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“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I’m examining Jesus’ words beginning with 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)

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

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

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)


Summary of this post: I ask whether Jesus’ statement that “Moses allowed” divorce provides any clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. After showing that Jesus was not pitting Moses against God, I survey what God’s law said about divorce. Some laws narrowly commanded divorce; others narrowly forbade it. Multiple laws assumed divorce and that divorce dissolves a marriage. The famous Deuteronomy 24 passage prohibited a man from remarrying his former wife who had meanwhile been married to another. This passage is joined by others that likewise grouped divorce and death as equally and truly ending marriage. 


Introduction: Was Marriage Indissoluble Under the Law of Moses?

Jesus wrapped up his summary of God’s creation design for marriage in Matthew 19:3-6 with a strong command: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The Pharisees were not satisfied with this response. They countered with a question, alluding again to Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matt. 19:7). Doesn’t this mention of a “certificate of divorce” imply that it is “lawful” (Matt. 19:3) to divorce a wife?

Jesus’ rebuttal focused again on God’s creation design for marriage: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). In other words, yes, it may have been “lawful” under the law of Moses to divorce, but that same law, in its record of the creation, shows that divorce was not part of God’s original and unchanging design. In short, the should of marriage permanence remains clear, despite the certificates of divorce allowed under Moses.[1]

But does Moses’ allowance of divorce indicate anything about whether a marriage could be dissolved by anything other than death? Do the practices of divorce and remarriage under the law of Moses suggest that divorce was always only a legal fiction? Or do they suggest that marriages really could be dissolved, despite God’s creation intent?

As I address these questions in this post, I will focus on the first main clause in Jesus’ sentence: “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” From the perspective of what was uppermost in Jesus’ mind, the other two clauses are even more important (“Because of your hardness of heart… but from the beginning it was not so”). I plan to address those clauses directly in a future post or two. First, however, I want to consider what we can learn from Jesus’ acknowledgement that Moses allowed divorce.

So, what does the law of Moses say about divorce? And do its laws about divorce give any indication as to whether marriage is indissoluble or not? Let’s survey some of the most important evidence for clues.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, a 1659 oil-on-canvas painting of the prophet Moses by the Dutch artist Rembrandt.

The Law of Moses: Two Possible Misunderstandings

Two likely  misunderstandings must be cleared up right away. First, Jesus is not pitting Moses against God. Jesus is not saying “God forbade divorce but Moses dishonored God by allowing it anyway.” Jesus is never recorded as speaking negatively of Moses.[2] He believed the law of Moses came from God himself; in fact, in this very conversation with the Pharisees Jesus has already attributed an editorial comment from Moses (“Therefore, what God has joined…”) to God (“he who created them”).[3]

The suggestion that Jesus’ words “Moses allowed” are describing “a merely human deviation from the divine purpose” is “a very modern inference,” as commentator R. T. France noted. Rather, “the laws given by Moses were understood to be the laws of God; ‘Moses’ means the Pentateuch, the God-given body of law which is Israel’s highest authority.”[4] Thus, whatever commands we find in Moses’ law must be seen as coming from God himself.

Second, we should note that the law cited by the Pharisees, which is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, is really a law about remarriage, not divorce. This law is essentially a long “if” followed by a short “then” command. A summary version could read, “If a man divorces his wife, she remarries, and her second marriage comes to an end, then the man may not take her back as his wife again.”[5] Thus, Dean Taylor rightly wrote of this passage, “Moses did not institute divorce, he merely regulated against a type of remarriage.”[6] That said, it remains true, as Jesus acknowledged, that this law of Moses did “allow” divorce.

Laws Requiring Divorce

What is less well known is that in some cases the law of Moses actually required divorce. For example, in Exodus 21:11 a master-husband was instructed to give his Hebrew slave-wife her food, clothing, and marital rights, without diminishing them if he took another woman. If he withheld these rights, the law commanded that “she shall go out for nothing” (Ex. 21:11; cf. Ex. 21:26). Similarly, Deuteronomy 21:14 commanded that if a man “no longer delight in” his wife whom he had taken as a captive in war, he must “let her go where she wants” without selling her or treating her as a slave.

Both these passages contain linguistic links to the famous divorce and remarriage passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, links suggesting that these passages are talking about full divorce, complete with the right to remarry.[7] They also appear to be talking about real marriage, despite the wife being originally secured by either slavery (temporary indentured servitude of a fellow Hebrew) or captivity (of a foreign enemy). If either of these seems least likely to qualify as real marriage, it would be the captive wife. Yet the Deuteronomy passage says explicitly, “you may… be her husband, and she shall be your wife” (Deut. 21:13). Further, that passage occurs right before a paragraph that demands that unloved “wives” be given equal rights as loved ones, a command that parallels the one in Exodus 21:11.

If a wife taken as a slave or captive had a right to secure a divorce if her husband would not provide for or “delight in” her, then surely a wife gained by more normal means had equal rights or better. Thus, Jews in Jesus’ day applied this passage to all marriages. They “recognized that the obligations of Exodus 21:10-11 could form the basis of a claim for divorce,” and “rabbinic literature preserves detailed discussions concerning the exact limits for gaining a divorce on the grounds” in that passage.[8]

It is worth noting that some of the authors who have been influential for conservative Anabaptists on the topic of divorce (Coblentz, Webb, Wenham, etc.) do not even mention Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14.[9] Several make statements that are clearly false in light of these passages. For example, Cornes wrote the following in his summary of the OT law:

Any individual law which specifically legislates about divorce only limits its availability. The law must therefore be seen as restraining divorce rather than enabling it.[10]

Wenham and Heth likewise exclaimed, “There is, in fact, no legislation respecting grounds for divorce in Old Testament law!”[11]

Kuruvilla, drawing on Cornes, made a similar claim, even extending it to include the entire OT:

Throughout the Old Testament, there is no “enabling legislation” for divorce. Instead, Old Testament laws merely restrict a practice that was already ongoing… Nowhere in the Old Testament are any statements given that “enable” divorce or remarriage.[12]

Contrary to these claims, Exodus and Deuteronomy both clearly command that if a husband refused to care for his (slave or captive) wife, he must grant her the freedom of a divorce. Would God, through Moses, have commanded that wives of abusive husbands be freed to remarry if he thought that their first marriages remained undissolved?

A Jewish wedding. Image used with permission from Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing. Downloaded from FreeBibleImages.org.

Laws Prohibiting Divorce

Other laws provided for women by protecting them from wrongful divorce. For example, what if a husband took a wife, decided he didn’t like her after having sex with her for the first time, and then tried to get rid of her by falsely accussing her of not being a virgin? Such a man was to be whipped and fined, and “he may not divorce her all his days.” He had to provide for her for life, without exception, for he had “brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel” and put her in danger of wrongful capital punishment (Deut. 22:19). Similarly, the rule for a man who raped an unbetrothed virgin was that he had to marry her and “may not divorce her all his days” (Deut. 22:29).[13]

As far as I can discover, author Rubel Shelly is right in saying that these are “the only two specific situations named in which a man could not divorce his wife” under the law of Moses.[14] And presumably, if a wife in these two situations was later uncared for, she could go to court to sue for either provision or her own right of divorce under the precedent of Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14.

How widely was divorce practiced in OT Israel? Given the pattern of Israel’s other sins, Instone-Brewer is probably right in saying “we must assume that divorce was as prevalent in Israel then as in other ancient Near Eastern societies.”[15] What is clear is that divorce was widely “allowed” under the law of Moses and sometimes even commanded. Was God allowing something that was a legal fiction, or was he allowing (and sometimes commanding) something that was real, even though it fell short of his original design for marriage?

A Law Prohibiting Remarriage

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 supports this picture of easily-available divorce. I’ve already summarized the basic point of the passage, and I’ll reinforce that summary now by emphasizing that the Jews in Jesus’ day entirely missed the point of the passage when they mined it in search of valid grounds for divorce. The passage does not provide grounds for divorce but restrictions against a certain kind of remarriage.

Let me quote the passage in full and then we’ll look for clues about marriage permanence.

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deut. 24:1-4)

Some things about this passage remain highly debated among commentators. What is “some indecency”? How, exactly, was the wife “defiled”? Why was it wrong for her former husband to take her again as his wife after she had been defiled? What relevance, if any, does this remarriage prohibition have for us today?

I won’t try to answer those questions now. I will point instead to some clear facts that may be clues about whether marriage is indissoluble. In this passage:

    • A woman who is remarried is called “another man’s wife”—that is, she is now the “wife” of “another man” besides her former husband (v. 2).
    • Her prior husband is called her “former husband” (v. 4), indicating he is no longer her husband.
    • A certificate of divorce is expected for ending a second marriage just as surely as a first marriage, suggesting the second marriage was considered just as real as the first (v. 3).
    • Divorce and death are presented in parallel as equally ending a marriage (v. 3).
    • A woman’s former husband (including her first one) has less right (none!) to claim her as wife than any other man does (v. 4); there is no assumption a first husband has special rights based on a persisting marital union.

Let me get technical for one paragraph. It is worth noting that the Hebrew word (ri’šôn) translated “former” in the phrase “former husband” does not always mean “first” (e.g., Num. 21:26; Ps. 79:8; Is. 42:9). Thus, this law restricts a second husband from remarrying a former wife after she has married a third as surely as it restricts a first husband from remarrying. Therefore, it is not right to say that a first husband is singled out by this law even negatively, by receiving a special prohibition not given to subsequent husbands. (The CSB, NET, NIV, NLT, and multiple other translations are misleading in this regard; KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, and others more cautiously read “former.”)

In short, while it is not clear whether the divorces in this passage were legitimate, everything about the passage suggests that divorce was seen as truly ending a marriage—just as truly as by death. Further, remarriage was seen as “putting a seal” on divorce, making any former marriage permanently dissolved.

The persistent widow, from Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:1-8). Used with permission from FreeBibleImages.org.

Laws Grouping the Divorced and the Widowed

Tellingly, several other passages in the law of Moses group divorce and death in a similar way. For example, both widowhood and divorce gave a priest’s daughter equal right to return to her father’s house and eat his priestly food, which she was forbidden to eat while she was married to a layman (Lev. 22:12-13). Similarly, if a married woman made a vow, her husband had a right to make her vow void when he first heard of it. But this law came with an exception: “Any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her” (Num. 30:9). As far as both these laws were concerned, a divorcing husband and a dead husband had equal authority over their former wives—none.

The marriage restrictions for a high priest also group divorce and widowhood together:

A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people (Lev. 21:14).

The restriction against marrying a widow was a matter of ritualistic cleanliness, not a timeless moral requirement (1 Cor. 7:39).[16] It functioned like other restrictions in this passage, such as the one forbidding the high priest from making himself unclean by caring for the dead bodies of close relatives (Lev. 21:11). Similarly, the NT strongly implies that there is nothing immoral about marrying someone who was formerly sexually immoral (“a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute”) but who is now “sanctified” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

Given this context, it appears that the law against priests marrying divorced women (cf. Lev. 21:7) was also a ritualistic restriction, not a moral one. Commentator Wenham suggests this restriction was designed to protect a priest’s reputation and also to ensure his wife’s children were really his own, thus protecting the priestly line.[17]

In fact, divorced and widowed persons were so tightly grouped in Jewish thought that the Hebrew and Greek words translated widow in the Bible were sometimes used to refer to a divorced woman.[18] This broader conception of widowhood in the Hebrew language is found in 2 Samuel 20:3. After David returned to Jerusalem following his defeat of Absalom, he took his ten concubines whom Absalom had defiled and “put them in custody… but did not have relations with them. So they were locked up until the day of their death, living as widows” (NASB).

Similarly, the Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher Philo—during whose lifetime Jesus lived and died—counted a divorced woman as having been widowed in his interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4:

If a woman after parting from her husband for any cause whatever marries another and then again becomes a widow [χηρεύσῃ], whether this second husband is alive or dead, she must not return to her first husband.[19]

Philo’s interpretation affirms our observation that divorced and widowed women were treated very similarly under the law of Moses, both classed as being unmarried.

Conclusion: Marriage Was Dissoluble Under the Law of Moses

As far as I know, these are all the passages in the law of Moses that deal explicitly with human divorce.[20] None of these passages give any indication that divorce did not truly end a marriage. Taken together, they strongly indicate that divorce was seen as fully dissolving a marriage. There is no indication that a man who divorced his wife had any special right to take her back again, and he was expressly forbidden from doing so if she had meanwhile been married to someone else.

Yes, every mention of divorce in the law of Moses is in tension with God’s creation design recorded in the first book of Moses. If every Israelite had lived up to God’s design, no marriage would ever have ended in divorce.

However, it is also true that if every human had lived up to God’s design, no marriages would have been dissolved by death, either. (This includes marriages ended by death as punishment for adultery, a topic I hope to address later.[21]) Tragically, both death and divorce are part of human experience post-Eden, and both are pictured in the law of Moses—God’s law—as truly ending marriage.

Was this picture merely an illusory concession to human practices? What did Jesus mean when he said these divorce allowances were given because of “hardness of heart”? And what about his statement that “from the beginning it was not so”? I plan to turn to these questions in my next posts.

Thanks for reading this long post! I invite you to add your insights or questions in the comments below.


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[1] It is a sobering truth that merely living up to a law granted as a concession to human weakness does not ensure one is truly pleasing God.

[2] Even though some of Jesus’ teachings hinted that the law of Moses would come to an end (Matt. 11:13; Mark 7:19; Luke 16:16), he urged people to obey even the details of the law (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42) and warned they would be judged by Moses (John 5:45-46; cf. Luke 16:29-31). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ teaching about divorce comes immediately after his statement that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Luke 16:17).

[3] See Matt. 19:4; cf. Matt. 15:3-6.

[4] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 719.

[5] The KJV, unfortunately, obscures the flow of thought, but the NKJV, ESV, and most other modern translations make the if-then structure of Moses’ command clear. The moral logic and current relevance of Moses’ prohibition of a husband remarrying his former wife, however, remain highly debated. Since Jesus didn’t address these questions, I won’t address them in this post, either.

[6] Dean Taylor, “One Flesh, One Covenant,” Pt. 2 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, July/August/September 2007, Ephrata Ministries, p. 5. Available online, accessed 7/14/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-07-one-flesh.pdf.

[7] The Hebrew word translated “let her go” in Deuteronomy 21:14 (šālaḥ) appears again in Deuteronomy 24:1, which describes a husband who divorces his wife and “sends her” out of his house. Likewise, the word translated “shall go out” in Exodus 21:11 (yāṣā’) appears in Deuteronomy 24:1 (24:2 in some translations) in the phrase “she departs out of his house.” This woman then “goes and becomes another man’s wife” (Deut. 24:2). This shared language implies that in all three passages the woman who is sent away is free to remarry, even though two of the passages never explicitly say so.

[8] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 102.

[9] Authors who discussed divorce in the OT without mentioning either Exodus 21:11 or Deuteronomy 21:14 include John Coblentz (What the Bible Says about Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage), Finny Kuruvilla (“Until Death Do Us Part”), J. Carl Laney (The Divorce Myth), Joseph A. Webb (Till Death Do Us Part?), Gordon J. Wenham and William E. Heth (Jesus and Divorce) and G. J. Wenham (Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting). Andrew Cornes (Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice) discussed only the Deuteronomy passage (p. 137-38). Despite acknowledging it discusses divorce, he surprisingly asserted that it actually discourages divorce. The authors of Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View (Wingerd, Elliff, Chrisman, and Burchett) addressed both texts in an appendix (pp. 143-46), but only to explain why they “did not consider” them “relevant to our discussion.” I do not find their reasons compelling.

[10] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 176-77.

[11] William E. Heth and Gordan J. Wenham, Jesus and Divorce, updated ed. (Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 2002), 107.

[12] Finny Kuruvilla, “Until Death Do Us Part: Is Remarriage Biblically Sanctioned After Divorce?” (essay), (Anchor Cross Publishing, July 13, 2014), 4-5, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/570e3c2f8259b563851efcf8/t/5911288c4402435d4e08c196/1494296716383/essay_remarriage.pdf. The most obvious passage contradicting Kuruvilla’s broader claim is Ezra 10, where Israel divorced their foreign wives in an act of repentance. Nothing in the passage suggests that these marriages were not real, despite being contrary to God’s law. Nor is there any indication that any subsequent marriages would be legal fictions permitted by God even though the first marriages were not truly dissolved. Rather, the passage is best understood as a case where two shoulds conflicted with each other—the should of marital permanence and the should of marrying only within Israel. Both of these could be broken, and in this case Nehemiah ruled that the latter should took precedent over the former. In the language of the passage, to have “broken faith” with God by marrying foreign women was worse than to subsequently break faith with these women by divorcing them, for the latter was required as part of renewing Israel’s “covenant with… God” (Ezra 10:2-3, 10-11).

[13] Her father, however, had legal right to refuse to give his daughter to him in marriage (Ex. 22:17).

[14] Rubel Shelly, Divorce and Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2007), 50.

[15] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 23.

[16] This conclusion is reinforced by how Ezekiel repeats these commands in his vision of a renewed priesthood: “They shall not marry a widow or a divorced woman, but only virgins of the offspring of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest” (Ez. 44:22). The final “loophole” in this verse shows that it was not intrinsically wrong for a priest to marry a widow.

[17] Gordan J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the OT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 291-92.

[18] The Lexham Bible Dictionary provides this definition for both the Hebrew word (אַלְמָנָה, almanah) and the Greek word (χήρα, chēra): “A woman whose husband has died, or who has been parted in some way from her husband” (M. J. Morris, “Widow,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016].

[19] Philo, On the Special Laws, III.30, from Philo, Vol. VII, Loeb Classical Library, trans. F. H. Colson, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 493. Emphasis added. https://archive.org/details/PhiloSupplement01Genesis/Philo%2007%20Decalogue%2C%20Special%20Laws%20I-III/page/n509/mode/2up.

[20] Other passages in the law of Moses contain information about marriage that have indirect significance to the question of marriage permanence (such as texts implying the legality of polygamy). There are also narrative portions of the books of Moses that are relevant. These include not only Genesis 1 and 2 and other passages reinforcing marriage faithfulness, but also stories such as the account where God encouraged Abraham to heed Sarah’s desire and “cast out” Hagar (Gen. 21:8-14), his slave whom he had taken “as a wife” (Gen. 16:3). Finally, God predicts his own divorce of Israel (“I will forsake them”), for he knows they will “whore after… foreign gods… and break my covenant that I have made with them” (Deut. 31:16-18).

[21] If the passages I have discussed in this post are overwhelmingly focused on protecting wives, the Mosaic laws about adultery focus on protecting husbands from unfaithful wives. If it was evident a wife had committed adultery, both she and her adulterous partner were to be put to death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).


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“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

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)

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

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


Summary of this post: I ask whether Jesus meant “let not man separate” or “let not man try to separate,” as some propose. Based on clues from literary and historical contexts, I argue that Jesus’ first listeners understood him to be prohibiting the full dissolution of marriage—and that Jesus expected to be understood this way. I note that some proponents of marriage indissolubility acknowledge such a conclusion is reasonable, yet point ahead to Jesus’ statement about remarriage being “adultery” as proof that marriage is indissoluble. I promise to address this statement and acknowledge some complexities of this divorce discussion. 


Before I jump into today’s post, I feel I should clarify some potential misunderstandings about my goals in this series:

  • If you are confused about my purposes or beliefs, please read my post promoting radical faithfulness in marriage.
  • I’m trying to choose my post titles carefully. When I say a certain expression “does not imply an unbreakable bond,” I do not necessarily mean “implies a breakable bond.” Similarly, when I say “implies a breakable bond” in today’s post, I definitely do not mean “proves a breakable bond.” That said, after a while, enough non-implications plus implications do add up to a beyond-all-reasonable-doubt sort of proof. I’m definitely not there yet, though, in this series, so thank you for not saying I’ve claimed something I’ve not yet claimed!
  • I’m somewhat conflicted about naming and quoting people that I’m disagreeing with, especially when I know them personally. I’ve been on the receiving end of enough critique to know that public critique—even when it is respectful and perhaps especially from friends—can be uncomfortable and even potentially debilitating. I’m also aware it is easy to be misunderstood and that none of us still agrees with everything we’ve ever said or taught in public. That said, (a) it is standard, respectful academic procedure to sharpen thinking by quoting and evaluating the public teachings of others, (b) such public discussion of the public teachings of others seems consistent with the NT’s picture of the greater accountability expected of church leaders, and (c) for the purposes of my series it seems that direct quotations will help some readers better understand the significance, within the conservative Anabaptist context, of the questions I am discussing.
    Please know I have a lot of respect for many of the people I’m quoting and disagreeing with in this series! Many of them, to paraphrase Jesus’ parable (Matt. 13:23), are bearing gospel fruit thirtyfold and sixtyfold, compared to my own tenfold (on a good day).
    If I quote you in this series and you think I’m misunderstanding you or quoting something you no longer affirm, please let me know. I will be happy to do my best to correct any misrepresentations. I hope we can learn from each other, and I sincerely wish you God-speed in your kingdom work and worship.

Thank you for reading these clarifications. And now… on to today’s post!


Introduction: Should Not or Cannot Separate?

“Let not man separate” is the command that Jesus gives after summarizing the union that God designed for husbands and wives (Matt. 19:6). Since it is God who has joined a husband and a wife, separating marriages is a sin against God, not merely against humans.

This clause “let not man separate” offers a classic illustration of how Bible readers can get confused between the “should” and “could” of Scripture. The most obvious way to Jesus’ command is that he is saying humans should not do something that they could do. As commentator R. T. France noted, “the argument here is expressed not in terms of what cannot happen, but of what must not happen: the verb is an imperative: “let not man separate.”[1]

Bible teachers who believe marriage is indissoluble are often discontent with that simple reading, however.

John Piper, for example, waffled in his comments on this verse. First, he gave this summary: “Jesus… says that none of us should try to undo the ‘one-flesh’ relationship which God has united.” But later, citing this same statement of Jesus, Piper said “only God, not man, can end this one-flesh relationship.”[2] So which is true? Man should not separate, or man cannot separate?

To be fair, Piper’s two statements are indeed consistent with each other—but only because Piper added “try to” to Jesus’ prohibition on separating husbands and wives. Is this fair? Did Jesus mean “let not man separate,” as his words are recorded? Or did he actually mean “let not man vainly try to separate” or perhaps “imagine they have separated”?

The sign reads “STAY BACK,” not “It is impossible to go beyond this point.” Photo by Danne.

How Did Jesus Expect to be Understood?

How would Jesus’ hearers have understood him? I see at least four reasons why Jesus’ hearers would have understood him to be implying that a marriage can, indeed, be dissolved.

First, nothing Jesus has said so far suggests that marriage is indissoluble. Remember, when Jesus says we are not to separate “what God has joined,” he is pointing back to what he just said—that God made humans “male and female” and therefore a man shall “hold fast” to his wife and they shall become “one flesh.” As noted in previous posts, none of this language implies that marriage involves an unbreakable bond. To the contrary, all this language was used elsewhere to refer to bonds that can be broken. This suggests that there is a real possibility that “what God has joined” could be “separated.”

Second, the words joined and separated are virtual opposites, and the way Jesus paired them reinforces the idea that they should be understood that way. For example, I could say, “I’m sleeping, so stop talking,” and we could debate whether talking has the potential to undo my sleeping or whether talking has some other possible effect that concerns me. But if I say, “I’m sleeping, so don’t wake me up,” then it is clear: waking me up will end my sleeping! (Let’s not get distracted about why I’m talking in my sleep.) Similarly, Jesus’ direct pairing of the opposite terms joined and separated puts the burden of proof on anyone who argues that the latter does not undo the former.

Third, in no other case, to my knowledge, does Jesus forbid humans from doing something that is actually impossible to do. I’ve actually looked, and I can’t find such an example. The closest, perhaps, might be this: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3). On a literal level, true, it is impossible for your left hand to know what your right hand is doing! But that statement uses obvious hyperbole and is thus very different from Jesus’ straightforward command against separating what God has joined. On a practical level, there is nothing hyperbolic whatsoever about the possibility of separating a husband and a wife. It is a possible, common event.

Fourth, Jesus was engaging Jews on a question about divorce, and virtually everyone at the time—Jews and Greco-Romans alike—understood that divorce completely dissolved a marriage, freeing one for remarriage. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” was the question. “What God has joined together, let not man separate” was Jesus’ answer. Significantly, Jesus’ term “separate” (χωρίζω) was frequently used in both informal and legal contexts at the time to refer to divorce. True, it can have a more general meaning, and it probably does carry broader implications here. But Jesus’ hearers would certainly have heard it as referring most directly to divorce—thus, in their understanding, obviously referring to the full dissolution of a marriage.

Judging by these four reasons, Jesus’ command to not separate strongly implies that marriage is not an unbreakable bond. His listeners heard him clearly imply that marriage can indeed be dissolved by humans. What is more, Jesus, as a fellow Jew and a master teacher, knew that his listeners would understand him this way. In short, Jesus was using ordinary words in ordinary ways to forbid an ordinary occurrence: the full breakup, destruction, and dissolution of a marriage.

Cornes’ Concession

That much is relatively clear. And it is important to pause here and emphasize that, up until this point in Matthew 19 (verse 6), all Jesus’ words are consistent with one conclusion: Marriage can, indeed, be dissolved by humans.

On this point Andrew Cornes is admirably clear and honest. Even though he ultimately argues for “the impossibility of true divorce or remarriage,” at this stage in his analysis of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees, Cornes pauses to make the following statement:

Jesus has not (yet) said that husband and wife cannot be separated, that this is an impossibility. He has only said that they must not be separated. He has spoken only of the moral obligation not to divorce and stated that it would be a sin against God to divorce one’s partner or to cause the break-up of a marriage. In the next verses, however, he goes considerably further.[3]

(In fact, Cornes wrote this comment right after his discussion of Mark 10:9. Since Mark’s account varies slightly from Matthew’s, Corne’s comment covers not only all Jesus’ statements we’ve discussed so far but also his comments about Moses, which Matthew includes in verses 7 to 8.)

Was Jesus Prohibiting Only the External Separation of Marriage?

Those who don’t think Jesus meant humans can truly separate what God has joined, then, come to that conclusion either based on alternate readings of terms like one flesh or because of what Jesus says later in the passage. For example, here is the assessment offered in Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View, a multi-author book that some conservative Anabaptists recommend:

Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 is sometimes thought to refute the above point [that a marriage “union is permanent until death”]. Since He commands us not to separate what God has joined together, it is reasoned that it is possible to separate what God has joined together. After all, why would He prohibit us from doing something that is impossible? But by looking at the matter in its fuller biblical context (as is the intent of this book), we will see that Jesus must have been prohibiting the external separation of marriage. The vows spoken at a wedding can certainly be disregarded, and a marriage certainly can be separated in civil and legal ways, but these external disruptions of marriage do not and cannot destroy the morally binding one-flesh union created by God. Otherwise, no reason would exist for Jesus to call remarriage after divorce “adultery.”[4]

This paragraph is so full that I can’t offer a comprehensive response here. The authors wrote a book to try to prove their argument and it could take a book to respond. That said, I want to make several quick observations.

First, yes, it is theoretically possible that Jesus could have meant don’t legally or physically separate a union that it is impossible to truly separate. It is possible, and it can appear almost certain, if you bring particular assumptions to the text. The four reasons I presented above, however, strongly indicate that Jesus knew his first listeners would not understand him this way. I see no reason to abandon the most natural reading unless forced to do so.

Second, notice how these authors, right at the climax of their argument, described marriage as “the morally binding one-flesh union created by God.” This pile-on of emotion-laden terms is a non-argument obviously intended to help convince the reader. I say “non-argument” because “morally binding” merely shows one should not separate a marriage, not that one cannot. And the only term in that clause that could perhaps indicate that marriage is indissoluble—“one-flesh”—actually does not, as we have seen.

Third, and most important, the one actual argument the authors offered is based on what Jesus will say later in this account, when he calls remarriage after divorce “adultery.” If it is possible to separate a one-flesh union created by God, then how could Jesus call a post-divorce marriage “adultery”? This is a good question. In response, I’ll plant two small seeds now, with plans to develop them in future posts:

(1) Yes, Jesus calls remarriage after (some) divorce “adultery,” but what is the biblical picture of what adultery does to a marriage?

(2) What about the exception Jesus gave to the statement that remarriage is adultery? Would not even one exception show that marriage is not truly indissoluble?[5]

For reasons such as these, I find the arguments that Jesus was merely prohibiting the external separation of marriage unconvincing. Certainly he did forbid that, but I believe he was prohibiting complete separation, too.[6]

As Mrs. Reagan learned in her campaign against drug use, something remains possible to do even after you’ve been told to “just say no” to it. (Yes, I know the comparison with Jesus’ divorce command is imprecise.) Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Complexities and a Conclusion: “Let Not Man Separate” Implies Marriage is Dissoluble

Before I finish this post, I want to observe that there is inevitable complexity about talking about marriages that have been ended. For example, when Jesus says one who “marries” another “commits adultery,” he affirms that a remarriage is indeed a marriage even as he condemns it (Matt. 19:9, etc.). Similarly, Paul says a divorced Christian wife “should remain unmarried or else be reconciled” to her Christian husband (1 Cor. 7:11). His words show that it is possible in one breath to talk about marriage having ended (“unmarried”) but about obligations still remaining.[7]

Both examples underscore again the necessity of distinguishing between the “could” and “should” of Scripture. It must also be noted that neither Jesus nor Paul apply the above statements to all divorce and remarriage situations; Jesus did not say all divorces and remarriages are adultery, nor did Paul say obligations remain after every kind of divorce.

Given these complexities, I acknowledge I puzzled long and hard over how to express myself in this post. I encourage both “sides” (those arguing for marriage indissolubility and those arguing against) to be kind to each other as we try to discuss a question of some philosophical complexity. Almost certainly, no matter which position we take, we will say some things that appear superficially contradictory (like Jesus and Paul did!). We must be gracious with each other while pushing for greater accuracy and clarity.

This post has uncovered points that will require further consideration. That said, I want to end by underscoring my main point in this post: Everything Jesus has said thus far in his conversation with the Pharisees (Matthew 19:3-6) suggests we should take Jesus’ command in its most natural, comprehensive sense: Humans can indeed dissolve the union that God creates in marriage, but they must not do so.


Will further evidence override this conclusion? In my next posts I plan to continue walking through Matthew 19, looking for more clues to what Jesus believed about marriage permanence.

I invite your prayers for my continued study and writing. Thank you for reading my words here, and feel free to add your insights in the comments below.


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


[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 718.

[2] John Piper, “Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper,” Desiring God Foundation, 7/1/1986, accessed 6/14/2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/divorce-and-remarriage-a-position-paper

[3] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), p. 192. I have much respect for Cornes even though ultimately I have come to disagree with him on the point of whether marriage is dissoluble. Cornes’ book includes exceptionally helpful reflections on singleness in the Bible and the church.

[4] Steve Burchett, Jim Chrisman, Jim Elliff, and Daryl Wingerd, Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View (Kansas City, MO: Christian Communicators Worldwide, 2009), p. 17.

[5] Yes, I know I haven’t proven this point yet, but I’m tipping my hand to the reading of Jesus’ exception clause that I find most convincing.

[6] It might be worth mentioning in passing that in Mark’s account of Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about divorce, they never hear him call divorce and remarriage adultery; only the disciples hear Jesus give this teaching after they question him privately “in the house” (Mk. 10:10-11). This eliminates the possibility, at least according to Mark’s version of events, that the Pharisees would have deduced from Jesus’ adultery statement that marriage was—contrary to all their understandings as Jews—indissoluble.

[7] A helpful chapter on this topic (“Are Divorced People Still Married in God’s Eyes?”) is included in the following wide-ranging, yet accessible, book by Jim Newheiser: Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 230ff.


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Anabaptists Now: Taking Exception to Jesus’ Exception Clause

“I don’t know if what you are doing is right or not. I really don’t know. I feel I have to tell you that. But… yes, I will play piano at your wedding.”

That is what I told a friend, in words I can’t recall specifically now, roughly twenty years ago. I had met my friend through the Christian student club at Nipissing University, where I was pursuing an English degree. I’m not sure which year we had that conversation, but in one of our years together my friend, a Pentecostal, was the Bible study teacher for the club and I, a Mennonite, was the club president. (He also played an energetic guitar while singing “I’m Trading My Sorrows.”)

My friend had been married before. I never met his first wife, for she had left him some years previously. He didn’t want their marriage to end, but she made the decision for him. Despite her blatant unfaithfulness, he repeatedly sought to win her back. She refused, and eventually they divorced.

Now my friend had met a new friend, a smiling young lady who also attended the Christian student club and had a ready testimony. After their wedding, they moved overseas where they served as missionaries until she tragically died less than ten years later.

I have a terrible long-term memory, so I can’t tell you any details about their wedding; but I do remember I played piano. The main reason I remember even that basic fact is because of the conversation I had to have with my friend before I agreed to play.

I grew up in a congregation that was first part of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario (CMCO) and then, since my early teens, part of Midwest Fellowship. In that setting I clearly caught, however it was taught, that divorce was terribly wrong and that remarriage was even worse.1 Adultery was certainly no excuse for remarriage, for remarriage itself was adultery. I imagine I learned that through simple presentation of relevant Scripture texts and also through our congregational study of books by people like Daniel Kauffman and John Coblentz.

As I grew older and moved out of our congregational bubble, I naturally met people from other denominations with other understandings of what the Bible teaches about divorce and remarriage. I have never lost my belief that every time divorce happens a marriage has fallen short of God’s design; someone, somewhere, has sinned. And I’ve always remained convinced that there is far too much divorce and remarriage happening among people who claim to follow Jesus.

But I’ve also had persistent, unresolved questions throughout my adult life. What did Jesus mean by “except it be for fornication” (to use the KJV expression)? If divorce is ever justified, when is it? And is remarriage ever blessed by God? What about couples who have wrongly remarried; should they now separate?

A number of years ago I was asked to express my affirmation with a Mennonite denominational position statement on divorce and remarriage. The statement said that initiating divorce or remarrying while a spouse is still living is always wrong and that those who thus remarry must separate. In response, I summarized God’s creation design regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage. But also, being honest, I added more, including these words:

God’s ideal is crystal clear: marriage should be for life, a mirror of Christ’s loving relationship with the Church. God’s perspective on less-than-ideal situations is not always so clear. I notice that the NT texts about marriage (both Jesus’ words and Paul’s teachings) are presented as discussions of what a Christian should do. They are not directly presented to answer every question of the appropriate response of either a repentant Christian or the church after this ideal has been violated. Thus we rely on exegetical and theological deduction when we address questions like, “What about someone who has already divorced and remarried and now wants to faithfully honor Christ?” While such secondary questions are crucially important, I think it is honest and helpful to observe that no NT text appears to have been directly intended to answer that question. Most attempts to answer such questions either rely on the witness of church history or are based on important but slender and difficult exegetical data.

I am confident that my experience is not unusual among those of us who have grown up in the conservative Anabaptist world.2 Many of you, I’m sure, could tell similar stories. Others of you, who are more confident in your interpretations on this topic, could probably tell stories of when your beliefs bumped up against differing beliefs within our own conservative Anabaptist world.

The diversity and uncertainty of conservative Anabaptist beliefs about divorce and remarriage were driven home to me recently in an informal poll I conducted on Facebook.

I was curious how accurate my hunches were about how conservative Anabaptists handle Jesus’ exception clauses. Here, to refresh our memories, are the two times Jesus mentioned some exception to his prohibition of divorce:

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt. 5:32)

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matt. 19:9)

The two clauses are very similar and are usually understood to mean the same thing. But how do conservative Anabaptists handle them? I created a poll to find out.

I’ll share the results of that poll here and use it as a springboard for discussion. You are also welcome to add your own responses in the comments below.

Here is the poll I presented:

In your experience, what are the most common ways that conservative Anabaptists handle Jesus’ exception clauses in the Matthew 5 and 19 passages about divorce and remarriage? Which of the following is most common in your experience?

A. The exception refers to fornication during the Jewish betrothal period. It allowed for “divorce” from a betrothed “wife” or “husband” and gave permission to marry another. It has no application for married couples today.

B. The exception refers to adultery after marriage. It allows for divorce (or separation) only, but no remarriage.

C. Either of the above are equally possible as a matter of biblical interpretation; what is clear is that Jesus is prohibiting remarriage in all cases.

D. Focusing on exception clauses is just looking for loopholes; let’s focus on Jesus’ and Paul’s clear teaching instead.

E. Some other approach?

I’m not asking what you believe, just trying to see if I’m discerning the most common approaches within the conservative Anabaptist world. Thanks in advance for your help!

A brief explanation is in order about options A and B above.

Option A is what I will call the “betrothal” view. This view says that Jesus’ exception clauses refer only to the Jewish practice of betrothal, not to fully married persons. A Jewish person who entered a betrothal covenant was already called a husband or wife, even though the wedding might not happen for another year. They could have their marriage annulled (the term “divorce” was even used) if unfaithfulness was discovered in their partner. They were then completely free to marry another. This is what Joseph initially planned to do with Mary when he discovered she was pregnant (Matt. 1:18-19).

Option B is what I will call the “divorce-only” view. This view says that Jesus’ exception clauses refer to fully married persons. According to this view, Jesus is giving permission for a married person to divorce their spouse if that spouse commits sexual immorality (usually defined as adultery). Jesus was not, however, giving permission to remarry.

Now to the results of the poll. Sixty-four people answered this poll, representing a fairly diverse range of conservative Anabaptist church influences in at least twenty American states, two Canadian provinces, and Mexico. It is not possible to tally the results with scientific accuracy, for some people gave multiple or qualified responses. But the general picture is clear enough.

First, here are the responses from respondents who offered only one answer to my poll, shown as a percentage of all respondents. (The raw vote total is included below each heading.) For example, about 17.2% of all 64 respondents (11 people) said they have heard only the betrothal view taught:

(You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.)

Here is a record of all responses, showing how many times each answer was mentioned in any way. Many people gave answers like “Mostly A, but also sometimes D.” In such a case, this chard treats both A and D alike, without recognizing that A was prioritized over D. For example, about 54.7% of all 64 respondents (35 people) said they have heard the betrothal view taught, whether often or rarely:

Finally, here is another graph displaying all responses, also including (in orange) a rough attempt to represent the weight respondents intended for each answer when they gave more than one answer:

How can we summarize these results?

  • My hunches were probably right; only one person suggested an alternative conservative Anabaptist approach to Jesus’ exception clauses, which was really option D with some ugliness added.3
  • The most common approach is probably the betrothal view, mentioned by over half the respondents. My perception is that many Anabaptists today have encountered this view through popular-level Protestant teachers such as Bill Gothard and Joseph Webb (Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce). More professionally-published sources have also been influential, such a paper by John Piper (“Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper”) and a recent multi-authored book called Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View. I am not sure when this view entered Anabaptist circles, but already in 1950 John L. Stauffer was promoting it,4 and in about 1992 John Coblentz wrote that “this view has had wide acceptance among conservative people.”5 Note: This paragraph originally indicated that J. Carl Laney promotes this view, but I was mistaken.
  • The divorce-only view is also very popular among conservative Anabaptists, mentioned by nearly half of the respondents. This view appears to have somewhat longer roots within Anabaptism (more on that in another post), but Protestant scholars such as Gordon Wenham and William Heth (Jesus and Divorce) have also been influential within some Anabaptist groups. Anabaptist influencers David Bercot (“What the Early Christians Believed About Divorce and Remarriage”) and Finny Kuruvilla (“Divorce and Remarriage: What About the Exception Clause?”) are also promoting this view through their summaries of early church practices.
  • Over a third of respondents have heard both the betrothal and divorce-only views presented as being equally-valid interpretative options.
  • Over a third of respondents have heard warnings against looking for loopholes and encouragement to focus on clearer texts instead of the exception clauses.

What can we learn from this poll about how conservative Anabaptists approach Jesus’ exception clauses?

For most of the rest of this post I plan to discuss some weaknesses I perceive in some conservative Anabaptist approaches to these words of Jesus. I will cite specific examples to support my observations. Please know that when I name names, I have absolutely no desire to belittle anyone. People whom I highly respect and love as past mentors and teachers are among those who may feel challenged by some of my words. This is a difficult topic and many good Christians have not reached full agreement. Part of me does not want to name names, but I think citing some public documents can make this discussion more fruitful. My desire is simply that together we will learn to better hear and understand Jesus’ words. If you feel I am mishandling his words, you are welcome to let me know.

With those expressions of love in mind, here are four general observations about the poll results:

First, it appears that most conservative Anabaptists do not rely on or allow these exception clauses to determine their theology and ethics of divorce and remarriage. Rather, for these texts, their desired theological ends justify their uncertain interpretive means. Why are only these two specific interpretations (betrothal and divorce-only) currently popular among conservative Anabaptists—especially since these interpretations are very much the minority within Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and the Orthodox Church? It is surely because, rightly or wrongly, many conservative Anabaptists have their minds made up about what Jesus could not mean before even considering these texts.

An example of this is a tract available from the conservative publisher Rod and Staff. It rebukes those who use Jesus’ exception clause as a loophole but never offers a positive interpretation of what Jesus actually did mean:

Sometimes the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 is used to support divorce in cases of unfaithfulness. But such reasoning cannot be reconciled with the other New Testament passages on divorce and remarriage, which are very clear in their statement. The hardness of heart would grasp for a loophole here and fail to reckon faithfully with the clear statement of God’s Word in a number of other passages. This is hardly a safe approach to the Word.6

Second, it is clear that conservative Anabaptists have not reached a consensus about what Jesus did mean when he said “except it be for fornication.” They do not even agree on whether this clause has any direct relevance for Christians today or whether it was something spoken only for Jewish listeners.

Here I want to emphasize an important side point: If the betrothal view is correct, then we have zero verbal permission from Jesus not only for remarriage, but also for separating a marriage for any reason whatsoever. According to this view, Jesus’ words “Let not man separate” are given no qualification whatsoever for married couples—only for those who were betrothed. If we are going to allow for any separation of married persons (even when we don’t call it divorce), we have to assume that Jesus would have been okay with it and find possible justification elsewhere, such as from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:11. This assumption may indeed be valid; maybe we should consider the possibility that Jesus sometimes used typical Jewish hyperbole in his teaching. But if we adopt this interpretation, we must be honest: we are affirming that an unspoken qualification is attached to Jesus’ words, “Let not man separate.” We are saying, “Jesus said ‘Let not man separate,’ but we know that there are times when he would approve of separation anyway.”

Third, many conservative Anabaptists are deeply uncomfortable with these exception clauses. Truth be told, they would be happier if Jesus had not spoken them. These clauses throw a wrench into the otherwise clear teaching of Scripture. The term “exception clause” makes it feel too much like Jesus is “making an exception” for something that is intrinsically evil. If you’ll pardon another pun, many conservative Anabaptists “take exception” to Jesus’ exception clauses. This is evident in several of the examples I share in this post.

Fourth, when conservative Anabaptists do try to explain Jesus’ exception clauses, they are often quite happy to present mutually opposing interpretations as equally possible.  As long it can be shown that there are ways these exception clauses can possibly be harmonized with other biblical texts that appear to forbid divorce and remarriage, many conservative Anabaptists are content not to decide between contradictory interpretations.

I want to underscore that the two popular conservative Anabaptist interpretations of Jesus’ exception clauses indeed sharply disagree with each other on an exegetical level.

In pastoral practice, the two probably lead to similar results in conservative Anabaptist churches. The divorce-only view allows a believer to divorce from an adulterous spouse; but is rarely put into practice. The betrothal view technically does not give authorization for any sort of separation; but, as with the divorce-only view, sometimes separation is permitted for a variety of difficult circumstances without any direct authorization from these texts. Most importantly, both approaches strongly prohibit any remarriage, so the practical results are similar.

Despite the similar theological and practical results, on an exegetical level these two views are diametrically opposed. There are two key exegetical questions that must be solved to properly understand Jesus’ exception clauses:7

  1. What do the exception clauses themselves mean? Especially, what does porneia (πορνεία; the word translated “fornication” in the KJV) mean? This is a lexical question, a problem of word definitions.
  2. How do the exception clauses fit within Jesus’ complete sentences? In particular, in the Matthew 19:9 exception clause (which is where much of the debate is focused), does the exception clause modify only what comes before it, or does it modify Jesus’ entire statement? That is, does it identify an exception for divorce only, or also for marrying another? This is question of syntax, or sentence structure.

On these two key questions the betrothal and divorce-only views completely disagree. On the first question, the betrothal view says that porneia refers narrowly to premarital sin—fornication. But the divorce-only view says porneia is a more general word referring to a variety of sexual sins, including adultery.8

On the second question, the betrothal view says the exception clause modifies the entire subject-portion of Jesus’ sentence (“whoever divorces his wife and marries another”). Thus, Jesus was recognizing an exception for both divorce and marrying. What Jesus was really saying in Matthew 19:9 could be paraphrased like this: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, except if his betrothed wife commits sexual immorality; then he is free to divorce her and marry someone else.”

The divorce-only view, in contrast, says the exception clause modifies only the first half of the subject of Jesus’ sentence (“whoever divorces his wife”). Thus, Jesus was recognizing an exception for divorce only. Jesus’ statement could be paraphrased like this: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, except if his wife commits sexual immorality; then he may divorce her, but remarriage would still be adultery.”

The exegetical disagreement between these two views can be summarized in chart form.

Here is the exegesis that leads to the betrothal view:

And here is the exegesis that leads to the divorce-only view:

Given these distinct differences, a thoughtful reader needs to come to a confident conclusion on only one of these two questions to eliminate one of these views (betrothal or divorce-only) as a possible reading.

The betrothal interpretation of the second question (about syntax) demands further comment. I get the sense that few people take time to consider the implications of how the betrothal view interacts with the syntax of Jesus’ statement; most discussions of this view focus on the lexical question instead, along with possible supporting historical evidence.

The betrothal view, however, demands that we understand Jesus’ exception clause as modifying both the divorce and marriage parts of the subject of his sentence. If this were not so, then Jesus would have been saying this: A betrothed person who discovers that their husband or wife has been sexually unfaithful may be released from the betrothal covenant, but they may never marry anyone else. This proposal is self-evidently and historically unreasonable.

(It may be useful to point out that Jesus does not say “remarry” but “marry another.” Further, as I understand it, the Greek can be understood to say “marry an other”—referring not to a second woman but a different woman.)

The point I want to emphasize here is that, if the exception clause does not modify the marriage part of Jesus’ statement, the betrothal view is impossible.

This fact is sometimes missed. In a Christian Light Publications book, for example, Coblentz notes how the exception clause comes after Jesus’ mention of divorce and before his mention of adultery. Based on this sentence order, he concludes that “the exception refers to the putting away.”9 Despite establishing this firm conclusion, Coblentz later says, “Unfortunately, seeing the exception clause as referring to the ‘putting away’ does not resolve all the controversy.”10 After this statement, he proceeds to discuss the strengths of the betrothal view. In the end, he seems to prefer the divorce-only view, but he still affirms the betrothal view as possible.11

Clair Martin, in an official publication of the Biblical Mennonite Alliance, relies significantly on Coblentz. He agrees that the betrothal and divorce-only views are “both in line with scripture.”12 He examines only the lexical question of the definition of porneia and never addresses the syntactical question of how the exception clause modifies Jesus’ statement. He seems unaware that this factor also separates the betrothal and divorce-only views. His main concern seems to be to close “one of the most prominent loopholes that people use to get around this subject.”13

The inverse, of course, is also true: If you are going to say that the betrothal view is a valid interpretive option, then you must acknowledge that one of the most commonly-cited arguments in favor of the divorce-only view is not conclusive: The syntax of the sentence does not prove that Jesus is making an exception only for divorce. This means, if we are honest about our exegesis, that those who promote the betrothal view should acknowledge that the syntax of the sentence also permits Jesus to be making an exception for both divorce and (re)marriage.

What does it say about conservative Anabaptists that so many are content to hold mutually-contradictory interpretations as equally valid? Positively, it reflects a determination to honor the teaching of Scripture that is understood to be clear, without letting disputed texts prevent obedience. It could also reflect exegetical humility—an awareness that the Bible is not always as plain as our Anabaptist heritage likes to claim.

Negatively, it could reflect the fact that most conservative Anabaptist church leaders have never studied Jesus’ exception clauses carefully; indeed, that they are not equipped to do so. It could also reflect a proof-text approach to Bible interpretation and systematic theology that does not sufficiently consider the original literary and cultural contexts of the biblical texts. More positive and negative implications are surely involved, and not everyone who takes a both-and stance shares the same mix of positive or negative motivations.

One way to avoid such tension, of course, is to simply ignore Jesus’ exception clauses altogether (response D in the poll). Two particularly clear examples of this are provided by publications from the Southeastern Mennonite Conference and the Beachy Amish-Mennonites.

The former group adopted a “Statement of Position on Divorce and Remarriage” in 1983. This statement lists both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 among its proof texts, but never quotes them and never makes any mention of “fornication.” It does quote (with commentary) Mark 10:11, which is parallel to Matthew 19:9 except for the crucial difference that it lacks the exception clause: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth [or continues to commit] adultery against her.” Avoiding Jesus’ exception clauses altogether, this statement simply states, “The act of adultery does not dissolve the marriage bond.”14

A doctrinal position statement ratified by Amish Mennonite (Beachy) ministers in 2003 takes a similar approach. (In fact, though it presents itself as an original publication, it is obviously an adaptation of the former document, virtually identical in many sentences and following the same overall structure.) This statement cites seventeen different passages of Scripture, including some verses from Matthew 19. But it never once cites or alludes to either of Jesus’ exception clause statements (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Romans 7:1-3 (or a particular interpretation of that text) is cited in whole or part seven times in this brief document and clearly serves as the interpretive lens through which all other texts are read—or excluded.15

The approach exemplified by these two documents, while understandable on one level given the desire to uphold God’s creation design for marriage, is functionally dishonest in its handling of Jesus’ words. We do not honor Jesus when we avoid his “hard sayings” and quote Scripture selectively to support our theological positions. We do not serve God’s people well, either, when we do this. Unfortunately, this approach is a relatively common way that some conservative Anabaptists “solve” the topic of divorce and remarriage.

What is a better way to solve the interpretive dilemma of Jesus’ exception clauses?

Are there better options than either (a) promoting two mutually-contradictory interpretations of Jesus’ words or (b) pretending he never said what he did? What solution might conservative Anabaptists be likely to adopt?

Without professing prophetic ability, I suggest several possible outcomes. First, either the betrothal or the divorce-only view may be successfully championed by someone until it becomes the consensus view. This would significantly shore up the goal of preserving a rare-divorce, no-remarriage culture in conservative Anabaptist churches. And I must emphasize that nothing I have written in this post proves that either of these two views is wrong, even though I do see some weakness in both that are beyond the scope of this post.

Second, if a significant consensus is not reached, I suspect a growing number of people, observing the uncertainty, will question the current conservative Anabaptist approach to divorce and remarriage more broadly. We will continue to see people, either quietly or publicly, walk away from the unqualified no-divorce, no-remarriage teaching they have absorbed.

It must be acknowledged, after all, that there are not only two possible ways to deal with Jesus’ exception clauses. There are several views that are similar to the betrothal view, for example, which suggest that Jesus was referring to incestuous or otherwise unlawful marriages. Others have proposed, without any hard evidence, that Matthew added the exception clauses in an attempt to tone down Jesus’ rigid stance against divorce and remarriage (which is different from the proposal that Matthew added the clauses to accurately reflect Jesus’ unspoken assumptions). Still others argue that the exception clauses are not really exceptions at all, but rather Jesus’ way of saying that he was making no comment on the Deuteronomy 24 exception that the Pharisees asked him about (the “preteritive” view).

But apart from either adapting the betrothal view or finding a way to functionally remove any exception from Jesus’ lips, there is also the possibility of revisiting how our two key exegetical questions might fit together.

There are two primary options. One option makes little sense, as we noted above; there is no good reason to imagine Jesus was prohibiting betrothed persons from ever marrying if their first betrothal was ended by the discovery of sexual immorality:

The other option is that Jesus was recognizing that both divorce and marrying another are honorable options when a spouse (or betrothed person16) violates a marriage through sexual immorality:

For conservative Anabaptists, the problem with this last view is not only that it appears to directly contradict clear Scriptures that prohibit both divorce and remarriage; it also is the most common Protestant way of interpreting Matthew 19:9.17 This, to many conservative Anabaptists, makes it doubly suspect and likely to undermine their Anabaptist vision of obedience to Jesus.18

How, then, are we to resolve this dilemma that conservative Anabaptists have with Jesus’ exception clauses? One necessary solution, most certainly, is to engage Scripture more closely in search of more sure answers. In doing this crucial task, however, I suggest that we also take a closer look at our own Anabaptist heritage.

You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that it is only in recent history that Anabaptists have taken exception to Jesus’ exception clauses. But that is a story for another post.


Thank you for reading. Please pray for me as I continue to study and write, and please share your insights in the comments below!


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  1. The congregational “Statement of Faith and Practice,” as of 2002, simply says, “Divorce and remarriage is contrary to God’s Word.” Constitution and Statement of Faith and Practice of the Otter Lake Mennonite Church, Revised Constitution 2002, pg. 14.
  2. I normally use that term as it is commonly used in my world, to refer to anyone from Amish or Mennonite churches that range from Old Order churches on one “end” to roughly the Biblical Mennonite Alliance on the other “end.” In this post I am referring mostly to the car-driving subset of that group, since I have almost no direct experience with Old Order groups.
  3. He described like this: “I grew up in Joe Wenger Mennonite church. My takeaway would be that they are teaching no divorce for any reason. Yet, if you leave or show any inclination to leave, they’ll gladly try to take your spouse aside and try to convince them you’re off in the head. My point being, in teaching not acceptable but in action there are plenty of divided marriages. The go-to verse would be, ‘In the beginning it was not so, but through the hardness of your hearts,’ etc.”
  4. John L. Stauffer, “Biblical Principles–Divorce and Remarriage,” The Christian Ministry, Scottdale, PA, III, 3 (July-September, 1950), 89-94; as mentioned in an annotated bibliography by J. C. Wenger, Separated Unto God (Harrisonburg, VA: Sword and Trumpet, 1990; orig. pub. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 182.
  5. John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 34. This booklet is available in full online: https://anabaptists.org/books/mdr/
  6. “Divorce—Is It Lawful?” 12-page tract (n.a., n.d.), Rod and Staff, 5-6. Accessed online, June 20, 2020. https://www.milestonebooks.com/item/1-3104/
  7. Gordon Wenham says that interpretations of Jesus’ Matthew 19:9 statement “hinge on two main issues”: “the meaning of the Greek term porneia” and “the grammar of the exception clause” in relation to the rest of the sentence (Gordon Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 78). Both the nature of Jesus’ statement and my reading of other authors confirm Wenham’s claim.
  8. Some suggest it refers narrowly to adultery, but that position is harder to defend on lexical grounds and also unhelpfully excludes other forms of sexual immorality that married persons may commit, such as homosexual relations or bestiality.
  9. Coblentz, ibid., 29.
  10. Coblentz, ibid., 34.
  11. Coblentz, ibid., 38.
  12. Clair Martin, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: A Biblical Perspective, Biblical Perspectives on Present Day Issues, #2 (Publication Board of Biblical Mennonite Alliance, 2010), 6.
  13. Ibid., 6.
  14. “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
  15. “Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage” (Sugarcreek, OH: Calvary Publications: 2003). Available online: http://www.beachyam.org/librarybooks/beliefs/marriage.pdf. A note at the beginning of this statement says this: “This doctrinal position statement was formulated by a five-man bishop committee and ratified by the Amish Mennonite (Beachy) ministers…” I presume the five bishops were Beachy, not Southeastern Mennonites.
  16. In this approach, Jesus’ exception clause explains Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary while also referring to sexual betrayal within marriage; sexual unfaithfulness is seen to permit divorce and marrying another at any stage of the relationship.
  17. It must be noted, however, that merely adopting this reading of Matthew 19:9 does not mean one agrees with most Protestants on the topic of divorce and remarriage in general. Most Protestants allow divorce and remarriage not only in cases of adultery, but also in cases of desertion, citing a “Pauline privilege” in 1 Corinthians 7:15. In addition, many Protestants say that “other actions that break the marriage covenant such as physical abuse” are also grounds for divorce and remarriage (Andrew David Naselli, “What the New Testament Teaches About Divorce and Remarriage,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 24 (2019): 3–44, pg. 5. Available online: http://andynaselli.com/wp-content/uploads/2019_Divorce_and_Remarriage.pdf).
  18. I have learned that this wariness about Protestants surprises some of my friends who are not from Anabaptist roots. For such readers, here are a few excerpts from a twenty-page Rod and Staff Publishers tract titled “More than Protestantism: The Thrilling Story of a Church Founded upon Christ”: “Born-again Christians everywhere are being urged today to work toward the revival and unification of Protestantism. Before we rush to make common cause with this ecumenical movement, let us look at the record of history… At first Luther and Zwingli defended the principle of liberty of conscience and denounced all persecution, but, tragically, both leaders depended heavily upon the support of favorably inclined secular rulers… This eventually involved them in the use of persecution against religious dissenters… Many born-again Christians at this point began to break with Protestantism… A long and bloody persecution ensued in the next 50 years, in which from 20,000 to 50,000 of these New Testament Christians were martyred by the Roman Catholics and the Protestants… Thus these churches founded upon Jesus Christ and His Word had to break with the compromises and evils of Protestantism, just as the reformers ultimately broke with the Catholic organization… They were called ‘Anabaptists’ (rebaptizers) by their enemies because they practiced believer’s baptism… But the main difference between the Anabaptists and their opponents was not the question of baptism, but the question of the relation between the church and the rest of society…  It is a sad fact of history that all the prominent reformers approved of persecution and death for the Anabaptists. A certain Baptist scholar of our own time discovered through exhaustive research that more Anabaptists were put to death for their religion by the Protestants than were similarly put to death by the Roman Catholics!… ‘Why not Protestants?’ you may be asked. The record of history shows us the answer clearly: from the false teachings of Protestantism… come the hellish evils of the unholy alliance between State and Church, the persecution of religious dissenters, the ‘religious’ wars that killed millions, modern nationalism, racism, and dictatorship! Surely Protestantism is only another ‘lamb-like beast’ drunken with the blood of the martyrs!”

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