an accomplished fact, not a process. Neither of these points, however, proves Cornes’ assertion that a married couple are “permanently” one flesh.

Joseph Webb argued even more strongly for both God’s agency and the permanence of all one-flesh relationships:

Only God can create a “one flesh” relationship between two persons. Know further that this “one flesh” condition is created through the making of a vow, and is called covenant for life; which can only be broken by the physical death of one of the partners… Sex relations do not establish the “one flesh” relationship.[6]

Gordon Wenham was equally strong in his assertions:

The Creator himself had created man in two sexes so that when they meet, they become one flesh, that is, as closely related to each other as brother and sister or parent and child. These are relationships that cannot be undone. By this appeal to Genesis, Jesus transposed the debate to a different key. Divorce was not possible under certain circumstances defined by some rabbi; it was impossible because it clashed with the Creator’s intentions in creating marriage. Genesis makes traditional divorce impossible. The divorced couple, though separated from each other, are still related to each other in the one-flesh union.[7]

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Paul’s Use of One Flesh in 1 Corinthians 6

The most obvious biblical challenge to these claims is Paul’s use of one flesh in 1 Corinthians 6:16:

Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”

Paul’s words here challenge at least two assumptions of the authors quoted above.

First, it challenges the idea that becoming one flesh is primarily a passive experience. Did Paul believe that God alone creates a one-flesh union between a man and a prostitute? Isn’t Paul’s emphasis here quite the opposite—that humans can form one-flesh relationships even in the briefest of vow-less unions? Isn’t he emphasizing human responsibility for these unions? True, it is God’s creation design that causes a sexual act to result in a one-flesh union, but humans must give account for initiating one-flesh unions.

Second, as I mentioned in my last post, Paul clearly expects and urges separation of such one-flesh unions when they occur with prostitutes. He does not think they are indissoluble. He does not think that anyone who once becomes one flesh with a prostitute is now bonded for life to her, obligated to give her the full rights of marriage. Rather, he says that those who engage in such immorality can be “washed” and “sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Paul’s usage shows clearly that one-flesh relationship is not necessarily permanent.

Webb’s Rereading of Paul

Webb disliked this reading of one flesh in 1 Corinthians 6:16 so much that he proposed an interpretation of the passage that I’ve never seen anywhere else: He asserted that Paul is forbidding Christians not from visiting prostitutes, but from marrying them!

In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul was not saying that sex relations make “one flesh,” but rather that the joining of a man to a woman, by their vows, makes them “one flesh,” even if she is a harlot… Somehow, we must remove from the church’s teaching the concept that sex creates the one flesh relationship. 1 Corinthians 6:16 is the only verse, when misinterpreted, that even suggests such a thing. God’s Word only uses the phrase, “one flesh,” when it is speaking of marriage; not an illicit affair… Know that if you marry, even a harlot, you become one flesh with her![8]

I find this interpretation of Paul simply unbelievable. From a cultural perspective, it was extremely unlikely that either a Jewish or a Greco-Roman man would ever be tempted to marry a prostitute. A prostitute would, by definition, be an adulterous wife.[9] In both Jewish and Roman culture of the time, a wife’s adultery was automatic reason for a man to divorce her—in fact, he was virtually obligated to do so.

On the other hand, it was perfectly culturally acceptable for Greco-Roman men, including husbands, to frequent prostitutes. It was this common practice that Paul warned against in this passage, not some hypothetical temptation to marry prostitutes.

Photo adapted from fauxels.

Does One FleshOne Body?

Others try to preserve their belief that one flesh refers only to indissoluble unions by another method: they deny that Paul applies the term to unions with prostitutes at all. Paul says that a person who is united with a prostitute becomes “one body” with her, they note. One body, they assert, is different from one flesh; a one-body union can be broken, but a one-flesh union cannot.

I have seen this argument on Facebook, and one author who asserted the same is Raymond Ortlund, Jr.:

The one who joins himself to a prostitute enters into a ‘one body’ connection with her. It falls short of, but nevertheless approaches, mimics and violates, the full, ‘one flesh’ union of marriage. It does not create ‘one flesh’, for all that that means; but it does draw a man and a woman into intimacy which properly belongs only to the marriage bond…

Pace some commentators, I cannot dismiss Paul’s change of language from ‘one body’, as his description of a relationship with a whore, to ‘one flesh’, which his allusion to Gn. 2:24 requires, because the marriage relationship of one flesh, bringing a man and woman together for life, is of another, higher order than a merely sexual encounter. Paul, the master theologian, chooses his words carefully.[10]

Why did Ortlund insist one body means something different from one flesh? Did he provide any arguments from Paul’s vocabulary usage, his sentence structure, or any other observable data in this passage? No, the only reason Ortlund offered here is “because the marriage relationship of one flesh, bringing a man and woman together for life, is of another, higher order.”[11]

In other words, Ortlund came to Paul’s text with the assumption that one flesh is a loaded term, referring only to relationships that last “for life.” But this assumption is the very question we are testing: Is there a basis for assuming that one flesh necessarily includes the idea of a relationship being indissoluble?

Contary to Ortlund’s assertion, Paul’s usage shows that he considered one flesh and one body to be virtually equivalent terms, with neither implying permanence.

First, note that body is Paul’s default term for the entire discussion, occurring eight times in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. It best fits both his general discussion of bodily purity and his imagery of being members of Christ. It is also the term Paul will use in the next chapter, as he discusses the sexual obligations that husbands and wives owe each other (1 Cor. 7:4). The term one flesh never occurs in that chapter about marriage. Thus, body is Paul’s default term in these chapters, carrying neither positive nor negative connotations, suitable for discussing any kind of sexual relationship.

Second, the logic of Paul’s argument ties one body and one flesh very tightly together. Within this discussion about bodily purity, Paul cites the Genesis 2:24 “one flesh” statement to prove his warning about becoming “one body” with a prostitute. How can we know a man “becomes one body with” a prostitute? Because the Bible says “the two will become one flesh.” This tight logic shows that Paul was using both terms to refer to the same basic reality, even if body and flesh may each carry some unique connotations on the side.

Third, just as Paul uses both body and flesh in this passage to refer to union with a prostitute, so he uses both terms in Ephesians 5 when discussing the intimate oneness of a husband and wife:[12]

Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Eph. 5:28-31, emphasis added)

So, yes, Paul does indeed mean that a man who unites with a prostitute becomes “one flesh” with her.[13] Thus, if our conception of one flesh is to be biblical, it must fit all sorts of sexual unions, not merely marriage unions. Laney put it well:

There is no sexual intercourse which does not result in two people becoming one flesh (1 Cor. 6:16)! A married man who has intercourse with a harlot has destroyed the uniqueness of the one-flesh relationship he enjoyed with his wife.[14]

Conclusion: One Flesh Does Not Prove Permanence

According to Paul, then, the reality of a one-flesh relationship does not indicate an unbreakable bond. Rather, this one-flesh oneness can occur both in unions which should never be broken (Eph. 5:31) and in unions which must be broken, no matter how entangling (1 Cor. 6:16). One-flesh language in Paul and elsewhere should be understood to emphasize the unavoidable depth of a sexual union, not its unavoidable duration.

But is it really fair to say that just because a union with a prostitute can be broken, therefore a marriage union can also be? No, that is not a fair argument, and that is not what I am saying here. Rather, I am responding to a specific argument about what the term one flesh indicates about the permanence of any union. Paul’s use shows that the term itself does not carry any idea of necessary permanence. Therefore, if marriage is truly indissoluble, it cannot be simply because it involves a one-flesh relationship.

This is important, for some writers liberally sprinkle their teachings with expressions like “one flesh relationship,” “one person,” or “mysterious union,” often without first carefully explaining them. The abundance of such words creates a general sense that marriage must be indissoluble, even if the writer has not really proven that point. Luck pushes us to think more deeply:

Though talk is often heard of ‘personal’ unity in marriage, I have yet to hear a psychological, philosophical or biblical explanation for what this new person is and how the two individuals have ceased to be. In all marriages with which I am familiar, including happy and intimate ones, I still observe two distinguishable individuals functioning in harmony—and, if distinguishable, then perhaps separable.[15]

Jesus’ point about a man becoming “one flesh” with his wife, then, does not indicate that he believed marriage is indissoluble. Rather, he was arguing that husbands and wives who are joined so intimately should not be separated.

Thank you for reading this post. I welcome your responses! In my next post, I plan to discuss the clause “what God has joined together.” Does it imply an unbreakable bond?

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

[1] I think I still agree with most of what I wrote, though I’d phrase some things differently now.

[2] Daniel Kauffman, ed., Doctrines of the Bible: A Brief Discussion of the Teachings of God’s Word (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1928), 434.

[3] As Taylor says, “God has mysteriously joined man and wife together into one person” (Dean Taylor, “One Flesh One Covenant,” Pt. 1 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, April/May/June 2007, Ephrata Ministries, 4. Available online, accessed 4/21/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-05-covenant.pdf).

[4] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 59-60.

[5] I am not well equipped to discuss Hebrew grammar, but the point is certainly theologically true.

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

[7] Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 73.

[8] Webb, ibid. I removed Webb’s non-traditional use of typeface and added italics for my own emphasis.

[9] Unless she were a former prostitute—a scenario that then makes no sense of Paul’s warnings against uniting with her. Nothing in Paul’s teaching prohibited marrying former prostitutes who had been “washed” (1 Cor. 6:9-11) and who were already united to Christ.

[10] Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 145 and 145, n. 16. Jay Adams likewise distinguishes “one body” and “one flesh” in this passage, but without defending his distinction and without asserting that a one-flesh union cannot be broken: “In 1 Corinthians 6… Paul distinguishes three sorts of unions:

1. one body (v. 16)—sexual relations with a harlot=a close union
2. one flesh (v. 16)—the marriage union=a closer union
3. one spirit (v. 17)—union with Christ=the closest union

It is not possible here to develop this important passage further.” See Jay E. Adams, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible: A Fresh Look at What Scripture Teaches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980), 17. Thiselton likewise distinguishes one body as referring to union with a prostitute and one flesh as referring to marriage. But he does not defend this distinction nor consistently adhere to it. See Anthony C. Thiselton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 95.

[11] Ortlund does suggest one additional reason later, in his discussion of Ephesians 5. I will respond to that reason (via footnote 12) when I discuss the same passage below.

[12] Ortlund believes Paul uses “flesh” and “body” differently in the two passages:

It is worth nothing that, in contrast with 1 Cor. 6:16, Paul uses ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ in nearly equivalent terms here, because he is bringing together his ‘Body of Christ’ image of the church with the language of Gn. 2:24. But the categories operative in the Corinthians passage are different, as the inner logic of that passage requires. There, Paul is counting on a distinction between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ as material to his message. The two words are ciphers for fundamentally different relationships, viz. a casual sexual encounter (‘one body’) versus marriage (‘one flesh’). There, ‘body’ is prompted by the merely physical nature of promiscuity; here ‘body’ is prompted by Paul’s image of the church.” Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 154-55.

I have already said that I do not see Paul intending to draw a “distinction” between casual sexual encounters and marriage in 1 Cor. 6. Rather, he is noting what both have in common. I don’t think Ortlund’s second assertion (about what “prompts” Paul’s used of each term) holds, either. For one thing, Paul uses “body” rather than “flesh” in 1 Cor. 7 when discussing marriage relations, so he does not reserve that term in that letter for “the merely physical nature of promiscuity.” For another, Paul is indeed thinking about his image of the church in 1 Cor. 6, not only in Eph. 5. In 1 Cor. 6 Paul says “your bodies are members of Christ,” and in Eph. 5 he says “we are members of his body.” The “member” language in both passages shows Paul is concerned with our individual union with Christ, and “of Christ” in 1 Cor. 6 is equivalent to “of his body” in Eph. 5. Again, Ortlund’s distinctions seem motivated more by his prior assumptions about what “one flesh” must signify than by any accurate observations about Paul’s usage of terms.

[13] For what it is worth, a clear majority of recent 1 Corinthians commentators appear to agree with me on this point, including Craig Blomberg, Roy Ciampa/Brian Rosner, Gordon Fee, David Garland, Roy Harrisville, Richard Hays, Craig Keener, and Mark Taylor. As Harrisville notes, “the terms ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ in this verse are virtually synonymous, use of the term ‘flesh’ controlled by the biblical quotation from Gen. 2:24.” See Roy A. Harrisville, I Corinthians (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987), 101. Among commentators whose views I was able to ascertain, the only one who appeared to disagree with me was Thiselton (see previous note).

[14] Carl J. Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), 21.

[15] William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 9-10.

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

  1. Here I think you move too quickly, with the result that you obscure or pass over some logical distinctions.

    For example, you write “He [Paul] does not think that anyone who once becomes one flesh with a prostitute is now bonded for life to her, obligated to give her the full rights of marriage.” This seems a probable conclusion to me. But then you go on to say “Paul’s usage shows clearly that one-flesh relationship is not necessarily permanent.”

    This does not follow from the evidence you provide. At least, it does not follow logically. Nothing that Paul says logically implies that a union of a “one-flesh” type is not permanent, and ‘non-permanence’ is not a ‘clear’ conclusion to draw from the text (at least it is not clear to me). In fact, such an underlying permanence may be why Paul uses the “one-flesh” language. For an example of this interpretation, see C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters:

    “The Enemy [God] described a married couple as ‘one flesh.’ He did not say ‘a happily married couple’ or ‘a couple who married because they were in love,’ but you can make the humans ignore that. You can also make them forget that the man they call Paul did not confine it to married couples. Mere copulation, for him, makes ‘one flesh.’ You can thus get the humans to accept as rhetorical eulogies of ‘being in love’ what were in fact plain descriptions of the real significance of sexual intercourse. The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured.”

    In other words, Paul might be warning “do not do this, because by doing so you set up a permanent spiritual union of the ‘one-flesh’ type, a union that cannot be broken even by physical separation after the fact.” Now, I am not arguing that such a reading is logically implied by the text. But it is not ruled out by your argument, and seems to me to be equally as ‘clear’ and probable as your ‘non-permanence’ conclusion.

    In fairness to you, such a ‘permanent’ reading of the ‘one-flesh’ relationship does not mean that every such relationship is equivalent to a marriage. Clearly in Lewis’s take on the passage a person such as a serial fornicator or adulterer could have any number of ‘one-flesh’ unions existing simultaneously, to their great spiritual detriment. But I do think that you have too quickly dismissed the possibility that “one-flesh” in general implies something that is permanent.

    (I will put another criticism I have in a second comment.)

    1. Hi Joey. Thanks for taking time to read another of my posts and for sharing your thoughts. I’ll try to respond to your criticisms.

      (A note in passing first: I am somewhat reluctant to engage in long debate with persons who do not use a real name online. I have taken the social risk of posting my thoughts publicly under my real name, and it is not exactly an even debate field when commenters hide behind pseudonyms while posting critiques. That said, I also realize sometimes a person may have substantial reasons for not identifying themselves in online forums. Nevertheless, my reluctance remains.)

      Lewis’s quote is interesting. It is clear to me that he is relying more on historical theology than biblical exegesis in his understanding of what “one flesh” means. That is most clear from his final sentence, where he directly contradicts Scripture by talking about sexual unions forming an “eternal” relationship.

      I also think we need to be clear about whether we are discussing the possibility of a permanent relationship or merely some lingering effects of a sexual union. I do not deny that there may be some significant ongoing emotional, mental, or psychological effects from any sexual (one-flesh) union. Nor do I deny that there may be some resulting moral obligations to the person with whom one has initiated such a union (example: child support).

      But those who claim, as part of their defense of unconditional marriage permanence, that all one-flesh unions are permanent are making a very different and much more substantial claim; they claim that a one-flesh union leaves a person essentially married. You acknowledge my response to that assertion in the following sentence: “In fairness to you, such a ‘permanent’ reading of the ‘one-flesh’ relationship does not mean that every such relationship is equivalent to a marriage. ”

      That is the main point of my whole post: Paul’s use of one flesh language in his discussion of unions with prostitutes shows that the language itself does not imply anything about the presence of a permanent marriage union.

      I also want to note how Paul distinguishes between physical and spiritual unions. You suggested the following: “Paul might be warning “do not do this, because by doing so you set up a permanent spiritual union of the ‘one-flesh’ type…” But this is what Paul wrote: “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes ONE BODY with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes ONE SPIRIT with him.” Thus, I don’t think it is right to say that a one-flesh union is a “spiritual” union. It is primarily physical, though of course our entire beings are embodied.

      On a somewhat similar note, it seems to me that Christian theology went off rails in its discussion of marital unions quite early in church history. I think there is too much reliance on pagan Greek philosophies about ontological beings and states, and not enough understanding of Jewish concepts of covenantal relationships.

      1. Dwight,

        Thanks for both of your replies to my comments. I disagree, but don’t think it is worth spamming your blog comment section with a detailed back and forth . I might send you an email with my response.

  2. My second primary criticism is this. Let us assume for the sake of argument (passing over what I said in my previous comment) that “one-flesh” has no connotations of permanence, such that the bare use of those words alone does not logically imply that the described relationship is indissoluble. Assuming this, you conclude

    “Jesus’ point about a man becoming “one flesh” with his wife, then, does not indicate that he believed marriage is indissoluble. Rather, he was arguing that husbands and wives who are joined so intimately should not be separated.”

    Your first sentence here might be technically correct, given the assumption above, but it is stated in a way that makes the underlying logic unclear. The conclusion you seemed to be arguing towards in the body of the post was that “one-flesh” in isolation does not logically imply indissolubility. In that case, Jesus’ use of those words does not logically imply indissolubility, but neither does it not not imply it (watch the double-negative). It could only rule out indissolubility if “one-flesh” clearly meant something that was always and in every case “soluble,” or by broader contextual semantic considerations.

    This somewhat obscure first sentence is then followed by a logical leap: “he was arguing that husbands and wives who are joined so intimately should not be separated.” But this definitely does not follow (again, restricting to the evidence you have presented to date). Even if “one-flesh” does not imply indissolubility on its own as a bare concatenation of words, Jesus still could have used those words in a semantic context in which he meant to imply indissolubility. (This is a similar point to the one I made on your previous post.)

    1. I feel like you might not be reading me fairly in your comment here. It seems you are arguing against something I never said. Contrary to your assertion, no where in the post above did I claim that Jesus did not believe marriage forms a permanent bond. That is indeed the claim I’m moving toward in this entire series of posts, but in the article above I made a much narrower argument: that the term “one flesh” itself carries no necessary sense of a permanent bond.

      Your last paragraph basically repeats a comment you made on my last post. I responded to it there, but I don’t think you acknowledged my response. Of course there are other terms and contextual factors that will also need to be addressed. But if a step-by-step consideration of Jesus’ words shows that none of the terms or concepts he used imply permanence individually, at some point you have to ask, Where is this larger semantic context that is supposed to imply that marriage is an unbreakable bond? At some point the search for a factor that implies necessary permanence starts to feel like squishing a balloon that is low on air; no matter how tightly you squeeze one part of it, another part pops out, appearing new and promising but proving equally unstable when pressure is applied. At some point one needs to conclude that there is nothing stable there upon which to build a theology of unconditional marriage permanence.

      I’ll end by returning to 1 Corinthians 6 and adapting something I wrote last night in a Facebook discussion:

      One more thought: Paul’s primary concern in the 1 Cor. 16 passage is that it is not fitting for a believer to take the members of Christ (their own body) and unite it with a prostitute. In other words, he doesn’t frame the sin in terms of the wrongness of premarital sex, or the wrongness of adultery, *or the dangers of forming a permanent union with a prostitute.* Rather, the sin uppermost in his mind is essentially the danger of uniting Christ with a prostitute. (“Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!”)

      This concern also, I think, is an argument against the idea that Paul thought a one-flesh union was intrinsically permanent. Did he think that a union between Christ and a prostitute was permanent? Just to ask the question is enough to suggest that the hypothesis is off-base somehow.

      Blessings, Joey. May God help us listen well to his word.

  3. Hi Dwight, I appreciate the thoughtful exegesis as usual. I tentatively agree with your conclusion about the meaning of “one flesh,” because it seems to me that “so there are no more two, but one flesh” doesn’t indicate more than the intention of permanence. I don’t see any indications within that statement that the one flesh can never be divided. However, it certainly seems to indicate that the two are brought together in a definitive union that is not meant to be separated, no matter whether that’s a possibility for contingencies. However, I doubt anyone would disagree with that last sentence, so that’s neither here nor there. Just giving my preliminary takeaway from the passage.

    I did want to note that I think Joey has a point in suggesting that the semantic context may be more important for determining the meaning of “one flesh” than Paul’s use of it may be. I don’t think that Paul’s use of “one flesh” with a prostitute demonstrates that “one flesh” doesn’t need to indicate a permanent bond. That’s because the impermanence of a connection to a prostitute is so clear that, even if Jesus meant “one flesh” to mean an unbreakable bond, it seems to me that Paul could have used that term to indicate a transient one.

    Consider if Jesus said, “When you beget a son, you become his father.” And if Paul said, “Don’t you know that if you have a foster child, you become his father?” Because we know that being a foster parent is a very transient relationship, we don’t use that use of the word “father” as an argument that fatherhood does not, in the first statement, constitute an unbreakable relationship. Of course, “father” already has that flexibility in our common usage, whereas “one flesh” is a less common term that might have had a narrower allowable range of meaning in the first-century context. But at this point, it doesn’t seem to me that that would affect this point.

    I find these posts to be great opportunities for thinking through my exegetical intuitions. Appreciated!

    1. Hi Lynn. Good to have your voice join this conversation!

      I find it fascinating that you tentatively agree with my main point, but that you do so based on what you see (or don’t see) in Jesus words themselves, not based on Paul’s words.

      Some push-back on one of your statements: You wrote, “I don’t think that Paul’s use of “one flesh” with a prostitute demonstrates that “one flesh” doesn’t need to indicate a permanent bond.” I think it does. What it doesn’t do is prove that the term “one flesh” can never be used within a context that indicates a permanent relationship. In other words, Paul’s usage shows that the idea of permanence must be found in other contextual factors, not in the term itself. Does that make sense?

      Your example of the term “father” is thought-provoking. To riff on it a bit: If I overheard a man tell a child, “Come to Daddy!” I can’t know for sure that he is the child’s biological father. He could just be a foster dad. This shows, much like I attempted to show with “one flesh,” that the concepts of biological connection and permanence are not proven by the mere use of the term “daddy.” What is needed is a “smoking gun”–something like the word “beget” in your hypothetical statement from Jesus.

      Similarly, if we want proof that Jesus thought the one-flesh relationship of marriage is an unbreakable bond, we need to find “smoking gun” evidence in the context. As I’ve shown in my last two posts, his mere mention of “cleave” and “one flesh” do not constitute such evidence, for both these terms are used elsewhere of non-permanent relationships.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

      1. Thanks, Dwight. Just to correct myself–I should have said “when you have a son, you become his father” rather than “when you beget a son, you become his father” since “beget” takes the focus away from “father.” I think the same thing is indicated by the two phrases, but my previous one demands unambiguity, while we need a parallel statement that instead suggests unambiguity.

        I get your argument, but I disagree that “Paul’s usage shows that the idea of permanence must be found in other contextual factors, not in the term itself.” It seems to me that my example shows that the term itself could typically indicate permanence even when not given a context of permanence, and yet still not indicate permanence where the context specifically denies permanence. Let me put it another way.

        For the vast majority of our uses of the word “father,” we mean a permanent relationship. To use your example of a man (call him John) saying, “Come to Daddy,” we would be justified, given no other context, in always assuming that he is the biological father of that child, but remaining ready for correction if we were given further information about that specific relationship. Finding out that another father present (call him Jim) said the exact same thing, when we knew he was a foster father, would not change our preferred interpretation of the relationship between the John and the boy he is speaking to. Using the same words of a foster father, whom we know to be in a temporary relationship, doesn’t cause us to re-evaluate the typical meaning of the words, given no context. Similarly, using “one flesh” of a prostitute, whom we know to be in a temporary relationship, shouldn’t cause us to re-evaluate the typical meaning of the words, given no context.

        So I don’t think we need a contextual smoking gun at all (which is why I removed “beget” from my example); merely a good reason for believing that the typical usage of “one flesh” indicates an unbreakable bond. But we don’t have such a reason that I can see, which is why I agree with your conclusion even though I don’t agree with the argument.

        That’s why I don’t put as much weight as you do on Paul’s statement, although I can see why one would. I don’t think that this consideration would affect our interpretation of Jesus’ statement, so it’s not hugely important. However, I think it’s worth noting.

        1. Thanks for those clarifications. We are getting pretty nuanced in our discussion here, but I still want to point out that you have concluded about “one flesh” that “the term itself could typically indicate permanence,” which still falls short of the common claim that the term *necessarily* indicates permanence. That, for me, puts the onus back on finding other contextual clues, which we both agree are lacking.

          Paul’s example is crucial for me because it shows, beyond reasonable doubt, that “one flesh” does not *necessarily* include the idea of permanence. That both directly rebuts the unconditional permanence view of a “marriage bond” and also forces us to evaluate the term within its current context in Jesus’ teaching. I still find it fascinating that you don’t feel a need to go through Paul’s words to reach the understanding of Jesus’ words that we share.


          1. Okay, I see now why you’re saying what you’re saying. I guess the claim that any term *necessarily* means a certain thing sounds so far-fetched to me that I didn’t feel it needed a response (though obviously if people believe it, they do need a response). So I formulated my reply as though you were responding to a less extreme position than it looks like you were addressing.

            To your last paragraph–I may be missing something, but I don’t see a direct rebuttal here of any view of the permanence of marriage; so far, the exegesis seems to me perfectly compatible with any view.

  4. The use of ‘body’ in the context is not, as most assume, talking about physical bodies. The bodies are the body of Christ and the body of the prostitute standing in contrast. We are members of one body, the body of Christ, and Paul forbids taking ourselves, as members of one body, and making ourselves members of the other body. This body language is social and political, not physical. The physical bodies of the members of Christ should not be misused by sexual relations with prostitutes. And we’re not these prostitutes likely pagan temple prostitutes located in temples where men would also eat meat sacrificed to idols? The issues are wider than the physical act of sexual intercourse with a prostitute, it is that the same individuals were partaking or participating in the activities of two incompatible bodies, the body of prostitution and the body of Christ.

    The one flesh union is also likewise not a physical or sexual union but a social and political one. By contract a man severed his family relationship with his father and his mother and created a new family relationship with his wife, the two of them become a social and political unit, a body, in the larger social body. A bodily union, a social or political union, may be good or bad, permanent or temporary. But the term one flesh primarily denotes a family tie, a blood tie. A man is one flesh with his parents. He is a son forever, no matter what he does. Yet this union is broken, at least comparatively, when he divorces his father and mother in order to marry his wife. This new union is stronger and more permanent. The two will go on to produce sons and daughters who are one flesh with them, but unlike the wife, they will forsake that family unit to form new ones when they marry. That is the point of Gen. 2:24, the status of the wife is higher than the former family status of the father and mother he forsook. That is how the Lord correctly used that teaching. It does not flow from “one flesh” in isolation, but within the context of the wife’s greater status than the parents.

  5. Dwight, thanks for your careful study of the one flesh union. I have been studying this same question myself for a few years. Here’s my take:
    The explanation of “one flesh” needs to explain these things:
    – It is a core part of the marriage relationship (Gen2)
    – It is properly long-lasting (Mt18)
    – It happens even when the “relationship” is purely sex – prostitute(1C6:16).
    – It happens without intentionality – Paul says “do you not know?”(1C6:16)
    – In some way it is similar to the food-body relationship (food for body; body for food (1C6:13)

    Note: I acknowledge that many commentators think that by writing “food-body,” Paul quoting one of the Corinthians’ arguments back at them – and then refuting it with the rest of ch6.
    I take it that Paul himself is using “food-body” to illustrate one-ness.
    The relationship I have with food means that food and I are each parts of a relationship. Food, without me [or someone like me] has no purpose. And I, without food, will starve and die.
    The understanding and perception of this relationship is entirely on my side. The food doesn’t understand or see that it needs me to have purpose. But I do understand and keenly feel the entire relationship. I hunger for food (sometimes more than others). I desire food.

    Each person’s physiology (and neurophysiology) desires certain foods more than others. Why? We can argue that some foods are simply more appetizing, thus a science of gastronomy. A gourmet seeks to discover what make some food more delicious than others. And many of these preferences are common to the majority of men and women.

    Puzzle & Piece
    This makes us each a bit like a puzzle with one piece missing. And for our pleasure and satisfaction, we need to put a piece in there.
    But we’re not like a puzzle in that we are not static in our internal assessment of what fits. We change. The pleasure that comes with sex (and even just romantic feelings) changes us and our missing-piece-hole forms (cf Aristotle, Aquinas) us and causes us to desire one like the one that gave us pleasure.

    I had a friend who rode a motorcycle. He said to me one time, “You should ride my bike – you’ll really like it.” I replied, “That’s exactly why I’m not going to ride it.”
    The last thing I want is to want to spend a bunch of money on a motorcycle.

    Blank Slate?
    But consider the phrases, “Mom’s cooking,” or, “Like mom used to make.” While perhaps not universal, the love for things “the way mom used to make them” is very common. But we each have different moms.
    It isn’t a coincidence that each of us has a love for “mom’s cooking.” Where did that love for and desire for food like mom made come from? It is intuitively evident that it came because in our formative years we experienced a regular cycle of hunger-eating—pleasure-satisfaction. That cycle builds into our neurophysiology an affection for specific qualities in food.
    In other words, some desire for specific foods are learned. Others, however, are based on experience. And probably on the neural pathways that are built as we eat certain things and experience pleasure and satisfaction.
    I love fried shrimp; I detest sea urchin. If I grew up in Korea or Japan, I would probably like sea urchin because I would have eaten it as I grew up and “developed a taste for it.” I don’t believe we begin as a blank slate in this respect, but we do begin as a partially blank slate.

    The specific desires each of us has for certain foods makes us “one with” those foods, at least in terms of the whole eating experience. I am “one with” fried shrimp. But while it might nourish me, I have no desire for or pleasure in sea urchin; I am not “one with” sea urchin.

    The Ideal
    This is how I see “one flesh” with regard to sex. First, consider the sexual relationship as God intended*1. One young man and one young woman leave their homes and make a new home, physically enjoying one another in touch and sex as they love and serve one another in life. They both experience sexual pleasure with their one partner. In doing so, not only do they love one another, they build into one another’s soul and neurophysiology a desire for their one partner. Other potential partners, in this scenario, are not as desirable to the extent that their sexual preferences have been built by this pattern of sexual desire-sexual-pleasure-satisfaction.

    Now, it is true that in addition to the nurture side, there is a nature side to sexual attraction. While some “beautiful attributes” vary from culture to culture, some are seemingly universal. So there might be another woman who has certain attributes of beauty or behavior that this husband*2 might find more attractive than his wife at some point. Thus, temptation to adultery. What about that?
    First, the way his soul-brain has been trained by his wife is (ought to be) God’s gift to him. It is a help to him in this moment that, along with his desire to obey God, should help keep him sexually oriented only towards his wife.
    Second, if, for some reason, his wife has denied him sexual relationship, she has left undone a powerful method of binding his soul to her. If he wanders, he is still guilty. I’m not excusing adultery. I’m talking about the difficulty of obedience. And that might be harder if their sexual relationship is not good. This can include sinful refusal or it can be a matter of illness or anxiety (a rape victim might find it difficult to engage).
    Third, giving in and allowing a sexual relationship to form his soul, he is not simply committing a one-time offense. He “sins against his own body”(1C6:18) in that he trains his own soul to desire someone else. And if we make the safe assumption that this other woman is objectively more desirable than his wife, the reshaping of his soul into a soul that desires her is probably quicker and more powerfully done than with his own wife.

    Thus, by going to a prostitute, he becomes one flesh with the prostitute in that his own soul (body,mind) changes into a soul that subsequently desires the prostitute. It is now harder to obey and probably always will be.

    Nonsexual romantic pleasure
    This isn’t just about sex, though the pleasure in that probably has a very high impact on the soul. No doubt the pleasure of romance in dating forms the soul. Even the childhood crush and experience of romance in stories are probably formative in our later desires. (Thus, keep your kids from stories about illicit romance.)

    I am arguing that “one flesh” refers to the internal condition of the soul/mind/brain that inclines a person toward some sexual desire. It could be called your sexual preference, but that term is is already used for a concept that falls short of what I am saying. In its God-intended form, this sexual preference is determined by your own experience and inclines you toward your spouse.

    This brings us back to JoeyOx’s question: Is one flesh permanent?
    I believe it is, at least, ongoing. Probably not “eternal” in the sense of influencing our spiritual state in heaven, but in terms of remaining with us through this life.
    But the old man, with his
    Regarding the question of indissolubility, Jesus is proclaiming what ought not to be. That is, “Let not man separate.” For Jesus to express this as a command of what not to do, it’s logical to assume that this is something that can be disobeyed. Thus, the marriage union can be, in some sense, dissolved – but don’t do that.

    Other Sexual Desires
    I believe this concept of one flesh is sufficient to think about explain all sorts of sexual desires. There are reports of men who have felt aroused by their computer (the device, not just the porn they have on it) because it is the one constant in their interaction with various pornographic offerings. A man who desires other men might do so because he encountered homosexual modeling of affection or because it’s natural for him. Some homosexual men have tried to live straight and have even married, though man return to homosexuality.

    Renewing the Mind – Hope
    I believe that we are called to renew our minds and that this is more than a simple “I was wrong” repentance. It is a slow – agonizingly slow – process of re-training the soul to love what God calls us to love.
    Romans 6:16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
    Romans 8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

    Sorry so long – If you’ve made it this far, thanks! And I’m eager for you comments.

    Give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her that the uncommon union which has so long subsisted between us has been of such a nature as I trust is spiritual and therefore will continue forever.
    – the last, dying words of Jonathan Edwards –

    *1 Perhaps there will be debate about whether my story reflects God’s intention. This is my understanding.
    *2 I mean husband or wife. I’m only telling the story for “him” but I mean it exactly the same for her.

    1. Hi Dan. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I think I agree that many of the relational dynamics you describe do exist. It is another question, though, whether ancient biblical authors had all these things in mind when they used the expression “one flesh.” To know what they meant, we need to focus our study on how that term was used in ancient literature, including throughout the Bible. You began to do that at the beginning of your comment, and I agree with most of your initial list of observations, though I’m less convinced by your understanding of Paul’s comments about food.

      I wonder what Edwards meant by his relationship lasting forever with his wife. Was he, contrary to Jesus’ teachings, expecting to experience a husband-wife relationship for eternity?

      Thanks again for reading and responding.

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