By way of reminder, this blog is not so much about divorce as it is about divorce for the believer who is unequally yoked with an unbeliever.
When discussing the topic of divorce certainly the words of our Lord Jesus should be of great interest to everybody. One text in particular is used by those who hold to the Permanence View (no divorce for any reason). In Matthew 19:3-9 Jesus is asked by the Pharisees whether or not it is lawful for a man “to send away (divorce) his wife for any reason at all”. Israel’s spiritual guides were every bit as blind as their predecessors in the days of the prophet Malachi when the priests were putting out their equally yoked wives and taking for themselves wives from among the gentile nations. At about that time Ezra and Nehemiah were resolving such wickedness through mass divorces from the unequally yoked woman that the men of Israel had taken as wives.
Nevertheless, the shameless Pharisees had the nerve to test Jesus on this same subject. In short, Jesus’ answer was that marriage takes one man and one woman and the two become “one flesh…What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” Then they wanted to know why Moses allowed for a certificate of divorce, and Jesus said it was because of man’s hardness of heart, “but from the beginning it has not been this way.”
With such stark words it is not difficult to see why those who believe that divorce is always a sin hold such a view. But Jesus is not finished speaking, (Vs. 9) “And I say to you, ‘whoever sends away his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery'”.
Now we can see how important it is that people making the decision to get married take it very seriously as the marital relationship is indeed intended to be until the death of one of the two parties. Nevertheless, our Lord provides two very significant exceptions to this overarching rule. The second exception is pretty obvious to most people although (and this is unfortunate) many who hold to the permanence view even reject the immorality exception.
We Shall Begin With the Second Exception–Porneia
Jesus made it pretty clear that porneia (Gk) or immorality was a justifiable cause for divorce and thus an exception to the “until death parts” rule. The reason for such an exception is that the very act of sexually joining oneself to a third party fractures the marital bond. The marriage relationship has been so tragically altered that the marriage has actually been ruined/destroyed/broken by the immoral act(s). The two individuals that had become one flesh have had their union fractured or destroyed by the introduction of a third person.
The marriage covenant is built upon a promise to one another to uphold the conditions of the marriage covenant until death ends the marriage. When immorality is committed the guilty partner has broken his/her promise to uphold the conditions of the marriage covenant. Jesus is telling us that in this event the marriage covenant has been broken, and the innocent party is no longer bound by the marital covenant.
The Bottom Line: Treachery
Here is the bottom line when it comes to God sanctioned marital divorce. When a spouse commits treachery within the marriage the innocent party to the marriage is not only allowed but encouraged, even obligated, to divorce their treacherous spouse.
How does a husband or wife commit marital treachery? It falls into the category of “You know it when you see it”, but the following list is a guide:
- By demonstrating oneself to be outside of the family of faith (unequally yoked)
- By having sexual relations outside the marital relationship (adultery)
- By habitually denying the privileges of the marital bed
- By abandonment
- By endangerment (attempted murder and real physical harm at minimum)
Jesus’ First Exception in Matthew 19 that Makes Divorce Legal
Having briefly noted porneia as Jesus’ “exception clause” in the immediate context we can now consider the first exception which interrupts the blessing of lifelong marital union. It is in my opinion a far superior, but a less obvious (to our utter shame) exception to God’s intentions that marriage was intended to be a life-long covenant of love between a husband and his wife. It is also seen in Jesus’ teaching in the 19th chapter of Matthew, but it is not in the immediate context of his reply to the Pharisees.
This exception is so ubiquitous in scripture that it is even the first command in the scriptures found in Genesis 1:4 “God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” In this instance, God’s command is an implied command for man to follow after God’s example and separate light from darkness, and it is often repeated in Scripture as a direct command. Leviticus 20:26 says, “Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.” Also Deuteronomy 7:1-4 “…You shall not intermarry with them…”; 13:6-11 “…The wife you cherish…”.
This sin of marrying unbelievers is also called “the matter of Peor” in Numbers 31:16 referring back to Numbers 25 where we read about the Israelites joining themselves with the daughters of Moab, which caused the Israelites to bow down to their gods and join themselves to Baal-peor making God fiercely angry with them. Phinehas in his anger and jealousy for the Lord’s holiness took a spear and drove it through and Israelite and his Midianite woman (wife), and God was pleased with Phinehas. Then God said, “Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them; for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor…”
God frequently commands His children to refrain from marrying foreigners. By foreigners God does not mean people from other lands, different races or different cultures but rather God is referring to people who fail to submit themselves to him. God’s people are not to be bound together with unbelievers in marriage (2 Corinthians 6:14).
Today being unequally yoked to unbelievers is almost viewed as an inconsequential condition. Nothing could be further from the truth. The greatest treachery a spouse could commit is being unrepentant and unfaithful to God. God does not want His children to be bound together or unequally yoked to unbelievers because bad company corrupts good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33). In fact, such relationships to unbelievers always leads to idolatry, which is spiritual adultery.
Marriage is first a creation ordinance, which means it applies to all people. However, as with everything else marriage is to be viewed through a different lens for the followers of Christ Jesus. Jesus teaches about marriage and divorce from the Old Testament foundation that marriage, for the people of God, is a family of faith institution. When Jesus says that marriage makes the two become one flesh it is assumed that God’s children would not enter into marriage with an unbeliever. So then, whenever a believer comes to the realization that they are joined in marriage to an unbeliever, then at that time they are to separate the light from the darkness, which means in the context of marriage they must get a divorce.
Not only are these many Old Testament passages the context in which Jesus is teaching, not only is this the assumption that God’s word always has when teaching on marriage and divorce, but Jesus teaches the principle of this exception in Matthew 19:29, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.” Most modern translations of God’s word have removed the word “wife” from this text perhaps demonstrating a bias on the part of the interpreters (Although “wife” has not been removed from Luke’s version of the same teaching found in Luke 18:29).
I discovered the inclusion of “wife” in this text when I was reading Jonathan Edwards’ lectures compiled into the book titled Charity and Its Fruits, which all who love God should read. Edwards quotes this verse in lecture XII, and the translation he used still contained the word “wife”. You will also find a note in the column of the NASB Side-Column Reference Edition Copyright 1996 by The Lockman Foundation referring to wife being in at least one early manuscript.
In conclusion, verse 29 indicates that to leave a family member in order to follow and serve Jesus would be worthy of praise and not condemnation…that such would inherit eternal life–not on the basis of works, but because they clearly demonstrate a love for Christ. The spousal relationship was included in the ancient text, so we understand that God means it when He says, “Do not intermarry with foreigners” (OT) and “Do not be unequally yoked to unbelievers” (NT).