When Jesus said there is only one lawful ground for divorce, Paul wasn’t suggesting otherwise. What he was saying is that in certain clearly defined cases “abandonment” has the effect of dissolving the bond of marriage, bringing with it the liberty for the innocent party to remarry. But what Paul meant by “abandonment” and what many mean today when they speak of it is very different. It is this tendency that I am seeking to correct. We cannot, in other words, take this idea of “abandonment” and simply do with it whatever we like, not if biblical faithfulness is our goal.
There is much talk today about what constitutes biblical grounds for divorce. In such discussions, reference is made to “abandonment” as a ground for divorce, as well as discussion and disagreement about what exactly constitutes “abandonment” in marriage. The discussion finds its basis in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:15: “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.”
There is also the statement in the Westminster Confession of Faith 24.6 that says, “Nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.” Because these things are being discussed at such length by so many, it is time to take a closer look at the biblical teachings that stand behind the idea of “abandonment” – especially since, in my opinion, the discussion of what constitutes “abandonment” is often far removed from its biblical intent.
Any discussion on the subject of divorce requires that we look first at Matthew 19, since there Jesus speaks so directly and definitely on the subject; and also because in 1 Corinthians 7:10-14 it is clear that Paul is interacting with what Jesus said in Matthew 19. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether: “It is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” (v. 3). In response to this, Jesus quotes and summarizes the teaching about marriage “from the beginning,” found in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 (Matt. 19:4, 5).
The basic thrust of his teaching is that marriage is an indissoluble union between one man and one woman, leading him to say, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (v. 6). It is clear that Jesus’ answer to the question is, “No, it is not lawful to divorce one’s wife for any reason.” But then the Pharisees ask, “Why did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (v. 7, referring to Deuteronomy 24:4).
It is important to note that Moses didn’t command this. He merely regulated the practice of divorce, which Jesus makes clear God only tolerated because of their hardness of heart in the first place! (v. 8). And note that Jesus reminds them again, “But from the beginning it has not been this way.” In other words, Jesus is setting forth once more the ethics for marriage found in the Garden: “the two shall become one.” This leads him to finally deal with the issue of divorce directly; and Jesus includes remarriage in what he says, since the one usually leads to the other: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (v. 9).
There are several comments that need to be made here. The first is that, before we consider the exception, we have to consider the rule that the exception applies to (a simple but often neglected rule: that one must understand the rule before one can understand the exception). The rule is this: whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. What this means is that divorce is not only unlawful; it actually fails to achieve its intended purpose, which is to break the bond formed in marriage. Divorce is seen here by Jesus as an action taken by man that does not succeed in separating what God has joined together in marriage (Matthew 19:6). That is why remarriage still constitutes adultery. It is because the original union formed in marriage by God remains. John Murray observed, “The only reason for which this remarriage can be regarded as adulterous is that the first marriage is still in God’s sight regarded as inviolate. The divorce has not dissolved it” (Divorce, p.25).
Second, the force of the one exception must be fully felt. When Jesus says, “whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery”, he is obviously pointing to the presence of an exception to the rule. But the force of the exception itself is often overlooked. Jesus, in pointing to the one exception, excludes the permissibility of divorce for any other reason. Murray again, “… it is not the exceptive clause that bears the weight of the emphasis in the text. It is rather that the husband may not put away for any other cause. It is the one exception that gives prominence to the illegitimacy of any other reason. Preoccupation with the one exception should never be permitted to obscure the force of the negation of all others” (Divorce, p.21).
Further, we should realize that Jesus is saying that in the case of sexual immorality, the right of divorce is granted to the innocent party, with the understanding that remarriage is also permissible. This is because the divorce is considered by Jesus as valid, and thus there is no sin to remarry in such cases. Here is a divorce which is considered lawful by our Lord. The Westminster Confession of Faith 24.5 reflects this teaching when it says, “In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another…” Its silence is also instructive, as well as reflective of our Lord’s teaching, when it states no other lawful cause “to sue out a divorce”.
Now, as we come to what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:15 (and the larger context found in vv.10-15), we must bear Jesus’ teaching in mind. It is clear that in vv.10-11 Paul is merely reiterating our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 19. He says, “That the wife should not leave her husband” (v.10). And he reminds her that if she does, she should remain unmarried, or else be reconciled (v.11). The implication is that, going back to what Jesus says in Matthew 19:9, if she were to remarry, she would become guilty of the sin of adultery. Paul also adds, “The husband should not divorce his wife.” To this point, we find only what our Lord himself had taught in Matthew 19.
But then in vv.12-14 he deals with the question of mixed marriages, where the spouses are unequally yoked; a slightly different dynamic that Jesus did not touch upon directly. What is the believing spouse to do in such cases? Here Paul couldn’t be clearer: Stay married. If the unbelieving spouse consents to stay, that is, if that spouse doesn’t want a divorce, “He must not divorce her” (v. 12).
Again, in the case where the woman is the believer, he says, “She must not send her husband away” (v. 13). How clearly Paul is upholding our Lord’s teaching on the matter. He wants believers to realize that marriage is a lifelong bond between the husband and the wife (see 7:39). Further, in order to encourage these concerned believers to stay married to their unbelieving spouses who do not want to leave, he reminds them that the presence of one believing parent sanctifies any children they might have (v. 14). So don’t worry about your children, he says. The influence and presence of one believing parent is enough.
But then Paul says something interesting: “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (v. 15). This verse is our great interest (though it should be clear that it must never be taken in isolation, without considering Paul’s words in vv. 10-14 that led him to say this). What is clear is that Paul is now envisioning the situation where the unbelieving spouse in a mixed marriage wants to leave. Now that his/her spouse has become a believer, the new situation has led to a desire on the part of the unbelieving spouse to leave. Note, the believer is not seeking divorce in this case. Paul has plainly told the believing spouse not to seek a divorce. But what about when the unbelieving spouse wants a divorce? What to do in such a case? “Let him leave.” It should be noted carefully here that this is not technically a ground for divorce, since the believing spouse here is exhorted not to seek divorce. It is rather a situation in which the believing spouse is being divorced.
In order to grasp what Paul exhorts the believer to do in this instance, we must appreciate the force of the phrase “let him leave.” According to Murray, “It enunciates … the liberty that is granted to, and the attitude that is to be assumed by, the believer in this event, and is, in effect, ‘let the unbeliever be gone.’… If the unbeliever wilfully departs, let separation take its course, let it become an accomplished fact;” and so on (Divorce, p.68).
The idea of letting it happen is all that Paul meant when he says, “let him leave.” That is, do not stand in the way or try to prevent it from happening. Or perhaps, do not think you have the ability to stop this from happening: to hold on to the marriage in such cases. Nor are you to pretend that this desertion has not occurred, nor that you are still married to this person. You must, as Murray says, “Let it become an accomplished fact,” something which carries with it the force of a command!
In such a case as this, there is a liberty you must fully recognize and embrace, which Paul expresses like this: “The brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.” What exactly this liberty involves is not easy to say. But it would appear Paul is saying that the marriage itself has been dissolved, and that remarriage in such cases is permissible. The liberty is a liberty to remarry. That this same liberty does not apply in the case of two believers separating is clear from his earlier comments in vv. 10-11.
This understanding of 1 Corinthians 7:15 is reflected in the way the Confession teaches in 24.6 that “willful desertion … is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage…” But here it should be noted that the dissolution of the marriage does not occur at the initiative of the one being deserted. He/she does not “sue out a divorce” in this case, as in WCF 24.5. Rather, the marriage is dissolved as the result of actions taken against the innocent party: that of being deserted. This reflects perfectly the balance of Scripture found in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7.
Given this understanding of the text in question, my appeal to my fellow pastors and Christians is to take the time to understand what Paul meant by “abandonment” before speaking of it themselves. What is so strange, and indeed, tragic, is that so many today are speaking of “abandonment” or “desertion” in a way the Apostle Paul never intended. He wasn’t seeking to introduce new grounds for divorce, beyond that of “sexual immorality.”
On the contrary, he very forcefully reiterates Jesus’ teaching in vv. 10-14. But he does deal with a specific case that, technically speaking, did not fall within the purview of our Lord’s teaching: not: “May I get a divorce?” since his answer is clearly “No” (except in the case of immorality); but: “What happens when my spouse wants a divorce?” These are clearly very different questions, carrying with them different biblical answers. Murray is helpful in explaining this difference:
Jesus was dealing with the question of “putting away.” Paul is not dealing with putting away but with wilful desertion on the part of the unbeliever. Paul is most explicit that the believer is not to put away the unbeliever; in that respect he is as emphatic as our Lord himself. Dissonance in the matter of faith gives no ground for divorce. But wilful “going away” on the part of the unbeliever introduces a new situation. The distinction must be duly appreciated. The two cases are in different categories... (Divorce, p.70).
Appreciating this difference helps us to understand that Paul wasn’t at odds with Jesus. When Jesus said there is only one lawful ground for divorce, Paul wasn’t suggesting otherwise. What he was saying is that in certain clearly defined cases “abandonment” has the effect of dissolving the bond of marriage, bringing with it the liberty for the innocent party to remarry. But what Paul meant by “abandonment” and what many mean today when they speak of it is very different. It is this tendency that I am seeking to correct. We cannot, in other words, take this idea of “abandonment” and simply do with it whatever we like, not if biblical faithfulness is our goal. We must be as narrow and precise on the issue as Scripture is. Any attempt to broaden the scope of what is considered permissible or biblical grounds for divorce beyond these narrowly defined parameters is precisely what we must avoid, because it was this kind of sophistry that Jesus sought to correct in the first place. To quote Murray one final time:
It is, however, of the greatest importance to maintain that, if this position is adopted [regarding 1 Corinthians 7:15], the application of this liberty [to remarry] must be limited to the precise conditions specified or implied by the apostle. Too frequently this liberty has been applied to cases that do not fall within the category defined by the context of I Corinthians 7:15. It is this loose and indiscriminating application that must be obviated. … Hence, if we are to interpret I Corinthians 7:15 as legitimating dissolution of the bond of marriage, it is most necessary to restrict this liberty to conditions and circumstances which are analogous to those of the situation dealt with by the apostle. It is here that the gross abuse of this particular interpretation must be deplored and condemned (Divorce, pp.76-78).
John Sharpe is Pastor of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida.