What Did Paul Really Say About Divorce?

Part 4 in the Series:

Lies I Learned in Church: Divorce

By Don Enevoldsen


Thus far we have examined three contexts in which the Bible spoke of divorce. The first was the legal declaration in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. God has always been very pro-marriage, but he recognized that not everyone would approach the responsibility of such a relationship with love, and there would be situations in which one spouse abused the other—either emotionally or physically—and for the sake of the victim’s safety and happiness, there needed to be an escape clause of some sort. So, because of the hardness—or more literally, perverseness—of their hearts, God gave a law detailing how divorce was to be conducted.

The second passage was Malachi 2:10-16, where we saw the perverseness of humanity in full operation as husbands twisted the divorce law of Deuteronomy into a weapon to bring distress and violence to their wives. God said that he hated their practice.

The third context was the comments of Jesus in Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:1-12, and Mark 10:1-12. In those places, Jesus addressed the same perverseness that Malachi identified, adapting his comments to the first century version of using divorce to do violence to a spouse. God didn’t like such malevolence any better in the New Testament than he did in the Old.

There remains one significant biblical passage concerning divorce before we conclude this topic, 1 Corinthians 7. Here the tone changes a little. This should not be a surprise, since the audience changed, too. Where Moses, Malachi and Jesus spoke to Jews, Paul wrote to Gentile Christians living in parts of the Empire where Roman law governed marriage and divorce. And Roman law was remarkably different from Jewish. (The details of Roman marriage and divorce law presented here are drawn primarily from two Roman legal treatises, The Rules of Ulpian and The Digest of Justinian.)

Three points especially stand out as different from Jewish law—a certificate of divorce was not required to make it legal, Roman men could only have one wife, and women could initiate the divorce.

Both marriage and divorce in the first century Roman Empire were remarkably easy. While weddings could—and usually did—involve banquets and various traditions, the only legal requirement was that both bride and groom say that they wanted to get married and live together, generally in front of witnesses. (I should add that there were a number of conditions that had to be met, such as nobility could not marry slaves and that sort of thing, and both had to be past the age of puberty. But as long as the couple were both legally qualified to be married, the ceremony itself necessitated very little.)

No documents had to be filed. No clergy were involved. (In fact, clergy were not involved in weddings—Jewish, Christian or pagan—until about 1400 A.D.) Marriages were not based on romantic attraction. They were usually negotiated by the couple’s parents. The goal was to contract favorable family alliances and to provide healthy children to carry on the family name. However, no matter how much families might negotiate, these basic requirements for marriage meant that Roman women had full control over whether or not they assented to the marriage.

As might be expected, the easy manner of marrying was matched by an equally simple process for divorce. In effect, it was a reversal of the marriage requirements. All one had to do was say, “I don’t want to be married to you anymore,” and the marriage was considered dissolved. You didn’t even have to make this statement in person. You could send friends.

Because women could initiate the process, and because Roman law did not allow for multiple wives, the possibilities for various abuses seen in Jewish marriage practices were not the same. Roman law was very specific about what happened after a divorce. Because property (including the dowry, which functioned much the same as the Jewish dowry) was kept separate even after marriage, there was rarely any legal battle over dividing it afterwards. Everybody took away what they brought into the marriage. The law specified that the children always remained with the father, so there was no custody battle. There were certain penalties involved that encouraged men to allow children regular contact with their mother after the divorce, but generally speaking, divorce in ancient Rome was about as easy as divorce could ever be.

Which meant that when Paul wrote his letter to the church in Corinth, he was concerned with something other than the abuses addressed by Malachi and Jesus. He was more worried about the abuses that derived from lack of commitment. His comments can only be understood in the context of a society where marriage and divorce were extremely easy. Much like modern America.

An example of what I mean is in the first verse of 1 Corinthians 7. Paul begins the discussion with a pretty direct statement:

“Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman.’”

The NIV translation of this verse gives what is the commonly understood meaning, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman,” implying for most people that premarital sex is wrong. Most preachers today would paraphrase this as, “It is good for a man to avoid sex with a woman until after marriage.”

This is not quite what the Greek text says, however. The word here is hapto, which means a little more than simply touching and is a little more specific even than a reference to premarital sex. It specifically means “to fasten to, adhere to, to fasten to a thing, kindle, set on fire.”

The context of Roman divorce law, where getting into and out of relationships was so easy, gives sense to this command. It is good for a man not to kindle passion in a woman when he has no intention of a lasting commitment to her and to the relationship. To kindle passion without commitment is the kind of abuse on Paul’s mind, and his views on divorce and celibacy stem from this condition of Roman, Gentile society.

Note that the words Paul used for divorce were different from those used in the Gospels, and reflect the Roman culture. There was no mention of a legal certificate. The only words were aphiemi, which simply meant “send away,” and chorizo, which referred to the act of leaving, specifically “to leave or separate.”

In general, Paul was driven, too, by a desire to see the Gospel preached without any distraction, and for this reason, he suggested that people remain as they were. If they were married, they should fulfill the commitment they had made and stay married. If they were unmarried, he thought they would best serve God by staying single (1 Corinthians 7:8-16). The entire reason given for staying married is to influence an unbelieving spouse (verses 14-16), and the entire reason given for staying single is to avoid distractions in serving God (verses 25-35).

Over time, human nature managed to take this advice and turn it into a religious law against marriage, though Paul himself never intended such an interpretation. In fact, Paul warned Timothy to resist men who “forbid marriage” (1 Timothy 4:3). Even in the midst of his comments, he makes it clear that not everyone was called to be single (1 Corinthians 7:2, 5, 8). “I wish that all of you were as I am,” Paul said. “But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” (verse 7).

Jesus said much the same thing when his disciples started to interpret his words about marriage and divorce as a command not to be married at all. “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given” (Matthew 19:11). In other words, neither Jesus nor Paul claimed that there was some inherent superiority in either being married or being single.

Even in the midst of his recommendation that people stay as they are, Paul does not command them to stay. Notice, for example, that he tells slaves to be content with their position and not to complain, all for the sake of making a good presentation of the Gospel, but he still added, “although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (verse 21).

Theologians have gotten so caught up in trying to pin down the legal details of Paul’s various comments in 1 Corinthians 7 that they have missed the simplicity of his motivation, which is expressed clearly in a couple of places in the chapter. “I would like you to be free from concern,” he said in verse 32. And even more to the point, in verse 15:

“God has called us to live in peace.”

Whether you are a theologian fluent in Greek, Hebrew and Latin, and well read in church history and doctrine, or a brand new believer who just picked up a Bible for the first time last week, you will avoid much trouble and get much closer to God’s intention if you interpret everything you read in light of this simple directive. “God has called us to live in peace.”

Paul’s concern was not any different than Moses, Malachi and Jesus. He abhorred the violence done by people to each other when they were driven by selfish desires and a lust for control or power. All of them saw divorce as a remedy for those situations where abuse within a marriage was not correctable through repentance and reconciliation. God has never expected anyone to stay in a situation that does not lead to peace if she or he can gain their freedom.

Go to the beginning of the series, Lies I Learned in Church: Divorce: Does God Hate Divorce?

Do you have an additional thought on this subject? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

What Did Paul Really Say About Divorce?
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3 thoughts on “What Did Paul Really Say About Divorce?

    • April 26, 2015 at 2:51 pm

      My pleasure.

  • April 2, 2018 at 7:16 am

    I have really enjoyed these discussions about divorce and separation, looking at the original Hebrew and considering the translations.

    It seems a no-brainier to me that the men who interpreted these texts initially might have allowed a little bias to influence their choice of wording. Especially since I believe at the time of the King James translation, it was legal for a man to beat his wife with a stick so long as it was thinner than this thumb? So, the protection and dignity of wives might not have been at the forefront of society’s mind at that time.

    Anyway, it’s fascinating to me because after ten years of abuse I have just left my husband. My husband abandoned me several years ago and God told me I wasn’t ready to move on, but he wanted me to “stand in the gap” for my husband as he was an unbeliever.
    I did this, and it was painful but edifying experience, and my husband returned home, we reconciled and he gave his life to Jesus.

    Unfortunately, he returned to his old ways and now God has guided me away from my husband and I almost physically, but certainly spiritually, felt something sever between us. It’s very sad, it feels like a huge loss but considering what he has put me through, it feels like there is so much to gain.
    I’m only 30 so I have my whole life ahead of me. But with four kids; one just a baby; it may involve a greater headache than I had hoped! Haha!!

    I am going to read some more of your articles because they are interesting for me.


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