Divorce & Remarriage 12: How did the early church misunderstand Jesus?

We’ve covered 11 chapters thus far in our review of David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce & Remarriage in the Church.  His main point is that the Scriptures in Exodus 21 require marriages to be built on the covenant promise to provide food, clothing, and sexual love. When these were not provided then the woman was allowed to go free. The controversies in the NT are about the “any cause” divorce that some Jewish leaders supported. Jesus, I-B says, is only speaking to this problem in Matt 19 when he says no to “any cause” and only yes to causes that break the covenant. Much of I-B’s argument is based on how early rabbis interpreted the OT and Jesus’ lack of criticism of their interpretations. He also looks at cultural/evangelisticreasons for the matter of submission in Eph. 5 and questions whether these are timeless truthes (last week’s post).

So now we come to a key question in chapter 12: How did the early church misconstrue Paul and Jesus so quickly? Why did they come to believe the texts taught that divorce was never allowed.

I-B suggests the following reasons:

    1. The Destruction of Jerusalem of 70AD. He reports that almost all of the various Jewish teachers were killed–with the exception of the Hillel Pharisees who then became the dominant interpreters of Scripture. This is key in that it was the Hillel teachers who argued for the “any cause” divorce. Thus, the no cause but sexual immorality proponents were gone and so the debate that Jesus weighed in on was lost. 
    2.  Changes in word meanings. I-B points out the changes in the meaning of “wicked”, “gay”, and “imbeciles. ” The sentence, “Isn’t it wonderful that so many imbeciles are naturally gay” has obvious meaning differences depending on which generation says it. (p. 143). He also notes the different meaning of “intercourse” (speaking) in the 1800s
    3. Similarly, how we use shorthand phrases change over time. He reminds us that he explored the phrase, “Isn’t it unlawful for a 16 year old to drink” and that it obviously means alcohol to us but may not to later generations. So, shorthand phrases interpreted outside the context have a great chance to be misunderstood. And I-B believes that Matthew uses shorthand phrases regarding divorce because it wasn’t necessary for his readers to say the whole thing.
    4. Punctuation. I-B reminds us that the original Greek text does not have punctuation markers. Translators must provide punctuation. On p. 145 he shows how the addition quotation marks changes Mt 19 from the Pharisees asking if any divorce was legal to whether “any cause” divorces are legal. The church got this wrong, he thinks, because it forget about the “any cause” controversy.

Of course this brings up issues around interpretive process, authorial intent, and how God intends these passages to be timeless, or better yet, for all time. I-B says we ask the wrong questions when we try to ask what it says in plain English or what the traditional interpretation has been. Better, he believes, is to ask what the original audience understood it to mean.

As Christian we have to assume that the Holy Spirit was able to convey truth accurately to the original readers in language and with concepts they would understand. We who come later have to do more work than they did in order to understand the same message, because we have to learn an ancient language and read it through the mindset of ancient thought-forms. p. 147

But if you are following I-B’s argument you can see that he believes we need the historical evidence to interpret the bible correctly. Does he believe we need more than the bible to interpret the bible? Yes! But he does not reject sola scriptura. This means that that while Scripture itself gives us everything we need to know for salvation it does not provide us with the background on things beyond our salvation (i.e., divorce and remarriage principles mentioned in the bible).

He ends with the question of whether there has been a conspiracy to withhold teaching on the background of this issue in the church. It might be understandable that those in the first 2,000 years of the church would get it wrong since they didn’t have access to such resources. But in the modern era, these resources have been available. So, why didn’t they teach us the background? In the next chapter he will take up that matter.

MY THOUGHTS: I-B clearly believes that we need historical records to understand the original intent of Scripture. I think it is important as well. But, I would also assert that the NT writers interpreted the OT in ways that seem not to follow that system. It would seem that they cherry picked verses and gave them entirely different meanings than the original hearers of the OT passages–especially those that they interpreted as foretelling Christ’s birth.

At heart, I-B challenges us to understand the shorthand in Scripture regarding marriage and divorce. It is good for us not to become too self-assured that we have it all right. This doesn’t mean we can’t have convictions but we must be careful here when many good and godly men and women differ in interpretation. For example, John Piper at DesiringGod.org has strong reservations about this book and continues to assert that there should never be divorce and definitely no remarriage. You can check out his thoughts here and find links to Instone-Brewer’s only webpage (HT: Ron Lusk). The point is good Christian scholars disagree. Be careful to avoid being an uninformed know-it-all.


Filed under book reviews, divorce, Doctrine/Theology, marriage, Relationships

14 responses to “Divorce & Remarriage 12: How did the early church misunderstand Jesus?

  1. Elizabeth

    I have so enjoyed reading your series. I struggle with this. I have an anxiety problem so at times my husband’s previous marriage becomes “mind candy”.

    My husband’s previous wife became pregnant by the divorce lawyer so the adultery part was obvious.

    I was raised in a strict conservative home. I was raised to believe that remarriage is fine if adultery had been committed.

    I have been shocked at the number of people who believe that all remarriage after divorce is wrong in God’s eyes. I always believed it was pretty clear, adultery broke the vows.

    I wish I had peace with this issue-at one time I did-
    Maybe I should get the book!

    We have to wonderful children and a wonderful life.

    living for Him/hailing from Arkansas-

    • Sherrie

      Please search the scriptures carefully. As indicated below I also am convinced by the Holy Spirit through the scriptures that adultery does not break or dissolve the marriage covenant. The marriage covenant is only dissolved upon the death of one of the partners. The “exception clause” that is so often quoted is a source of much confusion in the Christian community today. The original Greek word is porneia. Porneia can also mean “illegal” or unlawful alliance. In this case Jesus was referring to people who are married to someone who is divorced and has a living spouse or ex-spouse. Since the marriage bond is unbreakable, if someone gets a divorce and marries someone else……… they CAN get a divorce because they are not married by the Lord by covenant. A person can only be joined to one person (living) by covenant marriage. Jesus had to make an allowance for a divorce in this case or he would be “forcing” two people to live in adultery. So, to illustrate see this example:
      John and Sue have neither ever been married and they marry each other. God joins them in covenant marriage.
      John and Sue later get a divorce and John marries Mary. Mary has never been married before. The “exception clause” explained by Jesus allows Mary to get a divorce because she is really not married to John. John is married to Sue until separated by death.
      John and Sue must either remain unmarried or reconcile. They can not remarry another person regardless of the reason for their divorce. So you see, Jesus had to allow for a divorce in this situation or else all his other teachings would be inconsistent.
      God Bless you in your search for the Truth.

      • Rahul

        God bless you for standing up for the truth.It’s shocking how ministers today are so quick to twist the scriptures to suit their carnal desires by suggesting that the early church got it wrong.We must continue to pray that we will see a mighty revival that will take the body of Christ back to the word of God through repentance.God bless

  2. Rose


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  3. Hi Elizabeth,

    If we go to scripture, we can see that adultery does not “break the vows”. In other words, we find that adultery may injure the covenant marriage, but it does not dissolve it—–otherwise every incident of adultery WITHIN a marriage would dissolve that marriage and the two would be living in fornication because their “one flesh” had been dissolved. Again, we find no such teaching in scripture of this. As a matter of fact, we find that AFTER Herodias divorced Philip and married Herod (committed adultery), John told Herod that he had his brother’s wife. Neither the divorce, nor the remarriage (new vows, adultery) dissolved her previous covenant marriage to Philip—in the Lord’s eyes. We find that also to be the case with David/Michal. She was taken from him and given to another man, whom she married. David came back and got her from her second husband. The adultery (remarriage) did NOT dissolve the covenant marriage of David/Michal. We also see this in Mal. 2 with the priest and his first wife. God calls HER the wife of the covenant. His divorce of her and subsequent remarriage (adultery) did not remove the title “wife of the covenant” from the first wife. In Rom. 7:2-3 we find that the wife who remarries is an adulteress—-as long as her 1st husband lives, so that goes to show us that the NEW vow does not supercede the original and that adultery does not dissolve what God has joined as ONE FLESH—-NO LONGER TWO. Blessings……..

  4. no name

    Peace you are after, then peace you shall have if you do the right things in the sight of God. Seek His will and listen to His comforting but powerful words. Wait and be still that He is God. Divorce perhaps is not the answer to your marital problem. Thank you for this post.Blessings…

  5. Eric

    I have recently been studying this topic. I have found that the early Church fathers were all in agreement on the topic. Even in the case of adultery, the offended mate is to remain unmarried or be reconsiled to their spouse. This truly makes sense as well. God hates divorce. Jesus allowed for divorce due to adultery, but did not open the door to remarriage. In doing so, he gave us as Christians more of an incentive {so to speak} to reconcile. He knew that the majority of us who do marry, being human have that built in desire for intimancy with one of the other sex. If remarriage is forbidden, perhaps this would draw some to reconcile. Besides all this, if repentance is shown from the offender, should we not forgive them? Christ forgives the repentant. And forgiveness does not mean {I forgive you but, I don’t or can’t stand to be in your presence.} Just a few of my thoughts on this important issue.

  6. Take a look at our church’s history and present practice concerning divorce and remarriage.

    Once the church started to ignore God’s Word on that, they are now trying to ignore His Word on homosexuality.

    Twenty-five years ago, the clergy was not allowed to perform weddings for people who were divorced.

    While there are many scriptural references “forbidding the remarriage of divorced persons,” the clearest is found in the gospel of Luke;

    “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery.”

    What’s more, in Luke’s gospel, these are not Luke’s words, they are not Moses’ words, or Peter’s or Paul’s. These words are attributed straight from the mouth of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.

    Hence, the Church did not perform remarriages, because it believed that to do so, would be to bless a union that Jesus Himself describes as adulterous.

    In the gospel of Luke, Jesus makes it clear that the new marriage is viewed by Him to be adultery. So what happened?

    Our culture changed. While divorce was rare 50 years ago, it is no longer rare anywhere.

    The result is; now our pews are being populated by couples in second, third and fourth marriages. We stopped seeing these marriages as Jesus Himself sees them, as adulterous unions.

    How can the Church join unions that Jesus Himself, according to Luke, defined as adulterous, I ask you? The Word of God will not change, even if the Church does!


  7. Professor David Engelsma:

    Holy Scripture forbids remarriage after a divorce.

    What we witness today is simply the logical, inevitable outcome of the approval of adulterous remarriages. The evil tree now bears its evil fruit. And the fruit is exceedingly bitter, both in the dishonoring of God and in the destruction of marriage, family, husbands, wives, children, grandparents, grandchildren, and others.

    To be sure, this approval of remarriage adultery is a nasty, disgusting business. A fellow church member may well tempt my wife to leave our marriage, then, after he divorces his wife, he may remarry mine. If he confesses his sin of adultery and my wife does the same, he may then be allowed membership with me in the same church, while living with my wife.

    What happens to all the children involved, only the devil, who is behind this whole evil business knows. And this grim, damnable state of affairs actually continues on in “evangelical” and “conservative” churches today.

    This is what the churches are approving…even though the Word of God teaches…in language that a child can understand…

    “A wife is married to her husband as long as he lives.” 1 Corinthians 7:39

    When a man obtains a divorce and marries another, he is committing adultery. The relationship is an adulterous relationship and he goes on committing adultery as long as he maintains it.

    Jesus Christ forbids remarriage for the divorced. The churches approval of remarriage has brought the church into open war with Jesus Christ.

    It is unbiblical to view marriage as a contract that man can dissolve by his own hands and at his will. Scripture teaches that marriage is a lifelong bond established by God and that God makes the two one flesh.

    Only the death of one of them dissolves the bond, so that the other has the liberty to marry again. 1 Corinthians 7:39

    Let it be shouted from the housetops:

    Divorce does not dissolve marriage.

    Only God puts asunder what He has joined together and He puts asunder by death.


    • jeff

      After studying this subject with gut wrenching agony i have never come to a real conclusion concerning MDR. I see that the cadz amd marriage and divorce people still find every website talking about the issue , comment and guide people to these sites, sometimes with the worst self rightousness and unforgivness i have ever seen. This is thier “kjv only” or “method of baptism” in the sense that they rallied around an idea because think they are restoring biblical values and bringing restoration to the kingdom of God. It is a merciless endeavor of aesthetics which have been echoed by misguided people like Origen who might have castrated himself to become a “eunuch” for the kingdom of God. The put burdens on the weak minded and wont help them lift the load. They lack wisdom and mercy.

      • Ellie

        Self righteous and unforgiving???
        Putting burdens on the weak minded???

        THEY”RE quoting Jesus…

        “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
        –Jesus Christ

        “The Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth.” Malachi 2:14

        “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives.” 1 Corinthians 7:39

        The bond of marriage ends with death. Romans 7:2-3

        Jesus calls remarriage after a divorce ADULTERY because…

        “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 7:39

        “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Hebrews 13:4

        “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Romans 14:1

        “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery… those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21

        “A husband must not divorce his wife.” 1 Corinthians 7:11

  8. Pastor Brown

    I am an ordained pastor who divorced my spouse based on “the exception clause of adultery” in Mathew 19. It was about six months later when the Holy Spirit revealed the truth in the scriptures about divorce and remarriage. I had pastors who told me that God would forgive me, as my spouse was a habitual alduterer, but that is not what God’s word says. There is no exception clause for adultery; Jesus clearly said fornication, which is sex between unmarried persons. The fornication that Jesus was talking about relates to engaged/espoused persons, as it is a Jewish tradition that their women are virgins and if a man marries a woman and finds that she has been unfaithful to him, then and only then could he divorce her. Next, as you have already stated, Romans 7:2-3 says that a woman is bound to her husband and if she marries another man while her first husband lives then she is an adulteress until her first husband dies. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 Apostle Paul said “to not depart, but if you do depart to remain married or reconcile.” Therefore, Apostle Paul, the author of grace, is not saying that grace is going to cover the ongoing sin of an adulteress marriage, but that adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God in Galatians 5:19-21. We can either believe the word of God or believe the lies of man. Jesus says in Matthew 19 that if you cannot handle staying in your covenant marriage and want a divorce, then be prepared to be a eunich (celibate). He also says that we divorce because of the “hardness of our hearts,” which is true. Just like every other Christian who has divorced their spouse; it was done because we refused to trust God to save our marriages because we were misinterpreting God’s words. We were led by our flesh and not by the Spirit. I never committed adultery on my husband and have been celibate throughout our separation and even now years after our divorce, but my flesh wanted out of the marriage because of his adulterous behavior. I was very happy when I found your post, as so many people disagree with me when I try to tell them the truth about divorce and remarriage. The church, which we depend upon to tell us the truth, is telling us a lie that our second marriages will be covered under grace. I wish that pastors, leaders, teachers, etc., would study and show themselves approve and go back to teaching sound doctrine and not their opinions.

  9. eila

    I read this and have so many questions. I used to believe that divorce and remarriage is sin, but I am now more confused, I’m not sure what I believe. Here’s why….1) Jesus said he didn’t come to change the law but to fulfill it, so the old testamanet allows for divorce under certain situations. 2) In the old testament, divorce and re-marriage was allowed as long as a bill of divorce was given, and as Jesus said “for the hardness of hearts” it was allowed….Jesus knew that man’s heart had not changed…today man’s heart is just as hard if not harder 3) what about when the other spouse just walks away, leaves and abandons you…Isn’t God a merciful God? 4) Throughout the old testamant men had more than one wife, yet they were considered men of God, and yet my question is “Why did God allow them to have more than one wife?” Yet, still be considered his people. So did God join David and ALL his wives into one flesh? Or was it just his first wife? And what about all his other wives? What were they? Why wasn’t this sin? 5) What makes a “legal document” or “vows before men” more binding then vows that may have been said between 2 without an official witness? If 2 people live together, consider themselves husband and wife (happens today all the time), and then breakup and marry someone else legally….this isn’t considered a remarriage….but really it is and without a divorce…which seems to me that they would be committing adultery, because even if there is no legal document they agreed to be married….God did not require or write vows or require licenses, that is a more modern day requirement 6) Jesus said “What God joins together let no man put asunder. Why is the assumption that if you are male and female, God automatically joins you together? God has specifics of who you can marry….what about the unequally yoked (Christian vs. non- christian)…Paul when addressing this was speaking of those who were unequally yoked because one became a Christian AFTER they were already married….They weren’t going out marrying unbelievers, because Pauls says you can only marry “in the lord”…. What about marriages by deception, someone lies to another in order to get a marriage bond? Or pastors who try to be matchmakers, and tell couples God say they are to marry each other, and they believe their pastors? Or parents who force children to marry? Does GOD really participate in joining these people as one? Does he participate in the lie posed onto the newly unsuspecting spouse? Does he really join an unbeliever and a believer together, when doing so is sin? Isn’t that the same as when God says that you can’t marry your sister or brother? It’s a law that he put down, and he put down the law to not be uneqally yoked….YET, the church allows it as a marriage….7) What does GOD join together? How do you know? Or, do we make assumptions? Shouldn’t we first evaluate if GOD did the joining or if we did it ourselves? I would love to hear others thoughts, because I am so struggling with understanding how a loving a Merciful God would put the institution ahead of the his people. It’s like the Sabbath –“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” and I would say that “Marriage was made for man, not man for marriage” I believe God’s original intent for man was a life-long relationship with one spouse, but when sin came into the world, everything fell….Why would a merciful a loving God, want women/men to sit in abusive, neglectful, relationships for years when the other party clearly is not interested? God himself divorced Isreal……

    • Cas

      Amen, Eila.
      I have the same questions and have yet to have anyone address those questions. All they care about is reciting what others before them have recited, and are extremely quick to condemn and shame people who are divorced and wish to marry again.
      God who is holy married and divorced Israel each time she was unfaithful. God called a prophet to marry a harlot.
      We need to look at the NT historically and in light of the OT. We know that some bible text have more to its story than just what it looks like at face value.
      We have to consider why and whom Jesus was having discussions with concerning divorce and why. The Pharisees were always abusing the law and we have an example of them bringing a woman accused of adultery to be stoned, yet they did not bring the man she committed adultery with. History tells Pharisees kept temple prostitutes, so we can learn a lot about their evil hearts and hypocrisy of wanting others to obey the law while they lived as the world.
      We have Paul on the other hand being confronted by a very perverse gentile world where they took their relatives wives without even FIRST divorcing them, thereby making an adulterer of the relative if they pursued another partner without divorcing. The practices of the gentile world of Paul’s time has to be learned to have a proper perspective of the Scriptures.
      John had the same to confront with Herod taking his relatives wife as his own when her previous marriage was not dissolved.

      We have bible verses where Jesus tells us to go remove our eyes if we sin, but that is not a command and is a passage that needs more work to be understood. If we are going to becareful with those Scriptures we need to be careful about the Scriptures that discuss divorce and remarriage just the same.
      I would rather that people be convinced by prayer and personal study than be dominated and bullied by pastors, preachers and brothers and sisters in Christ who are already convinced through the parroting of what they heard before.
      Let God be true in these matters.

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