On Sunday, February 2, 2020, I preached a message entitled “Principles or Law?” from Matthew 5:17-48. I focused on only a few verses in my message related to adultery and lust, but as a part of our “Heaven on Earth” series, our congregation read the entire passage, including a passage about divorce. That passage on divorce has raised some questions, especially regarding whether or not individuals who have divorced and remarried are committing adultery, based on Matthew 5:32. So, I modified a message I did on this subject about ten years ago to more specifically address this question as part of a larger message about divorce and the goal of avoiding it if possible. I hope my examination of this topic proves helpful.
Divorce is rampant, and the Bible has some important things to say about divorce, but we’re not talking about divorce to put a big guilt trip on those who are divorced. Jesus specifically mentions divorce in his Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7.
Matthew 5:31 (NLT): “‘You have heard the law that says, “A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.”’”
Jesus first quotes Jewish Law, and it’s also important for us to realize we’re dealing with patriarchal culture. Women were somewhat valued, but they were still considered property, either of the father or the husband, so the husband made the decision about divorce. Jesus is referring to a passage from Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 24:1 (NLT): “‘Suppose a man marries a woman but she does not please him. Having discovered something wrong with her, he writes her a letter of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.’”
All the husband had to do was hand the letter over to his wife in the presence of two witnesses, and they were divorced. The question, then, revolves around what was meant by “something wrong.”
In First Century Judaism there were two distinctly different schools of thought on this. One school of thought said a man could write this letter of divorce for just about anything, including if she put too much salt in his food or if she talked with men in the streets, while the other school of thought interpreted this much more strictly, to mean only adultery.
Malachi 2:16 (NIV): “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel…”
This passage gave a lot of weight to the second school of thought, but as is often the case, when folks don’t like God’s ways, they try to bend them to suit themselves, and that’s what many were doing in Jesus’ time, but Jesus always points us back to God’s principles.
Matthew 5:32 (NLT): “‘But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.’”
Jesus holds out that the only reason for divorce is adultery, but he states it in an unusual way. His presumption is that a woman who was divorced by her husband, regardless of the reason, would remarry in order to survive. But, to remarry for reasons other than adultery would cause the woman to now commit adultery because Jesus is saying there wasn’t a legitimate reason for the ending of the first marriage.
Later in Matthew Jesus reaffirms this teaching, explaining God’s original design, as found in Genesis.
Matthew 19:3-6 (NLT): “3Some Pharisees came and tried to trap (Jesus) with this question: ‘Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ 4’Haven’t you read the Scriptures?’ Jesus replied. ‘They record that from the beginning “God made them male and female.”’ 5And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. 6Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.’”
God’s plan was always that a man and woman would marry for life, that they would be joined together in such a way that they wouldn’t be separated. But, sometime after God created man and woman, sin entered the picture and ruined so much good that God had created, including many marriages.
There does appear to be one additional situation that may allow for divorce, and that is when a believer is married to an unbeliever.
1 Corinthians 7:15 (NLT): “(But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace.)”
Jesus didn’t mention this, but Paul prescribes this second exception for divorce, coming later, as individuals converted to Christianity while their spouses had not.
Many of you know only too well the incredible pain that comes when you try to split up a marriage that was supposed to be till death us do part, for better or for worse. God does, too, and frankly, that’s why He hates divorce – because He hates what it does to us, and ultimately, our society, because marriage is the foundation of our society. There’s no question that kids are virtually always the losers in divorces. In fact, studies now show that keeping a family together is often better for kids than divorcing, even if it’s strained, provided there is no abuse.
Matthew 19:8 (NLT): “Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.’”
And divorce still isn’t what God desires for marriage. This is why a lot of couples today say they live together – to avoid the pain of divorce, but studies haven’t shown that this has a meaningful impact on divorce. But the covenant of marriage actually serves an extremely important function in making a lifetime relationship between a man and woman work.
On one end of the spectrum are divorces that are precipitated by a disastrous event, such as an affair, but at the other end of the spectrum are the majority of divorces today, what psychologists call “low conflict” divorces. There aren’t the fights or abuse or affairs, but couples simply say they “fall out of love” and their spouse is “no longer meeting their needs.” In fact, one study found that about 60 percent of marriages that end in divorce were not bad marriages at all – they were average. They had average levels of good things and conflict, but the decision was made by one or both persons to end it.
Too often we feel there are only two options for a struggling marriage – stick it out and be miserable or get a divorce. Yet, a lot of marriages that have made it have discovered those aren’t the only options. A recent study found that those who are unhappy but stayed married were more likely to be happy five years later than those who divorced. Couples were asked to rate their marriage on a scale of one to seven, with one being very unhappy and seven being very happy. 77 percent of those who rated their marriages a “one” had amazing turnarounds within five years, if they stayed together, rating their marriage a “seven.”
Sticking it out and getting help is often the difference in a marriage going from a “one” to a “seven.” It’s why part of typical marriage vows includes, “for better or worse,” because all marriages will have both, times of ones and times of sevens. Too many folks fear that if they are struggling in their marriage, it means they made a mistake and the marriage is over – but their own vows assured them there would be “better” and “worse”. The ones that survive, that thrive, discover that often the “worse” became an opportunity to break through some old barriers and discover new levels of love and intimacy they never imagined.
It is why marriages need to be covenants rather than contracts, yet contracts are the way too many folks view their marriages today. In a contract, the focus is on “me” and what I get out of this deal, and if something goes wrong, the contract is broken and that ends it. But, in a covenant, the focus is on the relationship, on “us”, and when things go wrong, as they always will because of sin, the couple works on restoring the relationship. Couples who’ve made the long haul know it wasn’t always easy, but their marriage covenant was the rubber band that kept them together and forced them to work through their issues in order to come out on the other side better and stronger than ever. And even though Jesus said adultery was a legitimate reason to get a divorce, he didn’t mean you have to, and many couples have even gotten through these incredibly difficult times to gain something even better. Let me just add that getting help isn’t a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Research has shown time and time again that when couples slow down the divorce process and get professional help, many marriages can be saved and even made great! Divorce may feel like it’s the only option you have, but in most cases it is not. Restoration is possible because God desires that even more than we do.
However, let me be clear that there is never a time when abuse is acceptable, and if there’s abuse in your relationship, get help immediately. It may very well mean separation for a period of time to allow the abuser to get help. That’s ok – there are times when a separation really can help and get a marriage back on track.
But Randy, are you saying that unless there’s adultery, it’s never ok to get a divorce? Let me say that my role is not to be judge. Have I seen marriages that should have never ended – absolutely! But, have I seen marriages that maybe should have never begun – possibly? It’s why we require pre-marital counseling for all weddings that our pastors perform.
God always planned for marriages to be “till death do us part,” but Jesus acknowledged that sin entered the picture – in fact, that’s why he came: to save us from our sins, so that our relationship with God – and others – could be restored. If you’re divorced, you’re divorced, and sin played some part in that. All of us sin, and your responsibility is to acknowledge and confess your part in the sin that ended your marriage. Susan and I have been married over thirty years, but I still battle sin in our marriage, and so does she, because we all do. You may have sinned a lot, or very little, but we all sin, and nothing can begin to change until we confess, at least to God, our part in the failure.
1 John 1:8-9 (NLT): “8If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. 9But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.”
God’s forgiveness means we no longer have to carry around the sins of our past, including things like adultery – if we are genuinely sorry, God has forgiven us, and our records are wiped clean. He no longer holds that sin against us – we are reckoned as righteous and as if that sin never happened. The Bible is clear that divorce is not the “unpardonable sin”! Of course, forgiveness doesn’t take away the earthly consequences of sins in divorce, which are often profound, but it means we no longer have eternal consequences.
In that restored relationship with God, we can even remarry without fear of committing adultery in God’s eyes, because those sins no longer exist in God’s eyes. But, it’s important to again affirm that this occurs only as we confess whatever sins we were responsible for in the marriage, repent of them, and ask God to forgive us, as 1 John requires. And if we did remarry without confessing, repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness, it’s important that we do that immediately. God can bless a marriage committed to Him and His Kingdom. And at the same time, getting a divorce in this setting isn’t a good answer, because there aren’t legitimate Biblical grounds for divorce. Two wrongs don’t make a right – we have to start where we are and move forward, seeking to be obedient to God in our present situation.