Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reflections on Divorce, Remarriage and the Church (Part I): Did Matthew Make an Exception?

Preliminary Disclaimer

This article is on the subject of seeking to end a valid marriage on the grounds of adultery by way of rejecting the authority of the Church.  It is not a commentary on annulments.  Nor is it a judgment on those who seek them. 

I do not claim the authority to make judgments on whether the Church should or should not grant  an annulment in any individual case.  A person wondering if they have grounds for annulment should contact their parish or diocese for information.

My only intent for this article is to explain why certain attacks against the Church on this subject are in error.

Introduction: Appeal to Emotion to challenge the Church

While the recent abuse stories are the most headline grabbing attacks on the Church, there are always the tried-and-true attacks on the Church from within and without, which essentially seeks to portray the Church as “heartless” because she believes she cannot compromise on certain issues. Whether it is an issue like contraception, or divorce, or abortion or so-called “gay marriage” (it is interesting to note that all these objections tend to focus on the area of sexual ethics) the position is presented that the Church is a heartless bureaucratic institution which clings to “rules” which Christ would not approve of.

Usually such a position is demonstrated with either the appeal to fear fallacy or the appeal to pity fallacy. An example is given (such as a family with “too many children” or the “abandoned spouse” or the woman with a “health condition” or two people “who truly love each other”) to whom we are supposed to have sympathy for. Because they are in a situation where the Church must say “No,” the argument is the Church is “cruel” in doing so.

Fallacies don’t prove anything

The problem is, this doesn’t prove the Church is wrong. Indeed, the attack against the Church is based on the unwarranted assumption that God is primarily interested in our material well-being, and that the concern for our spiritual well-being is unimportant.

The objection tends to run along the lines of:

1. The situation I am in is harmful because it makes me unhappy

2. God does not want to harm us

3. Therefore this situation which makes me unhappy is against God's will.

In certain areas of Church moral teaching, we see this sort of appeal.  "God knows we can't afford to have more children right now.  The Church condemns contraception.  Therefore the Church teaching is against God's will."  Or "God doesn't want me to be alone and my spouse abandoned me.  The Church forbids remarriage after divorce.  Therefore the Church is wrong."

Denying Happiness? Why this argument is missing the point

The problem with these arguments is that it frames the issue in the wrong way.

Because the dissent against the Church on the issue of Remarriage is so common, one needs to look at the issues and why the attacks against the Church fundamentally miss the point and negate that which is binding about marriage.

The problem of the objection against Church teaching is that it confuses the cause of the situation with the Church teaching on the situation.  For example, if a person in a valid marriage is divorced, the Church teaching is that so long as both partners live, they must reconcile or remain single.

Now in this society which dismisses marriage as unimportant and divorce as even less important, the complaint may be raised that the spouse who was treated unjustly is doomed to suffer because of the Church teaching, which means they can never remarry.  "How can the Church deny a person their happiness?"

The Church didn't deny the person their happiness.  The unfaithful spouse did that.  The Church can only say, "Christ has forbidden remarriage if the marriage is valid.  If your marriage was valid, we cannot remarry you while your spouse lives."

Remember that the Sacramental Marriage is a vow made before God to remain faithful to each other for life.  One may be unfaithful in this lifelong vow, but that person's sin does not change the fact that Christ decreed the valid marriage to be unbreakable.

In marriage, there are no longer two people, but “one flesh” (Gen 2:24). A bond is formed which endures as long as both the husband and wife live.

If He did not give us permission to break a marriage, how can we, on our own, to declare such a marriage ended and expect God, who says “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16), to accept it?

This is why the "how can the Church deny a person their happiness?" argument is not only wrong, but is actually an appeal to fear (that it might happen to you) and pity, which ignores the actual question: IS the marriage valid?

Appeals to Reject the Church Authority

Because the actual question is a stumbling block, many try to get around it by appealing to another authority against the Church.  They invoke Scripture or Tradition, and ignores the question: Who has the authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition?

In this article I would like to look at the invocation of the Gospel of Matthew and the so-called exceptions to the norm.

A Look at the So-called “Matthew Exception”

Some people who object to the Catholic position try to cite Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 to argue that a spouse who is victimized by an adulterous spouse may remarry. The Eastern Orthodox churches tend to hold this position, and some stricter Protestant denominations do as well. Matthew 5 reads:

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’

32 But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19 reads:

3 Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?”

4 He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’

5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?

6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

7 They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss (her)?”

8 He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

9 I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”

10 (His) disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 He answered, “Not all can accept (this) word, but only those to whom that is granted.

12 Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

The argument put forward by those who favor the so-called Matthew Exception is that Christ permitted divorce and remarriage on grounds of adultery.

A Look at the problems of the Adultery Assumption: Porneia and Moichaō

The passages of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 are sometimes translated as "except for fornication" (KJV, ASV), sometimes technically correct but misleading “except for unchastity” (as in the RSV) and is sometimes mistranslated as "except for unfaithfulness" or the like in some of the modern semi-paraphrased versions. 

Why do I say it is a mistranslation?  Because the Greek word used in both Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 is πορνείᾳ (porneia) which is used in the sense of fornication, homosexual acts and immorality.  It is almost always used in the sense of sexual sins among the unmarried (see 1 Cor 7:2).  In contrast, the word for adultery is derived from μοιχάω (moichaō) which means to have sexual relations with another person's spouse.  Indeed, it is the word used in the above verses where Christ says the person who marries another, except in the case of πορνείᾳ, commits adultery (μοιχᾶται).

Porneia is not moichaō.  The words are specifically different in the Greek of the New Testament, and the person who wants to argue that Christ intended the “adultery exception” needs to explain why Christ did not say that: whoever divorces his wife, except for moichaō, commits moichatai.

This is especially relevant when we look at Matthew 15:19 where it says:

19 For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy.

In Greek, we see what is written as “adultery, unchastity” is μοιχεῖαι, πορνεῖαι in the Greek (moicheiai, porneiai). Christ, in the Gospel of Matthew, makes a clear distinction between the two.

Another Problem with the Appeal to Matthew: Scriptural Disagreement?

There is another problem with the appeal to Matthew and the so-called exception.  That problem is that the other gospels which do not include this exception. Mark 10:11-12 reads:

11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;

12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Luke 16 reads:

8 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

So here is the problem. If one wants to argue that Matthew permits exceptions to the command of no divorce; such a view needs to be reconciled with Mark and Luke, which makes no such exception, or else admit the Scriptures contradict.  Now, is Matthew more lenient than Mark and Luke?  Or are Mark and Luke harsher than Matthew?

Either way, one would have to decide whether Matthew erred or whether Mark and Luke (and Paul), and on what basis is this to be accepted?

There is only one view which protects inerrancy of Scripture and shows there to be no conflict.  That is the recognition that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience who were aware of the Law and the forbidding of marriage between men and women in certain degrees of relationship. 

Indeed, we see such a case in Matthew 14:3-4:

3 Now Herod had arrested John, bound (him), and put him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip,

4 for John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”

The relationship of Herod and his brother's wife was prohibited in Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21.  In other words, it was a sinful act which God opposed. Regardless of Herod’s feelings for Herodias, their relationship was forbidden by the Law and could not be considered a valid marriage.  

The Catholic Church understands that the so-called “exception” of Matthew was not sanction of divorce and remarriage for cases of adultery, but for ending an invalid marriage and entering a real one.

This is why annulment is not a “Catholic Divorce” but rather an investigation into whether a marriage was valid to begin with. If it was not valid, then there was no marriage to begin with. If it is valid, then it quite simply exists regardless of what one or both spouses do.

The Problem of Paul for the “Matthew Exception”

1 Corinthians 7 also shows that those groups who argue for the “adultery clause” are in error. He writes:

10 To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband

11 —and if she does separate she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband—and a husband should not divorce his wife.

Paul does not include the notion that one may remarry if the other spouse is unfaithful. Now some may try to argue that “should” means that it is not approved but permissible. However, “should” appears only in some translations (NAB, NASB, NRSV, RSV) and not at all in the Greek.

Debunking the Fallacy of amphiboly in reading Paul

There is a fallacy of amphiboly to interpret “should” as permitting. Those who argue such tend to take the definition of “should” in the sense of one of the following:

  • used in a clause with ‘that’ after a main clause describing feelings.
  • used in a clause with ‘that’ expressing purpose.
  • (in the first person) expressing a polite request or acceptance.
  • (in the first person) expressing a conjecture or hope

(Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

However, these are not the main definitions for “should.” The word “Should” is derived from shall (remember the Ten Commandments with “Thou shall not…”) and the primary definition is actually “Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness.” (Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.”)

For Paul, Porneia and Moichaō are not the same thing

Another problem Paul poses for the “Matthew Exception” argument and the claim that porneia refers to adultery is the fact that Paul uses Porneia in 1 Cor. 7:1 when he says:

1 Now in regard to the matters about which you wrote: “It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman,”

2 but because of cases of immorality every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband.

Immorality is πορνείας (porneias) in the Greek. If Adultery is “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a person who is not their husband or wife” then it follows that marriage cannot prevent adultery, simply because adultery presupposes the existence of marriage. Indeed, Paul would be speaking nonsense.


I believe we have demonstrated here that the invocation of Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 to justify remarriage after divorce in the case of adultery is one which must ignore the whole of Scripture and cite it selectively.

In my next article I will look at the appeal to the Early Christian Fathers (known as the Patristics) which some attempt.

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