As I continue the series on applying the Sermon on the Mount to marriage, we come to a passage that’s all about marriage:
“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.” [Mat 5:31&32]
This seems to be one of those passages people either ignore or make into more than what it says. I find it sadly interesting some who treat divorce as the unforgivable sin don’t get nearly as worked up about other things Jesus said in this discourse. I don’t mean to downplay divorce, but why don’t we spend as much time on the whole “anger is like murder” passage a few verses earlier? But I digress …
The contentious issue here is the meaning of the word translated as “sexual immorality”. I’ve studied this a great deal, and I think sexual immorality is exactly the right definition. The Greek word is Porneia, which Strong’s defines as “adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.”. Most scholars agree first century Jews and Christians used the word to indicate sexual sins as a whole, but some then go on to argue this is not what Jesus meant in this passage. Some say it means only fornication, meaning it only applies if the woman is found to have had sex before marriage. Others say it means adultery, and only allows for divorce if one’s spouse commits adultery.
There are a great many arguments for and against all of the definitions; I choose to focus on the issue of covenant – something most in the Western world don’t understand. A covenant is not like a contract; there are no loopholes and you can’t end it by mutual agreement. A covenant only ends when one of two things happens – either one person dies, or one person breaks the covenant. The thing that breaks a marriage covenant is… sexual immorality. Sexual immorality always breaks the marriage covenant – period, full stop. Under the law, anyone who broke a covenant was put to death – no appeal, no exception, death. So in the OT if a spouse had sex with another person (of either gender) or with an animal, they were put to death. This clearly left their spouse single and free to marry again.
As I see it, God still sees sexual immorality as a really big deal. Sexual immorality still breaks the marriage covenant; the cross didn’t change that. What the cross did change is the death penalty. If you commit a sexual sin, your marriage covenant is broken, but you’re not put to death. So the husband and wife are both still alive, but not married because the covenant has been broken.
Divorce is a legal action, and it has no power over a covenant. You can be divorced and still in a marriage covenant, or your marriage covenant can be broken but you are not divorced. It seems to me Jesus was telling us we are allowed to divorce if our spouse breaks the marriage covenant. This makes perfect sense as it brings the legal condition into line with the spiritual condition. The divorce doesn’t end the marriage, because a divorce can never end a marriage.
All this said, the wronged spouse has the option to rebuild the marriage. This isn’t required, but given how God feels about grace I suspect it’s His will more often than not. However, that does not mean we can tell people it’s a sin to divorce after their spouse commits sexual sin! I have heard this many times – “my spouse committed adultery half a dozen times, but I was told if I get a divorce I’d be kicked out of the church and s/he would not be”. This requires a very narrow definition of the word Porneia and completely ignores the fact marriage is a covenant. While I have no doubt the intention is good, changing what Jesus said never turns out well. I’ve actually heard men say their wife can’t divorce them if they committed adultery, and I think that kind of thinking makes adultery far more likely!
Okay, have at it in the comments!
Links to blog posts that stood out to me this last week:
The Generous Wife
Giving Together ◄ A way to make money a positive force in your marriage.
It’s the Little Things ◄ What little things are you doing for your spouse?
Silent Expectations ◄ A great way to hurt your marriage.
Hot, Holy and Humorous
Intimacy in Marriage
Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage
Idol of Happiness – Part 2 ◄ Speaking of reasons (not) to divorce…
One Flesh Marriage
Tear the Book In Half ◄ Skip the parts written for her.
The Romantic Vineyard
Drive-In Movie Night ◄ Great idea – and not what you think it is.
Safe at Home
Great Marriages Require Significant Investment ◄ Do NOT cheap out on your marriage!
…to Love Honor and Vacuum
Is Masturbation in Marriage Wrong? ◄ It certainly is when it is in place of sex.