It’s open knowledge that divorce rates have been on the up. And sadly, the Christian statistic is not much better than that of society. My personal opinion is that divorce has not been preached or taught enough over the pulpit, resulting in ignorance and a certain license amongst believers as they presume the grace of God allows for that since “God understands”.
With such mindsets, any appeal to Scriptures is tantamount to going back to the Law (or legalism) and that probably explains why most pastors would rather not handle this hot potato for fear of being branded a Pharisee. Add to that, the laws of the land do not regard divorce or adultery a crime. Subconsciously, this affects the way we view these topics too, presenting another huge obstacle to overcome.
Notwithstanding the above, as disciples of Jesus Christ, it is the words of Jesus we must heed. Let it be stated clearly that to hold firmly to Jesus’ words does not make one a Pharisee at all. On this point, Christians must learn to distinguish between the “You have heard that it was said” from the “But I say to you” phrases. And that is precisely the intent of this article as we address a highly controversial issue of divorce, drawing from the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 5:31-32.
“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Matt 5:31–32
The Issue is still Adultery These two verses are a follow-on from Matt 5:27-30 where Jesus addresses the command “You shall not commit adultery”. Going for the jugular, He reveals that a lustful intent to possess a woman renders one adulterous. Clearly, this comment is directed at married men who craved for another other than their wives. But Jesus doesn’t stop there! He takes the teaching further and declares that adultery is also committed when divorce takes place. In those days, divorce had become commonplace as was remarriage. Men were simply dumping their wives so that they could have another woman “legally”.
It has been said The Law of Moses (Deut 24:1-4) allows the man to dismiss his wife simply by giving her a certificate of divorce. Although this seems to favour the man, it was actually to protect the woman. Abusing this provision, men with promiscuous lifestyles would dismiss their wives at will, usually wrongfully and unjustifiably. Without a certificate of divorce, the woman would be deemed as adulterous and thus be liable for judgment resulting in death by stoning. By the time of Jesus, two rabbinic schools of thought were prevalent. The House of Shammai held the stricter view that divorce was allowed only on grounds of sexual immorality. The more lenient House of Hillel allowed divorce for any reason. For example, if a woman burnt the husband’s breakfast, the man could dismiss her!
But I say to you In response to this, Jesus declares, “If you divorce your wife, you cause her to commit adultery. You are responsible for her sin! And if you marry such a one, you commit adultery too!” (paraphrase) To understand Jesus’ point, we must understand what marriage is according to God’s original design and intent. For this, we must turn to Matt 19:1-10 where the same issue is addressed not as a general teaching but as a direct response to the Pharisees’ question (remember that these were the ones whose interpretation Jesus countered in Matt 5:31-32). Quite apart from desiring to know Jesus’ position on divorce, I believe the Pharisees had a secret intention of justifying their own divorces.
And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at 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 then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” Matt 19:4–6
Marriage in God’s Eyes Jesus goes back to the beginning, way before the Law was ever given to Moses, quoting from Gen 2:24. It is almost humorous when Jesus challenged these so-called experts of the Torah, “Have you not read?” Stated clearly, the man is “joined” to his wife and “the two shall become one flesh”. The Hebrew word for “join” or “cleave” literally means “glue”. Simply, in marriage, God’s superglue holds the two together, so closely and tightly that “they are no longer two but one flesh.” In God’s eyes, the marriage is a permanent union, a covenant that is broken only by death (cf Rom 7:2-3). That explains the clause “until death do us part” in the wedding vow — a phrase many readily declare but few, I suspect, understand its significance, much less regard it as a solemn vow before God and witnesses. Jesus then says, warns rather, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
The Hardness of Hearts Refusing to acknowledge this, the Pharisees appealed to the Law of Moses again. Since the subtle nice guy tact didn’t work, Jesus told them plainly, “The problem is with your hearts! If Moses didn’t allow divorce, you would have killed your wives to get out of the marriage! This is definitely not God’s original intent and design!” Matt 19:8 (paraphrased) Then Jesus issues the exact “but I say to you” teaching as He did in Matt 5:32, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
Except for Sexual Immorality This little phrase has been taken as Jesus’ proviso for divorce, almost like a loophole or an escape hatch, hence the need to examine it in greater detail. Allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, we must consider the parallel instructions of Jesus in Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:11-12.
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery. Luke 16:18
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:11–12
As Luke and Mark were written primarily to the Gentiles, the phrase in question “except for sexual immorality” is not mentioned. Note also in Mark, it is the woman who divorces her husband and not vice versa. This was prevalent in Gentile practice but not allowed for in Jewish Law (observation: today, women are the ones filing for divorce). The point is simply this: Matthew was written to the Jews and Jesus was addressing a Jewish problem. In doing so, He was in fact clarifying the understanding of Deut 24:1 where the word “uncleanness” was used. This was a very broad term that encompasses shame, nakedness and indecency. No one was really clear what it covered and as long as the woman “finds no favor in [the man’s] eyes”, he could write her a certificate of divorce!
Porneia & Moichea Jesus uses two different words to make His point, porneia and moichea. Technically, porneia includes all forms of sexual immorality, including fornication, bestiality, homosexuality as well as adultery. In this regard, in most English translations, “sexual immorality” is not wrong. However, when taken in its Jewish context, I submit to you that it is not accurate. Instead, I believe Jesus was referring to fornication or inappropriate sexual activity before marriage. This clause addresses the case where a man has been deceived into thinking his wife is a virgin, but finds out that she had been promiscuous before, or unfaithful during betrothal. In such a case, he is allowed to dissolve the marriage (as in the case of Joseph when he found that Mary was with child, cf Deut 22). It cannot refer to “adultery” or “marital unfaithfulness” (as in NIV) otherwise why would Jesus say that such would be caused to commit adultery? If the woman was already adulterous, she cannot be caused to commit adultery because she already has. To Jesus, in Jewish culture, this is the only legitimate ground for divorce. Whether Jew or Gentile, we must not miss the point that God views sexual purity before marriage very seriously.
Reason or Excuse? Drawing from the above, if not for the reason of fornication, and considering a more relevant Gentile context, there is really no other reason that justifies divorce at all. To the Jews, Jesus cancels the Mosaic concession for men to discard their wives at will just so they can take another woman. Jesus warns the man that he is responsible for the woman’s sin of adultery if she remarries, if he does not honour the marriage covenant. In no uncertain terms, Jesus warns the man to think twice before using the divorce card too easily and conveniently to get another woman. Is it not interesting that today, adultery is not the most cited reason for divorce but unreasonable behavior, irreconcilable differences, incompatibility, financial issues, falling out of love, etc? Jesus is really saying, “Stop calling these reasons when they are nothing but excuses!” For the kingdom subject, for the disciple, for the Christian, divorce is not an option. Even Paul builds on Jesus’ standard of no divorce in 1 Cor 7:10-13. And this is possible if and when couples are willing to forgive and to reconcile. Surely it is no coincidence that the discourse on marriage and divorce comes immediately after Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness in Matt 18:21-35. How things become so much clearer when read in context.
Divorce & Remarriage or Serial Wife-swapping? As we have seen, because of the hardness of hearts, the same have exploited Moses’ concession for divorce and interpreted it as a permission to dump and change wives. As long as a spouse was viewed unfavourably, the divorce card was played so that remarriage was made possible. The issue is really not divorce and remarriage but serial wife-swapping. Jesus exposes this and calls it as it is — ADULTERY. According to God’s divine order, the marriage covenant still stands. A divorce may legally dissolve a marriage in civil courts, but not spiritually. The bond of marriage remains! And anything other relationship outside of the marriage is adultery, leaving only two options after divorce — either reconcile or remain single.
It’s Better not to Marry! This explains the disciples’ exclamation in Matt 19:10, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” There is no escape hatch, no 30-day trial period! Notice that Jesus does not dispute their understanding of His teaching at all. Instead, Jesus cautions them that not everyone has been called to singlehood or celibacy (Matt 19:11-12).
I am fully aware that not everyone will agree nor be happy with what has been presented. I guess the Pharisees felt pretty much the same way when Jesus said what He said. I would encourage you to search and study more deeply and not just go on impressions or what you would have liked the text to say. Jesus’ standards may seem difficult and impossible; but remember, He also calls us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt 5:48). Thankfully, He also enables us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If you have read this far, you’d probably have many questions, most of which are situational which cannot be addressed here. I don’t apologise for that because that was never my intention. The objective was to understand the words of Jesus that we may more accurately obey Him and guide others. And I hope I have assisted adequately in that exercise.
Now, as a disciple of Jesus, you must seek Him for yourself that He may direct you accordingly. May the Lord bless and enable you!
Related Posts: The Divorce Dilemma 2: Pastoral Exhortations and The Divorce Dilemma 3: What Would Jesus Do?
This is just an excerpt of the sermon “The Divorce Dilemma” preached at Covenant Vision Christian Church on 8 Sept 2013. Hear the full message at Covenant Vision Media Centre or download the podcast from Covenant Vision Christian Church Audio Podcast. It should be uploaded by 13 Sept.