Understanding what the Bible teaches about divorce has a history that antedates the New Testament as evidenced by the Pharisees questioning Jesus. Then subsequently within the church until now. There is much tradition is associated with various teachings about divorce, especially within, but not confined to, the Roman Catholic church. Opinions run strong and emotions high; is there much to be added?
Divorce is rightly viewed as something that is sub-optimal and to be avoided; it is likely that a lot of divorce within the church is unbiblical. Because divorce is viewed so negatively some Christians allow divorce for minimal reasons, specifically the situations allowed by Jesus. Others try a systematic approach to the question of divorce hoping to establish principles consistent with the relevant scriptural passages. The later seems preferable; taking the larger context of the various passages into account. Any theology of divorce will undoubtedly see divorce as something to be avoided if possible, but we live in a fallen world and must allow for the sins of men. Murder should never occur but we need a theology that rightly deals with murderers. Likewise, there may be situations where divorce is allowed, where one party is predominantly innocent. In such cases a divorcee may believe himself or herself guilty when in fact they are not. The church should not treat all divorce the same as much as the state does not treat all killing the same.
The Jews were not to add or subtract from God’s words (Deu 4:2); likewise we should not be more lenient nor more restrictive than God. Having “higher” ideals than God makes one a legalist, especially when he places these expectations on others.
Any good theology of divorce originates from a right theology of marriage. Jesus pointed us to what God’s intent for marriage was prior to the Fall (Mar 10:6). Marriage was instituted by God. God made man and it was not good that he was alone. Everything he created was good but man’s aloneness was not good. Adam was permitted to know he was alone before God put him to sleep in order to make a woman to help him; compatible with him but different from him. An equal who had come from him in order that Adam may not be alone. Designed so that they could become one in flesh (Gen 2:24); being two in order that they would not be alone, yet becoming one. A type of the Godhead: the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father (Joh 17:21), with the Spirit. And we were given a component of the Spirit in our marriages (Mal 2:15). Why did God create marriage? So that we may raise godly children (Mal 2:15).
This teaches us
- that marriage was instituted by God;
- that marriage was between men and women;
- that marriage was to be between one man and one woman;
- that it was permanent (at least in this age); and
- that marriage is intended for the conception and raising of godly children.
Why then would God allow divorce? Jesus said what God has joined together let no man destroy.
Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Mat 19:8)
Divorce was a concession because of hard hearts. God regulated a situation because men are sinners.
The passages on divorce in the gospels are
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.” (Mat 5:31-32)
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luk 16:18)
Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed 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.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Mat 19:3-12)
Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mar 10:2-12)
The first passage in Matthew comes from the Sermon on the Mount. The passage in Luke is probably parallel though possibly something that Jesus had said several times during his teaching ministry. The second passage in Matthew parallels Mark. The teaching of Jesus in both these situations is similar though both times Matthew mentions an exception for adultery. It could be argued that the parallel passages in Luke and Mark may be distinct, for example Matthew has the added phrase “for any cause” (this is an appeal to the debate over how to interpret Deuteronomy which I will address shortly). Nevertheless, the most reasonable way to understand Matthew’s exception of divorce is to realise that Matthew is including explicitly what Mark and Luke see as implicit. There was no disagreement over whether divorce was allowed in the case of adultery by either party. All agreed that when adultery occurred the innocent party was allowed to obtain a divorce. Marriage is a covenant and adultery breaks that covenant. Divorce doesn’t break the covenant in the situation of adultery because the covenant has already been broken. Divorce is this situation is merely a legal acknowledgement that there is no longer any covenant. There was no disagreement between the various schools over divorce in the case of adultery therefore the adultery exception did not need to be specified; nevertheless, Matthew mentions it explicitly for completeness.
Matthew gives us an example with Joseph. Joseph and Mary are betrothed which is not the same as marriage but is more than engagement. The couple are not married and coitus is forbidden. Yet there is an agreement that betrothed couples will marry and dissolution requires a divorce. When Mary was found to be pregnant Joseph sort to divorce her quietly.
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 [future] husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce (ἀπολῦσαι) her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Mat 1:18-21)
Joseph (wrongly) thought that Mary had been sexually unfaithful. He seeks to divorce her and is called righteous. This is because Joseph sort to divorce her quietly so that Mary may not be shamed. There is no indication that Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary is in anyway wrong given how he had interpreted Mary’s pregnancy; that is he is not corrected concerning the wrongness of divorce per se, rather he is made aware of Mary’s fidelity thus he has no reason for divorce.
Divorce is allowed in the case of adultery because one party has already broken the marriage. There really should be no dispute about this. Though it is worth mentioning that while divorce is allowed it is not mandatory.
Returning the Pharisees’ challenge. The Pharisees were trying to test Jesus here asking,
Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?
Deuteronomy addresses divorce tangentially.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found something indecent (’ervat davar) in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deu 24:1-4)
The law is about returning to a former husband which is important when we come to Paul’s comments. For the purposes of the divorce debate the question is what does “something indecent” mean?
Some emphasised the “something” and some emphasised the “indecent”. If we emphasis the “something” then anything indecent is grounds for divorce. If we emphasis “indecent” then only things indecent are grounds. The later seems preferable, the something is still required to be indecent. The term “indecent” here carries the connotation of nakedness or sexuality.
In actually, however, this passage only assumes that the man might happen to divorce his wife if he finds something indecent in her. It does not clearly say that he is allowed to do this. This may be why Jesus says that Moses allowed divorce because of hardness of heart. The Jews were saying that Moses commands that the man give her a certificate of divorce but this is more than what this passage says. To have a law based on activities that men do perform is not to proscribe such activity. Consider the reasons why both men divorce the woman. The first man finds something indecent in her. The second man hates her. Both divorce her, but nothing in this passage states that either is justified in doing so. Only that the first husband may not take her back.
So Jesus only allows adultery as a reason for divorce here. Note, however, that the Law did not specify divorce for adultery, if specified execution (Lev 20:10). How do we explain this? There seem to be several reasons for the Jews choosing divorce over execution. Firstly, the Mosaic Law usually gave maximum sentences not minimum sentences. Occasionally the law was explicit in stating that a ransom was forbidden (Lev 27:29), that is, the sentence could not be commuted to a lighter sentence. Such a law implies that sentences could be commuted. Thus an adulterer who is divorced by another receives a lighter sentence than one who is executed.
Secondly, proving adultery is difficult. Proof of adultery such that the adulterer be executed needs to reach the high standard of 2 or 3 witnesses. Divorce is a response to probable adultery that lacks adequate evidence for a more severe sentence.
Thirdly, the Jews were not permitted to execute people during the occupation of the Romans. Thus divorce would be the appropriate response to adultery in this situation.
If adultery is the only reason for divorce then why does Paul add another? To understand Paul we need to go back to Jesus’ teaching given just prior to when the Pharisees tested him. Jesus is teaching the disciples about humility, sin, forgiveness and the salvation of the lost. In this context Jesus teaches how to win back a sinning brother.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Mat 18:15-20)
There are 2 common but different ways to understand what Jesus meant by, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” One approach says that Jesus sought to reach tax-collectors and sinners and we should focus our efforts on winning this brother back. The other approach says that we should treat them how the Jews in that culture treated tax-collectors and sinners. While the latter approach is probably more accurate, it seems best to read this as it relates to community. The unrepentant sinner is to be considered outside the community. In modern parlance they are excommunicated. They are refusing to even listen to the church so they must be treated as someone outside the church. This is not to say that they are unsaved (though they may be), rather that the church needs to have a form of discipline. The people inside the church need to be subject to the elders and those that refuse to be subject to the eldership must be removed to protect the rest of the sheep. The passage makes clear we are to do everything to reach such a person, yet if they are recalcitrant, sanctions must be enforced. (Of course a church can be sufficiently dysfunctional and a righteous man might get kicked out of a heretical church).
This covenantial relationship is the context into which Jesus was talking when he discussed the issue of divorce. Adultery is the only reason for divorce for 2 people in God’s kingdom. To the Pharisees this meant amongst the Jews. For us it means those within the church.
This does not mean that only people within the church have true marriages. Marriage is defined by God and remains a marriage even if one or both spouses are not part of the kingdom of God. What it does mean is that Jesus is addressing a specific situation: the situation where 2 people in a marriage covenant are within God’s larger covenant.
So when the Corinthians asked Paul about divorce Paul advises them according to the teaching that Jesus gave.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1Co 7:10-11)
Paul: “To the married I give this command concerning divorce. But this is not my teaching it is Jesus’ teaching.”
Paul reiterates Jesus’ teaching about divorce to those within God’s kingdom. When both spouses are within the church they must not divorce.
But what if one spouse is not a believer?
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. (1Co 7:12-13)
Paul here is giving a command and he specifies that it is he that gives it, not Jesus. In other words, Jesus did not give any command that addresses the situation where one spouse is a believer and one is an unbeliever. This comment by Paul shows that the situation in the gospels is solely addressing the case where husband and wife are married and both are within God’s covenant.
When reiterating Jesus’ command for married couples not to divorce Paul mentions that if a wife does separate she is to remain unmarried. Paul does not here mention the exemption for divorce in the case of adultery but we know it is the case from Jesus’ teaching which Paul is reiterating. However Paul adds that in the case of two believers, if a woman divorces her husband she is to remain unmarried or be reconciled to him.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate (χωρισθῆναι) from her husband; but if she does separate (χωρισθῇ) she should remain unmarried (ἄγαμος) or else be reconciled to her husband; and the husband should not send away (ἀφιέναι) his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not send her away (ἀφιέτω). If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not send him away (ἀφιέτω). For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates (χωρίζεται), let them separate (χωριζέσθω). In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved (δεδούλωται). God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1Co 7:10-16)
By separate (χωρισθῆναι) Paul means what we mean by divorce. In commanding the woman to remain single Paul is referring back to Deuteronomy. In the passage above it states that if a woman is divorced and remarried, then subsequently divorced again or widowed, then she is not to remarry her first husband. Paul applies this to the case of a believing marriage. The woman must not divorce but if she does (and she is wrong to do so) she should reconcile with her believing husband or remain single. The reason she is to remain single is to allow the possibility of reconciliation; for if she remains single and the situation can be resolved then she can remarry her previous husband. But if she were to remarry someone else then there is no possibility of her returning to her previous husband, either through subsequent divorce or through widowhood.
However in the case of marriage to unbelievers, stay married but if the unbeliever wishes to leave then let them do so. The call to the kingdom is greater than the call to one’s spouse (Luk 14:26). This appears to be a similar situation to the case of mixed marriages in Ezra. In that circumstance Ezra told the Jews to divorce their unbelieving wives (Ezra 10:3) whereas Paul allows unbelievers to stay if they so wish. Why do Paul and Ezra give different commands?
It is difficult to be completely certain but there are some differences that may be relevant. The first is that in Ezra we are dealing with the Old Covenant. It was important that unbelieving foreigners were kept out of the Jewish covenant. God was bringing the Messiah and external forces sort to thwart that. While we still should not be yoked to unbelievers in the new covenant, there is not the necessity to dispose of them. The Messiah has come and the kingdom of God is not a nation, rather it is within us, and God is expanding it through the earth. Before Christ the unclean made the clean unclean. In Christ the clean cleanses the unclean. As Paul says, “the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.”
Secondly, the foreign wives mentioned in Ezra were idolators. Idolatry was a capital offence in Israel. An idolatrous wife (or husband) was to be executed (Deu 17). As the Jews were (probably) forbidden from instituting the death penalty when ruled by the Persians, divorce was the only alternative option. Of course in Paul’s day the unbelievers were also idolaters but many in the church were not Jews and not under the Mosaic Law.
Another question often raised is what is the status of those who get divorced without valid reason? Jesus says that such divorce is adultery. What is a person in this situation to do? This question has also caused some consternation though I think it less tricky than the above questions. In confronting the Pharisees about the sanctity of marriage Jesus says,
What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.
Jesus gives a command here. The fact it is a command suggests it can be obeyed, and disobeyed. We are not to separate what God has joined together but it is feasible to do so. Adam was not to eat of the tree but he did. Divorces can be entered into wrongly but they are divorces. Jesus said,
Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Mat 19:)
What Jesus is saying is that if you do not have a reason to divorce and yet you get a divorce anyway then you are guilty of breaking the commandment against adultery. Jesus is not saying you are therefore not divorced, or that you have to return to your previous spouse. If there is no adultery already then divorce causes adultery. In Matthew 5 Jesus even says that if you divorce your wife (without reason) then you are making her commit adultery.
So the legitimate reasons for divorce are
- Adultery by a spouse;
- Abandonment by an unbeliever.
Further relevant commandments are
- A believer must only marry a believer;
- A believing woman who divorces her believing husband should reconcile or stay unmarried.
Illegitimate divorces cause adultery. They are still divorces. Remarriages are marriages.
This exegesis of Scripture is consistent with many Protestant interpretations of marriage and divorce. There seem to be many more possible scenarios than the 2 mentioned above. There are, but they can be addressed by considering church fellowship. Reformulating the reasons for divorce we get.
Legitimate reasons for divorce when both spouses are believers: that is, are in fellowship
- Adultery by a spouse
Legitimate reasons for divorce when one spouse is a believer: that is, in church fellowship
- Adultery by the unbeliever
- Abandonment by the unbeliever
How might this apply to difficult situations like physical abuse, criminal offending, etc? For the case of the unbeliever it seems that we can have a situation of functional abandonment. That is, even if the spouse claims they wish to remain married; if a wife’s behaviour is that of serious abuse or neglect, or a husband is convicted and imprisoned for a criminal offence, then the desire to remain married is belied by the behaviour and a divorce can be obtained. A believing wife need not remain married to a murderer just because he consents to stay married to his wife.
In the case where both spouses are believers the approach is one of Matthew 18. The husband or wife is to seek to resolve the problem directly, then with a few others, then with the church. The spouse who is sinning needs to avail himself of the church’s council and advice and repent. If he repents then the couple can work on repairing the marriage. If he refuses to repent then the church needs to discipline him appropriately. Ongoing refusal to repent and address sin should eventually be met by excommunication. At that stage the spouse is to be treated as out of fellowship, that is, as an unbeliever. Such the situation becomes the same as that of an unbeliever above. Serious crimes should be reported and capital offences should result in execution. Churches in countries that fail to execute or which prolong the process should allow divorce. Serious sins may result in immediate excommunication (1Co 5:1) and divorce may be obtained.
None of this should mean that if divorce is a legitimate option it must be pursued. God’s grace is evident in many situations where offended parties forgave and rebuilt their marriage. This is a wonderful testimony for God. Mercy triumphs over judgment. But neither should churches condemn or allow a spirit of condemnation in cases where divorce is a legitimate option. Innocent men and women should not be censured.
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