“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31-32).
Over the last month I have had the awesome privilege of teaching through the Sermon on the Mount during Sunday School to the adults at my church. Last Sunday, with my girlfriend and her mom (she was in town to visit) present I had the challenge of teaching on what I believe Jesus is teaching in these two verses in the Sermon on the Mount. It was a daunting task considering that this is an issue that I have been unsettled about for quite some time. Knowing that I must do my best to teach God’s Word to God’s people at my church I decided its time to delve deeper into this issue and see if, by God’s grace, I can’t make sense of this issue in Scripture.
For much of my Christian walk I thought these two verses were pretty straight-forward. I assumed that divorce was something God hated (Mal. 2:16) and thus remarriage constituted adultery as indicated in Matthew 5:32, 19:9, Luke 16:8, and Mark 10:11-12. Given that for much of my Christian walk I read the NIV, I assumed the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, “execept for marital unfaithfulness” gave a valid exception by which a believer could rightly divorce and consequently remarry. I assumed that marital unfaithfulness was a reference to adultery. It made sense to me, what greater breach of trust in a marriage relationship is there than adultery? God created man and woman to be one flesh and thus if a spouse unites him or herself to another then they have broken the one flesh bond and thus the marriage might rightly be terminated . . . right? And if the exception applies to divorce, wouldn’t it follow that the exception applies to remarriage? For most of my life as a Christian I thought so, but I am not sure anymore.
There are four reasons that I began to feel unsettled about the view I held for so long. In this post I will give you the reasons I felt drawn to re-examine my long held position and in posts following I will lay out and defend the position I now strongly but cautiously lean toward. The first two reasons are textual and the second two are theological. Here they are:
- Neither Mark 10:11-12 nor Luke 16:8 contain the exception clause “except for marital unfaithfullness.” Also, Paul never mentions adultery as a grounds for remarriage in any of his teaching on marriage in his letters. The only grounds Paul mentions for remarriage is the death of the spouse (1 Cor. 7:11-12, 39). Paul gives abandonment as a grounds for divorce but never as a grounds for remarriage (1 Cor. 7:15-16). Further, a straightforward reading of Romans 7:1-4 would seem to indicate that any marriage conducted while one’s former spouse is alive constitutes adultery.
- The NIV’s rendering of the exception clause in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 as “except for marital unfaithfulness” is less than satisfactory. The term “marital unfaithfullness” (in Greek “porneia”) should instead be translated “sexual immorality” and does not exclusively refer to adultery. If there is a valid exception being presented here it would seem to be broader than adultery. I will discuss this point further in a post to follow, but for now let me just say that Matthew’s term, porneia, in the exception clause does not specifically refer to adultery. This realization in particular was unsettling to me.
- In both Mark 10 and Matthew 19, Jesus is defends the sanctity of marriage by discussing God’s purpose for marriage in creation–that man and woman might become one flesh (Gen. 2:24). It seems hard for me to see how remarriage might be justified when God created man and woman to be one flesh–a bond that should not be broken. Further, Jesus rightly interprets Deut. 24:1-4 in these two gospel texts by indicating that Moses only permitted divorce because of the people’s hardness of heart. I will say more on this in posts to follow.
- The purpose of marriage for believers is to display the glory of God in redemption. Paul clearly sees marriage in Ephesians 5:25-33 as a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church. If God intends marriage to be a picture of the redemption we have through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, then it is hard for me to understand how such a relationship could be severed and then another such relationship rightly begun. In other words, Christ is not going to divorce us–he will never leave us or forsake us and betroth Himself to another–we are his and nothing can separate us from His covenant love (Rom. 8:38)! Given that Paul compares marriage to this permanent relationship that Christ has wrought between Himself and His bride the church, it seems that God’s pattern for marriage would be one in which remarriage is not permitted except on grounds of the death of a spouse.
These are the concerns that drove me to reconsider this issue. In a forthcoming post I will defend the position I now strongly lean to. You have probably already guessed my position, which is fine. I know this is a difficult issue that touches many people personally, but I think it should be said that we don’t decide what we believe based on the circumstances around us, we base what we believe on what is true and God’s Word defines that for us. I don’t claim to have the final say on this issue, I merely hope these concerns and my upcoming post drive you to think carefully and biblically on what it means for man and woman to become one flesh and so display the glory of God in redemption. It is my prayer that this post and the posts to follow would encourage those who read it toward more faithful, God-honoring, Christ-exalting marriages!