In modern society, divorce statistics are staggering, reaching as high as 50% in some countries. As divorce, and particularly no-fault divorce, becomes more prevalent, debate within the church has increased on what constitutes valid grounds for divorce, and when remarriage is allowed.
Particular attention has been given to Jesus’ brief, but succinct, teaching on the subject. So what exactly does Jesus have to say about divorce and remarriage?
Jesus did affirm that divorce and remarriage are allowable under specific circumstances. S we will examine Jesus’ words in order to understand both the intent and the parameters of the Bible’s provisions for divorce and remarriage.
Marriage in the Old Testament
Before we can unpack all that Jesus had to say about marriage, and specifically about divorce and remarriage, we must establish what the Old Testament has to say about marriage. Both Jesus’ teachings and his audience’s understanding of marriage are rooted in the Mosaic laws found in the Torah. And so, the Old Testament is our most comprehensive tool for interpreting Jesus’ teachings in their proper context.
Marriage Instituted at Creation
“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh”- Genesis 2:24
When God created humans, He created them male and female, designed for partnership in all ways, including sexual intimacy. In doing so, God established marriage as a covenant bond, part of His good and perfect creation. This was before sin entered the world, corrupting humanity.
The Introduction of Divorce
“If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.”- Exodus 21:10-11
The concept of divorce makes its first appearance in Exodus 21. In this passage, a man who takes a second wife is prohibited from neglecting his first wife or diminishing her status by treating her as a servant. However, if he is unwilling to continue to treat and provide for her as a wife, he must send her out from his household unencumbered, so that she may find another husband.
Deuteronomy 21 establishes a similar mandate for circumstances involving women captured as prisoners of war. After allowing the woman a period of mourning, a man could take such a woman as his wife. But if he did so, he could not later reduce her to slave status, and instead must divorce her.
Why Command Divorce?
“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 his house,”- Deuteronomy 24:1
Deuteronomy 24 outlines the procedure for divorce. Specifically, it establishes the act of divorce by written decree. But note that the expectation is that divorce could only be granted for cause. The phrase, ‘has found some indecency in her,’ indicates that a man may only write a divorce decree in response to some kind of sexual indiscretion on the part of his wife.
Still, the written decree was essential for protecting the divorced woman. As women in ancient Israel had no legal status, property, or earnings potential of their own, they relied on marriage for security and provision.
By affirming a divorce in writing, the law provided that a divorced woman could remarry, and thus enjoy the security that marriage provided.
What about No-Fault Divorce?
Though some of the situations outlined above describe divorce as a result of a simple change of heart, the procedure established in Deuteronomy 24 clarifies that divorce should only be undertaken when there is a valid cause.
The prophet Malachi underscores this point.
After admonishing the men of Israel for being unfaithful husbands, the Lord rebukes unprovoked divorce, describing it as an act of ‘violence toward the one he [a husband] should protect’ (Malachi 2:16).
Jesus’ Commentary on Divorce
“and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”- Matthew 19:5-6
Jesus’ best-known commentary on divorce is found in Matthew 19. In this scene, some Pharisees had questioned Jesus on whether or not the law permits divorce for any reason, as opposed to divorce only for specific causes.
As is often the case when examining legal questions posed to Jesus by the Pharisees, we must take a step back and examine the motivation and purpose of the question.
An Impure Question…
Often, the Pharisees posed their questions to Jesus in a manner meant to challenge his authority as a teacher before others, forcing him to alienate himself from his audience by taking a particular side on a debated matter. And sometimes, they aimed to entrap him by causing him to say something that they could report to the governing authorities.
The conversation in Matthew 19 was likely an attempted entrapment.
Matthew 19:3 specifically notes that the Pharisees intended to ‘test’ Jesus. In other words, they meant the question as a challenge.
It is likely that if they could coax Jesus into condemning no-fault divorce, that they could then report his proclamation to Herod and draw the king’s ire against Jesus. For Herod had recently had John the Baptist beheaded for denouncing Herod’s illicit marriage to his brother’s wife.
…With a Pure Answer
Yet, instead of getting tangled up in the Pharisees’ legal snare, Jesus answered according to his divine purpose and mission, which was to illuminate truth and rescue people from sin and death.
So Jesus answered not according to what is written in Mosaic Law, but according to the original design of marriage at the time of creation, which superseded the law.
And we see in Jesus’ answer that marriage was intended as a permanent union of one man and one woman, joined together by God, as a part of His good and perfect design for creation, and specifically for humanity.
And a Follow-up Question
But the Pharisees were not satisfied with this answer and pressed him further, asking in verse 7 that Jesus explain why Moses would command that men divorce their wives by written decree.
In response, Jesus emphasized that divorce was not part of God’s original design for marriage, but the procedure was established because of men’s hardened hearts.
Jesus makes his final point to the Pharisees in a way that plainly declares that divorce and remarriage without cause violate the law. Any man that divorces his wife without cause and takes another wife, Jesus says, is guilty of adultery.
But Jesus does affirm that marital unfaithfulness (or, as some translations say, sexual immorality) is a valid grounds for divorce and remarriage. In doing so, Jesus also affirms the original proper cause set forth in Deuteronomy.
From this answer, we infer that Jesus was affirming the intent of the law to provide a pathway to security for divorced women, and not to validate the selfish motives for divorce in the first place. Divorce was not established, then, to validate the actions of the hard-hearted, but to provide relief for victims of their spouses’ hardened hearts.
Other Valid Causes for Divorce
Even among Christians who recognize that the Bible makes no provision for no-fault divorce, there exists some debate over other valid reasons for divorce. Two of the most common causes are abandonment and abuse. Both are addressed in scripture, and so we will step briefly beyond the words uttered directly by Jesus to explore these two important situations.
“But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”- 1 Corinthians 7:15
The clearest passage on spousal abandonment is found in 1 Corinthians 7. Here, speaking to Christians from a pagan (rather than Jewish) background, Paul provides instructions for couples where one has accepted Jesus and become a Christ-follower and the other has not.
Paul’s decree is quite simple: do not leave your spouse simply because they have not chosen to believe in Jesus.
If your spouse is willing to stay with you, then you must stay together. However, if the unbelieving spouse chooses to leave the marriage, the believing spouse should let them go.
To be clear, there is no reading of this passage that allows for a Christian to abandon their spouse. A Christian may only accept divorce in response to abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.
“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”- 1 Timothy 5:8
Paul routinely instructs Christians to have no association with abusers. In Ephesians 5:11, Paul writes, we have a duty to expose deeds of darkness. In 1 Corinthians 5:11-12, Paul instructs the church to not associate with those who practice immoral behavior, including idolaters, drunkards.
And in 2 Timothy 3:1-5, Paul includes the abusive, the rash, the brutal, and those lacking self-control among people that must be avoided.
It fails the test of logic to suggest that the church must separate from such people, while their spouses are to remain stuck with them.
Paul leaves no room for exceptions and does not indicate that there are areas of life (including marriage) where these instructions do not apply. So an abused spouse can, and should, separate from the abuser and seek help, including the applicable help provided by our justice system.
Some question why Jesus himself never called out abuse as a cause for divorce. The simple answer is that he didn’t have to. By affirming the decrees of Moses, Jesus affirmed the prohibition against treating a wife as a slave or servant. Wives were afforded protection, and care was both expected and assumed.
In ancient Israel, to abuse one’s wife would be akin to declaring her less than a wife, and the law as stated by Moses plainly provided divorce as the preferable alternative to such treatment.
When God instituted marriage, He made it good and intended it to be a lasting covenant. But because of humanity’s sin and brokenness, divorce became a part of our reality. The Old Testament law, affirmed by Jesus, sets parameters for divorce, not as a license to sin, but as a relief from the earthly effects for some of our most grievous sins.