3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" 4 He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast 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 separate." 7 They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?" 8 He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." 10 The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." 11 But he said to them, "Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given (Matt 19:3-11).First observation: "Really, Stan? Did you have to include the whole text?" If we are going to understand this as written and in context, yes, I did. (Note, in fact, that I left off the verse -- verse 12 -- regarding eunuchs. Look it up yourself.) Moving on ...
The problem I want to examine is the standard question among many: Under what conditions are divorce (and remarriage) allowed in the Bible? (Odd thing, that. No one appears to be asking, "How far is too far in seeking to make my marriage last a lifetime?" I wonder why?) Let's jump right to the famous "exception clause" for this. "Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery" (v 9). Clear enough, right? Well, hold on. First problem here. What about wives divorcing husbands? Relax. The parallel passage, Mark 10:11-12, covers that. In that one (Mark was writing to Gentiles who would have experienced it more often) Mark includes wives who divorce their husbands. In both cases, divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery.
"So ... except?" Yes, "Except for sexual immorality."
Well, we all know what that is, right? That's adultery. Done. Thanks. Bye. Now, hold on! Are you so sure? There are some problems with that view. First, note the context. The Pharisees are testing Him (v 3) and offer a trick question: "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" (v 4). You know, I'm sure, that there were two schools of thought. One said it was only acceptable to divorce for sexual immorality (Shammai) and the other said it was okay for any reason at all (Hillel). What was Jesus's answer to this? No, it was not "except for sexual immorality" (which, by the way, would have been a simple, "Your Shammai fellow was right and Hillel was wrong. Yes, for sexual immorality, divorce is okay."). No! Jesus's answer was an emphatic, "No!" His reasoning was "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (v 6). Next? If they had accepted His answer, that would have been His answer. You wouldn't have any addendum, any clarification, anything else. When asked under what conditions a man could divorce his wife, Jesus answered, "None!"
There are more problems here. I've already indicated that His answer was "no exceptions". And I've pointed out that He was not agreeing with either of their rabbis. If it was adultery, He was agreeing. But there is another fundamental problem with adultery as the understanding here. If adultery is the exception, how does that fit with Jesus's position "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate"? Are they joined by God or are they not? What, then, can be done to separate them? Adultery is bad, but it is done by Man and, therefore, not a means of ending that union. Problem!
Another problem. In the parallel passages (Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18), divorce is condemned as adultery without exception. If you are going to offer "adultery" as the definition of "sexual immorality", you're going to have to figure out how that does not contradict Mark or Luke. And Paul (1 Cor 7:10-11) while you're at it.
And, listen, while we're here, why did Jesus use the term He used (sexual immorality) rather than a well-known, easily available, readily understood term for adultery? It's used quite often in the New Testament. Jesus used it in the same sentence. Why didn't Jesus say "adultery" if He meant adultery?
Another consideration is the issue of the historical setting. The Jewish legal system did not grant divorces in the cases of adultery. No one was ever allowed a divorce under those conditions. The Jewish legal system called for death in the case of adultery. You weren't divorced if your wife cheated on you; you were widowed.
One more problem. Look on down to the reaction of the disciples. (See? All the context.) Remember the question in the air: Under what conditions can we divorce (and remarry)? Jesus answered, "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." He shot down Moses's Deuteronomy 24 text as a product of hardness of heart. And He called divorce and remarriage adultery. So if He was offering "except for adultery", why did the disciples react as they did? He would just be saying, "You already have an out -- adultery -- just like you've believed all along." So why were they stunned at His answer if they already knew it? But in verse 10 they suggested, "If there is no out, it would be better not to marry at all!" Doesn't fit with "Don't worry; as long as it's adultery, you're okay to leave."
There is a second, quite popular interpretation that includes adultery (and I've laid out the problems with that) but uses a broader interpretation for "sexual immorality". That would be any "sexual immorality". Any sexual offense at all, in this view, would be biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage. Popular today because of pornography and husbands with a problem there, wives like this one because they can divorce their pervert husbands on a whim. "Jesus said, 'except for sexual immorality'. Well, that's certainly sexually immoral!" Besides the problems I've already offered for using "adultery", this would serve to create a vast hole in the "'til death do us part" scenario called for by Jesus (v 6). Did she look at someone with lust? Divorce! Did he express a sexual desire that was perverse? Divorce! Is there potential lust in his heart in general? Divorce! And who doesn't fail at some point in this area? It's a wonder we aren't all divorced! I would think that holding "all forms of anything remotely sexual in nature" as a biblical standard for divorce over against Jesus's "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" would be a problem.
What then? Well, it could mean terminating a betrothal which, in their day, was a divorce. Joseph planned to do it when Mary came up pregnant (Matt 1:19). Could be, but Jesus was speaking of marriage (two become one), not betrothal. Or it could be talking about sexually illegal marriages such as incest. Paul condemned just such a thing in Corinth (1 Cor 5:1-5). It would also coincide with Ezra 9-10 when the Israelites violated God's command to them not to marry foreign wives and such marriages were dissolved. Since Jesus's words were intended to be very restrictive and since this condition would be very rare, this might seem a more viable possibility. The bad part? Your marriage is permanent and divorce is not an option. But that shouldn't be bad, should it? I mean, "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." That's good, right? Well, it had better be.
1. Just to show I'm not alone in this, see Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper from John Piper.
2. Divorce or divorce and remarriage are not unforgivable sins. Indeed, if the non-divorced person has a problem with the divorced person, perhaps the non-divorced person has some sins of their own to examine. This is not about how to treat people who have stumbled, but to try to obtain a biblical worldview on the subject.
3. The problem Jesus was concerned about seemed to be not just divorce, but divorce and remarriage -- the full package. It would be difficult to demonstrate that divorce without remarriage could be classified by Jesus as adultery.