Matt 5:32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
So, Jesus says immorality is an acceptable (but not desirable, of course) reason for divorce, but what exactly does immorality mean?
Here are some translations of the same verse:
NIV But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
NASB but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
NLT But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
MSG Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.
BBE But I say to you that everyone who puts away his wife for any other cause but the loss of her virtue, makes her false to her husband; and whoever takes her as his wife after she is put away, is no true husband to her.
NRSV But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
NKJV “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.
So, we have here unchastity, sexual immortality, marital unfaithfulness, unfaithful, immorality. Quite a range really, but the key thought here appears to be “immorality”.
Dr Greg Bahnsen writes: “The word “fornication” in Matt 5:32 and 19:9 is not synonymous with “Adultery”; while it is inclusive of adultery, it is not restricted to adultery. The same is true of “indecent (unclean) things” in Deuteronomy 24:1; while it is inclusive of adultery, it is not restricted to Adultery.”1
Bahnsen then goes on to point out the wide range of uses these words have, from “excrement in a public place” to rape, to apostasy, to a general term for immoral behaviour.2
Bahnsen then suggests that fornication, which Jesus taught to be the sole ground for divorce, must also include desertion on the basis that Jesus and Paul can not contradict one another (1 Cor 7:15).3 Therefore we must conclude that what Jesus (and Paul) have in mind is a broader sense of what the word “fornication” means. He quotes Rousas John Rushdooney; “Thus Jesus, by making the inclusive term fornication the ground for divorce, reaffirmed the Mosaic law of Deut 24:1, in opposition to the interpretations of the day, which stressed that the wife “find no favour in his eyes”, without emphasising that this had to rest on the fact of “uncleanness” or “fornication” as the reason for the disfavour”.4
So, the general sense is that of “ritual uncleanness”. He goes on to ask, “how binding is marriage?”. Jesus answers, he says, by affirming that only in the most severe sort of situation (fornication) is sufficient to dissolve the marriage contract.5
So, what can we say about divorce then. Firstly, adultery is not the only requirement to dissolve a marriage, and conversely having commited adultery does not require a divorce. Secondly, the term “fornication” whilst having a sexual aspect to it, is not used in that sense here, it is used in a much broader sense of “uncleaniness” in a ritual sense. That is, behaviour that is unbecoming of someone who serves God. A Christian would not beat his wife, commit adultery, verbally abuse, or mistreat another person let alone their wife.
Thirdly, Jesus is not doing away with, or reinterpreting the Mosaic Law, he is in fact reasserting the correct understanding of the Law in the face of local misunderstandings and mistreatment of Scripture (to put it nicely).
Finally, divorce is never a desirable outcome. God says that he HATES divorce, and that has never changed. But Jesus points out that divorce is a “necessary evil” because human beings are fallen, broken things, and it would be unjust, unkind, and unloving to force this on people in dire circumstance.
1Theonomy in Christian Ethics: G L Bahnsen, pg 105-106.
2Theonomy in Christian Ethics: G L Bahnsen, pg 108
3Theonomy in Christian Ethics: G L Bahnsen, pg 108-109
4Theonomy in Christian Ethics: G L Bahnsen, pg 109