What God Hath Put Together: The Bible on Divorce and Remarriage (part two)
What About Exceptions?
The standard of marriage is Godâ€™s original intention for marriage, that is, none of us should try to undo the “one flesh” relationship which God has united. The Lord Jesus Christ rejected the Phariseesâ€™ use of Deuteronomy 24:1. But should that be qualified by the exception clause (“except for fornication”) in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9? The exception clause in those two locations should be understood in the light of the absolute statement in Matthew 19:6, especially since the exception clause is not found in Mark 10Â or Luke 16. In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, the exception clause uses the word “fornication,” which is not the word for “adultery.” The proponents for a post-marriage exception often say that Matthew uses porneia (“fornication”) because it is a general word for all forms of sexual perversion. But is that how we see that it is used in the New Testament and especially how it is used in Matthew? Besides Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, the only other place Matthew uses the word porneia is in 15:19 where it is used alongside of moicheia (“adultery”). In other words, Matthew differentiates between porneia and moicheia. The most important contextual evidence for the meaning of porneia comes from the book itself, and in the book of Matthew, porneia excludes moicheia. The normal sense of porneia in the whole New Testament is fornication or incest (1 Cor. 5:1). Pre-Christian Jewish literature maintained a very strict distinction between porneia and moicheia. In the lexicon, porneia may reflect various kinds of forbidden carnal relations, but we can find no outright examples of the use of this word to denote a wifeâ€™s adultery. With these circumstancesâ€”Matthew, the New Testament, and Pre-Christian Jewish literatureâ€”we should not think that “fornication” even refers to “adultery.” We should think that it does not mean “adultery,” especially since Matthew distinguishes between the two terms. Fornication is not adultery.
Early in Matthew (1:19), Joseph resolves to “put away” (the same word for divorce as Matt. 5:32 and 19:9) Mary, thinking that she had committed fornication. Joseph and Mary are clearly not married, but betrothed, even though engagement was much more serious back thenÂ than it is in this culture. In John 8:41 Jewish leaders indirectly accuse Jesus of being born of porneia; in other words, since they didnâ€™t accept the virgin birth, they assumed that Mary had committed fornication and Jesus was the result of that act. So then why were the exception clauses included in the Matthew account (and not Mark and Luke)? Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience familiar with the betrothal issue. As Matthew was penning his gospel, he found himself in chapter five and then later in chapter nineteen needing to prohibit all remarriage after divorce (as taught by Jesus) and yet to allow for a divorce like the one Joseph envisioned with his future wife, whom he thought guilty of fornication (porneia). As a result, Matthew includes the exception clause in particular to acquit Joseph, but also in general to show that the kind of divorce that one might pursue in a betrothal period on account of fornication is not included in Jesusâ€™ absolute prohibition.
This interpretation of the exception clause conforms to Jesusâ€™ practice of never once siding with the Pharisees on occasions when He refers them to Godâ€™s Word by asking “Have ye not read?” It agrees with the Lordâ€™s endorsement of the original design of marriage. It is in fitting with the Lordâ€™s unequivocal statement, “What God hath put together, let no man put asunder.” It concurs with the meaning of porneia (“fornication.”). It also corresponds to Godâ€™s plainly stated hatred of divorce (Malachi 2:16).
Jesus prohibited divorce (Matthew 19:6) and then all remarriage after divorce (19:9). To the Lordâ€™s disciples this seemed like an intolerable prohibition (19:10), essentially closing off every possibility of remarriage, making marriage so risky that it would be better not to, since they would be obligated to live as a single person the rest of their lives or interminably stuck in a bad marriage. The Lord does not deny that this task would be difficult, but in the subsequent verses He promises that God could enable itâ€™s fulfillment (19:11, 12). Their reaction to Jesusâ€™ teaching along with His commentary concerning it, in addition to all the other considerations above, harmonize with the Lordâ€™s prohibition of divorce and remarriage.
The Apostle Paul agrees completely with the teaching of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:2 say explicitly that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives.
1 Corinthians 7:39 The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.
Romans 7:2 For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.
No exceptions are mentioned that would suggest she could be free from her husband to remarry on any other basis. The point is, of course, that only God, not man, can end a marriage relationship [by death] (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9). This is why remarriage is called adultery by Jesus: He assumes that the first marriage is still binding (Matthew 5:32; Luke 16:18; Mark 10:11).
Is Adultery the Same Thing as Divorce?
A common argument from those who allow divorce and remarriage is that adultery is essentially the same thing as divorce. They believe that adultery is included in the “fornication”Â in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. That isnâ€™t the understanding one gets from a study of Scripture, but that is what they believe. Then they go on to explain that the party who commits adultery has already divorced his spouse by doing so. How? He violates the one flesh relationship by becoming one flesh with someone else. They mainly take this idea from 1 Corinthians 6:16, “What? Know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? For two, saith he, shall be one flesh.” Their conclusion is that the first one flesh relationship is ended by the second. Is this true? No. The main problem with this teaching is that it isnâ€™t found anywhere in the Bible. It is extrapolated from a verse like 1 Corinthians 6:16, which doesnâ€™t say anything about divorce in it. Fornication isnâ€™t marriage.
Second, a major message of this view is that anyone who wants free from his present marriage need only commit adultery. If a man wants a divorce from his wife, his wife could say, “I canâ€™t divorce you, unless you commit adultery.” Since he has already committed adultery, it wonâ€™t make any difference if he does it again. The wife, on the other hand, canâ€™t remarry without committing adultery. This position elevates the physical act to the decisive element in marital union and disunion. However, a man and a woman do not become married sheerly through a physical relationship. Marriage requires more than that. If a man and a woman avoid fornication, they wonâ€™t have the physical aspect until after marriage. The term “marry” (baâ€™al) in the Hebrew includes the realm of possession, which is a legal requirement. A transfer must be made between one family to another, when the man takes possession of his bride. This possessing is also seen in Ephesians 5, where Genesis 2:24 is quoted (Eph. 5:31), and it is more than something physical, but spiritual, emotional, and intellectual as well.
If man canâ€™t put asunder what God has brought together, then he canâ€™t put asunder his wife through adultery either. Man might allow divorce because of the hardness of his heart, but this doesnâ€™t mean that God does. Even when someone commits adultery, God still sees that person as married.