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September 1    Scripture

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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

 

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DIVORCE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

to apostasiou): The Scripture doctrine of divorce is very simple. It is contained in Mt 19:3-12.
We are not called upon to treat of divorce in the Mosaic legislation (Dt 24:1-4). That was passed upon by Jesus in the above discussion and by Him ruled out of existence in His system of religion. After Jesus had spoken as above, the Mosaic permission of divorce became a dead letter. There could not be practice under it among His disciples. So such Old Testament divorce is now a mere matter of antiquarian curiosity.
It may be of interest in passing to note that the drift of the Mosaic legislation was restrictive of a freedom of divorce that had been practiced before its enactment. It put in legal proceedings to bar the personal will of one of the parties. It recognized marriage as a social institution which should not be disrupted without reference to the rights of society in it. In this restrictive character "the law is become our tutor to bring us unto Christ" (Gal 3:24). But here, as in numerous other instances, Christ went behind the enactments to primitive original principles whose recognition would make the law of none effect, because no practice was to be permitted under it. Thus the Old Testament is disposed of.
Of course what Jesus said will dominate the New. In fact, Jesus is the only author in the New Testament who has treated of divorce. It has been thought that Paul had the subject in hand. But we shall find on examination, further along, that he did not. We need then look nowhere but to Mt 19 for the Scripture doctrine of divorce.
True, we have other reports of what Jesus said (Mk 10:2-12; Lk 16:18). But in Mt 19 we have the fullest report, containing everything that is reported elsewhere and one or two important observations that the other writers have not included. Luke has only one verse where Matthew has ten. Luke's verse is in no necessary connection with context. It seems to be a mere memorandum among others of the spiritual or ethical teachings of Christ. Luke however caught the gist of the whole teaching about divorce in recording the prohibition to put away one wife and marry another. The records in Mt 19 and Mk 10 cover one and the same occasion. But there is nothing in Mark that is not in Matthew; and the latter contains nearly a third more of text than the former. There is nothing, however, essential in Matthew that is not in Mark, save the clause "except for fornication." That exception will be treated further along. We seem to be justified then in saying that the total doctrine of the Scripture pertaining to divorce is contained in Mt 19.
Attention must be called to the fact that, in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:27-32), Jesus treated of divorce, and that in every essential particular it agrees with the elaboration in Mt 19. Jesus there as plainly as in the argument with the Pharisees put Moses' permission of divorce under ban; as plainly there declared the putting away of one partner to marry another person to be adultery. This may also be noticed, that the exception to the absolute prohibition is in the text of the Sermon on the Mount.
We have then a summary of the New Testament doctrine of divorce stated by Christ Himself as follows: "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery" (Mt 19:9). This puts Him in line with the ideal of the monogamic, indissoluble family which pervades the whole of the Old Testament.
1. The Family:
It may be well here to treat of the exception which Christ made in His rule to the indissolubility of marriage. It is very widely maintained in the Christian church that there should be no divorce for any cause whatever. This position is in plain contradiction to Christ's teaching in Mt 15 and Mt 19. One of the grounds adduced for this denial of divorce in case a partner is guilty of adultery is that Luke and Mark do not record the exception. It is a difficult matter to invade the psychology of writers who lived nearly two thousand years ago and tell why they did not include something in their text which someone else did in his. Neither Luke nor Mark were personal disciples of the Lord. They wrote second hand. Matthew was a personal disciple of Christ and has twice recorded the exception. It will be a new position in regard to judgment on human evidence when we put the silence of absentees in rank above the twice expressed report of one in all probability present--one known to be a close personal attendant.
This may be said: Matthew's record stands in ancient manuscript authority, Greek and also the Versions. And on this point let it be noted that the testimony of the manuscripts was up before the English and American Revisers, and they have deliberately reaffirmed the text of 1611 and given us the exception in Christ's rule in each place (Mt 5:32; 19:9). This makes the matter as nearly res adjudicata as can be done by human wisdom.
Let us consider the rationality of the exception. That feature has had scant attention from theologians and publicists, yet it will bear the closest scrutiny. In fact it is a key to much that is explanatory of the basic principle of the family. To begin with, the exception is not on its face an after-thought of some transcriber, but was called out by the very terms of the question of the Pharisees: "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" This plainly called for a specification from Jesus of exceptions which he would allow to the rule against divorce. It is fortunate that the Pharisees asked the question in the form they did, for that put on Jesus the necessity of enumerating such exceptions as he would allow. He mentioned one, and but one in reply. That puts the matter of exceptions under the rule in logic: Expressio unius-exclusio alterius. All other pretenses for divorce were deliberately swept aside by Christ--a fact that should be remembered when other causes are sought to be foisted in alongside this one allowed by Christ. The question may come up, Whose insight is likely to be truest?
Why, then, will reason stand by this exception? Because adultery is per se destructive of monogamic family life. Whoever, married, is guilty of adultery has taken another person into family relation. Children may be born to that relation--are born to it. Not to allow divorce in such case is to force an innocent party in marriage to live in a polygamous state. There is the issue stated so plainly that "the wayfaring man need not err therein," and "he who runs may read," and "he who reads may run."
It is the hand of an unerring Master that has made fornication a ground for divorce from the bond of matrimony and limited divorce to that single cause. Whichever way we depart from strict practice under the Savior's direction we land in polygamy. The society that allows by its statutes divorce for any other cause than the one that breaks the monogamic bond, is simply acting in aid of polygamy, consecutive if not contemporaneous.
Advocates of the freedom of divorce speak of the above view as "the ecclesiastical." That is an attempt to use the argument ad invidiam. The church of Christ held and holds its views, not because ecclesiastics taught it, but because Christ taught it, and that in His teaching we have a statement out from the righteousness, wisdom, insight and rationality of the all-wise God.
2. Paul:
Paul is the only other New Testament author besides Christ who has been supposed to treat of divorce. But a careful examination of Paul's writing will disclose the fact that he has nowhere discussed the question--for what cause or causes a man might put away his wife, or a woman her husband, with liberty of marriage to another person. If Paul has treated of divorce at all it is in 1 Cor 7. But even a careless reading of that chapter will disclose the fact that Paul is not discussing the question for what causes marriage might be disrupted, but the question of manners and morals in the relation. Paul has not modified Christ in any respect. It has been supposed that in 7:15 Paul has allowed divorce to a believing partner who has been deserted by one unbelieving, and so he has been sometimes understood as adding desertion to the exception Christ made as cause for divorce.
But Paul has not said in that verse or anywhere else that a Christian partner deserted by a heathen may be married to someone else. All he said is: "If the unbelieving departeth, let him depart: the brother or the sister is not under bondage (dedoulotai) in such cases: but God hath called us in peace." To say that a deserted partner "hath not been enslaved" is not to say that he or she may be remarried. What is meant is easily inferred from the spirit that dominates the whole chapter, and that is that everyone shall accept the situation in which God has called him just as he is. "Be quiet" is a direction that hovers over every situation. If you are married, so remain. If unmarried, so remain. If an unbelieving partner deserts, let him or her desert. So remain. "God hath called us in peace." Nothing can be more beautiful in the morals of the marriage relation than the direction given by Paul in this chapter for the conduct of all parties in marriage in all trials.
Many reasons might be given why Paul could not have given liberty of remarriage, besides the one that he did not in his text; but attention should be called to the fact that such an assumption of authority in divorce would soon have brought him into conflict with the Roman government. Paul's claim that he was a Roman citizen was of some value to himself. Would not some Roman citizen have claimed to scrutinize pretty closely Paul's right to issue a decree of divorce against him because he had "departed" from a wife who had become a Christian? There would be two sides to such divorces. Would not Paul, careful, shrewd, politic as he was, have known that, and have avoided an open rupture with a government that did not tolerate much interference with its laws? That neither Paul nor anyone else ever put such construction upon his language, is evidenced by the fact that there is no record in history of a single case where it was attempted for 400 years after Paul was in his grave, and the Roman Empire had for a century been Christian. Then we wait 400 years more before we find the suggestion repeated. That no use was ever made of such construction of Paul in the whole era of the adjustment of Christianity with heathenism is good evidence that it was never there to begin with. So we shall pass Paul as having in no respect modified the doctrine of divorce laid down by Christ in Mt 19.
3. Remedies for Marriage Ills:
In all civilized countries the machinery of legislation and law can always be open for removal or relief of troubles in marriage without proceeding to its annulment. If a father is cruel to his children, we do not abolish the parental relation, but punish the father for his cruelty. If he deserts his children, we need not assist him to rear other children whom he can desert in turn, but we can punish him for his desertion. What can be done by law in case of parent and child can be done in case of husband and wife. By putting in absolute divorce (frequently for guilty and innocent alike) we invite the very evils we seek to cure. We make it the interest of a dissatisfied party to create a situation that a court will regard as intolerable, and so he or she may go free.
Then by affording an easy way out of the troubles of married life we are inviting carelessness about entering marriage. We say by divorce statutes to a young woman: "If your husband deserts you, you may have another. If he is cruel, you may have another. If he fails to support you, you may have another. If he is drunken, you may have another. If he is incompatible or makes you unhappy, you may have another"--and yet others beyond these. When an easy road is thus made out of marriage, will there be proper caution about entering into marriage? By just as much as a crevice for relief of the miseries of married life is opened by divorce, by so much the flood gates are opened into those miseries. The more solemnly society is impressed that the door of marriage does not swing outward as well as inward the more of happiness and blessing will it find in the institution.
See FAMILY.
C. Caverno

Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'DIVORCE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE; 1915.

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