Naturally, this debate would immediately turn towards examining the Scriptural evidence for one's position on this matter. I believe it is prudent to look at the Biblical evidence directly touching upon this subject:
Matthew 5: 31 "It was also said [in the Mosaic Law], 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 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 19: 3And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?" 4He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? 6So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." 7They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?" 8He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." 10The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry."
Mark 10: 2And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away." 5And Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." 10And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
Luke 16: 18Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.These passages all are saying basically the same thing: divorce is sinful and forbidden, and only death frees up the widow for another marriage (if desired, 1 Cor 7:8-9, 40). Most Protestants generally agree with this assessment, but would point out that an "exception" is clearly stated in Matthew's accounts on the matter. This "exception" will now be examined.
1 Cor 7: 10To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11(but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. ... 39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.Romans 7: 2For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
There are three general categories on how the clause in Matthew - "except for sexual immorality" - is to be understood:
(1) In the event one spouse sexually "cheats" on the other spouse, the "innocent spouse" has grounds to divorce and remarry. The "guilty spouse" cannot remarry, despite being divorced, though some Protestants would drop this prohibition should the sin of "cheating" be repented of.
(2) In the event the spouse chooses anything to love above that of their wife/husband, that can be considered "cheating" in a true and just sense. For example, a spouse that is addicted to alcohol, pornography, gambling, a deadbeat, etc, could be said to be acting just as bad if not worse than if sexually "cheating" on their wife/husband with another person, and thus have grounds to divorce them. This can also be expanded to include a couple who "just cant get along" and feels it better to divorce, but stops short of "no fault" divorce (which would fall into the "liberal" Protestant sphere). The 'rules' for remarriage are essentially identical to the previous interpretation.
(3) There is no actual "exception" in the sense most people are thinking, and thus divorce is never allowed under any circumstances. This is the Catholic view, but it is starting to be shared by more and more Protestants (though still in a serious minority). A more detailed examination of this view will be discussed later on in this article.
There are "conservative" Protestants in all of the above categories, with the great majority falling within category 1 or 2. The Westminster Confession of Faith (written in 1646) is a standard which has informed and guided many denominations of Protestants for almost 400 years, and this is what it teaches on the subject of divorce (Chapter 24 Sec V-VI, note the Scripture proof texts are still linked):
V. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, gives just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.The 'guidelines' here are essentially that of category 1 above. In this case, the Westminster Confession includes abandonment of your spouse along with sexual immorality as grounds for divorce, arguing 1 Corinthians 7 includes this as an exception. How broadly these "exceptions" can be taken is something Protestants cannot agree upon, hence the existence of the second category above.
VI. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God has joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.
The third category is the least popular for two main reasons: it's not a conclusion people favoring divorce want to accept, and it's explanation of the Biblical evidence is the least understood. The Catholic analysis of the Biblical evidence leading to the conclusion of category 3 is basically as follows:
(1) Mark, Luke, and Paul don't mention any "exception," which suggests no exception exists. Of all that was written on this subject, that no "exception" is listed is quite telling. Paul even explains the only thing allowed is to live separately but "remain unmarried," while explaining the only grounds for remarriage are death of one of the spouses.
(2) All the texts speak of the serious rupture divorce would cause, and that Christ is holding men to a higher standard than what the Mosaic Law held men to. Divorce is explicitly said to be allowed by Moses only reluctantly, on the basis of hardness of hearts of the Jews. Contrasted to this, Christ says this goes against God's original purpose for Marriage (i.e. permanence), starting back in Eden!
(3) If you look carefully, especially at Luke's account, both the one who divorces and the one divorced are not allowed to remarry (indicating the original marriage still exists), and this goes against the idea of an "innocent spouse" being still able to remarry. Here is Luke's account: "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery." The man in this case is the "guilty party" by illegitimately divorcing and thus is acting sinfully, but if the "innocent spouse" theory is true, the illegitimately divorced woman should be free to marry, yet this is explicitly ruled out by Our Lord.
(4) If some sin were grounds to allow divorce, this would encourage couples (even if only unconsciously) to commit that sin so that a divorce would result, tarnishing Christ's teaching in the first place. This would distort the message Christ is trying to covey about the two now being "one," and not letting man undo "what God has joined."
(5) It would leave one unable to explain why the "guilty spouse" is not free to remarry if the mutual bond is indeed broken. This is further complicated if cases where both spouses mutually seek divorce. Arguing that the "guilty party" cannot remarry as a matter of disciplinary punishment rather than theological goes against the context of the passage (i.e. Jesus is grounding marriage on God's covenantal terms, where as Moses was grounding it on civil law).
Given all this, when approaching the "exception" clause, it should be clear that a genuine "exception" would not harmonize well with the above evidence. Now I turn to ways in which the "exception" clause can be understood in a way perfectly in harmony with the abundant evidence against divorce and remarriage:
- When Matthew says "whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery," the Greek term for "sexual immorality" (sometimes translated "fornication") is not the same Greek word as "adultery". So a reading of "whoever divorces their spouse, except for adultery, commits adultery," is not an accurate interpretation, yet this is precisely how those advocating an exception would need the text to read. The two terms also appear in Matthew 15:19, side by side, in a list of sins, further indicating there is a distinction. That there are two different words here suggests something else is intended rather than "adultery" (i.e. "cheating") being grounds for divorce.
- The term "sexual immorality" (one word in Greek) can refer to unlawful unions of people who should not be getting married (e.g. close relatives, already married), making any genuine marriage impossible or invalid. This can be shown in how the term is used in places like 1 Corinthians 5:1 (where a Gentile Christian is having relations with his step-mother) and Acts 15:20 (where a disciplinary decree was issued listing "sexual immorality" alongside other Jewish disciplinary laws, and in which forbidding fornication in general would have been unnecessary since such a thing goes without saying for any Christian).
- Matthew is the only writer to mention this clause, but he could be doing this since he is the only one who covers the potential divorce between Joseph and Mary in 1:18ff, "Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly." In Jewish times there were 'stages' of marriage, with 'betrothal' being a step above our modern understanding of 'engagement'. It was at this point when Joseph, a just man and not acting out of hardness of heart, sought to divorce her, since he suspected "sexual immorality" tarnishing a potentially full fledged marriage commitment. Thus, he was not breaking apart a fully ratified marriage, but instead a semi-marriage. This fits perfectly with Christ's "exception" clause and is (ironically), precisely what the Westminster Confession spoke of above when speaking of divorce "before marriage".
- The separation Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 is not to be confused with the Lord's commandment in 7:10-11 between married Christians not being able to divorce. Those in focus in 7:12-15 involve a marriage between a Christian and unbeliever, which is a valid marriage but doesn't carry the mark of a Christian (Sacramental) marriage, and is speaking of the unbeliever abandoning the marriage, so it is not the subject of "except for sexual immorality".
With all 3 categories examined, we now see a serious problem emerging: everyone is ultimately determining for themselves what is true and permissible on an issue which affects (both directly and indirectly) the day to day life and belief of Christians. Something is wrong here, and that problem is Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura cannot 'settle' this issue, and that's because each Protestant is ultimately their own magisterium, deciding for themself whether something such as divorce is allowed or not. The result is a slippery-slope to moral and doctrinal relativism, and this is clearly seen today with the staggering rate of divorces and leniency among "conservative" Protestants on other moral issues (e.g. contraception and masturbation). Only the Catholic Church has remained faithful to Scripture and Tradition in this regard, and that is clear testimony to why it is the Church Christ Himself founded and which all who wish to follow Him must strive to unite them self to.
Worse yet, Piper and the other pastors at his church have issued a signed decree for all his congregation stating that:
Among the membership of Bethlehem in 1989 complete unanimity does not exist concerning the question what divorces and what remarriages are Biblically permissible. This lack of unanimity is a reflection of the evangelical church worldwide.Remember, this is coming from the very "conservative" end of the Protestant spectrum, with well respected Protestants involved. But what was admitted here and elsewhere is simply astonishing, and so much so that the Catholic position is clearly the only acceptable one. Here we see enshrined in this Protestant church's bylaw is a statement that says each pastor ultimately decides for himself whether divorce and remarriage are acceptable and that Pastor Piper himself wont force his views on his own fellow pastors! This leads to nothing short of short of church sponsored adultery! Imagine what's going on with less "conservative" Protestant churches than this! And the elephant in the room is none other than Sola Scriptura.
Many of those in leadership at Bethlehem share this early Christian consensus that remarriage after divorce is wrong while the spouses are still living. Pastor Piper's efforts to understand the Biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage led him to this conclusion some years ago. While he does not count this view the normative one for the staff, deacons or church, it is the guideline for his own counsel, preaching and performance of weddings. The same freedom of conscience applies to each of the other pastors as well.
While the Bible gives sufficient evidence to know the correct view one should take on divorce, the fact is the Sola Scriptura approach has been proven disastrous to uphold and defend Christian morality since it leaves the authoritative interpretation of Scripture in the hands of each individual. This is a prime example of why an authoritative Church, the very thing Sola Scriptura rules out, is necessary for Christianity to function. Protestants have had an adulterous affair with Scripture, tearing it from its eternal union with the Catholic Magisterium, resulting in all sorts of adulterous mutilations of the Gospel Truth.