Balancing the Scales of Divorce Against
the Teachings of Jesus Christ
March 26, 1996
To begin with, I would like to quote John R. W. Stott.
". . .divorce is a controversial and complex subject,. . . it is a subject which touches people's emotions at a deep level. There is almost no unhappiness so poignant as the unhappiness of an unhappy marriage, and almost no tragedy so great as the degeneration of what God meant for love and fulfillment into a non-relationship of bitterness, discord and despair" (Stott, 92).
To approach this subject with no thought of the human factor, with no sensitivity as to purpose to determine cold hard fact, would be a grave mistake. This subject and related passages of scripture are about people's lives. I hope not to lessen that fact while examining the topic of divorce.
The Divine Mesh
In Matthew 19:3 some Pharisees asked Jesus if it is "lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" Jesus responds by saying, "Haven't you read. . .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 on flesh? So they are no longer two but one. Therefore what God has joined together. . ." (Mt. 19:4-6). The word "joined" used here means "'to join fast together, to glue, cement,' is primarily said of metals and other materials" (Vines, 104). The idea is something so firmly attached that it would have to be ripped apart. An illustration of such a joining was once demonstrated as someone glued to sheets of paper together, and once the sheets had dried, had someone else try to separate the two sheets. The results of course were that the two sheets (which had essentially became one), were not separable. Instead they became a mangled mess of ripped paper fragments. This is quite an impressive example of the reality of how divorce impacts those separating, not to mention the children. Adam's perceptual statement "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:24), further enhances the quality of this 'meshing' that has occurred. No more than a man is able to separate from his own flesh and bones and be whole, is he able to separate from his wife and be complete. The Expositor's Bible Commentary states, "The man and woman were in the deepest sense 'related'. . .the 'one flesh' in every marriage between a man and a woman is a reenactment of and a testimony to the very structure of humanity as God created it" (412). "When God made woman for man that was His intention, that was what He indicated, and that was what He ordained" (Lloyd-Jones, 257). "Marriage, in Jesus' view, is a God-given institution, having for it's aim the life-long union of a man and a woman, and divorce is a declension from the divine will for them." God, not man, ordained and instituted marriage. God alone understands the physical, spiritual, mental and emotional depths to which he joins a husband and wife.
Intended Permanence of Spiritual Epoxy
To continue with what Jesus had been saying in Mt. 19:6, "Therefore what God has joined together let man not separate." As discussed above, it is God's will that has brought marriage to be, not man's. Nor is it man's will that will separate a marriage. Yet that is exactly the reason for Jesus to discuss the issue of divorce. It was a common practice of men of Jesus time to 'separate' from there wives for "any and every reason." "If she proved to be an incompetent cook and burnt her husband's food, or if he lost interest in her. . ." (Stott, 93), he could simply draw up a 'certificate of divorcement' and be rid of her. This of course as interpreted under the rabbinic school of Hillel, where the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 was pushed to the extreme. This of course was the most widely accepted teaching due to the fact that a man's selfish desires often propagated his search for legalities concerning divorce. It stands to reason he would choose the teaching most desirable. It is further evident that the teachings of Hillel were born out of a quest for fulfillment of personal wants more than that of truth. Although this was perhaps the predominant teaching of Jesus' day, it was not the only teaching. There was a division based primarily on the interpretation of one verse.
"If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from house. . ." (Dt. 24:1)
The controversy arises over Deuteronomy 24:1's use of the word 'indecent,' as in what the man would consider to be something about his wife that would constitute grounds for divorce. Those ascribing to Hillel had a very relaxed approach to their application of this scripture, essentially giving the "man" full control over when and for what reason something was to be considered indecent. The more conservative approach was that of the school of Shammai, who said that only in the case of "some grave matrimonial offence" could a man divorce his wife. Hunter explains that "It was against the background of this dispute that a Pharisee asked Jesus, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'" (49). Jesus said it is not right but with the exception of fornication.
Although it appears as though Jesus' viewpoint would easily agree with that of the Shammai, it is not the perspective from which he approached the matter. The focus of the two schools was on what constitutes grounds for divorce, while Jesus' focus was on the sanctity of marriage. Jesus was more interested in keeping 'what God had joined together' together that He was about the arguments as to the specificity of where to draw the 'divorce' line, especially considering His stand on divorce. Down, Glen and Grantham state that, "Jesus refused to be drawn into the legalistic argument over what constitutes sufficient grounds for divorce. He simply declared that divorce is not the will of God (for any cause), but that marriages are made to endure" (332). "Even with the exception (of 'fornication'), Jesus is stricter that Shammai. Jesus never commands divorce but only permits it if all attempts at reconciliation have failed because He recognizes that the adultery has already undermined one of the most fundamental elements of a marriage--sexual exclusivity" (Blomberg, 110).
The permission to divorce was a "reluctant permission" (Plumtre, 65), not only by Jesus in His time (and now), but from the first time, where it was permitted by Moses because the people's "hearts were hard." As Jesus addressed the matter of what Moses had decreed, "he attributed it to the hardness of people's hearts. In so doing he did not deny that the regulation was from God. He implied, however, that it was not a divine instruction, but only a divine concession to human weakness" (Stott, 95). "This reluctant permission of Jesus must still be seen for what it is, namely a continued accommodation to the hardness of human hearts" (Stott,98).
Divorce is permitted, never commanded. Dobson writes:
"Divorce was suffered.' Moses permitted or tolerated divorce He did not sanction and approve it. Many people claim to get a divorce because 'the Lord told me to do it,' but there is no biblical basis for that in any of the Scripture. Divorce is allowed, it is permitted, it is tolerated. It is not commanded" (36).
The argument of Hillel and Shammai was over a word. This argument was based on the legalities of divorce. Today the word to argue is 'porneia' (translated as 'marital unfaithfulness', NIV). The questions to ask then would be: What constitutes marital unfaithfulness? And why was this reason for divorce permitted by Christ?
The first controversy arises over the fact that this 'exception clause' is found in Matthew, but not in Mark or Luke. Some have argued that it was later added and that it is not in earlier manuscripts. Such as Archibald Hunter when he argues,
". . .does this exception clause go back to Jesus? we may gravely doubt it. For (1) if it does, Jesus is simply taking sides with Shammai against Hillel in the current dispute; (2) neither Mark nor Luke nor Paul seems to know anything about it; and (3) in Matt. 19:9 where the exception also occurs, Matthew has clearly inserted it into his Marcan source. Probably therefore the clause is a later addition by some Christians who found Christ's teaching too rigorous to apply in certain cases" (50).
With that in mind, they conclude simply that, according to Jesus, divorce is never under any circumstances to be permitted.
Many scholars disagree with that view. The majority of commentators believe that the exception clause is as much a part of the inerrant Word of God as the rest of the Bible. Stott argues, "It seems far more likely that its absence from Mark and Luke is due not to their ignorance of it but to their acceptance of it as something taken for granted" (96). Many agree with this idea that the exception clause was left out of the other gospels because divorce on the grounds of marital unfaithfulness was considered to be the norm, and did not need to be mentioned. Barclay states, "Almost certainly the Matthew version is correct, and it is indeed implied in Mark" (240).
If that then is the case, it would seem necessary to understand what is meant by 'porneia' to determine what Christ is saying. According to Vines, "in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 it stands for, or includes, adultery" (252). Yet to what degree does that go? Jesus said in Matthew 5:28, "that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." To what extent then do scholars believe this to go? Certainly not to the extent that might be considered in light of Matthew 5:28. If that were the case, many women would easily find grounds based upon the fact that there husband has looked at another women in an 'indecent' way. That would be a paradoxical tipping of the scales to the women's favor, giving her the reigns of control over divorce, compared to the control men had over it in Bible times. Although looking at a woman lustfully is already adultery, and certain to be considered marital unfaithfulness; it is certainly not God's will that divorce occur over it, no more than it is His will that divorce occur over the physical act of adultery.
The issue of 'porneia' ("marital unfaithfulness," NIV; "fornication," KJV), has spawned separate viewpoints just as 'indecent' did with Hillel and Shammai. In this case,
"H. Baltensweiler. . .thinks that it refers to marriage within prohibited degrees. . .to incest. Many others especially Roman Catholic scholars, have defended that view in some detail. . .Others have argued that porneia refers to premarital unchastity. . .This has the advantage (it is argued) of being no real exception to Jesus' prohibition of divorce, making it easier to reconcile Matthew and Mark, who omits the 'except' clause. . .Still others hold that porneia here means 'adultery,' no more and no less" (Expositors Bible Commentary, 414).
However, the Greek normally uses the word moicheia in reference to adultery, indicating that there is some notable difference between it and 'porneia' which is used here. As to what that difference is, scholars cannot agree.
Edward Dobson divides this concept into to two views. First the "engagement view," which "holds that the word 'fornication'. . .refers specifically to premarital sex" (36), which in New Testament times began at the time of betrothal. The second view, the "incest view" states "that the word 'porneia' refers to the marrying of a close relative" (36), as it does in 1 Corinthians 5. Dobson asserts, "if we accept this view, the whole argument is built on an exception rather that the rule" (36).
It sounds to me like people arguing over which sin is the greater or lesser in life. The act of adultery begins in the heart as does all sin. I suppose if someone really wanted to push it, they could determine to divorce for the reasons of lustful looks. Then again, when someone wants to divorce, they can find almost 'any reason' to justify it, if not to others certainly to himself/herself.
Adultery is adultery. It is sin against God, spouse, and self. As sin it is punishable by death. Death ends marriage. Yet Christ came to restore life and reconcile relationships. Those two go hand in hand. To restore life, relationships must be reconciled, otherwise death lingers in the form of the sin of fractured relations. It is His will that none should part but that all should be reconciled.
Although Jesus did not command divorce, or approve of it, He did permit it due to the "hardness of hearts." This of course raises questions regarding remarriage which Jesus promptly answered. In Matthew 5:32 Jesus states that ". . .anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become and adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery." According to Hagner, "The point of speaking of remarriage as involving 'adultery' is simply to emphasize the wrongness of divorce. The conclusion is drawn by some interpreters that while divorce may be allowable for the Christian, on the basis of this passage remarriage is prohibited because it involves adultery" (125). This seems to be a rather simplistic assessment of why Jesus spoke of remarriage. If Jesus was emphasizing the wrongness of divorce why would he go into explanation of remarriage? Jesus was most likely establishing some further guidelines to accompany His exception clause. No doubt, to add some additional guidelines to prevent people from stretching the exception clause to include any thing they might deem 'porneia.'
It was the intent purpose of our Savior to bring us back to God. To reconcile us to Him and to others. It is His will that all men live together in peace. This includes the marriage relationship. Jesus gave permission to divorce for one and one reason only, that of marital unfaithfulness. It is not a command, but an "accommodation to the hardness of human hearts" that refuse to reconcile or give up. Jesus knows the pain in relationships in which love is not present, or in which there is abuse, or other difficulties that seem hopeless. But He is also ready to provide victory over the circumstances if we trust Him to heal and mend the brokenness of marriages. The greater joy comes from keeping the marriage together for the glory of God, than to run away from it. Stott says this,
"Is it not of great significance that the Divine Lover was willing to woo back even his adulterous wife, Israel? So one must never begin a discussion on this subject by enquiring about the legitimacy of divorce. To be preoccupied with the grounds for divorce is to be guilty of the very pharisaism which Jesus condemned" (98).
"The real essence of this passage (Mk. 10:1-12) is that Jesus insisted that the loose sexual morality of his day must be mended. Those who sought marriage only for pleasure must be reminded that marriage is also for responsibility. Those who regarded marriage simply as a means of gratifying their physical passions must be reminded that it was also a spiritual unity" (240).
KJV, NIV, NAS, & Amplified.
- Barclay's Commentary on The Gospel According to Mark
- Broadman's Bible Commentary
- The Expositor's Bible Commentary
- The Layman's Handy Commentary of the Bible: The Gospel According
- The Word Bible Commentary series
- Hunter, Archibald M. A Pattern for Life.
- Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount.
- Montizambert, Eric. The Flame of Life: An Interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.
- Windisch, Hans. The Meaning of The Sermon on the Mount.
- Dobson, Edward. "The Teachings of Jesus." Fundamentalist Journal
Dec. 1985: 35-36.
- Down, M.J., Glen, Corby., & Grantham. "The Sayings of Jesus About
Divorce and Marriage." The Expository Times 95 (1984): 332-34.
- Green, Babara. "Jesus' Teachings on Divorce in the Gospel of Mark."
Journal for the Study of the New Testament 38 (1990): 67-75.
- Holwerda, David E. "Jesus on Divorce: An Assessment of the New
Proposal." Calvin Theological Journal 22 (1987): 114-20.
- Kingston, M.J. "Marriage." The Expository Times 96 (1985): 339-40.