Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Jesus and Paul on Singleness,Marriage, and Divorce

Without question, of all the lectures I give, the one the prompts the most questions, sometimes even an avalanche of questions is my lecture on what Jesus and Paul actually say about singleness, marriage, and divorce. Obviously this is a sensitive subject since the church in our age, like the world,is experiencing so much brokenness, and pastors are desperately seeking guidance, handholds, wisdom to help them deal with the daily traumas of their flocks. Precisely because of this, I have been increasingly disturbed by what passes for exegesis of the key NT texts, even by those who profess to have a high view of Scripture and its relevance on these dicey subjects. Accordingly, I have decided to summarize a few of the insights that are already in print in my Women in the Ministry of Jesus, and Women in the Earliest Churches monographs I did lo these many years ago for Cambridge U. Press. The following is only some highlights.

The first point to make is that there is a rather broad range of agreement between what Jesus and Paul both say on these inter-related subjects. The essence of their views are as follows: 1) the eschatological age is now breaking into human history and with it God's final divine saving activity in and through Jesus; 2) this being the case what had been said before on the matters of marriage, divorce, and singleness is no longer adequate, since it was not addressed to the current salvation historical frame of reference. In short, new occasions teach new duties, and to those to whom more is given (by way of grace and divine help) more is required. In essence, both Jesus and Paul up the ante on fidelity and restrictions compared to what is mentioned in the OT about marriage and divorce. In fact Jesus even says that Moses made those rules due to the hardness of the human heart, but that that factor will no longer be taken into consideration now that the Kingdom is coming.

2) Jesus, followed by Paul, are perfectly clear that in light of the eschatological situation, it is no longer required, even of Jews, that they marry. The creation order mandate--- "be fruitful and multiple" (and the obligation to marry that goes with it) must now be seen as a blessed option, not an obligation for all of God's people. Now instead, as Paul puts it both getting married or remaining single need to be seen as a calling from God. One has to have the 'charisma' the grace gift, to properly undertake either state of being (see 1 Cor. 7), and there is a certain advantage to remaining single for the sake of the Kingdom, namely one has less earthly worries and anxieties about spouses, children, supporting them, and the like. The goodness of being single is emphasized, and Jesus' teaching about being a 'eunuch' for the sake of the Kingdom' becomes paradigmatic for many, as well as a justification for why he remained single (no, there was no Mrs. Jesus-- see my Gospel Code book).

This is a key point for the church today. Until we recover the proper teaching about singleness, and its goodness in Christ, and stop pressuring anyone and everyone in the church to get married, we have no business pontificating about marriage and its blessings. Too often, single persons in the church are simply viewed as 'candidates for dating and marriage' (never mind that the Bible says nothing at all about dating, or late Western notions about romance and courting). This is a trainwreck waiting to happen, and the result is many persons are pressured into marriage who are neither ready, nor have the grace gift to be in a marriage relationship. This in turn leads to numerous divorces-- and the endless cycle of matrimony, acrimony, and alimony receives another push.

I would especially remind one and all that we live in the most litigous age and litigous society on earth, and when you add to this the strong sense of self-justification and entitlement attitudes our narcissistic culture encourages, it is a recipe for endless strife and trouble to carelessly get married without the proper spiritual maturity and commitment on the part of both parties. The church does not exist for the sake of creating nuclear families. The primary family is the family of faith according to Jesus, and the nuclear family is to fit its agendas into those of the family of faith, not the other way around. A family church should be one that is a family to all who are present, single or married, not one that is merely an incubator for nuclear families.

3) Not all persons who get married in the church building have been "joined together by God". Think about it. In the first century A.D. when Jesus and Paul were speaking there were no church buildings, there were no certificates of marriage that were just like modern ones, and weddings, at least in early Judaism, did not require ordained rabbis to solemnize them. What then made a marriage a Biblical marriage if it wasn't the officiants, the piece of paper, or the locale where it transpired? The answer is that God led two people to be together, they made vows and promises in the presence of God and human witnesses and they agreed to 'plight their troth' to one another. That's it.

In fact, I would stress that a lot of Christian persons have raced into marriage ceremonies without really seeking out the spiritual basis for what they are doing, without really asking, Is God leading us together? Even Christians are capable of coupling themselves together, just as non-Christians do, without the permission, guidance, or blessing of God. If God has not joined them together, or if they are not prepared to submit their relationship to God after the fact and beseech God so he will indeed join and bless their togetherness, then they do not meet either the pre-requisites for what Jesus and Paul say about marriage, or the pre-requisites for what they say about divorce.

Christian marriage is a high and holy state. It is also a temporal relationship that does not continue into eternity but was given as an earthly blessing (see e.g. Rom. 7.1-4). We need to rethink just what counts as a Christian marriage, and what the criteria are for evaluating whether God has joined two persons together or not. Does the relationship manifest the fruit of the Spirit, for example, both before and after the marriage ceremony, or is it the hormones on overdrive that are dictating the dance? These questions need to be asked, and the answers may become uncomfortable. This is why no Christian marriage ceremonies should be performed without considerable pre-marital counseling first. The church ought not to be a broker for hatching, matching, and dispatching (baptisms, marriages, and funerals).

4) The essential position of both Jesus and Paul can be summarized as "celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage". Jesus talks about being a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom (Mt. 19. 10-12) and Paul urges his audience to remain as he is--- single (1 Cor. 7), because they believe that by the grace of God it is possible to live in such a chaste condition, and be pleasing to God. In their view, no single person, of whatever sexual orientation should be engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage, which in the Bible is always defined as heterosexual monogamy. Of course Jesus is perfectly aware of the infidelities of the human heart, but he also believes that "greater is he who is in the believer than any of those forces in the world".

5) As 1 Cor. 7 makes evident, religiously mixed marriages in which only one partner is a Christian, are not viewed in the same way as Christian marriages. In regard to the mixed marriage Paul's wisdom is that if the unbeliever desires to depart, the believer is not 'bound' to maintain the relationship, though they may do so. The word for 'bound' here is the same word used for the marital bond. Apparently, Paul does not think non-Christian marriages come with a necessary 'until death do us part' clause. He says nothing about remarriage of divorced persons, but he does say that widows may remarry "only in the Lord".

6) the famous exception clauses in Mt. 5.32 and Mt. 19.9 do not refer to adultery, or as we euphemistically call it 'marital infidelity' The word 'porneia' there from which we get the term pornography, refers to either: 1) prostitution; 2) incest, or if it is used more generally 3) all sorts of sexual abberations including beastiality, incest, prostitution, pedophilia, and adultery. My point is this. The word for adultery is 'moixeia' and it is found already in the same context in Mt. 5.27. 'Porneia' is a different word with a different range of meaning, and it is never used to mean adultery quite specifically.

It is indeed possible that in Mt. 19 Jesus is commenting on the incestuous relationships like that of Herod Antipas and Herodias, which his cousin John 'lost his head' over for criticizing. In other words, the exception clause in its original context may mean "except on grounds of a marriage that wasn't a real marriage to begin with-- an incestuous one."

As should be clear from both Mk. 10 and 1 Cor. 7.10-11, Jesus' essential view is no divorce for those joined together by God. Of course Jesus also knows that divorces happen, which is why he warns "let no third party put asunder what God has joined together". The advice of both Jesus and Paul is that remarriage of a person whom God has joined to another can even be called commiting adultery against that first partner. It is not advised, except perhaps in the case of religously mixed marriages or those cases where both partners had been pagans or non-Christians to begin with. Neither Jesus nor Paul have anything to say about marriage completely outside the covenant community of believers.

This is more than enough to absorb from one blog, but I want to stress that these are inter-related matters-- one's views of human sexuality and what God intended for that, one's view of marriage, ones view of singleness, one's view of divorce.

As a footnote I would add that the usually passages trotted out from the Pastoral Epistles about being "the husband of one wife" (or as the Greek puts it "being a one woman man") do not refer either to a requirement for an elder or deacon to be married, nor do they refer to a requirment that they only have been married once, nor to a polemic against polygamy. This pithy phrases refers simply to the elder or deacon (who are assumed to be married already, but not required to be so) being faithful to their one and only spouse.


Sharad Yadav said...

Excellent post! I recieved my fair share of slack for saying these very things in teaching about singeleness from 1 Co. 7. It can be noted that while there is radical discontinuity with the commendation of marriage in the OT and the attitude expressed in the NT there is also continuity in Paul's reasoning: namely, the purpose of marriage has always been to advance the kingdom of God - in the case of the OT it was through producing loyal-to-the-covenant Israelite children; in the case of the NT Paul says that if singleness, though a better state, impedes a person's effectiveness (by "burning with passion") this person ought to get married. If he can remain unmarried without this hindrance, this of course is much better -- one recieves grace from God in marriage, and the other in singelness (1 Co. 7:7) -- but Paul's ultimate concern isn't to constrain burning singles; the entire discourse is written in order to "secure undistracted devotion to the Lord" by promoting whichever option is seemly in light of an individual's circumstances (1 Co. 7:35). In other words, it seems as though the desire to remain single or get married are both motivated by the same thing: a person's effectiveness in the kingdom of God. It should also be noted that this passage is the only one in the NT with any direct address to singles. It's time that people stop directing single believers to Eph. 5 in counseling them on this issue, and start directing them to 1 Co. 7.

Sharad Yadav said...

That's meant to read "flak", which would be the opposite of "slack".

Weltanschauung said...

Great post!

I run a home group for married couples (all fairly recently married), can I use this in it please?

J said...

Well said, BlueRaja! Appreciate the post a bunch. Thanks Dr. W!

Bless the Lord =)


Kristan said...

Excellent commentary. Thanks Dr Witherington. I worried for a bit where you were going to go as I read the opening, but was very excited as I read it to the end.

I've just finished a set of studies on men and women in God's church for high school students and they couldn't believe I affirmed the same position on singleness that you mentioned.

In our churches we give nuclear families such a pride of position that we often sideline single people as those just waiting to get married, and not fulfilled until then. It's both awful (as a single person) and unbiblical. If only those with families would also learn to include the single ones in their groups as brothers and sisters.

Anyways, just wanted to thank you for your post. I've linked to it from my blog too (not the blogger one... is mine)

DanO said...

Dr. Witherington,

While I agree with the sentiment of this post I wonder if you could comment a little more on the 1 Corinthians 7 passage. Some have made the argument that Paul's comments on marriage and singleness are shaped by the fact that Corinth was undergoing a rather severe famine at that time. If that was the case then perhaps a little more caution should be shown in how we apply this text today?

Grace and peace,


Ben Dubow said...

Refreshing! Thanks. As a single 30-year old evangelical pastor, I really appreciate your comments/affirmation (actually, Paul's, lol) of singleness.

At our church ( we are getting ready to participate in National Porn Sunday and doing a three week series called "Designer Sex" -- much of what you talked about is in the series. This was very helpful in my own prep asyou are concise and on-point.

Thanks again!

BTW, great blog overall... I love it!

Sharad Yadav said...

Thanks, J!

Alliyz said...

Thank you for the post! I am challenged to ask myself if my relationships display the fruit of the Spirit.

Ben Witherington said...

To one and all who have asked to use this material I am fine with that and there is plenty more in my three Cambridge books on Women and the NT.

In regard to the suggestion that 1 Cor.7 is a response to a famine, I am very unconvinced. What Paul says in 1 Cor 7 is that the "schema of this world is passing away". This has to do with the eschatological situation precipitated by the Christ event, not by a famine. Schema means the very form of this world, which is a reference to its institutions like marriage or government, and so Paul is counseling that we have a certain sense of detachment caused by an eschatological perspective that "the things of this world will grow strangely dim, in the light of his love and grace" (and 2nd coming). One does have to be extraordinarily careful with recognizing that Paul is responding to questions from the more ascetical Christians in Corinth so for example the first sentence is quoting some Corinthians who think that in light of the eschatological situation "It is good for a man not to have sexual relationships with a woman". This is clearly not Paul's view, as the sentences which follow demonstrate.

Weltanschauung said...

Thanks for the use of it. I'll look our for your books, if they are anything like this post they'll be well worth reading.

jerryb said...

Great post, while I generally agree, there are a few points to question.

First the agreements:
Jesus and Paul never confuse moixeia and porniea. They contrast them side by side as different types of sexual sins. It is wishful thinking to say that porneia is equal to adultery. An important reference note, Moulton and Milligan (p.415)gives an example where porneia and moixeia are contrasted. It reads "the priests are charged with having intercourse both with unmarried and married women. This example shows that porneia is specifically sex that is not violating a marriage vow. Adultery would appear to not only break God's moral law but also break one's covenantal vows as an additional moral violation.

Also, marriage is viewed by many, (even those with a high view of Scripture) as a right not a privilege. It appears (by some) that the only acceptable compassionate answer is to allow for remarriage. Thus we come to the text already expecting a certain answer. This should not be. Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell to his niece who was to marry) "Marriage is more than you love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God's holy ordinance through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time". In other words your love belongs to you, but marriage belongs to God. So we cannot make the rules based upon personal compassion. Otherwise, we will have to be compassionate with any type of couple who would feel in love, etc.

Kindly the disagreements:
It seems wrong to view marriage as a Christian institution, since it was given to all humanity at creation. It would seem better to say that God recognizes all marriages which follow the pattern of Genesis 2:22-24, ie, leaving, cleaving and becoming one flesh. Here marriage consists of two people who publically leave their parents, covenant with each other (notice the covenantal language. It appears that all covenantal language finds its roots in marriage which is the ultimate human covenant. This is not to say that it is a contract, since a contract suggests that I will keep my end as long as you do, while a covenant suggests that I will keep my end no matter what you do.) And finally marriage is also two people becoming one flesh. To me this is the divine part of the marriage. God makes two people one. This is where the words "what God has joined together let not man put asunder."

Secondly, about "one woman man". It appears to me that this idea would have not caught on so well if we did not have a few country songs that used the phrase "one woman man". It just fit because it was so familiar. But as genitives, one must determine in what way they function. It is highly doubtful that the two nouns "aner" and "gune" could have ever been thought of as descriptive genitives to a Greek speaker. Because "aner" means male except when in the context of woman, where it then means husband. The same is true for "gune" which means woman except when used in conjunction with "aner" whereby it then means "wife". I would be very interested in finding out whether there are any examples in any Greek document where these two nouns are in the genitive and are descriptive rather than possessives or genitives of relationship.

stc said...

I don't see an e-mail address, so I'll mention it here — I've quoted you at some length on my blog, Ragged Glory, in a post which starts out talking about Catholic priests and their wives.

Rick said...

> It is indeed possible that in Mt. 19 Jesus is commenting on the incestuous relationships like that of Herod Antipas and Herodias, which his cousin John 'lost his head' over for criticizing. In other words, the exception clause in its original context may mean "except on grounds of a marriage that wasn't a real marriage to begin with-- an incestuous one."

Luke 16.18 NASB "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery."

David Bivin of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research wrote of divorce in his '"And" or "In order to" Remarry' article in the Jerusalem Perspective online mag. He said in essence that the passage should be translated as "Everyone who divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced [for this reason] from a husband commits adultery." John the Baptist was beheaded because of his comments on Herod and Phillip's wife. And here comes Jesus making evidently the same type of comments. That's why Herod thought (ironically) that Jesus was John redivivus.

What is the significance of this? The JSSR believes in Lukan Priority. The passage in Luke speaks of adultery or adulterous intentions leading to divorce, not divorce in general. Can you see perhaps now more clearly your supposition on the Matthean passages referring to Herod as having their basis Luke 16.18?

To be clear, I am not "pro" divorce. You said rightly:
> As should be clear from both Mk. 10 and 1 Cor. 7.10-11, Jesus' essential view is no divorce for those joined together by God.

While Bivin doesn't appear to be academically credentialed from his bio at the JSSR site, his bio does list some impressive studies at Hebrew University and Jerusalem University College among other accomplishments.

One last thing. Dr. Leander Keck, author of the Methodist Church's Disciple Bible Study series second generation study "Jesus in the Gospels" spoke all too briefly of Paul's attitude toward singleness. He said that Paul's focus was on the imminent return of Christ and nothing, specifically ongoing romance leading to a marriage, was to interfere.

Gordon Hackman said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks so much for this great entry. There is currently a move among some conservative Christians to delegitimize adult singleness, to point a condemning finger at single adult Christians, and to claim that this position is supported by scripture. Having been recently involved in some rather acrimonious debates about this topic, it is great to have a serious Bible scholar such as yourself set forth some clear and sensible teaching on this matter.

I especially appreciated your observation that under the new covenant, some of the requirements of the old covenant no longer obtain, as the mandatory marriage crowd simply doesn't seem to understand this. Also appreciated your observations about the American entitlement mentality that is so prevalent these days.


gortexgrrl said...


You and Gordon are both right that there has been pressure in some churches to push singles into marriages, resulting in weddings that never should have taken place for some and untold strife for others who resist. However, there has also been a more insidious trend in the past few decades that has caused many marriage-desiring singles to doubt if it's God's will to pursue marriage. I'm talking about "the gift of singleness". The "GoS" started out as an embellishment in the Living Bible's interpretation of 1 Cor 7:7 and has now become the pet phrase of just about every patronizing singles Christian bookwriter in the past three decades.

With all due respect, nowhere does it say in scripture that you must be specially "gifted" or a "called" to either marriage or singleness. Paul said that we all our "particular grace gift of God, some in one way some in another", a statement made in the context of "sexual containment" (traditionally called "the gift of celibacy). No gift is named, but it appears that it's the ENABLEMENT (for continency, celibacy) that's the gift, not the marital status itself.

This may seem like a petty complaint, but seriously, there have been consequences to this strictly late 20th century trend of teaching that singleness and marriage require a "calling" or "word from the Lord". It strips the ordinariness and universality of marriage enjoyed but previous generations of Christians and makes it out to be a big charismatic or prophetic experience for believers today. I agree that people shouldn't tread lightly into marriage, but there are many Christian leaders, like Alex Chediak, W.Blaine Smith, Steve and Candice Watters who concerned that singles are getting sidetracked by these hyperspiritualized false dilemmas, such as "did God really lead us together? Good choice or "God choice? Do I have the GoS or the GoM?"

This all may sound quite irreverent (and I don't mean to suggest that God's sovereignty plays no part in our marital outcome), but consider the fact that the Bible makes no claims that followers will be divinely matched. The way to marriage is almost always spoken about in PRACTICAL terms suggesting human intentionality, such as "a man FINDS a wife and FINDS what is good". Even the content of both 1
Cor 7 and Matthew 19:11-12 repeatedly put the onus on individual to come to their own conclusions based on the wisdom provided, not under divine compulsion. In 1 Cor 7, v.6 says "I say this by concession, not a command", v.25 "I have no commandment from the Lord", v.28 "if you marry, you do not sin", v.36 "let him do as he wishes. He is committing no sin; let them get married". Remaining single is presented as an option, a recommendation, an advantage "for the sake of the present distress", in light of the prophetic anticipation of the persecution that awaited the early church no less than "the eschatological situation" you mention. Likewise, in Matthew 19:11-12, Jesus makes it clear at the beginning (not all can "choreo" meaning receive or "make space" for this teaching), middle (some MAKE THEMSELVES eunuchs) and end (those who can receive for this teaching, let them receive it) of the passage that this DECISION for permament singleness for the sake of the kingdom is made not under divine compulsion but voluntarily.

As much as I appreciate your call to not heap judgement on single people, I think it also needs to be said that not all singleness is "the gift of singleness". We have an epidemic of protracted singleness on our hands right now, that is especially problematic for Christian women, who outnumber their male counterparts by at least 2:1 in most Christian circles. Many feel that with this surplus of potential wives, the men can be complacent (and some of the men have made similar accusations about the women). Either way, these are not "individuals gifted with singleness for the sake of the kingdom", this is circumstantial singleness. To assume that it's God's will or plan for their lives, simply masks the widespread issues that often accompany singleness, and in the end, helps no one.

Regardless of whether or not singleness is a sin, it's certainly isn't gift (even though we are biblically required to strive for contentment and divine guidance regardless of our life situation). A recent Christianity Today survey revealed that less than two thirds of singles believe in the GoS). Please join with us in "rethinking the gift of singleness".

Unknown said...

Thanks for the in-depth, educational post. Another great (but brief) overview on marriage and divorce can be found in Norman Geisler's new book 'Love Your Neighbor: Thinking Wisely About Right and Wrong.' A balanced, yet biblical analysis on marriage and divorce. Not an easy subject but Geisler handles it with grace.

Check out the book here:

blackmanblogging said...

Great article!

I think people really need to pay attention to the words of Yahushua (Jesus) more so than Paul. Let Yah(God) be true and every man a liar. You definitely hit the nail on the head about marriage not necessarily being the will of Yah.

A couple of commenters have me scratching my head... when talking about singleness not being a gift and about there being a "problem" of single women and men in the church. The church as founded by the Yahushua is not a dating pool or a holy match-making service.

Bottom line being as such:
Marriage should not take place simply because there are a whole bunch of single people congregated in one place. Marriage should take place ONLY when Yah has ordained it... and specifically put two people together and not simply because we desire it.

To state that single people are being sidetracked by a super spiritual perception that would call them together is ludicrous. This is a decision like most other major decisions that needs Yah's blessing and direction. It is a major joining of two people's lives and assets and possibly the birthplace of new lives into the world. THIS UNION NEEDS TO BE CALLED BY YAH. Just look at the divorce rate even among Christians to confirm it.

Marriage should not even be a major concern except for those who are actively planning on marrying another individual. THEN there should be seminars and counseling and such.

What I see nowadays are bunch of lonely individuals in church who long to get married and are not content with the fact that their counterparts do not. There is no "marriage dilemma" in the Body of Christ. That is a personal schism. If the Most High WILLS for you to be married... you will be. If not... stop trying to force churches to force marriage.

As Yahshuah stated some would be eunuchs for the kingdom. It isn't for us to decide if it is a gift or not and It isn't for us to decide who they will be.

It is for us to simply be vigilant and led by His spirit in all things.


holli said...

"Marriage should not take place simply because there are a whole bunch of single people congregated in one place. Marriage should take place ONLY when Yah has ordained it... and specifically put two people together and not simply because we desire it... THIS UNION NEEDS TO BE CALLED BY YAH."

Marriage may be ordained by God, but it is much more ordinary than you make it out to be. Why do you think He designed the natural, physical processes of attraction between men and women? And here does the Bible say that you must wait for divine revelation over every decision you make? Pray yes, but the scriptures never promise divine confirmation that your choice is the "God choice". We are simply to make a wise choice ("a man FINDS a wife and FINDS what is good")

"Marriage should not even be a major concern except for those who are actively planning on marrying another individual.

What you are recommending here is the studied indifference that is causing so many young believers to deny their god-given desire for a spouse. Do the scriptures say that you shouldn't even be thinking about food until mealtime when God brings the food to you? NO! Your stomach growls and you get up and make yourself a sandwich.

"As Yahshuah stated some would be eunuchs for the kingdom. It isn't for us to decide if it is a gift or not and It isn't for us to decide who they will be."

In Matthew 19:12, Christ contrasts those few who voluntarily choose to "make themselves eunuchs" for the sake of the kingdom with those for whom it is no choice. Those who can make that choice are the gifted ones. Those who cannot choose are not deemed as "made that way by God", no, Christ says matter of factly that they were born that way, or made that way BY MEN. Those stagnant singles who attend churches that instill indifference and ambivilence towards marriage are examples of those made eunuchs by men! Such messages that encourage prolonged singleness also put people at risk for acting out sexually. Fortunately, many leaders are becoming aware of these issues and teachings to singles are now under reform.

As an alternative to what you've declared here, may I offer instead a fine African-American opinion on the matter of "Is It The Will of God For Me To Marry Or Remain Single?":