January 28, 2021

Divorce, Remarriage and The Gospel 5: Jesus

jesusicondiv.jpgDivorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 1
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 2: A Map For the Road
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 3: One More Question
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 4: The Law and The Prophets

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:3-12)

Some of the most difficult cases of Biblical interpretation and application come in instances of what appears to be simple and straightforward, but is actually floating on an ocean of controversial background questions. Such is the case with Jesus’ statements on divorce and remarriage. No one has problems understanding what is said, but the more we learn about the overall context and the more we look toward issues of application, the more complex the passages become.

If a preacher or teacher wishes to ignore these contextual and applicatory questions, they will be able to say the Word is clear and simple: All divorces and all remarriages are wrong. If the larger questions of context and application are to be taken seriously, the preacher/teacher may not be on as simple and universally applicable ground as he/she thought.

We should begin by saying that it is not surprising when the teachings and demands of Jesus run counter to our culture. We live in a culture of temporary relationships and disposable marriage. Jesus demands that his followers recognize the true nature of a covenant relationship between a husband and a wife. When culture encroaches upon and ignores God’s purpose for the nature of marriage, we should not expect that God’s mercy and grace change the true, original nature of marriage as a creation ordinance and a covenant example.

This is an essential point to understand. God’s mercy and grace toward sinners are the great themes of the Biblical story. Yet God’s intentions for those made in his image- marriage, parenting, human community- are not erased, removed or redefined. So marriage is always marriage as God intended it in the beginning. Jesus makes this clear whenever he speaks of divorce. He always sets our thoughts about marriage into the framework of God’s mercy to fallen “eikons.” (HT to Scot McKnight) We can’t lose God’s mercy, and we can’t lose the true nature of marriage in the Biblical, human-divine narrative.

I recognize that there is a kind of Marcionite tendency in contemporary evangelicals to say that we have a “bad God/Yahweh, good God/Jesus” polarity going on. In actual fact, if we were left with the old covenant narrative alone, we would have a much more flexible view of divorce. Jewish attitudes toward divorce have been “no fault” for centuries. Both the Bible and rabbinical tradition accept divorce and remarriage with much less contention than we find in the statements of Jesus. Looking at the history of divorce and remarriage in the teaching of Catholic and Protestant churches, it is easy to see that the demands of Jesus in the cited Gospel passages have made Christians think much differently about divorce.

Anyone studying these passages will quickly become aware that Jesus spoke in a time when there was rabbinic controversy over the practice of divorce. There is no doubt that Jesus sided with the more conservative view of divorce in this controversy, but this does not help us understand exactly how far Jesus was prohibiting divorce and/or remarriage.

There are some important issues of comparative texts. Mark omits any exception clauses, while Matthew includes exceptions for sexual immorality, and doesn’t specifically apply these to remarriage. What does this mean? That Jesus said different things at different times? That the early Christian communities emphasized more or less of what Jesus said in different circumstances? What exactly does Jesus mean by “sexual immorality?” Adultery? Homosexuality? Pedophilia? Porn addiction? What about failures of the marriage vow that are non-sexual, but are equally or more serious, such as physical abuse, abandonment, cruelty or non-support?

When these exception clauses were used in the first century, who did the early Christians believe was making the judgement for those exceptions? Were these Jewish Christians still consulting rabbis? Were Christians left on their own in these matters? Did the elders or congregations approve/disapprove of these exceptions? (“We’re sorry Mr. Smith, but the elders have decided your reason for divorcing your wife is unacceptable.”)

These matters are particularly difficult in a culture where the legal and religious aspects of marriage are separate. Churches and ministers “perform” marriages/weddings, but no one, Christian or not, needs to consult a church for marriage or divorce. Churches recognize the marriages and divorces granted by the state, even if they might not approve. In such a culture, what is the corporate application of Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage? Some churches claim to consistently apply their own views on divorce and remarriage to their members, but in actual practice there are very few churches that would discipline a member as an adulterer for remarrying. (I do know of a case where this happened when the pastor’s wife was involved.)

We are also obligated to consider what is behind Jesus’ words. It is obvious that Jesus feels the old covenant allowance for divorce has been abused. We need to see the distinction between the allowance of divorce and the potential abuses of that allowance. Most scholars believe that Jesus was particularly aware that the double-standard that made divorce/remarriage easy for men, but almost impossible for women, was combining with men’s natural depravity to result in the social and economic abuse of women.

In other words, when Jesus made friends with prostitutes, he was often making friends with a divorced woman, while her husband was remarried to a younger woman and was still respected in the community.

I do not believe that Jesus was simply offended at the existence of divorce. He accepted that the “hardness of hearts” made divorce a concession that God allowed. But Jesus does say that there is a difference between divorce that honors God’s intentions for marriage, and divorce/remarriage that abuses and despises that purpose.

I’ll continue our look at Jesus’ words on divorce/remarriage in the next post.


  1. ed lebert says

    I think the exceptions in Matthew 5 and 19 mean “marriage after divorce makes you guilty of adultery unless of course you are already guilty of adultery before the divorce.” I had never heard of this explination before I read Piper’s position paper you linked to earlier, and it seems to make good sense to me.

    Its funny how you seem to think Jesus’ words are harder to understand than the old testament texts. I found these are more straight forward, especially in light of the fact that he explains the old testament texts as well. Tthe exception clause in Matthew is the only thing about the verses you brought up as difficult or complex. Were there other things in the verses which you thought made it difficult to understand?

  2. ed lebert says

    Never mind, I didn’t read the whole position paper – he has a different explination at the bottom of the page.

  3. What a wonderful post. For a moment there, I thought I was reading N.T. Wright. 🙂

  4. I said the text was simple. I said the background, context and application are difficult.

  5. Michael,
    To me it is clear that Jesus is poking permissiveness in society with a robust defense of Deut 24, and probably as undestood by Shammai. In other words, marriage is permanent — except in the case of sexual infidelity (Paul expands this in 1 Cor 7). That seems his point. You agree?

  6. I agree to that extent, but I will have more to say as we move on to Paul and then to a view that takes sees all of scripture in a Christ-central way.

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