God's View of Remarriage

The spectrum of cases

In three texts, Jesus speaks of the several ways that divorce can lead to adultery.

31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:

32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

Matthew 5:31-32

11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.

12 And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

Mark 10:11-12

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

Matthew 19:9

Matthew was designed to be the Gospel that Jews would find especially accessible. Among the Jews, a woman could not divorce her husband. So, Matthew does not consider this case, leaving it to Mark, whose Gospel was designed more for gentile readers.

The best way to understand these passages is to chart the various cases.

Event Guilt
A woman divorced by her husband remarries. Both the woman and the man who divorced her are guilty of adultery (Matt. 5:32). So also is the man who marries her (Matt. 5:32).
A man who divorced his wife remarries. The man is guilty of adultery (Matt. 19:9; Mark 10:11). Since the second union is adulterous, the woman he marries must be equally guilty of adultery.
A woman who divorced her husband remarries. The woman is guilty of adultery (Mark 10:12). Since the second union is adulterous, the man she marries must be equally guilty of adultery.

Notice that Jesus does not assign blame to a man who remarries after his first wife has divorced him. The probable reason here is that the law of Israel and the laws of other ancient peoples allowed a man to take more than one wife. Still, Jesus holds a man guilty of adultery who divorces one wife before taking another. The offense is "against her" (Mark 10:11). That is, he committed adultery by displacing her with another woman.

The condition altering the assignment of guilt

Matthew says that if a wife has engaged in fornication, her husband is not guilty of causing adultery if he divorces her and she remarries, and he is not guilty of adultery if he remarries. The proviso rendered "saving for the cause of fornication" (Matt. 5:32) and "except it be for fornication" (Matt. 19:9) is known as the exception clause.

The condition altering the assignment of guilt is stated to be fornication and not adultery. The term "adultery" suggests a heterosexual relationship outside marriage. But justice requires that the condition also include any form of sexual perversion, such as homosexuality. Therefore, Matthew states the condition as porneia, rendered "fornication." Like the English word, the Greek word means simply "immorality."

Matthew's choice of the word porneia recalls the Mosaic law of divorce.

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

Deuteronomy 24:1

The law permitted divorce if a husband found his wife guilty of "uncleanness," no doubt a reference to any kind of sexual uncleanness. By giving porneia as the condition affecting culpability in cases of divorce and remarriage, Matthew accomplishes two things. First, he clarifies the meaning of "uncleanness," a matter of some dispute in Jesus' day, and he establishes continuity between the law of Moses and the law of Jesus.

Most Common Interpretation of the Exception Clause

The interpretation

Most readers of the Gospels have inferred that when Jesus condemns divorce and remarriage "saving for the cause of fornication" (Matt. 5:32) or "except it be for fornication" (Matt. 19:9), He means that an offense of this magnitude justifies divorce and remarriage.

Flaws in the interpretation

For five reasons, we may be sure that Jesus never meant to condone divorce from an unfaithful partner.

  1. To find permission for divorce in Matthew's exception clause brings Matthew 19:9 into direct conflict with Mark 10:11-12. The latter states categorically that divorce and remarriage are wrong.
  2. If, in Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus is permitting divorce of an immoral wife, how does this teaching represent an advance on the law of Moses, which permitted divorce under exactly the same circumstances? Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' evident purpose is to elevate the law to a higher plane, so that His disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, might achieve a higher standard of righteousness than Moses set for a carnal and rebellious people.
  3. In other texts addressing the question of divorce, the Bible states clearly that God has one perfect standard, and that standard is no divorce. Consider Malachi 2:14-16, quoted earlier. We also looked at Jesus' answer to the Pharisees.

    Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

    Matthew 19:6

    Here was the natural place to modify an absolute standard, but Jesus declined to do so. Finally, consider Paul's exhortation.

    10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:

    11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.

    1 Corinthians 7:10-11

    More will be said about this passage later.
  4. We taught in the previous lesson that marriage pictures the Lord's relationship to His people. As He deals with them, so a husband should deal with his wife. Recognizing that the Lord's love and care for His people never falters, however they treat Him, a husband should cling to his wife even though she has sorely disappointed and wounded him by her unfaithfulness.
  5. The two controversial passages in Matthew simply do not say that porneia is grounds for divorce. Readers come to this conclusion only by adding meaning to the actual words. What Jesus says is this: in the case of a man who divorces his wife and remarries, or she remarries, he breaks the Seventh Commandment, unless she had been unfaithful before the divorce. Then, he is innocent of adultery. But it does not follow that he is innocent altogether.

Sins a husband commits by divorcing an unfaithful wife

The following is a partial list.

  1. He still violates a covenant and severs a relationship that were intended to be permanent. He had promised, at least implicitly, "Till death do us part." And adultery is not death.
  2. He abandons his wife to her sin instead of seeking her reclamation and restoration. If she had fallen into a grievous sickness or madness, he would have retained the obligation to live with her and care for her, even if their sexual relations came to an end. No less does he retain the obligation to live with and care for a wife who has fallen into the grievous error of adultery.
  3. He fails to show a truly divine love for his wife, a love willing to forgive a serious transgression. What transgression does God hold against us if we seek His forgiveness? Indeed, though we fail to seek His forgiveness, He persists so long as we live in offering us reconciliation. Similarly, a man should not give up on a wayward wife until she is dead.
  4. He falls into spiritual pride. By rejecting her, he declares that she is not good enough for him. But Jesus said to the mob who breathed murder against the woman taken in adultery,

    . . . He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

    John 8:7

    Only by profound self-delusion can a man claim moral superiority just because of the difference between imagination and deed.
  5. He disregards the welfare of children, born and unborn. Those living will lose their home. Those unborn will never see life.

Proof that Jesus could not have meant that adultery is the only sin in divorce

Suppose a man divorces his wife although she is innocent of any serious offense, and then he neither remarries nor takes a lover outside marriage. In the three texts we are considering, the only charge Jesus brings against him is that he "causeth her to commit adultery" (Matt. 5: 32). That is, he puts his wife in moral danger by giving her opportunity to become involved in an adulterous relationship. But suppose she does not. Suppose she stays single and chaste. Does it follow that her former husband has not sinned in divorcing her, or that his sin is relatively minor? No. He has sorely mistreated a good wife by sending her away. He has breached a sacred covenant. And he has thwarted both of God's purposes in uniting the man and woman originally. Once separated, they can no longer provide each other with fulfilling love. Nor can they cooperate in rearing godly children. Thus, by severing their relationship, the man commits a grievous sin.

Proof that Jesus did not intend the exception clause as permission to remarry after divorcing an unfaithful spouse

Jesus says it is a sin to marry a divorced woman (Matt. 5:32). He must mean "any divorced woman" because he states no exceptions. He does not limit guilt to marrying a woman divorced for infidelity to her first husband. Thus, to marry a divorcée is wrong even though she bears no blame for the divorce—even though, for instance, her first husband was an unfaithful scoundrel who finally cast her aside so that he could more freely pursue his immoral fancies. But if Jesus withholds the right of remarriage from a woman rejected by a philandering husband, how could He in justice give the right of remarriage to a man who divorced an adulterous wife?

Divine mercy

It cannot be denied, however, that the exception clause has caused great confusion in the church. Whole denominations have taken it wrongly, supposing that it states a valid reason for divorce. Jesus certainly could have forestalled confusion by leaving the church fuller and more forthright teaching on the issue. Why did He not? Because God is a God of mercy, with particular mercy for victims of marital infidelity. He knew that regardless of anything He might say to forbid divorce, rage and hurt would impel many of them to end their marriages anyway. A rule that is hard to understand will, on the Day of Judgment, allow Him to deal less severely with its violators. The servant without knowledge will receive few stripes (Luke 12:48).

Now that evil currents in society threaten to swamp the institution of the family, it is time to raise the righteous standard against divorce that God intended. You who understand that divorce is wrong under any circumstances will be without excuse if you send away your spouse.

Another Common Interpretation of the Exception Clause

The interpretation

Those who accept that divorce is never right must provide a convincing explanation of the exception clause. Why does Jesus to some degree exonerate a man who remarries after divorcing a wife guilty of porneia? In their attempt to answer this question, many have pointed out that the exception clause appears only in Matthew, the Gospel with a Jewish slant. They conclude that the clause pertains to a situation that could only arise under Jewish laws and customs. They point out further that the exception clause specifies porneia, not adultery. They argue that the right word would have been "adultery" if Jesus had merely been speaking of an unfaithful or immoral wife. Reasoning along this line carries them to the conclusion that for the Jews, porneia must have had a special meaning, referring to a transgression that, in Jewish society, was valid grounds for divorce.

Some expositors have presumed that the Jews regarded illicit sex after marriage as adultery, but illicit sex before marriage as fornication. Marriage was preceded by a betrothal as binding as marriage. It could be broken only by divorce. So, those who favor this interpretation of porneia suppose that the exception clause alludes to the kind of situation that arose in Jesus' own family. While Joseph was betrothed to Mary, he found her pregnant and, assuming she had been unfaithful to him, he considered divorcing her. According to these expositors, the exception clause limits the right of divorce to the period of betrothal. A man could divorce an immoral wife before consummation of their marriage, but not afterward.

Flaws in the interpretation

Two flaws render the interpretation wholly unacceptable.

  1. The interpretation is illogical. Supposedly, the exception clause only allowed divorce before marriage. But suppose a husband did not learn of his wife's fornication until after marriage. In that case, her crime was more serious, because she covered up her past and married him under false pretenses. Yet just because she was successful in lying to him, did he lose the right to divorce her? A "yes" answer creates an obvious injustice. If he had divorced her before marriage, he could have remarried without guilt. But because she victimized him by deception, he could not divorce her and remarry without committing a very serious offense.

    Suppose we modify our understanding of the exception clause slightly. Suppose we take it to mean that fornication (illicit sex before marriage) is a valid grounds for divorce at any time, even after marriage. But what is worse? Unfaithfulness before marriage or afterward? Certainly, after marriage. But, according to this interpretation of the exception clause, a man cannot divorce his wife for adultery, only for fornication. That doesn't make sense either.

  2. One rule of good hermeneutics is that we must start with the established meanings of words. If we foist meanings on them to suit our conclusions, we can prove anything. Porneia is a common word in the New Testament and in other ancient writings, and its usage does not support the conjecture that the Jews understood it in a limited sense, referring only to sex before marriage. The word can refer to sex with a prostitute, male or female (1 Cor. 6:13, 15). Its context often shows that it is a term for immorality in general. In several New Testament passages, for example, it is coupled with other terms spanning the whole range of sexual sin (Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5). In Revelation 2:14, 20-22, the same misdeeds of Jezebel are called both fornication and adultery.

Third Common Interpretation of the Exception Clause

The interpretation

Some expositors have imagined that Jesus used the word porneia in a narrow, technical sense, referring to an incestuous marriage: that is, a marriage in violation of the Jewish laws defining the unacceptable degrees of consanguinity between married persons. According to this view, the exception clause permits divorce only in cases where a man and wife are too closely related. If a man marries his sister, for instance, the porneia that they have committed justifies divorce. It is true that Paul labels as porneia the unlawful relationship between a man and his father's wife (1 Cor. 5:1). Yet neither in this text nor in the others brought forward as evidence that porneia could refer to incestuous marriage do we find necessity to suppose that the author intended the term to mean anything but "immorality."

Flaws in the interpretation

Again, there are two damning flaws.

  1. To read this restricted meaning into porneia has no basis in ancient usage of the term.
  2. In each text containing the disputed exception clause, Jesus is talking about a real, legitimate marriage, terminable only by divorce. The man is bound to someone called his "wife." An incestuous marriage is illegal to begin with. The woman is not a wife, and ending the relationship is not a divorce. By custom and law, its termination is considered an annulment.