MATTHEW 19: ON DIVORCE
READING MATTHEW 19:1-12
Pharisees came to Jesus to test him with this question: “Is it all right for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?”
Brace yourself: Jesus response pans men in particular who used the “right” to get a divorce to justify their own selfishness and still call it legal.
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Divorce is the last resort. Maybe you have had to take this option and you know better than others how painful divorce was, is, and continues to be. Sometimes it seems there’s no good option. Some have sought to resolve, and it just hasn’t worked.
Or with prayer and grace you have wrestled through and have once again come to see your spouse as Christ sees them: image bearer, beloved, and forgiven, and you’ve managed to keep your covenant of marriage in spite of offenses.
My first experience with divorce in my family was when I was in 7th grade. My uncle committed adultery with a woman in the church. He and my aunt divorced. I saw firsthand the pain my aunt went through emotionally because of unfaithfulness. I saw her hard work as she updated her teaching certificate and went back to work to support three boys, my cousins. Our families lived across the pasture from each other, and my aunt and uncle were second parents, my cousins like brothers.
This experience and its close connection to my family and church led to years of trying to deal first with the emotional trauma, then the biblical truths, and what we thought ought to be done as a result. The attempt to think biblically about divorce in our church was to set a standard that was always true for every situation, and the basic ideas went like this:
God hates divorce.
You can get divorced if your spouse cheats on you.
The person who cheats can’t get married again.
If the person who cheats gets married again, the best way to be right with God and the church is to get un-married.
The reasoning was circular and it always seemed a little off to me. So I had to look at what the Bible said for myself, so I read books, talked to people who’d been divorced as well as people who’d thought about these issues many years.
One very helpful book I’ve read and recommended to many is by Rubel Shelly, Divorce and Remarriage. Like Jesus, Shelly reminds us of the importance and intent of the law, and this is a paraphrase and summary of how marriage was viewed in Israel
Marriage exists by will and purpose of God, fidelity within marriage is divine ideal.
Marriage is sealed when human beings make formal pledges to one another in form of a berith, a Hebrew term variously understood as “contract” or “covenant” with mutual benefits and responsibilities.
Divorce occurred in larger cultural context of biblical actors and events for a variety of causes and often with harsh and cruel consequences, especially for women and children.
Statutes were instituted in Israel whose clear purpose was not only to discourage the thoughtless and quick resort to divorce on the part of males but also to protect females from some of the more egregious forms of abuse ancient cultures tolerated for women.
In cases where sexual infidelity was particularly flagrant the parties were shameless in their evil behaviors, the death penalty was a potential consequence for both the man and woman involved.
Remarriage was customary and expected following divorce under the Mosaic Law. It was specifically authorized for women by the official divorce certificate a man was ordered to give a wife being discharged from his family.
Divorced and remarried persons were not excluded from the covenant community or denied the right to participate in religious rites.
In everything, Israel expected to rise above norms of culture, but the reality is that things happen, and divorce was allowed and presumed not to exclude one from covenant people of God.
Heard as moralist or legalist diatribe, the teachings of Jesus on divorce and marriage in Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:1-12 is an impossible to bear judgment without blessings, grace, and covenant faithfulness of God. But heard as heaven’s dream for creatures made in God’s image, however, the teachings of Jesus become righteousness that fulfills the law and prophets and ushers in the new kingdom.
This background is not intended to reinforce a legalistic reading but quite the opposite! A legalistic reading of Matthew 19:19 would imply the only person not in trouble is guy who divorced the woman! Instead, Jesus is pointing to their light-hearted view of certificating a woman is like ticketing her and relieving yourself of any moral obligation and making yourself free to marry (she is free to marry too by the way according to Old Testament and Jesus), but he’s overstating to show they lack attention to the covenant and to remind them of God’s intent. Instead of looking for loopholes, look for ways to be holy where you are right now.
Being holy like this, for Jesus, seems to come down to what kingdom you are going to live by: the old kingdom of law-keeping or the new way of the Spirit. The new way of the Spirit is concerned with fulfilling the law, but keeps the intention of God in mind in various situations. There’s not a one-size fits all situation we can legally pin everyone down to.
For example, Jesus comments on single men who can’t have sex who were born that way and those who’ve been castrated. He acknowledges the reasons for what Moses allowed: hearts were hard. But he emphasizes that marriage is so important that to break the covenant -- whether by cheating on someone or divorcing “for any reason” is adultery. This doesn't mean adultery is unforgivable, but Jesus calls it what it is: a breaking of the covenant, adultery, and the remedy is repentance, humbling our hearts, forgiving one another, and learning new practices of love in this or future relationships.
Our church’s experience with divorce has been significant in the Churches of Christ and Christian world. Over the past forty years, the church has been a place where people experiencing families problems, divorce, can be accepted with grace. While some may have been shunned or disfellowshipped in other churches, our church offered a new way, of grace and care.
- One family with help of others helped to start a divorce group, and it continued many years.
- A Christian counseling center was operated for some years to help couples prevent acute marriage problems.
- A singles again group began as well during the 1980s, and this provided a place for singles to share their struggles, heal, and meet new friends, and for some, new spouses.
- In more recent years, Celebrate Recovery has been a place where people with all kinds of needs for recovery and healing can go, and some needing healing from divorce have gone to Celebrate Recovery.
- Small groups have also been a place where marriages have been healed, prayed for, divorces have been lived through and groups stood with families. Whereas in the past we often separated singles and married groups, our approach now is more integrative, with singles and married couples in groups together. In these groups there is often open discussion, prayer, Bible reading, support, honesty, tension and awkwardness, and the Holy Spirit works powerfully to heal and help us grow in Christ and more in love with Him and one another.
I have counseled many of you who have gone through marriage problems, some of you have gotten divorced because you have come to a place in your marriages where there is unfaithfulness or unretractable problems that become so weighty that the only way to find relief is to in a way declare marriage bankruptcy and begin anew.
People who are divorced are the first ones to tell you the pain involved. Those who’ve gone through divorce know how bad it is and nothing I can say could make it worse than the pain you’ve gone through. Of all people I would think people who’ve experienced divorce would want me to say strongly, “God hates divorce.”
God hates seeing people broken apart, bleeding, wounded and left alone, hates to see covenants broken. But hear this today, that God does not hate you. That’s not what Scripture says. Of all the things that leaves people with questions in their minds, divorce is one of those things that leaves a lot of questions.
When Jill and I got married in 1989, we like most Christians said we’d never consider divorce, but when in the heat of battle, we occasionally made the mistake of saying some very painful things to each other and wondered aloud, “Then why don’t you just divorce me.”
By the grace of God Jill and I have kept our marriage vows and covenant, and we plan to be united in marriage till death do us part, but we can understand the kind of emotional turmoil that couples go through because we have put each other through some medium weight turmoil over the years. What I mean by “medium weight” is that I understand some of you deal heavy weight issues, trying to keep marriage together when one is an alcoholic or has had an affair.
What does radical faithfulness look like? It looks like a divorced couple helping their child navigate a wedding reception by being nice and sitting together and not warring at the wedding. A couple ready to throw in the towel seeking to see each other through Jesus eyes.
Think about what Jesus says about divorce and practice covenant keeping in everything you do. The “small” ways we do not keep covenant bleed into our “big” covenants like marriage. So pay particular attention to treat everyone, members of the opposite sex in particular with respect. Keep track for a period of time of how many times you’ve made a promise no matter how trivial and broken it. If you make a promise or say you’ll do something, be sure you keep that promise or commitment.
Can we begin to understand that unfaithfulness is more than just sexual, beating, chronic alcoholism, mental illness and being imprisoned with someone who is threatening. These are all forms of justified divorce. And even when divorce is justified, can we begin to have the same kind of grace of God to forgive and not punish and shun for life?
Notion one can remarry (innocent party) and another cannot (guilty party) isn’t biblical. Using Bible to imprison people in unholy relationships (abuse) or deny them freedom to remarry, is religious malpractice.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.