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Does Matthew 5:32 Allow Some Divorce and Remarriage?

by Max Aplin  
5/08/2019 / Marriage


One area of controversy in the Christian faith, and within evangelicalism, concerns divorce and remarriage. 

Most evangelicals say that God allows divorce and remarriage in some circumstances while one’s original husband or wife is still alive, including in cases of marital infidelity. In what follows, I will refer to this as “the majority view.” This is the view that I will be supporting in this article. 

By contrast, a minority of evangelicals say that God never allows divorce and remarriage while one’s original husband or wife is still alive. I will refer to this as “the minority view.” 

Actually, to be precise, those evangelicals who hold the minority view can be divided into two camps. Some say that God disallows all divorce and all remarriage while one’s original spouse is still alive. Others say that He disallows all remarriage but does sometimes allow divorce while one’s original spouse is still alive. 

The question I am most interested in answering in this article is whether God ever allows remarriage while one’s original spouse is still alive. So, for my purposes, the difference between the two groups that hold the minority view is not important, since both groups claim that God always disallows remarriage while one’s original spouse is still alive. 

To keep the following discussion as uncomplicated as possible, I will speak as if all those who hold the minority view disallow all divorce and all remarriage, even though some of them allow some divorce. This will simplify the discussion without affecting any argument that I make or conclusion that I reach. 

THE PASSAGE TO BE LOOKED AT IN THIS ARTICLE 

In the Gospels there are four passages that contain teaching of Jesus on divorce and remarriage. These are Matt. 5:32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18. 

There are many areas of debate concerning the text of these passages, and arguments are given for and against the majority and minority views. 

In this article I will concentrate on just one of these passages, Matt. 5:32, which the English Standard Version appropriately translates in this way: 

32a But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality [porneia], makes her commit adultery, 32b and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” 

Actually, the discussion in what follows will focus on part a of this verse, although part b will also come into the discussion. 

“Sexual immorality” in this verse is a translation of the Greek word porneia, which is a broad term. Porneia was probably chosen instead of moicheia, which means “adultery,” so as to allow for the inclusion of sexual unfaithfulness during the time of betrothal, homosexual acts etc. But porneia should be understood to include adultery. 

Most evangelicals, including myself, believe that in v. 32a one of the things Jesus is teaching is that there are times when it is acceptable for divorce and remarriage to occur while a person’s original husband or wife is still alive. 

Some evangelicals, however, deny this. They claim that in v. 32a Jesus is not teaching that divorce and remarriage is ever acceptable while one’s original husband or wife is still alive. 

A consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of these positions will be the topic of discussion in this article. 

TWO POSSIBLE INTERPRETATIONS 

The first thing we need to do is see what the options are for how we understand v. 32a. 

There are two possible interpretations. 

Interpretation 1 

Jesus is saying the following: 

If a man divorces his wife for any reason other than her sexual immorality, he makes her commit adultery when she remarries. But if he divorces her for her sexual immorality, he doesn’t make her commit adultery when she remarries, because she, through her sexual immorality which has led to being divorced by her husband, has made herself commit adultery when she remarries. 

Under this interpretation, every woman who is divorced by her husband commits adultery when she remarries. So under this interpretation, every woman who is divorced really remains married to her original husband in God’s sight until either he or she dies. 

And the same would be true of men. Every man who is divorced by his wife commits adultery when he remarries, because in reality he remains married to his original wife in God’s sight until either he or she dies. 

This would mean that remarriage is never acceptable to God while someone’s original spouse is still alive. So this interpretation fits with the minority evangelical view on divorce, but not with the majority view. 

Interpretation 2 

Jesus is saying the following: 

If a man divorces his wife for any reason other than her sexual immorality, he makes her commit adultery when she remarries. But if he divorces her for her sexual immorality, he doesn’t make her commit adultery when she remarries, because she doesn’t commit adultery when she remarries. 

Under this interpretation, a woman who is divorced for a reason other than her sexual immorality really remains married to her original husband in God’s sight. But, under this interpretation, a woman who is divorced for her sexual immorality ceases to be married to her original husband in God’s sight. 

And the same would be true of men. A man who is divorced for a reason other than his sexual immorality really remains married to his original wife in God’s sight. But a man who is divorced for his sexual immorality ceases to be married to his original wife in God’s sight. 

This would mean that remarriage is sometimes acceptable to God while someone’s original spouse is still alive. So this interpretation fits with the majority evangelical view on divorce, but not with the minority view.   

ARGUMENTS SUPPORTING INTERPRETATION 1 

There are some arguments that can be made in support of interpretation 1, i.e., the view that in Matt. 5:32a Jesus is teaching that every divorced person commits adultery when they remarry (while their original husband or wife is still alive). 

No exception mentioned in v. 32b 

To begin with, there is the point that no exception is mentioned in v. 32b. 

Verse 32b says simply: 

“. . . whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” 

The most straightforward reading of these words is that every man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. This would mean that every divorced woman commits adultery when she remarries. And if v. 32b implies that every divorced woman commits adultery when she remarries, v. 32a can’t contradict this. 

I think there is some weight to this argument. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to think that the exception which is made explicit in v. 32a should be understood again in v. 32b: 

“. . . whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery [apart from those who marry a woman who was divorced for her sexual immorality].” 

Jesus is speaking very concisely in this verse, and it is not at all difficult to understand him to be implying that the exception of v. 32a should be repeated in v. 32b. 

Implausibility 

It is also sometimes said that if we were to understand v. 32a to mean that divorce and remarriage is sometimes acceptable, this would involve an implausibility. 

There are those who argue in this way: 

If committing sexual immorality allows the wronged party to break the marriage bond and makes remarriage legitimate, then to say that an innocently divorced wife can't remarry (as Jesus does say in this verse) assumes that her divorcing husband is not divorcing to have sexual relations with another person. But this is a very unlikely assumption. 

Again, this argument carries some weight. 

It is true that Jesus says in this verse that an innocently divorced wife can’t remarry without committing adultery. Nevertheless, we need to take account of how concisely He is speaking here. We don’t have to understand Him to be giving the whole picture on this issue. 

We could understand things in this way: 

The big principle that Jesus is stressing in this verse is that marriages last for life, unless one partner commits sexual immorality, in which case the other partner is free to initiate divorce and remarriage. This means that an innocently divorced wife can’t remarry without committing adultery, if there are no complicating factors. However, sometimes there are complicating factors. Sometimes, the original husband of the innocently divorced wife will himself commit sexual immorality. In this case the innocent wife can remarry without committing adultery. Jesus doesn’t discuss any complicating factors, because He is speaking very concisely and just wants to explicitly state the general principle that marriages last for life unless one partner commits sexual immorality. 

It is really not that difficult to understand things in this way. 

Unfair and an incentive to commit sexual immorality 

It is also sometimes said that if we were to understand v. 32a to mean that divorce and remarriage is sometimes acceptable, this would be unfair and create an incentive to commit sexual immorality. 

There are those who argue in this way: 

It would be strange if a woman who is divorced for no fault of her own commits adultery when she remarries, but a woman who is divorced for sexual immorality doesn’t commit adultery when she remarries. This is not only unfair but it can easily lead to an incentive to commit sexual immorality. So we should conclude, as in interpretation 1, that divorce and remarriage is never acceptable while one’s original spouse is still alive. 

Again, there is weight to this argument. However, there are a number of points to make in reply: 

First, it seems right to think that the issue of what God does or doesn’t regard as an acceptable divorce or an acceptable remarriage is more important than whether or not certain situations might seem unfair or might be unhelpful in serving as an incentive to commit sin. At its heart, the issue we are dealing with is one of God’s created order. 

Second, even if we were to say that allowing remarriage (for both husband and wife) if a woman commits sexual immorality has the downside of creating an incentive for her to commit sexual immorality, it is not as if allowing remarriage has no upside. It has the upside of enabling the wronged husband to avoid a lot of pain. Under interpretation 1, not only is the husband sinned against by his wife committing sexual immorality, but he is not then allowed to divorce her and remarry. However, under interpretation 2 he is allowed to do this. 

Third and most importantly, steps can be taken to avoid an incentive to commit sexual immorality. We can say that remarriage is unacceptable after some cases of sexual immorality. 

For example, if a man has an affair and his wife divorces him for it and he then wants to marry the woman he had the affair with, I believe that we should, at least usually, refuse to recognize that remarriage. 

In other words, we can make exceptions to the exception. We need to understand that in this verse Jesus is giving general principles, not a legalistic set of rules. 

So, under interpretation 2 we could set out things in three statements: 

(i) As a general principle people must not divorce their spouse and remarry while one’s original spouse is still alive. 

(ii) As an exception to that, if the spouse is guilty of sexual immorality, it is legitimate for the wronged party to initiate divorce and for both parties to be free to remarry. 

(iii) But as an exception to the exception, it is wise to disallow remarriage if the example being set might lead others to see an incentive to commit sexual immorality. 

The argument from unfairness and incentive to commit sin is therefore not compelling. 

Summing up 

Interpretation 1 states that in Matt. 5:32a Jesus is not teaching that divorce and remarriage is ever acceptable while one’s original spouse is still alive. Each of the three arguments that I have outlined in support of this interpretation carries some weight. However, none of them is very impressive. 

ARGUMENTS SUPPORTING INTERPRETATION 2 

There are also arguments that can be made in support of interpretation 2, i.e., the view that in Matt. 5:32 Jesus is teaching that not everyone who remarries commits adultery when they remarry (while their original husband or wife is still alive). 

An awkwardness 

To begin with, there is an awkwardness in interpretation 1. 

Under interpretation 1, the divorcing husband is said not to cause his wife who is guilty of sexual immorality to commit adultery when she remarries, because she, by her sexual immorality which leads to her being divorced, causes herself to commit adultery when she remarries. 

However, it still looks rather awkward to say that her husband doesn’t cause her to commit adultery, because, by divorcing her, he is still (under interpretation 1) doing something that will lead to her committing adultery when she remarries. 

The contrast suggests a real divorce 

Next, the contrast in v. 32a also makes most sense if divorce and remarriage is sometimes acceptable while one’s original spouse is still alive. 

When Jesus says in v. 32a that a man who divorces his wife for a reason other than her sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery when she remarries, He is implying that the divorce is not a real divorce at all in God’s sight. 

Yet this situation is contrasted with the situation where a man divorces his wife for sexual immorality, and the contrast looks most natural if this time the divorce is a real divorce in God’s sight. And if there is a real divorce, the marriage is surely over. And if it is over, it makes sense to think that both parties are free to remarry. 

That is not to say that it would necessarily be acceptable for each party to remarry anyone. See the comments above about exceptions to the exception. But as a general principle, if God recognizes a divorce, then we would expect both parties to be free to remarry. 

An improbability 

Most importantly, there is an improbability in thinking that in v. 32a Jesus is not allowing any divorce and remarriage while one’s original spouse is still alive. 

The first point to make here is that it is unlikely that the man of v. 32a, who divorces his wife for her sexual immorality, should be viewed as being compelled to divorce her in line with Jewish law. 

In this part of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is contrasting His way of doing things with Jewish customs, including by differing in some respects from the Law of Moses. So it seems strange that He would be speaking as if the divorcing husband was compelled to follow Moses as regards whether or not to divorce, precisely in the context of modifying Mosaic teaching. 

It therefore seems improbable that the man of v. 32a should be viewed as being compelled to follow Jewish law. 

However, if this man is viewed as not being compelled to divorce his wife for her sexual immorality, things become even more difficult. 

If he is not compelled to divorce her, and if it is also true, as it surely is, that the man does no wrong in divorcing his wife for this sin, then interpretation 1 is very difficult. It seems very strange that God would be content for the man to divorce her, when he is not compelled to do so, and when doing so will lead to her committing adultery. Instead, we would expect God to forbid the man to divorce his wife, since adultery is such a grave thing. 

Furthermore, if the man is not compelled to divorce his wife, then interpretation 1 also seems very inconsistent. God would want the man who divorces his wife not to remarry, at great cost to himself, so as not to commit adultery. Yet He would be content for this man to divorce his wife, even though that will lead to her committing adultery when she remarries. Why would God want the man to sacrifice so greatly so as not to commit adultery himself, yet to be so casual about whether his wife commits adultery? 

Instead, the fact that God is content for the man to divorce his wife (still assuming a scenario in which he is not compelled to divorce her in line with Jewish law) suggests that she does not in fact commit adultery when she remarries, because there has been a real divorce in God’s sight, as in interpretation 2. 

If, then, the man of v. 32a is not being viewed as compelled to divorce his wife in line with Jewish law, interpretation 1 looks very difficult and inconsistent. 

In conclusion to this section, therefore, interpretation 1 looks improbable. It seems more than a little doubtful that the man should be viewed as being compelled to divorce his wife in line with Jewish law. But if we don’t view him as being compelled to do this, then what God wants under interpretation 1 looks very strange and inconsistent. 

Summing up 

Interpretation 2 states that in Matt. 5:32a Jesus is teaching that divorce and remarriage is sometimes acceptable while one’s original spouse is still alive. The three arguments that I have outlined in support of this interpretation all carry weight. The first is probably the weakest, the second a bit stronger, and the third is quite a strong argument. 

OVERALL CONCLUSION 

If we weigh up the support for each position, the combined weight of the arguments supporting interpretation 2 looks more impressive than the combined weight of the arguments supporting interpretation 1. 

The overall conclusion to our investigation is therefore that Matt. 5:32a fits better with the majority evangelical view on divorce than with the minority view. 

Given the very concise nature of Jesus’ saying in this text, it isn’t a surprise that I haven’t been able to use it to conclusively prove the majority view. But it does seem to fit better with this view than with the minority one. 

This means that Matt. 5:32a gives some support to the view that there are times when it is acceptable for people to divorce and remarry while their original husband or wife is still alive.

 

See also my articles: 

Is Divorce and Remarriage Ever Acceptable? What Should We Make of the Lack of Explicit Exceptions in Mark and Luke? 

Divorce and Remarriage Are Only Acceptable in Special Circumstances 

The Danger for a Christian in Marrying a Non-Christian 

Should Single Christians Aim to Get Married?

I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com

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