It is commonly held among conservative evangelicals that the Bible gives two “exceptions” to God’s plan that marriage is “one man, one woman, one lifetime,” (though there are a multitude of various incarnations of the answer to the divorce/remarriage question). The two exceptions are adultery (Matthew 19:3-9) and desertion (1 Corinthians -16). (As a side note, it is interesting to hear some expand “desertion” into all manner of things such as sexual abuse, physical endangerment, and the like as an effort to justify divorce in a difficult situations. However, that’s not my topic here.)
My thoughts are on the first exception: adultery. Most people see the “exception clause” of Matthews 19:9 as the equivalent of Jesus saying, “Divorce is sin, unless you divorce a spouse who has committed adultery, in which case it is not sin.”
In recent months I have been giving more thought to this, and wonder if we have too easily overlooked the import of the previous verse which says 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.” (Matthew 19:8)
Jesus was answering the question, “Is divorce permissible for any reason?” (v. 3). Various resources can give you the history of divorce in the rabbis’ teachings, so I will not indulge that here. Nor do I want to give all the various options and arguments on the issue of “acceptable divorce.” I want rather to zero in on v. 8 and the phrase “the hardness of your heart.”
Setting the Table
First, let us note that under the OT Law, divorce was clearly permitted. We see this from regulations regarding how a divorcee was to be treated (Deut 24:1-4) and from regulations that forbade divorce (e.g.
The surface reason for divorce could have been many things. A great amount of focus has been placed on
In v. 8, Jesus identifies the root reason for the Mosaic regulations on divorce as “the hardness of your heart.” In other words, whatever the indecency was, the divorce was driven by the hardness of one’s heart—harboring sinful resentment that was driven by hardness toward God and His plan for marriage that would lead to the dissolution of the marriage.
Considering Jesus’ Exception
Jesus moves seamlessly from “the hardness of your heart” to the exception clause. The question is, “What exactly was Jesus saying?” I think it impossible to say that Jesus was here forbidding remarriage in any circumstance. The grammar seems to mitigate against that, and Jesus connects remarriage with adultery in the case of divorce (cf.
What exactly is the exception clause connected to? Some say it should be connected to divorce, others to remarriage. The reflection of the last year or so has led me to conclude that the exception clause should be connected to “the hardness of your heart.” Divorce, even in the matter of indecency (whatever that is) is because of the hardness of heart. It was not the way God intended it from the beginning (Matt 19:8).
Jesus is saying that Moses permitted divorce is matters of sexual immorality perhaps short of adultery (some indecency) because your hearts were hard. You were unwilling to forgive and restore. It is true that the Mosaic Law contained the death penalty for adultery (Lev 20:10), and that has led some to say that this means that the indecency cannot be adultery since an adulterer would have been dead and thus ineligible for divorce. However, the death penalty was not always carried out for adultery (cf. David and Bathsheba). However, the precise identification of the uncleanness is unnecessary for our purposes, since we are not under the Law, and since our focus is on life in Christ.
How Should a Believer Respond to an Adulterous Spouse
We need to turn to the New Testament, to discern God’s will for divorce for us.
Let’s begin with this simple statement: If the spouse is unrepentant,
On the other hand, if the spouse is repentant,
First, we establish from
This leads me to two conclusions.
1. Pursuing divorce is ultimately incompatible with Christ’s love for the church. It is impossible to “love as Christ loved the church” while at the same time willfully pursuing a divorce. Christ’s love for the church is unconditional. It pursues the one loved and covers the sins of the one loved. A divorce willful divorce refuses to pursue the one who is supposed to be loved, and refuses to cover the sins of the one supposed to be loved.
2. Pursuing a divorce is ultimately incompatible with “forgiving as God in Christ forgave you.” Forgiveness is a promise, not about our mental ability to forget, but about our volitional choice to treat someone in a particular way. The best definition of forgiveness is found in the writings of Jay Adams, among others. (See
Answering Common Objections
The objections that could be offered are numerous, but most are very similar. I will anticipate a few of them here.
1. Christ gave permission for divorce in cases of adultery.
Answer: First, it is not clear that Christ is giving permission for divorce, as much as he is giving a concession to divorce. Why a concession? Because your hearts are hard. Because you are unwilling to live in obedience to God in the matter of forgiveness. In other words, you can pursue a divorce, but in so doing you will reveal an unwillingness to live life God’s way. You will reveal that your heart is hard. God will certainly concede to let you live in such a state. But it is no the way he intended it to be.
2. Forgiveness does not mean you have to stay in the marriage.
Answer: It depends on what one thinks forgiveness is. As defined above, forgiveness is a choice about how we will treat someone else. Our forgiveness is modeled on the forgiveness of God in Christ. When God forgives us, he does not break the relationship. He does not say “I forgive you, but I can never have a close relationship with you again” (cf. Sande, The Peacemaker, p. 202). He forgives us and restores us. It is true that there are temporal consequences of sin. The old example is getting drunk and losing your leg in a car accident. Forgiveness won’t bring your leg back. But it won’t cost you your relationship with God either.
It seems when you talk to people about this, there is one stock example that frequently gets used, especially among the fraternity of pastors: “When the church treasurer steals money, you forgive him, but you restore him to his position as treasurer.” This analogy is used to say “When your spouse commits adultery, you forgive him or her, but you don’t have to restore them to the previous position of spouse.” Really? Let’s examine the analogy.
However, I would suggest this analogy fails because it addresses a different type of relationship. Church treasurer is not a life-time commitment (or at least its not supposed to be). Spouse is a life time commitment made before God, your spouse, and others. I remind couples “When you got married, it was a promise for better or worse, until death do you part. This is the worse. Keep your promise for God’s sake.”
This analogy also fails in its outcome. When a treasurer steals money and then repents, he is not disciplined from the church. (At least he should not be.) His privileges may change, but his membership in the body does not, yes, even must not change. In marriage, an adulterous spouse will reap consequences. They will always live with the knowledge of what they did, and the pain that it caused. Their family will suffer. They will see the hurt and distrust in their spouse’s eyes. They may have to live without certain things, such as computer access or cell phone use, if those things were used in the commission of adultery. They may have to break off friendships if those friendships helped to enable the sin, either by encouraging it or covering for it. But how, in the name of “Christ’s love for the church” and “forgive as God forgave you” can they be cut out of the relationship? How can one say “I have forgiven” when their actions demonstrate that they still hold the sin against the other party? God does not do that us, so how can we do that to others?
The truth is that failure to divorce does not mean that there are no consequences. In fact, it heightens the consequences in some ways. But since God’s forgiveness does not remove us from the relationship with him, our forgiveness cannot insist that a person be removed from the relationship with us.
To this teaching, I have heard one good response. When confronted with this teaching, I was told, “I am not God.” That gets to the heart of the matter. Perhaps the real reason for the lack of forgiveness and restoration is an unwillingness to be as radical in the treatment of others as God is in his treatment of us.
3. It is unkind to ask an “innocent partner” to stay in a marriage with a spouse who committed adultery.
Answer: Why? It is unkind to ask an adulterous spouse to cut off a relationship that they greatly enjoy and receive benefit from? Of course not. Nor is it unkind or unmerciful to call an “innocent spouse” to obey God’s command to love as Christ loved the church and forgive as God forgave us. Calling people to obedience is never unkind. In fact, failure to address the underlying causes of selfishness and lack of Christlikeness is unkind. It allows people to go on living with what may very well be an idol of “ideal marriage” in their heart, driving their decisions.
Furthermore, our obsession with comfort and lack of suffering is an epidemic that drives our decisions. Sin brings suffering. Sin in marriage is no different. Whether the sin is adultery, or anger, or selfishness, or one of the multitude of others sins, it will bring suffering in the marriage. To pursue divorce to avoid suffering with a repentant adulterous spouse is to refuse to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
In what must be some kind of divine irony,
By looking to Jesus, we can teach that suffering is a part of life whether in marriage and family, church, community, or any other sphere. Pursuing a divorce to avoid the suffering of having to “look at and live with my spouse” is failing to follow the example of Jesus. Restoring the relationship and suffering with your spouse is the way to follow Christ’s example.
4. By divorce, one can get away from the problems, such as daily having to look at my spouse.
Answer: No, you will not get away from it. You will wake up every morning in an empty bed and be reminded why you are there alone. You will trade the kids back and forth, a constant reminder of the problem. Indeed, you will simply exchange one set of problems for another set of problems.
Christ’s love for the church is unconditional, effectual, and purifying. It covers sinfulness and restores the relationship. It refuses to treat us as if we had sinned. It offers complete and unconditional forgiveness. It is true that it does not take away temporal consequences. But neither does staying in a marriage in which your spouse committed adultery. Building the marriage is Christ’s plan, even when there is sin.
Christ’s love for the church calls us to an uncommon demonstration of marital love.God’s command of forgiveness calls us to an uncommon and unexpected demonstration of marital love. Those “innocent parties” in adultery have a unique opportunity to demonstrate the love of Christ and the work of God in their lives. They can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that others will never be able to.
May our marriages be about the gospel, more than they are about our comfort. May our lives be about God and our spouse, rather than about ourselves.