ŇIt hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 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.Ó   Matthew 5:31-32


Our Saviour Christ, proceeding further to restore the seventh commandment to its perfection, doth here confute a false interpretation of a politic law of Moses, given by the Scribes and Pharisees. For this end, first He lays down the words of MosesŐ politic law; but yet so, as containing in them the false interpretation of the Jewish teachers (v. 31), then He opposeth the truth of God against their false interpretation, and maintaineth the first institution of marriage (v.32).



I. For the first, MosesŐ politic law was that he which putteth away his wife, should give her a bill of divorce. This law the Jewish teachers did falsely interpret: For the better perceiving whereof, these three points are to be handled touching MosesŐ politic law:

        1. What kind of law it was.

        2. The straitness of that law.

        3. What effect and force it had.


1. For the first: The law is set down (Deut. 24:1), When a man marrieth a wife, and she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath espied some filthiness in her; then let him write a bill of divorce an put it in her hand, and send her out of his house. This law was not moral but civil, or politic, for the good ordering of the commonwealth. Now among their particular laws, some were laws of toleration and permission, which were such as did not approve of the evil which they concerned, but did only tolerate and permit that evil which could not be avoided, for the preventing of a greater evil, which otherwise would fall out. As when the sea hath made a breach in the land, if it cannot possibly be stopped, the best course is to make it as narrow as it may be. Such was the law concerning usury (Deut. 23:20), permitting the Jews to exercise it upon a stranger, but not towards a brother; and the like was the law touching polygamy (Deut. 21:15). If a man had two wives, the one hated and the other loved; and they both have borne him children; if the firstborn be the son of the hated (though she were married to him later) yet her seed was legitimate, and her son had the right of the firstborn. In both which laws were tolerated that which God condemned, only for the preventing of a greater evil. Under this sort comes our law of usury, for taking ten in the hundred, not approving but permitting so much for the avoiding of greater usury. Unto this kind the papists would reduce their law of permitting stews for the preventing of greater sins; but that law can have no title to such permission; for a law of permission is to diminish that evil which by man cannot possibly be cut off altogether; now their sin, which they would prevent by their stews, might be cut off among them, if they would give allowance to GodŐs own ordinance of lawful marriage unto all sorts and sexes. So likewise this law of Moses for divorce, was a law of permission, not approving of the giving of a bill of divorce for every light cause, but tolerating of it for the preventing of greater mischief, even of murder; for the nature of the Jews was this: if a man once took dislike of his wife, he would never be at rest till he had shed her blood, if they might not be parted asunder. Now this law of divorce was given to restrain this great evil; for hereby a man was tolerated to put away his wife when she found no favour in his eyes, lest he should kill her; yet so, as he gave her a bill of divorce, wherein he must set down the cause why he put her away; whereby also many were restrained from putting away their wives, because it was a great shame for a light occasion so highly to transgress GodŐs holy institution, who made them by marriage one flesh. The truth of this may appear by the LordŐs own complaint against His people, to whom He speaketh as to a wife that had forsaken her husband without a cause on his behalf (Isa. 50:1). Where (saith he) is that bill of your motherŐs divorcement whereby I sent her away? As if He should say, I gave her no bill, but her departure and separation from me is by her own sins; which phrase sheweth what was the custom of the Jews in this case.


2. The straitness of this law appears in this: that the man only was permitted to give this bill unto his wife, but the wife might not give it to her husband; for Moses saith, Whosoever shall put away his wife. Neither is there any place in Scripture to prove that the wife had this liberty so to deal with her husband. If it be asked whether the wife in a just cause, as for adultery, had not the like liberty, I answer, If we respect GodŐs institution touching marriage, the right of divorce is equal to them both; for in regard of the bond of marriage they are equally bound one to another. Here indeed this liberty is permitted only to the man by this politic law, not that he had more right, nut to prevent the evil of the hardness of his heart, who taking displeasure at his wife, would rather spill her blood than continue with her. If it be alleged that a man is the womanŐs head (1 Cor. 11:3), I answer that it is for regiment and direction in her place, but not in regard of breaking the bond of marriage, whereby he is bound to his wife as well as she to him, as the apostle teacheth (1 Cor. 7:4).


3. The force and effect of this law was this: it made the bill of divorcement for any cause given, to be tolerable before men; and marriage after such a divorce, lawful and warrantable in the courts of men (Deut. 24:4). But yet in the court of conscience before God, the divorcement itself, and second marriages made thereupon, were both unlawful, for God hateth this separation (Mal. 2:16). And whether party soever marrieth another upon this divorce, commits adultery (Matt. 19:9). This must be remembered for the true understanding of this law of Moses; the first words whereof are a permission to this effect: If a man do conceive such a dislike against his wife as that he will not abide with her, but will needs put her away, then he may; but yet so that he give her a bill of divorce; which doth not acquit him before God, but before men only.



II. Having thus shewed the true meaning of this law, it remaineth now to see what the Pharisees taught touching divorce. Their doctrine was this: that he which gave a bill of divorcement unto his wife for any light occasion, was thereby acquitted from her before God; and thereupon might marry another without the guilt of adultery; and also that another man might lawfully marry her that was thus divorced. That this was their meaning, may appear by the contrary answer of our Saviour Christ, whereupon He crosseth and confuteth this their interpretation in the words following: But I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife (except it be for fornication) causeth her to commit adultery; and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery (v. 32).


Here Christ answereth not to MosesŐ law, but to the corrupt interpretation of the Scribes and Pharisees, whereby they depraved that law. By fornication, Christ meaneth not every sin of that kind, but only the sin of adultery; or that which is greater in that kind, namely, incest. Adultery is a sin that is committed by two parties, one whereof is either married, or espoused, as hath been shewed before. Causeth her to commit adultery: that is, giveth her occasion to marry again, and so to commit adultery; because their first bond remaineth still. And he that marrieth her that is divorced: that is, for any small cause, and not for adultery, he also commits adultery.


Here two points are set down: first, that he who puts away his wife for any light cause, causeth her to commit adultery; secondly, he that marrieth her  that is divorced, committeth adultery. Yet unto both these Christ putteth an exception in the case of adultery. The papists and some others would restrain the exception to the first part of the sentence, and make it a negation to this effect: He that puts away his wife, being no fornicator, etc. But the truth is that the exception belongs to the whole answer of our Saviour Christ, denying divorce, save only for adultery; and permitting no marriage after divorcement, save only where the divorce is for adultery.


1. First, whereas our Saviour Christ opposeth unto this politic law of Moses concerning divorce, the law of nature touching marriage (Gen. 2:24), He giveth us an excellent distinction between all politic laws and the law of nature, which is the moral law; for that is a law of eternal equity, commanding good, and forbidding evil simply, without respect of man; but politic laws are tempered according to the conditions of men, and though they do not approve, yet sometimes they permit evil, for the avoiding of greater mischief, yea, they tolerate that which before God, and in conscience, is condemned. This point must teach us not to content ourselves with performing obedience to the politic laws of men, for the laws of men may tolerate that which GodŐs law doth condemn; so the law of this land in practice tolerates usury, but usurers must not hereupon think that all is safe and well with them, and that they sin not in taking ten in the hundred, because the law of the land permits it; for our law tolerates that for the preventing of greater usury, whenas the law of God doth utterly condemn the same. Again, our laws are open for men to go to law at the first, upon every light occasion, without seeking former means of agreement; but yet such men as do so, are guilty of sin before God, notwithstanding their liberty by our politic laws. Some politic laws also tolerate contracts of marriage made without consent of parents; yet such children sin against the law of God; for herein God requires childrenŐs subjection to their parents and governors. And the like might be shewed in many other points; so that is no sufficient justification of our actions, to say the laws of men allow us so to do.


2. Secondly, we may learn that a man cannot lawfully and with good conscience put away his wife, except it be for adultery; the text is clear both here, and also in Matt. 19:9, which confuteth the civil laws of some countries, and the popish constitutions that allow other causes of divorce besides adultery. Here they object sundry things in their defence against this doctrine, as:


Objection 1: The saying of Christ, Whosoever forsaketh father, or mother wife, etc. shall receive much reward (Matt. 19:29). Here (say they) is divorce for religion allowed. Answer: Christ by forsaking, meaneth not that separation which is made by giving a bill of divorcement, but that which is caused by imprisonment, banishment or by death.


Objection 2: If the unbelieving depart, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not bound in such things (1 Cor. 7:15). Here (say they) is another cause of divorce. Answer: The malicious or wilful departing of the unbeliever doth dissolve the marriage; but that is no cause of giving a bill of divorce; only adultery causeth that. Here the believer is a mere patient, and the divorce is made by the unbeliever, who unjustly forsaketh, and so puts away the other.


Objection 3: Avoid an heretic after once or twice admonition (Tit. 3:10). This (say they) is spoken to all Christians; and therefore for heresy may a bill of divorce be given. Answer: First, that commandment is not given to every private person, but to the ministers of the church, who after one or two admonitions are to excommunicate and cut off all heretics from the church. Secondly, it hindereth not but that the bond of marriage may remain sure and firm, though one of the parties be cut off from the church; for the believing husband must not forsake his unbelieving wife, if she will dwell with him (1 Cor. 7:12).


Objection 4: After marriage, one party may have a contagious and incurable disease, which may cause the other to give a bill of divorce. Answer: A contagious disease may cause a separation for a time, but no divorce; and if that disease be incurable, and disable the party from the duty of marriage, then such persons must think themselves, as it were, called of God to live in single life.


Objection 5: But married persons may seek to spill the blood one of another, and therefore it is good to give a bill of divorce to prevent that evil. Answer: Such enmity may cause a separation for a time, till reconciliation be made, but the bond of marriage must not therefore be broken.


Objection 6: Death maketh a divorce. Answer: Death indeed endeth marriage-estate, and setteth the party living free to marry in the Lord, where he or she will; but this comes not by divorce given of either party; so that the conclusion still remaineth firm, that a man with good conscience cannot give a bill of divorcement for any cause but for adultery; and therefore those laws which permit divorce for other causes, are greatly faulty before God. If any shall ask whether menŐs laws may not make more causes of divorcement than this one? I answer: no, for marriage is not a mere civil thing, but partly spiritual and divine, and therefore God only hath power to appoint the beginning, the continuance and the end thereof. If any yet ask why idolatry and magic, which be greater sins than adultery, may not break marriage? Answer: They are greater indeed, against God, but not in this ordinance of marriage; for the sin of adultery breaketh only the bond of marriage, which may remain still between two parties, though one be an idolater, a witch or an atheist. Now considering that adultery is so great a sin that it cuts off the knot of marriage, above all things, those persons that are called to this estate, must take heed of all sins, so of this especially.


3. Thirdly, here may be asked, whether after divorce for adultery, the parties divorced may marry again without committing adultery? The point hath been diversely discussed, we will consider the reasons on both sides.


(1) First, for the lawfulness of it, especially to the party innocent.


(i) From ChristŐs doctrine in this place; for in His answer to the false interpretation of MosesŐ politic law touching divorce, He first propounds a general rule, and then puts an exception thereto; the nature of which exception is always to imply and put down the contrary to the general rule. As in this place, the general rule is, Whosoever putteth away his wife, causeth her to commit adultery, and he that marrieth her committeth adultery. The exception then must be contrary; namely, that in the case of adultery, he that puts away his wife lawfully convicted thereof, causeth her not to commit adultery; neither he that marrieth her that is divorced doth commit adultery. If it be said that Christ propoundeth two rules, one for the case of divorce, the other for the case of marrying after divorce; and applieth his exception for adultery only to the case of divorce, and not to the case of marriage after divorce. Answer: As the exception for adultery is here in this chapter joined with the case of divorce; he that putteth away his wife, except it be for fornication, etc., so in the 19th chapter (v.9), the same exception for adultery is expressly applied not only to the case of divorce, but also to the case of marriage after divorce; saying, whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and marry another, committeth adultery; so that if in this place the exception makes the divorce lawful for adultery, then in the 19th chapter, it maketh it lawful to marry again after such divorce, without the guilt of adultery.


(ii) The innocent party is not to be punished for the wilfulness of the offender, and therefore the party that is faultless may with good conscience marry again after lawful divorce.


(iii) God hath provided marriage to be a remedy against incontinence for all persons (1 Cor. 7:2). But if parties lawfully divorced might not marry again, then they should want this remedy and be deprived of this benefit. Answer: But what if the party offending live in adultery still, then the party innocent cannot in conscience join him or herself to the other, and reunite the bond of matrimony; for that were too much lenity towards so foul a crime; and a sin against God, for want of Christian reconciliation, which requireth that this reuniting should be in the Lord and not in the flesh alone.


(iv) The phrases of Scripture used by the Holy Ghost concerning marriage after divorce, restraining it to some cases, and allowing it in others, seem to take it for granted that after lawful divorce, it is no sin to marry again.


(2) Reasons alleged on the other side:


(i) First, ChristŐs general saying (Mark 10:11), Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery. Hence some infer that there may be no marriage at all after any divorce. But they abuse that Scripture; for though Mark put down no exception, yet Matthew hath made supply thereof in two places (Matt. 5:32 and 19:9). Now the gospels were penned by several men, that that which was not fully expressed by one, might be supplied by another; that so by conferring writer with writer, the whole truth might be made manifest.


(ii) Secondly, (Matt. 19:6) Whom God hath coupled, let no man put asunder. Therefore after divorce, they still remain man and wife before God, and may not marry to others. Answer: The party offending breaks the bond of marriage, and so sinneth grievously against that commandment; but the party innocent marrying again after lawful divorce, only taketh the benefit of that liberty whereto God hath set him free, through the unlawful breaking of the bond by the party offending.


(iii) Thirdly, (Rom. 7:2) The woman is bound to the man while he liveth, and therefore may not marry again after divorcement. Answer: That place must be understood of the state of marriage continuing undissolved till death; but in the case of adultery, the bond of marriage is broken; and therefore that hindereth not, but marriage may be after lawful divorce.


(iv) Fourthly, (I Cor. 7:10,11) Let not the wife depart from her husband; and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, and be reconciled unto her husband; and let not the husband put away his wife. Here (say they) is a plain place against marriage after divorcement. Answer: The apostle speaketh of departure, and putting away, for other causes than adultery; as for hatred, dislike, etc., which indeed are no sufficient causes of divorce, and therefore they that separate thereupon ought not to marry.


(v) Fifthly, the bond of marriage is a resemblance of the conjunction that is between Christ and His church, which is inseparable and eternal; and therefore marriage is also inseparable. Answer: That resemblance stands not in everything, but in this: That as in marriage two are made one flesh, so spiritually Christ, and every true member of His church becomes one; and that as Eve was taken out of AdamŐs side, and made flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone; so the church springeth as it were out of ChristŐs blood, which issued from His side; for else, if their reason were good, we might say that marriage should be eternal in the life to come; because the union of Christ with His church is eternal; which we know to be false, for (Matt. 22:30) in the resurrection, men marry not, but are as the angels of God.


(vi) Sixthly, if parties divorced might marry again, their children should be injured, having step-fathers or step-mothers instead of their own natural parents. Answer: This reason is not sufficient to disallow divorce, or marriage after it; for by the same reason we might delude all the judicial laws of Moses, and of all countries, which impose death for sundry crimes, because thereby some children should lose their parents; but justice must be justice with all men, though the posterity have hindrance by the execution thereof.


Question: But what if laws of some countries forbid marriage after divorcement? Answer: Yet the liberty of conscience remaineth still; for this being given of God, cannot be taken away by man; and therefore when men have freedom from the magistrate, they may with good conscience marry again after lawful divorce. And yet here we must know that divorcement, or marriage after, must not be done privately, by man and wife upon their own heads, but by order of law, before the magistrate, according to the custom of that church or commonwealth whom it concerns. Again, there be some particular causes which may justly hinder marriage after divorce; as first, if the parties reunite their bond again by reconciliation; for the knot broken by adultery, may be reunited again by the consent of the party innocent. Secondly, when the one party is a manifest cause of the adultery of the other, and so becomes an accessory to the otherŐs offence; for it seems unequal that he who hath put his hand to the committing of a sin, should reap any benefit or privilege by the same. And therefore I say the party innocent hath freedom in this case.