Skin Deep? What if we took Jesus seriously about divorce?

Jesus says:

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

As you can see, the culture of his day said different.  The assumption among many, though contested by some rabbis was that if you were dissatisfied with your wife then you could (maybe should), go and get a certificate of divorce. Those certificates were intended to formalise divorce, to protect the wife from simply being dismissible at her husband’s whim and word. 

Jesus says “no.” A marriage is intended to be permanent and so only if there has been immorality (pornea) can there be a legitimate divorce.  In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul also talks about the wife who has been deserted by an unbelieving spouse. The assumption is usually that he has added another reason. I would suggest that rather than adding something extra, he is in fact simply putting the “immorality” exception under the microscope. Immorality is about unfaithfulness and as we have seen, it is possible to commit adultery in the heart without engaging in the physical act.  So, the deserting person has at least been unfaithful to his wife in spirit. It is also highly likely that he had been or is about to be physically unfaithful but that might be harder to prove.[1]

Divorce was never meant to be about providing a way out of a marriage covenant which was meant to be permanent. Rather, it was a mechanism to recognise that one party had already broken the covenant.

This is important because what was true in Jesus’ day is true today as well. Our state is seeking to encourage increasingly liberal attitudes to divorce. We now have the concept of no-fault divorce. In effect marriage is no longer a permanent covenant. It is a contract, an arrangement that you can go into knowing that if you are not satisfied with the arrangement then you can back out later.

Suppose though that we took Jesus’ words seriously. Suppose we worked on the assumption that marriage was meant to be for life and divorce was meant to be rare and exceptional. I wonder how that would transform our approach to it?

Well, first of all, it might cause us to take the marriage vows more seriously. A marriage would not be simply an excuse for a big party. We would consider it a “solemn” event in the right meaning of that word. We would not rush into it. We would take time to prepare seriously.

For some people that might raise the question of compatibility. Well, of course it is right to seek to marry someone who you will complement. However, I think we can get a bit too tangled up on the question of compatibility. What that does is allow me to deflect out from my own sins and failings. If the marriage is not working then it is my partner’s fault or better still, simply that we were not right for each other. Isn’t it just possible that the problem is my lack of sanctification, my selfishness, my unreasonableness?

Do you know what a husband or wife will say to me when they come to me about their marriage. I have heard this more than once. They don’t say:

“There’s something amiss in our marriage, can you meet with me to help me work out what I am doing wrong.”

They don’t even say:

“can you meet with us to help us work it out”

Instead, all too often they will say

“My wife/husband has a problem. (S)he needs counselling. Can you speak to them.”

At that point I advise them to not try to psycho-analyse their spouse.  I say that if they both want to, then I will meet them together.  When I do, I then hear another side to the story. I often ask them to own up to their own failings and not to try and identify their partners faults. Sadly, few can do this.

At this point, I hear the objection

“but if they are always rowing, then surely it would be better for them to split up. It cannot be good for the children to live with parents always fighting.”

Here’s the thing. If you care that much about your kids’ well-being, stop rowing. You see, to repeat, the problem is with what comes from the outside. The problem is with what comes out from our own hearts. This means that a divorce will not solve the problem, the children will not be better off. Instead, you will still be arguing but the kids will have to deal with it living between two houses.

This reminder of the seriousness of marriage should encourage us to look again at our hearts and to seek the change that only the Holy Spirit can bring.

See also


[1] One of the reasons why in the past, divorces would happen on the basis of unreasonable behaviour.

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