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Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

This post is a sort of “extra” in my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, glancing back to Genesis 2:24 to ask what it indicates about whether marriage is indissoluble. Here are my posts so far in this series:

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

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

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

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

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


Summary of this post: I ask whether Genesis 2:24 is a prediction or a command, and whether the union it describes is necessarily permanent. Based on Greek and Hebrew grammatical considerations, and based on how both Jesus and Paul used this verse, I argue that it functions as a creation norm for marriage. That is, Genesis 2:24 describes both what normally happens (norm as normal), and also what should happen (norm as standard). Thus, we should let this verse prompt us to ask Am I living in line with God’s creation norm? rather than using it to assert a doctrine of marriage indissolubility.


Introduction: What Does Genesis 2:24 Say?

The post I’m sharing today is less directly focused on Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage. It is also perhaps a bit more philosophical than some of my posts. For these reasons, some readers might want to skip it, waiting for my next post on Jesus’ command, “Let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).

On the other hand, if you’ve noticed how some Bible teachers quote Genesis 2:24 and claim it says marriage is indissoluble, and if you wonder whether that’s really what the verse is saying, then please continue reading.

In my last three posts I examined three terms Jesus used as he discussed Genesis 2:24. These are—to use KJV language for the moment—“cleave,” “one flesh,” and “hath joined.” Before I move further into Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, I want to consider Genesis 2:24 as a whole. I’m about to quote the verse again and, as you read it, ask yourself: what are the three verbs in this verse (“leave… cleave… become”) describing? Are they:

1) A prediction of what happens and cannot be undone?

2) A prediction of what happens with no comment on whether it can be undone?

3) A command about what should happen but might not?

Here is the verse, as quoted by Jesus:

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

Is this verse saying that a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes one flesh with his wife, and that this cannot be undone? (Option 1)

Is it saying that a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes one flesh with his wife, but without comment about whether these can be undone? (Option 2)

Or is it issuing a command, saying a man (at least one who marries) must leave, cleave, and become one flesh with his wife? (Option 3)

Or are none of these three options really the best way to think about Genesis 2:24?

“Fresh love.” Photo by Engin Akyurt. Used with permission.

Does Genesis 2:24 Show Marriage is Indissoluble?

Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s look at what some Bible teachers have concluded based on this verse. Here is what John Coblentz wrote in a booklet from Christian Light Publications:

Whatever else we may conclude from these Scriptures, we can safely say that marriage is the joining of a man and woman in a lifelong bond.[1]

A “Statement of Position on Divorce and Remarriage” from the Southeastern Mennonite Conference asserted the following immediately before presenting Jesus’ quotation of Genesis 2:24:

The indissolubility of the marriage bond is a principle that is basic to a consistent interpretation and application of Bible teachings in relation to problems issuing from divorce and remarriage. When confronted with the question of divorce, Jesus based His response solidly on God’s ordinance in creation…[2]

Clair Martin, after discussing Genesis 2:24, shared this definition of marriage in a booklet published by the Biblical Mennonite Alliance:

Marriage is a universal process of divine origin and regulation in which an unmarried man and an unmarried woman, by mutual consent, are permanently made to be one flesh by God.[3]

J. Carl Laney wrote the following while discussing Genesis 2:24:

Marriage… is a permanent relationship until death. There is no allowance made in Genesis 2:24 for divorce and remarriage.[4]

And Joseph Webb concluded his discussion of the passage with these assertions:

God, who originated marriage and established the rules by which it was to operate, created the first union with Adam and Eve… This “one flesh” condition… is called a covenant for life… Any offspring of Adam who has become a part of such a covenant must understand this and realize that either partner can violate this covenant repeatedly but it is scripturally impossible to break it.[5]

All five of these excerpts affirm Option 1 above; they either assume or explicitly argue that Genesis 2:24 is a prediction of what happens and cannot be undone—a man leaves, cleaves, and becomes permanently one flesh with his wife. Is that what God, through Moses, said in this verse?

In the rest of this post, I’ll suggest an answer based on a brief consideration of both grammar and how Jesus and Paul put the verse to use when quoting it.

Observations From Grammar

In both the Greek NT and the Greek OT versions of this verse, all three verbs of Genesis 2:24 are in the future tense (“shall leave… shall cleave… shall become”). This does not solve our dilemma, though, for future tense Greek verbs are commonly used not only to predict future events (Options 1 and 2) but also to give commands (Option 3). In fact, the most common way that commands are recorded in the Greek OT Law of Moses is with future tense verbs.

In the Hebrew OT, these verbs are in the imperfect tense. This indicates, according to commentator Gordon Wenham, that they express “repeated customary action.”[6] Andrew Cornes explains further:

The narrator here is describing what regularly happens when men and women marry. It would probably be better, therefore, to translate with the English present tense: ‘Therefore a man leaves… cleaves… and they become’ (so RSV).[7]

By this analysis, either Option 1 or Option 2 fits best with Genesis 2:24—the verse is making a prediction about what happens in marriage. In this view, the verse functions as an “origin story” about how the practice of marriage covenants began: Humans do this (“leave… cleave… become one flesh”) because of how Eve was made from Adam’s side.

These basic grammatical observations, then, suggest that it is best to view Genesis 2:24 as a prediction (or a description of a “repeated customary action”), not a command. But can marriage covenants be undone? We can’t find an answer to this question by analyzing the grammatical forms of verbs.

Observations from Jesus’ and Paul’s Use of Genesis 2:24

What can we learn from Jesus’ and Paul’s use of this verse? Interestingly, they each used the verse slightly differently.

Paul seemed to see an inevitability in the verse: He used the verse to prove (“do you not know?”) that “he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). It was not that a man should become one flesh with a prostitute; rather, if he had sex with her, he inevitably would become one flesh with her, even though he shouldn’t, and even though he should separate from that union after it was formed.

Jesus, on the other hand, deduced a “should” from this verse: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Yet he based this “should” on what he presents as an accomplished fact, a fact drawn from Genesis 2:24: “What God has joined together…” In other words, it is not that a man should leave, cleave, and become one flesh with his wife. Rather, it is because these are already true that no one should separate a husband and wife.

“Faithful love.” Photo by itsmeseher. Used with permission.

Genesis 2:24 as a Creation Norm

Perhaps the best way to think of Genesis 2:24, then, is to see it as presenting a creation norm. I’m using norm here in both senses of the term—what normally happens (norm as normal), and also what should happen (norm as standard).

First, and primarily, the verse conveys a norm by expressing what normally happens as a result of God’s creation design of male and female (Option 2, explicit). Because of God’s creation design, men and women leave their birth families, pair up, and are intimately joined, especially through sex. This is so central to God’s creation design that we can rightly say that God joins couples in marriage.

Second, this verse conveys a norm by implying that this human practice of joining in marriage is good; it is something that should be affirmed, protected within marriage, and not undone (Option 3, implied). Just as God’s creation design of male and female implies that same-sex “marriages” are contrary to God’s will, so his design of male and female implies that normally, within marriage, sexual couplings should not be separated.

In sum, design implies intended function; one norm indicates the other.[8]

What is missing from both Jesus’ and Paul’s discussions, however, is any sense that God’s creation design is not merely a norm but also fatalistically deterministic. Neither, when quoting Genesis 2:24, says that the one-flesh unions that result from God’s creation design are indissoluble. Thus, there is no reason to assume that Option 1 above is correct; there is no reason to conclude that a man cannot break his one-flesh union with his wife, stop cleaving to her, and return again to his father and mother (or to a single life)—even though this is clearly contrary to God’s creation norm.

Conclusion: Don’t Import Indissolubility into Genesis 2:24

The key question that both Jesus and Paul lead us to ask, then, is this: Are we living in line with God’s creation norm for male and female unions? Are we saving one-flesh union for couplings that are fitting for Christians (Paul)? And are we being careful to not separate one-flesh marriage unions (Jesus)?

It is these sorts of questions—not imported assumptions about it being impossible to separate what God has joined—that we should take away from our reflections on Genesis 2:24.


Thank you for reading! Please leave a comment if you have additional insight into what Genesis 2:24 does or does not say. In my next post, I plan to return to my discussion of Jesus’ words. Does “let not man separate” imply marriage is an unbreakable bond?


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[1] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 1. Coblentz also cites Genesis 24:4, 58, and 67 (Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca) before this statement. In context, Coblentz seems to be saying that marriage involves both an unbreakable bond and covenant obligations that can be broken without breaking the marriage bond.

[2] “Statement on Divorce and Remarriage,” (Southeastern Mennonite Conference, 1983). Available online, as copied by a student of Mark Roth: https://www.anabaptists.org/tracts/divorce2.html

[3] Clair Martin, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: A Biblical Perspective, 24-pg. booklet (Biblical Mennonite Alliance, n.d., based on series of messages given in 2007), 2. Martin says “a friend” shared this definition.

[4] Carl J. Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), p. 20.

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

[6] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Volume 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 27, n. 24.a.

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

[8] After writing this section I read a similar interpretation in a book by David Bennet: “Jesus is clarifying that for a male and a female to become husband and wife—by leaving their families behind and becoming sexually one, forming a new kinship unit—that is not just ‘how things normally go’ but how God has made them and wishes them to be understood: what scholar Bernd Wannenwetsch has called ‘the norm as ought.’” See David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 240-241. Bennett provides this citation: Bernd Wannenwetsch, “Creation and Ethics: On the Legitimacy and Limitation of Appeals to ‘Nature’ in Christian Moral Reasoning,” in Anthony Clarke and Andrew Moore, eds., Within the Love of God: Essays on the Doctrine of God in Honour of Paul S. Fiddes (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), www.oxfordscholarship.com.


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

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I examine Jesus’ words with a focus on this question: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Here are my posts so far:

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

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

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

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


Summary of this post: I argue that “what therefore God has joined together” in Matthew 19:6 does not indicate that marriage is an indissoluble bond. Neither the definition nor the grammatical form of the verb “has joined” indicate permanence. Further, the word “therefore” shows that Jesus is summarizing what he already said about God’s design for a man to “cleave” to his wife and become “one flesh” with her. Since neither of those terms indicate permanence, neither does Jesus’ summarizing statement “what… God has joined together.”


Introduction: “What God Joins, Man Cannot Unjoin”?

When Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question about divorce, he began by quoting and explaining Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. We don’t have to guess what point he wanted to make from these passages, for he immediately continued with a pointed command: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).

I’ll discuss the command clause (“let not man separate”) in my next post, but first I want to discuss the opening clause of Jesus’ statement: “What therefore God has joined together.” There are several ways that some Bible readers use this clause to argue that marriage is indissoluble.

First, some people use this clause to draw distinctions between unions that God joins and unions not united by God. In this thinking, only validly-contracted marriages are joined by God. Some Bible teachers then assert that unions joined by God are indissoluble in a way that other unions are not. As one Facebook meme I saw shouted: “WHAT GOD JOINS, MAN CANNOT UN-JOIN!”

An image I downloaded from a Facebook group. I do not know who created it. Note the sentence in all caps at the bottom. Notice also the claim (which I disproved in my last post) that Paul is distinguishing between “one flesh” and “one body” in 1 Corinthians 6.

What sort of unions are joined by God? Some people emphasize that God joins only unions between believers, so that unions between unbelievers or “mixed marriages” of believers and unbelievers are less binding or permanent. This view has been fairly common throughout church history. It is addressed most directly by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, so I won’t discuss it more here.[1]

A more common view among conservative Christians I know is that the only sort of marriage that God joins is one which is a first marriage for both partners. According to this view, only such a marriage is a validly-contracted marriage, and a validly-contracted marriage cannot be broken in God’s eyes.

Second, grammatical arguments have also been used to assert that “What… God has joined together” refers to an inseparable bond. For example, Laney claimed the following:

The term for “joined together” means “yoked together,” and the aorist tense points to the permanence of the bond… A good paraphrase of verse 9 would read, “Stop severing marriage unions which God has permanently bound together.”[2]

None of these arguments withstand scrutiny, however, when we look closely at Jesus’ grammar and flow of thought.

The Grammar and Meaning of “Joined Together”

Let’s begin with Laney’s grammatical claim. Unfortunately, he did not demonstrate a good understanding of the Greek aorist verb tense. Rodney Decker, in his introductory Greek grammar, notes that the aorist “can often be represented in English with a simple tense, usually a simple past.”[3] Further, it gives no indication about how long an action takes place or how long it lasts:

The aorist simply refers to a situation in summary without indicating anything further about the action… It describes a complete situation, referring to it as a whole without commenting on whether or not it involves a process.[4]

That Laney was wrong is almost embarrassingly evident based on a simple scan of this verb tense elsewhere in the NT. One example just to prove the point: At the beginning of this same chapter we read that Jesus “entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (Matt. 19:1). The verb “entered” here is in the aorist tense, yet obviously Jesus did not remain permanently in this region. Neither can we conclude from the aorist tense of “joined” that a husband and wife are “permanently bound together.”

What about the meaning of the word “joined”? The Greek verb translated “has joined together” (συζεύγνυμι) is found in the NT only in this account (Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:9). It is used once in the Greek OT (LXX), in Ezekiel 1:11, where it translates a Hebrew word that simply means “to unite,” with no indication of permanence.[5]

Ezekiel described the living creatures in his vision as having wings that were “joined to” (ESV: “touching”) the wings of the creatures beside them. (Image from Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org, used by permission.)

The Greek verb συζεύγνυμι is a compound word formed from prefix σύν (“with” ) and the noun ζεῦγος. This noun is used in the NT to refer to a “pair” of turtledoves (Lk. 2:24) and a “yoke” of oxen (Lk. 14:19), both of which can be separated. A related verb (ἑτεροζυγέω, “to unite unequally”) is used in 2 Corinthians 6:14 in the warning, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” Such unequal yokes can be separated, however, for God instructs his people to “go out from their midst, and be separate from them” (2 Cor. 6:17).

Laney’s arguments, then, both fall flat.

The Flow of Jesus’ Thought

Equally significantly, the context of Jesus’ statement does not suggest that he was meaning to distinguish between marriages joined by God and marriages not joined by God. Are we really to imagine Jesus was thinking, “What God has joined together—but only the marriages he has joined together, not the others!—let not man separate”? Nothing in the context of Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees suggests that this thought was in his mind.

It is crucial not to miss the word “therefore” in the clause “What therefore God has joined together.” This word shows that Jesus is drawing on what came before. He is referring back to what he just said as he quoted from Genesis.[6]

“What… God has joined together,” then, is Jesus’ way of referring back to God’s creation of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). In other words, Jesus is not referring to God joining each individual couple at the time of their wedding, when they exchange vows. Rather, the joining that Jesus is referring to is something God did at creation, when he made male and female and designed for a man to “hold fast” to his wife and for the two to become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

In previous posts I argued that neither “hold fast” nor “one flesh” carry the idea that marriage cannot be dissolved. If this is so, then there is no reason to believe that Jesus’ statement summarizing these realities (“What therefore God has joined together”) indicates marriage is indissoluble, either.

“What therefore God has joined together” (Matt. 19:6). Image by Didier Martin, used with permission from https://freebibleimages.org/illustrations/dm-creation/.

Conclusion: “God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply Permanence

In Matthew 19:4-6, then, Jesus is drawing principles from creation that are true of marriage in general. Yes, he will later emphasize that some who divorce and marry another are actually committing adultery (Matt. 19:9), raising questions about how God is involved in such unions and what should happen to such marriages. (I plan to address this verse in due time.) But Jesus’ initial point here is more basic: Man should not separate what God, by his creation design of male and female, has joined.

In short, then, the clause “what God… has joined together” simply indicates that something has been united and gives no suggestion that this unity cannot be broken. Those who claim otherwise are using bad grammar or missing the flow of Jesus’ thought, and are importing ideas not actually stated in the text.


Thank you for reading! Your responses, as always, are welcome. In my next post, I plan to pause to take a more general look at Genesis 2:24, which has been foundational for everything Jesus has said so far in Matthew 19. Does this verse imply marriage is an unbreakable bond?


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[1] This view raises a host of interpretive challenges I will not try to address here. For example, it is indeed true that God seems to have higher expectations for marriages between believers than for mixed marriages (compare 1 Cor. 7:10-11 with 1 Cor. 7:12-16). But that probably has less to do with anything about marriage being indissoluble than about the higher expectations God places on believers for living together in peace. A careful discussion of that passage will have to wait for another time.

[2] J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), p. 56.

[3] Rodney J. Decker, Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), p. 120.

[4] Decker, ibid., p. 272.

[5] In Ezekiel 1:11 each living creature in Ezekiel’s vision is described as having two wings that are “adjoined to” the wings of its neighboring creature (NETS, A New English Translation of the Septuagint, International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Inc. {New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007}, 948, https://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/38-iezekiel-nets.pdf). The ESV says the wings “touched” each other, and the underlying Hebrew word is used of curtains “coupled” with clasps (Ex. 26:6), trade partnerships (2 Chron. 20:35), temporary military alliances (Dan. 11:6), and persons currently “joined with all the living” who know they will die (Eccl. 9:4-5).

[6] This also means that we should not look ahead in the passage to determine what Jesus meant by “what… God has joined together.” For example, some might assert that Jesus was thinking of what he was going to say about some marriages being adulterous (Matt. 19:9), but this is contradicted by Jesus’ use of the connecting word “therefore” (οὖν), which points backward, not forward.


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“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?


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[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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