In the 80s I worked for a time for Elim Bible College at Capel in Surrey as a Maintenance Mechanic. It was a great break from the Motor Trade and increased my range of skills in bricklaying, electrics, plumbing, etcetera. What was also great was the access to a good library and students and even debates. A new member of the faculty set up these debates as a means of helping students learn the bible passages that related to a topic, but even there sometimes, there was no one to take up the challenge to oppose or speak for a motion. One such time was when the topic of divorce and remarriage came up. I think the motion went something like this: Can a Christian man divorce and remarry when his Christian wife has committed adultery and run off with another man?
I took up the challenge to speak for remarriage and - if I recall - I began by saying that under the Old Testament had the woman been caught, there would have been no issue. She would have been killed for her sin (So would the guy she ran off with actually)!
So it went on...
However, before I go on, in the writing of anything that speaks to repair something or move on from something that has failed, sight can be lost of what the norm should be for that something.
What is marriage? How should it be? Well, Jesus spoke into this by saying:
Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning "made them male and female," 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"? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.
Here Jesus is saying marriage is a serious deal. Not only is it between a male and a female as indeed the natural act of procreation in mankind only involves a male and a female, but it is also a relationship that involves adhering to each other. Now, in Jesus emphasising the bond and unity of the relationship he was speaking into a prevalent practise that needed attention. We can see this in that what he was saying was in such a stark contrast to the understood at the time, that the disciples reacted like this:
His disciples said to Him, "If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry."
That is some serious reaction. But, it is a reaction to the expansion and further explanation of what Jesus said too. Having emphasised the original marriage bond intended. The Pharisees interjected with the law of Moses saying:
Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?
To which Jesus replied:
Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.
The reaction of the disciples then seen points to the common perception of the day that it was much easier in the rules and practise of the day to divorce and that the higher value on the relationship Jesus advocated was not familiar. Now there are other great passages to employ and benefit in the teaching of marriage such as Ephesians 5:25-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-7 and so on. But, since there are many good places for this to be read and understood, what I now wish to focus on is the exception for divorce Jesus shared and what it means in practise.
First where divorce occurred - and since there is an exception clause, here in the NKJV translated as "except for sexual immorality" - divorce can occur. It needs to be recognised that remarriage is understood as normally possible when divorce happens. We can see this in that first Jesus recognised divorce was in the law:
Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives . . .
So we see here Jesus recognised that in the Scripture - under the law of Moses - it was permitted to divorce. And Jesus recognised that remarriage was fully practised following divorce in the law. Anyone divorced were free, in the law of Moses, to remarry. We see this in that the only opposition to remarriage in the law was for one person in the whole land: the High priest. The high priest was not permitted to be married to a divorcee, a widow or any other non virgin.
. . . the high priest among his brethren . . . A widow or a divorced woman or a defiled woman or a harlot-these he shall not marry; but he shall take a virgin of his own people as wife.
A priest could marry a divorcee or anyone else, but not the high priest. This helps us to see that it was normal and proper under the law of Moses for a divorcee to remarry. Just as it was normal and proper for a widow to remarry so it was for a divorcee. Since it is a fact that the event of divorce meant remarriage was a free act under the law of Moses, it is the natural context in which the exception clause was stated "except for porneia". Jesus in his exception clause understood that remarriage was a free act permissible following a divorce under that exception. To say otherwise is to wrench the exception clause out of the context out of which it was stated and understood.
Since we can see that the norm in the Scripture was to be able to remarry a divorcee then, when Jesus said "whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery", it is a reference to all who divorce without that exception which are in view. This is equally the case for the preceding words "and marries another, commits adultery" since both these statements refer to a divorce outside of that exception.
This established, let's look at what was meant by porneia.
This Greek word has been translated as "fornication" KJV, "sexual immorality" NKJV & NIV, "immorality" NASB, "unfaithful" NLT, "adultery" The Message, "whoredom" Young, etc.
Is it sex before marriage?
Now, over the years I have heard and read that fornication means sex before marriage. We can see in scripture this is not so. For that we need to see what marriage is in its most basic form. It is the union between a man and a woman: And that physically too. We can see this from Paul's words.
. . . do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For "The two," He says, "shall become one flesh."
1 Corinthians 6:16
What is Paul saying in effect is this:
Sex before marriage does not exist: it is marriage in that sense of being one body with the sexual partner. If you have sex with another then you are becoming one flesh with them: you are marrying them. Sex is for marriage only, so having sex with another you declare they are your partner according to the bible. In law this is recognised if you remain true in that state as a common law marriage. But, since as Christians we are to respect the law of the land and be subject to it according to Romans 13, then the full legal registration and vows therein is needful. But, it is to be recognised that in the bible there is no ceremony for marriage. The act of sex with your partner is the seal of that union intended. You are married.
So this deed is not fornication since there is no sex before marriage: it is marriage.
So, what is porneia?
Is it adultery?
Above I quoted a number of bible versions among which was ' "adultery" The Message'. Is fornication the same as adultery? No, it is not in itself. I say that it is not in itself, because as we shall see persistent adultery is the same as fornication and just as being ' "unfaithful" NLT' is not in itself fornication, when it is repeatedly, and related to sex, then yes it too is the same as fornication. You can fall and be unfaithful and commit adultery without committing fornication. We can see this in that both fornication and adultery (which involves unfaithfulness) are listed as separate sins.
He said, "What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man."
So since adultery is a separate act to fornication then it is not the same and is thereby not a cause for divorce in itself. This is important. Fornication has been deemed as speaking of any illicit sexual act other than with your married partner. The explicit listing of porneia as separate and different from adultery shows this is not so: since adultery is a separate type of sin.
But, that adultery can be a cause for divorce is still relevant dependent on the heart of the person who committed adultery, even if that act was not repeated or persistent, which I will explain below. This is because Jesus is also clear you can commit a sin just in your heart.
You have heard that it was said to those of old, "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
This truth is the same with fornication. You do not even have to commit a deed to commit fornication; just have a heart full of it. Just because an opportunity has not arisen to practise what is in the heart does not mean fornication itself has not been carried out.
However, for the purpose of divorce a manifestation that is clearly evident is required. And into this Jesus also speaks:
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.
We can see this further as the very meaning of porneia is clarified.
Porneia is part of a set of words that essentially refer to the same act. These are porneuó - the verb related (8 - The number of times in the NT); ekporneuó a different form of the same verb (1); porné - the female person that does this (12); pornos - the male person that does this or a person who does this generically [i.e. anyone] (10).
From these words we have "whore" (KJV), "harlot" (KJV, NKJV), "prostitute" (NIV, NLT) so that the emphasis can be more easily deduced to refer to a ready propensity to acts of sex outside of proper wedlock or just a heart full of treachery in opposition to an external united relationship. As we saw this latter meaning is seen in Jesus' words that identify any sin in the heart is no less an issue than a sin in physical practise.
There is a further pointer to this latter emphasis of porneia. This can be seen a little in the New Testament, but even more so in the Septuagint (LXX) use of porneia.
. . . I will show you the judgment of the great harlot [PORNÉ] who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication [PORNEUÓ], and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication [PORNEIA].
Here it is less sex in view as the trafficking of evil unspecified. And a pointer to what that evil entails can be better seen in the LXX. The LXX is the Greek Version of the Old Testament which Jesus and the apostles quoted in the New Testament (NT). The NT was written in the same language as the LXX hence its value to clarify the meaning of words used in the NT. (cf. my book Serious Mistranslations of The Bible).
And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity [ZENUTH Heb. - PORNEIA LXX], until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness.
Here the word ZENUTH in the Hebrew has been translated porneia in the LXX and "whoredom" in the KJV (X9). The NKJV, which is the version I quote throughout unless otherwise mentioned, translates it as "infidelity". This is a reference to the idolatry of Israel in the wilderness and can be seen more clearly elsewhere:
You built your high places at the head of every road, and made your beauty to be abhorred. You offered yourself to everyone who passed by, and multiplied your acts of harlotry [TAZNUTH Heb. - PORNEIA LXX].
Here we see the Hebrew word TAZNUTH translated as "harlotry" and again porneia in the LXX. It is "fornication" in the KJV (X2) and "whoredom" (X18). What is relevant is the idolatry pictured in this passage. Instead of being faithful to the Lord, the description is of altars and false places of worship set up in numerous places. These help describe and pinpoint that idolatry is in view and not actual physical acts of sex, but that it is also promiscuous and plentiful is clear. This is repeated in the LXX and is a clear meaning of porneia as well as sexual promiscuity. So that for porneia a clear understanding of a spiritual and wilful idolatry when Israel was betrothed to the Lord in view show this is in line with a treacherous heart of unfaithfulness to a partner. For a full list of the instances of porneia in the LXX see note below.
The challenge then arises as to how this is recognised, if it is to be an effective unprejudiced exception for divorce?
The answer I believe is in Jesus' own teaching that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34). A regular language of opposition to one's partner is a sign of a treacherous heart. How this can be proved again is another matter. But, here - I trust - I have highlighted a reality that porneia, and thus the exception clause to a divorce for a Christian, is more in line with the law of the land in place today than was perhaps considered before: i.e. Not just as in a narrow understanding of adultery or persistent acts of sex outside of wedlock as the exception for divorce.
What does this mean for the Christian?
Well, I did say this was not an article on marriage, but I have made clear my take on what the "innocent" in a marriage in difficulty should do. My article entitled Divorce and the 'Innocent' Partner shows what our heart attitude should be. A relationship commitment involves playing one's part to make it complete. The article ends with the reality, if one's partner persists in practising a separate heart as mentioned above, then effectively they are identifying with an unbeliever and if they then depart as Paul stated then "if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases." (1 Corinthians 7:15). The word "bondage" is from the Greek douloó the verb related to doulos - a slave. The fully departed partner in divorce frees the "innocent" from the bond.
Full list of references for Porneia in the LXX: Genesis 38:24; Numbers 14:33; 2 Kings 9:22; Isaiah 47:10, 57:9; Jeremiah 2:20, 3:2, 9, 13:27a; Ezekiel 16:15, 22, 25, 33, 34, 36, 41, 23:7, 8, 8, 23:11, 11, 14, 17, 18, 19, 27, 29, 29, 35, 43:7, 9; Hosea 1:2, 2, 2:2, 4, 4:11, 12, 5:4, 6:10; Micah 1:7, 7; Nahum 3:3, 4