Posts Tagged ‘Jesus on marriage’

If you haven’t already, read this post first – Divorce and remarriage

1. Why is there no “exception clause” in Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11? All of these passages give the teaching of Jesus that we are not to break apart a one flesh union that God has joined together. This is also taught in Matthew 5 and 19, but in these passages Jesus gives an exception to this teaching. In Matthew 5:32 he says, “except on the ground of sexual immorality.” In Matthew 19:9 the phrase is similar, “except for sexual immorality.” So why don’t these other verses have the exception clause? Well, it was understood in both a Jewish and a Gentile context that sexual unfaithfulness, at least on the part of the wife, ended a marriage. When the death penalty was applied for adultery this was obvious. But even in Jesus’ day, where the death penalty was apparently not applied, it was assumed that this would end the marriage. And later this was made explicit in Jewish rulings. So these texts don’t have to address what everyone already understood. Working within the common frame of reference, they only address the question – ‘Are there other reasons for divorce and remarriage?’ Read this way all the texts are easily harmonized.

2. Why then does Matthew have the exception clause? It could be just to make things crystal clear. But it may also be because Matthew has already narrated the story of Joseph, who is called “just” or “righteous” even as he sought to divorce Mary for sexual immorality. Now, he did not go through with this after the angel told him what had actually happened – Mary was pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit. But certainly the exception clause protects Joseph from any charge of unrighteousness. He acted within the bounds of Jesus’ teaching.

3. How does Jesus’ teaching differ from the Old Testament? 1) A husband can only divorce his wife and take another on the grounds of sexual immorality, instead of for any reason/his hardness of heart. And in fact, what Moses allowed, Jesus now defines as adultery, a breaking of the seventh commandment. 2) A husband is now responsible not to commit adultery against his wife. To divorce and remarry invalidly makes him commit adultery against his first wife. This is new. He could commit adultery against another man by taking that man’s wife. But he had the freedom to marry any eligible woman he wanted through divorce and remarriage or polygamy. In other words he could not, before this, commit adultery against his wife. But now he must be sexually exclusive too. 3) This also allows for the wife to divorce on the grounds of sexual unfaithfulness. 4) A husband cannot take a second wife (polygamy). For if remarriage after an invalid divorce breaks the one flesh union with his first wife and is an act of adultery, then polygamy would also be adultery against his first wife. (See also Jesus’ emphasis on “two” becoming one in Matthew 19:5-6.)

4. What if you are married to an unbeliever? Scripture teaches that we are only to marry fellow Christians – 1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. But if you are in a marriage with an unbeliever Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 give guidance. He is talking to those who became a Christian when he preached, but their spouse did not. First of all, he classifies these marriages differently than a marriage between two believers. He uses different terminology. Paul writes “to the married” in v. 10, in reference to Christians who are married to each other. But in the case of mixed marriages he just says, “to the rest” in v. 12. Yes, they are married, he speaks of husbands and wives, but there is a difference in his mind. And more to the point, Paul doesn’t apply Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce to mixed marriages. The latter do not fall under the saying of Jesus, “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). If they did you can be sure that Paul would have used this teaching. Rather he gives his own counsel, “to the rest I say (I, not the Lord).” He teaches that although the believer should not initiate a divorce, a divorce can take place here, even if there is no sexual immorality. If the unbelieving spouse leaves you, he says, “Let it be so. In such a case the brother or sister is not enslaved” – v. 15. Different rules apply because mixed marriages are categorized differently.

5. What should you do if you are in a second marriage and your first marriage was ended for a reason other than sexual immorality? According to Jesus’ teaching, the consummation of the second marriage was an act of adultery against your first spouse. Now some argue that such a relationship amounts to a perpetual state of adultery against your first spouse and that you should divorce your second spouse and return to your first spouse. They argue that when Jesus says, “whoever divorces his wife . . . and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9) the word “commits adultery” is a present indicative, meaning continuous action. But this is a misunderstanding of Greek grammar. The present indicative in Greek cannot distinguish between continuous action and that which is not. No, the present indicative here has to do with communicating a general truth (gnomic present). Jesus is saying, anytime someone divorces their wife on grounds other than sexual immorality and marries another, they commit adultery. The present tense communicates that adultery happens every time this happens. There is no basis in Greek grammar for saying that the second marriage is continuously adulterous. It isn’t addressed.

The logic that Jesus uses should make clear that it is not a continuous state of adultery. If you divorce your first spouse and marry another, your one flesh union with your first spouse is broken. You don’t continually break your one flesh union with your first spouse, it happened when you joined with the second. So there is an act of adultery, but not continuous adultery. Also, the point of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is to forbid someone from remarrying their first spouse after marrying someone else. And the overall point of Jesus is to restrict divorce, remarriage and breaking apart one flesh unions. But to force a return to the first spouse promotes these very things. Notice as well that when Paul speaks to mixed marriages in 1 Corinthians 7 there is no concern with previous relationships or a continued state of adultery. Rather he counsels the believer to stay in the relationship for “God has called you to peace” – v. 15.

What should you do? Acknowledge the failure of a wrongful divorce and the consequent act of adultery. Then seek God’s blessing on your new marriage and move forward to be faithful to what God’s will is from now on.

6. More generally, what if your past actions with regard to marriage, divorce or remarriage fall outside God’s will? Many of us have made poor choices in regard to righteousness in various ways in the past, sometimes because we did not even know what God commands. But where there is repentance – a desire to confess the wrong and begin to live rightly, God grants mercy, forgiveness, healing and blessing. God will take us where we are and as we begin to align our lives with his word, he will bless us.

7. What about when there is abuse? Although this does not break a one flesh union between believers, the church must be involved to protect and care for the one who is abused. In the case of abusive governments (i.e. persecution) Jesus allows his followers to flee them (Matthew 10:23). Thus a wife can flee from the abusive authority of her husband. This might mean physical separation or even a legal divorce. In this case Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:11 apply. If the wife separates or divorces “she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” But if he breaks apart the one flesh union, she is free to remarry.

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