Over the course of my ministry in three separate churches, I was surrounded by people who needed answers to questions raised by divorce and remarriage. Divorced men and women asked me to conduct their weddings, having been denied in other churches. Some deacons had been divorced and remarried. Should they be thrown out of church leadership? We would lose people I considered some of the most spiritual in the church, people with exemplary Christian homes and marriages. Of course, I never dreamed that someday these hurts and hang-ups would affect me so personally. So, what does the Bible really say?
The New Testament presents us with a problem in understanding what the text says about divorce and its real-world implications. Jesus seems to say that divorce is allowed only if adultery has occurred: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). However, this has been interpreted in different ways. Most Christians say that Jesus allows divorce only for adultery. Beyond what Jesus says, Paul also allows divorce. He permits it for abandonment by a nonbeliever (1 Cor. 7:12-15). Yet some, including myself, have found this teaching difficult to accept, because it seems so cruel in certain situations. It suggests there can be no divorce for physical or emotional abuse. As a result, some Christians ignore this teaching or find ways around it. For example, when Jesus talked about “adultery,” perhaps he included other things like abuse.
But does the literal understanding of the text mean what we think it does? If you read the texts like a first-century Jew would have read them, those confusing passages make more sense. One of the most dramatic shifts centers on a question the Pharisees asked Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” (Matt. 19:3). A few decades before Jesus’ time, rabbi Hillel had invented a new form of divorce called the “any cause” divorce. By Jesus’ time, this “any cause” divorce had become so popular that almost no one relied on the literal Old Testament grounds for divorce. The “any cause” divorce was derived from a single word in Deuteronomy 24:1. Moses allowed divorce for “a cause of immorality.” Rabbi Hillel and his disciples argued that anything, including a burnt meal, could be a cause! They said that the text taught that divorce was allowed both for adultery and for “any cause.” In Texas we call this a “no fault” divorce.
Another sect of rabbis (disciples of Shimei) disagreed with this interpretation. These opposing views were well known to all first-century Jews. And the Pharisees wanted to know where Jesus stood. “Is it lawful to divorce your wife for any cause?” they asked. In other words: “Is it lawful for us to use the ‘any cause’ divorce?” When Jesus answered “no,” he was condemning the newly invented and rather chauvinistic, “any cause” divorce. Jesus agreed with rabbi Shimei. It meant they couldn't get a divorce whenever they wanted it - there had to be a lawful cause. It also meant that virtually every divorced man or women was not really divorced, because most of them had “any cause” divorces. Matthew summarized the whole debate in one sentence: Any divorced person who remarried was committing adultery (Matt. 5:32), because they were still married. It may not be obvious to us, but their first readers understood clearly what they meant.
Within a few decades, however, no one understood these terms any more. Language and cultural contexts often change quickly. The early church, and even Jewish rabbis, forgot what the “any cause” divorce was, because soon after the days of Jesus, it became the only type of divorce. It was simply called “divorce.” This meant that when Jesus condemned “divorce for ‘any cause,’” later generations thought he meant “divorce for any cause.” Confused? Look at the quotation marks – these are vastly different phrases.
Jesus was simply rejecting a faulty Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. Also, Jesus didn't reject the other ground for divorce in the Old Testament, which all Jews accepted. The church eventually forgot the other cause for divorce, but every Jew in Jesus' time knew about Exodus 21:10-11, which allowed divorce for neglect. Exodus says that everyone had rights within a marriage. If these were neglected, the wronged spouse, usually the wife, had the right to seek freedom from that marriage. In later Jewish and Christian marriages, the language of covenant became more formal, such as “love, honor, and keep.” In other words, the vows we make when we marry correspond directly to the biblical grounds for divorce. In Jewish life, and all of Jesus’ teaching took place within that context, anyone who was neglected, in terms of emotional support or physical support, could legally claim a divorce. According to Paul, this includes abandonment. In 1st Cor.7 he says that the abandoned person is “no longer bound.”
When we put all this together we have a clear and consistent set of rules for divorce and remarriage. Divorce is only allowed for a limited number of grounds that are found in the Old Testament and affirmed in the New Testament:
Adultery (Deuteronomy 24:1, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
Emotional and physical neglect (Exodus 21:10-11, affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7)
Abandonment and abuse (included in neglect, affirmed in 1 Corinthians 7)
Couples list these biblical grounds for divorce in their marriage vows. When these vows are broken, it threatens the marriage. As in any broken contract, the wronged party has the right to say, “I forgive you; let's carry on,” or, “I can't go on, because this marriage is broken.” While divorce should ideally never happen, God allows it (and subsequent remarriage) when the marriage vows are broken. Victims of broken marriages can see that God's law is both practical and loving. Trust me – this is a painful truth that I have learned the hard way.