A parishioner who was divorced due to physical and emotional abuse wonders about Jesus’ teaching in Matthew and if she would have the option of marrying again.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31, 32 ESV)
How do we interpret this passage and how do we pastorally apply it?
Before we can make an application to our own lives, first we need to understand the problem that Jesus is addressing. In His day a man could divorce his wife for any and every reason and all he had to do was to declare it and the marriage was over. In that era women did not have a great deal of options to have meaningful lives outside of marriage so easy divorce was the bane of women. In this defense of marriage Jesus was demonstrating God’s justice.
Second we need to understand the sin that Jesus said can lead to divorce. In the Greek it is “porneias” from which we get the word pornography. The ESV correctly interprets it “sexual immorality” because it includes homosexuality, bestiality, adultery and any other variation of sex outside of marriage. In this Jesus is protecting the sanctity of marriage where the nature of its unity is a reflection of Christ’s unity with the Church (Eph 5:25-333). Since we are to be one flesh with our spouse, to join our flesh with any other violates the covenant and destroys the image of Christ and the Church. This is no light matter in spite of how the culture portrays it.
Is sexual sin the only valid reason to end a marriage? Some say yes but others point to St Paul’s words that speak of abandonment. “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:15 ESV) If this is so then we need to consider what actions or attitudes comprise abandonment. Without getting legalistic it would seem to open to the door to various forms of abandonment, which would require the discernment and counsel of the Church.
When I was first in ordained ministry I faced a very difficult situation related to this. A woman who had a three year old daughter came to me because she was concerned for her daughter’s safety. Her husband was addicted to pornography and had moved deeper into his addiction by now consuming child pornography. She asked my counsel. My struggle was that technically he had not touched the girl so had he broken the covenant? Did his addiction equal porneias? Even more the point, were we supposed to wait until he destroyed his daughter’s life before we acted?
I called him into my office and confronted him about his sexual addiction but he took the route of it being a victimless “crime” so he saw no problems with it. He ignored my warnings and he refused to repent. I concluded that this was an abandonment of the marriage because he was choosing pornography over his wife, and since the kind of pornography that he was consuming was setting the scene for abuse, that it was time to act. I counseled the wife to take her daughter and get as far away from his as humanly possible and not consider returning until he had repented and sought treatment. It was a heartbreaking thing to see a family come apart but it seemed to me that the protection of that little girl was our highest priority.
A third thing that should be addressed about Jesus’ words. While divorce except for sexual immorality (and possibly abandonment) is a sin, is it the unpardonable sin? No. Jesus tells us that there is only one sin that is unpardonable and this isn’t it. So if a person has a marriage fail, it should be treated as any other sin. They move forward by admitting the sin, repenting of it and purposing to amend their life.
Before a priest can perform a marriage of someone who has been divorced he must counsel the couple and together with them seek permission from the Bishop. This is usually done in a letter that explains why the last marriage failed, why it is believed that this marriage will succeed, and a statement of faith. They also must give assurance that all previous responsibilities are met and that this is a life long commitment. I also STRONGLY suggest that he or she or both make a sacramental confession concerning their divorce so that the slate can be cleaned, the door to the past sins shut, and the mercies of God carry them into their future. In fact I encourage someone who had biblical justification for divorce to also make a sacramental confession because I have never witnessed a failed marriage where it is 100% one partner’s fault. We have an Advocate who is the propitiation for our sins so we should not hesitate to come before the throne of grace. This strikes the balance of upholding marriage as a sacrament while not making divorce a permanent scarlet letter.