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What Does the New Testament Teach on Divorce?

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.

Divorce Only for Adultery

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.)

Divorce Also for Other Reasons?

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.

What Does “Except for Porneia” Mean?

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.