Divorce & Remarriage: Reading in light of covenant theology (Part 2)


Reader Gary mentioned an article by Hugo McCord on Matt 5:32, which neither of us has found. I responded —


I can’t find the McCord article, and what I have found from McCord is rife with legalistic assumptions.

Nonetheless, all commentators note that Matt 5:32 says, in the English and the Greek, that the first husbands “makes” the wife he puts away an adulteress (passive voice). Even without the passive voice, the “makes” plainly places the moral fault on the first husband. Only a rank legalist would then impose penalties on the wife for actions that Jesus says are not her fault.

We think she sins because she’s still married to the first husband, which Jesus not only doesn’t say, he says she’s married to the second husband — which we deny to fit our legalistic theories, preferring theory to scripture (not you, the traditional school of thought).

We say her sin is in having sex with the second husband, but the tense is aorist, point in time. We ignore this, preferring legalistic theory and tradition to grammar.

On a hermeneutic of humility

But we don’t understand the text if Jesus is saying something else! Well, a little humility before the Scriptures of God is not a bad thing. Admission of not understanding is the very best place to start. It’s where I started. I’m getting more and more comfortable with starting with not knowing.

My Bible classes used to get upset — literally angry — when I told them I didn’t know the answer to a question. They thought we were studying for the Great True-False Test in the Sky that Peter is going to give at the gates of heaven. Uncertainty made them feel unsaved.

Now, having learned grace, they’re more comfortable with not knowing all the answers. Makes for much better classes when we can pool our ideas and our ignorance and investigate the text together.

Taking a fresh look at the text: Starting with what we know

If we approach the text with no traditions to fight for, no Council of Trent Medieval Scholastic theories (the three-corner contract theory is from the Council of Trent), and think in terms of what we really do know, things look very different.

We know that Jesus did not come to repeal Torah or to enact new laws. He says so. We aren’t sure how to reconcile this with everything else Paul says, etc., but our task is to reconcile Jesus’ words, not to ignore them or let Paul somehow overrule Jesus or Jesus somehow overrule Paul.

We know that God forgives sin. We know that Christianity is about restoring shalom, not pushing God’s children into chaos. When Paul says, “God has called you to peace” in 1 Cor 7:15, that’s not a throwaway line. It’s serious theology. It’s how we’re to think. Jesus came to bring shalom.

(Jas. 3:18-4:1 ESV) 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.  

(Ps. 119:165 ESV) 165 Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble. 

But we’re too smart for that. We blow right past it to enforce the findings of the Council of Trent on divorce and remarriage.

(Jn. 14:27 ESV) 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

(And, yes, I’ve also read —

(Matt. 10:34-36 ESV) 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.’”

Of course, following Jesus means no peace with the forces of chaos.)

We know that after Ezra had the men put away their foreign wives, they were allowed to remarry. (The purpose of the get was to allow remarriage. If you put away your wife, she could remarry under Deu 24. In a polygamous age, the men never had any restrictions on marriage, even when married.)

What the OT says about divorce and remarriage

There is not the least hint in the OT that remarriage after a divorce is sin (except if you divorce in order to marry another). There a lot in the OT that tells us that divorce is wrong.

A lot? Really?

Yes, Gen 2 commands the man to cleave (KJV) to his wife. God joins them as one flesh.

God was faithful to Israel as her husband (countless passages), despite her many sins against God.

Malachi says that God hate divorce.

Ezra is exceptional as the marriages were made not just contrary to Law but contrary to a Law needed to preserve Israel as a distinct nation. (The rabbis drew the annulment/ divorce distinction as seen in the Torah’s mamzer regulations. A child was a mamzer only if the sexual union that produced the child was forbidden by Torah — such as incest or marriage to a Gentile.)

Reading the OT in light of the NT

But the NT is radically unlike the NT! No, Jesus was saying what the OT taught — not repealing and replacing the OT. The entire point of Jesus’ words in both Matt 5 and 19 is that the OT says divorce is wrong. He’s telling the Pharisees and other listeners that they’ve misunderstood the Torah.

Therefore, he says, don’t use the OT to justify putting away your wives. It’s sin, and it’s unfaithfulness — and contrary to God’s nature, the same nature to which we’re called by the  OT! See Matt 5:43-48 — which draws conclusions from what precedes. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Don’t dehumanize and objectivize women. God doesn’t! Don’t put away your wives. God doesn’t! Don’t refuse to reconcile with those who’ve offended you. God doesn’t! See the point?

So if we see Jesus as reading from the OT — in light of the character of God, as he says he is, then we easily reach the conclusion that it’s sin to put away your wife. (Jesus grants the fornication exception in part (I imagine; really don’t know) because God never put away Israel for her fornications — and some might wrongfully argue that therefore we are bound by the same standard. But we’re only human.)

Compassion for hardheartedness

Which points us to the compassionate part of it all. Divorce is not given but tolerated because of hardheartedness. It’s a concession to our fallen natures. But it’s not an excuse to rebel against God’s will. It’s not an excuse to dump your old wife for a new one. It’s not a loophole. It’s doesn’t make unfaithfulness okay. Rather, like repentance, it’s a way out for sinners — because we all sin. It’s compassion — and must not be abused. Divorce is still a sin, but God recognizes a marriage as broken when it’s broken.

And so, this would seem to mean that remarriage is permitted. After all, Deu 24 plainly permits it. And David’s marriage to Bathsheba was accepted by God, although formed in sin, so much so that her son Solomon became king and an ancestor of the Messiah. So the fact that a marriage is made in sin doesn’t make it void.

Sorry for the rant (and I know I’m arguing with the wrong person), but this whole colloquy has actually been very helpful to me. I appreciate everyone’s participation. I may not be explaining myself well (probably not at all), but things are coming much clearer for me. The prior series on covenant theology, Jewish salvation and the Law, and even Revelation and the Spirit all coalesce. It fits. It’s not easy — because, at least for me, unlearning is very hard, but it’s just amazing how it all fits. I just wish I could say it better.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Divorce & Remarriage: Reading in light of covenant theology (Part 2)

  1. John F says:

    Jay, I have Hugo McCord;s writings — including Marriage and Divorce. A bit lengthy for a post. By saying I have it does not mean that I endorse it.

    I will e-mail to you.

  2. It fits. It’s not easy — because, at least for me, unlearning is very hard, but it’s just amazing how it all fits. I just wish I could say it better. — You are doing fine. I am learning from your unlearning! Amazing, isn’t it! It is like a light is shining and we can perceive reality! Jesus said, “Ask, seek, knock!” The response may take take in coming, but we won’t be disappointed. Thank you. [On to the next part…Very exciting study!]

  3. Gary says:

    The Hugo McCord article argued persuasively that the woman was only made to look like an adulterer but was actually not. McCord was very conservative but did believe in the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit when that was not easy to do in Churches of Christ. He received degrees from an Episcopal seminary and, I believe, a Baptist seminary. I think he emphasized his conservatism in part at least because of the suspicion his education raised in Churches of Christ.

  4. Christopher says:

    Having been a fan of Amy Grant years back, I was troubled by what I thought was a somewhat cavalier attitude about marital commitment on her part. Here is an interesting read on the subject:

  5. Dwight says:

    I agree, we often read what we want to and not recognize other things. In reading the law of Deut. we see divorce, but don’t recognize that both the unclean wife and the husband who divorced her were able to remarry another without sin or penalty after a divorce for uncleanliness. Jesus knows this.
    But to remarry another when your divorce isn’t for uncleanliness leads to adultery according to Matt.5 and 19. To marry another doesn’t mean that one must become man and wife with another, but that one has a sexual relation with another or does something that makes them unclean.

Leave a Reply