Marriage and Divorce

Six views on marriage and divorce.

by Denny Petrillo

A. There are at least eight different positions currently held within the brotherhood:

All of these cannot be right (logical contradiction).

Jesus does not give us a “take your choice” option. One of these positions might be a correct understanding of Jesus’ teaching.

Our task: what did Jesus mean (not what we would like Him to mean). Simply because there is disagreement does not mean we are unable to uncover the truth.

a. Taking your favorite scholar’s word for it is unacceptable in a search for truth.
b. Concluding that since reputable scholars disagree we are unable to find the truth is unacceptable.
c. “Why” scholars disagree is irrelevant to our search for truth.
d. Reputable scholars have always disagreed and will continue to disagree (each one is individually responsible for knowing and obeying the truth).

B. The increasing problem of divorce:
United Methodist church – uses a book, (Ritual In A New Day), which contains a ceremony for divorce. More and more are getting divorced (nationally, friends, new converts, our families). We are faced with a world that has less respect for the authority of the Bible.

C. A word of caution:
We must not let emotion govern our reason. I.e. prisoners do not determine their own sentences; neither do sinners (cf. Prov 13:15).


Matthew 19:3-12:

Pharisee’s question intended to entrap Jesus:
There were several prominent views at the time (of Deut 24:1 ff).
Rabbi Shammai – “some indecency” means sexual unfaithfulness (Hebrew ERVATH DABAR).
Rabbi Hillel – “a thing of indecency” (Hebrew DABAR – means the smallest thing (i.e. burning toast).
Rabbi Akiba – “that she find no favor in his eyes” – means he could divorce her if he found one fairer than she (Mishnah, Gittin 9:10).

Which ever position Jesus takes, they will draw Him into their controversy. If agrees with Shammai, they will take view of Hillel (the popular view). If agrees with Hillel, they will take view of Shammai (and pit Jesus against Deuteronomy 24).

Jesus’ answer (vv. 4-6):
God’s original plan for marriage has to be taken into consideration. God could have done it other ways. God was telling us of His intentions.

These two become “one flesh.” Not just a reference to the sexual relationship (cf. 1 Cor 6:16). Includes same goals and intentions (leave and cleave; “they are no longer two …). God is the One who joins them together. If God joined them together, then only He can “unjoin” them.

Thus Jesus says “Let no man separate.” Many today presume to do this. Only God’s Word can provide the basis for marriage and separation.

The Pharisee’s response and objection (19:7): Deut 24:1 is the basis of their idea. They understood what Jesus said. God intended one man and one woman relationships. Man cannot separate what God has joined. They object to what Jesus said. They pose their objection in the form of a question. “If you are right Jesus, then Moses was wrong.” Moses said: “Give her a certificate and divorce her.” You (Jesus) are thus not in agreement with Moses and God. If man cannot separate, then why did Moses command to separate?

Note: Is their a distinction between the Greek words – apostasiou – and – apolusai – ? It is claimed that the first has to do with a legal divorce that, with certificate, allowed one to remarry, and; That the second – apolusai – has to do with abandonment (i.e., not bothering with a legal written divorce agreement).

The evidence in both Biblical and non-Biblical sources show that the words did not carry such distinctions.

Jesus’ answer (19:8,9):
This was something permitted / commanded (note: no distinction between the two – Mk 10:3-5. It was not God’s original intention – the creation proves this. Then why did He allow this?

Reason: “Hardness of heart.” A condition when God’s will does not penetrate the heart; Man stubbornly refuses to hear God. First key: “from the beginning it has not been this way:” This removes the matter from a discussion of Mosaic law. It places the matter back to the very beginning of time (cf. Mk 10:6).

Second key: “and I say to you…” Jesus assumes a position of authority. This type of terminology often indicates a difference in the general consensus (cf. Mt 5:22,28,32,34,39,44 – same Greek structure). We no longer listen to Moses (cf. Mt 17:5). Jesus eliminated a lot of things which were a part of the Law of Moses (polygamy, animal sacrifice, etc.). Jesus is the Word of God (Jn 1:1; Heb 1:1,2). What He says is what God wants.

Means all those created by God. Cannot mean, as some affirm, Christians only. Mt 5:21; 11:6; 12:32; 16:25.

Mt 28:18-20 – all that Jesus taught is to be taught to the world. Jesus brought the gospel (Mk 1:14,15) and men will be judged by that gospel (2 Thess 1:7-9). Jesus is discussing the intention of God from the beginning. The Corinthians were previously in violation of the law of Christ before they were in a covenant relationship with Christ (1 Cor 6:9-11).

“Divorces his wife”: (Greek – apolusai).
Same Greek word as in verses 3, 7 and 8. Also same word in Mt 5:31f; Mk 10:2,4,11f; Lk 16:18. Is most often employed to mean “divorce” in the NT, and is the topic of discussion in this section (19:3-12).

“Except for fornication”
This phrase modifies “divorces his wife.” Jesus is not here including those whose mates are guilty of fornication (Greek – porneia) and have been put away because of it. This also provides the only given exception to what was already said about God’s joining and no man separating (19:4-6).

Just as fornication does not make a marriage (cf. 1 Cor 6:16), neither does fornication dissolve a marriage. God will permit the innocent party to divorce his/her mate if they so desire. They are not required to do so. It is clear that fornication is the only legitimate and God approved reason for one to divorce another. Remember: This is what the Pharisees were wanting. to know in verse 3. They asked: “Can a man divorce for any reason?” Jesus responds: “No. I say the only reason is fornication.”

“And marries another”
While the Pharisees’ question does not specifically ask about remarriage, Jesus either: Gives additional information, or Knows this is a part of the question.

It is clear that the second union is a “marriage” because that is what Jesus calls it.
The conjunction “and” shows that Jesus is not here concerned about the sin of divorce (cf. 1 Cor 7:11), but with the practice of divorcing and marrying another.

“Commits adultery”
All standard Lexicons and Theological Dictionaries define “adultery” generally as “unlawful sexual intercourse with the spouse of another.”

As is true with many words, “adultery” may be used in some contexts in a figurative or symbolic way. Is there, in this case, a possibility that a figurative meaning is intended, such as adultery – covenant breaking? There is no compelling evidence to suggest a figurative application (thus the common meaning should be taken). Note: John 8:4. It does not fit with the topic of discussion nor with the other words used in context (marriage, one flesh, fornication, eunuchs). All these point to a literal understanding.

It does not make sense generally. Note:
If “adultery” is simply breaking a covenant (that all one needs to do is repent and say they are sorry and will not do it again), why does Paul say that the divorced cannot remarry but must remain unmarried or else be reconciled” (1 Cor 7:11)?

Even the figurative meaning would not fit with many modern applications. When God accused the Israelites of adultery, it was when they left Him and went to the other gods. It was not simply that they had left God. They had united themselves with another husband. Could they say they were sorry they broke the covenant and keep their new gods?

If Jesus was intending to deal with covenant breaking, why did He not use one of two available words (DIATHEKE or SYNTHEKE)? If Jesus was wanting to specify “unlawful sexual intercourse with the spouse of another” what other word could He have used? There is none.

The disciples’ response (19:10).
The disciples understood what Jesus said. There would have been no need for the statement if:
Jesus was allowing divorce and remarriage for any cause (Hillel ‘s position).

Jesus was allowing one to repent of breaking a covenant and could remarry (and could seemingly continue this practice forever).

Jesus was allowing the guilty party to remarry after repentance, because this would allow one to get out of a marriage and remarry whether they were innocent or guilty of fornication.

Jesus was referring only to the “abandoning” of the mate, and that all one needs to do is make sure they give a legal divorce. Such an act is simple and easily followed.

They use the same word (“case”) that the Pharisees used in v. 3 (“cause”). This has them saying: “If the cause for divorce a man has against his wife is thus, then ….”

Their statement indicates they understood a definite rigidity to Jesus’ teaching. “The prospect of being permanently bound to an unhappy marriage is not a pleasant one. The disciples objected that if divorce can be had only for unchastity, would it not be better to refrain from marriage altogether?” (Jack P. Lewis, Matthew, Vol. 2, p. 67.) Jesus’ application (19:11, 12).

Not everyone will accept this conclusion (that of the disciples – that it would be “better not to marry”) Jesus recognizes that His teaching is difficult and somewhat inflexible. He did not say to the disciples, “Well, you have obviously misunderstood me. I am not being all that strict.”

They clearly saw that His teaching was extremely strict.

Those who will not accept this conclusion (of the disciples) are those who cannot live without marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1, 2)

Accepting Jesus’ teaching may be hard for some. He uses an illustration to prove this point: Three different kinds of eunuchs:

Born eunuch = situation that describes a person’s sexual activity from birth. This could easily apply to someone like the apostle Paul, who chose to never marry (e.g. chose to live ‘as a eunuch’ his life)

Made eunuch by men = suffers because of decision of another (but still cannot change the situation). This fits with what Jesus was saying earlier regarding marriage. If a man divorces his wife for reasons other than fornication, then he commits adultery. But what about the innocent party? He or she is made a ‘eunuch’ by someone else. (Note Matthew 5:32 – he who marries her who is put away commits adultery, as well as her who was put away)

Makes self eunuch = not referring to doing this literally (Josephus says the Law forbade castration, Ant. 4.8.40 [290]). This would be persons who choose to forego marriage for the sake of the kingdom (because God’s kingdom was more important than anything else). This could have reference to someone who put themselves in a situation (they were the guilty party and were divorced) and, in order to be saved, choose to live as a eunuch from this point forward. Point: Jesus is saying that some situations are very hard. His teaching is for those to whom it applies.

Now Matthew 5:32

The grammar in this verse is different that 19:9. Jesus is also making a different point (than that of Matthew 19:9). Here he is trying to raise the level of righteousness than that established by the Pharisees. They said: “divorce all you want, just make sure you give her a certificate.”

Jesus is saying: “No, don’t divorce! Why? Because you need to think of what you do to her. You force her into a situation where she will need to get married again, and that would be adultery for her to do this!”

But then he adds the exception: “Well, you could divorce her if she was guilty of fornication (Greek: porneia). In such a case you’re not making her commit adultery – because she already has!”

Then, the last clause should be understood like this: “either way, if she remarries she is guilty of adultery, as is the one who marries her.” This then would make it consistent with Matthew 19:9. The guilty party can not remarry, period. I also believe this is the point in Jesus’ eunuch illustration in Matthew 19:12. The last “eunuch” makes himself a “eunuch” for the sake of the kingdom. Jesus is still talking about marriage (shown by the verse beginning with “for”). This “eunuch” is one who must live like a eunuch because of choices he has made. The only logical application is that this person was guilty of fornication and was thus divorced. If he wants to stay in a positive relationship with God (stay in God’s “kingdom”) then he must make himself a eunuch (live without a sexual relationship).

The exception clause in 5:32 does not reverse the last phrase. Why? Because the last phrase is begun with “and whosoever” (kai hos ean), which makes the phrase an isolated (although related) point. As a matter of fact, the word ean (means “if”) in itself shows that this should be understood as a separate point. This brings even greater gravity to what Jesus is saying. Because now the man who foolishly (and unscripturally) divorces his wife gets the ball rolling to two other sins: (1) adultery by the wife when she remarries, and (2) adultery by the man who marries her. A genuinely righteous man would never consider doing such a thing.

Denny Petrillo

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