Jesus was forced into a conversation one day that I’m not sure he would have had on his own initiative. Some Pharisees put this question to him: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" From his answer to them and his later discussion of that answer with the Twelve, we have tried to figure out how the church should deal with marriage, divorce, and remarriage in our culture.
The Church and Divorce
This much I know for certain from his words: Divorce is nothing for the church to affirm or encourage. By definition, divorce is the formal dissolution of a marriage bond. And God never meant for marriage to be taken lightly. He affirmed it as the bonding (not bondage) of two people to one another. So Jesus said:
At the beginning of creation God "made them male and female." "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. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (10:6-9).
We still have to say about it what God says: We hate divorce. We hate it not only because we know divorce isn’t the will of God but because we know the harm it does to everyone involved. So we repeat these words from an Old Testament prophet:
"I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the LORD Almighty.
So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith (Mal. 2:16).
The Church and Divorced Persons
But while we neither affirm nor encourage divorce, we must be as realistic as Jesus and Paul to acknowledge that some marriages do fail. And we must not treat divorced people as "failure statistics." They aren’t! They are people in the image of God whose anguish is deeply felt by their Creator. We must not treat their lives as premises to be plugged into syllogisms. These are precious souls who bleed when cut, who cry when hurt, and who reach for help when drowning.
At this church we offer divorced persons Jesus’ grace and healing. We help them move on from this point to whatever new and holy options God opens to them by his grace. While never once compromising the words about the permanence of marriage we have heard from Jesus, we also refuse to compromise or withhold his invitation to those who are weary, burdened with failure, and guilty of sin. We will not reject anyone Jesus calls to himself.
At Mark 10:1, pay attention to the travel note that Jesus left Judea and went "across the Jordan." This put him in Perea, the territory of Herod Antipas. Antipas was the puppet ruler who had left his wife, seduced his brother’s, and married Herodias. He put John the Baptist to death for calling that sordid affair scandalous and wicked (cf. 6:14-29). Now that Jesus was in his territory, his theological enemies tried to trap him in the same snare that had been the Baptist’s undoing. They weren’t asking a serious question for the sake of information. They asked a question with an obvious context and — to use Mark’s words — "tested him."
Rather than reply to them directly, Jesus answered their question with a question of his own. "What did Moses command you?" he asked. His well-versed questioners correctly replied, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away." Moses didn’t "create" divorce or bless it as a good thing. Because of what Jesus explained was the hard-heartedness of people in messing up their marriages and — in a male-dominated culture — men tossing out their wives, Yahweh led Moses to affirm and protect women by having a "certificate of divorce" written for her before he could send her away.
In ancient cultures, there were no women’s shelters and few ways for a divorced woman to live — honorably. She could steal. Or she could prostitute herself. The only honorable way for her to survive was to marry again as quickly as possible. But a mean-spirited former husband could make that difficult. He could refuse to confirm the divorce. If the woman proceeded to marry someone else, the first husband could treat her as his "property," reclaim her from the new husband, and make her life miserable.
Many people do not realize that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is a protection of women. If a Jewish man henceforth chose to divorce his wife, he had to give her a written certificate of divorce. When she remarried, he could make no claim on her. For him to do so would be "detestable in the eyes of the Lord."1
All this information basically means that Jesus’ words in this text are descriptive rather than prescriptive. That is, he was not giving a new law on divorce and remarriage to replace the one Moses had articulated. The moral laws of the Old and New Testaments are continuous and identical, for they grow from and reflect the intrinsic holiness of God. And God’s nature hasn’t changed from Moses’ time to that of Jesus. He wasn’t lax on divorce and remarriage in the Old Testament, only to get tough in the New. He is just as concessive now as he was then; he was just as restrictive then as he is now.
So what Jesus said that day is that Antipas and Herodias broke God’s law about the sanctity of marriage. They had committed adultery. He wasn’t about to back away from John’s affirmation of the Law of Moses. When Jesus got alone in the house with his disciples, they asked him to spell out the implications of what he had told the Pharisees. So he said, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."
When you think about it, Jesus said nothing novel here. He simply looked into the faces of his would-be tormenters and his inquisitive disciples and said, "When somebody does the sort of thing Herod or Herodias has just done, he stands convicted before the Law of faithlessness, covenant-breaking, adultery. Moses told you that long, long ago. Neither Herod nor one of you has the right to be faithless toward your wives." Case closed.2
Now let me show you something that lots of people miss in this text: "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her." Did you catch it? "Adultery" is what a man does "against" his first wife if he tosses her aside for someone else. Someone has probably told you that divorce may sometimes be a "necessary evil" to protect a woman or her children from abuse, alcoholism, or other terrible situation but that her remarriage would be adultery. That’s not what Jesus said!
Divorce — whether remarriage ever occurs or not — is adultery (i.e., covenant-breaking). Both Old and New Testaments assume that divorced people will remarry. There is no prohibition of doing so. And those second marriages are not situations of "living in adultery." People adulterate, violate, or break their marriage covenants by breaking one-flesh unions. They are not "living in sin" if they marry again. And their effective repentance from the adultery they committed by ending a marriage without justification plays out in making the new marriage work.
There is no biblical precedent for telling someone to leave a second (or later) marriage in order to set things right with God. In fact, reclaiming one’s former wife is the one thing specifically forbidden in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. If you are in a second, third, or fourth marriage today, the call of God to you has nothing at all to do with getting out of your present relationship and trying to get back with your first mate. It is everything to do with making your present relationship as healthy and divorce-proof as possible.3
John and Mary are decent Christian people who have tried — maybe for the sake of their children when they had no other motivation — to make their marriage work. They spent years and thousands of dollars on counseling. It was all done in good faith. But it wasn’t working and wasn’t going to work. So they get a divorce — and are told they can never marry again (for neither was sexually unfaithful to the marriage!), never function in a leadership role in the church again. Oh, by the way, you’ll be excommunicated from the church if you do marry again — at least the first to marry will "get the axe" and then our legalistic mindset will allow us to declare the one who can wait longer to remarry an "innocent party" and bless your marriage. What a horrible mockery of righteousness, grace, and redemption!
Can we really convince ourselves that divorce is unpardonable? That forgiveness, healing, and grace to move on with one’s life applies to child-molesters, career prostitutes, Mafia contract killers, and drug traffickers, but not to divorcees? The message of the New Testament about every human failure is grace, pardon, and healing. Divorce is not a sin in its own special class that requires a lifelong penance of remaining single, celibate, and companionless.
Do we really think — regardless of the heartache, damaged lives, and lifelong consequences that are involved — that the sinner whose offense is divorce (i.e., covenant-breaking, adultery) has no spiritual option but to live with his or her brokenness forever? Jesus can heal blind eyes, forgive his own murderers, and let drug traffickers have a full range of life options for the future but cannot (or will not) heal the broken life of a man who divorces his wife? Worse still, can we believe he gives no option to a woman divorced against her will if the sorry cad who pitched her out was not already sleeping with somebody else? Jesus didn’t put this burden on people. Misguided theologians did it.
The gist of Jesus’ word to anyone who has become an adulterer by virtue of divorce is the same as he gave to a woman caught in the very act of adultery that he rescued from some men who wanted to stone her: "Go on with your life now. Be grateful that you can. And don’t ever do again what has put you in this horrible and unholy situation before God and men!" (cf. John 8:1-11).
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Divorce was not part of the original plan of God. His intention "from the beginning," as Jesus reminded his hearers that day, was for a man and woman to be inseparable for life after they have covenanted with one another in marriage. And the key to making bad marriages stronger and good marriages better is committed discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ. To the degree that two people deny themselves and take up their crosses to follow him, they will find it easier to deny themselves for one another’s sake and to shoulder the higher-than-the-world kingdom standard to which saved, renewed, and Spirit-empowered people are called.
1Jesus’ own concern for women is evident in Mark 10:12. In Jewish culture of that time, divorce was a male option. Women could not initiate divorce, except under a few very unusual situations in which she could request the leaders of her synagogue to force her husband to divorce her. Jesus makes it clear in his teaching to the apostles that divorce may be initiated by either a male or female. 2It makes our task of interpreting the Gospel of Mark simpler to avoid the Jewish argument over the nature of the "uncleanness" that might justify a man in putting away his wife. Mark is concerned with basic human dignity. He has Jesus telling his original readers at Rome that disregard of one’s marriage partner is faithless, adulterous behavior. In Matthew’s more Jewish Gospel, Jesus affirmed the view of those who argued that the only sort of "uncleanness" that justifies a man’s action in putting away a woman without his being indicted for adultery himself would be her sexual infidelity. 3Paul dealt with the pastoral implications of divorce and remarriage and wrote: "Are you married? Do not seek a divorce (Gk, lusin = dissolve a marriage bond). Are you unmarried (Gk, lelusin = already in the situation of having dissolved a marriage bond)? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned . . ." (1 Cor. 7:27-28a). Against the burden we have sometimes imposed on people who have already gone through the horrors of divorce to accept celibacy as their lifelong penance for the failure of their marriage, the Bible imposes no such stricture. Paul’s language is explicit and clear: If someone who gets a divorce proceeds to marry again, he or she has this apostolic word about the situation: "You have not sinned!" You may not have been wise. You may be marrying "on the rebound." You may be accepting stresses for which you are not emotionally or spiritually prepared. The failure of your first marriage may be been almost entirely yours! But you have not committed a sin by remarrying.
EDITORIAL NOTE: The above article is used with permission of Rubel Shelly, Ph.D. It does not necessarily represent the opinion of Smart Stepfamilies, but is offered as a contribution to the theological dialogue about divorce and remarriage. In addition to Dr. Shelly, many reputable theologians have tacked the difficult issue of remarriage and with compelling biblical argument arrive at different conclusions. Smart Stepfamilies encourages individuals and church leaders to humbly continue searching the scriptures for God's will on this matter. May we remember that even with the deepest of convictions--in the end--we will all fall on the grace of God.
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