A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Isn’t adultery the only ground for divorce?

People often think Jesus said adultery was the only ground for divorce, but we’ve misunderstood what Jesus said in Matthew 19 because we haven’t understood the cultural background. When the Pharisees tested Jesus by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” they were alluding to a dispute between two rabbinic schools, the Hillelite school and the Shammaite school. If we listen to the phrase “any cause” as if we were Jesus’ audience in the first century AD who were familiar with that dispute between the rabbis, it makes an enormous difference to our understanding of the passage.

To understand another society takes time and thought, so bear with me while I describe the cultural background. It’s important to realize that both schools of rabbis (Hillelites and Shammaites) assumed the first verse of Deuteronomy chapter 24 was an entitling law which expressly permitted a man to divorce his wife. Their only difference was this: Hillelites said it allowed a man to divorce his wife for “any matter”, whereas Shammaites said it only allowed a man to divorce his wife for adultery (sexual immorality).

David Instone-Brewer has shown how in Jesus’ day, the Jews saw rationale for divorce in a number different scriptures:

(1) Exodus 21:10-11 gave rationale for divorce if one spouse seriously mistreated the other (this applied to either sex)

(2) Genesis 1:28 (be fruitful and multiply) permitted divorce for a wife’s infertility

(3) Deuteronomy 24:1 permitted men (but not women) to initiate divorce for either
a) any cause – according to the Hillelites, or
b) sexual immorality – according to the Shammaites

In Jesus’ day, “divorce for any cause” or “any-matter divorce” was thus an expression meaning “divorce based on the Hillelite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1.”

To obtain Hillelite divorce on the ground of Deuteronomy 24:1, the burden of proof was non-existent — “any cause” being so all-embracing that divorce was granted even if the wife burnt the dinner. In contrast, Shammaites required proof of the wife’s adultery before granting a divorce based on Deuteronomy 24:1.

The custom and practice with dowry is another important thing to understand about that culture. When a woman got married, her father gave a dowry to the woman’s husband. It was money or assets to be held in trust by the husband as head of the household, but was generally considered the wife’s property in the event of the marriage breaking down. But different types for divorce had different consequences for how the dowry was handled. In Hillelite (“any matter”) divorce, the dowry went to the wife — one of the main purposes of the dowry was to give the woman a kind of nest egg; she could rely on it for her financial security if the marriage terminated. But if the wife was convicted of sexual misconduct in a Shammaite divorce, the woman was penalized by forfeiting her dowry and the dowry was given to the husband as compensation. Thus, because the different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1 had different financial implications, the term “any-matter divorce” would have been an extremely well known expression in Jesus’ day. It was probably more familiar to first century Jews than the term “no-fault divorce” is for us.

Men did not always use the Shammaite method when seeking divorce for a wife’s adultery. A man might use the Hillelite method if he suspected his wife had been sexually unfaithful but didn’t have enough evidence to prove it in a Shammaite court. He might also go the Hillelite route if he couldn’t be bothered proving adultery just for the sake of being awarded the dowry (a dowry might be too small to justify expensive litigation). He might even choose the Hillelite route to avoid shaming his wife in a public trial (it appears Joseph contemplated this when Mary became pregnant). Thus, a man might use either Shammaite or Hillelite methods when obtaining divorce for adultery: the Shammaite method for proven adultery; the Hillelite method for unproven adultery.

When the Pharisees asked Jesus “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” they meant “Who has the right interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 – the Hillelites or the Shammaites?”  They tried to trap Jesus into saying publicly that one side was correct, because they had figured that whichever side he favored, it would have given them ammunition with which to confound his enterprise. Jesus was facing a trap question from enemies. Moreover, their question dealt only with competing interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1, and not with the other scriptural rationales for divorce recognized by the Jews. For these two reasons, it is highly unlikely that Jesus would have answered them with a comprehensive teaching on all aspects of divorce and remarriage. So we must not think that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 is a global teaching about all kinds of divorce, or that it trumps all other Bible teaching on divorce.

I agree with Instone-Brewer thus far. And in my book Not Under Bondage, I argue further that Jesus took neither side of the Shammaite/Hillelite debate; rather, he condemned both sides. He showed they were both wrong to assume that verse one of Deuteronomy 24 was an entitling law, an express permission for a man to divorce his wife.

To do this, Jesus first quoted the “one flesh” teaching from Genesis 2:24 and declared its implication: “What God has joined together, let no man separate.”

Secondly, Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Let us read that sentence again with some words in bold: “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” By the words Jesus chose, he was clearly referring to men’s hardness of heart. The gender of the sentence is clear. And this is consistent with the Mosaic regulation, for if we read the passage in its entirety – Deuteronomy 24 verses one to four – we find it was designed to prohibit a heinous, extreme, scenario: when a man divorces his wife and then remarries her after she’s been married to someone else and her second marriage has terminated.

Let’s say Bill divorces Mary; she then marries Tom but that marriage also ends (either Tom dies or he divorces her). Bill then remarries Mary. Such behavior on Bill’s part would be trashing the institution of marriage and showing callous disrespect for Mary. The fact that he was prepared to re-marry her indicates that she hadn’t done anything worthy of dismissal in the first place and he’d been a perfidious scoundrel to dismiss her. God does not want the institution of marriage to be treated so lightly. No wonder Moses said, “That is an abomination before the Lord. You shall not bring sin upon the land.” (Deut. 24:4)

In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Moses did not condone male divorce or make indulgent concessions to men; he merely recognized that men were divorcing their wives despite all God’s guidance about how personal relationships ought to be conducted. He narrated the ‘case study’ in verses 1-3 (which mentioned the practice of male divorce) in order to promulgate the law in verse four: the regulation aimed to prevent an abominable end-product that sometimes ensued when men hard-heartedly engaged in divorce.

In effect, Jesus told the Pharisees: “Moses did not give this passage in Deuteronomy 24 to license male divorce, but because men were divorcing in hardness of heart and he sought to restrain an abominable end-product of such conduct. From the beginning it was not so. The point of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is not verse one, but verse four. If you (both Hillelites and Shammaites) had interpreted Deuteronomy 24 in the light of Genesis 2, you would never have drawn the conclusions you have!”

Can you hear Jesus outrage at the Pharisees? He wasn’t siding with the Shammaite school, as so many commentators have supposed; he was pouring scorn on both schools of Pharisees, the Hillelites AND the Shammaites. No wonder the disciples were so dismayed that they said, “If that is the case, it would be better for a man not to marry!”   The Pharisees had crafted loopholes of male privilege from Deuteronomy 24:1, and Jesus had just closed the loopholes tight. Jesus’ declaration left no wriggle room, and he shamed the Pharisees for their twisting of the scriptures. If any Pharisee had a mite of conscience left, he would have been red faced. But most of the Pharisees probably just burnt with inward fury.

After delivering that bombshell to men, Jesus went on, “Whoever divorces his wife except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Reading this in the light of the explanation above, we can tease out and paraphrase Jesus’ meaning as follows:

The Hillelites and Shammaites both allow divorce for a wife’s adultery.  I [Jesus] agree with the Jewish consensus that adultery is a legitimate ground for divorce and the innocent partner may remarry without guilt. But that doesn’t mean I completely agree with the Shammaites, because they’ve twisted scripture when they say Deuteronomy 24:1 expressly permits divorce for adultery. Deuteronomy 24:1 in itself permits nothing: it is merely pre-law narrative; the law is laid down in Deuteronomy 24:4.

All of you know that Hillelites put no restrictions on men divorcing their wives because they count “any matter” as ground for divorce. I’m telling you that, generally speaking, this “any matter” interpretation is a wicked pretext that men are using to divorce good wives.

When a man uses the “any matter” system to divorce an adulterous wife, he’s obtaining a legitimate divorce in that the ground is adultery, but except for such cases, this “any matter” system is illegitimate. A man who casts off his wife using “any matter” as a pretext for illegitimate divorce, and then marries another, is guilty of adultery no matter how nicely the divorce papers have been drawn up and signed by smug Hillelite lawyers!

Let’s pull together the key points from our study of Matthew 19:

  • Jesus noted that adultery was a valid reason for divorce, but strongly refuted the idea that this was verified by Deuteronomy 24:1.
  • Jesus condemned the treacherous divorce enabled by the Hillelites which was granted without question to men, for any trivial reason.
  • Jesus’ answer was directed only at the rabbis’ two distortions of Deuteronomy 24:1.
  • Jesus made no comment on the other scriptural rationales for divorce which were followed by the Jews.
  • Matthew 19 is not a global teaching about all divorce. Therefore it does not trump all other Bible teaching on divorce.
  • Jesus never said adultery was the only ground for divorce. It is very sad that this has been misunderstood, giving rise to immense confusion, stigma and hurt.

To find our more about my book Not Under Bondage, see www.notunderbondage.com/book



  1. MeganC

    Wow. Wow . . . I will re-read this again later this afternoon to let it all sink in. I have been afraid of this passage for a long, long time. And it has been used to condemn me over and over . . . Last Sunday, I was afraid the pastor was going to preach on it and I immediately began to panic, but it was a mistake — they mentioned the wrong chapter. I calmed down. I do not want to be afraid of any passage of Scripture because it has been so twisted in our ‘c’hurch culture. Thank you, Barb. Truly.

  2. Anonymous

    I am in agreement with Megan. So many churches have preached on this. I have been afraid of that passage, too. But thank God for this website and other resources that tell us that abuse in any way is also grounds for divorce. I’m very thankful for Barb’s research on this subject, because it has helped me immensely.

    I do want to add that the use of pornography (in my opinion) is just as much adultery as physically cheating. I found it on my ex husband’s computer (he angrily denied it) and… I hate to sound gross, but this is the truth.. I would find pubic hairs on the keyboard. His excuse? He was plucking them. No man in his right mind would sit there and do that. I believed him at first, but some family members reminded me of how painful it would be to do that – and that definitely was not how they ended up on the keyboard. I would also find videos of things that might not be considered “porn,” but were very scantily clad women doing provocative things. In my book, that’s just as bad, because it feeds a man’s lust just the same. He especially seemed to like pole dancing videos… and of course, would ask me to do things like that for him (which I have no clue how to do).

    Abuse is spiritual abandonment, plan and simple. And as blunt as I’m being here, the fact is that 99% of those men just don’t change.

    • Anewanon

      Porn is better defined any ANYTHING that a person uses for lustful purposes. Normally a picture of a child would not be considered porn … and yet … to some it is. 😦

  3. LorenHaas

    Thanks for this teaching again. I have had a difficult time getting people to understand this meaning of Mt 19. Sending them to Instone-Brewer or your book is not practical for most people. I think I will print this up (with full a full citation) and keep in my files. This succinct description is invaluable. It would be helpful if you could further expound on Ex 21:10-11 in a similar way.
    Great job Barbara!

    • Good suggestion, Loren.

      And to all our readers: I would be happy for you to share this post on social networking sites and other blogs you might follow. I’m not the greatest at social networking; I use FB, Google+, Pinterest and have just set up my YouTube channel, but I’m not nearly as active on social networking as some people are. There are many other places to share material like this.

      • MeganC

        I posted it on FB this morning. 🙂

  4. Carmen

    Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession Of Faith…written by R. C. Sproul
    Volume Three ( The State, The Family, The Church, And The Last Things)
    Chapter 24: Marriage and Divorce (p 39):—

    Added to that is the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians, where he allows a believer to be freed from an unbeliever in the case of the desertion by the unbeliever ( 1 Cor. 7:15). Those churches that seek to be confessional and biblical in the matter of divorce generally reduce the legitimate grounds for divorce to two: adultery and desertion. Some people include physical abuse within the scope of desertion, arguing that the abuser has in effect deserted the spouse. That becomes a matter for church courts to interpret.

    On many occasions, the church must establish the innocent party and the guilty party in a divorce case. If there is a married couple in the church, and one spouse files for the divorce without biblical grounds, the church has the responsibility to step in and say, “You can’t do that.”

    Even if there are just grounds for divorce, be it adultery or desertion, it does not mean that a person must dissolve the marriage. It simply means that he or she may seek a divorce. When God gives the right to a Christian to dissolve a marriage, the person who exercises that right ought not be criticized by the rest off the community.

    If a man commits adultery and then pleads for forgiveness from his wife, it is her Christian duty to forgive him. She has no other option. But that does not mean that she must stay married to him. His behavior radically undermined the trust that is foundational to an intimate marital relationship. If she cannot continue in such a damaged relationship, God gives her the freedom to dissolve it. I have seen the Christian community criticize the innocent party in such circumstances for going ahead with the divorce. But that person has the right, and it is wrong to condemn the Christian for exercising his or her rights.

    I personally know of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church deposing one of their ministers for abusing his wife, and then re-defining desertion to include abuse in order to allow her to biblically file for the divorce. Yes, it’s looking like the OPC is very rare in the church world, but please, be assured that there are churches that hold to God’s Word.

  5. Heather2

    Wonderful, Barbara. The more I read oN ACFJ and the more The Lord shows me His truth the more I hurt over the wrong teaching I had.

    I soooo appreciate your work and the way you clearly show us the truth.

  6. Katy

    I JUST had to explain this to another victim who is struggling today. The faster this spreads the better.

  7. Brenda R

    I’ve read your book and believe in the 3 A’s for divorce, but it is always good to be reminded.

  8. fiftyandfree

    Thanks for posting this Barbara. I will save this for my files in case I need to share it with someone one day.

    I’m curious; are there other things that you don’t agree with Instone-Brewer about? Would you mind sharing and explaining if there are differences? Thanks.

    • Hi Fifty, my differences with Instone-Brewer are not as important as the other things I have to write about (which I never have enough time to do already), so I would rather not spend time on them. If you read my book and his scholarly book to compare it with mine, you can see where we differ.

  9. Conundrum

    I was in a relationship with a divorced woman for 4 years, and lived with her for 3 of those years. As we both started to become more and more spiritual, we decided to end our sinful co-habitation and get married.

    It was then that we discovered Jesus’ teaching on divorce. The reason for my partner’s divorce was irreconcilable differences/her former husband’s refusal to start a family/emotional abuse. Because my perspective was that Jesus only allowed adultery as a legitimate reason for divorce, I told her I couldn’t marry her since God still recognized her former marriage as valid.

    After reading Instone-Brewer’s book and reviewing Exodus 21, I am starting to believe that other grounds may also be valid (food, clothing, marital relations).

    In your opinion, would her former husband’s refusal to start a family coupled with emotional abuse constitute grounds for divorce based on Exodus 21 (specifically marital relations)?

    • Jeff Crippen

      Conundrum – Our position, which we believe is biblical, is that abuse is grounds for divorce. Why? Because it is a violation of the marriage covenant and while we all violate our marriage covenant in some way on occasion, abuse is (as we define it) a habitual, ongoing, unrepentant quest to have power and control over one’s spouse, which emanates from a mentality of entitlement. Also, we would conclude that sinful withholding of conjugal rights and/or refusal to have children (if it were agreed in the marriage covenant that both desired children) is also a breaking of that covenant. With all of that said, you are the ones who need to work through Scripture on this and we are glad you have found Instone-Brewer’s books. Barbara Roberts’ book Not Under Bondage should be a help to you as well. Thank you for askng. Oh, and by the way, a little tip: You may not have intentionally meant anything by it, but I would suggest that you not speak of your fiance as “a divorced woman.” She is simply a woman:) I get it that you wanted to let us know that she had been divorce, but you might be surprised how much she would appreciate not being referred to by that adjective, “divorced.” You get what I mean I’m sure. Blessings on you both.

    • Thanks for the question, Conundrum. I think Jeff C has answered you well. I do hope you read my book as it deals more in depth with abuse than Instone-Brewer’s book (not putting his book down, by the way; I think both his book and mine have their place in this discourse.) And the first chapter defines and describes abuse in quite a lot of detail: your friend may find that chapter helpful when reflecting on her former marriage. You can read that chapter for free at http://www.notunderbondage.com/book.html

      You might also like to check out the article I have on my Not Under Bondage site called Still Married In The Sight Of God?

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