BRISBANE COLLEGE OF THEOLOGY
TRINITY THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE
Student: Paul Harbers
B5395 - Integrating Perspectives On Christian Ministry
A paper submitted to the Brisbane College of Theology
to meet, in part, the requirements of the
Degree of Bachelor of Theology
Lecturer: Rev. Prof. I. J. M. Haire
Second Reader: Rev. D. A. Pitman
© Paul Harbers 1995
doc format here: Divorce: Sin or Grace?
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. INTRODUCTION............................................................................................... 3
1.1 SETTING THE SCENE .................................................................................... 3
1.2 THE CONCEPT OF MARRIAGE .................................................................... 5
1.3 THE CONCEPT OF DIVORCE........................................................................ 6
2. DIVORCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT............................................................. 7
2.1 THE MOSAIC (or DEUTERONOMIC) LAW.................................................. 7
2.2 GOD ISSUES ISRAEL WITH A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE..................... 8
2.3 EZRA AND THE COMMAND TO DIVORCE................................................. 9
2.4 “I HATE DIVORCE”.......................................................................................... 9
3. NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING........................................................................10
3.1 THE GOSPELS..................................................................................................10
3.2 CONTEMPORARY JEWISH THOUGHT........................................................10
3.3 JESUS’ TEACHING..........................................................................................11
3.3.1 MATTHEW 5:31-32.......................................................................................11
3.3.2 MATTHEW 19:1-12.......................................................................................13
3.3.3 MARK 10:2-12 AND LUKE 16:18 ...............................................................14
3.3.4 MARK 10:2-12 ..............................................................................................15
3.3.5 LUKE 16:18....................................................................................................15
3.3.6 SUMMARY OF JESUS’ TEACHING...........................................................16
3.4 PAUL’S TEACHING .......................................................................................17
3.4.1 ROMANS 7:1-6.............................................................................................17
3.4.2 1 CORINTHIANS 7.......................................................................................17
4. DIVORCE THROUGHOUT HISTORY..............................................................18
4.1 THE VIEWS OF THE CHURCH FATHERS ....................................................18
4.1.1 The Shepherd of Hermas (written c. 100 or 140 A.D.) .....................................18
4.1.2 Athenagoras (c. 177 A.D.) ..............................................................................18
4.1.3 Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215 A.D.) .......................................................19
4.1.4 Tertullian (c. 150–220 A.D.)............................................................................19
4.1.5 Origen (c. 185–254 A.D.)...............................................................................19
4.1.6 Lactantius (c. 240–320 A.D.)..........................................................................19
4.1.7 Canons of the Synod of Elvira (306 A.D.) .......................................................20
4.1.8 Basil of Caesarea (C. 300–379 A.D.).............................................................20
4.1.9 Augustine (354–430 A.D.) .............................................................................20
4.2 THE REFORMATION .....................................................................................21
5. A THEOLOGY OF DIVORCE...........................................................................21
5.1 PERFECTION IN AN IMPERFECT WORLD?...............................................21
5.2 SIN ..................................................................................................................22
5.3 THE DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION..........................................................23
5.4 THE IMAGE OF GOD.....................................................................................23
5.5 A THEOLOGY OF FULFILMENT..................................................................24
5.6 THE GRACE OF GOD ....................................................................................25
6. PASTORAL REALITIES....................................................................................26
6.1 THE CHURCH’S ATTITUDE: LAW OR GRACE? .........................................26
6.1.2 GRACE AND LOVE.....................................................................................27
1.1 SETTING THE SCENE
Divorce is a most controversial issue which divides the Christian church. Church hierarchy,
ministers, lay persons and scholars are deeply divided on the subject. It would appear that there is
little chance of reconciling the differing opinions especially when some state dogmatically that “for
the follower of Christ, divorce is impossible and the question of remarriage does not, therefore,
arise.”1 Ellisen suggests that although marriage is “ordained to be a ‘little taste of heaven on earth,’
at times it becomes a little (sic) taste of something else.”2 How should the church deal with it when
“it becomes a little taste of something else?”
The World Council of Churches document on Sexuality and Human Relationships states that
all churches affirm that marriage is a commitment made for life. Some [churches] see it as
indissoluble, permanent. Others recognize that, although they must uphold its permanent
nature, the truth is that marriages do fail. These latter churches do not change the marriage
vow, “until death do us part” or “as long as we both shall live”, but they recognize that
commitment is a matter of honest and loving intention rather than absolute fact.3
The Roman Catholic church refuses to countenance divorce for any reason. She “recognizes
the marriage sacrament consummated by two baptized persons as completely indissoluble”4 (“no
human authority, not even the highest Church authority, can dissolve such a marriage”),5 yet has
instituted an elaborate system whereby an annulment is possible under specified circumstances.6
Remarriage in the Roman Catholic scheme of things is totally prohibited.7 Many other
denominations hold that a divorce may only be granted on the grounds of adultery because they
believe that that was what Jesus “commanded“, yet many then refuse the right to remarry. Some
denominations still require to apportion guilt before approving a couple’s divorce. Yet others have
little difficulty accepting that Christian marriages do fail, that the couples (and families) need to go
through the grieving and healing process, pick up the pieces, and carry on living life to the fullest as
God has intended. Some churches allow for couples to separate but not formally divorce or seek
new partners. Other churches refuse the right of divorcees to become pastors or ministers.
1 Tatford, F A., Is there an Answer? Problems of the Present Day, Scarborough, Ontario: Everyday, 1983 p. 18.
2 Ellisen, S A., Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, Grand Rapids: Lamplighter, 1980, p. 41.
3 Smith, R., Living in Covenant with God and One Another, Geneva: W.C.C., 199, p. 58.
4 Smith, R., Living in Covenant with God and One Another, Geneva: W.C.C., 199, p. 61.
5 Tabbernee, W., Marriage in Australian Churches, Melbourne: Victorian Council of Churches, 1982, p. 95.
6 Gardner, E. C., Biblical Faith and Social Ethics, N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1960, p. 242; c/f Smith, Covenant, p. 61.
7 This paper cannot make a detailed study of the various denominations’ approach to marriage, divorce or remarriage. There are many works available on this subject. For concise essays on the Roman Catholic and Protestant views of marriage refer to the articles by D. L. Carmody and W. Yates in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. XXII No. 1 Winter, 1985, pp. 28-54.
Ken Crispin very succinctly notes that “the main thing which [most of] these views have in
common is that the proponents of each claim infallibility based on biblical authority”8, yet it seems
that many of these positions ignore the grace, the love, the compassion and the forgiveness of
God. For many of these positions it appears that divorce is either a greater sin than all others or the
“unforgivable sin”. They place great strain on partners enduring intolerable circumstances within a
marriage relationship or place a heavy burden of psychological guilt on the couple if divorce action
proceeds and then often offer no ministry except to urge the couple to be reconciled regardless of
the traumas which the relationship has been through or the results of such action.
In the light of these differing views one would suppose that there is a Biblical injunction for
couples to marry, yet surprisingly this is not the case. Greenburg points out that “there is not a
single explicit command to marry. Procreate? Yes. Marry? Not one commandment. Rather the
information comes to us in the form of description and recommendation”.9 We may well ask if
marriage per se is not based on a divine command, why all the fuss when an unbiblical
arrangement is dissolved?
However, it is recognised that marriage is a social rite of most human societies, and in
Christian circles is usually seen as a divine institution, therefore the problem of the breakdown of
marriages and how Christians deal with it needs to be addressed.
How, in Christian love and compassion, can a Christian church adopt the inflexible and
rigorous line that divorce is totally prohibited when some of its ministers could well be counselling
wives (or husbands) who are the victims of gross physical, emotional and sexual abuse, to the point
of being in fear for their very lives? How can a minister justify the position that the marriage bond is
inviolable until death, that the spouse must return to and live with their partner even if it means that
s/he) may be killed?10 The question may well be asked: “Is there a moral obligation to continue in
relationships which are destructive?”11
Divorce is today a much more common occurrence than in the past. When divorce was not
socially acceptable, and so relatively uncommon, it was not difficult for the church
to stand immovable in its position that marriage was a life-long union, and refuse to allow
divorce or the remarriage of divorcees . . .but today the situation has changed so
dramatically . . . [that the church is] asked to acknowledge that in a fallen world, sometimes
the ideal is impossible – and forgiveness is available for those who fail.”12
Australia in the twentieth century is a liberal democracy in which no single group of persons,
including the church, has the right to impose their philosophy on the rest of society. Whereas in a
nation which has a state church (e.g. Ireland, Samoa et al) it is possible for the church to impose
her views, this is not possible or even desirable in Australia.13
8 Crispin, K., Divorce: The Unforgivable Sin?, Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988, p. 4
9 Greenburg, B., “Marriage in the Jewish Tradition”, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. XXII, No. 1 Winter, 1985, p. 4.
10 Refer Crispin, K., Divorce Chapter 1 The Problem of Oversimplification for some other examples of what some ministers expect some spouses to endure within a marriage in order to maintain the sanctity of the “indissoluble” bond of matrimony.
11 Higgins, G. C., Twelve Theological Dilemmas, New York: Paulist, 1991, p. 103.
12 Giles, K., “For Any Cause? Jesus’ Attitude to Divorce”, On Being Vol. 10, No. 6, July, 1983, p. 7.
13 Note Paul’s injunction to refrain from judging the world, that is God’s prerogative - 1 Cor. 5:12f.
As I have been divorced and remarried, and am now answering God’s call to full-time ministry, I have had to wrestle with a number of these issues myself. I recognise therefore that my research and conclusions may be subjectively coloured, but I suggest that conclusions reached by any other person will also be subjective in that many people have very strong feelings about the matter and are often very determined to interpret the scriptures literally and so justify their own world-view. I suggest therefore that, having experienced the love and grace of God in my life through a divorce experience, perhaps my research is less subjective than that of those who only theorise about the subject.
Personal experience causes me to pose the question, “Divorce - is it a sin or is it allowed by
a compassionate and loving God as an act of grace?” Too often in Christian circles divorce is
regarded as sinful, but I want to suggest that it is not the divorce per se which is sinful, but rather the
actions of persons within a marriage relationship which finally cause divorce proceedings to be
instituted. The divorce can be the end of those sinful actions and be God’s gracious instrument in
allowing people to seek his forgiveness and start life anew.
Therefore, in the light of my research, as well as personal experience, it is hoped that the
question posed by the title of this paper will be answered: Divorce - sin or grace?
1.2 THE CONCEPT OF MARRIAGE
Although this study concerns divorce, this cannot be done without a brief examination of
marriage, its Biblical basis as well as its meaning in Biblical times as against in the twentieth
century. Marriage has been defined as
that lifelong and exclusive state in which a man and a woman are wholly committed to live
with each other in sexual relationship under conditions normally approved and witnessed to
by their social group or society.14
However, marriage surely involves more than just the “sexual relationship”. From the earliest
accounts we read that a man “clings [‘cleaves’ A.V.] to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen.
2:24). This has much wider connotations than just a sexual implication. In Hebrew thought “flesh”
represented the entire person, so in the true nature of marriage the two partners become “a unity of
soul and body, of sympathy, interest, and purpose; a husband and wife are no longer two, but one
flesh, one spirit, one person.”15 Whitelaw states that the language of Gen. 2:24 “points to a unity of
persons and not simply to a conjunction of bodies, or a community of interests, or even a reciprocity
Yet regardless of these high ideals it would seem that on the whole in Hebrew society
marriage was a social contract with two of the main purposes being the making of alliances
14 Bower, R. K. and Knapp, G. L., “Marriage; Marry”, in Bromiley, G. W., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, I.S.B.E.,
Vol. 3, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986, p. 261.
15 Bower and Knapp, p. 264.
16 Whitelaw, T., “Genesis”, in Spence H. D. M., and Excell, J. S. eds., The Pulpit Commentary Vol. I, McLean: MacDonald, no
publ. date, p. 52.
between families and the procreation of children. The marriage was most often an arranged one,
although romantic attraction was not unheard of when selecting a mate (c/f. the story of Jacob and
Rachel, Genesis 29).
In twentieth century Western society the nature of marriage has changed dramatically with
romantic love being, if not the main criteria in the selection of spouse, at the least the catalyst which
so often sparks a relationship. In our society marriages are not usually entered into in order to
cement family alliances or for the sole purpose of procreation. However, the Genesis concept of a
man leaving his family and clinging to his wife (and vice versa), which describes the ideal union of
man and woman (yet curiously it does not specifically describe marriage per se), is probably still
regarded as the basis for marriage. Therefore, regardless of the cultural or societal reasons for
marriage, in the final analysis a man and woman covenant to live together, forsaking all others, and
share fully in each others’ lives to such an extent that they, without losing their individual
personalities, become one entity.
It is when this unity breaks down, for whatever reasons, that the marriage is in trouble. It is
when either one or both spouses decide that they cannot live together any longer, i.e. the divine
ideal has been breached, that separation and divorce enter the scene.
1.3 THE CONCEPT OF DIVORCE
Divorce in Jesus’ time was not the long drawn–out process as it often is today. Although it
was a legal act, it was also a private matter and did not require judicial decisions17 with “the
exception of the wife’s appeal to the court in the case of some obnoxious or detestable factor on
the part of her husband.”18 Divorce was only available to men and “was accomplished by the simple
expedient of ordering the wife out of the house . . . when the parties stopped living together they
were regarded as divorced.”19 The bill of divorcement required by Deuteronomy 24:1 was not
needed to legitimise the divorce, rather it was necessary to “facilitate the wife’s remarriage at
some later stage.”20
In the twentieth century Australian society divorce is the final act in the dissolution of a
marriage; it is the formal court order dissolving a marriage, which occurs only after the partners
have been separated for some time. As the Jews did not have a judicial system for divorce Jesus
cannot be speaking about a judicial decree when he teaches on divorce. Rather he is speaking
about the contemporary practice of the severance of the marriage bond by the permanent
separation of the partners.
The Biblical concept of marriage has its roots in Genesis 2:24 and implies a:
17 e.g. The proposed action of Joseph when he discovered that Mary was pregnant: “because he was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19).
18 Coiner, H. G., “Those Divorce and Remarriage Passages”, Concordia Theological Monthly, XXXIX, June 1968, p. 367.
19 Crispin, p. 11.
20 Crispin, p. 11.
‘one flesh’ union . . . [and] when such a ‘one flesh’ union . . . becomes dissolved . . . through
the failure of love in its threefold meaning of eros, philia, and agape, then the marriage itself
has failed; it no longer has any inner meaning.21
Crispin says that “marriage is . . . a voluntary relationship which exists only as long as the
two people involved decide to continue in it . . . One is divorced if that relationship terminates other
than by death.”22 Emil Brunner rightly concurs that
when two people propose divorce, to all intents and purposes, in the ethical sense, the
marriage is already dissolved . . . It cannot . . . be said that the Church is right when she
supports the view which urges that divorce should be made as difficult as possible; for in
such cases we are not dealing with marriage in the Christian sense of the word at all, but
with the question whether it is or is not possible to force people to live a nominal married
Mikolaski states that “divorce is a concession to human failure where love has been annihilated.”24
If divorce is regarded as the termination of a voluntary marriage relationship rather than the
formal judicial decree, then Christians may need to radically rethink the way they interpret the
scriptures relating to divorce.
2. DIVORCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
The union of a male and female in a “marriage” relationship is universally recognised by all
Christians as being a creation ordinance for the benefit of humanity.25 Gilchrist suggests that
marriage is symbolic of the eternal covenant relationship between God and His people, as
the figure of husband and wife for Yahweh and Israel shows (Isa. 54:5-6; Hos. 2:19) . . .
Therefore, in Old Testament ethics, to violate or abuse sex or marriage is to deny the
covenantal relations they symbolize.26
This is a strongly emotive appeal concerning the sanctity of the marriage bond yet I wonder if it is a
fair conclusion. It could equally well be that the corollary is true, i.e. that the [ideal] relationship
between Yahweh and his people is symbolic of the ideal human marriage relationship as ordained
by God at creation.
2.1 THE MOSAIC (or DEUTERONOMIC) LAW
Whereas it is often held that Jesus forbade divorce except on the ground of adultery (marital
unfaithfulness), when the Old Testament scriptures are examined we find that adultery was not a
21 Gardner, p. 242.
22 Crispin, pp. 16-17.
23 Brunner, E., The Divine Imperative, (Wyon, O. transl.) Phildelphia: Westminster, 1948 pp. 362-3.
24 Mikolaski, S. J., “Divorce”, in Harrison, R. K., gen. ed., Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics, Nashville: Nelson,
1987, p. 114.
25 Gen. 2:24.
26 Gilchrist, P. R., “Old Testament Ethics”, in Harrison, R. K. p.293.
ground for divorce. In fact under Mosaic law a certificate of divorce could be granted on the ground
of ’ervath dabhar’.27 This has been “variously translated as the ‘nakedness of a thing’; the ‘shameful
thing’; the ‘unseemly thing’; ‘some uncleanness’ (A.V.); ‘some indecency’ (R.S.V.)”28; ‘something
indecent’ (N.I.V.); ‘something objectionable’ (N.R.S.V.). 'ervath dabhar is an ambiguous term the
exact meaning of which had been debated by the Jews for centuries and which “could be
interpreted more specifically within a sphere ranging from moral to aesthetic categories.”29
Under Mosaic law adultery was a capital crime30 punishable by stoning both parties to
death. Although this was still the case in Jesus’ day Ellisen rightfully points out that
the death penalty for sexual crimes was voided when Israel lost her theocratic status in 605
B.C. and the ‘times of the Gentiles’ began. Their Gentile overlords did not require death for
adultery and the Jews were divinely subjected to their civil law (Rom. 13:1).31
Although not the Divine ideal, divorce was permitted in Mosaic times due to humanity’s
“hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8) or the “inflexibility of the partners to be reconciled.”32
The Deuteronomic Law prescribed the grounds for, and the manner of, divorce in order to
provide the woman with a degree of protection. It must not be presumed because the law set up a
procedure for divorce that it instituted divorce as a new procedure or that it implied Divine approval
for divorce. The law only aimed to regulate already existing practices of the Israelites in order to
offer some protection to the woman and in an effort to “raise the standards of marital and sexual
behaviour among the people.”33
2.2 GOD ISSUES ISRAEL WITH A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE
During the reign of King Josiah the nation of Israel flirted with the pagan idols of the
surrounding nations. Her worship of these idols was seen by YHWH as unfaithfulness and
described as adultery.34 Because of her unfaithfulness YHWH actually issued Israel with a
certificate of divorce. In the light of this action of YHWH we can see more clearly that it is not the act
of divorce which is sinful (the holy and righteous YHWH actually gave the certificate of divorce [Jer.
3:8]) but rather the events which cause the action to be instigated. Ellisen makes the scathing
comment that, because of many church’s inflexible attitudes, God being a party to a divorce “could
not be a deacon in most of our churches, let alone a pastor, without getting a special waiver.”35
27 Deut. 24:1ff.
28 Powers, B. Ward, “Divorce and the Bible”, Interchange 23, 1978, p. 155.
29 Gerstenberger and Schrage, Woman and Man in the New Testament, Nashville: Abingdon 1981, p. 206.
30 Lev. 20:10 and Deut. 22:22ff.
31 Ellisen, pp 52-53.
32 Ellisen, p. 48.
33 Powers, “Divorce and the Bible”, p.155.
34 Jer. 3:6ff.
35 Ellisen, p. 84.
2.3 EZRA AND THE COMMAND TO DIVORCE
On return from the exile many Jews married women from the surrounding pagan nations and
the anomalous situation arose that the leader of the nation, Ezra, after much prayer, weeping and
confession, called on the people to make a covenant “to send away all these wives and their
children, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those who tremble at the commandment of our
God...” (Ezra 10:3). The people were expected to divorce their wives and break long-term marriage
relationships because of the inherent “uncleanness” of the pagan nations (9:11). This affirms that it
is not divorce which is wrong, but rather the act leading up to divorce. In this case the
intermarriages were proscribed (Ex. 34:15-16, Ezra 9:12), therefore it was far better to break the
proscribed relationships than to continue in the situation. This position is a long way removed from
the situation of “divorce only on the grounds of adultery” (although no doubt some will say that
“spiritual adultery” was involved). We still have the position where, in response to a cry to God,
children were left fatherless and wives were left alone; and this in a male dominated society where
a divorced woman or an “orphaned” child would have little or no future.
2.4 “I HATE DIVORCE”
“For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with
violence, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 2:16).
This is an apparently very strong indictment against divorce attributed to YHWH. A number
of scholars point out that this translation is fraught with grammatical difficulties, and Glazier-
McDonald suggests that the verse is better translated as:
“‘For one who divorces because of aversion,’ says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘thereby
covers his garment with violence,’ says Yahweh of Hosts.”36
Jones states that this translation is supported by the Septuagint, which reads, “If hating you
divorce” (i.e., “If you divorce out of hatred.”)37 If this is correct then the Septuagint translation of this
passage can be seen, “not as a prohibition against divorce, but as a permission to divorce one’s
If this translation has substance then YHWH is no longer the subject of the clause and thus
the rigid line of divorce being anathema in the sight of God needs to be re-examined. This paper
does not have the scope to undertake this study, rather it seeks to point out that the apparent “hardline”
of YHWH towards divorce (as ascribed by many scholars and churchmen alike) may, in fact,
not be as straight-forward as they would like it to be.
Larry Richards points out that the message of Malachi was addressed to a very specific
situation, and one which is also apparent to some extent in twentieth century society, viz. “men
deserting the ‘wives of their youth’.” He asserts that older men “were deserting their first wives to
marry younger, more sexually attractive women”.39 He says that this is anathema to God. These
36 Glazier-McDonald, B., Malachi: The Divine Messenger Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987, p. 82.
37Jones, D. C., “A Note on the LXX of Malachi 2:16”, Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 109, Winter 1990, p. 683.
38 Smith, R. L., Micah-Malachi Word, Waco: Word, 1984, p. 323.
39 Richards, L., “Divorce and Remarriage Under a Variety of Circumstances”, in House, H. Wayne (ed.) Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, Downers Grove: I.V.P., 1990, p.218.
divorces are motivated by lust, and out of pure selfishness faithful and loving women who had been
partners for many years were thoughtlessly cast aside. These actions caused God much grief and
anger, but it is not possible to conclude that God forbids divorce. This is the same God who not
only allowed divorce under the Mosaic law, but actually demanded many Israelites to divorce their
foreign wives in Ezra’s day.
3. NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING
3.1 THE GOSPELS
Jesus’ teaching on divorce as recorded in the Gospels is no doubt influenced by the Gospel
writers’ own world-views and the needs of the people to whom they were addressing their work. For
example, Mark’s Gospel is very confrontational to Jews when he quotes Jesus as saying “if [a
woman] divorces her husband...” (10:12). In Jewish society it was not possible for a woman to
divorce her husband, in fact a woman had very few rights at all as she was not even regarded as
human. But Mark is writing to a mixed Gentile and Jewish church living under Roman law in which a
woman had the right to divorce her husband40. By this remark Jesus is recognising the equality of
sexes and the equality of responsibilities for both the husband and the wife within the marriage
bond. Matthew, on the other hand is writing to a Jewish church living under Jewish law. The ability to
divorce in each of the social and legal settings was vastly different. The evangelists must of
necessity filter Jesus’ words and apply those which best speak to their individual readers.
3.2 CONTEMPORARY JEWISH THOUGHT
A man was permitted to divorce his wife under Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 24) on the
grounds of ’ervath dabhar which is translated by the Greek word porneia. Porneia covers all
types of sexual misconduct including adultery, whereas the word which refers specifically to adultery
is moiceia. Jesus was teaching at a time when the interpretation of 'ervath dabhar was becoming
extremely liberal and it was a simple thing to divorce one’s wife on other than sexual grounds. The
Jews had for many centuries been debating the meaning of 'ervath dabhar as the grounds for
divorce and in Jesus’ day there were three main schools of Rabbinic thought on the matter.
The Jewish interpretations are recorded in The Mishnah.
Gittin 9:10: “The school of Shammai said: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has
discovered something unchaste about her, for it is written: Because he has found some
unseemly thing in her (Deuteronomy 24:1). But the school of Hillel said: He may divorce her
if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written: because he has found some unseemly thing in
her. R. Akiba said: even if he found another woman fairer than she, for it is written: . . . and it
shall be if she find no favour in his eyes . . .41
40 Gundry, R. H., Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993, p. 533.
41 The Mishnah, Lipman, E. J., transl., N.Y.: Viking, 1970, p. 189.
There is an insightful footnote in Lipman’s translation of The Mishnah which says that “both Hillel
and R. Akiba had, in this situation, profound and astonishingly contemporary understanding of the
marital relationship. The view of Hillel was accepted as law.”42
The view of Shammai was the strict one, and the view of Hillel was very liberal and allowed
almost any fault, or irritation, as ground for divorce. Both Shammai and Hillel however, did require
some fault to be found to justify divorce. The Akiba view allowed the wife to be divorced even if she
had done nothing wrong - her only fault was that she was not as beautiful as some one else.
3.3 JESUS’ TEACHING
All the above views were common and practised in Jesus’ day and the Pharisees were
trying to draw him into a debate (Matt. 19:9) he could not possibly win. Jesus immediately makes it
clear that he is not interested either in “justifying or condemning Moses’ legislation on divorce . . .
Rather, he was intent upon making clear the divine will with regard to marriage.”43
3.3.1 MATTHEW 5:31-32
This passage is included in the Sermon on the Mount and is a passage which is often used
to deny a divorced person the right to remarry. There is no argument that wrongful divorce (e.g. on
the liberal grounds allowed by Akiba and Hillel rather than the Mosaic ground of adultery) is under
scrutiny. Jesus has been addressing a number of issues, viz. murder and anger (vv. 21-26) and
adultery (vv. 27-30) and he continues to teach about oaths, revenge and love (vv. 33-48).The
prefacing of his remarks by: “You have heard that it was said” (vv. 21, 27, 33, 38, 43) and “It has
been said” (v. 31) indicate quite clearly that he is not quoting scripture but rather contemporary
interpretations of the scripture.44
The so called exception clause “except for marital unfaithfulness” is a bone of contention
amongst scholars. Some doubt that it was a genuine utterance of Jesus, whereas others agree to
accept it but disagree on its interpretation. Emil Brunner says
it is my definite conviction, which I hold in common with many other scholars, that this
phrase, ‘saving for the cause of fornication’ (A.V.), was not uttered by Jesus Himself, but that
it is an interpolation by the Early Church, which had already misunderstood the sayings of
Jesus in a legalistic way, and therefore needed such a corrective.45
Manson also holds that it is not a genuine saying of Jesus: “I assume that it is as certain as
anything can be in New Testament criticism that the qualifications parektos logou porneias and me
42 The Mishnah, p. 189.
43 Gardner, p. 241.
44 Ward Powers comments: It is a standard (sic) exegesis of these verses to begin by saying something to the effect, ‘Jesus is here quoting Deuteronomy 24. . .’ This attitude . . . has even been incorporated into translations [of the Bible]. . . The Living Bible says: ‘The law of Moses says, “If anyone wants to be rid of his wife, he can divorce her merely by giving her a letter of dismissal.”’ . . . The law of Moses most certainly did not say such a thing – it is a travesty of what Moses said, and grossly misrepresents him; in the second place Christ did not say that the law of Moses said any such thing – it is a travesty of what Christ said, and grossly misrepresents him. “Divorce and the Bible” pp. 156-7.
45 Brunner, E., The Divine Imperative Wyon, O. transl., Philadelphia: Westminster, 1948, p. 651.
epi porneia (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) are not part of the genuine teaching of Jesus on this point.”46 Coiner
has a detailed list of many of the interpretations of the ‘exceptive’ clause,47 and Ellisen has a
detailed study of “The Meaning of ‘Fornication’ in the Exception Clause”.48 Many of these
interpretations presuppose that Jesus is acting as law-giver by superseding the Mosaic law, yet in
the same passage Jesus himself says that he had “not come to abolish [the Law and the Prophets]
but to fulfil [them].”49 Jesus instituted a Kingdom of Grace, not of Law, so it seems incongruous that
he would introduce an even more stringent law than that which was already technically in force.
I agree to accept that the ‘exceptive’ clause was spoken by Jesus50 and this paper will not
examine all the differing interpretations of the clause as I do not believe that Jesus came as lawgiver.
The ‘exceptive’ clause needs to be examined from a different base.
It is important to note that this passage dealing with divorce is included with Jesus’ teaching
regarding murder and adultery. Richards rightly points out that Jesus’ comments about murder and
lust were never intended to be
incorporated into the social and legal code of Israel. He never intended that a person who
shouted out in anger against his brother be brought to trial for murder. He never intended
that a person who entertains lustful thoughts should be stoned to death for mental adultery.51
His remarks were prophetic utterances and their “purpose was hardly to promulgate new
legislation”.52 Therefore, if Jesus is not expecting that some of this teaching would become part the
law, it is only reasonable to assume that none of this teaching is to be taken as a new or absolute
The passage raises a serious question for us, because if it is taken literally, then the wife
who has been divorced on grounds other than adultery “become[s] an adulteress. . .” How can
Jesus say that a woman who has not been divorced on the grounds of adultery becomes an
adulteress simply because her husband divorces her?53 Scholars have adopted quite varying
46 Manson, T. W., The Teachings of Jesus, Cambridge: University Press, 1951, p. 200.
47 H. G. Coiner gives a very thorough account of the many interpretations of the Matthean ‘exceptive’ clauses beginning with the early Fathers. Whilst it is not possible to examine these at any length it is useful to note a number so that depth of problem confronting the church can be seen more plainly. Four interpretations of the exception clauses are:
a) that adultery on the part of the wife gives the right of divorce to the husband;
b) that Christ has instituted a new law superseding the law of Moses and that adultery is the sole reason for divorce;
c) that divorce is permitted if the wife becomes a prostitute;
d) that premarital unchastity is the ground for divorce. Concordia Theological Monthly, pp. 373-7.
48 Ellisen, pp. 134-141.
49 Matt. 5:17-20.
50 Note the comment by Sydney Cave, The Christian Way, London: Nisbet, 1949 pp 62: “[The] exception is not found in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, and probably reflects the attempt of the Jewish Christian Church to turn the Divine ideal into a law.”
51 Richards, L., ReMarriage: A Healing Gift from God, Waco: Word, 1981, pp. 99-100.
52 Collins, R. F., Divorce in the New Testament, Collegeville: Michael Glazier, 1992, p.169.
53 Note especially the translation of the Good News Bible: “But now I tell you: if a man divorces his wife, even though she has not been unfaithful, then he is guilty of making her commit adultery if she marries again; and the man who marries her commits adultery also” Note the placement of the semi-colon after “marries again” as against after “commit adultery” in N.R.S.V. The punctuation changes the meaning of the verse considerably.
approaches to this text. Some suggest that remarriage is automatically assumed “and that her
divorce led her to it; but since the divorce is sinful, and the first marriage still valid, the second union
is also sinful.”54 Hendricksen adopts a different view when he says that the clause
causes her to become an adulteress” [must be] “read proleptically: she is called an
adulteress because she may easily become one. . . The Greek by using the passive voice of
the verb, states not what a woman becomes or what she does but what she undergoes,
suffers, is exposed to.55
Collins glosses over this anomaly with the comment: “The mere fact that a man has divorced his
wife involves her in adultery (italics mine) and makes him liable for her sin, thus putting him in
violation of the sixth commandment”.56
These interpretations seem to be playing with words and ignoring the fact that Jesus is not
condemning the woman who is divorced but that he exposing the very wrong liberal views held by
many of the Pharisees. Ward Powers offers the most consistent interpretation of the passage; one
which both shows love and compassion for the wronged woman and at the same time shows the
harm that the liberal interpretations of the scripture can cause:
Jesus says that by the act of divorce a husband makes his wife an adulteress. That is, that
what divorce causes is that the wife is stigmatized as an adulteress, given the status of an
adulteress (because under the law 'ervath dabhar is the only acceptable ground for divorce).
Christ is making the accusation that the Jews are changing the import of the law of Moses,
and when a wife is divorced in accordance with their lax view she is placed in the position
of being regarded as an adulteress in terms of the actual wording of the law. Moreover, the
man who married her in such circumstances would be regarded as the lover who provoked
the divorce, and thus stigmatized as an adulterer. In what Christ says, the blame in this
situation is not being placed upon the divorced wife, nor upon the man she next marries (if
she does), but upon the first husband who lightly cast her aside, and beyond that upon the
Pharisees for their laxity about the law which has accepted this situation.57
It is interesting to note that the same argument can be made from Paul’s illustration of marriage in
Romans 7 where he says that if a divorced woman “marries another man while her husband is still
alive she is called58 (italics mine) an adulteress” (v. 3). He does not say that she is committing
adultery, but only that she will be called an adulteress. This would seem to be completely in accord
with Jesus teaching in Matthew’s Gospel.
3.3.2 MATTHEW 19:1-12
In this passage Jesus is approached by the Pharisees and it would seem that they are
attempting to make a judgement in favour of one of the prevailing views concerning divorce. Jesus
54 McNeile, A. H., The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Grands Rapids: Baker, 1980 rpt, 66.
55 Hendricksen, W., The Gospel of Matthew, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974, 305.
56 Collins, p. 171.
57 Powers, “Divorce and the Bible”, p. 159. Note however, that Carson rejects Powers’ argument outright because “the verbal
construction disallows Powers’ paraphrase” Carson, D. A., “Matthew”, in Gæbelein, F. E. (gen. ed.), The Expositor’s Bible
Commentary Vol. 8, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984, p. 153.
58 crhmatisei = she will be called. (NOTE: Greek font used in original thesis)
counters in the first instance by describing the indissolubility of the ideal marriage as instituted by
God at Creation (vv. 4-6).
If, as previously discussed, it is admitted that Jesus is in no way cancelling the Mosaic Law
by instituting a new law regarding divorce, then he cannot, in this passage, “be forbidding the
remarriage of divorced people and condemning such action per se as adulterous.”59
The word used for “marital unfaithfulness” is not moiceia but the more general word porneia
which the Pharisees had given a wide interpretation (see on Contemporary Jewish Thought, p.
20f. above). The word translated as “except” is mh. Although mh occurs over one thousand times in
the New Testament, is only translated as “except” in this instance. It is in fact the ordinary Greek
word for “not.”60 When these factors are considered in conjunction with the contemporary view of
divorce, then Jesus’ words as recorded in verse 9 may be better paraphrased as:
“Whoever divorces his wife, not because of any sexual misbehaviour (which is what Moses
allowed in Deut. 24:1) but simply to marry another (who appears more attractive) is
committing an adulterous act.”61
Jesus is telling the Pharisees in very strong terms that to cast off one’s wife for another has not
“ceased to be adultery because it is legalized with a divorce and remarriage.”62
Powers notes that in this passage the Jesus does not forbid divorce (for which the Greek
word is apoluo), but that he uses the word corizw (v. 6) which means to divide, separate, sever,
sunder, split apart. He makes the point that “this distinction is important in view of the teaching of
some Christians that it is wrong to get a divorce, but acceptable to separate.”63
Bearing in mind that the discussion was initiated by the Pharisees asking whether it was
lawful to divorce one’s wife “for any and every reason” (v.3 italics mine), Jesus is here condemning
their liberal views and at the same time reiterating his teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.
3.3.3 MARK 10:2-12 AND LUKE 16:18
These texts have no exception clauses and at face value appear to ban remarriage after
divorce for the party initiating the divorce in direct contradiction to the expectation of the Mosaic
Law. Neither do these passages have any reference to the right of the man to divorce his wife on
the grounds of adultery. John Murray says that “this is a remarkable omission, particularly in Mark,
in view of the greater detail with which he records our Lord’s teaching at this point.”64
59 Giles, K., A Christian Perspective on Marriage and Divorce, and undated paper, p. 7.
60 Powers, “Divorce and the Bible” p.162-3. c/f The Analytic Greek Lexicon Revised, Moulton H., ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978, p. 268.
61 Giles, Perspective, p. 7.
62 Powers, “Divorce and the Bible” 163.
63 Powers, “Divorce and the Bible” 162.
64 Murray, J., Divorce, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961, p. 51.
The teachings as recorded by Mark and Luke cannot prejudice that recorded in Matthew for
then we have the case of either Jesus contradicting himself or the record being erroneous. It has
already been discussed that Jesus did not in any way subrogate the Mosaic Law, therefore these
passage need to seen in the light of Jesus addressing specific audiences or as a general
restatement of “His basic point of the intended (italics added) permanence of marriage and the
tragedy of its being broken.”65
These passages must be regarded in the light of the apparently common situations of the
day where the wife was ‘sent away’ for some trivial or unjustifiable reason rather than gross sexual
misconduct. Crispin says that the man is breaking the marriage bond without justification so that he may enter into a sexual relationship with another woman. It is hardly surprising that Jesus regards this as
being tantamount to adultery.66
3.3.4 MARK 10:2-12
In the Marcan passage Jesus answers the Pharisees’ query concerning divorce with a
positive statement concerning God’s plan for marriage. It is not until Jesus is alone with the
disciples that the question of remarriage is discussed. The Marcan passage is a challenge to both
the Pharisees and the disciples in the light of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God which is the
theme of Mark’s Gospel. Houlden says “this. . . is teaching concerning marriage as such, but
nothing short of acceptance of God’s kingdom will make it possible for man to keep it.”67
Whilst concurring with Houlden’s high ideals for Christian marriage, we need to recognise
that Christian marriages are also failing and ending in divorce. It is obvious that the acceptance of
God’s Kingdom does not always enable people to keep their marriages together and meet God’s
3.3.5 LUKE 16:18
In the Lucan passage Jesus’ comments are immediately followed by the parable of the rich
man and Lazarus and the transition is so sudden that it seems that the two issues must be related.
Is Jesus not so subtly informing the Pharisees that they have a materialistic rather than a spiritual
viewpoint? Perhaps Jesus not only puts the Pharisees in the role of the rich man, but the innocent
wife who is wrongly divorced, and who no longer has access to the husband’s household or wealth,
in the role of Lazarus. Because in Jewish society wives were treated as being the property of the
husband Jesus sees the act of divorcing one’s wife in favour of a “fairer” one as a sign of a
materialistic acquisition of property. Like the rich man in the parable this is a completely selfish act
and a gross abuse of both women. It is the acquisition of wealth in the form of a “fairer” woman, the
worst possible reason for both divorce and marriage. The parable ends with the dire warning and
the sad acknowledgment that the Pharisees will not listen to Moses and the Prophets, let alone
someone who rises from the grave to warn them.68 Houlden thinks on similar lines when he says
65 Ellisen, p. 133.
66 Crispin, p. 44.
67 Houlden, J. L., Ethics and the New Testament, London: Mowbray, 1975, p. 78.
68 Luke 16:16-31.
". . .it may be that the dismissal of a wife is for [Luke] simply an instance of [the] cardinal sin
of meanness, in the shape of callous cruelty. His reference to it is placed just before the
story of the rich man and Lazarus, where this vice appears in its deepest hue and is
Houlden suggests that Luke’s very brief reference to the subject is “because he was not
interested in providing a comprehensive moral guide (like Matthew), and is not particularly at home
with episodes imbued with profound but allusive theology (like Mark)” but he used it as part of a
“central ethical message.“70
The teaching of both Mark and Luke, to be consistent, must be seen in the light of Jesus
constant chastisement of the Pharisees in view of their inability to even meet the Mosaic standard
concerning marriage and divorce let alone God’s perfect plan for marriage.
Smith suggests that Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce should “be regarded not as a
fresh piece of legislation replacing the old, but as an exposition of the ‘ideal’ (Gen. 2:24f.) against
which all our actions (including those within the law) may be judged.”71
3.3.6 SUMMARY OF JESUS’ TEACHING72
M. J. Down points out the distinction in Jewish theology between ‘halakah’ and ‘hagadah’:
halakah is prescriptive and legislative, practical instruction about good conduct: hagadah is
affective and imaginative, using the forms of poetry, story and figures of speech to inculcate
attitudes. . . The Sermon on the Mount is pure hagadah.73
As hagadah,74 Jesus’ teaching is ‘non-legislative’ and can be summarised in three points:
i) Marriage is a lifelong commitment;
ii) Because we live in a fallen world, we often (or should I say inevitably?) fall short of the
Divine ideal, therefore marriages will and do fail (including marriage between Christian partners).
Although this is not pleasing to God, he has graciously made provision for divorce.75
69 Houlden, p. 70.
70 Houlden, pp. 79-80.
71 Smith, B. L., “Marriage and Divorce“, Interchange Vol. 3 No. 2, 1971, p. 98.
72 Note: Many scholars would disagree with the conclusions reached in this summary, e.g. G. J. Wenham in his many works (refer Bibliography) has taken a hard line “with Jesus surpassing the strictness of the Shammites and shocking the disciples” - Wenham, G. J., “Matthew and Divorce: An Old Crux Revisited”, J.S.N.T., Vol. 22 1984, p.105. This is highlights that even in the ‘enlightened’ twentieth century scholars cannot agree on these important passages. No wonder churches are at odds and Christians confused. Finally we need to take all these arguments on board and make our own decisions with good conscience, not forgetting that we live under Grace and not Law.
73 Down, M. J., “The Sayings of Jesus about Marriage and Divorce”, The Expository Times, Vol. 95, August 1984, p. 333.
74 Not all scholars agree that Jesus’ teaching is hagadah. Refer M. Bockmuel’s article “Matthew 5.32; 19.9 in the Light of Pre-Rabbinic Halakah” New Testament Studies, v. 35 No. 2 1989, pp. 291-295.
75 Regardless of what literally seems the only allowable ground for divorce, there are many things in a marriage which are worse than adultery, e.g. incest, physical abuse, battery of the children of the marriage, etc. Refer to Crispin for a good coverage of ground for divorce other than adultery. pp. 4-6, 32-33.
iii) Remarriage is not condemned by Jesus; rather divorce on liberal grounds solely,
especially in order to marry someone else, is condemned by Jesus.
Down concludes that [Jesus] lived under a dispensation . . . which permitted divorce and remarriage, as a
concession to human ‘hardness of heart’. He did not seek to change this legislation neither
for the world at large or his own followers. . . He taught that the ideal is the lifelong union of
man and woman and that divorce is always a falling short of that ideal, to be regarded with
distress. Jesus did not teach that marriage is indissoluble, in the mediaeval and modern
sense of that term. Hence it is legitimate for the church to recognize (if not to condone) the
practice of divorce, and the validity, in the fullest sense, of subsequent marriages.76
3.4 PAUL’S TEACHING
3.4.1 ROMANS 7:1-6
Paul’s comment in Romans 7:1-6 has been briefly mentioned previously on page 25. In this
passage he is not specifically teaching about marriage or divorce, rather he is using marriage as
an illustration to prove his argument in a theological discussion.
3.4.2 1 CORINTHIANS 7
Paul draws on Jesus’ teaching in replying to matters specifically raised by the Corinthians
(v. 1). He reiterates the Lord’s teaching that ideally marriage is permanent and believers should not
separate (v. 10). Yet in the same sentence (in the Greek) he acknowledges that some will indeed
do just that, “but if she does separate” (v. 11, italics added). He also recognises that the separated
person can remarry otherwise it is pointless “telling her to remain unmarried.”77 Paul is here
stressing the importance of attempting reconciliation before rushing into another relationship. In
verse 15 Paul teaches that a believer who is deserted by an unbelieving spouse is “not bound.”
This “seems to mean that the deserted party is free to remarry.”78
Although Paul is here only addressing a specific case which has been brought to his
attention by the Corinthians (marriage between a believer and an unbeliever), he is a realist and
admits, albeit reluctantly, “That if the marriage bond has completely broken down divorce and
remarriage are allowable.”79 His reason is that “God has called us to live in peace” (v. 15) and if
circumstance are such that “two people are coerced into living together, ‘peace’ is hardly likely to
be characteristic of their relationship.”80
76 Down, pp. 333-334.
77 Powers, “Divorce and the Bible” p. 166.
78 Morris, L., The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, TNTC, Leicester: I.V.P. and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958, p. 111.
79 Giles, Perspective, p. 8.
80 Powers, “Divorce and the Bible” p. 166.
4. DIVORCE THROUGHOUT HISTORY
4.1 THE VIEWS OF THE CHURCH FATHERS81
The early church, from the days of Paul, looked to Jesus’ teaching whenever she needed
guidance concerning questions of marriage and divorce. It seems that the scriptures were, in the
main taken literally and so for them
the texts affirm (with or without the Matthean variant) that the normal state or marriage is
indissoluble: remarriage after divorce is adultery. . . [This] became a teaching that helped to
define Christian identity in a world where marital stability was not always cherished.82
4.1.1 The Shepherd of Hermas (written c. 100 or 140 A.D.)
Hermas addresses the question of a man catching his wife in the act of adultery. “What,
then,” I said, “will the man do if the woman persists in this passion?”
“He must dismiss her,” he said, “and the man must live by himself. But if, after dismissing
her, he should marry another woman, he himself commits adultery.”83
Heth and Wenham point out that by not remarrying the way is left open for repentance and
reconciliation. They also make the point that Hermas has gone beyond New Testament teaching by
insisting “that a Christian ought to separate from a spouse guilty of adultery”.84
4.1.2 Athenagoras (c. 177 A.D.)
“. . . abide in one marriage and no more, for a second marriage is a fair-seeming adultery.
Whosoever shall put away his wife, Scripture says, and shall marry another, committeth adultery. It
does not allow [a man] to divorce the one whose maidenhead he had [ended], nor to bring in
another wife beside her”.85 Heth and Wenham note that Athenagoras’ statement regarding “fairseeming
adultery” makes a contrast between the Christian and the Roman ways of life. Roman
society permitted divorce whereas Christians did not.86
81 Many of the quotations from prime sources have been taken from Hunter, D. G. transl/ed., Marriage in the Early Church, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992 and Heth, W. A. and Wenham ,G. J., Jesus and Divorce, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984.
82 Hunter, p. 3.
83 The Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 4 (29.1).
84 Heth and Wenham, pp. 24-25.
85 Legatio Pro Christanis 33 (PG 6. 965FF).
86 Heth and Wenham, p. 29.
4.1.3 Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215 A.D.)
“Scripture recommends marriage and does not allow release from the union; this is evident
from the precept: You shall not put away your wife except because of fornication [Matt. 5:32]. It is
regarded as adultery if either of the separated partners remarries, while the other is alive.”87
“He who marries a woman who has been put away by another commits adultery, he says:
and if a man puts away his wife, he makes her an adulteress [Matt. 5:32; 19:19], that is, he forces
her to commit adultery. Moreover, not only does the man who puts away his wife become guilty of
adultery, but also the man who receives her, since he provides the woman with the opportunity to
sin. For if he did not receive her, she would return to her husband.”88
4.1.4 Tertullian (c. 150–220 A.D.)
“In the first place, let me emphasize that the Lord much prefers that a marriage be not
contracted at all than that, once contracted, it be dissolved. For He commends continence, while
divorce He absolutely forbids, except for adultery.”89
4.1.5 Origen (c. 185–254 A.D.)
Origen notes that there were different views held by some Egyptian bishops:
“Already contrary to Scripture certain church leaders have permitted remarriage of a woman
while her husband was alive. They did it despite what is written: ‘A wife is bound to her husband as
long as he lives’ and: ‘she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her
husband is alive’. However, they have not acted entirely without reason. Probably this
condescension has been permitted out of comparison with greater ills, contrary to the primitive law
reported in the scriptures.”90
Heth and Wenham note that the actions of these bishops may have “had pastoral
justification; it was a means of avoiding greater ills.”91
4.1.6 Lactantius (c. 240–320 A.D.)
“...whoever takes a wife who has been dismissed by another is an adulterer; so is he who
dismisses his wife to take another, except for the crime of adultery.”92
87 Miscellanies 2 (23.145).
88 Miscellanies 2 (23.146).
89 Ad Uxorem 2.2.
90 Commentary on Matthew 14.23.
91 Heth and Wenham, p. 43.
92 Divine Institutes, Book 6 (23).
4.1.7 Canons of the Synod of Elvira (306 A.D.)
(9) “...a Christian woman who leaves an adulterous, Christian husband and who marries
another has entered into a forbidden marriage. If she does marry, she may not receive communion
until her first husband has died, unless the pressure of illness makes it necessary for communion to
(10) “If a woman who has been abandoned by a catechumen should take a husband, she
can be admitted to the baptismal font. This is also true if the woman is a catechumen. But if the
man married a Christian woman after he left his innocent wife, and if she knew that he had a wife
whom he had abandoned without cause, she must be given communion only at the end of her life.”
4.1.8 Basil of Caesarea (C. 300–379 A.D.)
“The decree of the Lord, that it is forbidden to withdraw from marriage except in the case of
fornication, applies equally to men and women, at least according to the logic of the idea. But the
custom is different, and we find much stricter prescriptions for women. . . Custom requires wives to
keep their husbands, even if the husbands commit adultery and fornication. . . A woman who
leaves her husband is an adulteress if she goes to another man. But the man who has been
abandoned may be pardoned, and the woman who lives with such a man is not condemned.”93
“The man who abandons his wife to whom he has been legitimately united and takes
another is liable to the penalty of adultery, according to the statement of the Lord. But it has been
decided by the canons of the fathers that such men shall weep the first year, be hearers for the next
two years, kneel for the next three years, stand with the faithful for the seventh year, and in the eighth
year be deemed worthy of the offering, if they have repented with tears.”94
4.1.9 Augustine (354–430 A.D.)
“Once the nuptial agreement has been made, it is a kind of sacrament to such an extent that
it is not made void even by separation, since as long as the husband who left her still lives, she
commits adultery if she marries someone else, and the husband who left her is the cause of this
evil...For even when there is a divorce, the nuptial alliance is not abolished, and the persons
involved remain spouses, even when they are separated.”95
From the few examples cited it can be seen that the early church certainly adopted a very
literal approach to the Scriptures, with the Shepherd of Hermas extending beyond the teaching of
scripture. If a divorced Christian remarried “they faced long periods of excommunication.”96 The
views of the Early Fathers became entrenched and it is not difficult to see that Roman Catholicism
owes much of its teaching on marriage to this period.
93 Letter 188 to Amphilochius (9).
94 Letter 217 to Amphilochius (77).
95 The Good of Marriage VII, 7.
96 Wenham, G., “May Divorced Christians Remarry”, Evangelical Review of Theology, Vol. 6 No. 1, April 1982, p. 121.
4.2 THE REFORMATION
The Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have, in general, always been at odds when it
comes to the question of divorce. At the Reformation Protestant theologians “rejected the idea that
marriage was a sacrament”.97 The Roman Catholic practice of separation from bed and board was
regarded as unscriptural “since it deprived both parties of the essence of marriage, namely, sexual
relations and companionship, and thus acted as a positive incentive to irregular cohabitation and
Phillips states that adultery was the “one ground for divorce upon which almost all the
Reformers agreed”,99 however Stone makes the observation that by the late sixteenth century
“divorces were available to plaintiffs who were victims of one or more of three marital offences:
wifely adultery, wilful desertion for a period of years, and life-threatening cruelty”.100
Bucer differed from the other Reformers in that he recognised “divorce by mutual consent,
but the rest sought circumstances where one spouse was clearly the offender, the other clearly
Although Protestants as a whole required attempts to be made at reconciling the marriage,
the condition of the relationship was taken into account. Stone says that “if they did not have the will
[to maintain the marriage] or the ability to continue together ... divorce was used, and to this extent
the Protestant divorce laws implicitly recognized marriage breakdown”.102
5. A THEOLOGY OF DIVORCE
This is perhaps the most difficult area under discussion. How can we say that there is an
inherent theology in an action which all would agree is contrary to the perfect will of God?
Perhaps there is an answer implied in the title of this paper, Divorce: Sin or Grace?
5.1 PERFECTION IN AN IMPERFECT WORLD?
Although God created the world and all that is in it and saw that “it was very good”103 we
recognise that all is now no longer perfect; the creation is in need “of restoration by a loving and
forgiving God.”104 And that includes the relationship between man and woman. The story of the Fall
in Genesis tries to shed some light on what went wrong and admits that henceforth there will be
97 Stone, L., Road to Divorce, Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1990, p. 301.
98 Stone, p.301.
99 Phillips, p. 25.
100 Stone, p.301.
101 Phillips, p. 25.
102 Phillips, p. 26.
103 Gen. 1:31.
104 Nichols, J. R., Ending Marriage, Keeping the Faith, New York: Crossroad, 1993, p 114.
animosity between the sexes.105 How then can the church enforce marriage relationships to
conform to the Divine ideal when the rest of creation is in turmoil? Helmut Thielicke says
in this world . . . the radical command of creation [‘ . . . and they will become one flesh’] could
only issue in terror and chaos. The world is so alienated from the divine plan that it would be
shattered and destroyed by it, did not God cause the grace of his accommodating
intervention to triumph over the original claim.106
To say that marriage is indissoluble places marriage on a higher plane of human activity
than any other. It is to say that although we may fail in all areas, the act of marriage is sacrosanct
and cannot be reversed - what incredible expectations and pressures that view puts on any
persons contemplating marriage. Very rarely would a couple, or one of the partners, be married
knowing that they will not remain married (although I have personally heard of one case). I am
disregarding “marriages of convenience” as I do not regard these as valid in the sight of God (even
the law has some difficulty accepting them as valid). People embarking on a married life have quite
enough pressures without added burden of “perfection” thrust upon them. Couples certainly set out
in the hope that the relationship will last as long as they both shall live, but in an imperfect world
marriage relationships fail just as easily as we sin in other areas.
Sin is a complex issue and must primarily be defined in relation to God. Sin is
“disobedience, unbelief, ignorance, the positive assertion of usurped autonomy, and the wicked
deviation from, or violation of, God’s righteous will and law.”107 Simplistically, “sin is a state of our
being that separates us from the holy God...”108 As such sin mars our relationships with all of God’s
creation including our family and spouses. Our innate state of sinfulness is manifested in the sins
(as against ‘sin’) which we commit.
In the case of marriage relationships these sins are manifested in many ways including
adultery, violence (physical and/or emotional), abuse, even taking one’s partner for granted.
Anything less than one hundred per cent sacrificial love is sin. It is these sins which over time
accumulate and become unbearable to a point where spouses no longer want to be in the marriage
relationship. Therefore I take exception to Moldrem’s comment, “The scriptures are uniform in their
understanding of divorce as sin”.109 This indicates a very narrow view of marriage and divorce. This
taints divorce with the cumulative sins which lead to the marriage breakdown. J. Randall Nichols (a
divorced Presbyterian minister) says,
Saying that divorce is in itself and of itself sinful is just as unhelpful a statement as saying
that one or the other is entirely at fault for the rift ... Certain behaviour to be found in divorcing
situations may indeed be “sinful” in its own right and call for repentance and forgiveness ...
105 Gen. 3:15f.
106 Thielecke, H., Foundations, Vol. 1 of Theological Ethics in 3 Vols., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979, p. 571.
107 Bromiley, G. W., “Sin”, in I.S.B.E. Vol 4, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988, p. 518.
108 Colwell, J. E., “Sin,” in Ferguson, S. B. and Wright, D. F. eds., New Dictionary of Theology, Leicester and Downers Grove: I.V.P., 1988, p. 641.
109 Molldrem, M. J., “A Hermeneutic of Pastoral Care and the Law/Gospel Paradigm Applied to the Divorce Texts of Scripture”, Interpretation, Vol. 45, January, 1991, p. 53.
but divorce itself is not a sin, neither as a complex of behaviours nor as the outcome of
the process of getting unmarried (italics by Nichols).110
I wonder if some Christians might adopt a more moderate view of divorce if they looked at
the underlying causes for the marriage breakdown as being sinful, rather than the legal act.
5.3 THE DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION
The scripture assures us that when we are genuinely repentant and make restitution where
appropriate, God’s forgiveness is total and irrevocable. He removes our sins from us as far as the
east is from the west (Ps. 103:12), he remembers our sins no more (Is. 43:25), he hurls them into
the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:19) and the New Testament assures us that no matter how great our
sins we are washed clean by the blood of the lamb (Col. 2:13f.; Heb. 9:14; Rev. 1:5; etc.). While not
denying that divorce is undesirable and contrary to the perfect will of God we need to remember
that scripture assures us that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy
against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”111 The Christian church needs to take care that she does not
add divorce to the unforgivable category.
The doctrine of justification means that a person stands before God as if s/he had not
sinned. It does not undo what has been done, but it is no longer counted against him/her. Ward
Powers says that “if we were to hold that the sins involved in a marriage break-up and divorce
cannot be or are not forgiven after repentance, then we call into question the whole meaning of
biblical teaching about the atonement.”112
The power of Christ cleanses us from all sin, including that which caused us to divorce our
partners. Phypers comments that we need to be aware
lest we deny to the divorced that which many of them need most, the certainty of Christ’s
love and forgiveness, the assurance of his restoring power to pick up the pieces of their
shattered lives and begin again...113
5.4 THE IMAGE OF GOD
There is no argument that men and women were created in the image of God114, and Jesus
forcefully reminds us that next to loving God with all our faculties we have a responsibility to show
that same love to our neighbours.115 There is no doubt that the way we love our neighbours is in fact
a reflection of the love we have for God who created all humans. Robert Sinks says that this Great
Commandment of Jesus “calls the Christian to strive toward the most loving action possible within
the context of any given situation”.116 He adopts a situationist approach by contending that “a
110 Nichols, pp. 73 and 75.
111 Matt. 12:31.
112 Powers, “Divorce and the Bible”, p.171.
113 Phypers, D., Christian Marriage in Crisis, Marc Europe, 1986, p. 118.
114 Gen. 1:27.
115 Matt. 22:37-40.
legalistic rendering of ancient laws is not theologically adequate. Rote obedience to law may
actually do violence to God’s will in a particular situation”.117
Many acts of divorce come after much trauma, pain and even violence within the marriage
relationship. The divorce itself cannot be held as the sinful act so much as the events which lead up
to it. Thomas Olshewsky suggests that the way to love one’s mate in these circumstances (even
though ‘love’ per se is dead) is a “responsible decision . . . to dissolve the marriage contract”.118
Sinks also follows this line of reasoning saying that such divorces
are responsible decisions reached in the context of tragic and limited circumstances. . . they
are to be affirmed as thoroughly justified if destructive relationships are to be escaped and
the possibilities of new growth achieved.119
We must be careful here not to limit these “responsible decisions” only to the tragic and
violent cases - that is tantamount to categorising sin. Those relationships in which the partners have
drifted away from each and have failed to willingly rekindle the love they once had are also in a
tragic and sinful situation.120 In many cases reconciliation is not an option and divorce then must
also be seen as a responsible act of love freeing the individuals to lead a new, and hopefully fuller,
Sinks concludes with the perceptive comment that “whenever a marriage serves to crush
what is genuinely human, then it must yield to the higher principle of the Great Commandment”.121
The image of God can hardly be upheld if people are forced to live in a mutually destructive
relationship with no possibility of release. We were all created to have fellowship with our Creator
and to live life abundantly and this leads to another point.
5.5 A THEOLOGY OF FULFILMENT
An anonymous writer tells of life after divorce:
While I can manage to live a fruitful single life it certainly is not my first preference. I miss the
touch of skin on skin, the warmth of physical intimacy and the physical pleasure and
vulnerability of sexual intercourse and the companionship of sharing the texture of daily life –
chat and coffee as well as the high points of life.122
116 Sinks, R., “A Theology of Divorce”, The Christian Century, Vol. 94, April 20, 1977, p.377.
117 Sinks, p. 377.
118 Olshewsky, T. M., “A Christian Understanding of Divorce”, Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 7 Spring 1979, p. 129.
119 Sinks, p. 378.
120 David Phypers gives many examples: “Muriel and George have been legally and physically married. To the rest of the world they are still married. But their marriage is dead, and has been for decades. Hardened by a lifetime of misery, each blames and accuses the other. All attempts, and there have been many, by family, friends and Christian ministry to bring reconciliation and repair have failed. George says he should have left Muriel when their son grew up and married. He is right. When marriages die, their death should be recognised” (Phypers, p. 116).
121 Sinks, p. 379.
122 Anonymous, “Finding God in ‘Hell’: Reflections on the Death of a Marriage”, Zadok Perspectives, Vol. 42 Spring, September, 1993, p. 9.
Jesus said “I came that they may life and have it abundantly.”123 Whereas no doubt in the
first instance Jesus is referring to that abundant life we have when we answer the call of the Good
Shepherd and are restored into fellowship with God, it seems there is also a valid claim that
abundant life refers to the quality of life experienced here on earth. Bishop Westcott says that “life in
itself is not all. There must be also that which shall maintain, and strengthen, and extend the action
of life; and this also Christ assures. His sheep ‘find pasture’.”124 Carson agrees with Westcott
suggesting that abundant life in the parable of the Good Shepherd
suggests fat, contented, flourishing sheep, not terrorized by brigands; outside the narrative
world, it means that the life Jesus’ true disciples enjoy is not to be construed as more time to
fill (merely ‘everlasting’ life), but life at its scarcely imagined best, life to be lived.125
If we accept this as a fundamental truth of Christianity, then how can this abundant life be
denied to a divorced person? Why should a divorced person not be able to remarry? It is fine if one
chooses to live as a single person but to enforce singleness on someone with the “scriptural threat”
that if they remarry then they commit adultery is to deny them the abundant life for which God
created them and which Jesus promises.
5.6 THE GRACE OF GOD
Paul tells us that as Christians we no longer live under law but under grace.126 By legislating
against divorce we are not only interfering in peoples’ personal lives, but that we are regressing
into a dispensation of law. Yet we no longer live under the law; if we did every person would stand
condemned before God every day of their lives. God graciously forgives all who repent and turn to
him. “The proclamation of Jesus Christ is about the love of God, a love which is all-inclusive and
unconditional.”127 Coates says that “this is a love which encompasses us even in our most broken
moments. This is a love which we do not earn, but rather is ours through God’s grace.”128
He graciously forgives all those acts which finally lead to divorce. For those who believe that
the very act of divorce is evil, let it be known that God also forgives the act of divorce129. However,
for many the act of divorce is in fact not sinful, but a necessary and responsible act, allowed by a
gracious God, in order that shattered lives can be pieced together with a promise of abundant life
that for many has long been denied.
123 John 10:10.
124 Westcott, B. F., The Gospel According to St. John, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951, p. 154.
125 Carson, D. A., “Matthew”, in Gæbelein, F. E. gen. ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1984, p. 385.
126 Romans 6:14ff.
127 Tournier, P., Guilt and Grace, New York: Harper and Row 1962, p. 188.
128 Coates, R. B., “A Ministry of Mediation: The Divorce Settlement”, The Journal of Pastoral Care Vol. 37 December, 1983, p.266.
129 Some hold that we must live with the consequences of sin. To take an extreme example: If a person cuts off one of one’s own fingers, then upon repentance the finger does not grow back. The evidence of one’s act is always there. This type of argument is used to suggest that one cannot remarry after divorce, because divorce is a sin and one must live with th consequences of divorce, viz. a single, celibate life. However, if we adopt the attitude that the acts leading up to divorce are the sinful deeds and not the divorce, then one can face up to and repent of those deeds, although possibly carrying scars or the rest of one’s life. The consequences are the consequences of the wrongful acts, not the consequences of the legal act of divorce.
Powers reminds us that:
The grace of God is available: if we sin, doing what we ought not, we are able to confess
and repent of the sin, and be forgiven and cleansed, and granted a new start. This does not
make light of marital sin. But if reconciliation is not possible God [does not require] such sin
to ruin all future possibility of marriage, home and family for the repentant sinner. [This view]
lays claim to the promises of God’s grace for enabling the forgiven sinner to put together
again his traumatized, broken life.130
6. PASTORAL REALITIES
The church needs to face up to the realities of twentieth century life. In Australia today only
36% of families consist of a married couple with children. “Almost fifty percent of prospective
marriage partners in Australia will at some time in their lives experience the agony of the
breakdown of their relationship, separation and loss.”131 How will the church address this growing
problem? Hannah asks,
Will she stand aside and simply pass judgement upon the selfishness, and unfaithfulness
which it sees as the cause of these disintegrating relationships? Or will the church
understand that God is to be found here also?132
Will the church be legalistic or loving? Some will claim that it is possible to be both, yet I
wonder if, living as we are in the dispensation of grace and not of law, if in the application of the
“law” we lose sight of the love.
6.1 THE CHURCH’S ATTITUDE: LAW OR GRACE?
As noted above, Jesus has been done a grave injustice when he has been portrayed as a
law-giver subrogating Mosaic Law with regard to marriage and divorce, yet not for other sins. In
some churches divorce is viewed as the “unforgivable sin” causing great anguish both to divorcees
and those living in intolerable circumstances within their marriage. With Crispin, I believe that
although adultery is a very serious matter, there are many things far worse in some couples’
The rigorist view adopts the line that either God will give the grace to withstand the situation,
or the Holy Spirit will convict the offending party and draw him/her into the faith.134 I believe that this
is a most unsatisfactory, unloving, uncaring and unrealistic approach, surely in direct contradiction
to the very nature of God himself and to that revealed in the incarnate Christ.
130 Powers, B. W., Marriage and Divorce: The New Testament Teaching, Sydney: Family Life and Jordan Books 1987, pp. 322-
131 Hannah, D., “Christians and Divorce”, Zadok Perspectives Spring Edition, No. 42 September 93, p. 3.
132 Hannah, p. 3.
133 Crispin, 32. c/f footnote no.75.
134 Crispin, 32.
The teachings of some Christians would mean that a husband or wife could actually
encourage the other to commit adultery, or at least provide the “legal proof” required by the courts,
so he/she could then be free to divorce and then remarry!
These teachings have resulted in a form of hypocrisy, or more kindly, a form of compromise
where the Christian has compassion but cannot break the rules. I have personal knowledge of an
Anglican minister who refused to perform a marriage when one party was a divorcee, but
redirected the couple to the local Uniting Church to be married, and then welcomed the happily
married couple back into the church family.135
6.1.2 GRACE AND LOVE
James says “religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and
widows in their distress ...” (1:27). What was true for orphans and widows in the first century is
surely no less true for divorcees and children of one parent families of today.136
The “church”, as the Body of Christ, should recognise that we do live in a fallen world and
that, inevitably, some Christian marriages can, and do, fail. If we live in the Kingdom of Grace and
God is willing to forgive those who, painfully, decide to sever the marriage bond, then the “church”,
as the Body of Christ has, I believe, no right to consider herself living in a Kingdom of Law and
refuse to recognise divorce, whether of believers or unbelievers.
Instead of condemning such people or attempting to apportion blame; which in many cases
can result in deep psychological scarring due to the burden of implied guilt; Christians need to
reach out in love to them and give them as much help as they can. The “Beginning Experience”
programme, instigated by the Roman Catholic church for those in severed relationships, whether
through divorce, separation or death, is, to my mind, an admirable attempt to do just that. The
Uniting Church also attempts to address the problem, and only recently the Rangeville church held a
“Fresh Start” seminar. This “is a program of recovery for those who are separated or divorced.”137
Stott identifies four urgent pastoral needs which Christians must address.138 Ministers must
provide thorough biblical teaching about marriage and reconciliation. Couples intending marriage
must be encouraged to attend courses designed to cover the spiritual and moral dimensions of
marriage as well as the legal and social questions. There is a need for a sympathetic and sensitive
counselling and reconciliation service within the local church where people can seek help early
when it is most needed. And there is a need for pastoral ministry to the divorced.
From a personal account we read the two sides of care that the church offers. Firstly this
person notes the lack of care when it was most needed, when the relationship was floundering:
We sought help on a number of occasions and instead of bread we received the proverbial
stone. On one occasion, as the clergyman afterwards confessed, the assistance was ill-
135 I was advised of this personally by an Anglican priest when being counselled regarding my divorce and proposed remarriage. Let me hasten to add that he was very sympathetic and did not subscribe to the church’s official policy, but he was bound to abide by any decision made by his Bishop in individual circumstances.
136 “Light Fuses and Friendship: Practical ways to support those who are divorced”, in On Being, Vol. 10, No 6, July, 1983., p. 13.
137 U.C. Information, No. 5, 1994, March 25th., p. 4.
138 Stott, J., Issues Facing Christians Today, London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, pp. 275-6.
conceived and disastrous in its effect. In another situation when the reality of our marriage
difficulties surfaced, our calls for help were not taken with great seriousness.
This same person speaks of the care and love he received after his divorce when a member
of a small group:
God’s love and grace were mediated to me through a network of friends, particularly the
members of a small church group to which E and I belonged. I experienced in that
community the truth of Paul’s claim that God’s strength is made present to us by means of
Christians have to recognise divorced people as a worthy and valued part of the Christian
fellowship, despite the undesirable circumstance in which they find themselves. No one outside a
marriage can really know what has happened. No one can truly apportion blame, or single out an
“innocent party” or one who is “at fault”, especially as we now have a “no-fault” situation when the
matter comes to court. Like every other member of the fellowship, divorcees have God-given gifts
and, once they have worked through their own emotional problems with regard to the
circumstances leading to the divorce and the procedure of the divorce itself, they should be
encouraged to use those gifts in the life of the fellowship, for the edification of the church.
Crispin says that “marriage is ... a voluntary relationship which exists only as long as the two
people involved decide to continue in it ... one is divorced if that relationship terminates other than
by death.”140 The Christian who has experienced the pain of divorce may become a sensitive and
understanding counsellor for those whose marriage is in trouble, an invaluable asset to any
community since it is inevitable, as previously noted, that such a need is sure to exist.
I can understand Crispin’s declaration which follows, though I believe SOME Christian
communities, by the grace of God, have accepted the challenge. Praise the Lord!
To come to Christ with their hurt and their guilt should be a liberating experience. Jesus
came to heal the broken-hearted. We have been entrusted with his great commission to
proclaim the good news that all (italics added) may be forgiven and reconciled to their
Father. Yet like the Pharisees we so often bind heavy burdens on their shoulders which we
make little effort to help them bear . . . There is an urgent need for the church to endeavour to
become the kind of caring and accepting community in which God’s people with broken
marriages can have their wounds bound and can receive assistance and encouragement in
forging a new life. This is a challenge which the church has largely failed to take up or even
139 Anonymous, “Finding God in ‘Hell’, Zadok Perspectives No. 42 Spring Edition, September, 1993, p.7.
140 Crispin, 16-17.
141 Crispin, 294.
My research has reached a point where it is obvious that there are many and opposing
views regarding divorce. All views are solidly based upon the individual’s or the denomination’s
interpretation of scripture. Like so many other issues affecting our lives, the scriptures are a guide
and often give no prescriptive or definitive answers. It is easy to say that Jesus made an absolute
law regarding divorce, but if he did why is not his teaching on anger and lust (in the same passage
in Matthew) regarded as setting up a new law for these issues. Even Jesus’ two great
commandments are not new laws; they encompass the purpose and expectations of the
There is no denying that ideally marriage is to be a lifelong relationship, however in this
imperfect and fallen world marriage relationships very often fail. Stott says “even when permissible,
dissolution is always a departure from the divine intention and ideal”142, but then many things in our
lives, our very inclination to wrong-doing so freely discussed in Scripture, are similarly far removed
from God’s intention and ideal. It is for that reason we celebrate God’s gift of Grace in His Son, in
whom we are justified and redeemed through faith alone.
God recognises our fallen state, and through Christ has opened the way for healing and
reconciliation. I believe that God wants his people to live abundant lives and that a traumatic and
physically hurting or emotionally dead relationship is not part of God’s plan. Although often we are
the cause of the breakdown of our relationships, I believe that divorce is only the final legal step
towards the dissolution of a marriage which ceased to be some time previously. In many cases
divorce is a responsible action, and rather than regard it as a sin we should regard it as an act
allowed by the grace of a loving and compassionate God.
142 Stott, 262.
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