“Heirs with you of the grace of life.” This lovely description of harmonious marriage in 1 Peter 3:7 has been true to the experience of countless Christian people. Their marriages, undertaken in the fear of the Lord and guided by Christian principle, have illustrated the wisdom of God in ordaining the life-long commitment of man and wife to one another. The wife’s subjection to her husband is complemented by his selfless love for her (Col.3:18-19). Their whole relationship reflects the glorious ideal of the subjection of the Church to Christ, and His matchless love for the Church (Eph.5:22-33).

To all who enjoy the blessings of such experience in marriage the teaching of the Lord and the apostles seems so right, so fundamental. The life-long permanence of marriage gives the relationship a basic security on which all else is built. Nor can there be any question about the consistency of Mosaic provision for divorce, the Lord Jesus took the Pharisees back to the original divine institution of marriage: “He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 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’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt.19:4-6). Such apostolic exhortations as Ephesians 5:31-33 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-16,38-40 support these verses.

Sadly, even marriages between disciples of Christ sometimes break down. How sensitive all married partners should be to anything which might spoil the harmony of their relationship! “Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards”, said the bride in Song of Songs 2:15. Apparently trivial beginnings can lead to serious discord. Neglect of prayer and Scripture reading together may soon undermine spiritual values and blunt our sense of responsibility to the Lord in this area of our Christian life, until gradually the underlying strains lead to open alienation. Or a spouse may yield to moral unfaithfulness, with all its sad and evil effects: trust betrayed, pledges broken, a conscience defiled before God, a loving relationship grievously impaired. What more fruitful cause of marital strain and unhappiness? In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul discusses the strains imposed within marriage when one partner is reached with the gospel and the other remains an unbeliever.

Understandably, an entirely new outlook and way of life in the experience of the converted partner may deeply affect the relationship.

So through human weakness and sin, or through changing circumstances, Christian marriage may be put severely to the test. Strains can become so intense that disciples of the Lord Jesus come under pressure to end their marriage by divorce, now so easily available under the civil laws of many countries. Or a Christian disciple may be deserted by an unfaithful spouse who takes divorce proceedings and remarries. In such distressing situations what counsel is there from the Lord? Would He wish His disciple to divorce a partner when strains had made the marriage deeply stressful? Would He permit His follower to remarry if deserted and divorced by an unfaithful partner?

Pharisees were testing the Lord when they asked Him, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matt.19:3). The question reflected a division of opinion among Jewish rabbis of that day. One view was that divorce was permissible only when a woman had been guilty of adultery; the other was that she might be divorced for relatively trivial reasons, “for any cause”. The Lord Jesus firmly referred to the original ordinance of marriage (verses 4,5) and emphasized its permanence (verse 6). Then His questioners pressed the point that Moses had commanded to give a bill of divorcement, and to put a woman away (see Deut.24:14). The Lord replied in Matthew 19:8, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Then followed His notable declaration: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (verse 9).

From this discussion with the Pharisees it clearly emerges that the Lord Jesus condemned divorce “for any cause”. Indeed, He stated with divine authority that divorce and remarriage should be viewed in the light of what obtained “in the beginning”, that is, when God first ordained marriage. Against that divine standard all who remarried after divorce committed adultery, except when the putting away was “for fornication”. We shall give further thought to this exception later, but at this point let us note another occasion when the Lord Jesus spoke in similar terms (Matt.5:31-32). He referred to the Mosaic provision for a “writing of divorcement”, but re-stated the original standard, and precluded divorce “saving for the cause of fornication”.

On yet a third occasion He is recorded in Matthew 19:9 as saying: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” So we have this “threefold cord” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) in the gospels, statements by the Lord on three separate occasions, each confirming His condemnation of divorce. How seriously we should regard this weighty fact! To us as His disciples His word should be final – no divorce or remarriage during the lifetime of one’s spouse, “except for fornication”. The disciple should not therefore entertain the idea of divorce on such grounds as incompatibility, cruelty, desertion or the like. In some circumstances separation may become inevitable, but in that event the principle of 1 Corinthians 7:11 would apply: “… but if she does [separate], she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband”.

It has already been noted that both in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 the Lord Jesus introduced an exception to His otherwise sweeping denunciation of divorce. Does this exception mean that a Christian may divorce a spouse on the ground of adultery? May a disciple of Christ remarry with a good conscience if divorce has been obtained on that ground? Many evangelical believers have understood the Lord’s words in this sense. It has been commonly taught that divorce should be a last resort, that Christian forgiveness should be urged where there has been unfaithfulness within wedlock. But failing repentance and reconciliation the injured spouse may, if desired, take divorce proceedings and remarry.

However sincerely this view may have been held, we are bound seriously to question that the Lord intended to give permission for His disciples to divorce a spouse who had been guilty of adultery, far less to endorse remarriage after divorce. For if that had been His intention one would have expected His statements in Mark 10:12 and Luke 16:18 also to include the exceptive clause. It would seem rather that Mark and Luke were guided by the Spirit to record the Lord’s teaching about divorce unconditionally with Gentile disciples primarily in view.

Matthew’s gospel is written particularly from a Jewish standpoint, and so Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 include the Lord’s reference to Jewish betrothal law. This provided for the putting away of a betrothed woman if she was found to have been unfaithful during the betrothal period, as illustrated in Matthew 1:18-20. For this reason the Lord said “except for fornication”, rather than “except for adultery”.

It should be carefully noted that the Lord is not recorded as using the term correctly translated as “fornication” in the Revised Version. (Greek: ‘porneia’) in a general sense for all illicit sexual intercourse. Rather He distinguished between the two, as in Matthew 15:19 and Mark 7:21,22. In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 He was using both words in the same context and must therefore deliberately have chosen to distinguish between them. These points are clear from the Authorised and Revised versions of our English Bible, but have been unfortunately obscured in several more recent versions. For example, why should the RSV translate the same Greek word (porneia) as “fornication” in Matthew 15:19, but as “unchastity” in Matt. 19:9? Or the NIV have “sexual immorality” in Matthew 15:19 and “marital unfaithfulness” in Matthew 19:9? Or the ESV have “sexual immorality” in both references?

The foregoing explanation of the exceptive clauses does seem to clarify the principle underlying the Lord’s statements about divorce in the gospels. It is not just a matter of the relative seriousness of illicit sexual intercourse before or after marriage. Fornication during betrothal was an act which rendered the marriage void before it came into being. But where marriage had been validly contracted the Lord consistently upheld that there should be no putting away.

We should also notice the disciple’s reaction to the Lord’s statement see Matthew 19:10. Why were they so astonished? If they had understood Him to say only what one rabbinical school already taught, this would have been no surprise to them. But they were taken aback at the thought of no divorce except for fornication during betrothal not even for adultery, let alone for lesser causes!

Another very weight consideration is the absence of any confirmation from the apostles’ teaching that they understood from the Lord that adultery broke wedlock and freed either party to remarry. In view of the major importance of this matter, would we not have expected clear confirmation in the epistles? On the contrary we find such statements as Romans 7:2,3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 with no mention of any exception on the ground of unfaithfulness within wedlock. Indeed, even when separation becomes inevitable through an unbelieving spouse’s deserting a believer, the believer is still enjoined to remain unmarried (1 Cor.7:11).

Nor can 1 Corinthians 7:15 be construed as giving permission to divorce and remarry. For verse 16 asks a question which refers to each of the situations from verse 12 to 15, a question which would be inappropriate if divorce and remarriage were envisaged in verse 15. “Enslaved” (Revised Version: “Not under bondage” or “not bound”) simply means that the deserted spouse is no longer obliged to press for continued cohabitation.

To conclude that the Lord Jesus forbids the divorce of His disciples under any circumstances, or their remarriage while a spouse is still living, may of course entail stern tests of loyalty to His word. But doesn’t discipleship often involve stern tests in many areas of our Christian experience? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mark 8:34). Many have suffered persecution, imprisonment or even death for His sake. Others have refused opportunities of marriage rather than compromise the principle of 1 Corinthians 7:39 “only in the Lord”. Loyalty to Christ’s word about divorce may bring a difficult test of celibacy for disciples deserted by an unfaithful spouse. Or there may be the heavy burden of caring alone for a young family. The incentives to divorce and remarriage are at times strongly compelling. Yet if for His sake such problems are accepted as a “proof of faith”, He will cause all grace to abound as His word is obeyed. Moreover the day will declare the eternal value of placing divine principle before human expedients or natural desires.