Jesus on Marriage and Divorce (2): Divorce for Immorality?

by Jim Oesterwind

There is a digital fantasyland called Second Life where people live virtual lives because they have become disengaged from the real world. One woman’s husband in the real world asked another woman to become his wife in the virtual world. Imagine the devastation that causes. The ‘virtually abandoned’ wife said that her husband’s other life had become better than real life. Nobody gets fat or gray. Who can compete with that?

Divorce takes a devastating toll upon children and the financial security of the family. It also leaves men and women bitterly disillusioned about marriage. Young adults even avoid marriage because of fears of divorce. And yet all of this misses the point. Moses wrote the precept in Deuteronomy 24 because of the hardness of the hearts of men. Jesus said, “From the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (Mark 10:6–9)

The real problem with divorce is the fact that man is seeking to separate what God has joined together. People in Jesus’ day were manipulating the mercy of God because of the hardness of their hearts. God gave the Deuteronomy passage for exactly that reason. One must find sad irony in that. Jesus emphasizes the original intent for marriage as recorded in the opening passages in Genesis. When He does this, we realize that marriage is not man’s idea but God’s. Therefore, man does not define it but God does.

Marriage goes back to Adam and Eve and the beginning of creation. When sin entered, marriage as an institution of God and a reflection of His glory and fidelity became corrupted. Genesis 3 tells the story of the curse that resulted from man’s fall into sin and rebellion. Wives now have the desire to control, dominate, and manipulate their husbands. Husbands dominate and subjugate their wives instead of tenderly leading and loving them. This is certainly not God’s intent for marriage but the outworking of our evil hearts.

Jesus said that God made them male and female. Foundationally, husbands and wives are different. There is a male and a female in a marriage because that is the way God created it to be. This means that man’s perversions of polygamy, homosexuality, virtual world marriages, or whatever other evil imaginations that enters the hearts of men all work contrary to God’s purpose in marriage. Men and women are different because God wants the one to complete the other.

As an aside, notice that Jesus considered the opening chapters of Genesis to be read and understood as literal and historic. The erosion of a literal hermeneutic (especially when it comes to Genesis) has opened all kinds of avenues for explaining away the words of God.

Jesus teaches that since a man and a woman are the way God created them, they are to leave their parents, join as one man to one woman for life, and reflect the love of God. They are to become one flesh. They are joined in the sense of becoming part of one another. Of course the implication is that should you sever the one-flesh relationship with divorce, you will not only lose your spouse but part of yourself. Expect devastation. Married couples are no longer two but fused into one. As such, they must remain together.

Jesus concludes, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” The principle stated is that since God created marriage by joining together a man and a woman, man should not attempt to disrupt that union either from within or without. The Gospel of Mark fortifies the position of permanency when it comes to marriage. But what about two passages outside of Mark that seem to allow for an exception? Do these passages reveal a contradiction in Jesus’ teaching? Would God allow divorce to occur even though He hates it? Is divorce permissible in the case of sexual immorality or desertion? If so, is the person who did remain faithful in the marriage free to remarry? We begin by considering Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew:

But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Matthew 5:32)

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. (Matthew 19:9)

Many believers differ when it comes to their understanding of these passages. There is no disagreement when it comes to the fact that God hates divorce. Even if there is sexual immorality and adultery taking place in a marriage, God delights when a man and a woman decide to forsake their sin and put the marriage back together. The prophecy of Hosea in the Old Testament witnesses to this. Therefore, why does Jesus’ teaching in Matthew allow for divorce in the case of fornication (sexual immorality)?

The Lord Jesus realizes our fallen condition. He also realizes that people live in a world where they may be severely abused. There are times when forgiveness will not lead to restoration of human relationships. I believe that when these times occur, a divorce is tolerated by God. I also realize that there is strong sentiment against my understanding of Jesus’ teaching. But if you don’t believe an exception is taught in Matthew, then are you not in danger of violating clear teaching from our Lord? While you may desire to hold onto a strong position of no divorce for any reason for the purpose of eliminating any assault on the sanctity of marriage, at the same time you may not violate the clear teaching of Scripture.

The struggle is that Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18 do not provide exception clauses. Both are strong, unqualified passages. Some explain the exception in Matthew as pertaining to unfaithfulness in the betrothal (engagement) period. But the most natural understanding of the Matthew passage is that it parallels Mark and Luke. Therefore, I believe that Matthew simply gives the most comprehensive and complementary understanding of Jesus’ views on marriage and divorce.

Some believe that Jesus gives the exception for the purpose of divorce but remarriage would not be permitted. However, the purpose of a divorce in Jesus’ day was for the express purpose of remarrying. I believe if the divorce is tolerated by God, then the person that is victimized by an immoral spouse is afforded the opportunity to remarry. That is, I wonder why one would divorce if they could just remain permanently separated.

Why don’t Mark and Luke provide exception clauses? My understanding is that they desired to communicate God’s ideal when it comes to marriage. Believers certainly agree that divorce is always a result of man’s sin. The dissolution of a marriage, even on the grounds of unfaithfulness, will always mean devastation and moral failure.

The disciples of Jesus asked Him about this teaching in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus said to them, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.” (Mark 10:10–12) Matthew adds that Jesus disciples responded, “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.” (Matthew 19:10) Jesus says in Luke: “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery. (Luke 16:18)

The disciples and Jesus are alone in a house. The disciples question Jesus, and He spells things out very clearly for them. They are shocked at His very narrow view and conclude that it is best not to marry. Jesus uses the indefinite pronoun whosoever in these passages. That is, people often get divorces to remarry another person. Jesus is teaching that if you do that, then you are committing adultery against your former spouse. The person who marries you is also committing adultery. You may feel the tension here and wonder about the absence of the exception clause. Remember, Jesus is communicating God’s perfect will to the disciples. He doesn’t bring the exception clause into play.

Our final installment on this subject will examine additional texts which pertain to this teaching. How is it that God could hate divorce and divorce His own people? Is there a second exception clause in 1 Corinthians 7? These are questions we will explore in the conclusion of this series.

Jim Oesterwind is the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Antioch, CA. He blogs at