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Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage June 13, 2007

Posted by larrylaz in Scripture Meditation.
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Joe,

As you know, it was my privilege last Sunday to preach on Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage in Matthew 5:31-32. I also relied heavily on the later passage in Matthew 19 where Jesus’ words are explained in more detail. Here’s a portion of what I said to our young people:

This is a much debated point, and I don’t have time to cover the whole scope of the debate. So let me begin with the main point, explain a little bit, and then remind you of the main point. The main point is this: The marriage union is so sacred that (almost) any form of remarriage is considered adultery.

 

The debate about this point (indicated by ‘almost’ in the previous sentence) centers on the meaning of the exception clause: “except for sexual immorality…” What does that mean? It’s especially controversial because in the two other Gospels where this teaching is given, there is no exception clause: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18). No exceptions! Or Mark 10, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. So why does only Matthew have this exception clause, and what does it mean? In general, there are two schools of thought.

 

One school of thought would say this: Mark 10 and Luke 16 must be read in light of Matthew 19, which is the full teaching. Divorce and remarriage is only permissible for the innocent party when some form of sexual immorality occurs. The reason why Mark and Luke do not include the exception clause is because they knew that their readers would have already assumed this. Since nobody would have questioned that marital unfaithfulness was a just ground for divorce, they did not deem it necessary to include this exception clause. Many Christian teachers who I respect hold this view.

 

But at this point in my studies, I disagree with them. I believe that when a man is guilty of adultery and he runs out on his wife, that the (innocent) wife is not free to remarry (and vice versa). It will help me to show you why I don’t agree with it by looking at Matthew 5:32: “32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery… Who is the ‘her’ referred to here? It is an innocent woman who has been divorced for a reason that is not legitimate, like maybe the man found a better-looking woman and ran away with her, or he loved his job and was sick of having to devote so much time to the wife and kids. Jesus says that such a woman, who is divorced for an illegitimate reason, commits adultery if she marries again. Jesus’ opposition to remarriage is based on the unbreakable nature of the marriage covenant, not on who is the guilty or innocent party.

 

So what does the exception clause mean in Matthew 5 and 19? I think it’s making an exception for those who are betrothed to be married (which was much more binding than engagement is now), when a person finds out that the one he or she is betrothed to has been guilty of pre-marital sex. The reason it’s included in Matthew and not in Mark and Luke is because Matthew alone has given an illustration of this principle in the story of Joseph and Mary. When Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, Matthew tells us, “19And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

 

They were not officially married, but Joseph was going to divorce her, and he would have been just in doing this. Had Matthew quoted Jesus’ teaching as Mark and Luke did, then it would appear that Jesus was condemning his own earthly father. So Matthew writes, “Everyone who divorces his wife – excluding the case of fornication during betrothal, as Joseph was going to do with Mary – makes her commit adultery.

 

This is difficult, and as I said, there is disagreement between many people whom I respect. So let me return to the main point: Divorce is so hated by God, that (almost) any form of remarriage is prohibited. If you think this sounds unfair, understand that its purpose is to show you how deep and sacred this covenant of marriage really is.

I first heard the position that I argued in favor of advanced by John Piper in What Jesus Demands from the World (check this link for a great deal on that book courtesy of the good folks at DG). At first I had a hard time embracing it, but as I studied more last week, I do believe it is the correct interpretation of Jesus’ words. Marriage is amazingly precious gift, and it is so sacred that it cannot be broken: ‘What God has joined together, let no man separate’.

Striving for a marriage which mirrors Christ’s precious relationship with His bride, the Church,

Larry

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