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First issued in 1976

Reissued 1985


The first of these two articles was issued by the Christadelphian Magazine Committee and appeared in The Christadelphian for April 1972 (pp. 152159).

The second, by the Assistant Editor of the magazine, appeared, with the approval of the Committee, in the issues for February and March 1976 (pp. 4550; 8688).

It became evident from many comments received that these observations had been found helpful by a large number of readers. They are issued here in a more convenient form for the benefit of those who may not have seen the original articles or who may wish to study them afresh.


In view of the rapidly changing climate of opinion in society on the subjects of marriage and divorce, and the foreseeable results of the recent changes in the divorce law in Britain it has become necessary to restate some of the spiritual principles which lie at the basis of personal or Ecclesial relationships. Ecclesias are now being faced with marital problems in their own midst, and an even larger proportion of people seeking baptism have matrimonial difficulties. These are trends, which are likely to increase, and the resulting problems are often of such complexity that Ecclesias find themselves at a loss to know how to temper judgment with mercy or honour one divine principle without doing violence to others.

True Marriage According to the Scriptures

The Scriptures treat marriage on a spiritual rather than on a personal level. Both the choosing of a marriage partner and the pattern of behaviour once the marriage relationship is accepted should be the expression of a believer’s devotion to the spiritual ideals. The standards are set in passages such as these:

“The Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him… So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves unto his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:18, 2124).

“Jesus answered, Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder” (Matt. 19:46).

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her… Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies… For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church . . .” (Eph. 5:25, 28, 3132).

(The quotations are from the R.S.V.).

The whole marriage relationship is to be a reflection of the espousal and marriage of Christ and his Bride. It is especially to be noted that Paul does not discuss the personal relationship and then compare the spiritual with it; he puts it the other way round. The spiritual is the standard; the human marriage is to reflect its spirit. This is why we take the attitude we do towards marriage with the unbeliever; such a marriage represents a personal relationship in which the true spiritual aspect has not been honoured.

The divine standard of marriage is a partnership between one man and one woman in a spiritual and physical union, based upon a covenant for life. Therefore any kind of marital irregularity, whether it be known and obvious as in the case of divorce or marriage out of the Faith, or known only to the parties concerned in some other form of unfaithfulness, physical or spiritual, is a lowering of this standard.

Christ and Divorce

From early times men have practiced divorce, and the Law of Moses both suffered it in certain circumstances, and legislated upon it. It did not “permit” in the sense of introducing or approving the custom, but ensured that the responsibilities of each party to it were understood and carried out; and it safeguarded the case of the woman. Thus the effect of “hardness of hearts” was limited. Christ’s “But I say unto you…” (Matt. 5:32) and his quotation of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, with the comment, “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” in Matthew 19:56, is plain enough evidence that for himself and his disciples the Edenic ideal, and not what man had made of it, was the standard.

The high ideals of marriage set out so clearly by the Lord not only in Matthew but also in Mark and Luke ideals so much higher than those of the Pharisees and the absence of any reference to an exception in Mark and Luke, have led to much discussion as to the precise meaning of the “exceptive Clause” in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, “saving for the cause of fornication” and “except for fornication”. 1

1 There are no valid grounds for assuming that the Lord did not say these words, or for taking them to mean anything other than an exception.

As to this, there are two main views in the Brotherhood. Some consider that the saying of Jesus, “What God hath joined, let no man put asunder”, prohibits divorce after marriage in all circumstances. They interpret “fornication” in the exceptive Clause as referring to unchastity by the woman before marriage. This would permit the man either to repudiate the contract, if the marriage had not yet taken place; or, if the unchastity was only discovered after the marriage, to divorce his “wife” on the ground that the union was no true marriage.

The second view holds that “except for fornication” means “except for adultery”. Since the word rendered “fornication” was a general term for all kinds of sexual irregularity, including adultery, Christ used it in preference to adultery because he wished to convey the wider sense of unfaithfulness before marriage as well as after. Although divorce should never be encouraged, it may be permitted when adultery has occurred, and in that case remarriage is possible. 2
2 See a more detailed discussion of the teaching of Christ and of the Apostle Paul in the second part of this booklet.

In the history of our community Dr. Thomas and previous editors of The Christadelphian (Brethren Robert Roberts, C. C. Walker, John Carter and L. G. Sargent) have all accepted the second view; and Brother John Carter wrote a study entitled Marriage and Divorce (1950), setting forth his reasons. It is still available. It must however be recognized that strongly held, and sometimes irreconcilable, views exist about the meaning of the passages in Matthew. Even if it were possible to put forward one single point of view which, we might suppose, was supported by decisive evidence, it would be unrealistic to imagine that what has remained unresolved for so long can be settled by a single article, however persuasive. The existing situation has therefore to be accepted and some course of action worked out which permits harmonious Ecclesial life to continue and seeks at the same time to regulate a grave problem to the profit of the Brotherhood and to the glory of God.

Deuteronomy 24: 14; Matthew 5: 3132; 19 : 312; Genesis 1: 27; 2: 24;
Mark 10: 112; Luke 16: 18.

The High Ideal Maintained

It is important therefore to keep firmly in perspective at all times the divine ideals, which Christ is emphasizing. He gives no command to divorce, nor indeed is he concerned with granting permission to divorce but with the consequences of divorce when it has occurred. His comment that “because of the hardness of your hearts Moses suffered you to put away your wives” only made starkly apparent the extent to which divorce represented a falling away from the ideal.

In the Lord’s reference to the commandment in Genesis, the spiritual and physical aspects of marriage and their interrelationship are clearly defined. Adam’s wife was to be, by divine arrangement, “an help meet for him”, one “answering to him” (RV margin), a spiritual counterpart who would be a partner in his life before God. The creation of woman “out of man” made her a partner for Adam such as he had previously looked for. The covenant and the physical union were each a part of the process by which the two were to regard themselves as one flesh. So important is the physical aspect that Paul goes so far as to say that a man’s sexual relationship with a harlot makes the two one fleshbut this is no true marriage because there is no marriage covenant. Fleshly association with another than one’s partner is an act of disloyalty to the covenant.

Adultery is therefore a breach both of the covenant and of the spiritual and physical union, which underlies it. It is because the Lord’s ideal of marriage is so high that adultery is so odious, and so catastrophic in its results, for it means that the lofty ideal has been besmirched, the solemn covenant dishonored, the spiritual and physical principles repudiated. The exceptive Clause recognizes not just the collapse of physical restraint; it is the horrified response to the crude and fleshly blow, which has defiled something spiritual and holy. In no way is it a lowering of the ideal; if anything, it heightens the ideal and clothes it with greater sanctity. Therefore the clear implication of Matthew 19:9 is that a marriage after divorce is adulterous, unless the divorce was for that one reason.

References as in the previous section; 1 Corinthians 6: 16.

The Teaching of Paul

In any consideration of 1 Corinthians 7 it is important to recognize two points: Paul is not writing a treatise on marriage and divorce but answering specific questions put to him in a letter: what is the relationship between husband and wife when both have accepted the faith, or when one partner only is a believer? Should a believer leave an unbelieving partner? The background is not that of the Pharisees and of the twelve, but of the Roman world, where the law regarded marriage as a contract which could be terminated at any time by mutual consent and either partner could divorce the other on the slightest pretext. In answering the first question Paul repeats Christ’s commandment, and in dealing with the other queries he gives his own advice as an inspired apostle of the Lord. It is to be expected, therefore, that his teaching would be entirely consistent with the spirit and intention of Christ’s words.

So it is, even when a cause of separation other than that of adultery is introduced. There is the same high standard set, the same recognition of human needs and men’s differing capacities, by which it is “given” to some to exercise restraints impossible to others; and the same acceptance of a practical situation in which the ideal may be difficult of attainment. So, by the Lord’s command, partners in the Faith were not to separate, or if for any reason they did, were to remain unmarried, or better still become reconciled. Paul was reminding them of the ideal of Christian marriage and of the Lord’s teaching. This was neither the time nor the place to discuss the effect of adultery or any other sexual irregularity on the marriage of believers.

In the case of marriage contracted before the conversion of the husband or the wife, Paul of necessity gives his own Spiritguided judgment, since there was no relevant commandment of the Lord. In a “mixed marriage” of this kind it was the responsibility of the new believer to try to preserve the relationship. The baptism of the husband or wife did not render null and void the marriage covenant if the unbelieving partner wished to keep it; the believing partner was under obligation to preserve the union, even though the marriage originally might have been anything but a sanctified one. It was however rendered so by the conversion of the believing partner, which brought new ideals.

On the other hand, if the unbelieving partner took the initiative in breaking the relationship, then the Christian husband or wife, said Paul, was “not under bondage in such cases”. In the absence of information about the precise question Paul is answering, difference of opinion about the meaning of the phrase “not under bondage” is unavoidable; but the most natural interpretation of Paul’s words in their context is as no longer bound by the marriage tie. (In this context it must be remembered that Western law does not recognize disagreement over religious beliefs as an immediate reason for divorce.) Paul’s judgment is a recognition of the practical, physical and spiritual facts, and although his counsel would still have been, as with the widow, that it were better to remain unmarried, he would have understood that each “has his own gift from God, some this way and some that” (v. 7) — subject to the important qualification “only in the Lord”.

So Paul adds a spiritual dimension to what had hitherto been regarded by some of the Corinthians as a personal matter, having only physical and legal implications. For them marriage was to be no longer regulated by social custom or by what the law allowed, but by divine standards, involving selfdiscipline. The same considerations must continue to guide us in modern times when divorce can be obtained by mutual consent, with a minimum of difficulty and expense, and when marriages are often lightly entered into on the assumption that they can be easily terminated if difficulties arise.

I Corinthians 7: 1017; Matthew 19:11.
Divorce Not the Divine Choice

However, just as other Scriptures have been brought to bear upon the interpretation of these difficult passages, so must they further illuminate its spirit. “For the Lord, the God of Israel saith that he hateth putting away”; and the highest principles of discipleship in love and forgiveness, and not a legalistic interpretation or demanding of rights, must determine the course to be followed in the tragic situation of a broken marriage. Sins separate us all from God and the friendship of the world makes us all “adulterers and adulteresses” if we break our covenant to keep ourselves for Him alone. Yet He does not cut us off while there is hope of our return, and again His example is our guide. Though Israel had so grievously departed from God that He said of her, through the parable of Hosea’s personal experience: “She is not my wife, neither am I her husband”, such was His mercy and His covenant loyalty that He was willing to rebuild the marriage if that were possible. He makes continuous efforts to repair the breach, until it is clear that there is “no remedy”. These patient efforts are the pattern for believers.

With every intention of putting these principles of mercy and forgiveness into practice, the disciple may still find reconciliation impossible. Under the new law in Britain divorce can now be obtained after a certain period by the “guilty” party, after which no exercise of forgiveness or desire to continue the marriage on the part of the disciple is of any avail. The breakdown of the marriage thus becomes final and irrevocable.

The question of the remarriage of the disciple after divorce must therefore be related to the Lord’s whole teaching about the subject outlined above. This includes a restatement of “what was from the beginning”, a severe limitation of the possibility of divorce for one cause, and gives the distinct impression that only after a divorce arising from such a cause could a remarriage be considered not adulterous.

The Lord’s comment in reply to the disciples’ amazed reaction when they realize the stringency of the ideal (“if the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry”) was: “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given”. The Editors of The Christadelphian who have written on this subject would all have agreed that it was more consistent with Christ’s expression of the divine ideal to remain “a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” even after divorce, but also would have recognized the truth of the Lord’s understanding remark: “All men cannot receive that saying.” None of these Editors have ever advised or encourageddivorce, or would go further than saying that if one partner divorced the other for the one cause, remarriage was possible without contravention of divine law. Their statements have invariably been made in a context, which not only recognized but emphasized all the spiritual principles involved. In Marriage and Divorce Brother John Carter gave it as his clear opinion that the decision as to the fault of either party in the breakdown of a marriage might rest on other considerations than that of adultery alone, and to avoid any appearance of taking a permissive view of the matter, he concentrated upon the need for recognition of what the divine ideal in marriage really is rather than on defining at length the marital status of the “innocent” party (page 95).

Malachi 2: 15; James 4: 4; Hosea 2: 12, 1420; Matthew 19: 1112.

Factors to be Taken into Account

The principles and the divine ideal are clearly defined. There remains the question of how to deal with those who through our common human weakness, ignorance of the Truth, shallow spiritual perception, or tragic circumstances have departed from them. Upon what conditions can they be accepted for baptism, or retained in fellowship, or received back? (These questions ought to be asked in cases of marriage out of the Faith as well as of divorce and remarriage, and indeed of any kind of human error at all, since there is no easy rule of thumb, which applies). Is there a sin in this, which cannot be repented of and therefore forgiven? Do “fruits meet for repentance” necessarily involve an attempt to unravel the past, or do they mature in subsequent conduct? In seeking to answer such questions, it is well to remember that some of the Corinthians, to whom Paul wrote about marriage, had in the past been guilty of illicit sexual intercourse. Upon their repentance they had been cleansed from their guilt and had now committed themselves to live according to the spiritual ideal of marriage. There is no evidence that Paul instructed such persons to separate from their present partners, if they had remarried after accepting the Gospel.

Some Ecclesias have attempted to establish rules, which will simplify the handling of these problems. With such attempts, insofar as they are based on a desire to maintain high standards, one can only sympathize; but insofar as their result is to impose a uniform standard of judgment without regard to relevant circumstances, they can lead to inequitable decisions, the effect of which cannot be reconciled with the love of Christ. It is one thing to define the Scriptural principles upon which human conduct ought to be based, and quite another to deal faithfully yet compassionately with the delicate spiritual issues raised, when those who depart from the true Christian standards (as we all do in many things) later seek forgiveness.

Cases may differ from the extremes of divorce after failure of long continued efforts at reconciliation despite infidelity, and divorce with remarriage already in mind. It is therefore impossible to formulate and follow a single hard and fast rule, which both defines the principles and attempts to deal with the practical issues raised. The ideals are clearly defined in Scripture and need emphasizing and reemphasizing with all the earnestness we can command, making them as vitally important a part of the instruction for baptism (or of an interview for refellowship) as any of the other doctrinal points, which usually form the major part of the preparation of candidates for baptism — indeed the two are inseparable.

All “legalistic” arguments about whether a second alliance during the lifetime of a former partner is a marriage or not, and whether it is more in accordance with divine principles to continue the second alliance or repudiate it, with consequent hardship to a second family—all such questions must give way before the basic consideration of what sins are classified in Scripture as beyond the divine mercy and forgiveness. The answer is to be found in Mark 3: 28, 29: “Verily, I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies where withsoever they shall blaspheme; but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (RV) There is often nothing that can be done to unravel the tangle of human relationships created by divorce and remarriage, and little direct Scripture to describe the “exact” status of the parties concerned before God. It was precisely because of the inability of man to do anything himself to take away his sins that Christ died for the ungodly. Forgiveness in any circumstances is dependent upon an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, a sense of utter dependence upon God’s mercy, and a determination to live in future with God’s help more closely in accordance with the principles of a life in Christ.

If those who seek baptism or refellowship have their eyes genuinely open to the meaning and ideals of marriage, then the shattering realization of their departure from God’s standards— and, it should be added, this ought to be true of us all when we are overtaken in a fault, even though it be not of the kind under discussion—will produce such a sincere repentance and contrition that they will need all the spiritual help, love and comfort that they can get from Ecclesial fellowship. Also should be considered with genuine compassion the case of those who, in spite of all their efforts to maintain their marriage, have seen their partner fall away from the Truth and have finally been deserted for another, often with the additional burden of trying to support and train up in the Truth a young family. Nor should it be presupposed that even a decision to remarry in such a case has been lightly entered upon. It may have come at the end of a long and bitter struggle, of fervent prayer and many tears. And those who, having been deserted, have not themselves deserted their Lord, are only too often left to sort out the problems and to endure the censure of their brethren and Sisters.

The question of acceptance into fellowship of such applicants can therefore only be judged by an Ecclesia in a spirit of love and compassion for two people in need. Only the brethren entrusted with the delicate task of interviewing them can judge their state of mind and the genuineness of their desire for a joint life in the Truth. “Works meet for repentance” can only be seen in their attitude of mind and profession of future conduct. If all the fundamental divine principles of marriage and its meaning are thoroughly understood as well as the implications of marriage in the Lord, then the rest must be left to the judgment of God and the conscience of the people concerned. An Ecclesia which follows this practice can never be justly accused of lowering divine standards or tolerating divorce and remarriage. It will know that a sincere and prayerful attempt to balance judgment and mercy is no soft option to replace a rule of thumb. If it has erred at all, it has erred on the side of compassion rather than of harsh judgment and questioning of motives. It is worth remembering that we all through weakness fall short of God’s standards in so many ways, and that it is possible for us to be in such an emotional state that even an awareness of our weakness is not sufficient to prevent us from falling. A great barrier arises, however, if we refuse to admit the weakness, attempt to justify the error, or do not acknowledge that there is a divine standard which we have failed to reach.

1 Corinthians 6: 9ll; James 3: 2; Galatians 6: l; Mark 3: 2829; Romans 5: 610.

Guilt and Responsibility

Two further points may prove helpful. There is no difference between the forgiveness God grants to the repentant at baptism and that which he accords the repentant Brother or Sister who in true contrition wrestles in prayer, and we should not in our Ecclesial attitudes attempt to distinguish between them. In each case divine forgiveness of sins for the repentant is absolute, and the guilt of previous actions removed. But to remove the guilt of an action does not remove the responsibilities which that action has brought. A baptized person is not free to repudiate obligations entered into before baptism even when he was not strictly free to undertake them nor would it be right, for example, to put any children of a second marriage at risk by breaking up their home. Although the Israelites entered into a covenant with the Gibeonites contrary to the divine commandment, they were unable subsequently to escape the lasting obligation of their oath. Though David’s sin was put away—not because Uriah was dead but because God accepted the king’s repentance—its consequences lasted a lifetime. Brethren in this position holding Ecclesial office cannot be seen to uphold the high standards set by the Lord for the Ecclesia, and however sincere their own recognition of these standards may be, it is impossible for them to escape the consequences of their personal history. Ecclesias should in general therefore be reluctant to appoint such brethren to official duties, and they on their part should be reluctant to accept them.

Psalms 32: 15, Romans 4: 68; Hebrews 4: 1416 Joshua 9: 327;
2 Samuel 12: 13; 1 Timothy 5: 2; Titus 1: 6.

Ecclesial Action and Unity

Ecclesias in the Central Fellowship have never automatically, as though following an “official policy”, retained or received back into fellowship those who have divorced and remarried. Nor should it be assumed that when they have judged compassionately they are tolerating or condoning divorce. There can be no “official” policy, only counsel and advice given in specific cases. Individual Ecclesias have followed, or felt unable to follow, that advice in the light of their own prayerful assessment of all the circumstances. The Central Fellowship has never divided itself on this issue, but has respected the decisions of individual Ecclesias where they have judged differently upon the basis of the same evidence. There are cases where Ecclesias have accepted some who have remarried after divorce, and refused fellowship to others, because the merits — or demerits — of the case seemed different.

There remains one further important fact, the question of Ecclesial unity in decisions on this subject. The Ecclesia’s decision whether to accept or reject in fellowship those involved in such a situation should be treated with wholehearted loyalty in practice by all its members. Whatever private reservations there may be on the part of some must be subordinated to the interests of Ecclesial good. If scandal mongering or gossiping are allowed to spoil the atmosphere of Ecclesial life and threaten its unity, then the Ecclesia is faced with a problem almost as great as the one it is trying to solve. One of the important principles of Ecclesial fellowship and of life in the Truth, is that many of the things which we regard as our personal and private affairs do have an effect upon community life. The resulting discipline we accept when we seek help and strength from our fellowship with one another is the restriction it places upon our personal liberty of action. If we are to teach and admonish one another, we are also to submit ourselves one to another in the fear of God. The acceptance of an Ecclesial decision humbly and prayerfully arrived at, which may seem contrary to our own desires, may well be a test of our own spirituality.

To sum up, an Ecclesia faced with the difficult problem in its own midst of an application for baptism or fellowship in a case of divorce and remarriage should:

(1) Take steps to ensure that there is complete understanding and wholehearted acceptance by the parties concerned of the divine principles and ideals involved; and that departure from these ideals is acknowledged. There is, after all, a vast difference between those who repudiate the teaching of the Lord as regards the sanctity and permanence of the marriage state, and those who humbly recognize and accept the divine teaching, but plead the weakness of human nature.

(2) The Ecclesia should with mercy and compassion try to assess the state of conscience before God of the Brother or Sister involved, realizing, however, that only the individual concerned can be responsible for it.

(3) The Ecclesia should also bear in mind the likely effect upon Ecclesial life and worship of its decision, which can only be assessed by those who know it from the inside.

(4) It is always worth remembering that “In dealing with all offenders… our aim should be, not only to admonish and rebuke, but also to restore. While endeavoring to maintain to the full the high standards of Christ’s teaching, we must beware of slipping unconsciously into an attitude towards offenders which the Lord would condemn. To achieve the right balance in these matters in the spirit of our Lord’s teaching calls for prayerful and persistent effort and humility of mind” (From a Statement by the Birmingham Central Arranging Brethren, quoted in Marriage and Divorce, page 104).

Ephesians 5: 1821; Philippians 2: 14; Ephesians 4: 3132.

A Summary of Scripture Teaching

(1) It was the plan and purpose of the Creator that man and woman should be joined together in one for their joint lifetime.

Genesis 2: 24; Matthew 19: 56; Mark 10: 89.

(2) The Law of Moses permitted divorce of a wife by her husband in certain circumstances, without, however, encouraging or demanding this.

Leviticus 20: 10; Deuteronomy 24: 14; Matthew 5: 31 19: 78; Mark 10: 45.

(3) The Lord Jesus Christ laid it down that God’s initial purpose should take precedence of the permission to divorce in the Law, and that it is adulterous (with one exception) to seek divorce with a view to remarriage.

Matthew 5:28, 32; 19:9; Mark 10:9ll; Luke l6:18.

(4) The one exception is for “fornication”, which is generally understood to mean adultery, unfaithfulness after marriage, though some take it to mean premarital unchastity; while Paul appears to regard the marriage of pagans as invalidated if, when one partner comes to the faith, the other permanently breaks the union.

1 Corinthians 7:15.

(5) Notwithstanding these high ideals, the early church included men and women who had been fornicators and adulterers, and though it is evident that they were called upon to repent of those practices, there is no evidence that such people were required to dissolve existing unions following a previous irregular life.

1 Corinthians 6: 1011; Ephesians 2: 3, Colossians 3: 57; 1 Peter 1: 14; 4: 13.

(6) Nevertheless, when people with compromised lives became Christians, Paul advised against such persons assuming office in the community.

1 Timothy 3:2, 12:5:9.

(7) Faced with a protest that the conditions were too hard for men to bear, the Lord spoke of the high calling of those who refrained from marriage for the kingdom of heaven’s sake, but he did not demand this as a condition of discipleship, recognizing, like Paul, that it was possible only for those “to whom it is given”.

Matthew 19: 1012; 1 Corinthians 7: 1, 79, 2528, 3940.

(8) It is the duty of the Ecclesia to uphold the Lord’s high ideals and to appoint to its offices Members whose lives are in accord with them. The New Testament does not say that fellowship should only be extended to those who fall short of these ideals on condition that they leave their present partners, nor does it justify speaking of their lives with such partners as “continuing adultery”, without considering the motives which now govern those lives. It was the repentance of David, and not the death of Uriah, which converted his association with Bathsheba from an adulterous one to one which God could accept.

Matthew 5: 2732; 2 Samuel 12: 1213.

(9) While, therefore, the Ecclesia should visit with necessary discipline any clear breaches of the commandments of the Lord in this matter as in others, there is no New Testament warrant for saying it must seek to undo the past or even be inflexible as to the present, when clear evidence of a new frame of mind and full repentance are offered to it.

I Corinthians 5: 112; 2 Corinthians 2: 511; Galatians 6:1.



In an age when moral standards are fast being abandoned, the marriage relationship is bound to suffer. The growing number of broken marriages and of second and irregular unions in modern society is an evidence of the trend firmly established. The effects are now evident in our Ecclesias, who are being called upon to deal with an increasing number of cases of marriage breakdown and divorce among their own Members, and to decide their attitude to those desiring baptism who have previously been divorced and have remarried, or desire to do so. There is genuine perplexity in many Ecclesias, as they earnestly seek on the one hand to remain faithful to the teaching of the Scriptures, and on the other to act with mercy and understanding towards those who have erred in the past. There is conflict within Ecclesias: some Members hold a pistol, as it were, to the heads of their brethren, threatening extreme action if their counsel is not accepted in a particular case: and a few individual Members who genuinely desire either to remain in fellowship or to return to it, are being excluded without a Scriptural consideration of their case, and so are deprived of the spiritual instruction and fellowship they so sorely need.

The dilemma is a real one. What guidance can we find in the Scriptures? For it is to them we must turn, with a willingness to accept all they have to tell us on the subject, whether that seems acceptable to us personally or not. 1

1. The Spirit of Marriage

One error must be avoided at the outset: the temptation to regard marriage only as a ceremony, and then a physical union between two people. It is true that in the majority of marriages, especially of young people, physical attraction plays an important part. But followers of Christ must remember that the marriage relationship is a Divine, not a human, institution, and it was established from the beginning to form a means of comfort, help and strength in the service of God for both partners. In other words, the relationship of believers was ideally intended to be a spiritual one, the husband learning to see in his relationship with his wife the figure of the love of Christ for his saints, and the wife, in her relationship with her husband, the love of the saints for their redeeming Lord. The physical union, a joy and a privilege granted in the wisdom of God, should therefore become not the reason for their life together but the token and the result of the deeper, spiritual bond. If all husbands and wives could preserve a greater awareness of this there would be many fewer breakdowns in marriage, and reconciliation would be easier and more frequent. And if unmarried brethren and Sisters could be made more aware of it at an early age, there would be fewer acts of impurity in youth, fewer hasty and unsuitable marriages with all their grave consequences later in spiritual damage.

1 This article is intended as a supplement to the preceding one by the Magazine Committee.

2. Human Weakness

Unhappily, owing to the weakness of human nature this sense of spiritual relationship is not always preserved. The union is damaged first in its spiritual aspect, then literally through an act or acts of unfaithfulness. Adultery takes place, and one partner may go away and form another union, rejecting all pleas for repentance and reconciliation. The abandoned partner may in due time feel strongly drawn to another in the Faith and wish to remarry. Or a candidate for baptism may have suffered a broken marriage and have found a new partner.

What are we to do in these cases? Let us make no mistake about it — they present agonizing dilemmas, both for those whose responsibility it is to come to a conclusion about them, and for the sufferers themselves. There is an absolute need to abide by the Word of God as well as to consider the spiritual welfare and ultimate fate of the man or woman whose case is being examined. In our discussions with one another we need to remember that this subject has provoked sincere differences of opinion in the past, and that “strong” views can sometimes be based more on emotion than on the careful reading of Scripture. These reflections should make us less dogmatic about the rightness of our own particular view, and less critical of others who differ from us.

It is an unfortunate fact that exhaustive treatments of this subject, in the praiseworthy attempt to deal with all aspects and every possible Scriptural passage, tend to produce an effect of complication, making them difficult to assess. The observations which follow have a limited aim: that of establishing clear principles in areas of dispute. Once this basis is established further study can well proceed.

3. The Testimony of Jesus

We turn first to the words of Jesus, which are found in four passages in the Gospels. Luke 16:18 consists of only one verse; Matthew 5:3132 only of two. Mark 10:212 is a longer account, but since Matthew 19:312 records the same discussion, with important additional details, it seems sensible to start with that passage first to seek to understand its teaching, and then to interpret the others in harmony with it. So to the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:312 we turn.

“Have ye not read that he which made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

The implications of Jesus’ last words here should be carefully considered. Clearly what God has joined He can also regard as severed. The Lord is saying, not that the marriage bond can never be broken in any circumstances, but that man should not be responsible for breaking it.

In response to the question, “Why did Moses then command to give a bill of divorcement and put her away?”, Jesus declares: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (vv. 48).

Here the basic principle is clear: marriage is for life and should not be broken and from the outset should only be undertaken with that understanding. Husbands or wives who say or do anything liable to destroy the union, or, equally important, third parties whose actions or attitudes are liable to bring about the same result, are sinning against a Divine law. Throughout the Brotherhood, whatever difference of view about the action to be taken in the event of sin there is no dispute whatever about the basic principle.

It is what Jesus says next which is the cause of perplexity:

“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and he that marrieth her which is put away cloth commit adultery.”

Here Jesus clearly says that there can be an exception to the Divine law, “What God hath joined, let not man put asunder”; that exception arises from fornication. The exception is also stated in Matthew 5:

“Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery…” (v. 32).

The records of Mark and Luke do not mention this exception, twice affirmed in Matthew. This fact has given rise to two questions which must be clearly faced.

First, is there any reason to suspect the reliability of the text in Matthew 19:9 or 5:32? The answer which must be unhesitatingly given and accepted is: none whatever. We must take the text as it stands.

Second, is there any reason to suspect the translation of the text? Again the answer must be, No. The English translation is right, as all Bible versions witness, and any understanding of the passage must take it into account.

4. The Meaning of Fornication in the Old Testament

We approach therefore the important question: What did Jesus mean by “fornication”?

This at least is clear: he must have been using a term which his hearers knew and understood. Where would their understanding have come from?

Porneia, fornication, is a Greek term. But at the time Jesus spoke, none of the New Testament writings in Greek were in existence; they came later. The scattered Jewish communities of the Roman world, however, were very familiar indeed with the Old Testament writings translated into Greek, known as the Septuagint version, often abbreviated thus: LXX. This version was later widely used in the communities of believers in Christ. The Jews would certainly be influenced in their understanding of the term Jesus used —porneia (fornication)—by their knowledge of the way it was used in this Greek version of the law and the prophets.

The Divine Use

So how was porneia (fornication) used in the Greek Old Testament?

In the divine judgments pronounced upon her for unfaithfulness to God, Israel is frequently portrayed as “a wife that committeth adultery… that taketh strangers instead of her husband” (Ezek. 16:32). She was to be judged as “women that break wedlock” (LXX, with the vengeance of an adulteress, v. 38). The Sisters Oholah and Oholibah (Samaria and Jerusalem) “have committed adultery… they are adulteresses” (Ezek. 23:37, 45). In many other passages the adultery of Israel in relation to God her Husband is clearly implied, even when the actual word is not used.

The Greek word porneia occurs about 40 times in the LXX Old Testament. It is always the translation of some form of the Hebrew root zanah, which means

“To commit fornication. Attributed properly and chiefly to a woman, whether married(when it may be rendered, to commit adultery) or unmarried. Very often used figuratively of idolatry (to go a whoring after strange gods), the prophets shadowing forth the relation in which God stood to the people of Israel by the marriage union… so that the people worshipping strange gods is compared to an adulterous woman” (Gesenius, Hebrew Lexicon).

In our English AV and RV the translation is almost always ”whoredom” or “whoredoms”; the RSV has “harlotry”, and the NEB has “fornication”.

Here are some examples of passages where porneia is used as a Greek translation of the Hebrew originals. In the majority of cases where the Hebrew is plural (whoredoms), the Greek rendering is porneia (fornication) in the singular.

Hosea 2:2 — “Plead with your mother . . . let her put away her whoredoms (porneia) . . . and her adulteries (moicheia)” (both singular).

Jeremiah 2:19, 20 — “Thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God… under every green tree thou wanderest, playing the harlot” (LXX, indulge in thy fornication, porneia).

Jeremiah 3:2 — “Thou hast polluted the land with thy whoredoms” (porneia).

Jeremiah 3:9 — “through the lightness of her whoredom (porneia)… she defiled the land and committed adultery . . .”

Jeremiah 13:27 — “This is thy lot… from me, saith the Lord because thou hast forgotten me… I have seen shine adulteries (moicheia)… the lewdness of thywhoredom (porneia)…”

Ezekiel 16:815 — “I (God) sware unto thee (Israel) and entered into a covenant with thee, and thou becamest mine… But thou … playedst the harlot… and pouredst outthy fornications (porneia) on every one that passed by…”

In the same chapter in the LXX Version porneia occurs six more times. In every case but one the English has “whoredoms”, and the allusion is always to the promiscuity of the unfaithful wife, Israel.

Ezekiel 23 has the extended parable of the two Sisters, Oholah and Oholibah (Samaria and Jerusalem), “the daughters of one mother… they were mine and they bare sons and daughters… Oholah played the harlot when she was mine; she doted on (the Assyrians) and committed her whoredoms (porneia) with them” (vv. 17).

In this chapter porneia is used 13 times in the LXX of the “whoredoms” of these two unfaithful women.

There can be no doubt, then, that porneia, as well as carrying the general sense of sexual promiscuity, is used in the Greek Old Testament of the unfaithfulness of amarried woman after her marriage, it is so closely associated with adultery(moicheia) that the two words are found in the same verse at Hosea 2:2, Jeremiah 3:9 and 13:27 (see quotations above), in relation to the same person and the same acts.

5. And in the New

The next important question needing an answer is this: Is porneia used in the GreekNew Testament with the same sense that it clearly had in the Greek Old Testament?

There is no doubt that it is. Sometimes, in “lists” of sins the words fornication and adultery (porneia, moicheia) occur in the same verse, as they do in the passages already cited from the Old Testament, e.g. Matthew 15:19 (Mark 7:21); 1 Corinthians 6:9; and Galatians 5:19 (AV). There are cases, not lists, where the subject is fornication with no mention of adultery. Obviously these cannot be interpreted to mean that Jesus and Paul condemned fornication, but not adultery. Nor is it credible that the sin of adultery was not included in their thought. Adultery was not mentioned because the term fornication was clearly held to include it and to make a separate mention of it unnecessary. For example, the early church ruled that the “Gentiles who believe” should “abstain from fornication” (porneia); Paul writes to the Corinthians: “the body is not for fornication (porneia) but for the Lord… Flee fornication…” (1 Cor. 6:13, 18); and to the Thessalonians: “Abstain from fornication (porneia)…” (1 Thess. 4:13). Referring to the evil example of Israel in the wilderness, he writes: “Neither let us commit fornication (the verb, porneuo) as some of them committed” (1 Cor. 10: 8). Clearly the apostle was addressing himself to all believers in these passages, whether married or unmarried. He must have included adultery in his thought, but felt no need to mention it because the established Old Testament use of porneia already contained the idea. When he mentioned adultery separately, as in his list of the “works of the flesh”—”adultery, fornication, uncleanness”, etc. (Gal. 5:19) it was because he wished to bring home to the married believers the special nature of the sin.

Single Acts

It is evident too that some of the New Testament uses of porneia are not of an abandoned way of life, as that of a harlot, but could quite well refer to single acts. If the Jews’ remark to Jesus, “We be not born of fornication” was a sneering allusion to the circumstances of his birth, in their view one act would have sufficed; and surely they did not think Mary was a harlot! In 1 Corinthians 5 the erring Member was charged with one immoral relationship, not general immorality; and in l Corinthians 6:1318 Paul evidently regarded one act of union with a harlot as fornication. The case of I Thessalonians 4 is remarkable, for Paul, having declared it the will of God that believers should “abstain from fornication”, then goes on to urge them not to live “in the passion of lust”, and to command that no man “go beyond and defraud his Brother in the matter”, for God had called them “not for uncleanness, but in sanctification” (vv. 37, RV). The straightforward sense of this passage is that Paul is warning the brethren against the seduction of another’s wife or virgin daughter. Here again, fornication could well signify one act only.

6. Jesus’ Teaching in its Context

With this understanding of the sense of “fornication” we return to a fresh consideration of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19. And it is now essential to grasp the circumstances in which Jesus made his pronouncements.

It is important to note carefully the question the Pharisees put to him, for this must influence the way his answer is to be understood.

“Is it lawful”, they ask, “for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” (for any cause, RSV; on any and every ground, NEB). Can a man, in other words, get rid of his wife any time he likes and for any reason he pleases?

The question arose from a dispute among the Jews about the precise intention of Deuteronomy 24:15. According to this passage an Israelite was permitted to give his wife “a bill of divorcement” and “send her away”, after which she was at liberty to be married to another man, but not to return to her first husband. The stricter Jewish party, who followed the teaching of Rabbi Shammai, insisted that divorce was only allowed for adultery; the laxer, following Rabbi Hillel, allowed it for many causes not connected with unfaithfulness, such as dislike of a wife or even of her cooking. There is evidence that even in Jewish communities, who had assimilated to some extent the way of their Gentile neighbour, the laxer view had taken a great hold. The contemptuous verdict of the Pharisees, “This multitude which knoweth not the law is accursed” (John 7: 49, RV) certainly suggests that.

Jesus replies, as we have seen, that from the beginning the intention of God was that man and wife should remain “one flesh”, and not be “put asunder”.

“Why, then” say the Pharisees, “did Moses command to give a bill of divorcement and put her away?”

Moses did not command any such thing, is Jesus’ reply, but “because of the hardness of your hearts” the law which came through him “suffered you to put away your wives”, and the implication is: “for a number of causes”, for that indeed is what Deuteronomy 24 involves, since a wife who had committed adultery would have been put to death anyway. But, from the beginning, this dismissal of a wife for any of a number of reasons was emphatically not what God desired.

Jesus’ Reply

And now, keeping in mind the question which provoked all this discussion: “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?”, we may paraphrase Jesus’ next words thus:

“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall (wrongly) put away his wife, that is, for any other reason than fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and whoso marrieth her which is (so, wrongly) put away, committeth adultery.”

The reply is thus seen to follow naturally the terms of the original question, and the phrase “except it be for fornication” takes its natural sense of: “except for adultery”.

The passage in Matthew 5 follows naturally after Jesus’ declaration: “I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery already with her in his heart”. He then adds, evidently mindful of the “lusting” that went on around him, and of the ease with which many, even in Jewish society, were getting rid of their wives “for every cause”, no doubt because they wished to take another wife:

“Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication (that is, wrongly put away his wife, not for fornication but for some trivial reason) causeth her to commit adultery (that is, if she remarries): and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away (RV; that is, when she is thus wrongly put away) committeth adultery.”

The implication behind the words: “whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress” should be carefully noted. She was evidently not an adulteress when her husband put her away. She had therefore notbeen put away “for fornication” but for some other reason. She would only become an adulteress if she remarried while the first union was still unbroken.

Mark and Luke

The passage Mark 10:112, which does not mention the exception of fornication, is evidently another and shorter record of the same discussion as that of Matthew 19. The question put to Jesus by the Pharisees who were “tempting him”: “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” must therefore have carried the implication: “for every cause” since Matthew clearly gives it. Similarly Jesus’ reply, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her”, must have carried the implication, “wrongly put away his wife, for some other reason than for fornication”. That Jesus was indeed thinking of the loose morals of a society where divorce was easily obtainable for trivial reasons, is clearly shown by his next words:

“And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery”, for under the law of Moses a woman could not “put away her husband” at all. But in the Gentile society of Jesus’ day—and it is evident that the same practice had spread among the Jews — husbands and wives could freely divorce one another by mutual consent. It is the manners of such a society, therefore, that Jesus has in mind.

Luke’s allusion to the subject (16:18) is confined to one verse and so must therefore be highly compressed. On the principle that passages giving few details must be understood in harmony with those giving many more, Luke 16:18 must be understood in the light of Matthew 19: 39, as outlined above. 2

The reason why Mark and Luke make no mention of the exception for fornication is probably quite simple: no one in the society of their day, Jew, Roman or Greek, ever doubted for a moment that adultery constituted grounds for divorce, and the evangelists took it for granted. Matthew is more explicit because it is in his record that the more detailed question of the Pharisees is recorded: “Is it lawful… for everycause?” To which Jesus replies, “No; only for one.”

7. Two Objections

Two objections are commonly made to the foregoing explanation of Jesus’ meaning:

First, why did Christ use the term “fornication” and not “adultery”? As we have already seen from its use, fornication was the term for sexual irregularity of all kinds, and would apply to harlotry, adultery or premarital infidelity. (To confine it to the last of these is however impossible). It was therefore the most comprehensive term available. None of his hearers would have doubted that it included adultery.

Second, Why did the disciples appear so surprised as to react by saying, “If the case of the man is so with his wife, it is expedient not to marry” (Matt. 19: 10)? On this the following comment may be found useful:

“Aware doubtless of (Jesus’) pronouncement in Galilee (Matt. 5) that the only valid reason for divorce was unfaithfulness, the Pharisees would have him repeat it now, thus not merely contravening the law of the land but incurring popular displeasure. For it is remarkable how highly the facility of divorce was prized among the Jews in those days. It is claimed by several of the Rabbis as a singular privilege divinely accorded to Israel and denied to other nations” (David Smith, The Disciple’s Commentary on the Gospels, Matthew pp. 3167).

The disciples evidently shared this common opinion and were dismayed by Christ’s strict interpretation, “only for fornication”. His further observation, “All men cannot receive this saying… for there are eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”, is not a comment upon

2 For a fuller treatment of Luke 16: 18, see John Carter’s Marriage and Divorce, pp. 4548.
his own pronouncement that a man can only put away his wife for fornication, but upon the disciples’ “In that case it is not expedient to marry”. All men cannot receivethat saying, “save they to whom it is given… He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

8. Adultery and the Marriage Bond

A further perplexing question must now be treated: what effect in the eyes of God does adultery have upon the marriage bond?

Under the Law of Moses, it destroyed it. The woman found in adultery was to be stoned forthwith; if a man was found in such a relation with a married woman, both of them were to be stoned.

God’s view of the effect of unfaithfulness upon the marriage relationship is, however, most instructively demonstrated in the writings of the prophets, where He presents Himself as a husband, and Israel as His unfaithful wife. Here are some examples:

Isaiah 50:1 — “Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement,wherewith I have put her away?” The sense is not, “The bill of divorcement does not exist”, but rather: “Produce it; let us see the reasons for it”. Hence verse 2 follows:

“Behold, for your transgressions was your mother put away” (RV).

Jeremiah 3:1 — “They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the Lord.”

The last phrase is often quoted as evidence that God had not severed His bond with Israel. The whole context, and that of other Old Testament passages, is however against this view. “They say” is actually the infinitive “to say”, and merely introduces the quotation from Deuteronomy. The sense of the concluding phrase is rather, “Thinkest thou to return unto me?”, “an indignant rebuke of the idea that she could return to Yahweh as a matter of course” (Century Bible; see RV mg., and Speaker’s Commentary). That this is the correct understanding is shown by verse 8:

“I saw when, for this very cause that backsliding Israel had committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorcement, yet treacherous Judah her Sister feared not; but she also went and played the harlot…”

Jeremiah 31:31 — “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel… and Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake,although I was a husband unto them, saith the Lord.”

In Ezekiel 16 is God’s prolonged indictment of Judah as an unfaithful wife: “I spread my skirt over thee… I sware unto thee and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine (v. 8)… But thou… playedst the harlot, and pouredst out thy fornications on every one that passed by (v. 15) … Thou hast committed fornication with the Egyptians (v. 26)…

Thou hast played the harlot also with the Assyrians (v. 28)… A wife that committethadultery! that taketh strangers instead of her husband! (v. 32)… Wherefore, O harlot, hear the word of the Lord (v. 35)… I will judge thee, as women that break wedlockand shed blood are judged (v. 38)… For thus saith the Lord God, I will even deal with thee as thou hast done, which hast despised the oath in breaking the covenant” (v.59).

In these four passages from three different prophets there is a common teaching: the covenant relationship of Israel with God was like the marriage relationship between a wife and her husband. Israel had proved an unfaithful wife; she had committed adultery with the surrounding nations and their gods. So because Israel had “broken her (marriage) covenant” with God, like “women that break wedlock”, He had “given her a bill of divorcement” and had “put her away”. Israel had by her unfaithfulness ceased to be the wife of the Lord, as He said quite clearly through Hosea: “Plead with your mother, plead; for she is not my wife, neither am I her husband” (2:2).

The plain implication of these passages is that in the sight of God adultery without repentance breaks the marriage bond, which no longer exists. And could it be otherwise? For the adulterous partner has already destroyed the spiritual union which should exist with his wife (or her husband); the physical act of unfaithfulness is but the logical conclusion.

It must be remembered, however, that in all these passages from the prophets God shows Himself willing, nay eager, to take the unfaithful nation back again as His wife, if only she will repent of her ways, but Israel’s eventual return to her Husband is not because the old bond still exists, but because God is prepared to betroth her again afresh to Himself in a new union. When Israel says, “I will go and return to my first husband”, then God’s response is: “I will betroth thee unto me for ever”, in a newcovenant (Host 2:7, 19; Jer. 31:31). Strictly however, the Israel that returns to God is not the unfaithful nation that God judged; it is the repentant remnant who are to join ultimately the new “holy nation” in Christ, Israel after the spirit, the true seed of Abraham by faith.

These examples are taken from the Old Testament; but they are not cases where God is tolerating a lower standard in others: they are cases where He is expressing His own principle that the marriage bond is broken by unfaithfulness without repentance.

There is an important conclusion to be drawn from this: if, in the eyes of God, adultery without repentance destroys the marriage bond, then the marriage no longer exists. Whatever reasons there may be therefore against the remarriage of one whose union has been broken in this way, the fact that the first partner is still alive cannot be one of them. If the rupture has been so complete, without repentance, then in no sense are the original partners still husband and wife. To insist upon considering such cases as if they were, is to act contrary to God’s own principle in His dealings with Israel.

It seems then, that while Jesus explicitly condemns the remarriage of one who has been improperly put away (that is, not for adultery), he places no ban upon the remarriage of one whose union has been broken on account of the ultimate unfaithfulness. We should beware of laying down a law where the Lord himself has refrained from doing so.

9. The Testimony of the Apostle Paul

Two passages from the Epistles are often quoted as forbidding remarriage.

In Romans 7 Paul writes:

“…The law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth. For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth: but if her husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.”

Here Paul is comparing the relationship of the Israelite under the Law to that of a wife to her husband. As long as the Law was in force, he had to obey it. But now that the Law is “done away”, just as a wife is free to marry another when her husband is dead, so the believer can be “married” to Christ. The question of the unfaithfulness of the wife, and therefore of divorce, is never raised or discussed. The passage has no bearing on what may be done when unfaithfulness has occurred. It is not dealing with the regulation of marriage, but with the believer’s service to God.

But what of the apostle’s comments in I Corinthians7? Paul first shows that he accepts the Lord’s judgment as recorded in the Gospels: “Unto the married I give charge, yea not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband.” He then comes to treat of a case upon which Christ had not commented. The question had evidently arisen in Corinth as to whether a Sister, who had come to believe the Gospel after her marriage, and so found herself joined to a pagan husband, would not be justified in leaving him, and indeed in divorcing him. In response Paul writes: “Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife (and that the husband leave not his wife, RV)” (vv. 1012).

Here the apostle has in mind not the breakdown of a marriage because adultery has occurred, but a separation. The ultimate rupture has not occurred, for reconciliation is still regarded as a desirable possibility. His advice, then, “Let her remain unmarried” (and no doubt he would have said the same to the husband) is directed to one whose marriage still exists, though it is for a time suspended, as it were. His words of command, “Let her remain unmarried”, were not therefore intended to apply to a Sister (or a Brother correspondingly) whose marriage has been disrupted by the ultimate unfaithfulness of adultery.

The Brother or Sister married to a pagan partner should therefore do nothing to disrupt the marriage, but, adds the apostle, “if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A Brother or Sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace”. It is a remarkable fact that Paul has here used the same Greek verb as Jesus used when he said, “What God hath joined, let no man put asunder.” If the unbeliever “puts asunder”, says Paul, “let him put asunder”, words which seem to imply the termination of the marriage an impression which is reinforced by his further comment that a believer is “not under bondage in such cases”. What can the bondage be but the marriage bond?

So Paul’s words in verse 27 may well have a bearing on this question:

“Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.” Loosed, how? One obvious explanation would be by the death of the wife. But it seems at least possible that the apostle had also in mind the kind of “loosing” implied in verse 15, where the believer is no longer “under bondage” (and is therefore “loosed”) because of the departure of the unbelieving partner, who has “put asunder” the relationship, no doubt in order to contract another union. If that be so, then Paul’s next words, “But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned”, should at least cause us to pause before we become too dogmatic about denying any possibility of remarriage when divorce has taken place.

10. Modern Divorce Laws

In recent times new laws have greatly increased the grounds upon which divorce may be sought. Divorce may now be granted for desertion, for alleged incompatibility, or cruelty, upon the consent of both partners, or even — after a fixed period—upon the demand of only one of them. These new grounds reflect the extent to which the sanctity of the marriage bond has been reduced in modern eyes; they represent the individual’s rejection of personal discipline and his demand for freedom of action; and they are likely to be factors in the cases about which Ecclesias will need to come to a decision.

In practice, in the majority of cases where divorce has technically taken place for reasons given above, one or other of the partners has subsequently contracted an alliance with someone else, thus changing the original situation. But it must be clearly said that the teaching of Jesus allows divorce for adultery, and for no other reason. Married believers are not to embark on their relationship with the easy assumption that if it does not work to their liking, they can soon put an end to it; nor are they to regard any strains and stresses in their marriage as justifying its rupture. Such attitudes betray a failure to understand and accept the high standard of service and sacrifice which marriage “in the Lord” demands, and it is no wonder that those who share them have little sense of its comfort and joy.

11. Practical Problems

The marriage relationship is the most intimate and emotional of all and the problems which arise from its breakdown may differ considerably from case to case — a fact which should warn us against applying rigid rules to all circumstances. It becomes vital to establish not just what has occurred, but also the parties’ attitude to what has occurred: whether there is acknowledgment of personal shortcomings and sin, and a humble acceptance of the principles and spirit of Scripture; and these are matters which only personal and sympathetic contact with the people involved can establish.

For a fuller treatment of principles in such practical problems the reader should consult the Magazine Committee’s article published in the first part of this booklet; and Brother John Carter’s Marriage and Divorce, chapter 9.

12. Repentance and Reconciliation

But there is one aspect of the subject which must not be omitted: the importance of repentance and of efforts to achieve reconciliation between estranged partners. The example of God’s attitude to wayward Israel is clear: He made repeated efforts to cause His people to acknowledge their sin and to return to Him. It was only when their repentance as a nation was no longer possible that He took the ultimate action of “casting them away” (Host 9:17).

As Members of spiritual Israel we must accept the same lesson. When offences occur between husband and wife, they should not be treated as pretexts for widening an already existing rift with a view to a final break. An isolated act or episode of unfaithfulness need not be the cause of the breakdown of a marriage. The aim should constantly be the repentance of the offender and the reconciliation of the partners to the union. To this end much understanding, forbearance and recognition of one’s own weakness is needed, and the greatest obstacle is pride. We are all fallible creatures, in constant need of the forgiveness of God, and of one another. In this spirit alone we shall find peace.

13. The Armour of the Spirit

In these troubled days our greatest defence against the increase of divorce cases in our community is not the imposition of rigid bans by rule of thumb, nor the refusal fully to consider the Scriptural evidence for fear that “the weak will mistake toleration for license, and be encouraged to sin rather than be deterred therefrom” (letter from a correspondent). Rather is it in the vigorous and frequent upholding amongst us of the divine ideals of marriage, by the earnest instruction of the young, by the clear expression of the divine will to those about to be baptized, by the reminding of those about to be married of the obligations they are undertaking, by the recognition that the love of Christ for his saints is the true reality of which marriage is the type; and by the encouragement of that spirit of love, service and faith between husbands and wives as amongst all of us, which alone is the effective armor against the wiles of sin. To that end we should all read again with the utmost care the Magazine Committee’s article, already referred to, where the spirit which should prevail in this most intimate of relationships is dealt with at length.

14. Forbearance

Meanwhile, let us all accept that no one who has made a conscientious study of Scripture is “in favor of divorce”, not even those who may have come to a different conclusion from ourselves. Divorce signifies that a grave falling away from Divine principles has occurred somewhere; upon that all are agreed. Let us therefore refrain from making charges of apostasy against those who differ from us in our understanding, all the more since this subject has been a matter of debate for a great many years. And when, after careful consideration, some of us come to differing conclusions, let us be forbearing with one another and not insist on making our particular view a test of fellowship, either within the Ecclesia or in the relationship of our Ecclesia with others. For in the end the Lord himself will be the Judge.



The view outlined in the foregoing paragraphs is not new. It has been consistently expressed in The Christadelphian for over 100 years. Many readers will no doubt find the following extracts of interest. The first four are taken from Robert Roberts’ Answers to Correspondents:

“Can Christadelphians lawfully disannul the marriage contract, and marry again for any other reason than that given in Matthew 5:32? If husband or wife renounce the Truth, does that free the other from the marriage tie, so that he may marry again?”

ANSWER: “No: ‘The Lord God hateth putting away’ (Mal. 2:15). ‘The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth: but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will: only in the Lord’ (I Cor. 7:39). Nothing disannuls the marriage contract but death or adultery. Incompatibility, from unbelief or other cause, may lead to separation, but the separated parties must remain unmarried (1 Cor. 7:11).” (1883, Jan., p. 31).

“J.C. — The safest way, in the doubtful position of the case would be to receive the Brother back. Adultery is not to be compromised on any terms, but marriage with a divorced woman cannot be put in this category. It was wrong to marry an unbeliever. If the Brother admits the wrong, receive him, and let the Lord judge.” (1890, Nov., cover note).

DIVORCED — “I have been requested to ask your explanation of Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 in view of your statement to J.C… that marriage with a divorced woman cannot be put in the category of adultery — J.E.B.”

ANSWER: “Christ’s words relate to divorce for insufficient cause (as was at that time common among the Jews). He recognizes no divorce as lawful ‘save for the cause of fornication’. This severs the bond…” (1890, Dec., cover note).

“There seems nothing difficult about Matthew 5:31, 32. The words of Christ amount to this, that his law recognizes no cause of separation between husband and wife except conjugal infidelity. Human law in his day recognized many other causes, and even allowed a man to put away his wife if he had lost taste for her. By the law of Christ, a wife put away from any cause, ‘saving for the cause of fornication’, is the man’s wife still, and anyone marrying her is guilty of adultery. He does not mean that if divorced from a proper cause, a woman may not marry again. His words must be taken in their connection” (1892, Nov., p. 422).

During the efforts to effect reunion between the Central and Berean Fellowships in Britain in 1947, the Central Fellowship Reunion Committee issued statements concerning its position on the Divorce issue. The following are extracts:

1. “The Central Fellowship Committee… cannot accept the universal application of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6: 1, in view of Paul’s own restriction stated in that chapter: they refuse to place the teaching of Paul in opposition to the teaching of Jesus. They follow the advice given by Dr. Thomas and Brother Roberts in their writings that divorce is permissible on scriptural grounds, i.e. they accept the permissive Clause stated by Christ. They believe the subject of divorce and related matters is too involved to permit of being solved by a formula imposed in advance upon the Ecclesias under threat of disfellowship. They consider that cases of divorce need to be dealt with faithfully and on their particular merits by the Ecclesias concerned, as they arise.” (1947, Oct., p. 166)

2. (a) “We accept without reserve the teaching of Christ on this, as on all other questions. We believe that he raised the Marriage relationship to its highest plane by his reference to its origin in Eden. It must be our duty to maintain this ideal in doctrine and practice.

(b) “We recognize that Christ permitted ‘putting away’ for one cause only. We therefore must accept this decision and not seek to place a human restriction on what Christ allowed.

(c) “By ‘putting away’ we understand that Christ meant divorce and not simply separation.

(d) “We do not think that Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 6:1 refers to divorce; he rebukes the Corinthian Church for going to law before the unjust to decide matters which the Church could settle — which could not be the case in divorce. Further it is impossible to believe that the permission granted by Christ could be disannulled by a prohibition of Paul.

(e) “We cannot limit the motives of the innocent party in seeking the freedom which Christ allowed, to a desire for revenge, or to redress a grievance. The claims of children, or the desire to end a situation mutually intolerable, may be the reason. On the other hand a refusal to seek divorce may spring from an unworthy motive — to be revenged on the one who has caused the breach.

(f) “In our view it is better to deal with any case on its merits as it arises rather than legislate in advance on hypothetical instances.

(g) “The difficulty surrounding this question, and the division it has already caused… should be a warning not to press the issue on this occasion.

(h) “The views we have expressed are reflected in the Statement issued by Ecclesia, and we endorse their plea for freedom of conscience in this matter, and their solemn warning against the dangers of making this a test of fellowship.

(i) “The views we hold are practically the same as are to be found in the writings of Dr. Thomas and Robert Roberts.”

(1947, Dec., p. 197)