"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."
Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:30-31.
Many versions of fundamentalist Christianity seem to teach that if you just follow their formula for the perfect marriage, divorce need never be an issue. But being a Christian isn't a formula, and one person's actions can't guarantee the response of another person. Each person has his or her own choices to make, and ultimately, they are that person’s choices alone. The fact is that even if you do everything you can, to the best of your ability, to make your marriage happy and healthy, it simply won't be everything it should be unless your spouse is doing their best too. This isn't a perfect world, as the cliche goes. So, given that sometimes marriages do fail, a burning question for many Christians is, when should divorce be an option?
Now, I have to confess that I'm taking on this subject from a certain level of personal ignorance. I have had a pretty happy marriage for almost 25 years now, and I'll freely admit that this is because my spouse and I do our best to put one another first and defer to one another in love, as well as to take responsibility for changes we need to make in our own lives. So, while I don't think divorce should be considered a too-easy escape just because "it isn't working out," I'm in no position to judge anyone whose marriage actually isn't working out. I think it's important that each person follow their own conscience, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, regarding what to do in their own difficult marriages.
Christianity has traditionally taught that divorce for any reason other than adultery is unacceptable. This is based on several passages of teachings by Jesus (including the one quoted above), and one by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, that essentially maintain that marriage is the joining of two people into "one flesh" which should not be separated (though Paul apparently expanded acceptable divorce to situations where a non-Christian spouse abandons his or her Christian spouse). It must be noted, though, that some Christians sects don't allow divorce for any reason, saying that Christian spouses ought to forgive "seventy times seven" times even in these situations. And the problem also arises that these two exceptions just don't seem to adequately address some of the other reasons why, many of us feel instinctively, people really ought to be able to end marriage-- such as physical, emotional or financial abuse or neglect.
I don't think either Jesus or Paul intended the New Covenant kingdom to be merely a stricter version of the Old Covenant, with its laws and regulations. The New Covenant is supposed to be about a living relationship with God, a leading by the Holy Spirit into a life of love. I believe Jesus' teachings, and Paul's, should be viewed in those terms. So there came a time when I had to ask the question: would Jesus-- the Jesus I have come to know-- really tell a spouse who was being used and abused that she/he had to stay in that marriage? I had to answer, "no." And this led me to the question I have asked in an earlier blog post: Is there something we're missing, or misunderstanding, about the "no divorce" texts? Some assumptions that we're making which they wouldn't have made? Or vice versa?
So, using a question-and-answer format, I'm going to look at marriage and divorce as it would have been seen in Jesus' day, and Paul's.
How are marriage and divorce viewed in the Bible?
Both Old and New Testaments view marriage as a solemn contract, or covenant. A covenant is a kind of treaty between two parties, characterized by promises that need to be kept. When a covenant has been violated-- when one of the parties breaks the covenant promises so frequently, callously or heinously that the wronged party must consider it irrevocably broken-- there are ways for the one who has been wronged to end the covenant. Marriage is no different. In Jeremiah 3, Israel’s covenant with God is pictured as a marriage contract. God had kept His covenant promises, but Israel had continually broken them without repentance or any attempt to right the wrongs. In verse 8 God says, “And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce. . . .” Divorce, in and of itself, is not inherently evil. God describes Himself here as the wronged party in a marriage covenant. The promises of the covenant had been broken beyond repair-- not by God, but by Israel. God’s divorce of Israel did not break the covenant; it merely acknowledged that the covenant had been broken. But God nevertheless described Himself as getting a divorce. Since God would never sin, it could not have been wrong for Him to get a divorce-- because He was not the one who broke the covenant. Covenant-breaking is a wrong that we must avoid; but when the other party has irretrievably broken the covenant, the wronged party is not obligated to pretend that the covenant is intact. It is up to the wronged party to decide when enough is enough. Forgiveness is important, but forgiveness alone will not restore a broken covenant. The party who broke the covenant must repent and bear the fruit of repentance, showing a real desire to change his or her ways and beginning to honor the covenant again. Israel refused to do so in Jeremiah 3, and the Bible gives us a picture of God finally deciding that enough was enough, and withdrawing from His covenant with Israel.
But doesn’t God say, “I hate divorce” in the Book of Malachi? And didn’t Jesus say, “what God has joined together, let not man separate”?
We will examine more closely what Jesus said shortly, after examining the shared understandings He and His audience would have been working under, that we today may be missing But here is what Malachi 3:11-16 actually says:
“Judah hath dealt treacherously. . . and hath married the daughter of a strange god. . . Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously; yet she is thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. . . Therefore take heed 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. . .”
God was angry because in this case, the divorce itself was a breaking of the marriage covenant, because the women who were being divorced had done no wrong. Instead, it was the men divorcing their wives without cause who were doing wrong, committing treachery against the covenant by marrying other women. It was the breaking of the covenant that God hated, for He looked at it as tantamount to committing violence and then covering it over. When the marriage covenant has not been broken, then divorce itself breaks the covenant and is therefore wrong. But in the case where the covenant is already broken, divorce could not be wrong, or God would not have spoken of Himself as initiating a divorce.
But isn’t it true that what’s wrong for the creature is not necessarily wrong for the Creator, because as Creator He has rights and powers over His handiwork that the creatures don’t?
Yes, and that would apply when God is spoken of, or speaks of Himself, in the Bible as Creator or Lord. But when God speaks of Himself as a husband, He is applying a human metaphor to Himself, and the rules that would apply to humans in that relationship would apply to Himself in the metaphor He uses. God would not speak of Himself doing something in a metaphorical marriage covenant, that would be wrong in a real marriage covenant.
So when Jesus taught about the marriage covenant, how did He understand it?
The marriage covenant, as understood in the Bible, included basic promises that the parties had to fulfill. These are set forth in the Old Testament law, and it was Old Testament law that Jesus referred to when He talked about marriage. It’s important to understand that Old Testament law, as understood by the rabbis of Jesus’ day (Jesus Himself, of course, also being a rabbi) was of two different kinds. There were the general laws, such as the Ten Commandments. These were basic, overarching laws that applied to a variety of specific situations. These are similar to today’s statutory law, which is made by governments and codified into books of statutes and rules. But there were also the specific laws, and these were understood very much the way we understand case law today: when a specific case regarding a specific situation, is judged by a court, and the court’s judgment is then applied to similar situations.
We can see this type of interpretation in Paul’s discussion of the law, “muzzle not the ox” in 1 Corinthians 9:9-14. Paul understood a specific law about oxen to apply generally to every situation where a worker deserved payment for work done. Paul, too, was a rabbi, and he demonstrates here the way rabbis understood the specific case laws of the Old Testament-- that whatever principle was set forth in the specific situation detailed in a law, applied generally to other, similar cases.
Turning, then, to the Old Testament marriage laws as Jesus and His original audience would have understood them: “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was statutory-type law. But a law such as Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was case law. It referred to a specific situation: a man who has married a woman and found “some uncleanness [that is, sexual immorality]” in her. It says that her husband can give her a bill of divorce, and she is then allowed to go and be another man’s wife, but she may not return to her first husband. This is the law that formed the basis of God’s divorce as described in Jeremiah 3:8. The principle of this law was that sexual immorality was grounds for divorce, and that there was to be a legal procedure for ending the marriage when the covenant had thus been broken.
Another marriage law in the Old Testament was even more specific: Exodus 21:8-11. “If [a maidservant] please not her master who hath betrothed her to himself. . . If he take him another wife: her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage shall he not diminish. And if he does not do these three unto her, then she shall go out free.” This law referred specifically to one particular case: a man who has married a maidservant and then taken another wife, and has ceased to fulfill his marital obligations of food, clothing and marital love to the first wife. Jewish rabbis interpreted this as a principle that the obligations of marriage included giving marital love to the married partner, as well as the duty to meet the partner’s physical needs. As it was understood in Jesus’ day, laws such as this one were not exclusively for maidservants in a particular situation, but for all married people. To refuse to bring home food, or to prepare meals, or to turn away again and again from any other marital obligation, was to break the covenant. And this Exodus law clearly gave the right to “go free” from a broken marriage covenant, to wronged wives. (It’s important to note that a valid divorce, as Jesus and His audience would have understood it, included the right to remarry. That was just part of what it meant to be divorced).
So what was going on when Jesus said anyone who got divorced, except for adultery, was himself committing adultery? Was He annulling the law of Exodus 21:8-11?
To understand this, we must dig a little deeper into the historical situation in Israel in AD 30, when Jesus was preaching. David Instone-Brewer, one of today’s foremost scholars on first-century Judaism, summarizes it very well:
[U]ntil about the time of Jesus’ birth . . . both Jewish men and women could divorce partners who broke their marriage obligations, as defined in the Old Testament. These grounds for divorce (based on Exodus 21:10-11) were in use until about A.D. 70, but by the time that Jesus was preaching, in about A.D. 30, they were being used only rarely. During Jesus’ lifetime [a] new, groundless divorce gradually grew in popularity, until by about the end of the first century, it had totally replaced divorces based on Old Testament grounds. This new type of divorce was invented by a rabbi called Hillel, who lived a few decades before Jesus, and was called the “Any Cause” divorce. The phrase that inspired it is in Deuteronomy 24:1, where a man divorces his wife for [as it read in their text] “a cause of sexual immorality.” . . . Hillel asked, why did Moses use the phrase, “a cause of sexual immorality,” when he could simply have said “sexual immorality”? Hillel reasoned that the seemingly superfluous word “cause” must refer to another, different ground for divorce, and since this ground is simply called “a cause,” he concluded that it meant any cause.
Hillel therefore thought that two types of divorce were taught in Deuteronomy 24:1: one for sexual immorality (adultery) and one they named “Any Cause.” The Hillel rabbis . . . concluded that an “Any Cause“ divorce could be carried out only by men . . . and that it could be used for any cause-- such as the wife burning a meal-- so . . . this fault could be such a small thing that it was, in effect, a groundless divorce.
Very soon the “Any Cause” divorce had almost completely replaced the traditional Old Testament types of divorce. . . .
Not everyone accepted this new type of divorce. The disciples of Shimmai, a rival of Hillel who often disagreed with him, said that Hillel had interpreted the Scriptures wrongly and that the whole phrase, “a cause of sexual immorality,” meant nothing more than the ground of sexual immorality; it did not mean two grounds, “sexual immorality” and “Any Cause.”
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, IVP Books 2003, pp. 55-57.
This internal conflict in early first-century Judaism was huge, and had been going on for some time by the time Jesus began His public ministry. Deuteronomy 24:1 and its meaning were what everyone was talking about. But the other just-cause divorce law of Exodus 21:10-11 was never in dispute, and thus was not a topic of discussion; indeed, it was gradually being forgotten because of the prevalence of the “Any Cause” divorce and the dissent over it between the two rabbinical groups. When someone spoke against divorce in Jesus’ day, they were assumed to be talking about a Deuteronomy 24:1 “any cause” divorce (just as today, if someone speaks against “drinking,” they are assumed to be speaking of alcoholic beverages, because the drinking of non-alcoholic beverages is not in dispute and is simply assumed to be ok). Similarly, for anyone hearing or reading about a discussion on divorce in Jesus’ day, the Hillel/Shimmai dispute over Deuteronomy 24:1 would be at the front of their minds. Exodus 21:8-11 divorces were simply unquestioned and assumed valid.
Jesus often didn't mention matters that were unquestioned and assumed, such as the worship of one God. There was no need to address understandings that needed no changing. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was largely Christ’s correction of certain passages from the Law that were being misinterpreted or misapplied, or where the letter was being focused on to the point of ignoring the spirit of the passage. Matthew 5:31-32, then, shows Jesus’ correction of the Hillelite reading of Deuteronomy 24:1. Jesus was saying that a Deuteronomy 24:1 divorce could only be for sexual immorality (’fornication“ in the KJV, but this was a word referring to all forms of sexual immorality). A divorce under Deuteronomy 24:1 for “any cause” was not a valid divorce in God’s eyes, and therefore the divorcing person could not marry again without committing adultery.
Both Matthew and Mark also record a conversation Jesus had with a group of Pharisees about this very issue (Mark 10:2-9, Matthew 19:3-9). The Gospel of Matthew, with its more in-depth detail of Jesus’ teachings and its emphasis on showing the links between Jesus’ life and teachings and the Old Testament (see Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible, Lion Publishing, 1973), mentions the “any cause” divorce by name. The King James Version translates it as “every cause,” (Matt. 19:3), but the Greek words are “any cause” as used as a legal term to refer to this kind of divorce, which is documented by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-circa 100) in Antiquities of the Jews 4:253. The Hillelite explanation of their interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 is found in their rabbinic commentary Sifre Deuteronomy 269.
Matthew 19:3 reads as follows: “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 [any] cause?” Jesus responds that God created marriage and that humans should not “put asunder” what God had put together. But as the passage in Jeremiah 3 shows us, it is the one who breaks the marriage covenant who has “put asunder” the marriage. Because sexual immorality is a breaking of the covenant, Jesus says in verse 9 that it is a valid reason for divorce, so that a person divorcing for sexual immorality would be able to remarry without adultery.
The Pharisees then asked (Matthew 19:17): “Why did Moses then command to give her a writing of divorcement and to put her away?” Jesus answered (verse 8), “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” “Hardheartedness” was also a word that had particular significance in Jesus’ day. It meant “stubborn unrepentance,” and was a special word used in the ancient Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, which was not used in ordinary, conversational Greek The Pharisees would have known, then, that Jesus was quoting the Septuagint-- and probably the one place the word “hardheartedness” appeared in the Septuagint with reference to divorce: the same passage where God speaks of Himself as divorcing Israel. Jeremiah 4:4, continuing the story of His divorce from chapter 3, warns Judah to “circumcise your hardheartedness” lest God divorce Judah as He had divorced Israel.
Jesus, in saying “your hardheartedness” to the Pharisees, is not talking about just the Pharisees, but the whole nation, just as He spoke to the whole nation in Jeremiah 3 and 4. Because of the tendency of God’s people to be stubbornly unrepentant, God permitted divorce for sexual immorality in Deuteronomy 24:1. The idea is that divorce should be a last resort; even as God divorced Israel only after repeated attempts to restore the covenant. But when the partner breaking the covenant continues to break it and will not truly repent (which is turning from wrongdoing and changing one’s ways), then the wronged party may declare the marriage to be at an end. Exodus 21:10-11 and Jeremiah 3-4 show this; and Jesus never said otherwise.
But what if the wronged spouse still doesn't want to leave? Didn't Paul say that if we leave a marriage, we must either remain single or be reconciled to our spouse?
Divorce is an option, not a requirement, when the marriage covenant is broken. And the existence of this option can be very important to the marriage. One result of understanding marriage as a covenant which can be broken, is that the wronged party has the power to end a broken marriage covenant. This changes the power dynamics of the marriage. If your covenant-breaking spouse understands that you have a scriptural right to say “enough is enough,” it may be that this knowledge will be enough for your spouse to begin considering you worthy of respect in the relationship, and to really change his or her ways. But as long as she/he knows you will stay no matter how much you and the children are suffering, your spouse may not have enough incentive to face his or her own errors and take responsibility for changing them.
But if you do come to the place where you must leave your spouse, it’s important to understand exactly what Paul intended to say, as his original audience would have understood it-- because that was the message that was inspired by God.
Paul’s words on marriage are contained in the seventh chapter of his letter to Corinthians. The church at Corinth was subject to the laws of ancient Rome-- and Rome’s divorce laws were even easier than the Jewish “Any Cause” divorce. Rome had what was called “divorce by separation.” That is, any man or woman who wanted a divorce, for any reason at all, could get legally divorced simply by walking out of the marriage. Whoever owned the home could simply throw out the non-homeowner, and the non-homeowner could simply take his or her possessions and move out. They were then free to marry anyone else they wanted.
It is in this context that we must understand Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 7:10-11: “And unto the married I command, yet not I but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband. But if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband; and let not the husband put away his wife.” Paul is saying that a Christian must not do a divorce-by-separation for any and every reason, because in the eyes of the Lord, a groundless divorce is not a divorce at all. Therefore, a person who has already had one of these divorces should either remain unmarried, or be reconciled.
But does this mean Paul is opposed to divorces where there are valid grounds, such as adultery, desertion or neglect? Here is what he says regarding a Christian whose spouse has left them: “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God has called us to peace.” 1 Cor. 7:13. “Under bondage” here is the Greek word “douloo,” meaning “to be enslaved.” It is the same word used six times in Galatians to speak of being in bondage to rules and regulations, as opposed to being free in Christ (see, for instance, Gal. 5:1). Paul is saying that having to stay married to someone who has deserted or abandoned us is a form of legalistic bondage, contrary to the freedom of Christ.
But Paul was not saying a person who was divorced for good cause could not remarry. He uses another word, “deo,” for being “bound” or under obligation to just law, in 1 Cor. 7:26-27 and again in 7:39. The first says that Paul “supposed” that under the “present distress“ (referring to a period of famine and hardship in Corinth, it was better to remain in one‘s current condition, at least for the time being. “Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed.” In verse 39 he uses it regarding widows: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth, but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” Read together, these verses are saying that being “loosed” (as the opposite of “bound”) means being free to remarry. Paul is not saying there can be no such thing as valid divorce and remarriage, or he would not imply that it is possible, when not under “the present distress” to be “loosed.” (Note: Verse 39 was written specifically for widows and should not be construed as a special binding of women only, to be unable to be released from marriage except by the husband’s death-- because this reading would directly contradict verse 13.)
Again, his original audience, understanding Roman divorce laws as we do not, would have grasped Paul’s meaning without all this explanation. Just as with the “Any Cause” divorce with the Jews, the “divorce by separation” would have been the default kind of divorce that Paul’s Roman audience would have understood him to be talking about. But when Paul speaks of desertion by an unbelieving partner, his audience would also have understood Rome’s other law of divorce-for-cause. As David Instone-Brewer puts it in Divorce and Remarriage in the Church:
[T]hese grounds for divorce [neglecting/refusing to meet the needs for food, clothing or marital love, per Exodus 21:8-11] had . . . spread through the whole known world via the Babylonian and then the Persian empires [influenced by assimilation of the Jews during the captivity in Babylon], to Greek culture and eventually to Roman law. These three grounds for divorce were written into both Jewish and Greco-Roman marriage documents. This meant that if you were suffering neglect from your husband or wife, you could present your case in any court-- Roman, rabbinic, Egyptian, or, as far as we know, any of the other provincial legal systems of the first-century civilized world.
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, IVP Books 2003, p. 99.
Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Cor. 7 speaks specifically in terms of these commonly understood marital obligations, in that he discusses marital love and “due benevolence” in verses 3-5, and the meeting of physical needs (by mentioning that it’s better not to marry during a time of “distress”) in verses 26-27 and 32-35 (“carefulness” towards “the things of this world” being an inevitable condition of marriage in needing to “please” one’s spouse). In our own marriage vows today, we usually promise to ‘love, honor and cherish.” These vows come from Ephesians 5:28-29 (where Paul tells husbands that they must love, nourish and cherish their wives), and reflect the marital obligations shown in 1 Corinthians 7, which ultimately came from Exodus 21:8-11. To chronically refuse or neglect to meet these obligations has always been considered a breaking of the marriage covenant, which gives grounds for a just-cause divorce. God is a God of covenant, and it is covenant-breaking which God is against.
But if all this is true, why have most Christians never heard it before? How could we all have gotten it so wrong for so long?
The main thing to remember is that after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, Christianity became divorced from its Jewish roots. Jews blamed Christians for deserting Jerusalem at the time of its destruction. Christians blamed Jews for the death of Christ rather than recognizing the universal nature of Christ’s death for all sin. Jews and Christians regarded one another as enemies. Also, at the same time, the early church (reacting against the decadence of Rome), began to overemphasize celibacy and virginity, which gradually affected its understanding of marriage and remarriage. The doctrines which arose out of this became the traditional Christian understandings, which continued to be passed down. Christianity became a Greco-Roman religion, and then a European one, and its access to its own history, including the underpinnings of Jewish rabbinical scholarship, was broken. In the past 150 years, however, events such as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls have greatly increased our understanding of how the original hearers of these messages would have understood them.
We can’t know how many misunderstandings might have been avoided had the developing Church truly practiced Jesus’ command to “love our enemies and do good to them.” We might have been able to help more of the Jews and their scholars survive the Roman destruction, and thus held onto more of the original understandings of first-century Christian teachings. But we have always had access to Jesus’ teachings that to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves, are the central commands, and let our understanding of these simple truths govern our understandings of all other rules, laws and regulations Christians have imposed on themselves through the ages. It is not according to love to force a victim of marital abuse, neglect or desertion to stay in marriage covenant that has been irreparably broken and has become nothing more than a prison-- or to force one’s children to stay in a home where they are being harmed.
God has graciously provided for the victims of broken covenants, that they may be set free and not enslaved or under bondage. Both Jesus and Paul understood just-cause divorce to be allowed by the Scriptures, and neither Jesus nor Paul ever spoke against just-cause divorce. If you are in a situation where your marriage covenant is broken and your marriage and family life have become intolerable, God’s merciful provision is for you and your children.
Remember, God’s goal in the New Covenant is to restore marriage to what He intended for it from the beginning. In order to do that, both parties must have the ability to enforce the marriage covenant and hold the other accountable. If that fails, just-cause divorce is the last resort-- but if that last resort is needed, it is available to His children. His love and grace are ours always.
Note: The ideas in this article were not written by a licensed marriage counselor and are not intended to replace licensed, professional counseling.
This topic is discussed in greater detail in David Instone-Brewer‘s 211-page book Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, IVP Books 2003, and in more scholarly detail in his larger work, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Eerdman‘s, 2002. Also see the website http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/ for answers to frequently-asked questions.