Session #039 The Divorce Dilemma
Scripture Matthew 5:31-32
Summary Are Christians allowed to divorce? Yes? No? Continuing with the next two verses (Matt 5:31-32) of Jesus’ discourse about adultery and lust, Henson explores the challenging, and often controversial topic of divorce. After providing background and context, Henson then shares seven pastoral principles for consideration and application.
Furthermore, it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. Matthew 5:31-32
Are Christians allowed to divorce? Yes? No? The answer is not as straightforward. Continuing with the next two verses (Matthew 5:31-32) of Jesus’ discourse on adultery and lust, this teaching explores the background and context on the often controversial topic of divorce. It ends with seven pastoral principles for consideration and application.
Background and Context
In the above scriptures, Jesus was still addressing adultery and lust and not teaching specifically about divorce as in Matthew 19:1-12. Hence, we must be careful not to isolate these verses without considering other passages on divorce.
To consider this issue of divorce, we need to go back to the original design and intent of marriage. Both Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:6 emphasize the key point that marriage is not to be violated and so God’s original intent is not for divorce.
However, we know that there is the fall and the curse was pronounced upon the woman in Genesis 3:16 – “…Your desire shall be for your husband. And he shall rule over you”. After the fall, Man ruled over Woman, and the Woman is being subjected to Man. The union of one flesh was violated and there was an inequality in the relationship. We see from Genesis 4 onwards that there was polygamy – one man and many wives, maids, concubines, harem, etc. Because of this situation, divorce was provided in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Since God gave the Law, is God for divorce?
We need to see that the provision in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is a concession and not permission given. Men could divorce their wives, but not vice versa. It was to protect the wife from being put away by the husband for any reason. The onus was on the man to prove her “uncleanness” or “indecency” or “immorality”. Again, to protect the woman, he is not permitted to remarry her after her subsequent marriage.
In Matthew 19:8, Jesus told the Pharisees “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so.” God knew that provision was needed to protect the women.
The divorce provision carries a clause ‘because he has found some uncleanness in her’. What does this ‘uncleanness’ mean? It refers to something done before marriage i.e., the woman engaged in sexual immorality previously and was found out after the marriage. As this was difficult to determine and definitions varied across sects, Man started to create their own rules and definitions. Israel abused the system before the exile, and after the return to the land. They divorced their wives to marry foreign wives as seen in Ezra and Nehemiah. Hence, God’s indictment in Malachi 2:16 that God hates divorce.
What Does the King say?
Subject Matter was still Adultery and Lust
Jesus addressed the abuse of the concession where men used it as a means to change wives. Though they might not have committed adultery physically, as long as they lusted for another woman, they were deemed adulterous. Jesus exposed their lustful intent as the real reason for divorce so that they could marry another. Consequently, marrying another woman for such a reason was considered adultery. Furthermore, since the wife did not desire to be divorced, she was considered still married and to make her remarry was to make her commit adultery.
Jesus was Upholding the Law but Exposing the Intents of the Heart
The Pharisees interpreted it one way, resulting in many divorces, but Jesus gave the right interpretation that it was all about lust. If they did not deal with their lust and used a loophole in the law as permission to divorce, they were committing serial adultery. He was showing them that they were using the Law for their own selfish desires. Are we doing the same today?
Loophole? Porneia not moichea
Jesus clarifies Deuteronomy 24:1-4 where “some uncleanness” is used as a provision for divorce. In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus uses the Greek word “porneia” which, besides being translated as sexual immorality, can also refer to fornication, bestiality, homosexuality, adultery, any kind of sexual indecency. Porneia is different from moicheia which means adultery. Therefore, porneia is fornication, or inappropriate sexual activity done before marriage and does not refer to marital unfaithfulness.
This clause addresses the case where a man has been deceived into thinking his wife is a virgin, but finds out that she had been promiscuous before, or unfaithful during betrothal. The law allows the marriage to be cancelled and her pre-marital sex to be judged, resulting in death (Deuteronomy 22). In Jesus’ time, there was no more death penalty but divorce was allowed. For example, Joseph, who was a just man, intended to quietly call off the marriage with Mary. Otherwise, Mary would be branded an adulteress and stoned. Even so, word got around that Jesus was a child of fornication (John 8:41). Parallel mentions in Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:11-12 do not contain this clause. There is no loophole for divorce at all for us Gentiles. Jesus narrows the exception down to fornication or inappropriate sexual activity before marriage. How many Christians would have violated this today?
Jesus Goes Back to the Original Design and Intent
In Matthew 19:3, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” In Jesus’ time, there were the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Shammai allowed divorce strictly in the case of sexual immorality only, while Hillel allowed divorce for anything done that was displeasing to the husband. Jesus did not give a direct answer about the Law but upheld God’s original design and intent of marriage and explained the need for provision in the Mosaic law because of the hardness of man’s heart. He then repeated Matthew 5:31-32, once again condemning their practice. Even the disciples, on hearing this, responded that “if such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). In addressing the divorce dilemma today, the principle is not to start with divorce but to go back to God’s original design and intent of marriage.
Paul to the Church in Corinth: Divorce and Remarriage
So, is a divorce allowed? If Jesus has the last word, perhaps we might conclude that marriage is for life. Let’s look at what Paul, who wrote a large portion of the New Testament, says about divorce in 1 Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 & 27, he addresses very specifically married couples who are both believers. He says that they are to stay married; and if divorced, remain unmarried or be reconciled. In verses 12-16, couples with one unbelieving spouse, should stay married. If the unbeliever leaves, the believer is not under bondage but is set free to be single or to remarry.
Today, it is more complicated than the above cases. What about irresponsible Christian husbands who do not provide for the family? For example, 1 Timothy 5:8 mentioned that anyone who does not provide for his household is worse than an unbeliever. Does this fall under the second category mentioned by Paul?
Pastoral Principles And Implications
Divorce is a dilemma and instead of a clear-cut answer, some pastoral principles, culled from scriptures, are shared here:
Deal with Lust First
We first need to recognize and understand the root problem of lust. If it is not nipped in the bud through seeking help from the Lord, then it opens the way to fornication or adultery. Though not considered a crime under civil law, this doesn’t mean you have not broken God’s laws (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Work on Marriage
We need to help younger couples understand that we have to work on marriage and correct their misconception that God has created a soulmate for each person. The problem with this mindset is that you start thinking your spouse is not “the soulmate” once when you are unhappy in your marriage. This is a reason some have given for divorce. Instead, you should see your spouse as perfect for training you towards perfection.
Marriage is the second most important decision after deciding to come to Jesus. We need to be convinced that we have only one shot at marriage until death and therefore we need to choose well, decide well and get godly counsel. We need to understand our roles and fulfil our assignments in marriage, giving way to kingdom partnerships instead of personal dreams. We also need to be wary of the key areas of finance and communication. If your spouse is an unbeliever or has backslidden, you need to win them over not by words but action, shining for Jesus.
Do not Treat Divorce as a Convenient Backdoor of Escape
Divorce is God’s means of grace, not His quick-fix solution for something you do not like. Therefore, do not treat it as an escape route for problems in marriage and a threat to use when fighting.
Seek Godly Counsel and Help (before you seek a divorce lawyer)
Younger couples can identify couples they respect and learn from them. The kingdom principle is always to seek to restore and reconcile first and involve others if necessary. If there was infidelity, it will take time to counsel, to heal, to regain trust again. It is a journey where they need someone to stand and walk with them.
Do We have New Hearts or Hardened Hearts?
Technically, since Christians have new hearts, there should be no divorce concession needed, no more hardness of heart, right? A hardened heart does not love a spouse, only yourself. What does it mean to have new hearts as believers, to be born again in the Spirit? Once again, if we are truly led and changed by the Spirit, there is no need to talk about divorce.
The Spirit of the Law
To simply say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to divorce is to go by the letter of the Law which kills. There will be condemnation or suffering. By the Law, many of us shouldn’t even be married and many reasons for divorce do not fall within biblical parameters e.g., irreconcilable differences, falling out of love, etc.
The Spirit of the Law is to protect and preserve, for love and life. Pastorally, if lives are in danger e.g., abuse physically, sexually, emotionally, desertion or an irresponsible spouse that is worse than an unbeliever, how can we administer the spirit of the law to bring life? Divorce may be allowed in such cases to “save” the person and their children from further harm and abuse. This is not an endorsement of divorce. Our key principle is the original design and intent of marriage. It is not easy for pastors or counsellors, and we must tread carefully when guiding people. We can be as biblically accurate as of the Spirit of the Law, but the person seeking counsel is just interested in you saying “Yes”.
The Role of the Church (not just corporate but individually): Kingdom Assignments?
Do not judge, condemn or stereotype someone who is divorced. We are very good at judging but not at loving. We are told to help widows and orphans. What about single mothers and children? What about single fathers? We must believe that the work of Jesus upon the Cross is sufficient for all. If He can save prostitutes and tax collectors, He can save and restore divorcees and adulterers/adulteresses.
There are no straightforward answers or solutions. Each has to be dealt with case by case; with wisdom and grace.
Finally, let’s consider two women in the Bible:
Woman #1: The Samaritan Woman at the Well
In John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well had five husbands and at the point of meeting Jesus, was in a relationship with another man. We are not told whether the five ex-husbands were dead or alive, although we understand there is shame in this woman which explained the visit to the well at the 6th hour. Jesus addresses a thirst in this woman that can only be satisfied in and through a relationship with the One who is the fountain of life. Similarly, our thirst for love, for acceptance, and for affirmation cannot be found in relationships, only in Jesus. Whether married or single, Jesus is the One for us all.
Woman #2: The woman caught in adultery In John 8 with the woman caught in adultery, Jesus never disputed the adulterous act at all. We all love the words of Jesus at the end when He said, “Neither do I condemn you.” But let us not miss the second phrase, “Go and sin no more.”
Jesus neither CONDEMNED nor CONDONED these women
Sometimes, we can mistakenly presume that just because we are in church, or serving in some capacity, that makes everything ok and that we do not need to deal with our sin. Like the Samaritan woman who excitedly declared Jesus as the Christ to all, could she still be living in a wrong relationship with the man? After all, Jesus did not condemn her at all. It’s like hearing the first part and missing the second part in the second story. We might even presume that the first cancels the second; that no condemnation gives us permission to go on sinning. No. “Go and sin no more.” Experiencing Jesus’ love and grace must lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4), to turn from what is wrong to what is right, which leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Did the women Change after encountering Jesus? We do not know. The Divorce Dilemma: Yes? No? Oh, how we need the Lord to live out the Spirit of His Law, to bring restoration and life.