Divorce and Remarriage II: When is Divorce Permitted?
Considering the value of marriage, we know that death breaks the bond. Besides this, are there any other ways that the marriage bond can be broken? There are essentially three views on this – no, yes, but limited, and yes, but limited in name only.
1) No. This view is based primarily upon exegetical variations of the exception clause presented by Jesus in Matthew 19 (and similarly taught in Matthew 5)
“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (ESV)
The Greek word for “sexual immorality” here is porneia, a word with a broad range of English words that it includes, all of which are aberrant or immoral sexual behaviors, such as incest, adultery, etc. Because other Greek words are used to refer to adultery specifically, some see this reference as a prohibition to incestuous marriages, not an exception clause.
Added to the Greek exegesis argument is the use of a preposition we would consider woefully inexact: epi. In the dative case, as it is used here, it can mean “only” or “including”. Thus, proponent of the no divorce argument would say that what Jesus says is not what every English translation reads, but instead: “whoever divorces his wife, not only for cases of sexual immorality (but for all reasons), commits adultery.” This reading would obviously support an “all divorce = sin” view. Of course, out of over 200 Bible translations, none read this way, so we can probably consider their exegesis faulty.
2) Yes, but limited. This represents the views of many in the West, who hold that divorce is ok, but only for certain reasons. For this view to be truly limited, the reasons must also be limited. They include adultery, physical abuse to the spouse or children, drug addiction, and abandonment. The reasoning varies, but is either the exception clause here in Matthew 19, common social perceptions, or a combination of both. Honestly, the view is really only a two-exception clause, with sexual immorality and danger to the family as the only reasons.
3) Limited in name only. Once one gets beyond sexual immorality and danger to the family for reasons for divorce, there really are no limitations. Reasons such as emotional abuse, mental abuse, financial insolvency, irreconcilable differences, etc all really can mean, “It’s not as fun as I thought it would be”. Is there real emotional and mental abuse? Certainly – but those who hold that these will be ground for a possible divorce of their own will justify “she’s not meeting my needs” or “he’s always crushing my dreams” as some kind of non-physical abuse.
This last category has no Biblical justification. Honestly, I don’t know how people who claim to be Christians can hold this view.
However, as interesting as the distinctions may be (and feel free to comment on them and my appraisal), the real issue for most is not, “Can a person get divorced”, but, “can a person remarry?” I feel that is the most interesting question, because for some, the two questions are in exact accord. For others, they are definitely not. Most Southern Baptist congregations will not reject a prospective pastor if he is divorced, but they will if he is remarried!
The next part of the series, “Can A Christian Remarry?” will address these differing views and attempt to present them even-handedly. While I have come to a conclusion while studying for this series, I recognize my own inherent subjectivity, and find the arguments that are not in agreement with mine to be somewhat compelling as well.