This is a very difficult subject. For one thing it is controversial. For another, there can be a huge amount of emotion and pain bound up in it. There are few things more painful and more damaging than the break-up of a marriage. There is the pain of rejection; the hurt of perhaps having been treated badly; and maybe guilt and regrets. That pain might well be made worse by then being treated as a second-class citizen by other Christians. And yet, Christians want to uphold the sanctity of marriage and not be too comfortable with divorce. It is a tight-rope.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew records only 2 verses of Jesus’ words on this topic but there is fuller teaching in chapter 19. READ Matt 19:3-12
If you look at your footnotes, you will see that Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 24:1 and, in fact, it looks as if Jesus is contradicting Moses. Moses allowed divorce – providing there was a certificate. Jesus did not allow divorce. Yet earlier in this chapter, Jesus said that He had not come to abolish the Law and that every last little detail would remain in force until the end of time.
Jesus was not quoting Deuteronomy 24:1. He was quoting the Pharisees distortion of it; their very liberal interpretation of it. They focused on the certificate and it is a command. A man divorcing his wife must give her a certificate of divorce. Divorce is OK; the only requirement is the certificate. The same is true in chapter 19: “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce?”
But that is not what Deuteronomy 24:1 says at all! It talks about a very specific case that fulfils a series of conditions. If a man finds something indecent about his wife, and if he gives her a certificate of divorce and she leaves [Note that it is not a command that he must give her a certificate but if he does.] and if she marries again, and if her second husband dislikes her and also gives her a certificate of divorce, or if he dies, then the first husband must not remarry her.
Admittedly it does assume that a divorce can occur but it is not a command to give a certificate. The only command is the prohibition against a divorced couple remarrying. The reason for that is not altogether clear. Maybe it is saying that if a man discovers something sufficiently indecent in his wife that warrants divorce, then it should also be sufficient reason for not taking her back. You can’t just pick and choose; one thing today, another tomorrow. Maybe it is a warning against making too hasty a decision or to protect the wife from exploitation. There is certainly no command to divorce or even any encouragement to do so. All of the conditions and the irrevocability of it, imply caution and reluctant permission.
In Matthew 19, the Pharisees asked, “Why did Moses command a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce?” Jesus replied, “This is not a command from God. This is a concession. Moses allowed it only because of the hardness of your hearts.” God does not favour divorce. Malachi says that God hates divorce. God’s plan is life-long, exclusive, intimate, caring, loving marriage, but human sinfulness means that relationships often are not like that. Relationships are often painful or abusive. There may be no love. There might be violence. There might be infidelity. It is not God’s plan or His desire for us, but often it is the reality, and God, acknowledging the reality, has made provision for divorce.
The Pharisees’ question in chapter 19 reflected a controversy of the time. Rabbi Shammai interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1 to mean that the only grounds for divorce was some serious indecency. The wife has done something badly wrong. Rabbi Hillel interpreted it to mean that anything a husband didn’t like about his wife was sufficient grounds for a divorce. If her cooking wasn’t good enough or she lost her good looks or he was enamoured by some other beautiful woman, that was sufficient. In other words, Rabbi Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife for any and every reason. The Pharisees wanted to know which side Jesus was on. Could a man divorce his wife for any and every reason?
They wanted to talk about divorce but Jesus wanted to talk about marriage. The answer to the divorce question is to understand marriage. Jesus took them back to the scriptures and back to the creation. He scorned them for not knowing this themselves: Have you not read…? He quoted from Genesis 1 and 2. This was God’s design from the creation. He made humans male and female. God designed this whole business of two different sexes who join together in marriage. There is no support anywhere in scripture for the idea of same-sex marriages. Marriage is based on this design of male and female.
His next statement was that for this reason a man would leave his father and mother and be united to his wife. Marriage is about the formation of a new relationship. The man’s previous primary relationship was with his parents, and of course, he still is related to his parents but that is no longer his first relationship. His relationship with his wife is now the first relationship in his life.
Then He says that they are united and become one flesh. This union is so intimate and profound that they become a unit. They are no longer two individual, independent people. They are a couple. They belong to one another. They are bound together.
His fourth statement is that this union is created by God and must not be broken by people. Marriage was designed and instituted by God and it is God who unites a couple to become one flesh. It is a God-thing and if God has joined two people together, no person may separate them.
Let’s summarise those four statements:
- Marriage is linked specifically to God’s design of us as male and female. Despite what our parliament says, marriage involves a man and a woman.
- Marriage is a couple’s number one relationship and it excludes all others. Even the blood ties with parents become secondary to the new relationship that is formed in marriage. It strongly implies that marriage involves one man and one woman and no one else. Add in the Commandment not to commit adultery and it is very clear that marriage is to involve one man and one woman and no one else.
- Thirdly, the relationship is so close that the couple are described as being one.
- God creates that union and no one may break it.
The Pharisees asked why Moses then had commanded that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away. That is a stupid distortion. At face value that would mean that every married man was commanded to divorce his wife. Jesus changed the word. Moses permitted you to divorce your wives. It is a concession because of our sinfulness. That is a very different thing.
He then repeated this teaching, that we have seen in the Sermon on the Mount, that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and then marries another woman, commits adultery.
What does that tell us about God’s view of marriage? Adultery can occur only if one or both of the people is married. Here is it the man who is married otherwise Jesus could not have made such a blanket statement about remarriage being adultery. So the man is married even though he is divorced. Do you see what is happening here? In God’s eyes the man is still married even though he might have a legal divorce. What God has joined together, no man can separate. This again tells us something about how God views marriage. Marriage is an enduring, life-long, until-death- us-do-part relationship.
The Pharisees asked about divorce but Jesus talked about marriage. Understanding God’s view of marriage answers the questions about divorce. Marriage is God’s designed relationship for a man and a woman who are joined, by God, in an exclusive relationship, so completely that it can be said that the two have become one. It is an enduring relationship that no one can break.
But, and this is where it gets interesting, Jesus cited an exception. Remarriage is adultery unless there has been sexual immorality. That is in both Matthew 19 and the Sermon on the Mount. My understanding of that is that immorality, by either party, destroys the marriage. Again, the exclusivity of marriage is so important that the marriage bond is broken when one of the couple gets involved with someone else. Because the first marriage has been broken, a remarriage is not adultery. In other words, in God’s eyes, divorce doesn’t end a marriage but infidelity does.
So can Christians divorce and remarry? That is somewhat controversial. Some will say no, not under any circumstances. Others will say yes, where there has been infidelity. Others will say divorce is not an unforgivable sin. The Gospel is about new beginnings. God forgives.
Some divorced Christians will remain single (even when there has been infidelity and they could legitimately remarry) as a sign of their commitment to their marriage vows. Others feel quite free to remarry. This is hard and we need to be very careful about judging others. Going through a divorce is hard enough without being judged by Christians and then judged again if one chooses to remarry.
On one level it looks straight-forward. Jesus allowed only one exception. But even that is not quite clear. I have said “infidelity” but Jesus used a more general term for immorality. So what does that include?
Paul allowed another exception. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul reaffirms the permanence of marriage. A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. He reiterates Jesus’ teaching. What about where a believer is married to an unbeliever? Paul says if the unbeliever is willing to stay then do not divorce.
However, then he says that if an unbelieving partner leaves, let it be so. A brother or sister is not bound in such circumstances. Here is another exception where remarriage is permissible: an unbelieving partner has left. Paul would not have added an exception that he didn’t believe was consistent with Jesus’ teaching but clearly it is a little wider than simply infidelity. This is why people will draw the lines in slightly different places. Does it mean that there are some things that are so serious that they do end the marriage in God’s eyes? What things? Infidelity. An unbelieving spouse leaving. If a woman is physically or emotionally abused, is that also an instance where leaving that marriage and possibly, remarrying would be justified in God’s eyes – where God would say, “This is no longer a marriage”?
In trying to answer questions about divorce, we are best served by remembering what God says about marriage. We understand divorce in the light of God’s teaching on marriage. So, we can certainly say, “There is no easy out. Marriage is designed to be life-long. This is God’s plan. There is a Plan B but divorce is only a concession to human sinfulness. It is not God’s best. God values marriage extraordinarily highly. Therefore we should put high priority on our marriages – on nurturing them and making them strong and as close to God’s Plan A as possible. When there are difficulties, for Christians, there is no easy out and we are expected to work on it.
Even where there has been serious damage done to a marriage, a Christian might not assume divorce but choose to remain committed to that marriage and seeking reconciliation, if possible. God models that. Though Israel had turned to other gods, God continually sought reconciliation. The prophet Hosea was commanded to marry a promiscuous woman and to renew his love for her after she had committed adultery. Imagine marrying a promiscuous woman in the first place but then knowing that she was betraying you – and being told to go and love her and win her back. Why did the poor man have to do this? Because it was an image of God’s willingness to be reconciled to His unfaithful people.
The 4th century archbishop, Chrysostom, linked this passage to the Beatitude and said, “For he that is meek and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own?”
Bad relationships are a human reality and God is both realistic and caring. Divorce is a concession to the reality. Some of us may have, or may in the future, face the pain of a bad relationship. It is extraordinarily painful and we must have compassion on those who suffer in this way. Reality may require divorce.
But we should never go there too quickly. Let us remember what God says about marriage and let us pray for God’s Plan A. Let us value marriage the way God values marriage. Let us invest heavily in our marriages because they are a gift from God. Let us be people of forgiveness and reconciliation. And by the grace of God, may our marriages to be a witness to a broken world of what Kingdom relationships can be like.