Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage

By Matt1618

I have noticed the arguments of those who look for ways to get around the clear teaching of Jesus and Paul against divorce and remarriage. My conclusion is that the justification for divorce and remarriage is based on a faulty reading of some Biblical passages and a deliberate avoidance of others. For those who argue that Paul argues that divorce and remarriage is justified based on some passages in 1 Corinthians 7, there is an examination of that claim here.

Here I want to focus on the most often referred to Biblical texts that supposedly give justification for divorce, which are found in Matt. 5:32 and Matt. 19:9. These Biblical texts supposedly justify divorcing and remarrying due to adultery of the spouse. Before I get into that, though, what is most often missed, is the realization that Matthew is not the only place where Jesus speaks about marriage, divorce, and adultery. Those who seek to justify divorce and remarriage, most often refer to Jesus' teaching in Matthew, but will not often refer to passages on the issue in Mark and Luke. As a Catholic I do not need to rely on the Bible alone as my guide, and I can trust the infallible teaching of the Church on the issue, but here I will deal with divorce justifying Protestants (in addition to many Catholics who do not adhere to the Church teaching on the matter as well) on the terms of the Bible itself.

Jesus spoke quite clearly on the issue of divorce and remarriage in two other places besides the gospel of Matthew.

1) In Luke 16:18 Jesus says:
Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

No outs, no exception. Luke apparently thought that he omitted nothing central to the issue when he quoted Jesus on the issue of divorce. If he thought that Jesus taught that adultery was an exception, why would Luke leave that out? In Luke Jesus is quite clear in teaching that whoever marries someone divorced is an adulterer.

2) Mark also records Jesus thoughts on the issue, Mark 10:2-12:

2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away." 5 But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." 10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Jesus, when speaking in Mark, is more elaborate than in Luke, but is just as condemnatory of divorce and remarriage as he was in Luke. Notice that he gives absolutely no exceptions. In fact in the gospel of Mark, more elaboration is given to why divorce and remarriage is unacceptable in God’s eyes (This elaboration of Jesus we will examine when we examine Matthew 19). He says in neither Luke nor Mark that it would be OK to remarry if someone commits adultery. Or that it is Ok to remarry even if you get abandoned. The question here is not law, per se, but what did Jesus command. As followers of Christ, we are commanded to keep his commandments (Jn. 14:15). Apparently, neither Mark or Luke, who were speaking to both Jewish and Gentile audiences felt that they were leaving anything important out when they recorded these sayings of Jesus. If they thought there were the outs that people will use to justify divorcing and remarrying, Mark and Luke would have been deliberately distorting Jesus teaching on the issue. In fact neither writer distorted Jesus teaching, as he taught the absolute indissolubility of marriage. Jesus’ teachings in Mark and Luke are consistent and true, that there are no exceptions for divorce of a marriage.

People ignore the passages in Mark and Luke, and then think they can come up with an exception as found in Matthew 19:9 or Mat. 5:32. First, if there is indeed an exception for adultery, it would deliberately contradict Jesus’ clear teaching in Mark and Luke, where there are absolutely no grounds given for divorce and remarriage. People will often ignore these very relevant passages and focus on some supposed exception. This would show Scripture to be contradictory.

When we get into the book of Matthew, we must remember that Matthew’s core audience is Jews. This would be something specific that Jews would know. Now, with that in the background let us examine what Jesus teaches in Matthew 19:3-10 (the critical text, v. 9, here is similar to that which is found in Matt. 5:32):

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 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'? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." 7 They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" 8 He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." 10 The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry."

It is clear that the Pharisees were trying to bait Jesus, to get him to take sides in a dispute. The school of Rabbi Shammai regarded adultery and moral misconduct as the only acceptable grounds for divorce (similar to some who say divorce and remarriage is OK if there is adultery) but the school of Rabbi Hillel held that all kinds of reasons, even quite trivial ones, were sufficient grounds for legal divorce (like someone spending too much time on the computer and ignoring the spouse, as has been advanced elsewhere on this board) and it was this second interpretation of the law which was in fact practiced. (Shillebeeckx, O.P. Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965) 143.

Next it is equally clear from Mt. 19:10 that his disciples were surprised to learn that Jesus had not sided with either school of thought. Note that for anyone to say today that sexual immorality on the part of one spouse is moral grounds for divorce and remarriage is to side with Rabbi Shammai, and that is precisely what Jesus did not do.

A very important point is that Jesus specifically cites Genesis 2:24 in relation to his condemnation of divorce. From the very beginning of man, marriage was meant to be permananent, with the two becoming one flesh. This reference to Genesis would have become quite meaningless if Matthew had included this adultery exception in the verse that followed his condemnation of divorce. What is more, if Mt. 19:9 is taken to mean that Jesus was siding with the followers of the school of Shammai, who permitted divorce on grounds of adultery, then the astonishment expressed in the apostles’ answer would be incomprehensible-“then it is not expedient to marry” (19:10). Their astonishment is only explicable if Christ in fact rejected all possibility of the dissolution of marriage…Christ not only expressly condemned divorce (showing, in other words, that the indissolubility of marriage is a moral imperative); he also said that any divorce which might possibly take place had no effect whatever on the bond of marriage itself (pointing out, in other words, that the indissolubility of marriage is an objective bond) (Shillebeeckx, 153-154).

In fact the word for immorality (used in Mt. 5:32 and 19:9), porneia, does not automatically mean adultery. Notice if Jesus wanted to say that there is an exception for adultery, he would have used the word adultery (mocheuo). In fact, he did not. Instead, he used the word porneia. I do not know Greek, but I understand that the word porneia can have varying meanings, but it is obvious it must be looked at in its Jewish context. If he wanted to make an exception for adultery, he could have used that very word (mocheuo). He did not. Within the Jewish context, immorality (porneia), could be a marriage with someone who has blood relations that are too close.

In Matthew 19:9 and Matthew 5:32 the Greek words (mocicheia-noun, mocheuo-verb) for adultery is used twice in Matthew 5:32 and once in 19:9, to describe the sin of adultery. But as noted, adultery is not the word used as the grounds for divorce. Rather, the Greek word porneia, is the basis for the exception. Porneia can be used in varying ways. Some times it can be used in a narrow way, and in a narrow sense to denote a particular type of sexual sin, namely incestuous “marriage” among close relatives. Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 are shown to be using porneia in this narrow sense of unlawful marriages.

Acts 15:19-20

More evidence of this interpretation is given at The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. This deals with a decision of the Council not to make the ceremonial laws binding for Gentile converts, except for 4 requirements:

l9 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the 1)pollution of idols and from 2) unchastity (porneia) and from what is 3) strangled and from 4) blood.

All four exceptions come from Leviticus. To understand the meaning of porneia in Acts 15 we should draw upon the context provided by Leviticus 17 and 18, which condemns incestuous unions and marriages among close relatives. These incestuous “marriages” were universally forbidden to the Jews (Leviticus 18:6-18) as well as to the Gentiles from the time of Noah. Porneia in Acts 15 is thus used specifically to forbid incestuous “marriages.” In 1 Cor. 5:1 when talking about immorality that is going on between a son with his mother, Paul calls it porneia.

Thus, this is what the apostles themselves understood Jesus to mean in relation to marriage: porneia meant an unlawful, incestuous marriage. That is the only grounds for breaking up a marriage. It was never a valid marriage in the first place. Thus, it does not mean that one can get remarried because of the unfaithfulness of a spouse. (Steve Woods, Christian Fatherhood, Family Life Center Publications, p. 152). Thus, for a valid marriage there is absolutely no grounds for divorce, exactly as Jesus said in Mark 10 and Luke 16.

Another simple way of determining what Jesus meant is by examining all the Greek Church Fathers interpretation of Matthew 19:9 and 5:32. They obviously understood Greek and would understand the exception clause. Not one Church Father who spoke Greek agreed with the modern Protestant interpretation of Matthew 5 and 19 for allowance of divorce and remarriage if one committed adultery.

Defenders of Divorce and remarriage may also charge that those defending Jesus’ teaching are going back to mere law, and I have seen it stated that the Mosaic Law is the basis for those who condemn along with Jesus, remarriage after divorce. And since we supposedly don’t go by mere law, it is OK to divorce and remarry. Quite the contrary Christ’s teaching is based on the creation of men and women, from the foundation of mankind, as his quotation from Genesis shows. An examination of Jesus in both Mark 10 and Matthew 19:9 shows that he is calling marriage back to the original purpose of man and woman. The basis was not the Mosaic Law, something that Moses wrote, but this original purpose. He quotes Gen. 2:24, where he says the two will become one flesh. They will be united together based on God’s design for marriage of two people. Even if there is a separation, they are still bonded (as elaborated in 1 Cor. 7:10-12 and Rom. 7:2-3) till they die. As such, there can be no grounds for divorce and remarriage at all. In God’s eyes, there can be no exception, based on this original purpose, well before the Mosaic Law was even thought of.

Were there people who ran out on husbands and wives over the last 2000 years? Yes, of course throughout history men and women have done awful things to each other. Have people been abandoned for other people? Yes; Nevertheless, throughout the ages, Christians have understood one was connected to the person till death do us part. To make exceptions because of whatever circumstances is not what Jesus said, nor what the Church has taught for 2000 years. To make exceptions based on our feelings is to say that we know better than God. This assumes that when Jesus proclaimed marriage as indissoluble he did not know the situation of those who have been abandoned. Of course he did, and for any follower of Jesus, we have all varying crosses to bear. Jesus said if any one would want to be his follower, we must take up the cross and follow him (Luke 9:23-26); That includes following him in the matters of divorce and remarriage, which Jesus forbade.

P.S. (In this paper, I have not touched on the issue of annulment. Annulment is not just another term for divorce . For a discussion of this issue, click here.)

Matt © 1998 Jesus On Marriage and Matt1618. This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.

Last modified August 11, 1998.


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