Divorce and Remarriage: Questions & Answers

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Thank you very much for your comments on my previous post on the CT article by David Instone-Brewer and the response by John Piper. In light of the many excellent questions and comments, I decided to follow up with another post responding to comments made both on Justin Taylor’s blog and on this one. I certainly don’t expect to convert everyone to my view, but hopefully my comments will clarify some of the things I left unaddressed in my previous post. Again, please remember that much of this is addressed more fully in Chapter 11 of God, Marriage & Family. Also, my first post here at Biblical Foundations addressed the topic of divorce and remarriage. Since I don’t know all your full names, my responses below are to the various questions you raised. You know who you are, and will have no problem finding where I addressed your particular question. Please understand that I will not be able to continue this dialogue indefinitely, though your questions and comments are always welcome, and will be incorporated in the second edition of God, Marriage & Family if and when it is published.

Before addressing your questions, let me draw your attention to two extensive notes in God, Marriage & Family that address Instone-Brewer’s inclusion of neglect as legitimate grounds for divorce. On p. 412, n. 76, I wrote, “To this some have added other extreme circumstances (such as persistent spousal abuse) when confronted through the process laid out in Matthew 18:15–17, though great caution would need to be exercised in this regard in order not to undermine the high scriptural view of marriage. … Others, such as Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, passim, postulate the permissibility of divorce more broadly for material and emotional neglect. Instone-Brewer maintains that Jesus’ silence on this point in Matthew 19 should be construed as tacit agreement with universal Jewish practice in this regard on the basis of Exodus 21:10–11 … and contends that Paul alludes to the same passage in 1 Corinthians 8:3.”

At this point I refer to an earlier critique of Instone-Brewer’s view in God, Marriage & Family, which is found on p. 355, n. 25, where I wrote, “Cf. Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, 99–110, who also documents the influence of this passage on Jewish divorce laws, which stipulated the permissibility of divorce for both material … and emotional neglect. … Instone-Brewer proceeds to argue that Jesus’ silence on divorce on the basis of Exodus 21:10–11 should be construed as his agreement with the Jewish consensus view at this point … and that Paul’s allusion to this passage in 1 Corinthians 7 should be taken to imply that Paul, too, allowed for divorce because of marital neglect. … We find Instone-Brewer’s arguments from silence precarious, however. In Jesus’ case, one would have expected him to add marital neglect to porneia as a second exception for divorce if he had approved of neglect as a legitimate ground for divorce. In Paul’s case, it is one thing to say that he alluded to Exodus 21:10–11 but quite another to say that this implies that he approved of divorce for marital neglect. Especially in light of the major ramifications of such a view (namely, that this would render divorce for marital neglect biblically legitimate today), it seems reasonable to require more explicit biblical warrant than the double argument from silence provided by Instone-Brewer.”

I think what these quotations show is that Instone-Brewer’s position as argued in his recent CT essay is only a popularization of the view he has argued for years in his scholarly work and that his position has already been addressed in scholarly treatments such as in God, Marriage & Family. Now to your questions.

Q: It seems you are distinguishing between abandonment and neglect. The former is a legitimate ground for divorce, the latter is not. What is the difference?

A: You are right, I am making this distinction, and you are also right that I believe the former is a legitimate ground for divorce while the latter is not. First of all, let me say that I used the term “abandonment” in my previous post only because this is the term Instone-Brewer used in his essay, and so I accommodated myself to his usage. The more conventional term in the literature, I believe, is that of “desertion by an unbeliever” or something similar. This scenario, of course, is dealt with by Paul in 1 Cor 7:15–16. Some, in fact, believe that Paul himself, upon coming to faith, was deserted by his wife, which is possible though hardly verifiable. What this “desertion by an unbeliever” (or “abandonment,” for short) involves is one marital partner’s coming to faith in Christ and the other spouse’s rejection of her partner’s Christian faith and their reneging on their marriage. In such cases, Paul says, the Christian spouse “is not bound” (1 Cor 7:15), which most interpret not only as establishing a legitimate grounds of divorce but also permission to remarry, in part on the strength of the parallel in 1 Cor 7:39, where a synonym is used in the Greek, “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.” In other words, verse 39 makes explicit (in the case of the death of a spouse) where is left implicit in verse 15: those left without a spouse (whether through the spouse’s death or desertion) are not only not “bound” (i.e. can divorce legitimately) but also free to remarry. As Instone-Brewer notes in his essay, this comports entirely with the standard Jewish formula for divorce, “You are free to marry anyone you wish.” So much for “abandonment” or, perhaps better and less ambiguous, “desertion by an unbelieving spouse.” Notice, then, that this scenario is very clearly defined and considerably more narrow than a broad “abandonment” category which may include abuse and neglect as it does in Instone-Brewer’s essay. Certainly, some cases of neglect and/or abuse may fall in the category of abandonment, but not necessarily in the sense in which Paul defines it in 1 Cor 7:15. As one of you said very well (so well that I simply reproduce your comments, rather than trying to improve on them), “I understand ‘abandonment’ to be referring to the case mentioned in 1 Cor 7, where one person comes to faith, but the spouse doesn’t and leaves them because of it. ‘Neglect’ would be more like a person not taking good enough care of the spouse (or not honoring, etc.). So abandonment would—they took off, am I stuck in this marriage or free to remarry? Neglect would be, we’re still married but I don’t get good enough [or any] love/food/sex/emotional support/whatever, can I divorce her and marry someone better?” (Incidentally, I also agree with your comment [slightly edited] that “in Instone-Brewer’s paper … he argues that Jesus only meant to slap down ‘any cause’ divorce, but then Instone-Brewer argues that divorce for a nebulous concept of neglect is legitimate—which is really close to ‘any cause’ divorce!)

Q: Would it not be better to understand the term “not bound” in 1 Cor 7:15 as referring to people’s right to live in peace rather than making this statement grounds for divorce and subsequent remarriage?

A: The entire chapter (1 Corinthians 7) deals with various instances of legitimate and illegitimate divorce. I believe the background is that some, for whatever reason, taught it was more spiritual to refrain from sex and/or marriage (incidentally, hardly a very common view today). If so, the implication was that single people shouldn’t marry and married people shouldn’t have sex or divorce their spouse altogether. Against this background Paul’s teaching makes perfect sense. He says, sure, being single is good, if anyone has that gift (see my interchange with Debbie Maken here, here, and here at this point), and even there, those who are unmarried but don’t have the gift should get married, because it is better to marry than to burn with passion (vv. 8–9). If you’re married, Paul says, don’t refrain from sex other than for a short time by mutual consent for the purpose of prayer (v. 5). Certainly don’t divorce your spouse, or if you do (disobeying Paul’s directive), certainly don’t remarry (vv. 10–11). To those who are married to an unbeliever, Paul says, continue in the marriage if the unbelieving spouse is willing to do so, but if not, you are “not bound” (vv. 12–16). In this context, it seems that Paul is not merely talking about living in peace but specifically about legitimate vs. illegitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage, a subject to which, as mentioned, he returns in verses 39–40.

Q: Exodus 21 says neglect is grounds of divorce for a slave, so certainly free women should have the same right.

A: The underlying problem is that Exodus 21 is not addressed in the NT by either Jesus or Paul, as far as I can see. So should we just assume it still applies because it is mentioned in the OT? That’s what Instone-Brewer does, largely on the strength of first-century Jewish rabbinical teachings. For most of us, this is not good enough; we need an explicit NT reference here. This, of course, entails important large theological questions regarding the relationship between the OT and the NT and hermeneutical issues bound up with this.

Q: What about cases of spousal abuse, then? What about cases where a husband beats his wife, or stops having sex with her, or fails to provide for her? What are the pastoral implications of these scenarios?

A: First of all, please see my comments in the introduction (i.e. the quotes from God, Marriage & Family) above. As a biblical scholar, my primary aim is to determine what Scripture actually teaches. I realize that there are many, many pastoral implications that must be dealt with no matter what one’s position is. I would ask us to remember that every case is different and must be dealt with on its own terms. I would also caution us against falling into the same kind of casuistry for which the Pharisees are known. We should not try to legislate what to do in every conceivable circumstance but apply known biblical principles to a given specific situation with which we are confronted. That said, certainly, cases of persistent spousal abuse may require at least temporary separation and a variety of means of seeking to stop the abuse and help restore the marriage if possible. Beyond this, I will leave dealing with this area and the numerous facets it raises to my esteemed colleagues in biblical counseling.

Q: If you allow for abandonment, why not see all the Exodus requirements as specifications of abandonment?

A: Please see my clarification on the distinction between abandonment and neglect above. I know what you mean, and I briefly toyed with the idea of subsuming neglect under abandonment, but in the end I believe that the scenario presented by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 (per my discussion above) is considerably more narrow and specific than a broad “neglect” and “abuse” category. What he had in mind, I am convinced, was a case whether one partner became a Christian and the other rejected him and left the marriage because of his spouse’s Christian faith. This is very different from a vague generic notion of “abandonment” or a variety of other types of neglect or abuse.

Q/Comment: One of the strengths of Instone-Brewer’s article is that he addresses spousal abuse, which is the most pastorally sensitive issue.

A: I agree, and address it he does, but without adequate NT support, in my opinion, and with the effect, as Piper says, of “tragically widening the grounds of legitimate divorce.” Beyond this, see my response to the previous question.

Q: Aren’t the things contemplated in Exodus 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.

A: First of all, let’s remember that it’s not what you or I or anyone argues but what Scripture says. We must not substitute clever reasoning for the plain teaching of Scripture. It’s not a matter how skillful a debater we are in trying to make a point but a matter of seeking to discern God’s revelation with a prepared to obey it no matter what it is and whether or not it agrees what we would like Scripture to say. It seems to me that there are some who really want Scripture to say that divorce for neglect and/or abuse is legitimate and others who really want to believe that Scripture does not allow for divorce under any circumstances. (I’m not judging anyone’s motives here, some of you have said so yourself in your comments.) I think it’s very healthy and important to acknowledge that as one’s presupposition in coming to the text of Scripture, but then we must allow the Word to come back at us on its own terms, no matter how painful that may be. That said, I believe reasoned exegetical and theological argument can be helpful in working toward a proper understanding of Scripture’s teaching on a given subject, or I wouldn’t be writing this post right now (and longer treatments as well).

We know that neglected children should be taken from parents.

I’m not sure if this parallel holds, just as I don’t believe Scripture says wives are to obey their husbands exactly in the same way children ought to obey their parents.

So do you think that Exodus 21:10–11 is irrelevant, misinterpreted by Instone-Brewer, or superseded by Jesus? If the latter, is that supersession also an argument from silence, or does it build on the exception clauses?

A: That’s a very perceptive question (or series of questions). Please read my introductory comments (quotes from God, Marriage & Family) above, which indicate the reasons for my hesitation in this regard, in part because of Jesus’ silence on the subject in places such as Matthew 19. Am I therefore employing an argument from silence, too? It depends on how to define “argument from silence,” I suppose. The way I see it, an argument from silence is saying something applies even though it is not stated in Scripture while what I’m saying is something doesn’t apply because it isn’t stated. To me, that’s just common sense, or at least proper hermeneutical caution.

Q: How do you account for the lack of exception clause in Mark and Luke? Does that not lend support to the “betrothal view”?

A: Ultimately, I don’t know why the exception clause is not in Mark and Luke. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you he does (he’s lying). I believe we’re left here with reasonable inferences. In God, Marriage & Family, on p. 242, I quote Instone-Brewer at length, who notes that there are times when it is reasonable to infer from scriptural silence on an issue that people commonly agreed on this issue. If this is true in the present case, Mark and Luke may have felt they did not need to state an exception that was commonly agreed upon, namely, that adultery constituted a legitimate ground for divorce, and Matthew included this only as a side comment, as it were. Having said that, I believe that even having the exception clause—not once, but twice in Matthew—only in one Gospel requires us to obey what it says, and we should be careful not to try to explain it away or “harmonize” it with Mark and Luke just because these Gospels do not include it.

Q: In your view, would a repentant adulterer put his or her non-adulterous spouse under biblical obligation to receive him or her back? Or would the non-adulterous spouse still have “grounds” for divorce even if the adulterous spouse repented and sought (with God’s help) to take every step necessary to be restored in the marriage?

A: Like I said above, every case is different, so it’s difficult to address this scenario in general terms. Certainly, Jesus’ statement to Peter comes to mind that Christians must always be prepared to forgive. If the adulterous spouse is repentant and willing to continue in the marriage, the victim, as a Christian, should, with God’s help, try to forgive and be willing to continue in the marriage, but there are a lot of factors that may enter into a given situation that are hard to deal with in general terms.

To recap, then, in my view Instone-Brewer is too permissive, while Piper is too restrictive. It is not my desire to start any new schools, along the lines of the “school of Hillel” or the “school of Shammai,” the “school of Instone-Brewer” or the “school of Piper”! Hopefully our discussions help us all clarify our thinking on this important issue. I genuinely value this dialogue with many of you in the spirit of “as iron sharpens iron.”

Thank you for your excellent comments and questions.


  1. Scripturally, in the scenario of the unbelieving spouse abandoning the marriage or in the scenario of the unbelieving OR believing spouse committing adultry, the Scriptures seem pretty straight forward. However in the case of the BELIEVING spouse abandoning the marriage not much is written or taught.

    If a believing spouse has “separated” but not legally divorced, is this merely a modern legalistic cloak covering the sin of divorce?

  2. Divorce does not glorify God in the sense that the picture forshadowed in marriage was a virgin bride to her perfect groom. We deal with flesh and blood people. Christ was aware of this. God is 9right now,present day)aware of this, it is very,very,very,very difficult to separate ourselves from a worldly mindset even as christians.

  3. look folks… as facinating as this is… and as intellegent as DR K. is, we must understand one fact no matter how rudimentary. What glorifies God? If in everything we do,preach,teach,exemplify is the “what glorifies God” mentality then that should help with all the other questions. God gave us His Word and even though practical application is not something taught in present day christianity, it is something we should be able to see.

  4. Dr. Kostenberger,

    In one of the responses above you briefly mention that you don’t believe the Bible teaches that wives are to obey their husbands in the same way that children are to obey their parents.

    I know this to be true from experience, but what is the biblical foundation for this understanding? How does consistent exegesis lead you to this conclusion?

  5. Thank-you Dr Kostenberger
    Your thoughts are helpful as I seek to think these difficult issues through. I also plan to read your book soon and perhaps you address the following issue there. How do we deal with individuals who have been involved in divorce prior to conversion. Is the ‘slate wiped clean’ for actions that occured pre-salvation? Say, for example, an individual repeatedly committed adultery on their spouse which led to divorce. Now that they’re a Christian, would such a person be free to remarry?

  6. Hi Dr. Kostenberger

    I find Dr. Piper’s argument for a restrictive view of the “exception clause” compelling. That’s where I stand. I was wondering, pastoral implications aside, whether you say that spousal abuse is not a ground for divorce. I do not see it as a compelling ground in the NT.

    I’m not trying to sound smug or in-your-face, but I am trying to be direct.

    Thank you for your help.

  7. Dr. Kostenberger:

    I am most appreciative of your gracious replies to questions posed at another’s site. Your humility and patient consideration of others, as no mean scholar, sets a most winsome example for God’s people.

    If you have opportunity, could you give your thoughts on what seems to be evidence in favor of a more restrictive reading of I Corinthians 7? That is, Paul makes several statements for remaining in one’s present marital status, even if that is singleness. However, he gives singles the freedom to make choices.

    I know that you are familiar with Hirsch’s earliest arguments for validity based on the weight of the literary evidence, (a theory which, you also know, he later revised). I am not expecting you to interact with Hirsch’s theory, per se. But, if you have time and find it appropriate, I would like your further thoughts on what Paul intends by the distinctions he makes between his instructions toward marrieds and singles. I have posted my comments here: http://ericredmond.wordpress.com/2007/10/08/divorce-and-remarriage/.

    Thank you for your work for the kingdom of God.


  8. Three thoughts.

    First: it is very kind of you to take the time to interact. Thank you very much.

    Second: now in this post you re-describe your abandonment position as “desertion by an unbeliever.” As I said, you’re book’s on order, and I plan to read it. But does this signal that your understanding is that if the spouse who abandons me is an unbeliever I’m morally free to divorce and remarry, but if she’s a believer, I’m not? I’ve never understood a rationale for that distinction. Abandonment is a covenant-breaking sin if an unbeliever commits it, but not if a believer commits it.

    I understand Paul to be answering the question, “Hey, we were saved after we married, and now we’re married to unbelievers. Are we obliged to leave them, like with Nehemiah?” Paul says, “No. If they leave you, you’re free, as with any case of abandonment; but you don’t leave them.”

    My third is a thinking-aloud. I consider the rationale. Is abandonment permissible because it necessarily involves the sexual marital crime of defrauding? And if so, is that a tie-in with Exodus 21?


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