Tag Archives: Jesus and divorce

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

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

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

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

Hyper-Literal Bible Interpretation

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

Here are just three examples:

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

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

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

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

Should Versus Could

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Jesus Teach That Marriage Is Indissoluble?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from you.

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

Thanks for reading!


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

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


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

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

My Study on Divorce in Anabaptist History

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

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

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

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

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

My Study on Divorce in the Bible:
Starting with Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Am I Writing?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading, and welcome back!


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[1] These are the words of Theodore Roosevelt, spoken to Congress on January 30, 1905. Evans Holbrook, “Divorce Laws and the Increase of Divorce,” Michigan Law Review 8, no. 5 (1910): p. 387, accessed 6/15/2022, https://doi.org/10.2307/1272577. The “divorce evil” was mentioned frequently in Mennonite periodicals that year, as they tracked the comments and decisions of public figures and church denominations. On November 18 of the same year the Mennonite Church officially adopted the position “That a person holding a divorce obtained for the sake of re-marriage, or being married a second time, and continuing to live with a second companion while the first companion is living should not be received into the church.”


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