Key Scriptures from the New Testament
“But I Say To You . . .”
The first New Testament discussion of this topic occurs quite near the beginning, in Matthew 5:31–32:
“It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”
Earlier, when we looked Deuteronomy 24, we noted that the wording was unclear; it allowed a man to divorce his wife if he found “some uncleanness” in her, but it didn’t elaborate on what that “uncleanness” was. Here in Matthew 5, Jesus clears up that ambiguity. Jesus’ words make it clear that even if Moses did not intend “uncleanness” to be limited to sexual immorality, God did.
Jesus says here that if a man divorces his wife for any reason other than sexual immorality, he causes her to commit adultery—he is responsible for her sin. Jesus adds that whoever marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.
Let me clear up two words here found in the New King James. Jesus says, “If a man divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality . . . .” The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” is porneia, which simply means sexual immorality. It is a broad term that can refer to unlawful sexual relations between two unmarried people, between a married person and an unmarried person, or between a married person and another married person who is not their spouse; it can also refer to prostitution or bestiality.
Jesus says if a man divorces his wife, except for one of these sins, he causes her to commit adultery. The word translated adultery here is the Greek verb moichao, which refers specifically to a married person engaging in sexual relations with someone other than their spouse.
Now let’s look at what Jesus taught here—without reading anything into the text that it doesn’t actually say.
First, does Jesus say anything here about a wife divorcing her husband? He doesn’t, does He? Many people misread Jesus’ words here to say that if a woman divorces her husband for any reason other than adultery, she causes him to commit adultery. That reading implies that Jesus was expanding the existing allowance for divorce.
Remember, in the Old Testament, no allowance for divorce was made in Genesis; it says “they shall be one flesh.” Later, in Deuteronomy, we saw that God permitted a husband to divorce his wife if he found “uncleanness” in her. He did not permit a wife to divorce her husband if she found uncleanness in him. (It seems God intended to deal with the husband’s sin directly.)
With this precedent, we arrive at the teachings of Jesus. Did Jesus leave the rules about divorce as they were in the Old Testament, did He narrow the scope for divorce, or did He expand it? In the Matthew 5 passage, it seems clear that Jesus did not expand the scope for divorce; if anything, He narrowed it, by clearly defining “uncleanness” as limited to sexual immorality.
Jesus did not say, “You have heard that a man could divorce his wife for sexual immorality, but I authorize a wife to divorce her husband for sexual immorality as well.” Most people today assume that if husbands can divorce their wives, wives can divorce their husbands. However, that is not what Jesus said, and that is not the way His audience would have understood His words.
Jesus was teaching on a mountainside to a mostly-Jewish crowd; and there is nothing in His words that would have led his Jewish listeners to conclude that He was expanding the options for divorce. The women would not have come away thinking, “Oh, He’s saying we can divorce our husbands now.” Jesus had said nothing like that.
Jesus said, “Whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Does He make any exception to this statement? No, He gives no exception whatsoever. That’s because in the Jewish culture, a divorced woman was either divorced lawfully (meaning she was an adulteress) or she was wrongfully divorced by her husband (in which case she was not free in God’s eyes). Either way, if a man married her, he would be committing adultery.
Again, this straightforward interpretation of Jesus’ words is both politically incorrect and, in most places, religiously incorrect. It directly contradicts the practice of most churches today; but it does not contradict what Christians practiced for the first 1,800 years of church history. Some people feel that we now have a better understanding than Christians did in earlier centuries, and so God’s eternal plan can be altered or changed. But God’s plan for marriage has never changed!
What God Has Joined
Another passage where Jesus discusses this topic is Matthew 19:3–9. It begins,
“The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
In His answer to the Pharisees, Jesus goes back to the very beginning, appealing to the interjection in Genesis about two becoming one flesh. Jesus is saying this spiritual concept is foundational to our whole understanding of marriage; God does not see a marriage as two separate individuals, but as a union—one flesh. No human is to separate that bond, because God has joined it permanently.
The text above continues with a further question from the Pharisees, followed by Jesus’ response:
“They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away [divorce] your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, except it be for fornication [porneia], and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away [divorced] doth commit adultery.”
In this passage, does Jesus say anything different from what He said in Matthew 5:31–32? No, His instructions are exactly the same, but He explains them a bit more. God’s purpose for marriage in the beginning, Jesus says, was for one man and one wife, for life. Moses permitted husbands to divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, even though divorce did not please God. In this passage, Jesus again limits divorce by saying,
“Whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, except it be for fornication [porneia, sexual immorality], and shall marry another, committeth adultery.”
Jesus is saying that if a man divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality and gets remarried, he is committing adultery. Once again, He makes no exception for women.
“Whoso marrieth her which is put away [divorced] doth commit adultery.”
It brings me no pleasure to share what Jesus said here; I know Jesus’ words have put many people in awkward and painful circumstances, and my heart goes out to them. But I would do you no favors by tickling your ears, and telling you something other than what Jesus said.
The Disappearing Exception
Now let’s move on to Mark 10:3–12. Here we find something much like what we just read in Matthew.
“And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away [divorce] his wife? tempting him. 3And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? 4And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. 5And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. 6But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. 7For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; 8And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. 9What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
This appears to be either a second account of the Matthew 19 incident, told in slightly different words, or else an account of another incident where the Pharisees asked a similar question. However, Mark adds this detail:
“And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. 11And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. 12And if a woman shall put away [divorce] her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”
This answer of Jesus differs from the one in Matthew in a significant way. In Matthew, Jesus said, “. . . except . . . for fornication [porneia].” Here He doesn’t say that. He just says,
“Whosoever shall put away [divorce] his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.”
Matthew’s exception is missing here. Furthermore, Jesus clarifies that if a woman divorced her husband, as allowed under Roman law but not Jewish law, she would be committing adultery. No exceptions.
Luke 16:18 includes another report of Jesus’ words on this subject. This one is brief, simply saying,
“Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” So Luke basically repeats what Mark said, once again mentioning no exception.
This raises a difficulty in understanding Jesus’ intent, since Matthew reports an exception to the ban on divorce, while Mark and Luke do not. To clear up this uncertainty, we will now look at the early Christian writings to see if they offer any help.