The Conudrum Of Divorcement
“It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32)

The background to this passage is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4,—

“When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.”

Now before we proceed, I would like to just remind us again that Christ did not come to abolish the Law or to loosen or relax its requirements in any way. Instead, He came to confirm and establish the Law. Thus, any interpretation of our Lord’s words that goes against what is found in the Old Testament law is to be rejected. We must be careful not to pit, as it were, Moses against Christ.

In Matthew 5:31-32, Christ was correcting the Rabbinical abuse of Deuteronomy 24 and confirming the original teaching of Moses. The scribes and Pharisees had distorted the Old Testament teaching on divorce. Firstly, they emphasized the wrong thing in their exposition of this law. Whereas Moses and Christ stressed the sacred and hallowed nature of the marriage bond, the scribes placed all the emphasis on the bill of divorcement. All they were concerned about was that when a man wanted to divorce his wife, he was to make sure that the certificate of divorce was properly drawn up and given to her – as if a piece of paper could dissolve a marriage!

But not only did they give a wrong emphasis to this law, they also gave a wrong interpretation of Deuteronomy 24. They taught that if a man did not like his wife for the most trivial of reasons, then he had the right to put her away with a divorce certificate. But that is not what the law said. Instead the law was given to forbid the remarriage of divorced parties. If anything, Deuteronomy 24 warns against and discourages hasty divorce.

In contrast to the lax attitude of the Pharisees, Christ teaches that the only legitimate ground for divorce is fornication. Now fornication is not synonymous with adultery. It certainly includes adultery but it is not restricted to it. The word “uncleanness” in Deuteronomy 24:1 and the word “fornication” in Matthew 5:32 refer to the same thing. They both speak of ethically abhorrent misbehaviour with a focus on sexual immorality, and would include such things as incest, homosexuality, bestiality, prostitution etc. In other words, any kind of corrupt, perverted, indecent, and shameful behaviour, i.e. any serious violation of the marriage covenant would constitute a permissible ground for divorce.

The point that our Lord is stressing in verse 32 is the utter sanctity of the marriage bond. How binding is marriage? Christ tells us that only the most severe sort of situation (the sort where fornication is involved) is a legitimate reason for divorce. While fornication is the only ground for divorce, this does not mean that divorce is the only way to deal with fornication. In other words, Christ is not saying that the moment one party commits fornication, then the marriage must immediately be dissolved. Where there is repentance and forgiveness, the marriage may and in fact should continue.
At this point, I would like to briefly address the issue of adultery and the death penalty in the Old Testament law. The question might be asked, “If the law required the adulterer to be executed, then why was there a need for the provision of divorce in the case of adultery?” Various solutions have been proposed, but I think the best way of looking at it is this – that the death penalty for certain crimes like adultery, homosexuality, rape etc should be viewed as the maximum punishment. This means that not every adulterer or homosexual in every case and without exception had to be put to death. The law allows for a certain degree of flexibility, and where there is repentance and forgiveness, the death penalty may be withheld. The only exception to this is murder, where the State has no option but to carry out the death sentence.

And so divorce was another way of dealing with adultery in marriage even in the Old Testament. This explains why in Matthew 1:19, Joseph, being a just man and not willing to make a public example of Mary, was minded to put her away privately. This putting away privately refers to the bill of divorce whereas making a public example refers to taking legal action against her, which, under the Law, would lead to her execution. So the death penalty and divorce were both legitimate ways of addressing the problem of adultery in marriage. But of course the third and best option is that there be forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration between the husband and wife.

In verse 32, Christ goes on to say that if a man divorces his wife for reasons other than fornication, then he causes her to commit adultery and whoever marries her commits adultery. What the Lord is saying is this – whoever divorces his wife except for fornication must bear the chief responsibility for if, as a result of his action, she later marries someone else, she becomes guilty of adultery and the man who marries her is also guilty. John MacArthur wrote, “A man or woman who has no right to divorce has no right to remarry. To do so initiates a whole chain of adultery, because remarriage after illegitimate divorce results in illegitimate and adulterous relationships for all parties involved.”[1]

This whole issue of divorce and remarriage can be a very complicated one, and it is also a sad reminder that we live in a fallen world. But the lesson that we must all learn from this text is that marriage is a most sacred institution and should be viewed with the utmost seriousness. As Christian husbands and wives, we must not do anything at all that would compromise our marriages. Instead, we should do everything in our power to preserve, strengthen and build it up. “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it (Eph. 5:25).” “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 5:22-23).”

William Hendriksen gives an excellent summary of this section, “The more we study Christ’s teaching as presented to us in this passage the more we begin to appreciate it. Here, by means of a few simple words, Jesus discourages divorce, refutes the rabbinical misinterpretation of the law, reaffirms the law’s true meaning, censures the guilty party, defends the innocent, and throughout it all upholds the sacredness and inviolability of the marriage bond as ordained by God!”[2] 

[1] MacArthur, Matthew 1-7, 316.

[2] William Hendriksen, Matthew (Baker Book House), 306.