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Divorce and Remarriage

Jesus' testimony. Jesus declared divorce and remarriage to be an act of adultery. Adultery is the Greek word moicheia [G3429 (is committing adultery) or G3431 (to be adultered)] in the New Testament. This is stated plainly in two of the three gospels which cover this subject.

  • Mark 10:11-12: And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery [G3429] against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery [G3429]."
  • Luke 16:18: Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery [G3431], and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery [G3431].

Exception clause — "except for porneia." The gospel of Matthew, however, qualifies divorce and remarriage with what has come to be known as the "exception clause," as follows,

  • Matthew 5:31-32: 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 [G4202, porneia], makes her commit adultery [G3431]. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery [G3429].
  • Matthew 19:9: And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality [G4202, porneia], and marries another, commits adultery [G3429].

Those who seek to justify divorce and remarriage hang onto this exception clause (i.e. "except for porneia") for dear life. It justifies the practice of divorce and remarriage on the grounds of porneia. However, this begs the question: "What is porneia?" How did Matthew intend it to be understood? And secondarily, why did Mark and Luke not include it? Not only the inclusion in Matthew is important, but also its exclusion in Mark and Luke. (We arrive at the possible reason later on.)

Porneia. What then is porneia? The most common English translation is "sexual immorality." Other English translations include: fornication, unfaithfulness, and unchastity. It turns out that porneia is a rather general, inclusive word for any kind of sexual immorality. Some examples,

  • 1 Corinthians 6:13: The body is not meant for porneia but for the Lord.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:18: Flee from porneia. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.
  • Ephesians 5:3: But among you there must not be even a hint of porneia, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:3: It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid porneia.

Originally, porneia meant "to prostitute" or "to sell." However by the time of the New Testament, porneia had a very broad meaning that included all kinds of sexual behavior, including prostitution, pedophilia, promiscuity (licentiousness), homosexuality, lesbianism, incest, bestiality, etc.

Porneia is not adultery. Matthew did not intend porneia to mean adultery because that's not how he used it. To Matthew, the grounds for divorce is not adultery (i.e. moicheia) but immorality (i.e. porneia). If Matthew meant adultery as the grounds for divorce, he would have used adultery (i.e. moicheia), not immorality (i.e. porneia). Besides, in the Jewish economy, adultery was grounds for death by stoning, as was attempted with the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus to be sentenced (see John 8:1-11). If a man or woman was caught in adultery, he or she would be sentenced to death, and the original husband or wife would become a widower or widow and be free to remarry.

Therefore, to Matthew, porneia was intended to mean something other than adultery.

Matthew on porneia. The best explanation of why Matthew includes an exception clause on the subject of divorce is with how he tells the story at the time of Jesus' birth. It turns out, Joseph intended to divorce his wife Mary. But this was in the betrothal period. Please note:

Matthew 1:18-19: Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Only Matthew mentions this—the other gospel writers are silent on the matter. Joseph could rightfully divorce his wife and marry another, because Mary had committed porneia (at least in the eyes of Joseph). Her unfaithfulness had occurred while legally married to Joseph before they had come together in physical union. If it had occurred after, then it would have been adultery or moicheia. This was clearly in Matthew's mind as he wrote the words of Jesus on the subject of divorce. If Matthew had not added this "exception" to the rule then he could not have called Joseph a "just man." For a lucid discussion of this interpretation go here: Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper by John Piper. (and in PDF).

Other examples of porneia in the marriage setting are incestuous (1 Corinthians 5:1) and sodomite (Jude 7) marriages. Both of which are illegitimate and could (and should) be dissolved.

Moreover, making an "exception" to the marriage vow (other than the ones mentioned above) violates a whole series of Biblical principles. Namely,

  • It breaks a sacred vow. The Christian marital vow states, "till death do us part" not "till divorce do us part." Ecclesiastes 5:4-6 is clear that a vow to God must be kept. To do otherwise invites God to "destroy the work of your hands." See also Proverbs 20:25.
  • It goes against God's hatred of divorce (Malachi 2:16). This is one reason why in the New Testament a Christian leader was to be the "husband of one wife" (1 Timothy 3:2) and why Christians were to honor and care for widows who chose to remain single. (By implication divorced women would also be cared for in the same way.)
  • It violates God's original plan for marriage. (Matthew 19:6: So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.)
  • It builds a whole doctrine on one word, porneia. Yet, as I stated earlier, it's the wrong translation of the word! If Jesus meant adultery, he would have used another Greek word.
  • It makes void God's teaching in Ephesians 5. Rather than a husband giving himself up for his wife, divorce would mean he is "giving her up"!
  • God does not command divorce. Rather, divorce is of an individual's free-will and a form of vengeance. Yet, Christians are warned not to take vengeance on anyone (Romans 12:19).
  • It fails to account for the astonishment of Jesus' disciples. (See Matthew 19:9-10.)
  • It negates God's call to suffer for righteousness' sake. (See 1 Peter 2:20-21 and 4:12-14.)

There are also "natural" consequences to divorce and remarriage, including:

  1. Distrust in your word. Having violated a sacred vow, who's to say you will stand behind your other promises and guarantees.
  2. Wounds, dishonor and reproach to your name. (See Proverbs 6:30-33.)
  3. Your influence will damage other marriages. If it goes well with your remarriage, then others will consider doing the same. Pastors have testified to the truth of this statement. The seed is sown for the destruction of many homes.
  4. Increased and lasting guilt. (See Romans 14:23).
  5. Labeled as a Pharisee (i.e. hypocrite). Jesus repudiated the Pharisees view on divorce. When they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" Jesus took them back to Genesis. (See Matthew 19:4-6 and Genesis 2:23-24.) God made no provision for divorce when He instituted marriage.
  6. You dishonor your parents. If the marriage was sanctioned by your parents, then you will dishonor them with a divorce.
  7. It lowers the standard for the yet unmarried. They will not enter marriage with the seriousness that it is life long.
  8. A "wasting disease" will come upon you. This may be the worst of all consequences. (See Psalms 106:15.) Other versions translate this phrase as "leanness of soul." Thus, the individual's capacity to enjoy life is diminished.
  9. Produces a sense of insecurity. The remarriage will have an insecure basis. What the divorcee did once, he is liable to do again. The new spouse and any children involved live a life of insecurity regarding the marriage.
  10. The potential for a wider Christian ministry is curtailed.

Divorce and remarriage is truly devastating to the individual, the Church, and society. So what is a Christian to do who has faced or is facing divorce? There are at least seven steps.