Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam” as the impressive clergyman from the classic 1987 film The Princess Bride would put it.

Ah, but what happens when marriage doesn’t seem as illustrious as it’s cracked up to be? The common response to an unhappy marriage is divorce. Everyone can likely name at least one family member, friend, coworker, etc. who has been through a divorce. For those in the church, it remains a problem, though at a slightly reduced rate by comparison. Early on, I was taught that divorce was a sin, but was permissible in certain circumstances, namely in the case of adultery. The espoused verses for this are known as the Matthean Exception and are found in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. After further study, I am not entirely convinced that these verses were meant to argue an exception for divorce.

To get a full understanding of the context and background of these verses, first, we would need to visit the Old Testament reference connected to them. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is where we find the infamous “certificate of divorce” passage. The Pharisees reference this in Matthew 19:3 to force Jesus into choosing one of two answers fueled by two different schools of thought concerning divorce. These positions were the liberal Hillel position which claimed divorce could be carried out for any reason; and the more conservative Shammai position which only included infidelity.[1] It is important to note that Moses was not doing this because he believed divorce was acceptable, rather as an acknowledgment that divorce was bound to occur due to the fallen, sinful nature of mankind, and regulation of it and remarriage was necessary.

Furthermore, there is another context to consider when approaching these passages. Matthew is the only gospel writer to include Joseph’s resolution to divorce Mary quietly in 1:19. They were not yet married, rather they were betrothed. The betrothal period before the marriage was held in higher regard in this culture than it is in society today. While Joseph and Mary would have not officially been married, they would have been referred to as husband and wife and would still be held to the same standards. Any sexual immorality that would have taken place in this context would have been considered adultery.

It is worth noting here that in looking at the etymology of the Greek word used for “sexual immorality” is the word porneia. This is separate from the word for adultery: moichao. It has been said that this “did not refer to adultery but to premarital sexual fornication which a man or a woman discovers in the betrothed partner”.[2] Consequently, this explanation would enlighten the previous context regarding Joseph’s resolve to annul the engagement with Mary considering his likely assumptions of her supposed fornication before learning in his dream that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Starting with the Matthew 19 verse, Jesus provides an answer to the question brought to him by the Pharisees:

“He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matt. 19:4-8)

Jesus bypassed the intended trap and raised the standards yet again for the expectations of God’s people. He sees beyond the designed pitfall and alternatively targets the root issue. “Stop trying to tear asunder what God joined together” is the response echoed from the passage.

The earlier 5:32 passage’s “exception” has nothing to do with permitting divorce in the case of sexual immorality, but rather clarifies the deeper issue found in the act of divorce. The clarifying clause “except on the ground of sexual immorality” can be removed from the verse and it would still read correctly.[3]

“But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife… makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

The exception clause simply clarifies that if the wife has already committed some act of sexual immorality, she would have made herself an adulteress, but as it stands, divorcing one’s wife “for any reason” makes the innocent wife commit adultery against her will. Remember that this is all following Jesus’ rising standard concerning the commandment against adultery found in 5:27-30. It would be highly unlikely that Jesus would relax his standards after claiming lustful thoughts were enough to condemn a man of inward adultery of the heart.

Scripture is clear on God’s feelings towards divorce; He hates it (Mal. 2:16).[4] Jesus nowhere else in scripture ever teaches that divorce is anything less than adultery (Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18). And if that is not enough, reading through the life of the prophet Hosea should be enough to support God’s commitment to the restoration and reconciliation of marriage covenants even in adulterous circumstances. Romans 7:2 is clear that the only natural release from marriage is the death of a spouse.[5] This higher standard of teaching from Jesus is exactly why the disciples’ response in Matthew 19:10 is that it would be better for a man not to marry due to the difficult measure being presented. 

Whenever we approach the text of scripture looking for an “exception,” I would contend that often it is because we are greedily looking for an excuse to justify our withdrawal from holiness and love. Simply put; God does not take marriage lightly. It is a beautiful gift that was given to mirror the relationship that God chose to have with His people and it is through the hardness of man’s heart, that it has been marred. Paul enlightens his readers in Ephesus concerning marriage declaring, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Eph. 5:32). This deeper spiritual reality is exactly why Christians should be so vehemently dedicated to protecting and preserving the sanctity and holiness of the marriage covenant as ordained by God since the beginning. It is a blessed arrangement, and should be treated as such.

Leave your thoughts, questions, and suggested followups in the comments below.

Note: The views of CITC articles do not necessarily reflect the views of all CITC contributors. 


[1] The Bible, Marriage, and Divorce, by Thomas M. Strouse – http://www.libcfl.com/articles/div_str.htm

[2] Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper, by John Piper – https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/divorce-and-remarriage-a-position-paper

[3] This is supported by both the Mark 10 and Luke 16 record of this same teaching of Jesus.

[4] Other versions translate this passage as saying, “For the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence”. Due to the nature of the Hebrew language, grammatically, either reading is possible and context is the deciding factor in its interpretation.

[5]  Note: there is one other passage found in 1 Corinthians 7:15 concerning the separation of the unbelieving partner who does not consent to living with a believer. This was not a matter of pursuing divorce, but allowing the unbeliever to separate for the sake of civility. It does not grieve the heart of God any less to see a marriage severed, but this passage would be better covered in another discussion concerning divorce and remarriage.


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