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 that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." " (Matthew 19:4-6).
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 separate 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 shocked at his reply, and they challenged it immediately: "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" (Matthew 19:7). They felt they were on firm ground, because the Law of Moses plainly permitted ending a marriage, and Jesus knew it. He could only acknowledge the truth of what they said:
"Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, BUT FROM THE BEGINNING IT WAS NOT SO." (Matthew 19:8)
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.
How could this be true? And more important, why?
Why did God ALLOW divorce?
The specific law of Moses in the Bible on the subject of divorce is found in Deuteronomy 24:
"When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness (Hebrew: "matter of nakedness") in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house . . ." (Deuteronomy 24:1)
Jesus said this law was given, "because of the hardness of your 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, 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 is "matter of nakedness." The same expression is used extensively in Leviticus 18 and 20 and 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 Leviticus 20:10 required the death penalty for adultery. The fact is that the death penalty was authorized but not always carried out. When Joseph found Mary with child, he assumed it was the result of an illicit affair. Since he was a "just man", not afflicted with hardness of heart, he was minded to "put her away" (divorce her) privately:
"Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. " (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).
Should a destroyed marriage continue to exist?
Picture of a Jewish marriage contract
(ketubah) outlining the obligations
and duties of a husband and wife.
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 does not want to stone her, what should he do? The answer, given with all the authority of God's law, is found in the Bible 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 women who are victims of divorce. This was not an age when women could readily enter the 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 took away the first husband's "property rights" (Deuteronomy 24:4).
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.
Does the Bible say it is a NECESSARY EVIL?
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, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery." (Matthew 19:9).
The original word for "sexual immorality" ("fornication" in the KJV Bible) is porneia, and it means "illicit sexual intercourse in general" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). Fornication is generally thought of as premarital sexual intercourse, but that is not all it means. Porneia includes premarital sex, homosexuality and adultery. 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 such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry." (Matthew 19:10). What they said does not seem to follow, but at least it prompted Jesus to explain further. In the process, He gave us the reason for the exception clause:
"All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it." (Matthew 19:11-12).
The idea Jesus advances 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 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 survive without it.
Jesus' disciples, then, seem to have missed the point entirely when they conclude that it was good for a man not to marry.
What Jesus in the Bible is 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 puts it,
"Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife." (1Corinthians 7:10-11).
Couples who divorce 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, the Bible states that Paul had to deal with a problem that Jesus did not address, the problem of marriages divided, not by infidelity, but by religion.
What did the Corinthians ask Paul about marriage?
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 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." (1Corinthians 7:1)
Since we know that it is not wrong for a man to touch a woman (Hebrews 13:4), we must assume he is referring to something in their letters. Indeed, later in this chapter, he will acknowledge that much of what he is saying is said only because of the "present distress" (verse 26).
Having made this statement, he goes on to say:
"Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband." (1Corinthians 7:2)
Like Jesus, Paul acknowledges the physical needs of men and women. He knew that an attempt to impose celibacy would lead to fornication. In verses 3 through 6, he outlines the intimate responsibilities of husbands and wives to one another.
Paul, like Jesus, knew that the ability to remain celibate was a gift that some had and some did not have:
"For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. But I say to the UNMARRIED and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion." (1Corinthians 7:7-9)
Note that the same word "unmarried" is the same word used in verse 11 for divorced women. The "unmarried and to the widows" in this passage are two categories of formerly married women. Paul says, if they cannot control themselves, "let them marry."
But Paul stands opposed to divorce:
"Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain UNMARRIED or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife." (1Corinthians 7:10-11)
Having said all this, he is 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's judgment concerning marriage and divorce
Paul begins by saying, "But to the rest I, not the Lord, say:" (verses 12). He is rendering a judgment, and Paul's judgment can be just as binding as the Law of Moses. His judgment in this matter follows:
"If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.
"But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. " (1Corinthians 7:12-15)
Is Paul adding another "exception clause" for divorce? In the first place, he declares 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 is not the case if the unbelieving mate abandons the marriage. When that happens, a brother or sister is not "under bondage." In other words, they are free, loosed from the marriage bond and free to divorce. Paul speaks of marriage in terms of "binding and loosing" twice more in the chapter. Once in verse 27 and again in verse 39:
"Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. " (1Corinthians 7:27)
"A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; . . ." (1Corinthians 7:39)
Paul is plainly saying that a woman deserted by an unbelieving mate is not bound to her husband (1Corinthians 7:15), she is free to remarry.
Then it would seem that Paul is 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.
Were Moses, Jesus and Paul creating EXCEPTIONS?
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 different from Paul.
But Paul had one more difficulty to address; that of the divorce and the 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 each one remain with God in that state in which he was called. Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy.
"I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress — that it is good for a man to remain as he is: Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife.
"But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you." (1Corinthians 7:24-28)
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.
Does it require a JUDGMENT from the Bible?
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:
"Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. " (Romans 7:1-2).
Compare this with what he says in an earlier chapter:
"Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
"For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed 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 that will require judgment. What about a woman who learns she has married an alcoholic, or a child abuser? What if she fears her life is in danger? 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:
"And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." " (Matthew 19:4-6)
But if they remember Jesus' caution, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice," (Matthew 9:13, 12:7) they will also work to bind up the brokenhearted and to heal the spirit wounded by divorce - which is not the unpardonable sin. The ravages of divorce can be forgiven and healed like any other wound.
This article is written, not to make the judgment for people, but to tell them what does the Bible say about divorce. In the end, those who have to live with the decision should be the ones to make it.