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Matthew’s ‘Get Out of Marriage Free’ Card

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says no divorce 'except for unchastity'...but that still means no divorce

The Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble. Thus, the Catechism teaches that while spouses are living, a new marital union “cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was” (1650). Those who attempt civil remarriage after divorce, therefore, “find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law.” The Church bases this teaching on Jesus’ words in Mark 10:11-12: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Many Protestants critique this teaching for not taking into consideration what Jesus says in Matthew 19:9: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery.” Since Jesus inserts the clause “except for unchastity,” it’s argued, a man who divorced his wife and married another wouldn’t be committing adultery if his wife were guilty of infidelity.

Is the Catholic Church contradicting Jesus? It seems the Church is telling divorced people they can’t remarry when Jesus says they can.

In my book Meeting the Protestant Challenge, I give several strategies that we can use to defend the Church’s position.

One is to point out that porneia—the Greek word for unchastity in this verse—isn’t part of the group of words Matthew uses for adultery in his Gospel.

Porneia, translated as “unchastity” or sometimes “fornication” or “sexual immorality,” is different from the Greek word for adultery (moichaō). In its broadest sense, porneia means unlawful sexual intercourse, so it can include adultery, but Matthew never uses the word that way in his Gospel. Instead, he uses moichaō and related words. For example, in the same verse of the porneia clause, Matthew uses moichaō twice to refer specifically to adultery: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery [Gk. moichatai]; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery [Gk. moichatai].” In 5:27, Matthew uses moicheuō to refer to the literal act of adultery, in 5:28 to broaden the concept of adultery to include lust, and in 5:32 in reference to the husband making his wife an “adulteress” by divorcing her.

If Matthew thought Jesus was talking about adultery providing an exception to his teaching on divorce, why didn’t he use the word he always used for adultery? As Bible scholar John P. Meier argues, “If Matthew wishes to name adultery as a reason for divorce, he would be almost forced to employ some form of moicheia [noun] to express the concept.”

Since Matthew doesn’t use any form of the Greek word that he commonly uses for adultery, it’s reasonable to conclude that Matthew doesn’t think Jesus was referring to spousal infidelity when he spoke of “unchastity.”

A second strategy focuses on the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ teaching: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry” (Matt. 19:10).

At the time of Jesus, there were two rabbinic schools of thought as to what constituted legitimate grounds for divorce. The Hillel school, which followed the Jewish leader Hillel, believed that practically anything could be grounds for divorce. It could be something as simple as burnt food or a prettier woman. The school of Shammai, on the other hand, believed that only sexual immorality was cause for divorce.

Given this background, the disciples’ reaction that it would be better not to marry would be unintelligible if Jesus were allowing for divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery or sexual immorality. The disciples already were accustomed to divorce and remarriage, as the Hillel and Shammai schools attest. Their strong reaction suggests that they understood Jesus to be giving a new and different teaching.

For our third strategy, we can point to how Jesus’ teaching stands alone amid the thought of the age. His teaching about divorce and remarriage in verse 9 is part of his response to a question posed by the Pharisees: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (v. 3). Notice the phrase “for any cause.” It seems the Pharisees were testing Jesus to see which school of thought he would side with: Hillel or Shammai.

But Jesus’ response indicates that he sides with neither. He appeals to God’s original design for marriage and says, “What therefore God had joined together, let not man put asunder” (vv. 4-6; see also Gen. 2:24). In other words, it’s not that Moses allowed divorce for any cause, but “from the beginning” (v.8) it was only adultery-justified divorce. Rather, from the beginning there was no divorce: “it [divorce] was not so” (v.8). This proves that he sides with neither the Hillel nor the Shammai view on divorce and remarriage.

This context excludes the interpretation that porneia refers to adultery; in fact, it excludes reference to sexual immorality of any manner within marriage. For if Jesus intended the porneia clause to refer to any of these alternative interpretations, he would have been siding with either the Hillel or Shammai school. Instead, he gave a more radical teaching: that marriage is indissoluble. Therefore, we must conclude that Jesus didn’t intend the porneia clause to refer to sexual immorality within the context of the marriage bond, whether adultery or some other kind of immoral conduct.

Jesus underscores his radical view by saying no man can marry a divorced woman without committing adultery: “He who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery” (v.9; see also Matt. 5:32). This implies that no deed for which the woman is divorced, including adultery, renders her free to marry another man.

One last strategy: There are good reasons to think porneia instead refers to forms of sexual immorality that took place before or at the time of the attempted union, rendering it unlawful (invalid).

The Jews understood that certain sexual relationships rendered a union unlawful, meaning null and void—such as relationships of close consanguinity and affinity (Lev. 18:1-20). Only the Jewish community would know about the Levitical law concerning unlawful unions, and thus only the Jewish community would raise the question about whether these unions are an exception to Jesus’ teaching against divorce and remarriage. And Matthew, who is writing to a Jewish audience, is the only Gospel that records this exception clause.

As for porneia, the word is used twenty-five times in the New Testament. For only two of these do scholars even suggest it’s used for adultery: the passages that include the debated porneia clause concerning divorce and remarriage (Matt. 5:32, 19:9). Every other time, porneia refers to some sort of sexual immorality outside the lawful bounds of marriage: fornication (Matt. 15:19; Mark 7:21; John 8:41; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; Rev. 17:2, 17:4, 19:2), incest (Acts 15:20,29, 21:25; 1 Cor. 5:1;), general sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:13,18, 7:2; 2 Cor. 12:21; 1 Thess. 4:3; Rev. 2:21, 9:21), and metaphorical impure passions (Rev. 14:8, 18:3).

Since we know from above that porneia can’t refer to adultery in Matthew 19:9, and every time porneia is used in the New Testament, it refers to sexual immorality outside the boundaries of the marital bond, it’s likely that the “porneia exception” in Matthew refers to sexual immorality that took place before and at the time of the attempted union, invalidating it.

We can support this interpretation by considering two things. First, it adequately explains why in these cases a man who “puts away his wife” and marries another doesn’t commit adultery. If he was never in a lawful union to begin with, he would be free to marry. This is the basis for Catholic teaching on annulments: allowing marriage for civilly divorced persons whose first “marriage” was judged not to have been valid.

Matthew’s intention in including the porneia exception is to clarify for his Jewish audience that Jesus was concerned with lawful marriages. His prohibition of divorce didn’t apply to those unions contracted before Christian baptism because they weren’t lawful to begin with. You can’t divorce if you were never married!

The great irony here is that rather than the Catholic Church telling people they can’t remarry when Jesus says they can, the view that the challenge implies tells people they can remarry when Jesus says they can’t. It’s not the Catholic Church that’s contradicting Jesus’ teaching. It’s the view that spousal infidelity dissolves a valid marital bond and gives grounds to divorce and remarry.

Unlike the many Christian groups that have caved to the pressures of modern society, the Catholic Church’s doctrines remain faithful to Jesus’ teaching on marriage, echoing Christ’s words: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

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