The subject of divorce is one that causes much disagreement in church-world. Some–like me–were raised believing that divorce is always wrong. Others believe that divorce is not only not wrong, but is sometimes even better than staying together. Our culture certainly has no problem with divorce. But my own study of this subject, sparked primarily by teaching through Matthew in a Sunday school class five years ago, has led me to a clarified understanding of biblical teaching on divorce.
Lest there be any doubt, let’s be clear: God hates divorce, as is made clear in Malachi 2:16.
Despite that, there are reasons for which divorce is allowable by God, even if not preferable or desired. It is important to keep this truth in mind when we hear of individuals who are or have been divorced.
In Matthew 19:1-6 the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife “on any grounds” (HSB) or “for any reason” (NKJV).
There were two separate groups among the Pharisees, the Hillelites (followers of Rabbi Hillel) and the Shammaites (followers of Rabbi Shammai). The Hillelites took a pragmatic approach and a loose interpretation of Moses’ writing to allow a man to divorce his wife for any reason (or even without reason).
Deuteronomy 24:1 refers to a man divorcing his wife because he has found some “uncleanness” in her (KJV and NKJV). This is also translated “some indecency” (ESV and NASB) and “something indecent” (NIV). In the original Hebrew it read “a cause of immorality,” or, more literally, “a thing of nakedness.”
The Hillelites seized on “cause” or “thing” and took it to mean that divorce was permitted for “a cause”—which could be anything that displeased the husband. Their reasoning was that Moses would have simply said “immorality,” not “a cause of immorality” if immorality were the only reason for which divorce was permitted. Accordingly, the Hillelites granted “any cause” divorces.
The Shammaites believed that Moses’ instruction in Deuteronomy allowed divorce for adultery only.
The point of the Pharisees’ question was to test Jesus, or trick Him. His answer should be understood to say that no, divorce is not allowed for just “any cause,” not that there is not any cause for which divorce is permitted. In short, Jesus was publicly stating that the Hillelites were wrong.
Some biblical scholars, most notably David Instone Brewer, hold that Exodus 21:10-11 states that there are three rights within any marriage, the rights of food, clothing and love (which we now commonly refer to in marriage vows as “love, honor and keep”).
According to Brewer Jesus did not mention in Matthew—nor did Paul mention in his writings—that these were causes for divorce because they did not need to, it was clearly stated on the marriage certificate. This would also include abuse, which is extreme neglect and a failure to love and honor.
Brewer also states that at the end of all Jewish and most Roman divorce certificates it said “you are now free to marry anyone you wish,” meaning, obviously, that remarriage was permissible and would not be considered adultery.
Paul states in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 that believers may not abandon their spouses, but if an unbelieving spouse abandons a believer then it is okay for the believer to remarry.
Furthermore, divorce and remarriage are both permissible if one partner breaks the marriage vows. While many Bible scholars hold that divorce and remarriage is only permitted by God in cases of adultery or the departure of an unbelieving spouse, abuse and neglect are likely also valid reasons for divorce and remarriage is permitted in those cases as well.
It should also be noted that any divorce prior to an individual accepting Christ is forgiven at the time of salvation, even if the divorce was for “any reason” (i.e., not a biblically permissible reason) and cannot be held against an individual even in consideration of holding a position of church leadership. The previous divorce is forgiven and forgotten just as are any and all other sins.
Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question reinforces the Old Testament teaching that marriage is an all-encompassing act of unity that should not be separated by man. Marriage should never be treated irreverently or as unimportant and disposable. However, due to sin nature and the choices of individuals, marriages do sometimes dissolve.
Furthermore, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:9 that anyone who divorces except for reasons of immorality and remarries is committing adultery is strong language used to underscore the fact that marriage must not be taken lightly. Due to the “any cause” divorces of the first century divorce was easier and more common is Jesus’ day than it is even today. Furthermore, since only the husband could initiate or file for divorce, women were left extremely vulnerable in the society. Anyone who entered into marriages repeatedly and irreverently made a mockery out of what God designed as a holy institution. The result was tantamount to adultery.
Jesus was likely using strong words in this passage to emphasize the importance of marriage as God intended it. I do not believe, however, that anyone who has been divorced for biblically acceptable reasons is living in adultery by remarrying. Even an individual who has divorced for wrong reasons can repent of the choices that they made and be forgiven.
The disciples responded to Jesus’ teaching about the sanctity of marriage and how seriously such a commitment should be taken by stating that if that was how marriage was supposed to be it would be better just to not get married at all (Matthew 19:10). Jesus responded to that by saying that not everyone can accept that, meaning that not everyone can accept being single. Some were born unable to engage in sexual activity, some were made that way by man (i.e., the forced castration of eunuchs), and others who choose to remain single “because of the kingdom of heaven,” meaning that sometimes being single is a part of God’s plan for an individual’s life.
For additional insight, see also David Instone Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (InterVarsity Press) and “What God Has Joined,” Christianity Today, October 2007, pp. 26-29.