by Randy Chambers, 1996-03-26
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
"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
"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.