There are numerous diverse views in the world of “Christendom” regarding the matter of divorce and remarriage. One novel idea is that the New Testament allows no cause for divorce and remarriage. This is the position of the Roman Catholic Church.
A valid Christian marriage, if consummated, cannot be dissolved (as to the bond) by any human power or for any cause except death (Attwater 1961, 153).
This is a deceptive statement, however, for “Church law” is riddled with loopholes that allow for the dissolution of a marriage and a subsequent union if the parties are prominent enough and have sufficient finances to pursue the matter. In 1926 the Duke of Marlborough and Consuelo Vanderbilt had their Catholic marriage annulled on the ground that initially she had been pressured into the union. At the time of the annulment, they had been married thirty-three years (Wilder 1959, 125).
Although a few within the brotherhood of Christ have attempted to argue the no-divorce-and-remarriage position, the effort is futile. When Jesus forbade divorce and remarriage, “except for fornication,” he clearly implied that a scriptural divorce and subsequent remarriage for the innocent victim could be obtained on the ground of spousal infidelity. The remarriage privilege for the victim of a sexually violated marriage is a solid logical inference drawn from Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Lenski observed that this “implication” is “too plain” to miss. “[O]nly the Roman Catholic Church and a few others deny remarriage to the innocent party” (1943, 734).
R. T. France points out that the Jews, to whom Christ spoke (19:1ff), naturally would have understood that a legitimate divorce implied the right of remarriage. The standard Hebrew “bill of divorcement” (cf. v. 7) explicitly authorized the right of remarriage. “[T]he Jewish world knew nothing of a legal separation which did not allow remarriage” (2007, 212).
Some contend that since other passages do not include the fornication exception (e.g., Mk. 10:11-12; Lk. 16:18; Rom. 7:2-3), the weight of the evidence is against the phrase in Matthew’s record. However, the accounts in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 refer to the same incident, and inspired records do not contradict one another. Matthew has supplemented Mark’s account.
Multiple passages on the same topic frequently complement one another. Mark 16:16 mentions only belief and baptism as conditions of salvation, yet Acts 2:38 demands repentance. One must conclude, therefore, that all three requirements are part of the plan of redemption. It must be recognized that the “sum” of Christ’s will is not determined by a limited segment of the New Testament that has been isolated from other data on the same subject (Psa. 119:160).
One writer has attempted to argue, on a textual basis, that Matthew 19:9 does not provide justification for remarriage by the innocent party. He alleges that the common rendition of Matthew 19:9 reflects a post-apostolic corruption of the Lord’s original instruction.
The McFall Theory
An essay by British writer Leslie McFall recently generated interest among some Bible students in America. McFall seeks to discredit Matthew 19:9 in our common versions. He contends that Erasmus (1466-1536), a Catholic priest, in his construction of a Greek New Testament, altered the text of Matthew 19:9 to allow the fornication exception. He asserts the text should read:
Now I say to you that whoever shall dismiss his wife—not even over fornication—and shall marry another, he commits adultery. And the one who marries one divorced commits adultery.
This would suggest there is no reason (not even fornication) for a divorce and remarriage. Supposedly, the duplicity of Erasmus in altering the wording of Matthew 19:9 has poisoned virtually all English versions. This article is not a point-by-point rebuttal of McFall’s ninety-one page essay. However, it goes to the heart of one of his paramount arguments. Here are the facts.
Erasmus had only eight Greek manuscripts, and these were of relatively late date (Schaff 1916, 166-167). Now there are hundreds of Greek manuscripts, including some of the oldest in existence, that read me epi porneia—“not on the basis of fornication” (19:9; cf. Robertson 1925, 219). These texts predate Erasmus by centuries. Thus any divorce, except on the ground of fornication initiated by an innocent victim, is invalid. This textual evidence is reflected in our modern versions.
Several of the Ante-Nicene “church fathers” (i.e., pre-A.D. 325) referenced one or the other of Matthew’s two texts containing Christ’s instruction on divorce and remarriage.
- Clement of Alexandria (ca. 195)—“You shall not put away your wife except for the cause of fornication” (Roberts and Donaldson 1995, 2.379).
- Tertullian (ca. 207): Jesus prohibits divorce “except for the cause of fornication” (Ibid. 4.45). Again, Christ “permits divorce when the marriage is spotted with unfaithfulness” (Ibid. 3.405). He allows “divorce for no cause, except one” (Ibid. 4.66).
- Novatian (ca. 235): Christ “said that a wife must not be put away, except for the cause of adultery” (Ibid. 5.589).
- Origen (ca. 245): The Savior does not at all permit “the dissolution of marriages for any other sin than fornication alone” (Ibid. 9:511).
Again it must be stressed that these men had access to Greek manuscripts that significantly predated Erasmus.
Jerome produced his Vulgate New Testament in the fourth century A.D. The Gospel accounts appeared in the year 383. Jerome used both Old Latin and Greek manuscripts. His translation was centuries before Erasmus. The Vulgate on Matthew 19:9 reads:
And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery.
This should be sufficient to illustrate the fallacy of the Erasmus argument.
Some, citing the “church fathers,” argue that remarriage following divorce was not allowed in the post-apostolic age. But there was a growing tendency in this era to discourage marriage generally (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3; Keener 1997, 713). Some of the “fathers” even opposed the remarriage of widows and widowers (contra 1 Tim. 5:14). Marriage was characterized as a “bondage.” Abstinence, even within marriage, was encouraged (Neander 1880, 363). The “fathers” argument carries no weight.
Consider the following testimony.
- “[I]t is almost universally conceded by commentators and moralists that the innocent party to such a divorce can marry again” (McGarvey 1875, 56).
- Jack Lewis stated that those who deny the exception clause “can claim no textual basis for questioning the authenticity of the clause.” It “is supported by all manuscript evidence” (1976, 1.92; 2.67).
- Robertson notes: “[I]t is plain that Matthew represents Jesus in both places [5:32; 19:9] as allowing divorce for fornication” and remarriage for the innocent party, but *not8 the guilty one (1930, 155).
- Carson has an extended discussion of this matter at Matthew 19:9; he concludes: “[T]here can be no doubt that an except clause is original” (1984, 413). He continues: “[T]here is no overwhelming reason why the except clauses, both here and in 5:32 should not be authentic” (418).
- Blomberg insists that Matthew’s phrase “should be taken as a genuine exception” (1992, 292).
The view advocated by a few writers in recent years (e.g., Gordon Wenham, William Heth,1 Charles Ryrie, J. Carl Laney, and Leslie McFall), that the New Testament condemns any remarriage following a divorce, is void of credible support.
It is as sinful to make a law where God has not as it is to ignore one the Lord has given. Men have erred in both directions in the divorce and remarriage controversy.
1 Heth later repudiated the no-divorce-and-remarriage position (see Heth et al. 2006).