The subject of divorce and remarriage is one of the most tendentious issues in Christianity. Nothing inflames passions more. In his discourse on divorce and remarriage in Matthew 5 & Matthew 19, Jesus made specific references to the law of Moses. The Pharisees did too. Therefore a disquisition on divorce and remarriage without a historical perspective will be most remiss.
In Matthew 5 we see Jesus focus attention on the abuse of the proviso on divorce in the law of Moses. By this time the people had perfected the abuse of the divorce clause. God had designed this wonderful program called “marriage.” A critical component of that program is airtight commitment. Knowing the Israelites however– these were a very hardened lot, God allowed Moses to provide for an escape clause. And so Moses inserted a divorce clause into the law. This wasn’t part of the original plan. (Matthew 19:8 MSG) You will find that escape clause in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The society being a patriarchy, the clause naturally leaned towards the man. The man could give his wife a bill of divorcement but no such provision was made for the woman: “If a man marries a woman and she does not please him because he has found something offensive in her, then he may draw up a divorce document and give it to her, and evict her from his house.” The word “offensive” in that passage is the Hebrew phrase ‘ervat davar. It refers in context to gross sexual impropriety, though it ordinarily refers to indecent exposure of genitals, like sending a nude pix to someone. Can also refer to adultery.
Now, under the divorce clause remarriage was feasible. Another man could marry the woman. The law states that if the second husband has an issue with her he can also divorce her, only that the first husband cannot remarry her. There is no Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton reprise under the law of Moses. No marital musical chairs.
But it soon became clear the Jews had other ideas. They turned the law on its head and began to abuse the divorce clause. They whimsically got rid of their faithful wives, just to make room for a new wife. There was also serial cheating. And on top of that, wife abuse. It’s what prompted Prophet Malachi to write: “Be attentive, then, to your own spirit, for one should not be disloyal to the wife he took in his youth. “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and the one who is guilty of violence,” says the Lord who rules over all. “Pay attention to your conscience, and do not be unfaithful.” (Malachi 2:15-16 NET) So we see God appealing to the sense of nobility of the men. There are varied interpretations of this passage because of its figurative expression. The literal translation reads: “For I hate sending away, saith Jehovah, God of Israel, And he hath covered violence with his clothing, said Jehovah of Hosts.” (Malachi 2:16 YLT98) The Hebrew word rendered clothing is Kasah. It means to conceal, to keep secret. The word used for violence is Chamas. It means violence, oppression, wickedness, wrong. The New Century Version (NCV) actually reads: “The Lord God of Israel says, “I hate divorce. And I hate people who do cruel things as easily as they put on clothes,” says the Lord All-Powerful. So be careful, do not break your trust.” The true interpretation is perhaps in the words of Jesus: “Too many of you are using it (the law) as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you’re ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending.”
1. The only ground for divorce under Mosaic law is unfaithfulness. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) What the Jews did was to ignore the body of the law and concentrate on the process of divorce – the service of papers. It’s why Jesus said, “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32 NET) Jesus essentially returned the people to the original provision of the law, laying out implications of non-compliance. Where there’s infringement, all those involved in the value chain are liable for adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32 NET) And just before that he had expanded the definition of adultery to include lust: “Whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Where there’s infringement, all the men involved in the value chain become liable for adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32 NET) They automatically become guilty of that which was circumvented – adultery. The old husband is facilitator, the new husband accessory after the fact but treated as joint principal. You can see the problem Jesus has is the cultural conspiracy of the men in society in their creative avoidance of compliance with the law, the chauvinistic hypocrisy of society. He was going after the men, as well as the Pharisees who devised the legal editing. Don’t forget before all this he had expanded the definition of adultery to include lust. (Matthew 5:28) It was aimed at men. By his extensions, men can be properly guilty of adultery in Jewish society, not just women. The definition of adultery under the Ten Commandments had strangely been restricted to women. (Cf. Exodus 20:14) Remember the story of the woman caught in adultery? The man who slept with her was never accused, just the woman. The woman somehow committed adultery with herself. And now you understand why Jesus said, Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone. All of you are guilty of adultery he was saying. In the story of the woman caught in adultery we see Jesus separate guilt from punishment. Where are your accusers, Jesus asked. (John 8:10) If there’s no charge there can be no condemnation. No wonder the Bible says who can bring a charge or accusation against God’s elect. (Romans 8:33) No wonder the Bible says there’s no condemnation against us. (Romans 8:1) There is NO CHARGE! The woman caught in adultery was a pointer to grace. The law accuses but grace nullifies the charge.
But the spirit of that perverse misogyny is still present with us today. It’s in the church. Have you noticed women are guilty of wearing trousers to entice the men but the men are not guilty of looking at a woman’s backside during church service?
The preceding is the historical context that gives us an understanding of the hard stance of Jesus on the issue of divorce. He was addressing abuse of Mosaic Law. He was returning the people to the original law, correcting the bastardisation. He was restoring the law. But the essence of his teaching was, marriage is about commitment. Airtight commitment.
But then Jesus made an interesting statement. When he laid down the gauntlet on divorce, even his disciples despaired. They feared being locked down in marriage. Jesus said: “Not everyone is mature enough to live a married life. It requires a certain aptitude and grace.” (Matthew 19:11 MSG) It is this aptitude and grace Paul was referring to when he wrote the Corinthians, “Celibacy is not for everyone any more than marriage Isaiah God gives the gift of the single life to some, the gift of the married life to the others.” (1 Corinthians 7:7 MSG) Paul was a eunuch. Jesus identified three types of eunuchism – congenital eunuchism, non-elective eunuchism, discretionary eunuchism: “There are eunuchs who have been born incapable of marriage (congenital); and there are eunuchs who have been made so by men (non-elective); and there are eunuchs who have made themselves incapable of marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (discretionary).” (Matthew 19:12 AMP) Paul arguably fell into the last category. He was celibate for the kingdom.
Unfortunately the Corinthian Christians admired Paul so much they began to desire celibacy too. They saw marriage as a “step down.” (1 Corinthians 7:36-38 MSG) The married ones wanted divorce, some going into technical celibacy by abstaining from sex in marriage. Which is why Paul wrote that abstinence from sex in a marriage can only be by mutual agreement, and only for the purposes of prayer and fasting. (1 Corinthians 7:2-6 MSG) He then instructed that a wife must not leave her husband and if she does, then she must remain single, or else be reconciled back to her husband. And the man cannot put away his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11) Paul would go on to proffer answers to different scenarios presented, including marriage after widowhood and celibate virginity. The desire for celibacy is why the Corinthians asked Paul, “Is it a good thing to have sexual relations?” So we see the contexts in which Jesus and Paul spoke about divorce.
BUT, suppose a Christian is in an abusive marriage, be it emotional or physical abuse, or his or her life is threatened – can he or she divorce? Truth is, neither our Lord nor Paul addressed these challenges since their discourse was limited to specific issues. Jesus addressed abuse of divorce clause under Mosaic law, Paul addressed celibacy and divorce. What provision of scriptures then governs these scenarios? The legalist will of course insist the teaching of Jesus makes no room for divorce whatsoever, except for adultery. But we’re “not ministers of the letter (of legally written code) but of the Spirit; for the code of the Law kills, but the Holy Spirit makes alive.” (2 Corinthians 3:6 AMP) When pressed however, some legalists concede a Christian can leave a life-threatening marriage. Yet going by strict legalism Jesus never made such exception. How inconsistent then for the legalist to “approve” divorce on non-legal grounds in one instance, yet deny divorce on non-legal grounds in other instants. It’s even presumptuous.
Jesus enunciated the principle of compassionate pragmatism in one of his encounters with the Pharisees. The phrase he used was, the “greater matter of the law” – “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier, more important matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23 KJV) A forensic devotion to the letter of the law that ignores the principles of justice, fairness, mercy, compassion and loyalty is the theological equivalence of filtering a gnat but swallowing a camel. (Matthew 23:24) These principles are greater than legalistic adherence, Jesus was saying. If we legalistically insist a man or woman must stay in an emotionally ruinous or abusive marriage where then is mercy? And where is justice? Where is compassion? Where is fairness?
It’s the demonstration of these higher principles that made Jesus break the law of the Sabbath on several occasions. (Cf. Luke 14: 1-6) He is after all the Lord of the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:8) He is greater than the law, above the law, he being the author. He can exercise sovereign power over the law. He has discretionary latitude, which he often exercised for compassion. Which was why he healed a certain man on the Sabbath with this justification: “Which of you, having a son or a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not at once pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14: 5) Surely a child of God is greater than a donkey or a horse. (Matthew 12:12) Shouldn’t a Christian then be rescued from the pit of a terrible marriage and the black hole of depression? Shouldn’t a Christian be saved from certain death? The compassionate pragmatism of Jesus overwrites the legalism of the law. Jesus the prophecy says, “will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.” (Isaiah 42:3 NLT) The idea God will insist a Christian remain in an emotionally ruinous or unjust marriage CANNOT be a revelation of the spirit of Christ. Depression CANNOT be God’s will for his child. Jesus died to save us from depression. (Isaiah 53:4) How does mental illness or premature death glorify God? Our jaundiced legalism and lack of compassion has sent many to mental asylums, ruined wonderful lives and frustrated the purposes of God. Some have died. Jesus came to proclaim liberty to the captives, and good tidings to the afflicted. (Isaiah 61:1) Marriage as bondage is antithetical to the will of God.
There are those of course who say that a spouse must endure abuse and ask for grace to bear it. But that’s perversity. In the Old Testament cruelty to animals was forbidden. (Deuteronomy 22:6, 25:4) How is it then that the abuse of a human qualifies as trial of faith? The Bible says, “A good man regards the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10) Surely those who advocate this strange grace are wicked people.
But, does this then mean people can go in and out of marriage willy-nilly? Of course not! That’s abuse of grace. Can a Christian remarry after divorce? Even under the law of Moses a divorcee could remarry. Why force a man or a woman into non-elective eunuchism?
It is important though to keep in mind the essence of the teaching of Jesus – loving airtight commitment. Those who are married should pay heed. They ought to be fanatically devoted to this principle.
If you’ll like to give your life to Christ please pray this prayer: “Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I know that I am a sinner. I believe Jesus died for me and that you raised him from the dead. I confess with my mouth that Jesus is Christ is Lord and I receive him as my Lord and my Saviour. I am now born again. Amen.
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