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A Biblical Approach to Divorce and Remarriage

The Ironclad Biblical Case Against Divorce and Remarriage Avanguard Photography

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Joe Heschmeyer - published on 05/23/14

The relevant Gospel passages have always guided the Church's teachings.

Last year, Pope Francis called for an extraordinary general assembly to address “the pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.” It hasn't even begun and there are already rumors that this might lead to the Catholic Church overturning Her two thousand year old prohibition against divorce and remarriage, at least as that prohibition applies to cases involving adultery.

For those who think that the Church's teaching can and should change, the strongest argument comes from Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, in which Jesus seems to carve out an exception in His teaching against divorce and remarriage:

–  Matthew 5:32. The RSV:CE translates Jesus' words here as: “But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity [πορνεία, porneia], makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery [μοιχάω, moichaō].”

Matthew 19:9. The RSV:CE reads: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity [πορνεία, porneia], and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery [μοιχάω, moichaō].”

The Protestant website GotQuestions? is hardly alone in claiming that these verses “allow divorce only in the case of the adultery of the other party.” Indeed, virtually every Protestant denomination permits divorce and remarriage in at least some cases (as does the Orthodox Church, sort of). So does Jesus permit such exceptions in these two passages? And can we expect the Church to change Her teachings to allow such an exception?

The answer to both questions is a resounding no. Here's why:

What these Passages Really Mean

Both Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 contain an absolute prohibition against divorce and remarriage, but acknowledge that this prohibition doesn't apply when there's no actual marriage.

That is, the “unchastity” in question isn't Bob cheating on his wife Alice. It's the unchaste relationship between Bob and Alice themselves. If Alice and Bob are civilly married, but aren't married in the eyes of God (for example, if they're siblings, or of the same sex, etc.), they are free to “divorce” and remarry.

Now, I realize that this interpretation flies in the face of what you may have heard, but the case for it is iron-clad. Consider the following evidence:

1. There's No Adultery Exception in the Greek.

Relatively few Biblical doctrines turn on the precise Greek wording of a Biblical passage. This happens to be one of them. Fortunately, it's straightforward.

Jesus talks about divorce and remarriage being adultery except in cases of “porneia.” Protestants tend to claim that porneia means an exception for “adultery,” but that interpretation can't be right. There is a Greek word for adultery, and this isn't it. Jesus actually uses the Greek word for adultery, moichaō, in both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, but only to say that the divorced-and-remarried person is guilty of it.

In fact, the word porneia is never translated as adultery in the New Testament (at least in any of the major English versions of the Bible), and it's used to describe a variety of sexual sins, but never simple adultery. Jesus also explicitly distinguished porneia from adultery (condemning them both, but as separate sins) in Matt. 15:19 and Mark 7:21. Paul also distinguishes porneia from adultery (Galatians 5:19).

2. Advocates of a Divorce Exception Can't Agree on Which Exception, Exactly.

So, having just seen that porneia never means simple adultery, we're left asking: what exception is Jesus allegedly creating here? GotQuestions claims He is allowing “divorce only in the case of the adultery of the other party.” But where's the reference to anything about it needing to be the other party's adultery? GotQuestions is adding something to the text that isn't even remotely there. Furthermore, how would that work, exactly? Bob cheats on Alice, so she divorces him and remarries, and he's left in some sort of weird marriage limbo, where he's no longer married to Alice, but isn't allowed to be married to anyone else, either?

Again: what is this alleged exception, exactly? You're allowed to divorce and remarry if your spouse commits adultery? What about your own adultery? What about sexual infidelity that stops short of adultery? What about non-sexual infidelity? Where does this stop, exactly? GotQuestions shows the problems with this view. Eslewhere, it claims all sorts of exceptions to the prohibition against divorce:

It is our view that there are certain instances in which divorce and remarriage are permitted without the remarriage being considered adultery. These instances would include unrepentant adultery, physical abuse of spouse or children, and abandonment of a believing spouse by an unbelieving spouse.

If you take porneia in the broad sense, allowing remarriage where there's been sexual immorality in the marriage, it would blow a huge hole into the permanence of marriage. After all, if marriages are permanent unless one partner commits a sexual sin, how many marriages would survive? The exception would quickly swallow the rule. The people claiming that Jesus is creating an exception don't seem to have a clear understanding of what this understanding is, or what the limits of it (if any) are.

This isn't idle speculation, either: Evangelicals are among the most likely to divorce (even worse than non-religious Americans). This marriage crisis isn't assisted by preachers claiming that divorce and remarriage are okay in the (all too frequent) cases in which one or both partners have committed sexual sins.

3. Jesus is Presenting a Radical Teaching

For those who claim that Jesus is creating an exception for adultery (or for sexual infidelity or immorality), consider the Biblical context. The Pharisees asked, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Mt. 19:3).

This question arose out of a dispute between two Jewish schools. Deuteronomy 24:1 permitted a man to divorce his wife if “he has found some indecency in her.” Was this indecency referring to adultery, or any fault? The great rabbi Hillel the Elder had claimed that it permitted divorce for any indecency, opening the door to divorces over completely trivial matters. More conservative rabbis claimed that the indecency in question was adultery. So those were the two camps (and basically, the Protestant positions today).

If Jesus was saying that there's an exception for divorce, all He had to do is say that the conservative camp was right. But He doesn't. Jesus rejects both camps, saying (Mt. 19:4-9):

“Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

They said to him, “ Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “ For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery."

So Jesus calls us back to the indissolubility of marriage, the Pharisees invoke Deuteronomy 24:1, and Jesus revokes the adultery exception to restore marriage to its state prior to the Law.

This teaching is so radical that His shocked Apostles say “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry”  (Mt. 19:10). And Jesus doesn't disagree, instead using the opportunity to call those who can handle it to the ideal of celibacy (Mt. 19:11-12). The reaction of the Apostles makes no sense if Jesus is just saying that the pre-Hillel Jewish divorce laws apply. Nor does Jesus' repudiation of the Mosaic exception.

4. The “Infidelity Exception” is Contrary to Scripture

Whether you argue that Matthew's Gospel contains an exception allowing divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery, infidelity, or any other instance, you're going to run into a huge Gospel harmonization problem. Here's what Luke 16:18 says on marriage:

Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

That's it. There's nothing before or after this verse to mitigate its punch: it's an absolute prohibition against divorce and remarriage. We see this absolute prohibition in Mark 10:11-12 as well.

To hold to the adultery exception is to hold that Jesus taught one thing (divorce and remarriage is okay in some cases) to the Jewish readers of Matthew's Gospel, while teaching a contradictory thing (divorce and remarriage is never okay) to the Gentile readers of Mark's Gospel. No faithful Christian can hold to such an incoherent position, since it amounts to claiming that either Matthew or Mark and Luke are presenting a false teaching.

Even leaving aside the impossibility of harmonizing the “infidelity exception” with Mark and Luke's Gospel, how can one harmonize it with the rest of Matthew's own Gospel? In Matthew 19:6, right before the verse in question, Jesus says that the spouses “are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

5. The Greek Term in Question Actually Refers to Unlawful Marriages

The word porneia literally means something like fornication, but is used throughout Scripture (both in the New Testament and the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to refer to marriages contrary to Levitical law, particularly ones involving incest.

The Book of Leviticus created stricter rules governing incest than what was observed the pagans: for example, your in-laws (Lev. 18:81516), your aunt through marriage (Lev. 18:14), or the daughter or sister of a woman that you've been sexually involved with (Lev. 18:17-18), even though you're not actually blood relatives with any of these people. All of this was based upon the idea that, in marriage, the two become one flesh: so your in-laws become, in a real way, a part of your family.

The Gentile pagans didn't have these rules, and the Jews were often scandalized and disgusted by Gentiles' marriages. We can get a sense of this from 1 Corinthians 5:1, in which St. Paul says, “It is actually reported that there is immorality [πορνεία, porneia]among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife.” When Paul wants to say that this sexual relationship is wrong, he does so by saying that it's even worse than the porneia practiced by the pagans.

At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:2015:29, and 21:25), these Levitical anti-incest laws were left in place, as one of four parts of the Levitical law that remained in place on the early Christians (the other three involved food sacrificed to idols, food with the blood in it, and meat that had been strangled, all of which come from Lev. 17:8-14; the porneia rules come from Lev. 18:6-18).

In other words, a Gentile couple who were also in-laws (e.g., a man who married who married his sister-in-law) might be married in the eyes of the pagans, but in the eyes of the early Church, they were engaged in porneia, fornication. This explains why a word ordinarily meaning fornication is used: fornication refers to sex between unmarried parties (that is, it's premarital, not extramarital), and so the term captures that there's no real marriage here.

This harmonizes Matthew's Gospel with Mark and Luke's: allowing divorce and remarriage where the marriage is invalid doesn't contradiction the absolute prohibition against divorce and remarriage.

Take a modern example: there are Catholic and Evangelical groups fighting to preserve marriage and stymie the divorce epidemic. Most of these groups are also against gay marriage, and are naturally in favor of people getting civil divorces to get out of these sham “marriages.” It's not really divorce, because it was never really a marriage. There's no inconsistency here: both of these positions flow from the idea that, in a true marriage, God (not the state) joins the spouses together in a permanent and indissoluble bond.

6. This is the Teaching of the Council of Trent

My non-Catholic readers might not care about this last point, but my Catholic readers should. The Twenty-Fourth Session of the Council of Trent explicitly rejects (and condemns) the proposition that you can divorce and remarry, declaring it contrary to “evangelical and apostolical doctrine”:

CANON VII. If any one saith, that the Church has erred, in that she hath taught, and doth teach, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolical doctrine, that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the married parties; and that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other; and, that he is guilty of adultery, who, having put away the adulteress, shall take another wife, as also she, who, having put away the adulterer, shall take another husband; let him be anathema.

This should make it clear: as Catholics, we don't need to worry (or hope) that the Catholic Church will change Her teachings in this regard, because She can't. She's bound by the words of Christ.


Much more could be said on this score, but hopefully, it's clear that the “infidelity exception” people claim exists in  Matthew 5:32 and 19 does not actually exist. So for all of those reasons, we can be sure that (1) Jesus didn't permit divorce and remarriage, even in cases of adultery; and (2) the Church can't permit divorce and remarriage, even in cases of adultery.

Joe Heschmeyer is a seminarian, former lawyer, and blogger at Shamelss Popery.

Courtesy of Shameless Popery

FaithJesus ChristLiturgyMarriagePope FrancisSacramentsSynod on the Family
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