What Is the New Testament Teaching on Divorce?

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The Book of Proverbs wisely counsels, “Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own” (Prov 26:17). For this reason (if no other) I am reluctant to enter into the fray by offering some reflections of my own on the recent interchange between David Instone-Brewer and John Piper (or, more accurately put, on Instone-Brewer’s CT article and Piper’s response to it on his blog). Yet with some trepidation I will do so nonetheless, not in order to engage directly with one or the other of these individuals (both of whom I know personally and respect profoundly), but because this is a very important and serious topic addressed in Scripture that has many and real implications for all of us, in our own lives and in the lives of others around us entrusted to our spiritual care.

Starting with Instone-Brewer’s article (which summarizes several of his much larger works on the subject), for the sake of those unfamiliar with Instone-Brewer’s position, I will first offer a brief summary of his argument and then move immediately to a critique. Instone-Brewer looks at the first-century positions on divorce and remarriage held by the schools of Hillel and Shammai in order to understand the background for Jesus’ pronouncement in Matt 19:9 that divorce is not permitted “except for porneia.” He notes that both views were predicated on a certain interpretation of Deut 24:1. The Hillelites interpreted the phrase in this passage allowing divorce for “a thing of nakedness” or “a cause of immorality” to indicate that divorce was permitted for adultery (“nakedness,” “immorality”) as well as for any other “cause” or “thing.” This, then, is behind the Pharisees’ question in Matt 19:3: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” In essence, they asked Jesus whether or not he agreed with Hillel’s interpretation of Deut 24:1. The school of Shammai, on the other hand, interpreted “a cause of immorality” as one single phrase referring to adultery, taking a much more restrictive position on the legitimacy of divorce. In reply to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus gave a resounding “no.” He did not agree that divorce was legitimate “for any and every reason,” as Hillel did. Those who divorced their wife for any reason other than porneia and remarried committed adultery. According to Instone-Brewer, Jesus thus did not reject the Old Testament itself at this point but merely a faulty interpretation of it, defending the proper understanding of Deut 24:1 as allowing divorce for adultery only.

As far as I’m concerned (though not Piper, see below), I say, so far so good. (I do not agree with Piper’s criticism of Instone-Brewer’s use of the Jewish background in this case. Using information on the first-century schools of Hillel and Shammai and their respective views on divorce is a staple of evangelical interpretation of Matthew 19, and rightly so, since the occasion was the Pharisees’ question in Matt 19:3, which clearly reflect their own first-century Jewish context.)

At this point, however, Instone-Brewer proceeds to make an argument from silence. He says that Jesus did not only defend adultery as a grounds of divorce per Deut 24:1, he also “didn’t reject the other ground for divorce in the Old Testament,” divorce for neglect, based on Exod 21:10–11. Instone-Brewer’s logic here eludes me. He seems to be saying that unless Jesus explicitly stated that divorce was not allowed in cases of neglect, we must assume he allowed for it (a classic argument from silence). This logic seems less than compelling to me, however, just as arguments from silence often tend to be rather precarious. How did Instone-Brewer get from an exception (however understood) that Jesus explicitly made to an exception he supposedly implied? (I realize Instone-Brewer says that Jesus did not have to make this explicit, since it was universally believed, but I would still like to see demonstration of a more direct connection with New Testament teaching here.) In terms of contextual exegesis, Jesus was simply addressing a question posed to him (Matt 19:3; see above); hence it seems that Exod 21:10–11 does not enter in to the discussion at Matt 19:9 at all as far as I can see. At this point, then, Instone-Brewer does seem to move from biblical exegesis to Jewish background, and does not have clear scriptural support (as Piper alleges more globally).

In his response to Instone-Brewer’s piece, then, John Piper states at the outset that in his view “the implication of this article is that every marriage I am aware of could already have legitimately ended in divorce.” (As will be seen below, I share this concern, though I do not agree that this requires the “betrothal view,” essentially a “no divorce under any circumstances” position, as Piper seems to imply.) Piper first turns to Instone-Brewer’s reasoning from Exod 21:10–11, correctly (in my view) identifying this as an argument from silence and questioning several other aspects of Instone-Brewer’s interpretation of this passage. Next, Piper turns to Instone-Brewer’s handling of the exception clause in Matt 19:9 in relation to Deut 24:1. Piper contends that Jesus disagreed with Deut 24:1 rather than merely clarifying the meaning of the passage (as Instone-Brewer contends), citing Mark 10:4–9. Instead, Jesus went all the way back to the beginning and reiterated God’s perfect plan for marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman. I agree with Piper that this is what Jesus does in Matthew 19, except for the one exception Jesus explicitly states in Matt 19:9 (a crucial point), which Piper leaves aside initially.

But this is the exact point that is debated. I certainly agree that Jesus upheld and reaffirmed God’s original intention for marriage as a permanent, lifelong union, but the crux interpretum here is what is meant by “except for porneia” in Matt 19:9. I contend that in this case (adultery/sexual immorality), Jesus allowed an exception. Piper agrees that there is an exception, but he defines porneia as referring exclusively to breaking an engagement, something for which he has in my view insufficient exegetical and lexical support (see Chapter in God, Marriage & Family). This is not the place to critique Piper’s version of the “betrothal view”; I have done so at length elsewhere, and maintain that what I have said in God, Marriage & Family is the most plausible understanding of the “exception clause” despite Piper’s response in What Jesus Demands from the World (remember that the “betrothal view” is held by a minority and that understanding porneia more broadly in Matt 19:9 has wide support among conservative evangelical commentators). As several individuals commenting at Justin Taylor’s blog have rightly pointed out, Piper’s reading of porneia in Matt 19:9 as exclusively referring to breaking an engagement does not constitute the most natural reading of the word in this passage but rather seems contrived, perhaps reflecting an effort to protect the notion of the indissolubility of marriage under all circumstances (though I am aware that Piper believes his reading is the best way to exegete the passage).

Thus I agree with Piper’s criticism of Instone-Brewer’s treatment of Exod 21:10–11 yet disagree with his criticism of Instone-Brewer’s handling of Matt 19:9 and Deut 24:1. Here, then, is the important point: Piper’s concern that Instone-Brewer “tragically widens the grounds of legitimate divorce” largely pertains to Instone-Brewer’s inclusion of spousal neglect as a legitimate grounds of divorce on the basis of Exod 21:10–11, which I also reject, while it does not equally apply to the understanding of the exception clause as allowing divorce in cases of adultery. The latter is an exception made in continuity with the Old Testament (where adultery was punishable by stoning), and Jesus does not mandate divorce in the case of adultery but merely allows for it. Moreover, adultery is the sole exception made by Jesus (plus abandonment by Paul, 1 Cor 7:15-16) and can be clearly delineated so that it does not amount to opening the floodgates to indiscriminate divorce as Piper fears.

To the contrary, I would ask us to consider whether elevating the scriptural ideal (with Jesus as the bridegroom “who will never divorce his wife and take another,” to quote Piper, citing Eph 5:25) without allowing divorce even in cases of spousal adultery may be going beyond Scripture and thus is pastorally doubtful. I continue to maintain, therefore, that affirming a high view of marriage as Jesus did while allowing exceptions for divorce in cases of adultery and abandonment remains the option that is exegetically most defensible and pastorally most sensible.


  1. Let me qualify this post by saying I have not read ALL the posts above so this question may have already been asked.

    I was wondering…if adultery was punishable by death…wouldn’t this render the divorce discussion BECAUSE of adultery moot?
    Additionally, wouldn’t this also mean that there MUST be other ground for divorce because if the one who committed adultery is dead, there is no need to expand on what to do after their adultery was discovered…right?

  2. The first step any one is to take concerning DIVORCE, is they have to read what Jesus says in matthew 23:8,9,10 and then be in position to know the mind and heart of God the father, God the son, God the holy spirit concerning divorce.

    thank you for all your study please for any hard copy notes use the address bellow

    Isaac Okwalinga
    p.o.box, 31896 clocktower
    kampala, uganda.

    i will be glad to share with more on this subject

  3. Kostenberger at least tries in engage DIB’s scholarship in some sense, but misunderstands part of it and therefore makes DIB’s arguments weaker than they actually are. Again, a Berean will need to actually READ DIB for themselves and not expect an opponent to present the author’s arguments.

    DIB discusses his results in summary form here: http://www.playmobible.org/videos.html.

    Kostenberger’s mistakes are:

    1. He misses that Mat 19:3 sets the context for all that follows. Jesus is responding to the question about the Hillel “Any Matter” divorce and not a general question about divorce. So Jesus did not discuss Ex 21:10 as he was not asked about it.

    2. He misses that Jesus corrects 7 misinterpretations of the Pharisees on marriage and divorce, so his silence in the case of the other interpretations is more compelling than it might appear. In summary (see DIB or my teaching for details), the Pharisees taught 8 things about marriage and 8 things about divorce; Jesus was asked about 1 thing about divorce (Hillel’s “Any Matter” divorce); but before he could answer it he needed to correct some other misunderstandings and ended up correcting 7 of the 16 things Pharisees taught. (In other words, Jesus was not reticent to correct the Pharisees, so if he disagreed with something else they taught, that would have been a great time to correct it.)

    3. He misses that adultery is NOT the sole exception allowing divorce as taught by Jesus, rather adultery is the only valid reason mentioned in Deu 24:1, per the question.

  4. I intend to comment on McFall’s paper in a forthcoming edition of God, Marriage & Family if I judge this to be necessary after a closer reading of his essay.

  5. Leslie McFall has an interesting way to deal with the so-called exception clause in Matthew 19:9 that appears to allow for divorce and remarriage for marriage unfaithfulness.
    He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmus that effect the way Matthew 19:9 has been translated. I reviewed McFall’s paper at Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9. I would love to hear some feedback on this position.

  6. If you are abandoned or divorced by a non-practicing believer who forces a divorced upon you. If you have sat willing to reconcile without any desire from the spouse who divorced you. Does the Bible allow you to remarry without either you or your new spouse from sinning? (Luke 16:18)

  7. Dr Les McFall critique on Instone-Brewer found within this document


  8. I’ve been wrestling with this problem for many years as when I was in college I drifted away from the Lord and married a man who had been abandoned by his first wife after 18 months of marriage. I had enough presence of mind to seek the advice of my preacher and elders at the time and was told that since he was abandoned, even though he was not a NT Christian, he was free to remarry. I have since sought counsel several other times and have received the same answer but I myself still wrestle with it. We’ve had a less than perfect marriage but we have several children. I am not looking for an easy way out, prefering to stay and hopefully see him converted; however, I don’t wish to stay if I am living in adultery by doing so. It is hard, as I still am unsure….Thank you for your work. Anna

  9. Thank you Dr. Köstenberger for the review of Dr. Instone Brewer’s articles. I think some of the comments that resulted from the discussion have brought some very salient points to the argument. Such as the need for church discipline – otherwise your attending a country club and not a church, the need for involvement by the church versus Piper’s and unfortunately many others position to crucify all parties regardless of circumstances. Much unlike the story of the good Samaritan but rather the unrighteous characters in that story. From what I have read of Piper’s article, he would seem to condemn all parties involved because of the actions and free moral choice of just one. A action that I cannot find biblical support for.(save for the guilty one only) Much of this same ideology I observed when I lived and attended school in NC and is very prevalent here in West TN also. What I sincerely do believe we need is a more biblical practice of restoration within the churches, less respect of persons in regards to the “d” word and more practice of Galatians:6:1: Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

    The gamut of responses and the attitudes that come with them that I have seen remind me more and more every day of the characters written about in the gospels, pharisees, scribes, Samaritans. It brings to mind Jesus’s Words in
    Matthew 5:20: For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

    I struggle with the responses of many “RELIGIOUS” teachers when comparing their teachings on the subject while I read about Joseph in Matthew 1:19: Then Joseph her husband, BEING A JUST MAN , and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

    That clause BEING A JUST MAN just flies into the face of many of these traditional party lines on how to handle divorce.

    THEIR IS a deeper point here, while we never can escape the letter and always should hold it in highest regard, we must also seek the spirit of that law, otherwise we are dead and deal in death
    to those who need our savior the most.

    I fear that far too many of my brethren have diverted to worshiping the letter of the law and have also forgotten the same spirit of that law.

    I again thank you for the thoughtful, balanced and intellectual response to the writings , I just discovered your responses tonight and will try to read them all at length here soon. I might then desire to ask a few more questions on the matter that have not been covered. If you would humor me. Blessings

    Your Brother in Christ,
    Gene from ODBC

  10. Hi

    On the subject of abuse, I think Jaye Adams is dead right. If a believer is sinning seriously in that way in the marriage then Matt 18, church discipline is involved which ends in the person being treated as an unbeliever, if unrepentant. As a matter of safety, if serious, the person should leave the marital home, and then if there is no repentance still this constitutes not being willing to live AS a spouse. Divorce is acceptable.

    The sad fact of the matter is that many Christians stay in abuse marriages because they are being spiritually abused by church leaders who say they must not leave, or at least are made to feel that way.

  11. A widow is free to re-marry and be cared for by the church, however, a divorced woman is not given this gift by Jesus.

  12. As an ordinary layman who read the article in Christianity Today, I must say that what I took away from it as being important was that someone had finally showed that the divorce of a truly abusive spouse was OK.

    All of this profound exegetical talk by you folks doesn’t trickle down to the sheep.

  13. “Good folks” wilfully refuse to acknowledge I Tim. 5:8: that if the “believer” does the abandoning by way of failure to support his wife, he is an unbeliever — actually, worse. Such sustained, unrepentant behavior would be grounds for divorce in light of I Cor. 7:13 if he does not consent to live with her.

  14. Honestly, that so many good folks would hold this inexplicable notion that abandonment is grounds for divorce if an unbeliever does the abandoning, but not if a believer does it, is incomprehensible to me.

  15. Hi everyone
    In light of so many questions with few answers forthcoming, I hope it wil be acceptable as a new contributor if I submit some possible answers from my own studies to some of the queries that have been posed on the forum.

    [Question 1:
    So you think Jesus is allowing divorce in the case of abandonment but not in the case of neglect? I’m curious what you see as the difference between the two. Is it just a matter of degree? That will make it very difficult to judge the cases in the middle. Or is there some criterion required for abandonment that isn’t true of the cases you’re referring to as neglect?]

    DGH answers:
    I believe the answer lies on not what “Jesus is allowing” specifically, but what the New Testament as a whole teaches on legitimate grounds for divorce. In I Cor 7:15, it appears that The Holy Spirit though Paul is expanding the grounds for divorce though abandonment by saying “But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart: a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.”
    Notice, however, that the abandonment is that of an unbeliever.

    [Question 2:
    Maybe it’s related to that, and maybe it’s not, but I’m also interested in what you think about cases of abuse. I know some people count that as a kind of abandonment, but if you’re distinguishing between abandonment and neglect I’m less sure what you’d say about abuse.]

    DGH answers:
    Again, Paul’s allowance in 1st Cor 7:15 is for desertion by an unbeliever, whereby many evangelical scholars believe they are free to remarry without sin. The distinguishing factor may be when scripture says specifically that in cases of an unbeliever’s desertion, they are “not under bondage in such cases”, but the same is not taught regarding abuse. In cases of abuse, I believe another verse from 1 Cor 7:10-11 is applicable. It says “Now to the married I command, [yet] not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from [her] husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to [her] husband. And a husband is not to divorce [his] wife.”

    So the phrase “But even if she does depart” could be a clause that covers cases of all other reasons for departure, including spousal abuse, where Paul commands that she either be reconciled (perhaps after he repents and she is out of physical danger), or remain unmarried. Why remain unmarried? Possibly because remarriage in such cases where it is not due to marital infidelity or an unbeliever’s desertion would result in the adultery spoken of in Matthew 19 and Roman’s 7.

    [Question 3:
    One of the strengths of Instone-Brewer’s article is that he addresses spousal abuse, which is the most pastorally sensitive issue. Would you please give your thoughts on divorce or separation because of spousal abuse (including the different types of spousal abuse such as physical, verbal, sexual, etc.)?]

    DGH answers:
    If her life and limb are in danger, it could be dangerous to require her to stay in that situation, but without it being a legitimate scriptural exception, she will remain bound to her spouse (Romans 7:1-3), and remarriage to another would result in adultery. I realize that this very notion causes many to cry “unfair” but from what bias? Without meaning to be glib, I believe sometimes the reason lies in our westernized “Brady bunch” type of thinking, where the very notion of never getting to remarry without incurring sin seems incomprehensibly unjust to many. Such predisposed emotional bias often leads to new “interpretations” which render impotent Christ’s strict teaching on divorce and remarriage. These interpretations soon gain momentum in some cases, even among conservative evangelicals. Instead of appealing to the Grace of God to “fix” such an injustice, I believe we should trust that God’s grace will abound to those who choose to obey him and remain unmarried, as they were commanded, and their reward in heaven will be far greater than any earthly pleasure. (Romans 8:18)

    [Question 4:
    How do you explain Jesus’ teachings in Mark 10:2-11 and Luke 16:18? He offers no exception clause in either Mark or Luke. In light of this, it seems to me that the betrothal view makes sense. What do you think?]

    DGH answers:
    This is a long held argument regarding the betrothal view, but I believe the answer lies in understanding that Matthew’s account in chapter 19 expound on the subject in greater detail. It does not mean there is a contradiction. Keep in mind that it certainly appears as if Mark is the parallel account of Matthew 19. The similarities are too numerous to be two separate occasions (coming to Judah…..beyond the Jordan…….Pharisees asking questions…Jesus citing Moses’ “hardness of your hearts” allowance….etc). So how could Mark be the “true” meaning of marital divorce, while Matthew is the meaning of “betrothal” if they are the same account?

    I hope this helps, and perhaps gives rise to even more discussion on this important topic!

  16. Your arguments are good, well balanced, and above all scriptural. However, what do you do with persistent marital abuse, either physical or emotional? Are you saying in either case, no matter to what degree, there are no grounds for divorce?

  17. In your view, would a repentant adulterer put his/her non-adulterous spouse under biblical obligation to receive him/her back?

    Or, would the non-adulterous spouse still have “grounds” for divorce (in your view) even if the adulterous spouse repented and sought (with God’s help) to take every step necessary to be restored in the marriage?

    Thank you for considering this question.
    Jordan T.

  18. Dr. Kostenberger,

    How do you explain Jesus’ teachings in Mark 10:2-11 and Luke 16:18? He offers no exception clause in either Mark or Luke. In light of this, it seems to me that the betrothal view makes sense. What do you think?

  19. I read that article by Instone-Brewer when I first got the issue, and that was the first time I had heard that open of a view. In my heart I want to agree with John Piper because I would not want to give anyone an “excuse” or “out” of their marriage covenant. However, the text must govern us, because no doubt we would all be in trouble in we always let our heart govern our theology. Thank you for your thoughts and review here,

  20. Thank you for this. I’ve ordered, and plan to read, both yours and one of I-B’s books.

    So do you think that Exod 21:10–11 is irrelevant, misinterpreted by I-B, or is superceded by Jesus? If the latter, is that supercession also an argument from silence, or does it build on the parektos / mē epi clauses?

    (FWIW, my position has been the same as what I take you as setting out, above.)

  21. Aren’t the things contemplated in Ex 21 tantamount to abandonment: if someone lacks adequate food and clothing, and gets no sex from her husband, I’d argue she’s been abandoned.

    We know that neglected children should be taken from parents. Neglect has a well defined legal meaning. It isn’t nebulous.

  22. Thank you for responding to these articles, Dr. Kosternberger. I am trying discern what the Scripture teaches about divorce and remarriage. For me, reconciling the passages in Scripture that speak of marrigae and divorce is much more than a hermeneutical debate. The implications are very personally. Thanks again for the concern and the sober reply.

  23. Dr. Kostenberger,

    One of the strengths of Instone-Brewer’s article is that he addresses spousal abuse, which is the most pastorally sensitive issue. Would you please give your thoughts on divorce or separation because of spousal abuse (including the different types of spousal abuse such as physical, verbal, sexual, etc.)?

    Andy Chance

  24. Thank you so much for your work! I am wrestling through this issue and this was very helpful to me in my ministry. Please keep writing!

  25. Wait, you allow for abandonment.

    If so, then why not just see all the Exodus requirement as specifications of abandonment.

    If a man stops feeding his wife, having sex with her, or providing her shelter and clothes, he IS abandoning her, even if she lives in the house.

  26. Good point to piper.

    I wonder about some things though. Can a man who beats his wife, or threatens to beat his wife be divorced legitimately?

    Can a man who decides to stop having relations with his wife (her marital rites) in the Exodus situation be divorced by his wife?

    He isn’t really treating her as his spouse at all if he does that, so in what sense do they possess a marriage anyway? It would seem that to deny divorce in the case of denial of marital intimacy would be to countenance a man’s faithfulness to his marriage who had stopped one of the very things that defines marriage.

    Piper’s “well, nobody honors his wife perfectly, therefor any marriage can end in divorce” fails to distinguish between feeble honor and active dishonor and active shaming.

  27. So you think Jesus is allowing divorce in the case of abandonment but not in the case of neglect? I’m curious what you see as the difference between the two. Is it just a matter of degree? That will make it very difficult to judge the cases in the middle. Or is there some criterion required for abandonment that isn’t true of the cases you’re referring to as neglect?

    Maybe it’s related to that, and maybe it’s not, but I’m also interested in what you think about cases of abuse. I know some people count that as a kind of abandonment, but if you’re distinguishing between abandonment and neglect I’m less sure what you’d say about abuse.


  1. Following up on our talks about divorce… « The Village Pastor’s Weblog - [...] 4. Andreas Kostenberger’s response to both sides. [...]
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  4. In Brief at 4:14 evangelical christian theology blog - [...] David Instone-Brewer’s article in Christianity Today. John Piper then responded, followed by this response and follow-up by Andreas Kostenberger.…
  5. Recap of the Divorce Debate « Expository Thoughts - [...] On October 19, Andreas Kostenberger responded to John Piper in “Clarifying the NT Teaching on Divorce.” [...]
  6. In Defense of the Faith Apologetic Ministry » Blog Archive » An Evangelical Rethink on Divorce? - [...] Andreas Köstenberger: “Clarifying the NT Teaching on Divorce“ [...]
  7. Paxdol.Com » Clarifying the NT Teaching on Divorce - [...] wrote an interesting post today on Clarifying the NT Teaching on DivorceHere’s a quick [...]
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  11. In Light of the Gospel » Blog Archive » The Divorce and Remarriage Discussion - [...] Andreas Köstenberger: “Clarifying the NT Teaching on Divorce“ [...]
  12. Fearing God in a Hebel World » Blog Archive » Divorce and Remarriage - [...] by challenging both Instone-Brewer’s and Piper’s interpretation of Matthew 19:9, “Clarifying the NT Teaching on Divorce.” Like Instone-Brewer and…
  13. Counseling Notes - Marriage and Divorce Links - [...] Responds to Instone-Brewer Clarifying the NT Teaching on Divorce Divorce and [...]
  14. The Boar’s Head Tavern » - [...] Kostenberger interacts with Piper and the original CT piece on divorce. He comes down exactly where I’ve been for…
  15. Kiwi and an Emu. » Divorce: Why John Piper is wrong on this. - [...] draft only a day before John Piper wrote about David Instone-Brewer’s work on divorce. Then Andreas Kostenberger added…
  16. Köstenberger’s On Divorce | Said At Southern Seminary - [...] this lengthy new post by Dr. K responding to the recent divorce dust up with John [...]
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