There are two verses in the gospel of Matthew that are used to claim that Jesus allowed divorce in case of adultery. In Matthew 5:32 Jesus says: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery.” In Matthew 19:9 He says: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
There are three ways to read this. This is the first one: ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery. But when she has committed adultery already, you don’t commit adultery when you divorce and marry someone else.’ This explanation is the most common one in Protestant churches. Several Bible scholars believe that ‘sexual immorality’ has the meaning adultery here. However, I doubt that is the best explanation of the verse.
The second way to read this verse is as follows: ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery. But it does not count as divorce when you leave an unfaithful fiancee.’ On first sight, this seems a less likely explanation of the verse. Yet I have become convinced that it is more likely the correct one for the following reasons:
- The other gospels sound much more absolute. They do not give an exception. E.g. Luke 16:18 quotes Jesus as follows: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” It is unlikely Luke (and Mark) would have left out an important exception that in fact allows divorce. So maybe we should be looking to read Matthew in such a way that it agrees with Luke.
- The text does not say that ‘adultery’ is a valid reason for divorce, but ‘sexual immorality’. This term is used for sex before marriage (e.g. John 8:41) and incest (1 Corinthians 5:1). Matthew uses both words in the same list of sins (Matthew 15:19). This suggests that ‘sexual immorality’ to Matthew is a different sin than adultery.
- Matthew has a strong reason to include the exception that Luke and Mark do not mention. In his first chapter he said that Joseph, a righteous man, wanted to divorce Mary after he thought she was pregnant by another man. This would be sexual immorality, but not adultery, as Joseph and Mary had not been married yet. Even though they were engaged, the Jewish form of engagement was so strong that breaking the engagement was considered a divorce. In this chapter Matthew therefore adds that the prohibition to divorce does not apply to this case.
The third way to read the verse is this: ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery. But it does not count as divorce when the first marriage was not valid.’ This is the way that the Roman Catholic church has read this verse. The marriage itself is ‘sexual immorality’, e.g. when it is an incestuous relationship (cf. Leviticus 18), or, according to some, when ‘marriage’ is used loosely to describe a living together relationship without it being a full marriage.
Divorce seems to be absolutely prohibited
To me it seems that the best way to interpret Jesus’ teaching is as an absolute prohibition on divorce. In marriage, husband and wife become one flesh. They become a unity joined together by God (Mark 10:8-9). Only death breaks the marriage bond in God’s eyes. Paul affirms this when he writes “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives” (1 Corinthians 7:39).
Of course, in some situations it is impossible for a married couple to stay together because of the sin of one of them. Separation (which is not divorce) can be necessary. But the most likely explanation of Jesus’ teaching implies that a divorce opening the way to a remarriage is not allowed. However, because of the large number of Bible scholars that believe Jesus made an exception divorce after adultery, it seems wise for churches to allow members to come to a different conclusion on this issue.