Nicolette Writes

Professional Freelance Writer and Stay-at-Home Mom

The Divorce Debate – In Matthew 19:6 Jesus says that man should not separate what God has joined together. What do we believe about divorce and remarriage today?


A story I did for the Christian Magazine, Vision.

Comments welcome! Do comment on my blog, however, and not on Facebook ;-P

THE DIVORCE DEBATE

In Matthew 19:6 Jesus says that man should not separate what God has joined together. What do we believe about divorce and remarriage today?

Perhaps you have already made up your mind about divorce: you either believe it is a dreadful sin, or you feel it is definitely no terrible transgression. Or maybe, like me, you are not exactly sure what the Word says about divorce. Let’s explore!

DIVORCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

One of the first references to divorce in the Bible appears in Deuteronomy 24: 1-4:

“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord.”

At the time these words were spoken by Moses, the position of a wife in Jewish society was very precarious: her husband could order her out of his house during a mere fit of annoyance! Consequently, Moses established the practise of presenting a “certificate of divorce” (from the husband to the wife) in an attempt to banish the frivolous treatment of marriage…

This certificate of divorce protected married women by acknowledging the divorce as illegal: formerly, a woman who has been cast out by her husband and then married a second man, could be taken back by her first husband (if he suddenly decided to like her again!) and she would then be stigmatised as an adulteress, as the former marriage was never legally terminated. Note here that God recognises a legal divorce.

Secondly, marriage was kept sacred through the issuing of a certificate of divorce, as a man was not allowed to take a woman back after having signed the divorce letter: they had to think twice about letting their wives go for no good reason at all. It is “detestable in the eyes of the Lord” (verse 4) when marriage is treated with such flippancy (and it is therefore that the Bible teaches us you cannot go back to a first husband). The bottom line here is that marriage must never be trivialised – partners cannot come and go as they please.

But if we do get divorced, does it mean we are then “defiled”? Verse 4 states that a woman’s husband (who divorced her) was not allowed to marry her again after she “has been defiled.” Bishop Frank Retief (Church of England South Africa) explains that this does not mean the woman was unclean or in the wrong: after a woman’s divorce from her husband, she could not return to him, because to him she was defiled. The word ‘defiled’ must be understood in terms of her availability to her husband. This once again emphasises that we should not make light of the choices we make when we get married or divorced.

THE ANY-CAUSE DIVORCE

The above law (Deut 24: 1-4) was misinterpreted at the time by influential Hillelite rabbis who invented the ‘any cause divorce’ from a single word in verse 1: Moses allowed divorce when the husband found “something” indecent about his wife. These rabbis wondered why Moses used the word ‘something’ when he only needed to say ‘immorality’. They argued that any ‘thing’ (“something”), including a burnt meal (or bad morning hair!), could be a cause for divorce!

BUT JESUS SAID…

It is to this interpretation of the law by the Hillelite rabbis that Jesus refers in the New Testament. The Pharisees asked Jesus whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any and every reason?” (Mat 19:3) Jesus answered, “what God has joined together, let man not separate”. Jesus’ answer to this is thus ‘no’ – marriage is not to be considered carelessly. Thinking of Deuteronomy 24, the Pharisees asked Jesus why Moses then permitted divorce? Jesus answered: “because your hearts were hardened” – a reference to husbands’ harsh treatment of their wives (and flippant treatment of marriage), casting them out of their homes at a whim.

Jesus also tells the Pharisees that man should not separate what God has joined together (verse 6). Bishop Frank Retief believes that this does not imply that God has joined everybody together simply through the act of being married: there are marriages that lie outside the will of God. Child, slave and incestuous marriages, bigamy, polygamy, physical or verbal abuse are not the will of God. Sometimes a situation is just patently wrong.

Exodus 21:10-11 allows divorce for neglect. The Lord said to Moses that everyone, even a slave wife, had three rights within marriage – the rights to food, clothing and love. If any of these were neglected, the wronged spouse had the right “to go free” (verse 11). The focus in this verse should be on “let no man” separate. How often do we not allow family or friends to interfere in our marriages?

REMARRIAGE…

What about New Testament scriptures stating that remarriage is sin? 1 Cor 7:10-11 proclaims: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not leave her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” Luke 16:18 says that “[a]nyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who married a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Did Jesus teach that remarriage is a transgression in God’s eyes? Many people argue that in Jewish society of Jesus’ day, remarriage was always assumed for the innocent party, as there is no condemnation for the innocent. They also believe that there are thousands of years between the context in which Jesus’ words were spoken and the time and culture that many of us live in today: we don’t exactly stone gay people today or insist on women wearing hats in church. Many believers also feel that not all marriages that take place fall within the will of God. On the other hand, there are those who feel that emphasizing that the Bible should be read in context is just an easy way out of guilt…

MALACHI 2:16

The notorious Malachi 2: 16 states: “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel, and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment, says the Lord Almighty.” God’s use of the word ‘hate’ clearly indicates that to God, marriage is sacred. Yet, God is not here condemning the divorced – he hates ‘divorce’, not the divorced. He hates everything that frustrates the goal of keeping a marriage in tact: abuse, neglect, adultery. God hates the violence and hurt caused by divorce: The Message states the latter part of verse 16 as: “I hate the violent dismembering of the ‘one flesh’ of marriage.”

In Ezekiel 16:59-60 the Lord says “[Y]ou have despised my oath by breaking my covenant…[y]et I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.” It is not only the divorced, but each one of us who needs this promise to be true.

Sources:
* http://www.christianitytoday.com
* Retief, F. Divorce – Hope for the Hurting.

Comments welcome! Do comment on my blog, however, and not on Facebook ;-P

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8 thoughts on “The Divorce Debate – In Matthew 19:6 Jesus says that man should not separate what God has joined together. What do we believe about divorce and remarriage today?

  1. Very insightful article! When faced with situations that don’t necessarily have a very clear right/wrong answer, it is important to a) look at the character of God and b) realize what Jesus did on the cross.

    Jesus came to demonstrate God’s character on earth (John 1:18), and He did not judge those who came to Him. His words: “Neither do I condemn you” come to mind. Secondly, we must realize that the law was fulfilled when Jesus died on the cross (Rom 10:4). Because we believe in Jesus, and what He did for us, we are cleansed – not because of a set of external rules that are followed. Thirdly I believe it is a waste of time to focus on how big or small our sins are. Sin is sin – and we are forever, completely cleansed through the work of Jesus if we believe in Him (http://breekamp.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/only-one-sacrifice-is-needed/).

    I wholeheartedly agree that marriage is something incredibly sacred, a blessing from God which is supposed to represent the relationship God has with the church. Therefore, divorce is not a decision you must make lightly. But how can it bless God and make Him happy if you are stuck in a terrible marriage and forced to stay there because of condemnation? Won’t that give you a wrong impression of who He is, and what His character is like? I can go on forever about the goodness of God (James 1:17, 1 John 1:5…), and my only conclusion is that there won’t be any condemnation for any believer who goes through a divorce.

  2. Hi Karien!

    Thank you so much for your reply! I had an interesting comment from one of my twitter friends who also read this article: Ursula feels that “If God has truly joined the couple together, then there would be no need for divorce.”
    I asked her to come to my blog and post her comment here, and she said that she will be posting her comments here later as she has a lot more that she wants to say. So look out for her comments Karien!

    Ursula’s statement of course open a lot of interesting questions: how do we know we married the partner God has chosen for us? Does God have one partner that he chose specifically for us? What if we married the ‘wrong’ one, what happens then? How does the puzzle fit together then?

    I believe that it is possible to marry the wrong person (I am not saying God has chosen just one specific person for each of us), someone who is not good for you and who doesn’t respect you – in such a case I am sure divorce is okay.

    Looking forward to hear more!
    Nicolette

  3. First of all if, God has chosen only one lifepartner for someone,then,even after divorce I don’t think he/she is going to find another lifepartner,as God has chosen only one for her/him! Or situation of divorce would not be there!But,If God has chosen another one or even more than one then situation of divorce will be there! So, Divorce, in my oppinion is fine!!!Because,its also God’s will!

    • Hi Anonymous! (Aman?)

      Thank you so much for your valuable comment! I often struggle with the question of whether God has chosen only one person for each of us: I often believe that God chose my husband for me even before I was born, but now I have became aware that people make mistakes (i am not referring to my husband, haha!); I have seen marriages go bad, and then I think to myself: this person made a wrong decision… I don’t know – it is all so complicated! For example: will I be with my husband in any way in heaven?! What if he remarries, who will be with him?? Haha – I drive myself crazy with questions like these!!!

      Nicolette

  4. Interesting, controversial, convoluted and complicated.

    “What God has bound together” and “Let no man separate” takes away the decision from men and places it to God’s.

    Lets simplify the decision-making here. To people who are thinking about divorce, remember the vows you said to your spouse. Remember that you made that promise not only to your spouse but to God as well. What made him/her the right partner the time you were saying those vows? With that in mind, ask yourself this: Who will be most pleased if this divorce pushes through? Is it me or is it God?

    A lot of times we complicate things which are simple.

    Yes Jesus doesn’t condemn that woman who committed adultery, but that doesn’t give us the license to commit adultery. Same way that God doesn’t condemn us for sinning. That doesn’t give us a license to go on sinning.

    We should not mistake God’s mercy and grace as license to sin. God hates sin, same way that it was said in Malachi, God hates divorce. We should not mistake then God’s mercy and grace as a license to divorce.

    Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails. (Proverbs 19:21)

    • Hi Babolnart!

      Don’t you think when one partner breaks the marriage promises by for example having an affair or physically abusing the spouse or something even more terrible, that the innocent partner is justified in getting a divorce? Or maybe I am just not understanding you clearly:-) *** Are you saying that under no circumstances a divorce is right?

      Thank you for the comment!! ***

      Nicolette

  5. Hi Nicolette!

    Here’s my response:

    For the one who broke the marriage promise: You cannot correct a mistake by making another mistake. What’s done is done. The motive of your next move should, ultimately, be to please God. Whatever the action is, it’s motive should be to please God.

    On the other hand, if you were the wronged spouse, again your motive is to please God. Will having a divorce please God? On the other hand, will continuing the marriage please God?

    In the first place if one’s purpose is to please God, having an affair, or physically abusing another should have never happened. But taking to account that people make mistakes, (grave or not, none exempted, for none is righteous) then your reaction to the mistake should show your motivation to please God more than anyone else.

    -Bob

  6. Peter on said:

    Hi Bob

    I agree with you: Two wrongs don’t make a right. However, if I were in a situation where I had to advise a person on whether to choose between continuing an abusive relationship or divorce, it would be a no-brainer: I’d advise the lesser of two evils. In untenable situations, divorce is the only alternative.

    Society, however, rushes too easily to the conclusion that situations are untenable when, in fact, they are not.

    I also agree with you that we should strive to honour God with our actions: Even though our actions miss God’s required perfection – every time.

    Pete

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