The Case for Lawful Divorce, Part 1
Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously. Malachi 2:14-16
God hates divorce. I canâ€™t use any plainer or stronger language than that. God hates divorce, and so does every Christ-honoring believer. I would hate to give anyone the impression that I felt otherwise than that. In fact, one of my fears in addressing this issue is that readers will use the arguments given for lawful divorce as a checklist in order to justify sin and salve guilty consciences. Oh for a day when men will no longer consume it upon their lusts!
That being said, over the course of this month, I intend to demonstrate that in some cases divorce is lawful. This will be no small or simple task, so you can anticipate some rather lengthy posts. About four years ago, I taught this issue to my church. In order to thoroughly examine all the pertinent passages, I spent nearly twenty weeks on the subject. There is no lack of controversy on the issue (even amongst the members of this blog), and I recognize that. Due to the nature of blogging, it will be best to slowly unveil my position. So, Iâ€™ll not attempt to answer every objection in this post. Iâ€™ll let the comment threads carry on the debate.
Now, some of those who oppose divorce ever for any reason will no doubt say that my position itself encourages people to seek divorce. In fact, a few years ago our church had to deal with a terrible situation of adultery, and one of my â€œfriendsâ€ called me up to tell me that I deserved to have that happen because of my position on divorce. High standards are good, and Iâ€™m all for them. But some insist on having a higher standard even than Jesus Christ, and that is bad. As some famous blogger once said, there is a ditch on both sides. We must stand on Scripture, or we have nothing to stand on at all.
Marriage is a one-flesh union between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24). In teaching on divorce, Christ referred to this text to show what marriage violates (Matthew 19:6). However, this definition is incomplete. Paul called a relationship with a prostitute a one-flesh union (I Corinthians 6:16), but such relationships are not marriage. Marriage is more than a sexual relationship. In fact, Joseph was called the husband of Mary before there was a physical union (Matthew 1:19). What sets this physical/sexual union apart from all others is the wedding vows. Wedding vows are not merely a custom passed down through generations. They are an oath taken before God and man, an oath to faithfully perform the duties of marriage. The Bible uses the word â€œcovenantâ€ in reference to a marriage.
Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. Malachi 2:14
So, there are two parts that make a marriage — a physical union and a covenant oath. Romans 7:2 says that the wife is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth. Matthew 19:6 says, What therefore God hath joined together. The word “joined” there means â€œyoked,â€ and Adam Clarke says that â€œthe ancients would literally put a yoke or chain binding the couple to show that they were to be one, closely united, and pulling equally together in all the concerns of life.â€
In Josephâ€™s case, the oath had already been taken, though the marriage had not been consummated. Hence the need for Joseph to divorce Mary. Upon taking the oath, Joseph promised to fulfill the purposes of marriage (helpful companionship â€“ Gen. 2:18; godly children â€“ Mal. 2:15; protection from fornication â€“ I Cor. 7:1-2). The oath was a pledge to honor the wife as the weaker vessel (I Pet 3:7), to honor the Lord by raising children together (Mal. 2:15), and to honor the marriage bed (Heb. 13:4). These duties extended even to the man who took additional wives polygamously (Ex. 21:10). He must not diminish ought to his first wife or any subsequent wives.
So, marriage is a covenanted one-flesh union. Divorce, on the other hand, is a legal dissolving of the marriage contract. Divorce is a putting away of the marriage covenant and thus of all that it entails, including its purposes, responsibilities, and obligations. Thus Joseph sought to put Mary away because he believed that the marriage contract had been violated. Note that the Bible does not make any distinction between Josephâ€™s betrothal and an actual marriage. Both (at that time) were ended the same way, and were thus subject to the Old Testament laws. Nor does God rebuke Joseph for his desire to divorce Mary. In fact, the same verse that tells us that Joseph was minded to put her away also calls him a just man, and says that being a just man, he was minded to put her away.
With that in mind, I want to take a tour of the primary passages that deal with divorce. I will not attempt to deal with every passage at this time, although I anticipate that most of the passages dealing with the issue will surface at some time during the month. In order to shorten an already lengthy post, I will examine the teaching of Moses, and of Christ in this post, and in a later post I will examine the teaching of Paul. Moses, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, gives the civil law of divorce. Christ, in Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9, and Mark 10:2-12, gives the Christian law of divorce. Paul, in I Corinthians 7:10-17, gives the New Testament law of divorce. Believing all Scripture to be of equal authority, we will attempt to examine these three with brevity (relatively speaking), diligence, and thoroughness, in something that is hopefully less than a book-length article.Â
The Law of Moses
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. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance. Deut 24:1-4
The law of Moses makes no attempt to define just cause for divorce, but simply mandates that those seeking divorce must follow a procedure. In short, the one seeking divorce must give a bill of divorcement, and when he does so, his former wife is legally free to remarry. It should be noted that this passage in no way seeks to justify divorce or remarriage. It merely teaches that by law such things can happen. But the fact that the law allows divorce does not mean that God is pleased with divorce. God is never pleased with divorce.
Whenever I counsel a couple before marriage, I always ask them if divorce is ever an option. Of course, I only marry Christian couples and church members, so invariably they will say that â€œno, divorce is never an option.â€ While I applaud that sentiment, I also remind them that we live in a nation where a majority of marriages end in divorce. Divorce certainly is an option, and is unfortunately an all-too-often used option. Believers would do well to remember that, and to â€œrender due benevolence.â€
The Teaching of Christ
Christ picks up where Moses left off while teaching on adultery in Matthew 5:31-32 (read vv. 27-30 for background):
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
Hopefully, you took the time to read the context. If you did, you will note that Christ is very clear about what should be cut off and what should not be cut off. Cut off body parts, but do not cut off your spouse. Christ starts with the law of Moses, expanding on it into the Christian teaching on divorce. In this passage, Christ does not attempt to tell us when we can or cannot seek divorce. We would do well to remember that the Bible is not meant to be a checklist for when we â€œget toâ€ divorce. This is an ungodly misrepresentation of the purpose of Scriptural teaching.
Christ repeats the law of Moses, and then states the higher law of God. That higher law of God states that divorce is always adultery, unless the husband puts away the wife because of fornication. In that case, in the case of fornication, the divorce is not adultery. The fornication is the adultery. Nor is Christ telling us that we get to seek a divorce if there is fornication. Rather, Christ is saying that the only time divorce is not adultery is the time that fornication caused divorce to be sought. Fornication violates the marriage covenant. In this case, the adultery was committed before the divorce, so the divorce itself is not adultery. Which explains why Joseph was just in desiring to put Mary away.
When there is adultery within a marriage, the couple should always seek reconciliation first, and neither party should jump at the first possibility of divorce. However, in Matthew 5, Christ is saying that the offended party can seek divorce. Sin is transgression of the law. Adultery is sin, as it transgresses the law. But Christ says that putting away is adultery unless the putting away is for the cause of fornication. Clearly, the Bible says that when there is adultery within a marriage, the offended party can seek divorce without sin. The adultery was the sin in this case, and the divorce simply recognizes that the marriage covenant has already been put away.
In Matthew 19, the Pharisees set a trap for Christ on the subject of divorce â€“ a subject that was controversial even in that day.
The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
According to those who know better than I, Pharisees came from one of the two Rabbinical Schools: the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. On the subject of divorce, these schools were at odds with each other, though both allowed divorce. The school of Shammai maintained that a man could not legally put away his wife, except for whoredom. On the other hand, the school of Hillel taught that a man might put away his wife for a multitude of other causes, and when she did not find grace in his sight. This included when the man in question saw any other woman that pleased him better than his wife (1).
The Pharisees frequently used dilemmas to trap Christ (consider John 8:3-5; Matthew 22:15-17). In this case, the Pharisees tried to force Christ into a position that would put him at odds with one or both of these rabbinical schools. If Christ allows no divorce, he will be at odds with both schools as well as with the law of Moses (thus the question in v. 7). If he allows divorce, he will be forced (or so they thought) to take one of the two positions.
But instead of taking either of these two positions, Christ teaches attitude.
And he answered and said unto them, 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 not man put asunder.
Christ had already given his position (in Matt. 5:31-32), and these men were aware of that. The marriage bond is higher than any other bond on earth. So, when reminded of the law of Moses, Christ said:
Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
Hard hearts, Christ said, seek divorce. New hearts love what God loves and hate what God hates (Mark 10:5). From the beginning, it was not so. For in the beginning, God created them male and female, with no other options (Mark 10:6). Essentially, Christ points out that lust and infidelity are at the base of divorce, for divorce did not become a practice until men began to lust after other women.
So, Christ reiterates what he had said earlier in His Sermon on the Mount. Divorce is adultery in every case except when the covenant is already broken through adultery or fornication. It should be pointed out here that Mark, in his account, did not mention fornication. The emphasis is not on the exceptions, but on the importance of the marriage bond. Divorce is not a light issue. God hates divorce, without exception.
Looking back over the passage, we should note a few things. First, when asked â€œis it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause,â€ Christ refers to the creation of marriage (Gen. 2:24), and states that the law of marriage prohibits divorce, for what â€œGod hath joined together, let not man put asunder.â€
Why then did Moses command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? Christ recognizes the fallen nature of man, understanding that man will violate the law of marriage the same as man violates every other law. Man will break apart what God has joined. So, Christ answers the problemâ€¦ Moses wrote them this precept because of the hardness of their hearts. We would do well to remember at this point that the law of Moses came 2500 years after the institution of marriage. From the beginning of the creation, GOD joined them as one with an unbreakable bond.
Now, Markâ€™s account demonstrates the true emphasis of this particular discussion, and of Christâ€™s teaching on divorce. In Mark 10:2-12, Christ begins by asking them what the Law of Moses commands, demonstrating His respect for the Law of Moses. Then, Christ responds to their answer by showing the Pharisees that Moses gave this command because of hard hearts. Now, the reader should not think that I am having a â€œsenior momentâ€ right now. I realize that I am repeating myself, and Iâ€™m repeating myself on purpose. Markâ€™s arrangement demonstrates another concern that the Law of Moses addresses. Ungodly men who despise women, if absolutely prohibited from divorce, would be liable to find another more violent way to put away their wives. Thus, the Law of Moses protects wives from wicked husbands. Then immediately, Christ follows this thought by showing that the people of God, while legally permitted to use the Law of Moses, should never make use of that permission.
In Markâ€™s account, Christ continues by referring to the Creation ordinance of marriage. God made them male and female (singular), so that there were no other options. God placed a priority on this relationship above all others. God joins these together. As Matthew Henry said, Marriage is not an invention of men, but a divine institution, and therefore is to be religiously observed. We must especially guard the sanctity of this relationship because it pictures Christâ€™s faithfulness to the church.
Some of those who oppose divorce in any case will prefer Markâ€™s account to Matthewâ€™s, partly because Mark gives no exception. First, it is dangerous to ignore either passage, and equally dangerous to attach more weight to one passage over another. All Scripture is profitable and of equal authority, and if we are to fully understand all that Christ taught then we must examine both. But secondly, this is wrong-headed because these two accounts are not in opposition to each other. Rather, Markâ€™s account sheds additional light on Matthewâ€™s. Matthew said that â€œwhosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.â€ Mark leaves out the phrase â€œexcept it be for fornication.â€ We can conclude from this that Mark is saying if a man puts away his wife in order to marry another, even if his cause for divorce was fornication, he has committed adultery.
Mark emphasizes the importance of a pure heart in approaching this subject. Mark reminds us to look at divorce as something we should never seek or want. We should never say, â€œwhen can I?â€
Considering the length of this post, it would be better to come back to Paulâ€™s teaching on divorce in I Corinthians 7 in a later post. So, hold those (proverbial) horses while everyone pounds away at this one.
(1) For a further discussion, see Alfred Edersheimâ€™s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, chapter 22.