During the last couple of sermons, we looked at the text of Matthew 19:3-9 regarding divorce and also spent some time answering some of the common questions that arise when discussing this issue. There was one question that we did not have time to tackle, yet it is one that is common enough that I’d like to take some time to deal with it here.
As you know, the Lord teaches in Matthew 19:9 that cases of sexual immorality represent an exception to the rule that to divorce and remarry another constitutes adultery. This leads some people to assume that infidelity effectively ends the marriage covenant and that must be why these cases represent an exception to the rule.
Is that the case? Does infidelity break the marriage covenant in such a way as to end it? This is an important question. Should the offended spouse consider himself or herself still in a covenant with the unfaithful spouse?
Scripture may not answer this question explicitly, but I believe we can gather principles that will help us to arrive at a conclusion. As with some of the other questions we considered, God’s relationship with the Israelites in the Old Testament is instructive. We find many times in the OT that the Israelites are described as having broken their covenant with Yahweh through their spiritual adultery: “They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words. They have gone after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their fathers” (Jer 11:10, cf Deut 31:16-21).
We need to consider in what sense the people broke the covenant. Did they break it in the sense of failing to abide by its stipulations? Or did they break it in the sense of causing it to come to an end? Or both – did their failure to abide by its stipulations result in the ending of the covenant?
Clearly, they broke it at least in the sense of failing to abide by its stipulations. Yahweh was as clear as crystal that the covenant required them to worship Him alone (Exo 20:3; 23:32; Deut 6:1-25; Jos 23:15-16). Yet, they “played the whore” on “every high hill and under every green tree” (Jer 2:20, 3:1-2). But did that failure cause the end of the covenant? There are at least two reasons we have to say no. First, the people were still bound by the stipulations of the covenant. Though they violated the covenant, God still held them to its stipulations. They were still expected to obey all of the Law. That indicates that the covenant was not ended by their violation of it. Second, God gave Israel and Judah a decree of divorce, only after which did He say, “you are not my wife.” That is, it was Yahweh who officially ended the union and He did so via a certificate of divorce.
What does this tell us about a marriage in which there has been infidelity? The unfaithful spouse has broken the marriage covenant in the sense the he or she has failed to keep the stipulations of the covenant, but not in the sense of having ended the covenant. Though infidelity has taken place, the marriage still exists and the two members are bound by its terms. The only thing that can end the marriage, other than death, is divorce. As Yahweh was justified in ending His marriage to Israel and Judah, so the offended spouse is justified in ending his or her marriage to an unfaithful spouse. It is not the violation of the covenant that ends it, but divorce that ends it.
I’d like to reiterate that while we spent a good deal of time talking about various questions, exceptions, and scenarios, we need to keep in mind that the Lord’s main point in Matthew 19:3-9 was to call His disciples to a lifelong commitment to marriage, understanding that this is God’s design for that institution. Please remember that if you are struggling in your marriage, we want to help you. We have a number of folks who are trained and qualified to come alongside you and help you find the hope that God’s Word offers no matter what your circumstances. If you are a husband whose wife is not interested in counseling, we have godly men who can help you. If you are a wife whose husband is not interested in counseling, we have godly women who can help you. If you and your spouse agree that you could use some help, whether it is dealing with serious issues and just addressing some bad habits, we can come alongside you as well. Please let us know. We would love to help.