(Mt. 19:3-12) Is adultery the only reason for divorce? Are other reasons permitted?

CLAIM: Jesus says, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Mt. 19:9; cf. 5:32). Does this mean that Christians should only divorce for adultery? What about spousal abuse? Incest? Abandonment?

RESPONSE: Let’s consider this controversial passage verse-by-verse:

(Mt. 19:3) Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 

This is the context for Jesus’ teaching on divorce: Is it okay to divorce for any reason? In Jesus’ day and age, rabbis had different answers to this question.

Rabbis from the school of Shammai were very strict, claiming that one could only get divorced for unfaithfulness.[1]

Rabbis from the school of Hillel would agree to virtually any reason for divorce. Keener writes, “The School of Hillel understood the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, even burning his toast (‘any matter’—Mishnah Giṭṭin 9:10; Sipre Deuteronomy 269.1.1).”[2] The Misnah (9.10) states, “The School of Hillel [says]: He may divorce her even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, ‘Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. Rabbi Akiba says: Even if he found another fairer than she.’”[3]

Because this religious culture gave no rights to women (divorcing them for “any reason”), Jesus takes the position of defending the rights of women.

(Mt. 19:4-5) And He answered and said, ”Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 5 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 FLESH’?

Jesus formed his ethic for divorce from God’s original creation and design for marriage, citing Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.

(Mt. 19:6) So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 

Some interpreters take this to be a clear cut statement that divorce is always immoral.[4] But if this is an exception-less statement, then why does Jesus give an exception in verse 9? (“…except for adultery…”) We contend that Jesus was counteracting the permissive view of divorce in the culture at his time, which allowed men to cruelly divorce their wives for “any reason.” He is reminding them that God created marriage, and humans should not end it for any reason at all. He will give one example of acceptable divorce in verse 9 (“immorality”).

(Mt. 19:7) They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?” 

To argue against Jesus’ view, his opponents point out that Moses allowed divorce in the OT law. Doesn’t this mean that God is fine with divorce? (Deut. 24:1-4) Jesus retorts that God allowed this, but he wasn’t approving of this.

(Mt. 19:8) He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.”

Jesus argued that Moses didn’t command divorce; he merely permitted or allowed it after it had occurred. Interpreters who deny divorce or remarriage of any kind argue that this shouldn’t be our focus. We shouldn’t take our ethics from hard-hearted old covenant Jews, but from God’s new covenant law.[5] But look at Jesus’ next statement: He allows for divorce in the case of sexual immorality.

(Mt. 19:9) And I say to you, whoever [singular] divorces his wife, except for immorality (Greek porneia), and marries another woman commits adultery.

Interpreters who do not believe in divorce for any reason have to do hermeneutical jumping jacks to get around the plain sense reading of this passage. Jesus clearly gives an exception for divorce and remarriage. But if Jesus gives an exception for divorce, does this mean that sexual immorality is the only exception?

When we read through the rest of the NT, we see that Paul adds other exceptions for divorce (e.g. abandonment and death). Therefore, Jesus was speaking truly, but he wasn’t speaking exhaustively. “Immorality” isn’t the only exception for divorce; it is merely one exception. Consider if a bouncer was at a club, and he said, “You can’t get into the club unless you’re on the list…” All of the sudden the owner of the club appears in a limousine, and he quickly lets him go inside. We would quickly discover that there are exceptions to this rule.

As we read our Bible, we find that there are at least three biblically explicit reasons for divorce:

Infidelity: Jesus said that we are permitted in the case of “immorality” (Greek porneia). Of course, this isn’t a biblical mandate that we must get divorced. Forgiveness is also a solution.

Death: Paul writes that he wants “younger widows to get married” (1 Tim. 5:14). This implies that death annuls the vow of marriage. In Romans 7:2-3, Paul writes, “For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. 3 So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.”

Abandonment: If our spouse abandons us, we are permitted to be remarried. Paul writes, “If the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace… Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you marry, you have not sinned” (1 Cor. 7:15, 27-28).

Because none of the lists for divorce are exhaustive, we believe that there are probably other reasons for divorce that aren’t mentioned. Commentator Craig Blomberg writes,

Do Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings cover every conceivable situation in which divorce could reflect God’s (permissive) will? Obviously, Jesus’ teaching was not exhaustive or Paul could have not added to it. Similarly, Paul betrays no awareness of Jesus’ exception so his list of (one) exceptional situation cannot be comprehensive either.[6]

Because the biblically clear reasons for divorce are so severe (e.g. immorality, abandonment, death), then any reason we offer for divorce would need to be just as serious. It would be sinful to divorce because we are “not in love anymore” or because “we aren’t happy anymore.” These reasons aren’t acceptable. However, reasons such as abuse, incest, or addiction could be valid reasons for divorce. While the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention these reasons, we feel that they have the same moral gravity of the exceptions which are listed above.

Conclusion

God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). Divorce negatively affects those who go through it, and it is painful to us. When a couple divorces over abuse, addiction, immorality, or abandonment, this often has a devastating effect on the person. However, staying in this relationship might be even worse. Thus this is a clear case of prioritized ethics in the Bible, where God prefers the “lesser of two evils.”

[1] Keener writes, “The School of Shammai interpreted Deuteronomy 24 as indicating that a man could divorce his wife for the cause of unfaithfulness (“indecency”).” Keener, C. S.. Matthew (Vol. 1). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1997. Matthew 19:1-6.

[2] Keener, C. S.. Matthew (Vol. 1). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1997. Matthew 19:1-6.

[3] Danby, Herbert (Translator). The Misnah: Translated from the Hebrew with Introductory and Brief Explanatory Notes. Massachusetts. Hendricksen Publishers. 1933. 321.

[4] Laney writes, “The phrase ‘let no man separate’ is a present imperative of prohibition and demands the cessation of something in process (that is, divorce).” House, H. Wayne., J. Carl Laney, William Heth, Thomas Edgar, and Larry Richards. Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990. 20.

[5] Laney writes, “Where should the focus of evangelical Christians be in relationship to the issue of divorce and remarriage—on God’s original plan or on a concession made because of hard hearts?” House, H. Wayne., J. Carl Laney, William Heth, Thomas Edgar, and Larry Richards. Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990. 33.

[6] Blomberg, Craig. From Pentecost to Patmos: an Introduction to Acts through Revelation. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006. 177.