This post has been in the works for quite some time. Initially I had planned to do a detailed exegesis of the two crucial texts in Matthew in relation to divorce and remarriage (Matt. 5:31-32 and 19:1-12) as well as those in Paul’s letters, but teaching Sunday school, visiting my future in-laws, finishing seminary, and preparing for an August wedding have all proved more pressing, while such an expansive post on divorce and remarriage seemed daunting. Also, men much wiser and godlier than myself have produced work on divorce and remarriage much clearer than I can, at this point in my life, attempt to post on this blog.
So instead of attempting to press verse by verse through the divorce texts in Matthew, I have decided to direct you to some helpful work that has already been done on divorce remarriage and simply provide some further thoughts on why I have recently adjusted my position. Finally, I hope to challenge you to prayerfully consider how we ought to understand our Lord’s teaching on “what God has joined together . . .”
If you haven’t guessed already, I should go ahead and admit that I owe a great debt to Pastor John Piper in helping me think through the issue of divorce and remarriage. My view is very close to Piper’s and I came to it in great part through considering the argument put forward in his position paper on divorce and remarriage. To hear these arguments in a more engaging format, you can read, watch, or listen to two sermons Piper preached on divorce and remarriage last summer–here and here. Also, for a compendium of views on divorce and remarriage, you can check out the Spring 2002 edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology or check out the three views book on divorce and remarriage edited by Mark L. Strauss. I particularly commend Gordon Wenham’s article Does the New Testament Approve Remarriage after Divorce? in the SBJT. Wenham does an excellent job of reading Jesus’ teaching on divorce in light of their theological context, particularly the context of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God and the new covenant.
As a side note, I wanted to mention that while John Piper has been phenomenally influential in my walk with Christ, I do not follow everything he says blindly, in fact I disagree with Piper on some significant areas with regard to the church. I should also tell you that Piper’s position (and my position) on divorce and remarriage is not the majority position among evangelicals. In fact, people who hold his view are by far in the minority. In what follows, I will briefly outline Piper’s argument and offer a few insights.
Piper’s position is basically this: the only biblical ground for remarriage after divorce is the death of a spouse. He essentially grounds this position on Mark 10:9 and Matt. 19:6 when Jesus is asked about whether a man may divorce his wife for any reason and Jesus responds, saying, “what God has joined together let not man separate.” In other words, God created marriage and thus has rights over when it may be abolished. Since marriage is God’s, man does not have the right to abolish it for any reason. God is the one who separates via death. Jesus clearly sees marriage as a ‘one flesh’ union. This one flesh union is inaugurated by God–marriage is something that God himself has joined together. It is not fundamentally a social institution but a creation of almighty God.
This position on remarriage is confirmed in 1 Cor. 7:39 and Rom. 7:1-3, which cite only death as legitimate grounds for remarriage after divorce. Therefore, I think Christians should never pursue divorce. There may be times when, for safety reasons, a Christian may need to flee and separate from an abusive or dangerous spouse. Or, if a Christian has an unbelieving spouse and they demand a divorce, 1 Cor. 7:15 seems to indicate that a Christian may accept such a demand, but it seems clear that Christians are not to actively pursue divorce with a believing or unbelieving spouse (cf. 1 Pet. 3:1-2). I would interpret such deliberate movement toward divorce as separating what God has joined together.
The immediate objection to this position is the exception clause found in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9, when Jesus says that remarriage after divorce connotes adultery “except for sexual immorality.” Many conservative evangelicals see this as simply a reference to adultery. As I have previously outlined, “porneia” (the Greek word for sexual immorality) in the New Testament has a much broader meaning than adultery. For example, 1 Cor. 5:1 uses the porneia in reference to incest, and 1 Cor. 7:2 uses porneia to refer to premarital sexual activity. Further, Matthew clearly sees a distinction between the more common word for adultery, moicheia, and porneia as the two words are mentioned side by side in the list vices in Matt. 15:9. Also, both Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 cite porneia as the exception shortly after having utilized moicheia to refer to adultery.
Thus, the exception clause found in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 cannot refer so narrowly to adultery. If there is an exception, the exception is sexual immorality which has broader connotations than sex with someone other than one’s spouse. In other words, if sexual immorality provides a legitimate grounds for divorce, then divorce would be a legitimate action for a Christian on numerous grounds (i.e. something like looking at pornography or a struggle with wandering eyes could be acts of porneia). I do not think, however, that the exception clause is meant to provide broad grounds on which Christians may legitimize divorce.
This is where Piper’s explanation is helpful. He sees the exception clause, “except for sexual immorality,” in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 as a reference to sexual immorality during betrothal rather than within marriage. When I first heard Piper’s view several years ago, I thought it sounded very bizarre, but upon further study I think he may be on to something here. In John 8:41, Jesus is accused by the Pharisees of being “born of sexual immorality (porneia).” This accusation was made in denial of Jesus’ virgin birth. In other words they are saying Mary was sexually immoral during her betrothal to Joseph and thus they were accusing Jesus of having been conceived out of wedlock. Then in Matthew’s account of the virgin birth we see Joseph planning to “divorce [Mary] quietly” (Matt. 1:19). The word used for divorce in Matt. 1:19 in reference to betrothal is the same word used for divorce in Matthew 5:32 and Matt. 19:9 where we find the exception clause “except for sexual immorality.” Therefore Piper sees, and I am inclined to agree with him, the exception clause as a reference to betrothal rather than adultery inside of marriage.
With that in view, there is a valid divorce inside a betrothal on grounds of sexual immorality but not for divorce inside of a marriage. It makes sense that Matthew would want to make clear, given the nature of his account of the virgin birth, that Joseph was not planning an illegitimate divorce because at the time he thought Mary to be guilty of sexual immorality during the time of their betrothal.
This seems strange to us today because we think of betrothal and engagement as the same thing, and we consider it perfectly fine to call off an engagement. However, engagement and betrothal are not the same thing. Jewish people in the NT era took betrothal very seriously and would not permit a betrothal to be broken on broad grounds. It was a very serious commitment and it is our flippant attitude toward engagement that keeps us from seeing the seriousness of betrothal.
I know there are numerous questions I haven’t answered in this post. I would commend Piper’s position paper and Gordon Wenham’s article linked above to answer your questions. I know there are probably a million practical questions that come to your mind in wondering how such a view should be lived out in the local church. But I would simply say that we must always begin with what the Bible clearly teaches and then move on to answer questions of practice.
What concerns me about much of the teaching I hear today on divorce and remarriage is that it begins by attempting to excuse the presence of divorce and multiple marriages in our congregations. I know there are probably remarried people in your church–there are in mine; and we need to love people in 2nd and 3rd and 4th marriages, but we must also be honest with them about what God says about remarriage, and we need to be honest with them about what God says about divorce. Honesty about sin is the first step toward healing from sin and its effects. Clearly, those who have divorced and remarried on grounds other than the death of a spouse should not divorce from their second spouse because they feel they are living in adultery. That would be multiplying sin. In fact, Deut. 24:1-4 indicates that it is an abomination to the Lord when a wife is divorced from her second husband and seeks to return to the first. The good news for all who are in a second marriage in our churches is: “If we confess our sin, [Christ] is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We ought to tell those who are pained by the sin of having remarried to confess their sin to God and ask for forgiveness and God can and will cleanse them. He can bring much glory to himself through his regenerating work in the hearts of those who are now married for the second time even though they never should have pursued a second marriage. No matter what our position on divorce and remarriage is, it does not change the reality that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).
It also concerns me that there is a propensity in our churches to excuse something that God hates (Mal. 2:16). God hates divorce. It flies in the face of the purpose for which he created marriage, namely to display His own glory in redeeming for himself a people through Jesus (Eph. 5:25-27). I have heard entire sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount that do nothing more than seek to lessen the severity of Jesus’ radical commands. There is no doubt–there are victims of divorce. There are many Christians who did not want a divorce, and perhaps even fought against it, but ended up giving in to their spouse’s incessant demands for a divorce, likely because their spouse is an unbeliever. But, the sad reality of our day is that there are actually untold thousands of victims of divorce (e.g. children, church members, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandparents, cousins, and friends of those who determine to abolish what Almighty God has joined together).
I fear that our propensity to lessen the radical nature of Christ’s commands is a testimony to how worldly our churches are today. I don’t have to tell you . . . you have heard the statistics. The divorce rate is not any smaller among those who claim to be Christians. Do you want to reflect the glory of God in redemption in your marriage? Then don’t EVER break it off! Marriage is God’s doing, and it exists for his glory. He determines when to dissolve it, not us. That does not mean that second marriages cannot bring God glory; by the regenerating work of the Spirit, they can. But that fact doesn’t make divorce permissible for those who are members of the new kingdom Jesus has inaugurated in human hearts. If Jesus’ words seem too hard, remember that they seemed too hard to his disciples as well (Matt. 19:10). But we are to live as lights of truth in a dark and dying world, and we do so by offering ourselves as a sacrifice of worship to Jesus Christ, not by conforming to the world (Rom. 12:1-2).