Divorce in Matthew 5:31-32

In Matthew 5:31-32, we read:

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

[from the English Standard Version of the Bible]

This may raise a question for you about your current life situation. You may be divorced, or separated and contemplating a divorce, and/or contemplating remarriage, or contemplating marrying a divorced person, and you may want to know how to live in the light of God’s word here.

Before we go on, let me remind you of the main point that keeps coming out in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5-7, commonly called the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. It’s very important to embrace this big idea, because unless you understand the thrust of Jesus’ teaching nothing else that Jesus says will make sense. The point is:

Being in God’s Kingdom goes way beyond keeping his rules.

Being in God’s Kingdom means loving God as your heavenly Father, and loving everything that God loves.

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus says,

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The scribes and Pharisees were meticulous rule-keepers. They knew God’s rules and regulations, and were fanatical about obedience to these rules. But Jesus shows us that bare rule-keeping is useless and empty. What God wants is a complete change of mind and heart so that we desire what God desires. God didn’t give us rules just so that we can grudgingly obey them (like the Australian Taxation Office); he gives us rules as examples of the sorts of things he loves, so that we can learn from them and bring our deepest inmost desires in line with God’s good pleasure. The rest of the Bible shows us that the only way for this to happen is for Jesus, through his death and resurrection, to provide us with forgiveness and a new heart; to bring us into a relationship with God where we seek to love and serve him as a Father rather than simply obey him as a lawmaker (e.g. Romans 6, Galatians 5).

In this passage (and elsewhere in the Bible, e.g. Matthew 19:3-12), we learn that God loves faithful, lifelong, sacrificial commitment to one’s marriage partner. Hence, this is also what God’s children should love. However, God knows that his people are sinful, and his law (in the Old Testament) is realistic about this sad fact. He knew that sometimes divorce is inevitable, and in his law he included a clause that aimed at limiting the destructive effects of such divorce:

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.

This passage seems to be ruling out an abominable practice that has been labelled ‘legalised wife-swapping’. The passage assumes the existence of divorce laws, but seeks to stop people from using these divorce laws as an excuse to legitimate their wife-swapping practices. Clearly, this part of God’s law (in common with much of the Old Testament law) is designed to protect the vulnerable, in this case women, from being abused by the powerful, in this case men who wanted to divorce and remarry on a whim.
The scribes and Pharisees seemed to be arguing along these lines: ‘Well, if there is a part of the law that allows divorce, that means that divorce must be OK with God under certain circumstances. So let’s work out the possible scenarios that will enable us to divorce our wives and still be obedient to God’s law.’ Instead of understanding that the law was there to protect the vulnerable, they read it as an excuse to justify their own sinful behaviour. This comes out even more clearly in Matthew 19:3-12.

I hope you see the utter wickedness of this sort of argument. It is not treating God as a loving, caring Father who rules his people with a perfect mixture of justice and gentleness. Instead, it treats God as a cosmic lawgiver, a court or a government who will be satisfied provided we can tick the legal boxes and defend our actions with recourse to the appropriate loopholes. This legalistic attitude is called ‘hardness of heart’ by Jesus (Matthew 19:8). If you have this sort of attitude to divorce (that is, you want to find out how much divorce you can get away with), then read no further. You need to repent, because your ‘righteousness’ is just like that of the scribes and Pharisees: empty and entirely against God’s desires.

This is exactly the sort of thing that Jesus is railing against in Matthew 5:31-32.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

People argue over the exact details of Jesus’ teaching here, but let me suggest an understanding which I think makes sense of the passage.

Many people maintain that this passage means that if you divorce your wife, you (somehow) ‘force’ her to marry somebody else, and since this new marriage is somehow illegitimate, she is in effect ‘committing adultery’ by continuing to live in the new pseudo-marriage. For example,

The husband who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery because in the culture of that day, unlike ours, a single woman could hardly survive on her own, except through prostitution. She was therefore bound to take another husband and so be made into an adulteress. And the man who married such a divorced woman himself committed adultery in so doing, because he has married the wife of another man. This viewpoint presupposes the permanent character of the marriage bond. For Jesus, not even divorce can change that fact.’

Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33A: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary (Page 125). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

But there are some big problems with views like this:

  1. It goes against Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:15 that a person is not responsible for the sinful actions of his or her spouse. In fact, it goes against the grain of the whole of Jesus’ teaching to suggest that somehow the victim (in this case, the divorced wife) is turned into a sinner (an adulteress) by her spouse’s sinful actions. Making the victim into the perpetrator doesn’t solve anything.
  2. In 1 Corinthians 7:11 we see that singleness is a perfectly legitimate and acceptable state to be in. Divorcing your wife, whatever else it does, does not ‘force’ her to marry somebody else.
  3. There’s no reason to think that Jesus believed that a subsequent marriage after divorce was somehow ‘unreal’ or illegitimate. Take the case of the woman at the well in John 4:17-18. Jesus was able to distinguish the five legitimate marriages that she had previously been in from her current illegitimate (non-marriage) relationship. He is condemning her lack of faithfulness, but he is not implying that her four previous marriages were not ‘real’ marriages!

Instead, others have made a case (I think very convincingly), that the word ‘make’ in Matthew 5:32 means ‘make out’ or ‘make it (falsely) seem to be the case’. The word ‘make’ certainly has this meaning in other parts of the Bible. For example:

1 John 5:10 Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.

John here is saying that if somebody does not believe God then he is ‘making’ God a liar. This can only mean that he is ‘making it (falsely) seem to be the case’ that God is a liar; he is ‘unjustly stigmatising’ God as a liar by not believing what God says. It can’t mean that our unbelief ‘forces’ God to actually lie, because God does not lie (Hebrews 6:18). So, in Matthew 5:32, it makes more sense to read ‘everybody who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her out to have committed adultery.’
This would fit with the sense of the passage in Deuteronomy 24 that Jesus is quoting. For a Jew whose life was governed to a large extent by the Old Testament Law, to divorce his wife implied that (in the words of Deuteronomy 24) he had found some indecency in her—that is, a divorced wife, along with any person she subsequently married, would have been viewed as an adulteress. The social and economic consequences of this would have been enormous, for an adulteress was ostracised from society and subject to economic hardship. Thus divorcing your wife just because you don’t like her would be a gross act of negligence (unless, of course, there were good solid grounds for believing that she had actually committed sexual immorality). Furthermore, the man who then subsequently marries the divorced woman would be guilty too, because he would be a party to the whole sordid legalised wife-swapping transaction. He is not legitimately marrying her, he is committing adultery. These men are treating this woman, whom God tenderly loves, as an object, not a person; showing blatant disregard for God and thus being unworthy of the kingdom of heaven, despite their apparent plea that they have a legal precedent for their activity. It’s worth noting that in present day Australia, one of the tragic effects of the introduction of ‘no fault’ divorce laws is that the weak and vulnerable (usually the women and children) are the ones who suffer the most.

(For other similar uses of the word ‘make’ as ‘make out to be’ check out John 8:53, 10:33, 19:7, 19:12, 1 John 1:10—use a literal word-for-word translation of the Bible such as the NASB to look up these verses.)

So the main point of Jesus’ teaching is: don’t use God’s law as an excuse for divorce, because God’s law is not there to legitimate your desire for divorce; it is there to protect the weak and vulnerable. Jesus is teaching that our attitudes to marriage and divorce are not just a matter of sticking to the letter of God’s rules; they are a matter of wholeheartedly loving the spouse whom we are married to, and seeking that spouse’s welfare above our own.

Now what about some of the situations in which we (Christians and non-Christians) today find ourselves with respect to marriage and divorce? If we have understood Jesus’ teaching correctly, how do we apply it with all our hearts, souls, and minds, rather than seeking to find loopholes in it? Let me suggest some areas of application:

  1. If you are contemplating divorcing your current spouse in order to marry somebody else, then Jesus here is speaking directly to your situation. Your attitude is open rebellion against God—it is flying in the face of everything that God holds dear. You cannot call yourself a member of the Kingdom of God and have this attitude. You need to repent, turn back to God, seek forgiveness, and remain committed to your spouse.
  2. If you are contemplating divorce for another reason, remember that God loves lifelong committed faithfulness and then seek to love what God loves. Make every possible effort to be reconciled with your wife or husband. Seek to the good of your spouse sacrificially—don’t nurse grudges but remember how much Jesus went through to win you forgiveness. Seek counselling, seek help from friends. Do whatever it takes. If you have sinned, repent and seek forgiveness.
  3. If, after every conceivable effort, you have concluded that divorce is inevitable then do everything in your power to protect those who are vulnerable and seek their best interests as the divorce happens. If your spouse needs to be looked after financially, then make sure this happens. Remember the best interests of any children, too. Don’t exacerbate the problem by sinning further.
  4. If you are divorced and are contemplating remarriage to another person, be very, very careful. Don’t enter into a second marriage lightly. If the person you are contemplating marrying was the cause of the breakup of the first marriage, don’t do it—flee from this situation as far as possible. Whatever the situation, you must seek help and counselling so that the second marriage does not end up like the first. Make sure that, as far as possible, you have done everything you can to seek forgiveness from your first spouse and (if appropriate) to make restitution. Certainly do not start living with the second person until you have married them and made a public, formal, lifelong commitment to them.
  5. If you are divorced and currently remarried to another person, your current marriage is real and you need to be committed to it wholeheartedly and sacrificially. No matter how this marriage began (even if it began as an adulterous affair), if you have now made marriage vows to each other then the marriage is now a real marriage and by God’s grace it can become a means of serving him. It may be worth remembering the woman who Jesus encountered at the well in John 4: a woman who had had five husbands (note that Jesus doesn’t call them ‘pseudo-husbands’; they were all real husbands), a woman who was currently living in an adulterous affair; but a woman who, through encountering Jesus and having her sins exposed, had her life transformed. Pray for healing, forgiveness, and the transforming power of God’s spirit to help you to love what God loves even in the most difficult of circumstances.

As I suggested above, Christians disagree about this issue, and if you wish to check up the different positions I suggest that a good place to start would be to look at the eleven different views outlined on pages 294-323 of the book by B. Ward Powers, Marriage and Divorce: the New Testament Teaching (Concord: Jordan Books, 1987).