The will of God for our sexuality is marriage, which may be defined as the lifelong union of a man and a woman.
The writer of Genesis, after describing the creation of Adam and Eve, comments: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2.24). Paul cites this passage in his argument against prostitution (1 Cor. 6.16) and Jesus in his argument against divorce (Matt. 19.5). From a biblical perspective, whatever tears the “one flesh” fabric of marriage is contrary to God’s will for our sexuality and is therefore sinful. Such sins include lust (Matt. 5.28), sex outside marriage (1 Cor. 6.9–10), adultery (Ex. 20.14), and divorce (Matt. 5.31–32).
But is divorce really sinful? After all, the Old Testament allows divorce under certain circumstances (Deut. 24.1–4). However, it does not make similar allowances for lust or sex outside marriage. Does divorce really rise to the level of sinfulness?
Yes and no.
Yes. For example, a man who divorces his wife so that he can take up with another woman (or a wife who does so with her husband to take up with another man) has committed a sin, regardless of whether he (or she) committed adultery with the other person prior to the marriage’s dissolution.
And no. The innocent spouse in the example above has not committed a sin. She (or he) has been sinned against.
Why, then, does Jesus say, “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” (Matt. 5.32). This is a very hard saying. It seems to blame the victim. How, then, should we interpret it?
First, we should be careful not to explain it away. Jesus affirms that God’s will for our sexuality is marriage. Period. Whatever falls short of that ideal is sinful.
But second, the sinfulness of divorce is asymmetrical. Unless there is a just cause for the divorce, the divorcer is doubly guilty of his own actual adultery and that of his wife, if she remarries. He “causes” her to become an adulterer. Rabbinic interpretations of Deuteronomy 24.1–4 were husband-centered. Marriage existed at the pleasure—and dissolved at the displeasure—of the husband. Jesus’ phrasing of the issue forces the husband to look beyond his own pleasure or displeasure in order to see the consequences of his actions on his wife.
Third, there are circumstances under which divorce is permissible—“marital unfaithfulness.” More about that tomorrow.
Frankly, I am uncomfortable discussing Matthew 5.31–32. It is an intrinsically difficult passage to interpret, made all the more difficult by knowing the ugly details of divorces among my family, friends, parishioners, and neighbors. Divorce may sometimes be a sin, but it is always a tragedy. It always falls short of God’s ideal for the husband-wife relationship, even if it is justified. We must read and reread Jesus’ words against divorce, if only to remind ourselves of this fact.
But here’s another fact: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5.17). If, for whatever reason, divorce is in your past, Christ has a new future for you—a future of forgiveness of sin and healing of wounds.