Jesus and Paul’s Teaching About Marriage and Divorce
Where do we begin? It may be tempting to go straight to those passages which seem to indicate a right to divorce and remarry in certain circumstances. This approach is not wise since it is the whole of God’s word which must be considered in deciding what is right. It may also be tempting to accept the view of a trusted teacher, writer or Bible scholar. Again the problem is we may tend to accept the one which we feel is more in line with our desires and put aside the one which is not. Further, when the ‘experts’ can’t agree, how can we possibly know what and who is right?
It is a good principle to begin with what is clear before examining what is less clear and to understand the rule before any apparent exception to that rule.
Marriage Is a Life-long Covenant
The Bible teaches marriage is a consensual, life-long covenant relationship between a man and a woman. Jesus expressed it this way:
Pharisees came to Him, testing Him, and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matthew 19:3-8).
This conversation is also recorded in Mark’s gospel (Mark 10:2-9). Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees showed God’s created plan for marriage was a life-long, monogamous union. Divorce (and the right to subsequently remarry) was wrong because it went against the one-flesh relationship which God created. Divorce was permitted by Moses under the Old Covenant because of hardness of heart. It was never commanded but rather regulated an already existing practice (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Under the Law of Moses a woman who had been twice divorced or divorced and widowed could not remarry her first husband.
Nowhere in scripture (Old or New testaments) will you find a God given command or expressed approval to divorce (meaning to terminate a consummated marriage and end all marital obligations). Jesus said “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been this way.” Jesus reiterated that divorce was a man-made practice because of sin and hardness of heart. The Mosaic regulation was to address ‘hardness of heart’, not sanction divorce. God’s intention from creation was for husband and wife be joined as one flesh for life.
Similarly, Paul, in his letters to the early churches affirmed the life-long union of marriage:
For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. (Romans 7:2).
A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39).
These two scriptures are the only ones in the New Testament which clearly speak of marriage ending: at death.
Paul (and he states it is the Lord’s command); says a husband is not to divorce his wife and a wife is not to be separated from her husband. But if a wife is separated she has only two options – remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:10-16).
In summary these scriptures teach us:
1. Marriage was created by God to be a life-long union between a man and woman, broken only by death.
2. It is a union which is not to be broken through the legal, man-made process of divorce.
3. While divorce was permitted by Moses under the Law, because of the hardness of man’s heart, it was never sanctioned. In God’s kingdom, for Christians under the new covenant, there is no concession to sin and hardness of heart.
Divorce Causes Adultery
Jesus then taught that divorce caused adultery:
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity (Greek: porneia) makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matthew 5:32).
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, (Gk: porneia) and marries another woman commits adultery (Matthew 19:9).
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery (Mark 10:11,12).
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18).
In summary (the exception of Matthew aside) these scriptures teach us:
1. A man who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery. This indicates that divorce does not end a marriage and so the inevitable remarriage by a former wife is adulterous. Yet we need to note that the responsibility for the sin of adultery is placed upon the divorcing husband, not the wife.
2. A man or a woman who divorces their spouse and remarries commits adultery.
3. A man who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery, regardless of her guilt or innocence. Paul also confirms that to marry another while the former spouse is still alive is to commit adultery (Romans 7:3).
It is difficult to interpret these plain teachings of Jesus any other way. Divorce causes adultery. Remarriage after divorce is adultery and marriage to a divorced woman is adultery. Marriage does not end with divorce as is commonly thought, though difficult it is for some of us to accept. That these teachings of Jesus (and Paul) at face value seem hard or difficult comes as no surprise for that was the reaction of His hearers when He gave them. First the Pharisees and then His own disciples questioned Him.
The disciples’ statement “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry” suggests they understood Jesus’ teaching on the binding nature of marriage to be far more restrictive than what they knew, that of the Pharisees and the teaching of either Hillel or Shammai (the leading rabbis of that time).
However there is one apparent exception to the rule that divorce causes adultery. That is the subject of the next section.