Jesus said, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife is to provide her with a divorce certificate.’ But I am telling you that everyone who divorces his wife – except on the grounds of sexual immorality – causes her to commit adultery, and anyone who marries a woman who has been divorced, commits adultery.”
— Matthew 5:31-32 (USC)
Marital unfaithfulness is the sole justification for a man or woman to divorce his wife or her husband.
Whenever we look up terms like “adultery” the meanings sometimes somewhat disappoint. It seems the heart of what Jesus was getting to was beyond that of mere physically sexual relations. As Jesus has mentioned already in verses 27-28, it’s not about the actual act; it’s about the heart behind the act.
When we are engaging in secret liaisons of the mind we are just as guilty as we would be if we engaged in the physical act. Conjuring the theft of an item is as bad as stealing it. If we construct in our minds the ‘theft’ of a woman (who is not our wife) – by our impure thoughts – we have stolen her, and we have stolen something also from our wife (that part of us – our whole – that we have given her). She neither gave permission nor did our wife have any idea what was going on. Further, and principally, we have sinned against the Lord – those given in marriage are given to us – united to us – by the Lord. And these are just the obvious threads of sin, for what starts out in secret – a big huge lie – can only compound itself and snowball as it rolls down the hill to the part-destruction of many innocent lives in our circle of influence. It is never God’s will to enter into relational catastrophe of our own choosing or making.
It seems that Jesus is saying that a man must not initiate a divorce unless there is marital unfaithfulness. So if a wife breaks the marital bond, and she insists the bond remain broken, the man has the choice of divorce, for divorce has already – of a spiritual sense – occurred. The same would apply for a woman if her husband insisted their marriage bond remain broken.
Marital unfaithfulness is linked to sexual immorality, and it enhances the meaning by broadening it. It is not just sexual immorality that qualifies as marital unfaithfulness.
If we accept that the marital union is one that is ‘consummated’ (sexually, through intercourse), then we can imagine that the ceasing of such relations, with the intent of ending such intimacy with finality, is sufficient reason to divorce, given that the marital union of oneness (“two shall become one”) has been, and will remain, broken. This is not about a fractured or tenuous sexuality between a couple; for many, many marriages struggle sexually.
But, there are a great many limiting factors. For instance, some marriages never ascend to the heights of sexual unity. Other marriages become devoid of sexual relations. Sex is not really the issue.
If there is a heart in one spouse that says, “We are over,” then the other spouse has had a choice made for them. The spouse who has said, “We are over,” has declared the marital bond broken, with no correspondence to be entered into.
Marital unfaithfulness, then, is beyond adultery, because unfaithfulness is broader than simply sexual immorality.
Yet, if the sexual relationship is symbolic of the union between husband and wife, we could say that anything that interrupts that union – i.e. without the knowledge of both, and involving no other parties – is marital unfaithfulness.
The sexual bond in marriage is sacredly symbolic of the unified oneness in Christ that the couple shares – one with each other and one together with him.
QUESTIONS in REVIEW:
1. On such a prickly subject there are some things we are bound to disagree on. How has God informed your thoughts regarding marriage, marital unfaithfulness, sexual immorality and divorce?
2. Issues of justice, fairness, and equality are important – under Christ. What stipulations need to be made in ensuring there is gender equality and fairness regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage?
© 2015 S. J. Wickham.
Note: USC version is Under the Southern Cross, The New Testament in Australian English (2014). This translation was painstakingly developed by Dr. Richard Moore, a NT Greek scholar, over nearly thirty years.