Divorce - the Devil's Delusion
In the Western World, the incidence of divorce is increasing. Many couples do not even marry, and of those that do, a large number eventually divorce. Such is the world. Sadly, the Church has lost all power to influence the world (see Acts 17: 6), and in such a state, it is rather the world that influences the Church. Thus divorce is gaining a foothold even amongst those who believe. Christians, however, should not be influenced by the world. On the subject of divorce, as with all subjects, it is not a matter of what the laws of the land may allow, of what people around us are doing, nor even of what the professing Church may teach, but of what God has decreed in His Word. The question is: Does God ever, under any circumstances, condone divorce?
There were some parallels to our situation when the Lord was here. In Deuteronomy 24 Moses had allowed divorce, but by New Testament (NT) times the words “because he hath found some unseemly thing in her” (v1) had given rise to two schools of thought among the Jews as to what constituted valid reasons for divorce. One school sanctioned divorce only for adultery, whereas the other allowed it for the most trivial of reasons, even down to a wife’s poor cooking skills. Hence we read that “the Pharisees came to him tempting him, and saying, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” (my emphasis Matt. 19: 3). That little word “every” indicates that the Pharisees belonged to the stricter of the two schools. The question was, To which school would the Lord belong?
The Lord, in His reply, goes back beyond all human schools of thought, and back beyond even Moses himself, to the very institution of the ordinance of marriage at the beginning: “Have ye not read that he who made [them], from the beginning made them male and female, and said, On account of this a man shall leave father and mother, and shall be united to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh? so that they are no longer two, but one flesh” (vs 4–6). He then follows this up with some very telling words “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (v6). Clearly the Lord’s tempters understood in this reply that the Lord was excluding ALL grounds for divorce once the marriage bond had been made––hence their rejoinder “Why then did Moses command to give a letter of divorce and to send [her] away?” (v7). In His response, the Lord points out that Moses allowed it under pressure: “Moses, in view of your hard–heartedness, allowed you to put away your wives; but from the beginning it was not thus” (v8). Finally the Lord gives His authoritative stipulation “But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, not (or, except) for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery; and he who marries one put away commits adultery” (v9). The Lord thus prohibits divorce in all circumstances except for fornication. The question is, does this one exception refer to the breaking of the marriage bond on account of adultery? If it does, then the Lord would appear to be weakening what He had so strongly affirmed just moments before: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (v6)!
Surely, you say, This verse gives the one reason why a couple may divorce, that is, when one of the married partners commits adultery? (Indeed it is this very verse on which many base their argument for divorce in Christianity.) However, the Lord did not say “except for adultery”, He said “except for fornication”. But isn’t adultery the same as fornication? No! The word “adultery” occurs twice here in the same sentence as “fornication”, and one is therefore forced to the conclusion that there is a definite distinction in meaning between the two words (unless we are suggesting a carelessness in the Lord’s choice of words). Fornication, (porneia in the Greek), means an illegitimate sexual relationship on the part of an unmarried person; adultery, (moikeia in the Greek), means an illegitimate sexual relationship on the part of a married person. Now although porneia is occasionally used in a wider sense in Scripture to include general unchastity, when porneia and moikeia are used together, they always denote a contrast, and porneia is then used in the specific sense of premarital impurity. If the Lord had intended to make adultery a ground for divorce He would have said “except for adultery” and not “except for fornication”. Now, no doubt, my reader will ask: If divorce is only allowed on the ground of fornication, and if fornication has to do with unmarried persons, just how can a couple who have never married get divorced?! How can this conundrum be explained?
There are two parallel passages to Matt. 19 in the other Gospels, namely Mark 10: 2–12 and Luke 16: 18. In both of these passages there is no mention of any grounds for divorce whatsoever––yet Matthew refers to such grounds not once, but twice (see Matt 5: 32, 19: 9)! Many commentators dismiss this fact by saying that Mark and Luke only give a summary of the Lord’s teaching on divorce, while Matthew supplies the detail. The facts suggest otherwise. Mark, although a brief Gospel, supplies considerable details on the matter, including details not found in Matthew. Furthermore, if his account is only a summary of the Lord’s teaching, then it is a seriously flawed summary, since he omits what is surely fundamental information in any discussion on the justifiable grounds for divorce, (which was, after all, the question put to the Lord). There is a world of difference between a presentation that totally outlaws divorce (as in Mark), and one which allows it (as in Matthew)!
The details as to the exception clause are omitted in Mark and Luke, not for the sake of brevity, but on account of those for whom they were writing. Matthew wrote for the Jew (which is why he frequently quotes the Old Testament (OT), and his record of the Lord’s teaching on divorce gives details particularly relevant for them and them only. Mark and Luke write more for Gentiles. This is why Mark refers to a woman divorcing her husband (Mark 10: 12), while Matthew does not (under Judaism only a man could initiate divorce proceedings). The whole bearing of the teaching and presentation of the truth in Matthew is directed towards the Jew. As a consequence, one is not surprised if this single basis for divorce, given only in Matthew, has a Jewish bearing.
The cause of the widespread misunderstanding of Matt. 5 and 19 lies in a difference between Oriental and Western customs and terminology. When a Westerner reads the words, “except for fornication”, he naturally supposes that “fornication” is used of something of which a “wife” can be guilty. A “wife” with us in the West is one who has already entered into the marriage relationship. It is never used of a woman who is merely betrothed, or, as we Westerners would say, engaged. In the East, however, betrothal is a very serious affair and is as legally binding as marriage itself––so that even before marriage is consummated, the betrothed woman is a wife. Furthermore, the betrothal contract leads inevitably to marriage unless a legal annulment is obtained before consummation––meaning, in plain English, a divorce.
Let us not, however, rely on Oriental customs to interpret Scripture. Let Scripture speak for itself. In Matt. 1: 18 we read “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was thus: His mother, Mary, that is, having been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child of [the] Holy Spirit”. Mary and Joseph were only betrothed, they were not married, and Mary was pregnant. Joseph would be forced to conclude that his bride to be was guilty of immoral behaviour. Now what does the next verse say? “But Joseph, her husband, being [a] righteous [man], and unwilling to expose her publicly, purposed to have her put away secretly” (v19). Righteousness demanded divorce, but if Joseph exposed Mary publicly, then under the law she should be stoned (see Deut. 22: 21), and even if such a severe sentence was not permissible under the Roman yoke (comp. John 18: 31), she would certainly become a public outcast. Rather than humiliate her, he therefore purposed to divorce her privately (apoluoo, the Greek word used here for “put away” is the same Greek word as that used in Matt. 19: 9). God, intervened, however, and Joseph is told: “fear not to take to [thee] Mary, thy wife, for that which is begotten in her is of [the] Holy Spirit” (v20). Note that here the angel speaks of Mary as Joseph’s wife and in verse 19 Joseph is referred to as Mary’s husband––even though they were only betrothed. As verse 25 makes abundantly clear, the marriage was not consummated until after the Lord Jesus was born: “and took to [him] his wife, and knew her not until she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus”. (Interestingly, the manner of the Lord’s birth was not forgotten some thirty years later––witness the spiteful jibe of the Jews in John 8: 41 “we are not born of fornication”.) Thus the only grounds for divorce that the Lord allowed in Matt. 19 was for fornication found in one of a betrothed couple who had not yet been joined together in marriage but whom Jewish law viewed as husband and wife. Once a marriage has been consummated there can be no divorce.
Many, of course, will not have this, and continue to insist that marital unfaithfulness (adultery) is what is in view in Matthew’s exception. This ignores the indisputable fact that the only practical case of divorce mentioned in the NT is the case just outlined––namely that proposed by Joseph. On what basis was he proposing it? On the grounds (as he supposed) of premarital sex on the part of Mary (Matt. 1: 18–20), that is, fornication in its specific sense! Significantly, the doctrine regarding the exception is given in the same book as the practical example. Under the Law, a man was not bound to a marriage if, when he went in to his wife, he found that she was not, after all, a virgin (Deut. 22: 13–21). The Lord honoured this just principle by allowing divorce before consummation if fornication was proven. Again, if the Lord Jesus in His teaching had meant adultery (which, after all, was not an uncommon event) it is difficult to imagine why He would have mentioned it only when pressed (compare vs 3–6, and 7–9 of Matt. 19). Immorality discovered during betrothal, by contrast, would have been a comparatively rare event. Mark and Luke would have also surely mentioned an exception made for adultery (presumably adultery was just as prevalent among the Gentiles as among the Jews), whilst their omission of an exception relating to Jewish betrothal is thoroughly understandable.
However, the Scriptures actually show that adultery could not be the sense of meaning that the Lord attached to the word “fornication”. In the example given in Matt. 19: 9, we have a man who wrongly divorces his wife (“not for fornication”), and marries another woman. This fresh union, the Lord says, is not marriage, but adultery. Why? Because in the Lord’s eyes the man is still married to his first partner––his divorce is invalid. What of that first partner? Can she remarry? No, says the Lord, for “he who marries one put away commits adultery”. Whoever married her would be committing adultery because she is still married to her first partner. Neither the man’s unrighteous divorce nor his subsequent adultery have annulled his marriage. Though the woman is innocent, and the behaviour of her husband disgraceful, the Lord does not provide her with a way of escape from her marriage––she is not free to remarry. This conclusion is confirmed by examining Matt. 5: 32. There the man is said to make the woman commit adultery by divorcing her. Why does he make her commit adultery? The reason is because in those days the only career open to a woman in the East was marriage. Her divorce means that she must remarry in order to survive––in that sense her original husband makes her remarry. The Lord, however, does not call this subsequent union remarriage but adultery. He regards her as still married to her original partner. She should be reunited to him––she cannot free herself from the marriage.
These facts expose a serious flaw in the argument of those who persist in saying that the exception clause refers to adultery. In Mark, the Lord puts a married man and a married woman on an equal footing with regard to the ability to divorce––He says neither can do it. Yet if the exception clause in Matthew refers to adultery, then in Matthew the married man and his wife are not put on an equal footing by the Lord. The husband, it is alleged, can put away his wife for adultery. The wife, however, as we have seen, cannot escape marriage, even if the husband is adulterous. There is no such contradiction between the two Gospels if the exception clause is accepted as relating to betrothal alone. Then, in Matthew as in Mark, the marriage vows are binding on both partners.
The teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ on the subject of divorce is thus clear and plain. Once a marriage has been consummated there can be no divorce. Reader, whatever “has been said” (Matt. 5: 31) by others in the past must bow before what He has now said: “But I say unto you” (my emphasis, v32). Too many are only too ready to accept the opinions of learned men, rather than examining for themselves the teaching of the Son of God. It is, for example, widely taught that spouses who have been abandoned by their partners are free to remarry. Such teachers usually quote the middle part of 1 Cor. 7: 15 as their ‘proof’: “let them go away; a brother or a sister is not bound in such [cases]”. What those who support divorce on such grounds seem oblivious to is that by so using this verse they make the words of Paul contradict the words of Christ! Thus to quote the Lord’s words in Matthew 5: 32 again: “whosoever shall put away his wife, except for cause of fornication, makes her commit adultery, and whosoever marries one that is put away commits adultery”. Thus divorce on any grounds apart from fornication is completely unacceptable to the Lord. In His eyes, such divorces are invalid, the partners are viewed as still married, and any subsequent unions are adulterous. Thus unless the apostle is at variance with his Master, he cannot be teaching the annulment of marriage on grounds of desertion in 1 Cor. 7: 15!
As a matter of fact, 1 Cor. 7 does not mention divorce––indeed neither apoluoo, nor apostasion, the two words used in the Greek, are found anywhere in the epistle. Remarriage is mentioned once, but only in terms that do not include divorce: “A wife is bound for whatever time her husband lives; but if the husband be fallen asleep, she is free to be married to whom she will, only in [the] Lord” (v39).
What 1 Cor. 7 does say is “Let not wife be separated from husband; (but if also she shall have been separated, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband;) and let not husband leave wife” (vs 10, 11). Separation yes, but nothing about divorce. Reconciliation yes, but nothing about remarriage. Some point out that the separated wife is called “unmarried” as if that meant she was free to enter a second, fresh marital union. Not so, for rather than remaining separated it is better that she is reconciled to one Paul calls “her husband”. Clearly, the word “unmarried here is used in a physical rather than a legal sense––to all practical purposes she is living as a single woman. The apostle encourages a physical reconciliation, but even if that does not happen, he gives no support whatsoever to a legal annulment.
When we come to verses 12–16 the apostle is dealing with the specific case of a marriage in which one of the spouses is unconverted and this must be taken account of when interpreting verse 15. However, despite the unbalanced nature of such a marriage, the apostle will not countenance any measure of breakdown in the tie. Hence: “If any brother have an unbelieving wife, and she consent to dwell with him, let him not leave her” (v12). The unbelief of the one is not grounds for separation, let alone divorce. However: “if the unbeliever go away, let them go away; a brother or a sister is not bound in such [cases], but God has called us in peace” (v15). So does this mean that if the unconverted spouse departs that the one left behind is free to remarry––is “not bound” in the sight of God to the marriage? Not at all. There are two Greek words translated “bound” in the chapter, and the difference between them is instructive. Attention has already been drawn to v39: “A wife is bound for whatever time her husband lives”. The Greek word for “bound” there is dea and means to be tied together. The sense is that only death can undo the marriage bond. Compare this with verse 15: “a brother or a sister is not bound in such [cases]”. Here the Greek word for “bound” is douloo, and means to be enslaved or under bondage. Thus if the unconverted spouse goes away, the one remaining is “no longer under bondage”. The question is, under bondage to what? Marriage involves certain responsibilities. Thus, for example: “Let the husband render her due to the wife, and in like manner the wife to the husband” (v3). When a man or a woman get married, they put themselves “under bondage” to these responsibilities. Of course, the husband is “head of the wife” (Eph. 5: 23), but headship does not mean that the responsibilities of the husband to the wife can be ignored (compare 1 Cor. 7: 4). Both are obligated to look after one another. However, if a spouse runs off, then the remaining spouse is freed from those responsibilities and is no longer bound in that sense. For example, in Biblical times, a wife was totally dependent on her husband (hence the provision given in Scripture for widows). If, however, she went away, then her husband was no longer bound to discharge his duty to her. Thus when 1 Cor. 7: 15 speaks of a brother or sister not being “bound” it means they are freed from the duties of marriage––not marriage itself.
All this illustrates the fact that with a highly emotive subject like divorce, people are apt to clutch at any Scripture they see as favourable to their cause. An honest dealing with the Bible, however, requires a serious and cool–headed attempt to find out what God is saying in His Word, rather than what we would like Him to say. The bald fact of the matter is that God does not allow so–called Christian divorce. We can conclude with a final piece of evidence from the apostle Paul in Rom. 7: 1–4. His argument there is based on the fact that death alone is able to break the marriage bond in the sight of God. If divorce were permitted to break that bond, then the foundation for the following words would be removed: “ye also have been made dead to the law by the body of the Christ, to be to another, who has been raised up from among [the] dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God” (v4). The only thing that dissolves marriage before God is not divorce but death. Divorce is the Devil’s delusion.