Marriage and Divorce 3

WeddingRing.jpgWhat terminates a marriage? Or what are the grounds for a permissible divorce?

William F. Luck’s Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View  examines this sort of question in chp 2 of his book.
Marriage, Luck is arguing, is a b-lateral covenant that is, by nature, conditional. Thus, when one person violates the terms of the covenant, the other person is set free from the obligations to the covenant. But, let’s back up to what he says about “rights” and the termination of marriage:
A Woman’s Rights: 

Freedom from an abusive husband, and here he appeals to Exodus 21:10-11 and 21:26-27, two texts Luck thinks are ignored by Christians; they deal with concubines and he infers from the lesser to the greater (if true with a concubine, surely true for a wife):


21:10 If he takes another wife, he must not diminish the first one’s food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 21:11 If he does not provide her with these three things, then she will go out free, without paying money.


21:26 “If a man strikes the eye of his male servant or his female servant so that he destroys it, he will let the servant go free as compensation for the eye. 21:27 If he knocks out the tooth of his male servant or his female servant, he will let the servant go free as compensation for the tooth.


He draws three conclusions: (1) when the husbands fails to provide, his claims are nullified; (2) legal release is the legal right of the offended partner; (3) the released partner is free to remarry. “Set free” is clear in Exodus 21.

A divorced woman has the right of freedom to make vows (Num 30:9), showing her freedom from her former husband. A woman (captive in war) has the right not to be forced into marriage (Deut 21:10-14), she is protected from unjust divorce (22:12-21), and protected from desertion (22:28-29).
A man’s rights…
He is protected from an unfaithful wife (Exod 20:14), from a despised wife (24:1-4) … and he has a lengthy discussion of this text. He sees Deut 24 as a provision for the woman. She is set free from a husband who dismisses her on flimsy grounds. The text, Luck argues, is not about a man’s reasons for divorce but a text designed to protect a woman from being passed around like a piece of chattel.
Thus, marriage is bi-lateral; when one breaks the covenant, the other person is set free; this should lead either to renewal of the covenant or divorce.
Men are permitted to remarry after divorce; women are also permitted to remarry though they are considered “stained” by the divorce
About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Coleman

    Admittedly I haven’t read Luck’s book, but going by your summary I’m not convinced of his argument. His method seems flawed – Jesus explicitly says that parts of the Jewish law code were included “because of the hardness of your hearts,” and then goes on to say ” And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matt 19:8-9). As I see it, the only way to argue that something is legitimate grounds for Christians to divorce is to show that it falls under the category of “sexual immorality” (porneia). Does Luck address this concern?

  • Scot McKnight

    Coleman, yes he does. Luck believes divorce is the result of being “cracked Eikons” — broken, sinful humans. In that kind of world, divorce happens.
    Do you think that justifiable divorce can only happen when porneia occurs? What about 1 Cor 7?

  • http://godgrown.net/blog Mark G Willis

    And what of the fact that Jesus said that any man who marries a previously divorced (put away) woman also commits adultery? Putting it on today’s culture, it would mean even if a woman was divorced by a cheating/lying abusive husband that she would have no right to marry again. Doesn’t seem right…any other interpretations?
    To me, its a cultural issue – women had no rights in Jesus’ day. This was Jesus expanding the rights of women, protecting them from husband who would use the Law of Moses to suit themselves.

  • RJS

    Scot,
    1 Cor. 7 does suggest that divorce for other reasons is “permissible” but when both parties are believers remarriage is not allowed (except to each other). If one party is not a believer and chooses to leave then the believer is “released” and Paul says nothing about remarriage to others, presumably it is allowed.
    But divorce without the possibility for future remarriage is still a pretty tough directive.

  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, part of the idea of divorce in the ancient world of Judaism entailed “setting a woman free” and that meant remarriage. So, many today interpret Matt 5′s prohibition of married a divorced woman” means marrying an impermissibly divorced woman.
    Furthermore, the intent of Jesus is as much to denounce easy divorce as it is to set out all the ground rules for permissibility. Had Jesus meant “this reason and this reason only” then Paul’s addition would be contra Jesus.

  • http://zetountes.blogspot.com Marcus

    Coleman #1 and Scot #2,
    I see Jesus command as concerning initiating divorce and 1 Cor. 7 is discussing when someone else wants to divorce you.

  • John W Frye

    I wish more pastors would jump into this discussion. Pastors live where alleged “biblical” interpretations on marriage, divorce and remarriage intersect with living, breathing, sometimes desperately hurting men and women. Those limiting divorce to just *porneia* with or without freedom to remarry sometimes come off as taking the biblical “high ground.” That may seem correct doctrinally, but it is pitifully ungracious pastorally. I’ve seen abusive husbands gloat that their wive cannot divorce them because “hey, I didn’t cheat on her or nothing.” They are sexually faithful and maritally neanderthals, bullying and threatening and “pure as they driven snow” sexually. Finally, the wife says, “I’ve had it” and wants a divorce and SHE comes off as biblically sinful one. It’s a load of cr*p…pardon my Greek. Luck is saying that marriage is a lot more than about SEXUAL faithfulness.

  • Scot McKnight

    John, I agree..
    Why not more pastors who are struggling with this issue in their church?

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    I think evangelicals have idealized the post-WWII nuclear family unit and have tried to preserve it with proof-texting marriage doctrines. A prevailing view or two takes the “high ground” and pastors get scared to buck the status quo. Pastors lament the damage they see and instead of dealing *ad hoc* with the damage before their eyes, they hide behind or acquiesce to the “biblical view.” Pastors sense that they must protect doctrine not real human lives. Divorce is the 21st century version of Sabbath laws.

  • RJS

    John,
    I don’t think that the “proof-texting marriage doctrines” are post WWII. But I do think that some of the ontological arguments may be a cultural response within evangelicalism. We can defend marriage better if it is an ontological change rather than a covenant entered into.
    But isn’t some of our response to the fact that divorce seems at times a default. Divorce for abuse should be allowed by all – but where is the line to be drawn within Christian communities?

  • Mikey

    I would be interested to know how pastors would view the issue of “pornography” and it’s affect on the one viewing it and the affect on the marriage covenant with respect to the dissolution of a marriage.

  • Ken Bussell

    I wrote an article recently related to this topic. In the article I ask why so many churches accept unrepentant divorcees and remarried couples into fellowship, but reject unrepentant LGBT persons and couples. It is a hypocrisy that needs examining.
    You can read more at http://blog.emergingworshiper.org.


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