Steve Gregg of http://TheNarrowPath.com explains what marriage & divorce are in God's eyes, the only biblical grounds for divorce, remarriage, adultery, abandonment, whether the spouse is unbeliever or not, whether a divorced Christian should return to their spouse, etc. his series, "Towards a Radically Christian Counterculture"
Also, read 3 articles by Steve Gregg on Divorce & Remarriage. I've copied the 2nd one here:
The Specific Texts on Divorce and RemarriageWe have yet to deal with the particular verses of Scripture that address the questions of divorce and remarriage most directly. It is to these that we now turn our attention. These texts can be divided into three major categories:
1. Those expressing the Old Testament’s teaching (Gen.2:24/Deut.24:1-4/Ezra 10:2-5/Mal.2:13-16/Mark 6:18 [John the Baptist]);
2.Those in Jesus’ recorded teaching (Matt.5:32/19:9/ Mark 10:11-12/Luke 16:18); and
3. Those in the letters of Paul the apostle (Rom.7:2-3/1 Cor.7:10-15, 26-28, 39/1 Tim.3:2).
It is from a neglect of these passages that an overly-lenient view of divorce comes. And it is, I believe, from a defective exegesis of the same passages that an unscriptural legalism arises. We can best hope to discover the mind of God by pursuing the most responsible and honest exegesis of the biblical record on any given subject. It is just such that I will endeavor to present in this chapter.
Before looking at details, let me summarize the essential content of each passage:
1. Old Testament:
In Gen.2:24, we have the defining comment about marriage (quoted by both Jesus and Paul), stating that marriage occurs when a man and woman, leaving their parents’ homes, form a new union that is described as “one flesh.”
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 legislates that, if a husband has given his wife a certificate of divorce (because of some “uncleanness” he finds in her), and if she remarries and her second marriage also fails, her original husband is not permitted to take her back as his wife. She has been “defiled” for him.
In Ezra 10, many of the Jews who had returned from the exile were found to have contracted unlawful marriages with pagan women. Upon advice from Ezra, they divorced their pagan wives.
In Malachi 2, the situation was similar. Some of the returned exiles had actually divorced their Jewish wives in order to marry (apparently) younger, pagan women. God objects principally to the treachery committed against the first wives, and says that He “hates divorce.”
In Mark 6:18, John the Baptist (an Old Testament prophet) rebukes Herod for having stolen his brother’s wife to be his own. John says that this second marriage is “unlawful.”
2. The teaching of Jesus:
In Matthew 5:32, Jesus teaches that a man divorcing his wife for grounds other than “fornication” actually causes her to commit adultery (assuming her remarriage), and that her second husband, in such a case, is also an adulterer.
Matthew 19:3-9 records a discussion arising when the Pharisees ask Jesus about grounds for divorce. Jesus answers that, prior to the fall, God’s original plan for marriage did not include any provision for divorce. In the following discussion, He points out that the fall (with its attendant “hardness of heart”) led God to allow divorce in the Old Testament law. However, if a man frivolously divorces his wife (“except for the cause of fornication”), and then marries another, he thereby becomes guilty of adultery. He also restates his comment from Matt.5:32, that whoever marries his ex-wife also commits adultery (19:9).
Mark 10:11-12 simply repeats the fact that a man commits adultery against his wife when he divorces her and marries another. In this case, Jesus makes the corresponding statement about a wife as well, namely, that if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery against him. Unlike the passages in Matthew, however, the statements in Mark do not mention the exception (“except for the cause of fornication”).
Luke 16:18 is simply the same statement as that found in Matt.19:9, but with the exception clause (“except for the cause of fornication”) omitted.
3. The teaching of Paul:
In Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Cor.7:39, we find essentially identical statements from Paul, teaching that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives, and will be considered an adulteress if she were to marry another while her husband is still living. Both passages go on to affirm as their principal point that the woman is free to remarry if her husband has died.
1 Corinthians 7:10-15 contains Paul’s most detailed treatment of the subject at hand. He addresses two separate groups of married people with different instructions. His instructions to the first group are not from him but from “the Lord.” Of his instructions to the other group (“to the rest...”) he says, “I speak, not the Lord...” The second group is clearly defined as marriages in which one party is a Christian, while the other is not. This implies that the first group are Christians married to Christians.
Paul teaches that Christians married to other Christians should not divorce, and that, if a separation has occurred (a circumstance for which he does not give permission), they should be reconciled or else “remain unmarried.”
His instructions to the second group are not identical to those for the first. He tells the unequally-yoked Christian to remain in the marriage for the sake of the children and the spouse so long as the latter will permit. If the unsaved spouse abandons the marriage, however, the believing spouse is “not under bondage in such cases.”
A few verses later (vv.26-28), Paul is giving special instructions pertinent to what he calls “the present distress.” He encourages those “bound” to a wife not to seek release from their marriages. He also instructs those who are “loosed” from a wife not to seek a wife. However, he adds that if they were to disregard this suggestion and were to marry anyway, they commit no sin in so doing.
Finally, in 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul sets out as a qualification of an elder that he must be “the husband of one wife,” and in 1 Timothy 5:9, Paul sets forth as a qualification for a supported widow, that she must have been the “wife of one man.”
These are the verses. It is the various interpretations and application of these, primarily, that have been the occasion of most of the controversy in today’s church over divorce and remarriage. What are we to make of them?
Is the Marriage Bond Indissoluble?
Perhaps the most logical place to begin is with the one statement that occurs in all three of the above categories. Genesis 2:24 is the first statement on this subject in the Old Testament, and is also quoted by Jesus and Paul as definitive of their ethics of marriage. The verse describes marriage as the breaking-off of one solidarity (e.g. a man leaves his parents’ family) to establish a new solidarity (his own family). This new solidarity is formed by his being “joined” to his wife as “one flesh.”
This language speaks of a strong bond, and one that cannot be legitimately dissolved. However, there is no teaching here that suggests the impossibility of the bond being formed or dissolved illegitimately. Commenting on this very verse, Jesus says, “What God has joined [i.e. the man and his wife as one flesh], let not man separate” (Matt.19:6). This command implies that such a separating of what God joined is certainly possible (or else what is the point of forbidding it?), but that it cannot be done legitimately, that is, without violation of God’s purpose, intentions and commands. The fact that people do indeed violate God’s purpose and intentions every day proves that “one flesh” relationships can be dissolved illegitimately. Relationships, once truly dissolved, no longer exist.
By the way, Jesus’ statement only forbids the dissolution of unions which “God has joined.” There is no forbidding of the dissolution of unions of which God never approved. Hence the appropriateness of the Jews divorcing their pagan wives, in Ezra 10. These were “one flesh” relationships of which God did not approve. Their dissolution was appropriate, not being the separation of “what God had joined.” Union with a prostitute also results in a joining into “one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16), but this, not being a union approved by God, is one worthy of dissolution. The same principle may apply to a case in which a girl has married without her father’s knowledge or approval, since the Scriptures allow the father to annul any vow of his daughter’s on the day he learns of it (Num.30:3-5).
Such arguments, of course, could easily be abused. For example, any dissatisfied spouse might wish to claim that the Lord never originally approved of his/her marriage, and that it should thus be dissolved. Paul, however, specifically advises Christians married to non-Christians to remain married so long as this promotes “peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15), though the marriage can be considered dissolved if the unbeliever departs (Ibid.). The potential for abuse of a principle should not be made an argument against the validity of the principle itself. Clearly, not all “one flesh” unions can be described as “what God has joined.” Thus the “one flesh” relationship is capable of being entered illegitimately (a sinful union), in which case it can be dissolved legitimately (a justified annulment), or it can be entered legitimately (a valid marriage), in which case it is capable of being dissolved illegitimately (a sinful divorce). It cannot, therefore, be sustained scripturally that “one flesh” is a condition inevitably intact forever (for example, it does not continue in the resurrection—Matt.22:28-30).
Even in cases where there has been legitimate, binding marriage contracted, of which it can be said “God has joined together,” it is possible for a spouse to seek a divorce without being guilty of separating what God has joined. Such is possible in cases where the other spouse has effectively dissolved the bond by certain, biblically-defined misbehavior. In the Old Testament, the grounds are vague—”some uncleanness” (Deut.24:1). Jesus identified “fornication” as a type of uncleanness that rendered His otherwise strict teaching on divorce inapplicable (Matt.5:32/19:9). Paul gave similar status to an unbeliever’s desertion of a believing spouse (1 Cor.7:15). In such cases, the legitimate bond has illegitimately been put asunder (by the fornicator), but not necessarily by the party seeking the divorce (the innocent party). The divorcing party, it may be, is acting legitimately, merely making official what has become a reality by the other’s actions.
But then there are Paul’s statements that “the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if the husband is dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband” (Rom.7:2; cf. 1 Cor.7:39). Doesn’t this teach that the marriage bond is unconditionally binding for life? And isn’t remarriage by the wife forbidden in Paul’s following statement: “So then if, while her husband lives, she is married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress” (Rom.7:3)?
Paul’s point will be missed if we try to take these statements as a teaching forbidding all divorce and remarriage, for three reasons:
1. Paul introduces his comment in Romans 7 by saying, “I speak to those who know the law [of Moses].” In other words, Paul’s statement about husbands and wives (which he actually intends to use as an illustration to make an entirely different point) is a simple restatement of what already was known to be the teaching in the law of Moses. The law of Moses nowhere forbade divorce, and, in fact, explicitly permitted both divorce and remarriage (Deut.24:1-4). Paul should not be understood to be himself forbidding what the law permitted, since he appeals to that very law as the support for his statement.
2. The statements in question both occur in passages where the point is to teach the freedom to remarry after the death of a spouse. In Romans 7, Paul is likening the woman to ourselves, once married to the law and under its authority, but since that “marriage” has ended with the death of one of the parties, we are free to marry another—Christ (v.4). Paul is arguing against any tendency to keep Christians subject to the law of Moses (to which we have “died”), which would be analogous to requiring a widow to remain under the rule of her deceased husband. There is a similar point being made in 1 Cor.7:39. Paul is pointing out that a woman is no longer bound to a husband who has died, and is thus free to remarry, though Paul thinks it good for her to consider remaining single. Thus the intended meaning of both of Paul’s statements is that a woman is bound to her husband only during his lifetime, but not after he has died.
3. Paul says, “A woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives.” It should not need to be pointed out that a legitimately divorced woman does not have a husband. She has an ex-husband. The Samaritan woman had had five husbands serially, but had none at the time of her conversation with Jesus. Jesus agreed with her statement that she currently “had no husband,” even though she had been married five times previously—John 4:18). According to the law, she certainly is not bound to the husband who divorced her for the rest of his life! In fact, she could not even return to him if she had since married another, which she was permitted to do (Deut.24). While her ex-husband is still alive, she can marry another, because an ex-husband is not a husband, and she is thus NOT “a woman that has a husband.”
In the present passages, Paul is not attempting to address every conceivable question about the permanence of marriage. He knows the law and he is not altering it, but he rather cites it in defense of his point. He is not concerning himself with exceptions (as Jesus does in Matthew). He is merely stating the fact (which he considers obvious) that, debarring any circumstance (like divorce) that may deprive a woman of her husband, the woman who still has a husband is bound to him only until he dies—and no longer! This is the only idea relevant to the point Paul is arguing in each passage. To extend his meaning beyond this would place Paul in tension with both Moses and Jesus—and himself, a few verses earlier (1 Cor.7:15)!
Some readers may object to my making so many appeals to the law in Deuteronomy, since Jesus explained that this law was not a reflection of what might be called God’s perfect will, but was only a concession made because of “the hardness of heart.” Jesus’ own standard rose higher than that of the law, one may argue, and it is Jesus’ teaching—not Moses’—that Paul (and we) must represent. All this is, of course, true. But when we seek to understand Jesus’ own remarks about divorce (we will come to those presently), we can not pit Jesus against God in defining morality. If divorce and remarriage (permitted under the law) are universally and without exception violations of moral righteousness, then how could God ever have permitted it—even “because of the hardness of heart”? In the law, which even the New Testament describes as “holy, just and good” (Rom.7:12), we never find God “permitting” murder, adultery, theft or blasphemy “because of the hardness of heart.” If divorce and remarriage are in every case immoral, as these other acts are, then God could never have given such permission, regardless how hard people’s hearts might have been!
What Did Jesus Teach?
This brings us to the vital consideration of Jesus’ statements about divorce. Since the various statements are not identical in content, we must bear in mind that no interpretation of them can be correct which would place Him at odds with His Father, who defined moral standards when He gave the law. The section of the Sermon on the Mount which contains Jesus’ remarks about divorce is introduced with this caveat: “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt.5:17). Jesus did not come to alter the moral standards of the law, nor to introduce new standards which were not equally valid in the Old Testament. Every one of the beatitudes is drawn from the Old Testament. Since all morality is merely a reflection of the character of God, which cannot change, it is impossible for morality to change. The unchanging God cannot abhor today what He found respectable in the past. Jesus came to shed light on aspects and dimensions of the law which had been obscured by rabinic tradition. Therefore, when Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old time, ‘You shall not murder,’” He did not finish the statement by saying, “but I say to you, ‘Murder!’” Rather, he explained that there are other ways by which one may become a “murderer” in God’s sight without actually killing someone. He did not say, “You have heard that it was said to those of old time, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, ‘Commit adultery!’” Rather, He explained that there are ways to become guilty of this sin without actually touching a woman, but by merely looking at a woman to lust after her. In saying these things, he was not creating a new ethic (Job had known this truth thousands of years earlier—Job 31:1). Jesus never changed one moral issue from the law. He merely expounded on the deeper implications of the law that had been neglected by His hearers and their teachers. Thus we must avoid the mistaken notion that Jesus was now making divorce and remarriage universally sinful, though it was not so in the days of Moses. Rather, Jesus’ teaching on this, as on other moral issues of the law, should be seen as an expansion on the meaning of the law in Deuteronomy 24 (the passage that he quotes). What Jesus reveals is that the vague, undefined “uncleanness” that constituted grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy is to be identified with “fornication”— and nothing else (Matt.5:32).
What Paul tells us about Jesus’ Teaching
Jesus’ words on divorce are interpreted, in some degree, by the inspired Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15. We should examine this passage before deciding on the meaning of Jesus’ words, since Paul tells us a vital fact that is often missed in such considerations.
In 1 Corinthians 7:10, Paul addresses an audience whom he simply refers to as “the married.” In verse 12, he addresses another group, whom he calls “the rest” (i.e. those not included in the first category). Since the first group were called “the married,” we might expect “the rest” to refer to unmarried people. However, as we read on in the passage, we find that “the rest” are also married people. They are Christians who are married to pagans. Thus both groups addressed are groups of married people. Since the second group are Christians married to unbelievers, it follows that the first group are Christians married to Christians. This would seem to be the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the wording. Thus we learn that, in verses 10-11, Paul is addressing only Christians who are married to other Christians, whereas, in verses 12-15, he is speaking to Christians married to unbelievers. This awareness makes a huge difference in our understanding of the applicability of Paul’s teaching.
Another observation is crucial. To the first group (whom we have identified as Christians married to Christians), Paul says, “To the married I command, yet not I but the Lord...” (v.10). To the second group (Christians married to unbelievers), Paul writes, “To the rest I, not the Lord, say...” (v.12). What is the meaning of these expressions “not I, but the Lord...” and “I, not the Lord...”? Commentators are essentially unanimous in their explanation that the first expression means, “Not only I, but also the Lord [Jesus] taught this”—meaning that Paul is not originating these instructions, but they were already familiar from the teachings of Jesus. When he turns around and writes, “I, not the Lord [Jesus]”, he is saying that his present instructions go beyond anything Jesus actually taught during His earthly ministry. As an apostle of Christ, Paul could authoritatively give rulings on subjects that Jesus had never discussed.
The significant thing here is that Paul said that Jesus never addressed the subject of the second group he is addressing. This means that, in Paul’s view (inspired by the Holy Spirit), everything Jesus taught on marriage and divorce was directed toward God’s people who were married to others who were also God’s people. We should not be surprised, since all of the people in Jesus’ audience were, most likely, Jews who were married to Jews. Both parties to the marriage were God’s covenantal people, as in the case of Christians who are married to Christians. If we learned nothing else from Paul here, we learn at least that Paul did not believe that Jesus’ teachings about divorce are relevant to, nor intended for, anyone except covenant people who are married to other covenant people—in our case, Christians married to Christians. Paul indicates that different rules apply in the case of Christians married to unbelievers, and the teachings of Christ on divorce are not applicable without modification to this second category.
The benefit of this observation is that, when we turn to examine the actual teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, we can do so realizing that (according to Paul), Jesus was directing His remarks not to all married people, but to those who have married “within the faith” (as all believers should, of course). Once we have discovered the actual content of Jesus’ teachings, we will now know the limits of the sphere of its application.
Jesus’ Actual Statements
Jesus’ teaching does not take the form of a command (e.g. “Thou shalt nor divorce”), but only of a teaching informing us of situations in which divorce and/or remarriage involve the parties in adultery. There are four passages:
In Matthew 5:32, an invalid divorce initiated by the husband results in an adulterous status of the divorced wife’s second marriage—she and her new husband both are said to “commit adultery.”
In Matthew 19:9, the husband that initiates the illegitimate divorce commits adultery when he marries a second wife, and whoever marries his ex-wife also commits adultery.
Mark 10:11-12 is the parallel passage to Matthew 19:9. As in that verse, these verses declare the divorcing and remarrying husband to be guilty of adultery, but turns the situation around by saying the same thing about the woman who initiates the divorce and remarries (i.e., she “commits adultery”).
Luke 16:18 may be the parallel to the passages in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 (just above). In any case, it contains precisely the same information as does Mark 10:12, with the slight modification of speaking of the guilt of the woman’s second husband (rather than her own guilt, as in Mark) and the woman in question is described as “her who is divorced from her husband” (passive, the victim of a husband’s divorce) as opposed to “a woman [who] divorces her husband” (active, the initiator), as in Mark.
If we might summarize everything Jesus said about this (remembering that Paul limits these instructions as applying only to Christians married to Christians): If a Christian man divorces his Christian wife, and remarries, he and his new wife are in a relationship of adultery. If his divorced wife enters a second marriage, this too is adulterous. The same applies to the Christian wife who divorces her Christian husband and remarries—both parties to the second marriage are in an adulterous relationship (though it may be a “legal” marriage in the eyes of the state, it is not a legitimate marriage in God’s sight). By declaring remarriage to be “adultery” in these statements, Jesus can only be assuming that, in God’s sight, the divorced persons are still married to their original mates, regardless of legal divorce papers. Though there has been a legal divorce, no legitimate dissolution of the marriage covenant is recognized by God.
All the above is true. . .with one exception! “Except for the cause of fornication,” which suggests that “fornication” is the one thing that can genuinely dissolve the marriage bond, rendering remarriage a valid option to the innocent party. Two questions are hotly debated over this “exception clause”: 1) Did Jesus really teach it? and 2) What is meant by “fornication”?
The Authenticity of the Exception
The first question arises because, in their quotation of Jesus’ words, neither Mark nor Luke mention the exception, and Paul does not mention it in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 (where he summarizes Jesus’ teaching). On the other hand, Matthew includes it in both passages in which he records Jesus’ teaching on the subject. We are left with three options: 1) that Jesus spoke more than once on this topic, sometimes including (as per Matthew), and sometimes omitting (as per Mark, Luke and Paul) the exception clause; 2) that Jesus did not give the exception, but Matthew made it up to modify what Jesus really said; or 3) that Jesus really said it (as per Matthew), but Mark, et al, (for some reason) did not include it.
We may readily rule out the first suggestion, since Matthew 19 (which includes the exception) and Mark 10 (which omits it) are parallel passages, recording the same statement on the same occasion.
The second suggestion is that Matthew modified Jesus’ statement for some reason. If Matthew did take such a liberty, then he either wanted to misrepresent Jesus’ actual teaching (hardly an acceptable option!), or else he was seeking to expound, under inspiration, the nuances of Jesus’ statement, which Jesus intended to imply, but which he did not state explicitly. Matthew was an apostle who wrote Scripture, and thus any exception that he included would be authoritative for the Church of God.
The third option is also plausible. Given the assumption that Jesus actually uttered the exception, as Matthew asserts that He did, there might be reasons for the other writers not to have included this detail. They might think of the occurrence of infidelity among Christian couples to be so rare as barely to warrant mentioning (it is not, after all, polite to suggest to faithful people that, were they to commit adultery, their spouses could then divorce them). Our modern experience may tell us that adultery is not so very uncommon among Christians, but we must not assume that all whom we would regard as Christians would fit the biblical definition of that term. When we remember that no fornicator has any inheritance in the kingdom of God (1 Cor.6:9f/Gal.5:19-21/Eph.5:5), it will be plain that an unrepentant adulterer is no “Christian” in God’s estimation. If we are inclined, against the authority of Scripture, to regard as “Christians” individuals who commit adultery without repentance, so much the worse for our definitions!
When two biblical passages give different degrees of detail, it is safer (and customary) to assume that the briefer account is abbreviated, rather than to accuse the author of the fuller account of creative innovation. It is common in Scripture for one account to leave out detail that appears in other accounts. We always assume that the fuller account is simply more complete. If Mark tells of a man of the tombs who met with Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, whereas Matthew mentions two demoniacs in that place, we conclude that Matthew is giving more detail than is Mark. There are many places in Scripture where God states promises and threats which contain implied, though unspoken, conditions (e.g. Jonah’s message to Ninevah, cf. 1 Sam.2:30; Jer.18:7-10). Sometimes the conditions are stated, and other times they are left unspoken and only implied.
There are also many statements of Jesus which are generalized, without stating exceptions that are admitted elsewhere as valid. For example, in some manuscripts, Jesus is recorded as having said, “Whoever is angry at his brother shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matt.5:22). No exception is stated here, though exceptions to this rule are indeed stated elsewhere (e.g. Mark 3:5/Eph.4:26). Similarly, Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks of you” (Luke 6:30), though exceptions are certainly implied (must we give our children everything that they request?) and even stated elsewhere (e.g. 2 Thes.3:10). Other examples may be cited as well. In Mark 8:12, Jesus says, “No sign shall be given to this generation” (sounds absolute and without exception, doesn’t it?)—but in the parallel passage in Matthew, He is reported to have said, “No sign shall be given to this generation, except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt.12:39). It is similar with the statements in Mark, Luke and Paul that forbid divorce (seemingly without exception), whereas Matthew gives the additional detail of a peculiar and rare exception.
To suggest that the exception was never uttered, or at least implied, by Jesus is to say that Matthew misrepresented Jesus, where Mark, Luke and Paul quoted Him accurately. If we were to weigh authorities on the words of Jesus, however, we would do well to remember that Matthew (who includes the exception) was actually an eye-witness of the events and a hearer of the words that he records, whereas Mark, Luke and Paul (who do not include it) were not. Of course, no “card-carrying evangelical” would suggest that any of these writers erred. The comment by Professor Thomas Edgar seems entirely reasonable, when he writes: “...if the exception in Matthew 19:9 is regarded, as it claims to be, as an exception to the rule, then the best explanation is that the passages not stating an exception are stating the general rule, and the specific exceptions are allowable exceptions to that rule.” (Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, H. Wayne House, ed., p.140).
The Meaning of Fornication
Now, if we allow that an exception “for the cause of fornication” is actually part and parcel of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, the next difficulty is to reach consensus as to the meaning of “fornication” (Greek: porneia). I am aware of several meanings that have been suggested for this word.
The majority of scholars and lexicons extend the meaning of the Greek word porneia to include any unlawful sexual activity. Since the only lawful sexual activity acknowledged in Scripture is that which occurs between a heterosexual, covenantally married couple, those activities that would fall under the rubric of porneia would include premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, incest, child molestation, beastiality, and other perversions. Because of this, we might conclude that by the use of porneia, Matthew identifies sexual violation of the marriage vows, as the sole ground for divorce. In most cases, this would be a reference to ordinary adultery, though it could as easily be applied to these other sexual sins.
Alternative suggestions have been made as to the meaning of the word porneia. It has been pointed out that, apart from porneia, there is a distinct Greek word for “adultery” (moicheia), which is used in the New Testament passages under consideration in the phrase “commits adultery.” Jesus says, “Whoever divorces for any reason other than fornication (porneia ), and then remarries, commits adultery (moicheia).” Why, it is asked, would not Matthew have used the word moicheia in both instances, if the exception he intended to identify was adultery? A plausible answer would be that, while any kind of sexual deviancy (porneia) constitutes grounds for divorce, yet divorce and remarriage, in the worst case, is tantamount to adultery specifically (i.e., it is not homosexuality, beastiality, etc.) in that it is a straightforward sin of the violation of marriage vows.
One theory of the meaning of porneia in Jesus’ teaching on divorce is that the word refers to unlawful marriages (e.g. incestuous marriages). The implication is that Jesus only allowed divorce in the case of marriages that were unlawful in the first place. Unfortunately for the proponents of this view, there is almost no support for this meaning of the word in the Greek language, while the application of porneia to general sexual misconduct is well established. One suggested case in which the word is said to apply to an incestuous marriage is in 1 Corinthians 5:1, where the relationship of a man to his stepmother is referred to as porneia. However, the passage does not suggest that the man had married the woman. In this case, the word could readily be seen as applicable both to adultery and to incest, but there is no indication of an unlawful marriage.
A more common attempt to limit the meaning of porneia is to restrict its application only to sexual relations between two unmarried people (as we commonly think of the English word “fornication” today). Those taking this position suppose that Jesus envisages the circumstance of a man thinking that his bride is a virgin, but discovering on his wedding night that she is no virgin, and that she has previously committed “fornication” with another man while unmarried. This alone, it is suggested, constitutes grounds for divorce. By limiting the meaning to this narrow scenario, they intend to eliminate adultery in marriage from constituting grounds for divorce. This introduces the strange suggestion that premarital sex is a greater violation of, and more destructive to, the marriage than is an extramarital affair after marriage. Such a valuation is exactly the reverse of the respective estimation of these two offenses in the Scriptures (cf. Ex.22:16-17/Deut.22:22).
Those taking this approach also have argued that Jesus cannot be referring to adultery as the exception, since, under Jewish law, an adulterer or adulteress would not be divorced, but rather stoned to death (Deut.22:22; cf. John 8:4-5). But this argument fails to recognize that the penalty is the same for a woman representing herself as a virgin to a potential spouse, and then being found after the wedding to have had premarital sex with another man (Deut.22:21). The same death penalty applies to a betrothed virgin who violates her betrothal by sleeping with another man (Deut.22:23-24), although, when Mary was suspected of having done this, Joseph planned for a divorce, rather than an execution (Matt.1:18-19). Under Roman law, the Jews were not permitted to carry out the executions that their law required (John 18:31). Thus, common justice (Joseph was called a “just man”) and the teaching of Jesus both permitted the wronged parties to obtain legitimate divorces in situations where a proper execution would have otherwise freed them from their marriages.
Here are the definitions of porneia as given in four of the more respected lexical resources:
Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Joseph H.Thayer:
“...illicit sexual intercourse in general...(...all other interpretations of the term, such as of marriages within the prohibited degrees, and the like, are to be rejected)...it is distinguished from [moicheia] in Mt.xv.19; Mk. vii.21; and Gal.v.19...used of adultery [(cf.Hos.ii.2(4), etc.)], Mt.v.32; xix.9...”
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Arndt-Bauer-Gingrich:
“...prostitution, unchastity, fornication, of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.”
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, Kittel & Friedrich, eds.:
“A. The Non-Jewish World....”porneia means ‘licentiousness’ or ‘fornication’...B. The OT....porneia means ‘fornication’ (sometimes involving adultery)...C. Later Judaism. 1. Later Judaism shows how the use of porneia broadens out to include not only fornication or adultery but incest, sodomy, unlawful marriage, and sexual intercourse in general. 2. Sirach issues warnings against fornicating husbands and unfaithful wives (23:16ff)...E. The Apostolic Fathers. Hermas Mandates 4.1.1 warns against porneia, which differs from but also includes adultery (cf.Mandates 8.3; 4.1.5).”
Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, W.E. Vine:
‘illicit sexual intercourse’. . . it stands for, or includes, adultery; it is distinguished from it in [Matt.] 15:19 and Mark 7:21. . . “
The simple truth is that porneia seems to be a word that includes a variety of sexual sins, and that it is not uncommon for it to be used, both inside and outside of Scripture, of adultery. It is regularly used in the Septuagint to refer to Israel’s violation of their marriage covenant with God, which clearly means “adultery.” As pointed out earlier, to understand Jesus’ teaching as allowing divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery (and other grievous sexual sins) is simply to reflect God’s own conduct with reference to His covenants in Scripture.
Paul’s Contribution to the Discussion
Based on Jesus’ teaching, then, we may justly conclude that, in cases of Christians married to Christians, the only grounds for divorce allowed in Scripture is the ground of adultery, or comparable sexual violation of the marriage covenant. We must then ask, What is the unique contribution that Paul brings to the discussion of this topic, since he clearly claims to be adding a piece of instruction which, he says, was not taught by Jesus (1 Cor.7:12)? Paul begins his discussion of divorce and remarriage by summarizing what Jesus actually did say, and then he says, “To the rest say I, not the Lord...” Thus he clearly informs us that he is about to address a circumstance to which Jesus never addressed His remarks. When we examine the circumstances that Paul introduces after verse 12, we find three factors that are different from those addressed by Jesus. In the cases that Paul addresses:
1. The marriage is religiously mixed (from which we deduce that Jesus only addressed same-faith marriages);
2. In Christ’s scenario, a believer has initiated the divorce; in Paul’s, the believer’s spouse initiates it;
3. In Jesus’ scenario, she that is separated must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband (v.11), whereas, in Paul’s scenario, the believer is “not under bondage” (v.15);
The first two considerations are fairly self-explanatory. However, debate has raged over the third point. What is the meaning of “not under bondage”? Some argue that this merely means that the believer is not required to continue living with the spouse who has abandoned him/her, but that it does not imply full dissolution of the marriage with the attendant right of remarriage. It would seem very strange for Paul to make such a point. If “not under bondage” means no more than this, why even say it? Does Paul anticipate a questioner asking, “Does God require me to continue living with my husband who has left me and divorced me?”? The matter, in such a case, is out of the believer’s hands. The believer has no option in this case, since the unbelieving spouse has rendered cohabitation impossible. How could anyone wonder whether the believer is duty-bound to do what another’s actions entirely preclude as an option?
The more natural meaning is that the deserted party “in such cases” is not under bondage to the marriage covenant with the spouse who has deserted the marriage. Elsewhere in the same chapter, Paul has described the married person as “bound” to his/her spouse (1 Cor.7:27, 39). The metaphor of being “bound” specifically carries the connotation of “not free to marry another” in verse 39. Similarly, being divorced is spoken of as being “loosed” from one’s spouse (v.27). In the context of such expressions, for Paul to speak of certain formerly-married persons as “not under bondage” would suggest to a normal reader a liberty from the marriage that leaves the affected party “single,” and thus allows remarriage.
I am aware of the difference in the Greek words “bound”(deo—”to bind, tie as with a chain or a cord”), used in verse 39, and “under bondage” (douloo—”to enslave”), used in verse 15, but the words are not dissimilar in meaning. They both are, no doubt, intended to convey the same imagery to the reader. In a passage where Paul has repeatedly used the terms “bound” and “loosed” of the respective states of marriage and divorce, it would introduce confusion for him, without further clarification, to use the near-identical imagery, saying “not under bondage” (v.15) with a meaning different from “loosed” (v.27). Certainly, the burden of proof falls more heavily upon those who wish to establish a significant difference in the meanings of “bound” and “under bondage” in Paul’s discussion. I do not feel that this can be done.
Additionally, we must remember that Paul is distinctly giving a case that he says is different from any of which Jesus spoke. If the deserted brother or sister is required to remain unmarried (as was the case in verse 11, which summarized Jesus’ teaching about Christians married to other Christians), then Paul makes no significant addition to our previous knowledge, though he claims to be doing so. He could have simply cited Jesus’ instructions to the Christians in same-faith marriages, and then said, “ditto for those married to unbelievers.” It seems as if Paul’s whole passage can be paraphrased as follows:
I will remind you that Jesus forbade His disciples to divorce their wives [the exception “except for the cause of fornication” is implied, since it was part of Jesus’ teaching on the subject]. Therefore, you Christians should not divorce your Christian spouses [apart from the aforementioned exception], and if a separation or divorce wrongfully occurs, you are not free to remarry another but must endeavor to reconcile with your spouse (verses 10-11).
On the other hand, some of you are in circumstances that Jesus never addressed—namely, religiously-mixed marriages—and I will have to give instructions for your case that differ from what Jesus said about same-faith unions. If your pagan spouse is willing to keep up the marriage, then you are instructed the same as others: do not initiate a divorce [as in the other case, the exception for fornication would apply]. If your pagan spouse, however, initiates the divorce, without legitimate grounds, you are under no obligation to rescue the marriage. Unlike the previous case, where the divorced parties should remain unmarried or else be reconciled, you are not under such obligation in this latter case [i.e. you can remarry]. (verses 12-15).
If Paul’s meaning was something other than this, then he certainly picked an unfortunate choice of words to express himself. Paul’s instructions to those married to unbelievers may suggest that, since those marriages were contracted without seeking the sanction of the true God, their status is perhaps more tenuous. Since such marriages, though pagan, were entered upon by a good-faith legal contract, believers are not at liberty to simply desert them. This would be to default on a promise. Believers must keep promises that they made, even to unbelievers, and must honor even those contracts entered upon prior to their conversion. If the unbeliever, however, should renege on his/her contract promises, then there is little left to bind the believer to the marriage. Whereas, in the case of Christians who have married other Christians, they have deliberately covenanted before God to honor their vows, and nothing short of fornication, it seems, would constitute a breach sufficient to dissolve the divinely-established union.
Objections can be raised to the interpretations of Scripture that I have presented in this chapter. The next chapter will take these objections one-by-one and seek to give scriptural answers for them.