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Most people would be shocked to learn that the Bible never specifies what marriage is, beyond the physical union of a man and woman. There are no instructions on any kind of official ceremony, presiding official, legal certificate, or even witnesses. All of those things come from cultural traditions. But such traditions were already in place by the time scripture was written, and as God’s habit has been, he worked through, in, and around them. This meant that marriage was seen also as a contract, and violation of the terms means the contract is void.

Marriage and divorce have always been controversial topics, but we must be careful to understand the Biblical context. For example, when Jesus was asked about divorce (Mt. 5:31-32, 19:3), there was much more to the question than meets the eye. About the time of Jesus’ birth, a new type of divorce called the Any Cause divorce was invented (today we would say no-fault divorce). The phrase in Deut. 24:1 (a cause of sexual immorality) originally only meant unfaithfulness, but a legal loophole was created by dividing it up into two separate grounds for divorce: sexual immorality and a cause.

A rabbi called Hillel argued: Why did God use the phrase cause of sexual immorality when he could merely have said sexual immorality? The phrase a cause must refer to something else, which he decided meant any (or no) reason at all. But the disciples of Shammai disagreed; the whole phrase meant exactly what it said: nothing but unfaithfulness. Of course, if God had meant any or no cause, then all other similar laws were redundant too, but the rabbis only tried to split hairs on this one.

So what Jesus was being asked was very specific: Was the Any Cause divorce interpretation legitimate? His answer was clearly No. But at the same time, neither was Jesus making a statement that meant divorce had no legitimate grounds except for marital unfaithfulness. If we study the entirety of the law we see that it also included various forms of neglect as well (Ex. 21:10-11). Jesus was not giving an all-encompassing teaching on the topic, but rather a specific answer to the question of no-fault divorce. To apply it indiscriminately to every marriage for all time is to twist Jesus’ words.

Christian Marriage

Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, included more detail than what was recorded in the Gospels. In 1 Cor. 7 he taught that spouses owed each other both physical love (vs. 3-5) and material support (vs. 33-34), and in vs.10-16 he addressed more specific situations that can cause marital discord. The first (vs. 10-11) seems to be aimed at a particular woman wanting to separate, but the second seems to be a couple where one became saved after marriage. In vs. 15 Paul first gives an over-arching principle: The most important thing in marriage is to live in peace. People tend to take Paul’s meaning here backwards. He’s not saying couples should force themselves to stay together in the hope that the other spouse will be saved, but that we don’t know whether the spouse will ever be saved. He wants people to show mercy to unbelievers who want to leave, and not make a couple already divorced in relationship to stay married in only a legal sense.

Some take Paul’s statements in vs. 25-35 as being about specific and strict rules on marriage— in spite of what he just finished saying. They also try to use it to justify the custom of parents choosing spouses for their children, as if it were an eternal command. This section is simply an elaboration on the earlier statements about the pressures married people face and is really very simple. Paul repeats that people should carefully consider whether to get married, and if they decide to do so, they should follow his guidelines, as he says in vs. 35.

In vs. 36-40 Paul appears to be addressing specific situations there in Corinth, the first being a man who isn’t sure whether he should marry, and the second being a woman whose husband is apparently near death. She needed to know what she should do in that case, especially if she were Jewish and would otherwise be obligated to marry a brother of her husband in order to produce heirs. Paul says that Christian women are not obligated to honor this law, especially if it would mean having to marry an unbeliever.


God intended from the beginning that marriage would be between one man and one woman for life (Mat. 19:6). But sin made concessions necessary, because God is merciful and wants us to live in peace. Even in cases such as slavery and divorce, God mandates compassion and opposes neglect and abuse (Mal. 2:14-16, 1 Pet. 3:7, Eph. 5:25). The Christian community should encourage and support lifelong commitment, but also recognize when compassion must overrule legalism. Individual self-discipline and self-sacrifice, and other qualities of mature Christian adults, would go a long way toward making divorce a rare thing among us.

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