Has God stopped allowing divorce?

In my post about a gay bishop, I wrote:

God, through Moses, allowed divorce, which was less than his ideal for marriage, because people’s hearts were hard (Mark 10:2-9). Perhaps by analogy he would accept same sex marriage, for those whose “hearts are hard” and cannot accept his ideal, at least as better than gay or lesbian couples living together outside any kind of formalised relationship.

This second sentence is of course a highly controversial suggestion (which I am not discussing in this post). I didn’t expect the first sentence of this quotation to be controversial. But in a comment on this Jeremy Pierce has written:

One difficulty with the Moses argument is that Jesus seems to be saying that God allowed it under Moses but isn’t allowing it anymore. At least that’s how I’ve usually taken it.

Well, I suppose I have come across this kind of interpretation before. For it must underlie the traditional absolute prohibition of divorce in churches and in so-called Christian countries – a tradition which is very much in retreat now, although the Roman Catholic church continues to take quite a strict line on divorce.

But does this interpretation of Mark 10:2-12, and the parallel passage in Matthew 19:3-9 (compare also Matthew 5:31-32), stand up to detailed scrutiny? I don’t think so.

First it should be made clear that “Moses wrote you this law” does not mean that it came from Moses rather than from God. Jesus and the Pharisees shared a presupposition that the whole law of Moses, written in the five books of the Torah, came from God with his full authority, and Moses merely spoke it and wrote it down. That applies to this specific law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, allowing divorce as long as a proper procedure is followed, as much as to any other part of the law of Moses. Jesus was by no means questioning this.

Nor was Jesus seeking to abrogate any part of the law of Moses, as he stated clearly in Matthew 5:17-20. The law remains valid, and that includes the provisions allowing divorce. God hasn’t changed his mind about what he allows. (I accept that further arguments are needed here about why the ceremonial law and the food laws are not binding on Christians, but to go into that here would make this post too long.)

To understand what is happening here, we need to look at the different audiences Jesus was addressing. In the Sermon on the Mount he is explicitly addressing his disciples, although others were listening (Matthew 5:1-2). However, in Mark 10:3,5-9 he is speaking to the Pharisees, but to his disciples in verses 11-12. So it is to his disciples that Jesus says:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 5:32 (TNIV)

Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.

Mark 10:11-12 (TNIV)

By contrast, what Jesus says to the Pharisees is

Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.

Matthew 19:8 (TNIV)

God’s principles remain consistent. Jesus explained his original ideal as follows:

at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

Mark 10:6-9 (TNIV)

But God recognises that human hearts are hard. That is why he made provision for divorce in the law of Moses. And human hearts remain hard, so this provision is still needed.

Nevertheless, God’s ideal remains lifelong monogamy. We should note that when Jesus first teaches that divorce is not permitted, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:31-32), that is as part of a set of instructions for the ideal life of the Christian disciple which is summed up with

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48 (TNIV)

When Jesus later restates his strict teaching on divorce, in reply to the Pharisees’ question, the disciples respond:

If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.

Matthew 19:10 (TNIV)

And Jesus’ response to this is revealing:

Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.

Matthew 19:11 (TNIV)

This should make it clear that this absolute ban on divorce was never intended for all, but only for those called to radical Christian discipleship, to follow the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.

Who is called to this kind of radical discipleship? All Christians, or just a special religious class? This is a difficult issue. I would hold that in principle this is for all Christians, but that God recognises that not all are able to follow this way perfectly, and accepts those who start out very imperfectly but mean to put things right. So he accepts those who have divorced and remarried and the come to him in sincere repentance. He does not say that they are unacceptable because of their past history.

One thing, however, is clear. Jesus did not intend his teaching on divorce to become a new law, replacing that of Moses, to govern human societies. He makes it clear that this is not a teaching for all. For there will always be people whose hearts are hard, who because of this enter unsustainable marriages and find themselves needing to divorce.

So, even in a supposedly Christian country there should be proper legal provisions for divorce, analogous to those in the law of Moses. And, since Jesus never rejected those who came to him, the church should never reject those who come to it because of their past history of divorce, but should always accept them when they come in true repentance “Just as I am”.

5 thoughts on “Has God stopped allowing divorce?

  1. Interesting post. I’ve understood Jesus’ teachings on the mount as clarifications of the OT laws, rather than a new teaching, and thus applicable to all. Certainly, at the very least, applicable to anyone who would stop relying on their works under the Law and follow Christ.

    On divorce, my (tentative!) understanding is Matt 5:32 and Mark 10:11-12 are asserting that to divorce for any reason other than sexual immorality is a sin; thus, divorce is still allowed.

  2. Thank you, Sam. The relationship between the OT laws and Jesus’ teaching is a very difficult subject on which there are different opinions. Some make the Sermon on the Mount into more or less a new law, whereas others have taught that it was never intended to be obeyed literally, but only to show up our human inability to meet God’s standards. My position is somewhere in between, but depends on my understanding of the distinction between believers and the world. So I won’t go into more detail here.

    Certainly the “except for sexual immorality” exception in Matthew 5:32 etc allows divorce where a partner has been immoral. One might say that the marriage has already been destroyed by adultery, and so divorce is simply recognising that. The down side of using that exception in any kind of legal framework is that it requires stigmatising one of the couple as the guilty party, when in fact both may have contributed equally to the break-up even though one would technically have been the first to actually commit adultery.

  3. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » Homosexuality, Divorce and Gay Marriage

  4. To be clear, I don’t even remotely endorse an absolute prohibition on divorce. There are clear exceptions that Jesus and Paul are both explicit about. But there is a prohibition on divorce, and it is in effect. There was a time under Moses when divorce was allowed because of the hardness of some at the time. Whether it was a concession that God allowed Moses to make or a concession that God told Moses to make is irrelevant to my argument. What is important is that Jesus never affirms that such allowances are in effect for Christians. He insists that Christians, indeed all followers of him, are held to a very high standard, one that no one can hope to attain.

    What follows is that we will all do things that constitute covenant-breaking, i.e. things that are wrong. But it nonetheless remains that divorce is a sin except in the exceptional cases, which involve unfaithfulness and abandonment (a kind of unfaithfulness in itself). It’s my conviction that it’s usually immoral to divorce merely on those grounds anyway but that you first need to establish repeated unrepentance despite following the proper path of confrontation and church discipline as outlined by Jesus.

    I’m not sure why you introduce past divorce that one has repented of as a reason to think the concession is still in place. That’s not a concession. If you have to repent, then it was wrong to divorce. You don’t repent of what isn’t sin. So I don’t see how that at all shows your point.

  5. Jeremy, I don’t think my position is really very different from yours. You have chosen to use the “sin” word for what I have described as not living up to God’s ideal and not following his way perfectly. We agree that God’s standard is not one we can hope to attain, because now as well as then people are hard of heart.

    Yes, falling short of God’s ideal is sin, although I am not sure how helpful it is to call it that. But we are all sinners, apart from God’s forgiveness, and divorce and remarriage is not in principle different from the everyday sins of each one of us such as greed and bitterness.

    Nevertheless, God in his wisdom and grace chooses not to punish immediately all who fall short of his standards. Instead, he gave laws for Israel to regulate their behaviour to stop it from becoming too sinful. These regulations include the concession for divorce. And now he expects us as Christians to regulate our less than ideal behaviour according to the same general principles.

    I think Jesus’ comments about hardness of heart make it clear that divorce and remarriage was as much wrong, a sin if you like, for the Israelites as it is for Christians. The fact that God regulated something does not imply that he approved of it. That is an important principle to consider in modern controversies. To skip for a moment to a very different one, you should not take a presidential candidate’s intention to restrict abortion to certain conditions as implying that he or she in general approves of abortion, in fact rather the opposite. Similarly for God and divorce.

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