Some Christians believe divorce is only permitted in the case of adultery, and that remarriage is a sin because of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:
It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)
This seems a harsh interpretation given the context directly before, which states that lustful thoughts count as adultery.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
Some historical context is helpful. In ancient times (and, frankly, recent and present times), a women was unable to get a divorce. Only husbands had rights. So this passage is not speaking to wives, it is speaking to husbands, the people with power. They could legally divorce their wives for any reason, such as finding someone new or having an argument. This was really hard on the wife. She may have no family or community support networks after her marriage ended.
I think Jesus is valuing women here. He says, stop throwing away your wives like trash! Don’t pass her around from husband to husband like an object, or leave her alone and without family. If you get a divorce, it had better be for a good reason, not just because you don’t like her cooking. Adultery is a good example, however I don’t see that it should be the only reason.
Adultery was a serious double standard at this time. Wives were expected to be faithful and husbands were not. This is another reason why this set of scriptures is targeted primarily toward men. Jesus expects a higher standard of behavior men them than their society expects.
Therefore, I do not think this passage applies to the situation of an abused wife. But because it is a strongly-held belief that divorce is only permitted by adultery, I am also interested in looking deeper into the definition of adultery.
The third chapter of Jeremiah is useful (though a difficult and shaming read). Adultery and prostitution are used as the metaphors by which the prophet Jeremiah describes the unfaithfulness of God’s people, Israel.
…Look up to the barren heights and see. Is there any place where you [Israel] have not been ravished? By the roadside you sat waiting for lovers, sat like a nomad in the desert. You have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness. …you have the brazen look of a prostitute; you refuse to blush with shame…. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood… (Jeremiah 3:2-3,9)
Idolatry and adultery overlap. The people “cheated” on God with other gods.
Note how bad these false gods were. God wasn’t just possessive and needy. These religions were actually hurtful to the people practicing them, temple prostitution, child sacrifice, etc. These are not gods that loved and cared for people. They are capricious gods who demand sacrifices to eke out good crops and fertility.
Cheating on God wasn’t about sex. It was about unfaithfulness to the one good Father who wanted to give good gifts.
So, can adultery have more than one meaning? Perhaps an abusive husband has not been sexually unfaithful to his wife, but a man who hurts, deceives, and manipulates his wife has not been faithful to her. He has committed adultery.
A husband may claim to be a follower of God, but Jesus warns against liars and deceivers.
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-17)
What is the fruit of this man? Abuse, prison, lies, rebellion, rape, drug and alcohol abuse, deceit, manipulation, homelessness, law-breaking, children taken away. He is not listening to God. He is not following God.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
Words alone are meaningless without the fruits of the Spirit.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:19-23)
It may sound holy to stay bound to an unfaithful husband. But this can also be a form of idolatry.
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” And, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18)
Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared. (Psalm 22:24-25)
Don’t make an idol out of your marriage or family.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)
This is not what God wants for you! God wants good for you, not bad.
It’s hard to let someone go when Jesus is so forgiving and loving. Yet cutting ties can be a form of brotherly love.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:1-5)
I don’t normally agree with kicking people out of church, but this sounds like a rape and abuse situation to me. It can’t be tolerated. People are being harmed. The woman in this story has value. God cares about her. Perhaps the wicked man will come to repent at some point in the future, but it’s not the community’s job to “save” an abuser. It’s necessary to care for the victims and prevent future harm.
It’s okay to forgive an abuser as part of the healing process, but it’s not okay to let the abuser back in your life. The Lord’s Prayer speaks of forgiveness in terms of letting go of a debt.
This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:9-13)
An abusive husband has run up a terrible debt, as long list of hurts and sins. He will never be able to repay it. He can never make up for the wrong that has been done.
You can forgive the debt. Let go. It’s not worth holding onto. (It just keeps you tied to that person.) But it’s also time to cut off the line of credit. Don’t trust an abuser not to take advantage of his 23rd chance. God’s will is not being done when an abuser is allowed to hurt you. God’s kingdom is not on earth when an abuser has power over the weak.
Yes, there are passages in the Bible that call for obedience, submission, forbearance and patience. Good discernment is needed for applying these to personal situations. Some people misuse the Bible to hurt others, asking them to keep carrying a burden instead of giving it to Jesus. Matthew 5 has good guidance, but it can be misused. It is okay to let go of a bad interpretation of scripture when you can see that it is causing harm and bearing bad fruit. Taking one verse and applying it to every situation is a way to avoid listening to God. Reading the Bible must be paired with prayerfully considering decisions and seeking wise counsel.
The Bible has many stories of people who broke “the rules” and were honored by God. Abigail was disobedient to her wicked husband 1 Samuel 25.
“Now think it over and see what you can do, because disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household. [Your husband] is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.”
Abigail acted quickly. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. Then she told her servants, “Go on ahead; I’ll follow you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. (1 Samuel 25:17-19).
You can let go of a bad decision you made in your youth. God wants to give you freedom from a bad relationship, not to burden you.
They [the Pharisees] tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)
The gospel message is not a message of obligation and punishment; it is a message of freedom and forgiveness. Look at Galatians 5 again:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:1, 4-6, 13-14, 22-23)