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Divorce Law

Moses because of the hardness of your hearts

suffered you to put away your wives:

 but from the beginning it was not so (Matthew 19:8).

      Divorce is painful. If you have been through a divorce, you need no one to tell you that. Not only do the children get hurt, there are the grandparents, the family, the friends. And no one can tell of the pain, of the anger that comes in the middle of the night to the two people who once loved each other above all others. Once this wreckage is strewn across the lives of a family, it can never all be cleaned up. The pain and the hurt may be healed, the guilt may go away, but life will never be quite the same again.

      The heart and core of Christianity is forgiveness and healing, and yet the effects of divorce seem terribly hard to shake. Jesus could heal a withered arm. He could give sight to the blind. He could make the crippled walk. He could make the deaf hear. What we now have to consider is whether he can, or will, heal the broken lives of the victims of divorce.

      Human beings are not machines. When they are cut they bleed. When they are divorced they hurt. So the hurting ones turn to Jesus, not only for forgiveness, but for understanding and for guidance. The Pharisees came to Jesus to hear his interpretation of the law: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3 NIV). There were two major schools of thought at that time. One believed that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason; the other held that some form of unchastity was the only ground. The Pharisees wanted to know where Jesus stood on the question.

      He gave them an answer, though it was not what they expected or wanted. He allowed that men should not divorce their wives at all: “Have you not read,” he replied, “that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they two shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:5-6).

      Jesus’ answer was unequivocal and clear, and the Pharisees understood it well enough. Marriage was in the design of God from the beginning and it was permanent. Man was commanded not to “put asunder” what God had joined together. Not only was Jesus opposed to divorce for every cause, he was opposed to divorce for any cause.

      The Pharisees were taken aback by his reply, and they challenged it immediately: “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” (v. 7). They felt they were on firm ground, because the Law of Moses plainly permitted divorce, and Jesus knew it. He could only acknowledge the truth of what they said: “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (v. 8).

      This statement of Jesus is crucial. With it he establishes what may be the single most important fact in the entire discussion: There was a law “from the beginning,” an original law, if you will, and it differed in significant ways from the Law of Moses. Here is the Law of Moses on the issue:


When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house (Deuteronomy 24:1).

      Jesus said this law was given because of the hardness of men’s hearts. In other words, the law was given in response to a set of conditions existing at the time. Jesus established beyond question that the law stated in Deuteronomy 24 was a judgment—that is to say, an application of the law to a set of circumstances.

      Moses specified a case where a man had found some “uncleanness” in his wife. The Hebrew expression here rendered “uncleanness” means “matter of nakedness.” The same expression is used extensively in Leviticus 18 and 20 and there it refers to illicit sexual relationships. In other words, if a man's wife has an affair, he can put her away.

      It is sometimes objected that “uncleanness” in this passage cannot mean adultery, because the law required the death penalty for adultery. Footnote The fact is that, although the death penalty was authorized, it was not always required. When Joseph found Mary with child, he assumed it was the result of an illicit affair. Since he was a “just man,” i.e., one not afflicted with hardness of heart, he was minded to “put her away,” to divorce her, privately (Matthew 1:18-19). On another occasion, Jesus declined to authorize the stoning of a woman taken in the very act of adultery (John 8:3).

      The question Moses faced was simple. When sin had entered the picture and destroyed the very foundation of marriage, when a man's wife has slept with another man and he can no longer trust her or live with her, yet he does not want to stone her, what should he do? The answer, given with all the authority of God's law, is found in Deuteronomy 24. The man was to make a written document of divorce, give it to the woman, and send her away. She was then free to marry another man.

      One primary purpose of this judgment was to protect the rights of the divorced woman. This was not an age when women could readily enter a work force, and there was no welfare as we know it. When her husband put her away, her right to remarry was a right to food, shelter, and clothing. It is not often realized that in the ancient world, women were largely treated as chattel. This law not only gave the woman the right to remarry if she were divorced, it prevented the first husband from taking her back against her will. The second marriage terminated the first husband's property rights (verse 4).

      This underlines one other effect of this judgment. There is no case for breaking up a second marriage on the pretext that a woman is somehow bound to the first husband. The second marriage, whether it was right or wrong, ended the first husband’s rights. She was not deemed to still be married to the first husband.

      Divorce was not a part of the original intent of God’s constitution for man. Even under Moses, it was a “necessary evil,” a step taken to alleviate the damage of failed marriages, and keep some semblance of order in the home for the sake of the children and for society at large.

      When Jesus restated the original intent of marriage, did he reject the Law of Moses on this subject? Not at all. When his statement was challenged by the Pharisees, and when he had acknowledged that Moses had indeed given them a law regulating divorce, he went on, “And I say to you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery: and whoso marries her which is put away commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9).

      The original word for “fornication” is porneia, and it denotes illicit sexual relations in general. The King James Version renders the word, “fornication,” which is generally thought of as premarital sexual intercourse. But that is not all it means. Porneia includes premarital sex, and adultery. Footnote In other words, porneia in Jesus' statement corresponds to “some uncleanness” in Deuteronomy 24. This means that Jesus accepted the judgment of the Law of Moses on divorce and rejected the rabbinical idea of “divorce for every cause.”

      But why make an exception at all? After all, the law is the law. Why compromise it with judgments and exceptions? The disciples still did not understand. Their conclusion was, “If that is the case of the man with his wife, it is good not to marry” (v. 10). That doesn't seem to follow, but at least it prompted Jesus to explain further. In the process, he gave us the reason for the exception clause.


But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:11-12 NASB).

      The idea Jesus advanced here is a little obscure at first, but it is firmly based in God’s original intent: “And the LORD God said, it is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Man was a good piece of work, but what was included in the design of man was what Freud called the libido (the sexual urge, to you and me). Actually it is not just sex drive, but the drive to love, to be close, to touch, to be intimate with another human being. Most human beings cannot flourish without it.

      If Jesus’ disciples were talking about permanent celibacy when they said it was good for a man not to marry, they seem to have missed the point entirely. But if they were talking about the man who is divorced, that it is good for him not to marry, then the discussion becomes rational.

      What Jesus was saying in his curious discussion about “eunuchs” is that some men and women cannot remain celibate. Thus, Jesus and Moses both conclude that when a marriage is broken by sexual sin by one of the partners, it is not necessary for the offended party to live alone for the rest of his or her life. But, at least as far as this judgment goes, if a man and a woman divorce for any other reason, they must not marry another. If they do, it is adultery. As Paul put it, “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

      A couple who are divorced do not have to live celibate lives. They have an option—they can be reconciled. In this case, the sexual urge can serve to bring two people back together. But it does not require a lot of imagination to realize that there are problems with this. In fact, Paul had to deal with a problem that Jesus did not address—the problem of marriages divided, not by infidelity, but by religion. The Corinthians had written Paul about several questions, and he was systematically addressing them. Unfortunately, we do not have the letter from the Corinthians to Paul. It would be of enormous value in understanding the Corinthian letters, but we can still draw some inferences from what we read.

      The subject of divorce and remarriage is addressed in the seventh chapter and is introduced by the curious statement, “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Since we know that it is not wrong for a man to touch a woman, Footnote we must assume he was referring to a question arising from their letters. Indeed, later in this chapter, he acknowledged that much of what he was saying was said only because of the “present distress” (verse 26).

      Having made this statement, he went on to acknowledge the physical needs of men and women. He knew that any attempt to impose celibacy would lead to fornication. In verses three through six, he outlined the intimate responsibilities of husbands and wives to one another.

      Like Jesus, Paul knew that the ability to remain celibate was a gift that some had and some did not: “For I would that all men were even as myself,” he wrote, “but every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn” (vv. 7-9). Note that the same word “unmarried” is the same word used in verse 11 for divorced women. The “unmarried and widows” in this passage are two categories of formerly married women. Paul says, if they cannot control themselves, “let them marry.”

      But Paul stood opposed to divorce: “And unto the married I command: yet not I, but the Lord, Let the wife not depart from her husband: But and if she departs, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband; and let not the husband put away his wife” (vv.10-11).

      Having said all this, he was still left with a problem—not a few of the Greek converts were married to unbelieving mates. These were not Christian husbands with different doctrinal beliefs, but pagans who did not believe in Jesus Christ at all. What was a woman to do if she was abandoned by such a man?

      Paul began by saying, “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord,” (v. 12). He was rendering a judgment. His judgment in this matter follows: “If any brother hath a wife that believes not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And a woman who has a husband that believes not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. . . But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases; but God hath called us to peace” (verses 12-15).

      Was Paul adding another “exception clause” for divorce? In the first place, he declared that religious differences are no excuse for breaking up a marriage. Marriage is just as binding for Christian/pagan marriages as it is for marriages between converted mates.

      However, this was not the case if the unbelieving mate abandoned the marriage. When that happened, a brother or sister was not “under bondage.” In other words, they were free—loosed from the marriage bond. Paul spoke of marriage in terms of “binding and loosing” twice more in the chapter. Once in verse 27, “Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife,” and again in verse 39, “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband lives.” Paul plainly said that a woman deserted by an unbelieving mate was not bound to her husband—she was free to remarry.

      Then it would seem that Paul was indeed adding another exception to the one given by Moses and Jesus. Did he have the right to do that? There are some things to consider. First is Jesus’ statement to all the Apostles that they had the power to make “binding and loosing” decisions (Matthew 16:19 and 18:18). Nowhere is this wording more appropriate than in matters of marriage and divorce. Second, there is a strong presumption that a pagan mate who abandons his Christian wife will not remain celibate—that he will commit sexual sins and thus invalidate marriage. Just because the wife cannot prove it should not condemn her to a life of celibacy, or worse, to a life of sin because she cannot remain celibate.

      Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that Moses, Jesus, and Paul were not creating “exception clauses.” They were rendering judgments. Jesus was addressing essentially the same people Moses addressed. Paul was not. Had Jesus addressed the Corinthian church directly there is no reason to think He would have said anything differently from Paul.

      But Paul had one more difficulty to address; that of the divorce and remarriage that is already an established fact. One or both of a married couple had divorced a previous mate without legitimate grounds. Paul addressed the problem this way:


Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God. Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord; yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful. I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say that it is good for a man so to be. Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosened. Art thou loosed from a wife [divorced]? Seek not a wife. But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned (verses 24-28).

      This passage speaks to the newly converted at the time of his calling. It assumes that reconciliation with the former mate is out of the question.

      The time of a person's calling is pivotal. One's whole life turns on the point of baptism, because at baptism we die to the past. This is just as true of divorce as it is of any other sin. In another letter, Paul says: “Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law), how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he lives? . . . But if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband” (Romans 7:1-2).

      Compare this with what he said in an earlier chapter: "Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should also walk in newness of life. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For He that is dead is free from sin” (Romans 6:3-7).

      There is no requirement for the man or woman who is baptized to go back and try to make up for all the sins of the past. As far as the law is concerned, they are dead. The penalty has been exacted. No former obligations, including the penalty for divorce, can be enforced. They are free to walk in a new life. There is never a case for splitting up an existing marriage and home to try to right some past wrong. God hates divorce, and He hates second and third ones as he does the first.

      There will always be questions about divorce and remarriage that will require judgment. What about a woman who learns she has married an alcoholic, or a child abuser? What if she fears for her life? Naturally she can flee to a crisis center, but can she divorce such a man? Almost certainly. This is the reason God established a set of judges under Moses (Deuteronomy 17:8-13), and under Christ (Matthew 16:19 and 18:18).

      Those who judge righteous judgment will always take the high ground of Jesus’ statement first: “Have ye not read, that He which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

      But if they remember Jesus' caution, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice,” they will also work to bind up the brokenhearted and to heal the spirit wounded by divorce. Divorce is not the unpardonable sin. The ravages of divorce can be forgiven and healed like any other wound.

      It is not my intent to make the judgment for people considering divorce or remarriage, but to give them the knowledge to make that judgment for themselves. In the end, those who have to live with the decision should be the ones to make it.

      For the rest of us, it is not our decision to make, and we should not attempt to influence the outcome. Those who make the decision will answer to God and God alone. And they have enough pain without the rest of us adding to it.

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