Adultery's Voices in the Setting of Divorce/Remarry

by Arlie D. Rauch

(Unless otherwise noted, the Scriptural quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible of 1995.)


          Bible scholars commonly know that in the Gospels’ divorce texts Jesus sometimes speaks of committing adultery in the active voice and sometimes in the passive voice. A few writers have attempted to reflect that difference in their translations, but for the most part that phenomenon is ignored. Some have even claimed that there is no difference in meaning. The various Bible versions are not of much help here, either.
          Jesus said in Matthew 5:18 that even the jots and tittles (KJV) of Scripture would be fulfilled. What He said indicates that every detail of Scripture is significant, and that would include an active-voice verb in contrast to a passive-voice verb.
          So a closer look at these contrasting verb voices is warranted. It so happens that Jesus’ usage can quite easily be categorized, and that is helpful in translating with appropriate emphasis. We will also, for the sake of completeness, consider the difference in Hebrew verb stems which appears in the Old Testament passages which treat the subject of adultery; only two stems are used.


          In the passages in which Jesus mentions adultery as related to divorce, there are two words used, namely, moicheuo (The [-euo] ending suggests playing the part of the corresponding noun according to J. H. Moulton in his Grammar of New Testament Greek Vol. II (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1920), 399.) and moichao (The [-ao] ending may simply derive from conformity to type in a group of verbs with the theme of unhealthy. Ibid., 384.). The first, moicheuo, “in the active means ‘to commit adultery’ or ‘to seduce’” (Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.). The second, moichao, “means ‘to commit adultery’ or ‘to adulterate’” (Ibid.). Both have the same root.
          Of particular interest is that the first verb appears in the active voice in ten verses altogether. In only one of the verses in which Jesus addresses divorce does it appear, and it appears there twice (Luke 16:18). It appears in the passive voice in two verses; one of those is a verse in which Jesus speaks of divorce (Matthew 5:32).
          The second verb appears in only four verses, always in the passive voice, and all of these are verses in which Jesus addresses divorce (Matthew 5:32; 9:19; Mark 10:11, 12).
          The active voice of a verb is a straightforward statement of the subject doing an action. An excellent example of this is Luke 16:18: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.” It is evident that the man who is marrying is here committing adultery—he is doing the action.
          The passive voice of a verb is a statement of action made upon the subject. With the verb “to commit adultery” the concept and translation of the active voice is easily constructed. The passive is not so transparent in that it is difficult to conceptualize and express adultery being put upon an individual especially where an illegal physical act did not necessarily occur. Just here it is helpful to look closely at the situations in which the passive voice is used, and this will be our focus.


          “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
          The first expression of “to commit adultery” (moicheuo) in Matthew 5:32 is translated in the NASB “makes her commit adultery.” The woman in this case is passive with regard to the divorce in that her husband is taking the initiative. This description is consistent with complementarian gender roles biblically in that the husband is the initiator and the woman is the responder; while a woman could seduce a man, he would very likely need to take some initiative to commit adultery physically. It so happens that in Jewish circles of that time a husband could legally divorce his wife, while a wife could not divorce her husband. This in itself says nothing about the relative depravity of male versus female, but the legal practice may be an offshoot of biblical gender roles.
          John 8:4 provides a similar scenario, assuming that the text is genuine, though it is not one of the verses in which Jesus speaks of divorce (The text does not even clarify whether she was a wife, a prostitute, or a single woman involved with a married man.). So the passive voice in Matthew 5:32 is appropriate when speaking of a wife who characteristically did not take the initiative in divorce. She has been made, whether willing or not, to be a party in the breaking of a marriage bond, the marriage covenant, the picture of Christ’s relationship to His Church.
          Her actual role leading up to the divorce is not clarified; apparently Jesus did not consider that information to be important for our understanding. She may have been what some call ‘the innocent party,’ or she may have nagged and irritated her husband to the point of divorce. Even though mankind’s fall into sin is attributed to Adam, one cannot exonerate Eve, since she gave the forbidden fruit to her husband. At any rate, that is left unsaid and needs not to be factored into our interpretation.
          Neither is her activity after the divorce mentioned, even though there are those who claim to be certain her divorce implied remarriage. Jesus does not tell us, and we must be content with what the text does tell us. She is not necessarily the divorced woman mentioned in the second part of the verse; Jesus is speaking there regarding the category of such women.
          The second verb (moichao) appears in the passive in Matthew 5:32 at the end of the verse, and the NASB translates “commits adultery.” The subject is someone who marries a divorced woman. Here it is a man, and the passive voice certainly is not gender related. But the man in this case is the third party in a marriage dissolution. He may not be divorced himself and may actually not be a reason that the original marriage mentioned here was broken. But his entrance into the picture insures that at least the second possibility of 1 Corinthians 7:11 can never now be realized for the divorced party whom he marries: “but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband.” So the adultery occasioned by the original breakup is now also transferred to him, even if he is not considered legally guilty of physical adultery.
          Taking into account the above, this author would now translate Matthew 5:32 as follows: “but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, imposes adultery on her; and whoever marries a divorced woman is taking adultery on himself.”


          “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
          The other instances are similar. Matthew 19:9 portrays a man divorcing and marrying another woman. He is not the third party in the marriage dissolution, but the woman in the second marriage is. And by his act, he is rendering 1 Corinthians 7:11 impossible to obey. So we translate here: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman is taking adultery on himself.” The adultery that results from the divorce and subsequent marriage is not so much an act of flesh as it is the irreversible shattering of the reflection of Christ and His Bride, the Church.

MARK 10:11-12

          “And He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.’”
          The other examples appear in this passage. The first appearance of the verb (v. 11) is much like Matthew 19:9, except, instead of the man being adulterous, it is the woman whom he marries following his divorce. She again is the third partner in the marriage failure whether a cause of it or not, and her presence in the relationship now prevents the fulfillment of 1 Corinthians 7:11. So adultery is imposed upon her.
          The second occurrence here (v. 12) recognizes that in circles beyond the Jewish the woman did have the legal right to divorce. With that gender change, the statement has the exact outcome as Matthew 19:9. She brings another man into the marriage triangle and thus nullifies either possibility in 1 Corinthians 7:11. She takes adultery upon herself.
          So we translate here: “And He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman is imposing adultery on her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is taking adultery on herself.’”


          The situation in the Hebrew Old Testament is somewhat different, but we mention it in the interest of being exhaustive. The word “to commit adultery” (naaph) appears thirty-one times in twenty-six verses. Sixteen appear in the Qal stem, and fifteen appear in the Pi‘el. Really, the English translation hardly reflects any difference between the two stems, and they in fact do not represent the same kind of distinction that the active and passive voices do in New Testament Greek.
          The Qal stem simply presents the action of the subject in a straightforward manner.
          Of the Pi‘el stem, one source says: “The fundamental idea of Pi‘el … is to busy oneself eagerly with the action indicated by the stem” (A. E. Cowley, ed., Gesenuis’ Hebrew Grammar (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, second English edition 1910), 141. Moshe Greenberg adds that “The verbal idea of the qal is made more complex or given a special nuance” in his Introduction to Hebrew (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice- Hall, Inc., 1965), 43.). Taking this intensified form of the verb in mind and examining the Pi‘el occurrences, it appears that this stem is more often used to describe adultery as a characteristic lifestyle and also multiple or repeated adulteries. The two Hebrew stems, therefore, do not contribute to our specific discussion involving the active and passive voices in the New Testament Greek.


          Now a question arises at this point. Some writers (For example, R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 230.) view the imposition of adultery upon someone or the taking of adultery upon one’s self as a stigma and not an actual sin. If it is merely a stigma, then one might consider that the Lord was just cautioning what the social response would be. If the view of society becomes that divorce and/or adultery is normal, then the Lord’s words lose their import. To say there is a stigma attached today is questionable, even in the Church. Is that a problem? Was Jesus simply giving a societal view that might or might not obtain?
          However, if the action described in these passages, that of marriage to someone else after divorce, actually harms, violates, or renders impossible some part of God’s revealed will, is that not sin? We have shown that most of the scenarios we have considered above do prevent obedience to 1 Corinthians 7:11. So our conclusion is that the translation should not suggest a stigma, but rather that imposing adultery upon someone or taking adultery upon oneself is a real sin. Each person in the divorce/remarriage process in some way is party to defacing the grand picture of Christ’s relationship to the Church, His bride, and that significantly is designated ‘adultery.’ The Old Testament penalty for adultery (Lev. 20:10) should at least remind us of this sin’s seriousness in the sight of God.
          If stigma is indicated in any passage at all, it would be the first statement of Matthew 5:32 where a subsequent marriage is not necessarily indicated. The man in the first part of the verse could be the man in the second part of the verse, also, but there is no necessary correlation. Yet, even there, the person, the wife, who is made adulterous, is party to human separating of what God has joined.


          This writer was hoping that one simple explanation would serve for the use of the passive voice in every one of Jesus’ statements regarding adultery in the context of divorce/remarriage. But that is not the case.
          The first statement in Matthew 5:32 (“everyone who divorces his wife … makes her commit adultery”) stands alone regarding result. Some suggest that this woman will certainly remarry, and that defines the adultery. But the text does not require that, and it certainly nowhere says that, just like it nowhere requires her to enter prostitution. But this statement draws our attention to one level of sin in the divorce/remarriage scenario. The divorce itself can surely be sin and is so treated here. Jesus did say in Matthew 19:6: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” So the divorce itself violates Jesus’ command: it illustrates covenant unfaithfulness at the most intimate level.
          Whether active or passive in the divorce process, the woman described in Matthew 5:32a is partner in the marriage that man has separated. She cannot avoid that reality. She is associated with the splintered picture of Christ’s relationship to His Church. Splintering that picture should not be treated as insignificant.
          All the other instances point to another level of sin. 1 Corinthians 7:11 gives two instructions for the divorced person: “let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband.” As long as no one remarries, the way remains for the original marriage to be rejoined. The Picture can be fixed. But when one partner of the original marriage does marry someone else (so that a third person enters the picture), that person certainly disobeys both possibilities in 1 Corinthians 7:11. The partner that is left can still be obedient to the first possibility of remaining unmarried and in that way is also faithful to the original marriage vows.
          The divorce itself can be sinful and is to the extent that it breaks the Picture. But acting so as to prevent obedience to either or both of the instructions of 1 Corinthians 7:11 then is a consequential sin.
          Can these sins be forgiven? Of course, but one should never be bold to sin with the expectation of forgiveness following. That indicates at least a lack of appreciation for the work of the Son of God. There should be repentance when an individual realizes that his or her action is sinful. Then there should be a practice of righteousness in his or her life to the extent that is possible and the promotion of righteousness to others.


          In a sad state of affairs many expositors never even consider the focus taken in this study because their interest is different than that of Jesus. In these texts Jesus is explaining the result or consequence of various divorce/remarriage situations. Many expositors never reach that point because they are looking for ways to circumvent the consequences to divorce/remarriage that have standing in the court of heaven. Once they have found a reasonable (in their own minds) excuse for divorce/remarriage, they can set aside any kind of result God assigns to it. And many an individual of the church public is quite willing to assess his or her divorce/remarriage and give it one of those accepted excuses even if remotely similar. The result is that virtually anyone in the Church may divorce and remarry at will with the blessing of the Church, if not the Lord.
          Reading books on the subject will soon uncover terminology referencing the eisegetical necessities which neutralize Jesus’ teaching. Expressions such as “unjustified divorce”, “proper cause”, “who has no right to divorce”, “ground for divorce that He will recognize” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Matthew 1-7 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 168-171.), “the scriptural permission for divorce”, “illegitimate divorce” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Matthew 16-23 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 168-171.), “Divorce, wrongly obtained” (Jay E. Adams, Marriage Divorce & Remarriage in the Bible (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), 95.), “the legitimately divorced woman”, “one legitimate ground of divorce”, “illicit divorce”, “the right of divorce for adultery”, “no obviously implied exhortation to remain unmarried” (John Murray, Divorce (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961), 26, 56, 71.), “One Who Divorces Unbiblically”, “biblically permissible”, “for a biblically acceptable reason” (Gilbert W. Rugh, Divorce on Trial (Lincoln: Indian Hills Press, 1983), 11-13.), “the legitimate cause of infidelity” (Spiros Zhodiates, What About Divorce? (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1984), 218.), “being the innocent party”, “such a protective desertion can hardly classify the deserter as guilty” (Spiros Zhodiates, May I Divorce and Remarry? (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 1984), 118, 121.) are examples used to set aside Jesus’ teaching.
          In practice then, when someone contemplates divorce/remarriage or even perhaps has actually already divorced and remarried, the greatest effort is focused on what has happened before the divorce to determine whether the divorce is ‘legitimate,’ even though that was not Jesus’ emphasis. The Church, or at least those counseling with the individual or individuals in the case, acts as a kind of court of investigation; if a ‘legitimate’ divorce/remarriage can be established, then the bulk of what Jesus taught on the subject can be set aside. Tragically, the ‘legitimate’ excuses require reading into Scripture at various key places what it in fact never says.
          Interestingly, Dr. John MacArthur made the following observation: “the scriptural permission for divorce is implied rather than explicitly taught” (MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Matthew 16-23, 168-169.). So what is implied is made to neatly and almost totally nullify what Jesus taught on the subject of divorce and its consequence of adultery.
          Actually the biblical texts on the subject beautifully harmonize without the above ‘useful’ implied expressions. The texts can be studied and interpreted as they appear without eisegesis. But that would be costly in terms of how we counsel people, and that cost is too great for some to accept—it would put many divorces into a conventionally unacceptable light.
          It seems to this writer that we should let Scripture speak its own message. Our task is to discover it and through careful exegesis understand it, then live it. Some Church leaders of our day will have to answer for much because of their contribution to damaging the reflection of Christ’s relationship to the Church, the Body of Christ. They have fostered a Church culture in which Jesus’ teaching is virtually meaningless. There are many consequences in various areas of life, but we are concerned here with them only as they relate to Jesus’ teaching.
          The consequences of divorce and remarriage should be allowed to stand. There is not one person who must commit this kind of adultery. There is not one Christian who must violate 1 Corinthians 7:11. The ‘good things’ of this life are not worth more than the righteousness of upholding the picture of Christ’s relationship to His Church. It is possible to live a life of meaning and purpose before God without necessarily pursuing that which the world, even sometimes the Church world, deems important.


          The usage of two voices, active and passive, in Jesus’ divorce statements as they relate to adultery, does make a difference in translation and, as a result, in understanding. The focus was particularly on the passive voice in New Testament Greek since that has often been ignored.
          In one case the passive was used as appropriate to a wife in keeping with general complementarian gender roles appearing biblically. Even if she was unwillingly brought to the divorce, she is a party to the violation of the marriage covenant and its portrayal of Christ’s relationship to the Church. If any statement involves stigma, it would be this one.
          In the other cases, the use of the passive voice involves bringing a third individual into the divorce picture thus effectively canceling any opportunity of obeying the commands stated in 1 Corinthians 7:11.
          If every Christian understood Jesus’ teaching and practiced it, marriage would be held in much higher esteem in the Church, it would be entered into with much greater preparation and caution, there would be greater effort expended in making marriage ‘work,’ and the testimony for Christ would shine that much brighter.

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