What the Bible Says on Divorce and Annulments

I had lunch with a couple of Catholic friends when my friend Neal talked about how his Protestant in-laws had been pressing him for the Biblical basis for annulments. Since I’ve addressed that, and similar, issues here, I figured I’d e-mail him a summary of the Biblical evidence. Here’s the e-mail:

Neal and Kevin,
Here are the posts I wrote on it in chronological order; I personally think #’s 1 and 4 are most helpful, but feel free to read all or none:

  1. http://shamelesspopery.com/does-the-bible-permit-divorce-in-the-case-of-adultery/
  2. http://shamelesspopery.com/my-response-to-gotquestions/
  3. http://shamelesspopery.com/gotquestions-a-negative-development/
  4. http://shamelesspopery.com/divorce-and-remarriage-in-matthews-gospel/

The first three are responses to GotQuestions, an Evangelical (and somewhat anti-Catholic) Biblical online FAQ. So you may have to separate some wheat from chaff there, but hopefully, there’s something useful there. Here’s the basic summary:

The Bible verses in question are Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:1-12 (no divorce except for cause of porneia); and Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18 (no divorce, period). The word for adultery, moicheia, is used in all of those verses to say that anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery. In Matthew’s version, where a specific nook is carved out, he doesn’t record the word for adultery (“except for cause of porneia“). In fact, Jesus lists porneia and moicheia as distinct sins in Matthew 15:19 and Mark 7:21. Paul lists them separately as well, in Galatians 5:19.

I mention this because most of the Protestant interpretations of Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:9 assume porneia to mean “sexual unfaithfulness to your spouse,” as something either identical with, or broader than, adultery. This interpretation is unsustainable: they would be listed as a single sin if this interpretation were correct (even if one term is broader, it would include the other as a subset). Besides that, this interpretation flies in the face of Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18, which prohibit divorce without exception.

In fact, Matthew’s Gospel shows that divorce and remarriage is strictly prohibited unless you were never married in the eyes of God. To get there, we need the help of Blue Letter Bible’s Lexicon/Concordance, LexiCon, which lists every usage of the word porneia in the New Testament. In addition to the uses which I’ve just mentioned, here are the other uses we see:

  • In John 8:41, it means “fornication.”
  • In Romans 1:29, it probably refers to homosexuality (given the context).
  • In 1 Corinthians 5:1, it refers to incest with one’s mother-in-law.
  • In Acts 15:20, 15:29, and 21:25, it refers to incest. The question is which parts of the Levitical law (Lev. 17-18) still need to be maintained by the Gentiles, and the answer is: Idol Sacrifices Lev. 17:8-9; Blood Lev. 17:10-12; Things Strangled Lev. 17:13-14; and Porneia (Incest) Lev. 18:6-18.
  • In 1 Corinthians 6:13, 6:18, and 7:2, it refers to fornication (in that case, with prostitutes). 2 Corinthians 12:21, Paul says that they still aren’t repentant of their porneia, which we can contextually assume refers to the same fornication mentioned above.
  • Colossians 3:5 and 1 Thessalonians 4:3 list it as a sin of the flesh, but don’t give much more detail. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 almost seems to equate it to “passionate lust like the heathen,” but Colossians 3:5 lists them as separate sins.
  • In Revelation 2:21, 9:21, 14:8, 17:2, 17:4, 18:3, and 19:2, it refers to Babylon’s fornication/prostitution.

1 Corinthians 5:1, Acts 15:20, 15:29, and 21:25, and 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 all connect porneia with the pagans, which makes sense, since the term porneia was the Greek word used in the Septuagint to describe incest. The Jews had strict rules governing who you could and couldn’t validly marry, while the pagans did not. The Jews, therefore, were shocked at the incestual relationships of the Greeks; Paul turns this around in 1 Corinthians 5:1 to say that the instance of incest among the Corinthian Christians was “of a kind that does not occur even among pagans.”

What this means in the marital context: there will be times where you can civilly marry immorally, whether that means marrying a relative, a member of the same sex, or a divorced person. Those marriages aren’t valid in the eyes of God. Jesus refers to the first two classes as fornication, and the last as adultery. To put it in a modern context, if two men marry in a state which permits gay marriage, one of them converts, and wants to know if he can get a divorce from his (non-cheating) civil spouse, the answer is absolutely yes. That’s so obvious that Mark and Luke don’t bother including this detail, but Matthew (fortunately) does.

This interpretation harmonizes Matthew, Mark, and Luke perfectly. The operative phrase is found in both Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” God never joins together siblings, gay couples, or divorcees in marriage. But those marriages which He does join can’t be broken for any reason, including adultery.

So the question then becomes, “Was this marriage one which God joined together?” And that’s a good role for the Church to play. She’s more objective than the parties involved, and can make a final determination upon the status. We already know from Matthew 18:17-18 and 1 Corinthians 6:1-2 that the Church plays a judicial role in the lives of disputing Christians. Annulments then, are simply declarations by the Church that the civil marriage which had existed was, for some reason, null — which is why they’re called Declarations of Nullity. To the best of the Church’s knowledge, there never was a marriage in the eyes of God in this instance, and the couple was, instead of consummating a sacred bond, simply fornicating.

– Joe.

P.S. I’ll acknowledge up front that some of the people you present this to won’t like how strict this rule is. The disciples’ reaction (in Matthew 19:10 was, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” So the fact that it’s an unpleasant truth only further suggests that this is precisely the manner in which it’s supposed to be read.
P.P.S. Turns out, Kevin’s journal has an article on the evolution of divorce in the US: http://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-evolution-of-divorce.


  1. Excellent post! I think readers would also enjoy a chapter of a book I co-edited with Scott Hahn entitled “Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God.” The chapter is entitled “The ‘Real Presence’ of the Marriage Bond.” It compares the reality of Christian marriage to the reality of Christ’s Eucharistic presence. (It also discusses the pivotal Matthew 19 passage.)

    There are many factors that lead to the muddying of the annulment waters, from societal attitudes and lax marriage tribunals to the particular–sometimes heart-wrenching–circumstances of individual cases. And of course what the heck does “porneia” mean?!

    As important as the annulment is from both a theological and pastoral perspective, in my humble opinion I think the Church should focus more attention–at every stage–to the indissolubility of marriage, drawing on the opening chapters of Genesis and JPII’s “theology of the body.”

    If we want to cultivate effective marriages, I think it’s better to emphasize the paradigm, not the loopholes.

  2. Thanks, Leon! I found your chapter on google books, and it’s been great so far. Specifically, while you acknowledged the controversy which the passage did attract, you said “not a single Church Father interpreted the phrase as permitting a remarriage” (p. 242). That’s some pretty solid evidence right there.

    Anyways, I’m looking forward to reading up on it, and maybe – just maybe – splurging and buying the dang thing.

    As for your other suggestion – to focus more on affirming the positive of marriage rather than just talking about divorces, null marriages / annulments, and the like, I like the idea. My own fear is that I lack the experience to say anything worthwhile on the subject of marriage (whereas the usual questions on annulments are experiential). Any thoughts?

  3. Joe, surely what I was suggesting was something very comprehensive in scope, with many working pieces (e.g., witness of one’s own parents, effective formation in Christian and human virtues, sound catechesis at every stage, a healthy introduction to dating/courtship, building a helpful peer community, and later better marriage prep formation and ongoing teaching/formation/encouragement for married couples, and all along sound pastoral guidance–most importantly through homilies and Confession–from their parish priest). I know that’s a mouthful, but we need a target–shoot at nothing and you’ll hit it every time!

    I just think it would be cool to hear about the beauty, challenge, adventure, etc. of marriage and what it entails–playing offense instead of defense for a change.

    It’s a tough deal, because we certainly don’t want large segments of people (e.g., single parents, divorced couples, etc.) feeling they’re not welcome in the Church.

    In the end, I think the only answer is God’s grace, and I think we’re most effective channels of divine grace when we are 100% doctrinal and 100% pastoral.

    I doubt this helped a whole lot, but I gotta play ping pong with my son now. (Priorities). Great site!

  4. I don’t want to be snarky; I am honestly just confused by this and it seems fishy. It seems to me that the Church will give anullments whenever it is convenient to do so and the marriage in question wasn’t a “Catholic wedding” (in the man-on-the-street sense, done by a priest in a catholic church). This is especially noticeable in the convert scenario. I mean, it would be cruel to tell someone who has remarried well before they even thought to become a Catholic that their new, happy marriage is mere adultery. And I get the impression that the Church shrinks from that cruelty. Denise Bossert is a catholic convert who has that story. But her first marriage was, from all appearances, extremely Christian and valid. It seems that the Church will dream up technicalities to get her (and people like Newt Gingrich off the hook). What say you?

  5. Austin,

    I basically agree with you about American churches, and so does Pope Benedict. Annulments are meant to authentically determine when a marriage was never valid, not as “Catholic divorce.” Too many dioceses (and too many divorcees) are abusing the process.

    Let’s be clear: annulment tribunals are a practical necessity. After all, there ARE cases where someone enters what appears to be a valid marriage, but it turns out to be invalid. Extreme cases would be those of individuals forced (upon fear of death) into marrying, as we’ve seen in Pakistan lately. Beyond this, there are cases where there are genuine questions about whether the person had the maturity and understanding to enter a lifelong covenant before God.

    If at the time the “marriage” was entered into, the person genuinely didn’t “get it” well enough to be bound by those vows, there’s no valid marriage. These cases are much harder, as you can imagine. Some of them are legitimately null marriages, and others are just post-nuptial remorse. And, of course, when someone marries prior to becoming Catholic — particularly if they marry in a religion/denominaiton that’s okay with divorce, or in a civil ceremony — it gets a lot tougher to know if they were even aware they were making a lifelong promise that they should be held bound to.

    So it’s important that the Church be able to make that determination. We don’t have the benefit of omniscience, yet we still need to make important judgment calls about these two people’s lives (and maybe much more than that, where there are children, or remarriages, etc.). In His Providence, God has promised that whatever the Church binds and loosens is bound and loosened in Heaven. Without that grace, I don’t think we could possibly make these judgment calls.

    But the fact that God has promised to respect the decisions of the Church doesn’t mean dioceses should give out annulments willy-nilly. Here your finger is on a very real problem. According to Catholic Insight, “The United States has 6% of the world’s Catholics but grants 78% percent of the world’s annulments.” So the problem you see with “the Church” is really a problem with American Catholics. We’re too open to divorce. The US bishops need to tow a tougher line, as do the members of annulment tribunals. At the end of the day, though, it’s primarily on the individual not to seek an annulment if they know their marriage was valid, and on the judge hearing the case to seek the truth honestly, rather to kowtow to the pressure of making everyone happy.

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