Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage

by Robert and Mollie Brow

Chapter 4

Why Did Jesus Call Divorce Adultery?

Mark 10:2-12

We are continuing to explore the new vision of marriage which appeared so suddenly among the first Christians. It already seems that the idea of a loving marriage was given a deeper meaning by Jesus' words about love being the fulfillment of the ten commandments. We saw how Paul's explanation of a total mutuality in marriage was an astonishing shift from patriarchy. Both of these changes also suggested a deeper meaning for the seventh commandment about adultery. And we know some readers are objecting "But how can you alter the definition of adultery, which Christendom has always taken for granted?"

An easy answer to this objection is that it was Jesus himself who began giving a radically different slant to the word adultery. "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." [Mark 10:11-12] A change of meaning is obvious, but we wonder how we should interpret this very paradoxical statement about divorce.? As opposed to patriarchal practice, this text seems to assume that a man will only have one wife. It includes the idea that a woman could initiate a divorce whereas in the Old Testament there was no provision for a woman to leave the marriage. She was bound to her husband for as long as he chose to keep her. And in the modern patriarchal culture of Arabia a man can apparently divorce any of his wives merely by saying "I divorce you, I divorce you." Meanwhile they are stuck with him whatever they think of the arrangement.

But then the text makes us wonder how could a divorce, which was not caused by sexual immorality, be called adulterous? In any language divorce and adultery are two quite different things. So when Jesus is calling divorce adultery he must be using metaphorical language. And we recognize that many of his metaphors are to our western minds rather extreme. "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away ... and if your right hand causes you to sin cut it off." [Matthew 5:29-30]

We make our question doubly difficult by adding some words from the Sermon on the Mount. "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery." [Matthew 5:31-32] Whatever our conclusion about the meaning of this text, it certainly indicates that among the early Christians there was a quite new use of the word adultery in relation to an innocent person.

This would be comparable to Jesus' words about murder in the Sermon on the Mount. He told his disciples that the word murder must be widened and deepened to include murderous hatred, writing off the other person with a "raca," and treating someone as if his or her opinions are so stupid they are not worth listening to. That is also a vast change from the patriarchal understanding of the ten commandments. By combining the texts about divorce in Matthew's Gospel with the one we quoted from Mark's Gospel churches used to brand all divorced persons who remarried as adulterers. But here again Jesus cannot be speaking literally. A man's adultery cannot literally cause the physical adultery of his innocent wife. So our first attempt at an answer is that when Jesus says divorce is adultery, and causes adultery, in both cases he is using a metaphor. In Chapter 6 we will look at the metaphor in Jesus' statement that adultery has already occurred when lust has settled on doing it.

Children certainly know that there is a huge amount of adulteration involved in their parents' divorce. The usual security of family life is disturbed. How do you love both your father and your mother when they are breaking up the home? And since two families with relatives and grandparents were interconnected in the first marriage, the ending of relationships and the confusing reconnections with another family are also an adulteration of what children assume is their normal family life.

Similarly if we think of adultery as a metaphor for the adulteration of our hopes for the love and joy of a happy marriage, then Jesus' words take on a powerful meaning. Any divorce is metaphorical adultery. And divorcing one's partner causes his or her adultery. When a woman is suddenly given divorce papers, her home, her children, her family, and her life expectations are all horribly adulterated. And this is also true for the man when his wife divorces him.

If this is the meaning of the metaphor in both texts, we have Jesus making a plain statement of fact. Divorce causes the adulteration of a marriage. For others in the family and their circle of friend there will be sadness, but condemnation is never a useful activity among Christians. And we should never use these texts to condemn a person who did not relish the idea of breaking up a marriage. Some women with abusive, violent, irresponsible, or alcoholic husbands have to choose separation and divorce for their own protection and that of their children.

We also note that in Matthew's Gospel there is an exception for unfaithfulness. "Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery." [Matthew 19:9] The logic seems to be that if a woman has already wrecked her family by adultery, then the resulting divorce and remarriage of her husband is not the cause of adulteration. She has caused it. This exception in Matthew's Gospel is therefore not a denial but an explanation of the general principle that divorce inevitably adulterates a marriage.

We suggest it was because of his Lord's strong words about the adulteration caused by divorce that Paul said so strongly "To the married I give this command - not I but the Lord - that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife." But Paul immediately goes on to explain that he is not condemning divorce in a legalistic way in all cases. "To the rest I say - I and not the Lord - that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him... But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such cases the brother or sister is not bound." Paul's explanation clearly visualises the freedom to divorce, and we assume to remarry, in some cases.

In this connection "a believer" is often assumed to be someone who made a faith commitment in the past. In the context of marriage we prefer to think of a believer as one who is committed to the vision of Christian love which we set out in the two previous chapters. To our minds a man who becomes abusive, chronically adulterous, or a danger to the children, no longer believes in Jesus' vision of Christian marriage.

In some patriarchal cultures women are forced into an unacceptable marriage with a man they find abhorrent. That seems to us a form of rape. And rape is an adulteration of the worst kind. Admittedly in some cases marriages that began without mutual consent do eventually develop a beautiful mutuality. But any woman who finds herself forced into sexual slavery must have the moral right to extricate herself as best as she can. If she finds an opportunity to escape, we do not imagine Jesus would say she has caused the adulteration of the marriage. We cannot believe it is right to pressure a woman, or a man for that matter, into remaining for ever in a hellish situation by piously suggesting that it might improve. There must be some situations in which initiating a divorce is morally justified both for men and women. And it seems that only the victim can evaluate when it has become necessary.

In this matter Paul is not sure whether his opinion corresponds to what Jesus would have taught. His mind has already been changed from the patriarchal model of divorce, but he realizes he may not have his ideas clear for every situation. [See 1 Corinthians 7:10-12] We too would do well to hold fast to the general principle, but admit like Paul that we may not have the mind of the Lord in the complexity of a particular case. But then if Jesus was so categorical about the awful adulteration of divorce, we still wonder how we find Paul and ourselves allowing divorce in some cases? A parable from a disaster at sea seems helpful. It is never good for a sea captain to wreck his ship. It is always an adulteration of the very purpose of seafaring. But at sea things can and do go badly wrong. The storm was so bad that he had no way to save the vessel. Pirates took the gold and sank the ship. He or the first mate may have been drunk or asleep. There might have been rocks which were not in the charts. But whatever the cause, a shipwreck is always a disaster.

In this model of marriage, which we have illustrated from Jesus' metaphorical words and Paul's explanation, it seems to us that the danger of divorce should be viewed as seriously as a sea captain views the wreck of his ship. But our parable of shipwreck also suggests the possibility of making a new start even when a disastrous divorce has occurred. We are therefore uneasy with those who use the texts we have quoted to condemn Christians whose marriage has been shipwrecked, and prevent them from exercising their gifts in our community. [Note : There are still churches and mission groups which reject anyone for ordination or missionary service if they have ever been divorced, whatever the reason. The inconsistency is even more astonishing when they gladly accept people who had previously been in and out of various sexual relationships for years. The logic is that, as long as no marriage and divorce was registered in the government computer, repentance and faith is sufficient to clear the books. But legalists are quite sure that the failure of a legally registered marriage is an adulteration and it must never be forgotten. We cannot see that this is part of the new model Paul learned from Jesus.]

We also assume that, although Jesus describes the adulteration of family life that takes place in any divorce, we must offer the possibility of blessing and supporting a remarriage in church when a previous marriage has been properly terminated. What is the proper termination of a marriage? Quite regardless of whether the shipwreck was his fault, or a combination of circumstances beyond his control, the sea captain has no right just to slip away and see if he can talk himself into another ship. First he should go home, publicly admit the loss of his ship and crew, and accept the consequences.

Similarly it is immoral for a man or a woman just to duck out of a marriage or a common law relationship without ending it properly. According to Old Testament law a woman who is divorced had to be given a letter proving that her previous marriage is dead, and she is free to marry someone else if she chooses. In our day, if the marriage is registered with the government, there is a legal procedure for doing this. But the ending of a common law relationship is often just as painful as in a legally registered marriage. A publicly acknowledged termination is needed. It also seems cruel to walk away from any relationship without an honest sharing of what has gone wrong. [Note: See Appendix C on common law relationships]

Does that reduce divorce to a trivial matter with no moral content? Obviously not. The prophet Malachi tells us that God hates divorce, as we all do when it happens among our friends and children and parents. [Malachi 2:14-16, see Proverbs 5:18-20] In focusing our minds on the adulteration inevitably caused by divorce Jesus has not weakened the ideal of being committed to one partner in life-long marriage. But he has made us change our perspective to the heart of the matter. And that should make us wonder whether the term adultery might also be used metaphorically to include other ways in which a marriage can be adulterated.

[Some have attempted to retain the literal sense of Jesus' words by saying that a divorced woman is caused to commit adultery because she now has to marry again. But even that is a wider and deeper use of the word. By referring to the early Christians we guard our flank from the attack of New Testament critics who will already be complaining that we have not done our home work in terms of source, form, redaction, and rhetorical criticism. All we need is the fact that radical changes in the meaning of adultery, love, and marriage appeared among Jesus' disciples, and were recorded in the New Testament.. And this book is an exploration of what those changes were and how they might throw light on love, marriage, and divorce in our day.]

Chapter 5...