Was Jesus Writing
A New Rule
Or Confirming An Existing One?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus made some very interesting remarks about divorce:
It has been said, whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 32 But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery. Matthew 5:31-32
And by these remarks He threw everyone into a tailspin. Or at least it seems that way judging from the many diverse – and bizarre – interpretations imposed on the text.
Not A New Rule
Many people treat His statement like a completely new and inflexible rule that was intended to draw an indelible line in the sand, and anyone crossing the line is eternally doomed. But this can’t be the correct understanding.
Jesus was clarifying an Old Testament statute not writing a new one and the clarification represents no modification on the original ruling which, by the way, was quite liberal. You can read about the Old Testament teaching here. For now consider the following:
- Any understanding of what Jesus said in the New Testament starts with what was said in the Old – the context in which divorce was first introduced.
- Suggesting Matthew 5 disallows divorce and/or remarriage totally ignores the Old Testament or at least reshapes it beyond recognition.
- If you honestly accept the context of the Old Testament, in which divorce was freely allowed, you cannot then think Jesus was fabricating restrictions that disallowed both divorce and remarriage, a complete reversal.
- What Jesus essentially said – if adultery doesn’t occur before divorce it occurs after – changes nothing. That outcome is equally true in both the Old and New Testaments.
There aren’t enough word studies and grammatical arguments to erase these facts and whatever studies one produces are trumped by context every time anyway.
What Is Adultery
For the record, traditional definitions of adultery and fornication, which Jesus did not agree with, are:
- Fornication is sexual sin involving people who are not married to each other or anyone else.
- Adultery is sexual sin involving at least one participant who is married to someone other than their sexual partner.
Many extreme interpretations of Jesus’ remarks are based on the “traditional” definition of adultery. If the definition is inaccurate then the interpretations are also wrong.
Fortunately, there are many who reject both the definitions and the resulting interpretations and would suggest the following:
- One, adultery is not the unpardonable sin. In fact, it is common and in many cases easy to overcome.
- Two, adultery is not synonymous only with sexual deviance. It applies to any breach of the marriage covenant which can happen many different ways and to varying degrees.
- Three, the only people who are never guilty of adultery are those who never marry.
Those who accept the traditional definition of adultery see it as nothing more than the married version of fornication. For them, both are only sexual and the only difference is whether or not one of the parties involved is married to someone outside the relationship.
Jesus doesn’t agree with this understanding and I don’t need clever word studies to prove it. His words, carefully considered, are the proof. He said, and I am paraphrasing:
If a man divorces his wife before she commits “fornication” he has forced her into an adulterous situation…
That is the exact meaning of what Jesus said and it challenges the traditional meaning of adultery.
Jesus used both words, “fornication” and “adultery,” to refer to the same married couple going through the same divorce. If traditional definitions of fornication and adultery are true they can’t both apply and Jesus would never have referred to a wife committing “fornication.”
But He did and we have to infer from that that fornication refers to sexual sin both by unmarried and married people. There is no difference. And the logical conclusion is adultery involves more than just sex. In fact:
- Any breach of the marriage covenant is adultery.
- It may or may not be sexual.
- It can range from very mild to seriously abusive.
Any time a husband or wife, in anger, speaks abusively to their partner they have violated their marriage vows, adultery. This is a mild breach and one that many can identify with – who hasn’t spoken meanly to their partner – but it hardly qualifies as justification for divorce unless it becomes chronic.
Even though some would laugh at the above example psychologists verify that many sexual problems have resulted from verbal hurts left unresolved.
Rational Justifications For Divorce
But the real question is, “Why did Jesus mention adultery-by-fornication as a reasonable excuse for divorce?”
If that constitutes a reason for divorce, wouldn’t other problems qualify also? And if the answer to that question is yes, why didn’t Jesus mention them?
Was He suggesting fornication was the only reason to allow divorce and was He saying that divorce had to follow in such cases? No to both questions.
Jesus was giving us a rule of thumb for rationally gauging an appropriate time for divorce:
Any breach of the marriage contract which is equally or more abusive than fornication qualifies as a reasonable justification for divorce.
Some examples would be:
- Physical abuse
- Excessive verbal abuse
- Extreme incompatibility
- Extreme non-performance
- Excessively poor character
Based on experience, and with this guideline in mind, you could say that in extreme cases it is more sinful to stay married than it is to get divorced. In such cases divorce relieves the pressure and reduces damage.
This is understandable. The Bible is not a legal journal and cannot contain every possible ruling for every possible infraction of the law. It does, however, give us the guidelines for making judgments when situations fall outside the stated boundaries.
That is exactly what Jesus did in His remarks regarding divorce and remarriage.
Yes, there are plenty of people who disagree. Divorce for them is only sinful and saving the marriage at any cost is the all consuming purpose.
But, they come across as more willing to save a marriage at the expense of a life – or lives – than save lives at the expense of a marriage and that attitude comes perilous close to worshiping marriage which God never intended.
And remember this. Marriage was created for perfect people in a perfect world, not for sinners in a fallen environment. Jesus is the Savior, not marriage and He died to save people not make every marriage right.
One thing for sure. Those who hold extreme attitudes toward divorce and remarriage will be the last people sought when couples are facing divorce. Closed minded people are intellectually and emotionally incapable of sympathizing with a divorce and more likely to criticize, which only adds to the hurt and damage.
Remember this. People make the marriage, marriage doesn’t make the people and sometimes for the people the marriage must go.
Many couples work very hard planning their wedding, buying how-to books and consulting professionals. Well, the same should be true when planning a divorce. Both require diligent, intelligent planning. Don’t let pain or sadness keep you from doing the smart thing. Learn from your past and plan your future.
And DIVORCE 101: A WOMAN’S GUIDE TO DIVORCE is a book that can help you do that. Tracy, the author, having gone through divorce without suitable resources decided to put what she learned in writing. She’s experienced the feelings, personally considered the issues, had the meetings, organized the details and made the decisions and that experience is shared in her book. It is mostly practical but contains great emotional insight and support as well. Divorce 101 is a compilation of all the pertinent information you will need in planning your divorce.
If you prefer a digital copy, Tracy’s book can be downloaded here and the download comes with several free bonuses to help you get through your divorce wisely.
Tracy also put together a website, WomansDivorce.com, which provides helpful articles from a wide range of professionals – and variety of perspectives – relating to every stage of divorce. She also has a blog in which many ladies share their experiences.
If you are a young woman, only a few years into marriage and facing inevitable divorce…AND you need a friend, this book is for you. Reviewers have painted it as food and solace for the hurting soul:
“This book was like an old friend, comforting me, guiding me through the process, assuring me that everything I was feeling was normal and to be expected.”
“It gave me hope that I might one day be happy again.”
“I was looking for something that spoke to me, in a girlfriend type of tone, not a preaching tone and this (book) was perfect.”
“Reading this book is like having my best girlfriend sitting next to me encouraging me that what I’m about to go through will only make me stronger and that I WILL in fact survive and be better off for it and a MUCH happier person!”
The book doesn’t claim to take the place of therapy and doesn’t encourage divorce but provides real support for those who find it unavoidable.
If your marriage is failing and you don’t feel loved but you aren’t quite ready for divorce court yet, your problem might be more solvable than you think. In The Five Love Languages Dr. Chapman departs from academic definitions of love, which are mostly intellectual and therefore cold, and discusses a love he refers to as “emotional.” This is the romantic love often portrayed in novels and movies and rooted in our psychological makeup.
He explains that even two good partners can easily fall out of love if they don’t learn how to love each other properly, in the right”language.” The adjustments are not difficult and languages are easy to understand. Many call his approach miraculous. Get the book. It’s a small price to pay to save a marriage.