What Does “Makes Her an Adulteress” Mean?

Whenever folks discuss Christ’s restrictions on marriage and divorce, this question frequently arises. What is the meaning of the phrase “makes her an adulteress” in Matthew 5:32? Wayne Jackson answers this question.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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One of the most frequently debated teachings of Christ is that of his restrictions on divorce and remarriage. Many of those discussions revolve around the meaning of one particular phrase found in Matthew 5:32.

What does the phrase "maketh her an adulteress’ (in Matthew 5:32) mean?

There are two possible views relative to “maketh her an adulteress,” as found in this passage. But before we get to those two possibilities, we would observe that whatever conclusion one reaches, it must harmonize with the overall teaching of the New Testament on the general topic of marriage and divorce.

What are the two views?

One view suggests that the sense is this: the man who divorces his wife in a capricious fashion, without the legitimate reason (see Matthew 5:32; 19:9), causes that put-away woman to be viewed as an adulteress, since the common perception would be that she would not have been put away unless she had been guilty of unfaithfulness.

From this viewpoint, the sense then would be: “he gives her the reputation of being an adulteress.” This would not suggest that she actually is an immoral woman, but she will be perceived as such.

William Hendriksen has argued this view, and his chief point is that a passive voice verb is employed. He writes:

The Greek, by using the passive voice of the verb, states not what the woman becomes or what she does but what she undergoes, suffers, is exposed to. She suffers wrong. He [the husband initiating the divorce] does wrong. To be sure, she herself also may become guilty, but that is not the point which Jesus is emphasizing. Far better, it would seem to me, is therefore the translation, “Whoever divorces his wife except on the basis of infidelity exposes her to adultery,” or something similar (1973, 306).

Another view is that Jesus assumes, given the culture of that day, that a divorced woman would be driven to find another man, having been cast out. Since, in the contemplation of the language employed, she did not have a valid reason for a remarriage, joining herself to another man would place her in an adulterous union.

And so the sense of the phrase would be: “she is caused to commit adultery [by the dire circumstances which impel her to contract a subsequent marriage].” This is the sense assigned by William Arndt and F. W. Gingrich (1967, 528).

Each of these ideas is a matter of interpretation which attempts to extract the meaning from the grammar, the historical background of the passage, and the general biblical information relative to the divorce-remarriage controversy.

Neither of these views creates a conflict with other passages.

  • Arndt, William and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
  • Hendrickson, William. 1973. Exposition of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.