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Divorce and Matthew 5:32

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Marriage is meant to be for life. This is what I teach and what I know to be scriptural fact. Sadly, some, in their zeal to emphasise this doctrinal statement, tend to omit the other scriptural fact – that a Christian can divorce if the marriage bond is broken.

Divorce is never satisfactory; on the other hand, it is neither commended nor rejected. Rather, it is a concession given by God, and He allows only two reasons for divorce (see separate articles). This article deals with one of those reasons: fornication (which, in this text, means adultery). Also see O-174 'Divorce and 1 Corinthians 7:15'.

Those who teach that divorce is not possible, do so by omitting this text. This is not ignorance, but misrepresentation of scripture to uphold a personalised interpretation of doctrine that is untenable. To insist that no person may be divorced is, in essence, to act as a false prophet. To teach others the same on websites or in other literature, is worthy only of denunciation. Divorce is not my personal view, nor is it commended by me… it is just a Biblical fact. To abuse Christians who have been severely hurt by an adulterous spouse, by clinging on to an erroneous idea, is not acceptable.

Jesus told His hearers this:

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

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)

Is this not clear enough? Obviously not, according to some who teach otherwise! So, let the text explain itself…

Verse 31 refers to the Jewish law, that said a man may divorce his wife simply by handing her a letter containing the decree of divorce. By the time of Jesus this was a well-established custom, but it was very much misused, and wives were cast aside with little or no justification. In some cases, the man needed only to say out loud three times: “I divorce thee”, and that was that! Terms such as shalle’ah, garish, and hozi’, were used. Much of this is based on the idea of whatever pleases the husband. The ‘Bill of Divorcement’, sefer keritut, was handed by the husband to the wife and he could then order her out of the house. Other wording thought to have been used orally was “you are not my wife”. She was then given half a mina of silver before she left. It is also thought that keritut involved the husband cutting a corner off his wife’s garment, as a symbol of cutting the marriage bond.

As we see, divorce was very much a one-way system, for Jewish wives had no say in the matter. (Roman and Greek wives could do so). The reason for this theatrical activity is that the divorce was made public, preventing anyone else remarrying the divorced person. The Jews went on to accept divorce by mutual consent – rather like today – without the idea of blame, whereby a get was delivered to both partners. Even in this cursory examination of the Jewish divorce procedure we can see much that was arbitrary, and even abused. This was why Jesus reminded His hearers of the facts and gave the true version of what should be done.

He thus said in verse 31: ‘This is what Jewish law says: whoever wants to send his wife away must give her a document of divorce.’ However, He then continued His statement by adding an addendum to the accepted law of the Jews. This was because, though an established custom, the actual details of divorce were never codified properly and so the procedure was often misused.

So, Jesus went on to say ‘But I tell you this: if a man divorces his wife except for the reason of fornication, then that makes her an adulterer if she remarries. And, whoever marries her will also become an adulterer.’

We cannot mistake what is being said: fornication is a reason to divorce! The term “put away”, apolyo, means to set free, to dismiss or to send away. This also carries the meaning of ‘loosing the bonds’ (a term used in the second reason for divorce - see O/174). There are other possible meanings, but in this text it holds the meaning of divorce and the sending-away from the matrimonial home; apoluo: to let loose, or let free, to put away.

The reason for divorce in this text is fornication, the noun porneia. It means illicit sexual intercourse or, in other words, adultery. Interestingly, it also includes all forms of this, including homosexuality/lesbianism, incest, bestiality, and so on… it need not necessarily have to be adultery with the opposite sex. The word can also be used of idolatry, but not in this text. ‘Adultery’, the verb moichao, means to commit adultery with another person’s spouse. Metaphorically, it refers to faithlessness towards God, moichos, and this is its deepest meaning.

The term “saving” is important, because it means ‘with the exception of’. ‘Saving’ is prepositional, meaning ‘except’; a preposition shows a relationship between the words used in the context, such as “for the cause of” (the noun, logos). Like so many words in scripture logos has a number of possible meanings, though those without much knowledge always think it means ‘Christ’ or ‘God’s word’. In this text it is used as a reason to divorce, therefore it means ‘for the reason of’.

Therefore, the preposition tells us clearly that there is a relationship between divorce and the reason given: fornication. In summary, we can say that the text teaches us that a spouse may divorce the other spouse for reasons of fornication/adultery, and that the fornication can be in the form of any illicit sexual activity. It is, then, error to claim a person may not divorce under any circumstances – scripture says otherwise.

© February 2010

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