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Divorce and Remarriage: The Betrothal View

I had one of those moments in my class last week that every professor dreams of having (or was that a nightmare—I’m not really sure). There was a moment in my lecture that I clearly communicated something to my students about which most of them had probably never thought. We were studying the issue of divorce and remarriage, and I had been pontificating on the various Christian views on the subject. I saved the two best for last: the Erasmian (or majority) view and the betrothal view.

The Erasmian view of divorce and remarriage holds that divorce is allowable in situations where adultery has taken place (according to the exception clause of Matt 5:32 and 19:9) or when an unbelieving spouse leaves (the so-called Pauline privilege of 1 Cor 7:15). Proponents of the Erasmian view also hold that remarriage is allowed in these cases as well. This is by far the most widely held view of divorce and remarriage in evangelical circles.

The betrothal view also allows for divorce when an unbelieving spouse leaves. However, the betrothal view interprets the exception clause in Matt 5:32 and 19:9 as referring to sexual immorality discovered during the typical one-year betrothal period customary in first century Jewish culture. Thus, the betrothal view does not allow for divorce in cases of adultery after marriage (Note: A slight exception to this stance may allow for divorce in such cases where the guilty party is unrepentant and abandons the innocent spouse and files for divorce. In this situation, the guilty party is exhibiting the behavior of an unbeliever and may be treated as such). The betrothal view never allows for a believer to seek a divorce and does not allow for remarriage in any circumstance unless one of the spouses dies.

When I expressed that I hold the betrothal view and that it does not allow for remarriage unless a spouse dies, there was a collective gasp in the room. Now I know that there are a number of students in my class who agree with me. At the same time, I know that there are a number who disagree. Then there are certainly some who do not know where they stand.

We can certainly discuss this issue in the comments, but let me explain why it is important. The divorce rate in the United States for 2005 (the most recent statistics to come from the US Census Bureau—2006 stats will be available in December) was 48%. In 2001, 21% of all adult American men and 23.1% of all adult American women had been divorced at least once. According to the Barna group, the divorce rate in the church is the same as that among non-believers. This issue is serious, and I believe one reason that so many people just accept the world’s view of divorce is that our churches do not discuss it. Certainly, we have divorce recovery groups and discipleship classes for blended/step-families, but do we confront the issue of divorce on the front end?

Before you go to calling me a legalist and insensitive, let me inform you that divorce has impacted my family in several ways. Thankfully, my parents will be celebrating their 36th anniversary next week; however, so many people in the rest of our family have been impacted by divorce. I am aware of its pain. I am aware of its struggles. But I am also aware of how seriously God takes marriage. Jesus himself said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate" (Matt 19:4-6). When it comes down to it, I would rather my view of divorce and remarriage be shaped by Scripture than by experience (actually, that is how I do theology and ethics as a whole).

For those of you who are not familiar with the betrothal view, I would like for you to consider two pieces available online for a fuller treatment (my summary is entirely too short to get the full understanding). A pastoral viewpoint of the betrothal view is available from John Piper here. An academic viewpoint is available in audio format from David W. Jones (Assoc. Professor of Christian Ethics at SEBTS) here.

In the end, I always tell my students that you must hold your view of divorce and remarriage humbly because you will always make someone mad no matter what view you hold. There are also sincere, Bible-believing Christians and scholars who disagree with me. What I ask is that you give me and the betrothal view a fair hearing.