Is Divorce (Not For Fornication)

Scriptural, As Long As

There Is No Remarriage?

By Patrick T. Donahue

 I have noticed at least three articles in the past several years in different periodicals setting forth the view that a person may scripturally divorce his spouse for reasons other than fornication, as long as no remarriage follows. I disagree with this position, and therefore submit this article, in part to answer some of the points that have been made in favor of the position, and also to set forth scriptural proof for the position that it is wrong for a person to divorce his spouse for any reason other than fornication, even if he does not remarry.

Contingency Legislation, Not An Exception

Obviously I Cor 7:10-11 is a critical passage to examine in regard to this issue. It reads as follows: "And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife." One key to verse 11 is to understand that it does not contain an exception to verse 10, but instead expresses "contingency legislation." Contingency legislation is not the same as expressing an exception. Contingency legislation ("'if ... then' legislation") gives instructions about what to do if something occurs, but does NOT necessarily give approval to that something that has occurred. This is how I Cor 7:10-11 is parallel to I Jn 2:1. The two passages are not parallel in every respect (no one ever claimed that I Jn 2:1 gives two options as I Cor 7:11 does), but they are parallel in that both passages follow a command with contingency legislation -> what do I do if I violate the command stated previous? Neither passage gives an exception to the command expressed; contingency legislation does not imply exception.

But even if the I Jn 2:1 illustration were not parallel, the principle is still true (an illustration doesn't prove anyway, it only illustrates). Contingency legislation does not condone action that the instruction is contingent upon. Verse 11 then does not provide an exception to verse 10, it only provides contingency legislation. The only exception to verse 10 is found in Mt 5:32 and Mt 19:9, therefore it is wrong to separate/divorce from your spouse for any reason other than fornication, even if you don't remarry.

Galatians 5:15 and James 3:14

"Here is the point, so please take note: whatever the circumstances of why she departed and became 'unmarried,' she SINS in the 'departing' of this context" (unless the departing was for fornication). Saying that I Cor 7:11 shows that it is not a sin for one to depart as long as he doesn't remarry, is about like saying that it would not be a sin for you to "bite and devour one another," as long as you "take heed that ye be not consumed one of another" (Gal 5:15). It would be about like saying that it would not be a sin for you to "have bitter envying and strife in your hearts," as long as you "glory not, and lie not against the truth" (James 3:14).

Is I Corinthians 7:5 Parallel?

At least one has argued that I Cor 7:5 ("Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time…") is parallel to I Cor 7:10-11, thereby showing that verse 11 is providing an exception to verse 10. But they are not parallel in the very respect that is needful for the argument! I Cor 7:5 does give an exception (notice the word "except" is even used); but it does not say what to do if you do defraud (contingency legislation). I Cor 7:11, on the other hand, does not give an exception to the general rule given in verse 10; instead it tells what to do if the instruction found in verse 10 is violated (contingency legislation).

Does I Corinthians 7:12-13 Allow Departing?

More than one has made the argument that because "Paul says that if the unbeliever is content to dwell with the believer, the Christian is not to leave" (from verses 12-13), that "implies that if the unbeliever is not content to dwell with the Christian, then the Christian may leave." But verses 12-13 do not imply what is said that they do. The "if" construction does not necessarily imply that it is right to leave a spouse who is "not agreeing on an amiable relationship." Notice a parallel passage, I Cor 7:28, "... and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned." If the reasoning on verses 12-13 is correct, this verse would imply that "if a virgin does not marry she hath sinned." Notice also Matthew 11:14, "And, if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come." Again according to the divorce only advocate's reasoning, this verse would imply that "if ye will not receive it, this is not Elias, which was for to come."

Notice also that in I Cor 7:12 we have a conclusion based upon two conditions: (1) "If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and" (2) if "she be pleased to dwell with him." If it is valid to take the converse of the conclusion if the second condition is not met (but the first is met), why would it not be valid to take the converse of the conclusion if the first condition is not met (but the second is met)? Therefore, by the reasoning under examination, this verse would also teach that "If any brother hath a wife that does believe, and she is pleased to dwell with him," then the brother may leave. I doubt that even Olan Hicks believes this.

When I Cor 7:12-13 talks about the unbeliever being pleased to dwell with the believer, it is the same as saying that they do dwell with them. If the unbeliever does not depart (verse 15), then they are pleased to dwell with the believer, even if they are pleased to dwell with the believer unamiably. The converse of verses 12 and 13 is found in verse 15, If they are not pleased to dwell with you (verse 12), then let them depart (verse 15) (not ... then leave them yourself, or put them away). Let's let the Bible interpret itself!

Does Luke 18:29-30 Allow For Departing?

The last common argument that I would like to deal with is from Lk 18:29-30 which reads, "And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting." Some argue that this verse allows for a cause for divorce ("for the kingdom of God's sake" -> who knows what this could include) in addition to the cause of fornication. But I would ask the reader, "have you ever mentioned this passage (along with others) when asked where the Bible ever tells a man to leave his wife (in the case of what you consider an unscriptural marriage)?" The point is that this passage does not prove another cause for divorce, it is just talking about a man leaving his wife because they were in an unscriptural marriage.

I Corinthians 7:10 Obviously Does Forbid Divorce

Although the main purpose of this article is to deal with arguments being made to advance the position of divorce without remarriage, I would like to make a few affirmative arguments against the position. First of all, after proving that I Cor 7:11 does not provide an exception to verse 10, but instead only provides contingency legislation, I Cor 7:10 can now be used as proof that divorce/separation is wrong, in and of itself. Paul states here the general rule that departing is wrong; Mt 5:32 and Mt 19:9 give the only exception to this rule.

Matthew 19:3-9

Contrary to popular opinion, Mt 19:3-9 does not just condemn divorce and remarriage; it also condemns divorce all by itself. The initial question raised by the Pharisees in verse 3 pertains to divorce and not necessarily also to remarriage. And Jesus answers the question of verse 3 ("Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?") with a resounding NO ("what therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder") in verse 6. Jesus then gives an additional thought ("And") in verse 9, when he states that if you divorce for a reason other than fornication, and you remarry, you commit the additional sin of adultery. Obviously then, Jesus provides the general rule that divorce is wrong in verse 6, and then gives the only exception to that general rule in verse 9.

Matthew 5:32

If this is not clear to you, the argument can be made even stronger from Mt 5:32, because this verse does not mention the remarriage of the person doing the divorcing (as Mt 19:9 does). Mt 5:32 reads, "But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." This verse teaches the rule that it is wrong for a man to divorce his wife (not mentioning the remarriage of the man), and gives the only exception to the rule, fornication. Put another way, if a man divorces his wife (unless it is for fornication), he sins by putting her into an undeserved position of temptation ("causeth her to commit adultery"), regardless of whether or not he remarries. Anybody that can see that because Mt 19:9 gives the one and only cause for "divorce and remarriage" by using the word "except," and therefore rules out James Bales' interpretation of I Cor 7:15, ought to be able to see that because Mt 5:32 gives the one and only cause for divorce period by using the word "saving" (in the sense of "except"), and therefore rules out any interpretation of I Cor 7:11, I Cor 7:12-13, and/or Lk 18:29-30 allowing divorce for causes other than fornication.

Two Options, But Are They Equal?

Some say that it is wrong to leave, but that if you do, I Cor 7:11 shows that it is scriptural to remain apart. Besides flying in the face of what repentance means, this understanding is not born out by verse 11. Just because I Cor 7:11 gives two options about what to do if someone departs (sins), it does not mean that these two options are on equal footing in all respects. Let me give you a parallel verse that illustrates this true principle (that two options are not necessarily "equal"). The parallel is Rev 3:15: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot." I raise the question, "did the Laodiceans have the scriptural 'option' to be cold?" If not, why not (since two options are given)? The truth is, God wants a person to be hot, but if he won't be hot, he would rather him be cold than lukewarm. Now this verse is not parallel in every respect to I Cor 7:11 (for example, it is a sin to be cold, but not a sin to remain unmarried if your spouse won't take you back), but it is parallel in that both passages give two options where one is preferable over the other.

But let me repeat, even if Rev 3:15 were not parallel to I Cor 7:11, it wouldn't make the principle untrue. The principle is true that two options can be given, with one being preferred over the other. In our passage, verse 11 could mean that the person who departed is to be reconciled if possible, but if reconciliation is not possible (suppose their spouse won't take them back), then they are to remain unmarried, they are not to commit the additional sin of adultery in remarriage. The fact that verse 11 could mean this, means that verse 11 cannot be used as proof that either divorce, or a refusal to return, is not sin. As a matter of fact, not only could verse 11 mean this, but it must mean this considering what verse 10 says!

Must She Be Reconciled?

Not only does Mt 5:32 teach that you sin by divorcing your spouse (even if you don't remarry), it also teaches that if you do sin by divorcing your spouse, you continue to sin as long as you refuse to return back to the marriage. Mt 5:32 teaches that you sin when you divorce your spouse saving for the cause of fornication, because you place your spouse in a position of temptation. This implies that as long as you have the ability to reconcile and don't, you continue to be guilty of placing your spouse in that position of temptation. If not, why not?

One argued that if I Jn 2:1 is parallel to I Cor 7:10-11, "the woman who does depart is always in a sinful condition regardless of circumstances as long as she remains apart" (even is she seeks reconciliation)! First of all, remember that no one said that I Jn 2:1 is parallel to I Cor 7:10-11 in every respect, but only in the respect that shows that I Cor 7:11 is contingency legislation (and not an exception), and therefore does not allow divorce. Secondly, one reason that we know that a woman is not in sin if she tries to go back to her spouse (but is refused by him) is because -> that is what Paul is saying by the phrase "remain unmarried": remain unmarried if you can't be reconciled (any other explanation for verse 11 would contradict verse 10).

Repentance of sin requires correcting the sin where possible. For example, a man repenting of stealing should return what was stolen. But sometimes, only limited correction is possible. If a person commits murder, he will never be able to bring back his victim from the dead, but he can still be forgiven upon genuine repentance. Likewise, repentance by a woman who sins by departing from her spouse would demand that she seek restoration of the marriage. But if the man, by that time, refuses to take her back, she has done all that she can do; she is forgiven; she cannot do the impossible. If the man will take her back (like he should), but she is unwilling, then she hasn't really repented of breaking up the marriage, has she?


Yes, God "hateth putting away" (Mal 2:16), even if no remarriage follows. God expects husbands to "dwell" with their wives according to knowledge. The Lord commands, "Let not the wife depart from her husband" (I Cor 7:10).  - -Patrick T. Donahue

[Pat Donahue, Pat.Donahue@MSFC.NASA.GOV, 4607 Old Railroad Bed Road, Harvest, Alabama 35749, (205) 721-0726 home, (205) 461-4303 office]

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