Marriage and Divorce


It seems to me that most Christians have chosen to ignore Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage. I realize that the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage is not crystal clear, and that even conservative Christians hold to a number of different interpretations of the Biblical teaching. That said, I think it’s abundantly clear that Jesus only permitted divorce and remarriage in a very narrow set of circumstances.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Mt 19:3-10, ESV)

It’s pretty clear that Jesus opposed no-fault divorce, which is tantamount to our modern “irreconcilable differences.” Jesus only provided one justification for divorce, and it has to do with some kind of sexual sin (opinions differ as to what constitutes this sin). Unfortunately, I would venture to say that most confessing Christians get a divorce for irreconcilable differences as opposed to sexual sin.

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If you think “God just wants me to be happy,” you are going to be very disappointed in your Christian life, and inclined toward sin and doubt. False expectations never end well.

The notion that God just wants us to be happy has led many believers to question God’s existence when some evil befalls them or their life is not working out the way they wanted. It has led others to disobey God’s Word, reasoning that God can’t possibly require them to do X since X does not bring them happiness. I see this all the time when it comes to matters of sexuality and divorce/remarriage.

This isn’t to say God wants us to be sad, but merely that God’s purpose for our lives is not our personal happiness per se. His purpose is that we live our lives for His purpose and that our character be conformed to His image. He is primarily interested in our obedience, our dedication, and our faithfulness – not our happiness. While obedience often leads to happiness, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it leads to loss, sorrow, and personal difficulty.

No, God does not want you to be happy. He wants you to obey Him. He wants you to take up our cross and follow Him. Doing so will always bring ultimate fulfillment, but not always ultimate happiness.

porneiaDavid Janzen wrote an article in 2001 that was published in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament on the meaning of porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.[1] In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, Jesus only allows for divorce in cases of porneia.  But what does this refer to?  It’s usually translated as “adultery,” but the Greek word for adultery is moicheiaPorneia has a wider semantic rate, referring to a range of sexual sins.  It can be used of adultery, incest, pre-marital sex, etc.

Janzen argues that Jesus’ use of porneia is best understood from the cultural context.  In Jesus’ day, some argued that divorce could be obtained for any reason, while others argued that one must have just cause.  All agreed, however, that the husband only had to return the wife’s dowry to her if had just cause for divorcing her.  Jesus sided with those who taught that the only justification for divorce was a just cause.  He identified that cause as porneia.  What does porneia refer to?  Is he referring to a wide range of sexual sins?  Janzen argues that the cultural context makes it likely that porneia refers specifically to something akin to adultery.  Why didn’t Matthew use moicheia, then?  The most likely explanation is that Jesus did was not limiting the exception to sex with another person during the marriage (adultery), but was also including sex with another person during the betrothal period (which, in Jesus’ day, was as legally binding as marriage).

Check out the article: Porneia in Mt 5_32 and 19_9–Janzen

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[1]David Janzen, “The Meaning of Porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9: An Approach From the Study of Ancient Near Eastern Culture,” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 2001; 23; 66; available from http://jnt.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/23/80/66.