There has been much debate over Christians divorcing in recent years. Many Baptists in particular hold that divorce leads to adultery in most if not all cases of remarriage. But is this matter as clear-cut as many suppose? According to some Bible students, the matter is more involved than simply lifting a proof-text from the Scriptures.
A few scholars hold that Matthew 19:6, an oft-cited proof text, has nothing to do with divorce per se. For example, some state that the underlying Greek words and their Hebrew counterparts in this passage do not address divorce at all, but rather the act of “putting away” a wife, which is not synonymous with divorce. Instead, “putting away” is denying a wife a proper divorce if not accompanied by a bill of divorce per Deuteronomy 24:1-4. These same scholars, noting the Deuteronomy context of the question, hold that divorce is not a sin in all cases. In Matthew 19.3, the Pharisees came tempting Jesus with the technical legal debate that was then raging in rabbinical Judaism. On the one hand, a leading rabbi argued that no man may put away his wife except for adultery. On the other, another leading rabbi argued that a man may put away his wife for any cause. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus, for remember that John the Baptist had been put in prison at least in part for his public opinions on marriage and divorce. Notice in Matthew 19.3 that it is the matter of “putting away” a wife, not divorce, that is being discussed. Jesus, in verses 4-6 in his usual style, redirects the question and answers the question with a focus on marriage, not marriage-breaking. He does not even speak to the question of divorce.
The Pharisees, not to be put off, redirect the attack in verse 19.7: “They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away.” Notice now they are specifically asking about Deuteronomy 24.1 and are now including the God-legislated order of marriage-breaking with a bill of divorcement. And notice His answer in verse 19.8, “He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but it was not so from the beginning.” Jesus states that putting away of the wives in the God-legislated manner, in which the putting away was the third and final step, was given due to the abuses of the Jewish men (“because of the hardness of your hearts”). He goes on to state, however, that the practice was not given from the beginning. Why? He has already given the answer in verses 19.4-6: marriage was originally designed to be a life-long commitment prior to the Fall of Man. With this fact established, Jesus in verse 19.9 now addresses Deuteronomy’s regulation of divorce by “putting away” a wife. He states, “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” Now, Jesus states that the practice of divorce for any reason other than fornication results in both the man and the woman living in adultery should they remarry. It is important to notice that “fornication” after marriage is not the same as “adultery.” The Greek word for “fornication” is porneia and not moichatai, the precise word for adultery. Fornication, then, is a broad word for some sexual indecency besides adultery. Jesus, then, is upholding the Mosaic Law and is limiting the grounds for a God-legislated divorce to sexual indecency in opposition to the rabbis who were teaching divorce for any cause.
At Andersonville Theological Seminary, ATS students are instructed in the Gospel of Matthew verse-by-verse over a two-semester span, and issues such as divorce, the scope of the atonement, and other topics are discussed in detail. The courses at Andersonville Theological Seminary offer a challenging and rewarding environment for learning God’s word.
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About Dr. James L. Hayes
James L. Hayes is a graduate of Luther Rice College & Seminary in Lithonia, Georgia, where he earned his Doctor of Ministry degree in 2021. He is Vice President of Andersonville Theological Seminary, where he works closely with professors in developing Bible-centered courses in theology, ministry, and counseling. He has been a minister of the gospel for over twenty-five years, having served in Southwest Georgia in five churches during that span.