A New Career is Not "Marital Unfaithfulness"
Oct 11, 2010 by Craig Blomberg | 7 Comments
”I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9 TNIV)
A close friend of ours probably has biblical grounds for divorce, but she is not entirely sure yet. She really does not want to leave her husband, she loves him deeply and wishes that he would turn from all kinds of destructive behavior that has characterized his life in recent years and changed him for the worse from the person he used to be. But he shows no sign of any willingness to change. She realizes it may come to divorce, but what is troubling her at the moment are a number of her Christian friends who have already decided for her that this is the only right decision for her to make.
Raised in a strong, evangelical home, she knows the Bible’s teaching well. The only two explicit, unambiguous grounds for divorce are when a spouse has sex with a different partner (Matt. 19:9) or when an unbelieving spouse wants to leave (1 Cor. 7:15). Historically, these two verses have come to be called Jesus’ “exception clause” and the “Pauline privilege,” respectively.
What is disturbing our friend about those who are telling her to divorce is the way they have twisted Matthew 19:9 to try to give her premature permission. Her husband has embarked on a new career, which has led to many of his destructive behaviors. Her Christian therapist recently told her, “Think of your husband’s new job as a literal woman. That’s become his mistress. See, now you have biblical grounds for divorce.”
To quote a line from my childhood, “gag me with a spoon!” With “friends” offering biblical interpretation like this, who needs “enemies”?
Maybe it’s because the NIV translated the key Greek word here in Matthew 19:9, porneia, as “marital unfaithfulness.” The NIV translators never intended that expression to mean anything other than what porneia in the Greek meant, or what the TNIV says: “sexual immorality.” Elizabeth English had a simple, clearly understood one-word rendering that the translators of the King James Version used: “fornication.” But that word is not widely used or understood today. The NRSV uses “unchastity,” but I’m not sure that’s much more widely used. The NET and the NASB simply say “immorality.” But, by biblical standards, countless behaviors are immoral, not just sexual sins. The ESV and HCSB mirror the TNIV by saying “sexual immorality,” which may be the best we can do in contemporary English without substituting an entire dictionary definition.
But a blog doesn’t have to be succinct. So let me be clear. Porneia in the Greek-speaking part of the first-century Mediterranean world meant experiencing sexual climax with anybody or any creature other than a lawfully, monogamously married heterosexual human spouse. Lots of other behaviors—from lust to pornography to masturbation to indecent exposure—that do not involve a second individual were not in view when this term was used. (That doesn’t necessarily make these latter activities good; it just means they’re not being addressed one way or the other with the word porneia). On the other hand, every multiple-person sexual liaison involving orgasm was included, so just because intercourse or penetration didn’t take place doesn’t mean it wasn’t porneia-- sexual immorality.
I have written an entire journal article back in 1990 in the Trinity Journal on the grounds for divorce and have addressed the same question in abbreviated format in my commentaries on Matthew and 1 Corinthians. I have explained why I am sympathetic to the argument that there may be, in rare instances, other equally serious situations that neither Jesus nor Paul faced and hence did not address that may constitute legitimate grounds for divorce. I have argued that rather than creating a list of those—as some have suggested (physical abuse, life imprisonment, unrepentant prolonged destructive addictions, irreversible Alzheimer’s, etc.), we should simply evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis to see if a marriage is de facto as broken or ruptured already as in the case of the two biblically specified instances.
But please, please, please in your desire to be helpful and supportive of hurting people, don’t twist the Scriptures so drastically that you claim they say something they never remotely intended to say. Would any marriage ever last if we applied the principle that when one spouse seems to be overly devoted to a career, it was no different than committing literal adultery, and that the other spouse should up and divorce them? Maybe a few would survive, but the couples would probably be unemployed!