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Jesus said, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).
Some Pharisees came to Jesus to test Him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:3-9).
Jesus did not recognize the validity of divorce and remarriage “for every cause” as was given to Israel by Moses “because [their] hearts were hard.” But Jesus did leave one exception — “except for marital unfaithfulness.” One whose spouse is unfaithful may divorce and remarry, for the unfaithfulness has destroyed the marriage sanctity.
This exception in Jesus’ final statement in this passage shows that divorce (and remarriage after divorce) by the innocent spouse are allowed under the circumstances of marital infidelity. Simply putting away one’s wife in no way can be construed as committing adultery. It is the putting away and remarrying that becomes adultery — unless the cause of the divorce was adultery already committed by the spouse being put away. In this latter case — that is, divorcing one’s spouse for that person’s adultery — the one-flesh relationship has been tragically violated, and the marriage bond is dissolved in this specific instance of biblical divorce. And the innocent one is permitted (although certainly not obligated) to enter into another marriage.
Let’s look at more references:
“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:10-14).
The Christian is not allowed to depart from a spouse for any reason other than sexual unfaithfulness, as was shown earlier. And the word to those Christians who have already divorced without biblical cause is to “remain unmarried or else be reconciled.” However, Paul adds: “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15).
This is called by some “the Pauline privilege.” Jesus earlier gave one exception to the prevailing indissolubility of marriage. That exception was for infidelity. Here Paul gives a second exception — if a saved man or woman has an unsaved spouse who leaves the Christian. What Paul is declaring is this: A Christian brother or sister is “not under bondage” when the unbeliever divorces the believer and refuses all attempts of reconciliation.
To summarize: here are the two biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage:
- Marital infidelity (sexual unfaithfulness) by the spouse. The innocent party may divorce and remarry.
- A Christian’s unbelieving mate departs from the Christian. The divorced Christian is free to remarry.
In His service,
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