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On Divorce

Mark 10:1 -- 12

This passage used to be one of the most unpopular ones in the New Testament. Now it is simply one of the most commonly ignored.

Getting up, He *went from there to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan; crowds *gathered around Him again, and, according to His custom, He once more began to teach them. Some Pharisees came up to Jesus, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. And He answered and said to them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses permitted a man TO WRITE A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. "But from the beginning of creation, God MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE. "FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." In the house the disciples began questioning Him about this again. And He *said to them, "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 10:1-12 NASB)

Then and Now

One of the “reasons” for ignoring this passage given is that “things are different today.” So let’s look at then and now – and see how different they really are.


The question being debated was rather a hot one at the time. It seems there were two rabbinical schools of thought.

  • The school of Shammai said that the only acceptable reason for divorce was adultery. (Kindly remember that women had no say in this; so therefore this meant her adultery).
  • The school of Hillel was much more liberal in this matter. If a wife displeased her husband, she could be divorced.

What does “displeased” mean? Here are some examples of what a wife might do to displease her husband:

  • Spoil his dinner
  • Go about with her hair down
  • Speak to other men in the street
  • Be heard quarreling one house away (a "brawling woman")
  • Speak disrespectfully of his parents
  • And other grievous offenses.

It gets worse. Some time later the school of Akiva came along. They held that displeasing your husband included the situation where he found a woman who was prettier.

What protection had the woman in all this? Only this: if she was divorced, she must be given her dowry back. I suppose this made it more pleasant when providing a large dowry.

Situation today

It is fashionable for the Christian today to decry the morality of the world around him. What a terrible time we live in! But did you know that the rate of divorce among born again Christians (evangelicals and fundamentalists, the people of the Bible) is actually higher than in the general population? There are many excuses which might be brought forward – and have been. My observation is this: we are very quick to find excuses. Here are a few:

·         “Well, the church attracts people in trouble. A lot of them come to church because of the problems in their marriage.”

·         “It must be some other denomination.”

·         “That’s mostly in California” (often said in Tennessee).

·         “It’s only because Christians get married – the other folks never even bothered with marriage.”

But are these things really the cause? Have we looked at ourselves lately?

·         Is there any real stigma to being divorced? If you’re a clergyman, there might be. But for the average couple in the pews, no one would be so impolite as to suggest that divorce could be sinful.

·         More to the point perhaps is this: when was the last time you saw or heard of church discipline being enforced in the matter of divorce? In fact, when was the last time you saw church discipline applied to anyone in the pews?

·         Listen to our sermons. We tell our women that submission doesn’t mean submission, it merely means respect. We tell our men to love their wives – but it doesn’t seem to be a really important point, now does it? In fact, the church in general has absorbed the marital values of the world for all members except the clergy – and that exception is weakening.

If you’d like the measure of how bad this is, consider this. The seven promises of a Promise Keeper – the greatest men’s movement of our time – include:

3.  A Promise Keeper is committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.
4.  A Promise Keeper is committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values. 

We live in a time where this needs to be made explicit. I cannot imagine a movement like this in my grandfather’s time. It is good that we have it; but having it shows we need it so much.

Christ’s view

Christ, in essence, says Shammai got it right. For a Christian, divorce should be unthinkable except in cases of adultery. Having said that, there are two other things we should note.

·         We are told to hate the sin and love the sinner. This is not easy (except when the sinner is you). It is required. The distinction needs to be made.

·         We need also to make it clear that to be a Christian is to admit to being a sinner.

·         We also need to strive to heal marriages, not break them up. Even in the case of adultery, God told the husband to buy back the wife. You can find the story in the Old Testament – look up Hosea.

God’s view of divorce

Christ now lays out for the disciples the view that God the Father takes of marriage and divorce. He begins by going back to first principles.

First Principles – the view from Genesis

However else you wish to take the story of Adam and Eve, it is clear that it is meant to be taken as symbolic of the human race. We are supposed to learn something from it!

·         First, we are made “in his image.” As such, we are to imitate his character (as children imitate their fathers). He is love; he is faithfulness. We, therefore, are to love and be faithful. This story alone would sanctify marriage.

·         Next, he made us “male and female.” Yes, I know that the politically correct have proclaimed that there are seven genders, not two. Let me be economical about it: they’re wrong. The distinction of male and female is to be preserved.

·         Finally, we are “one flesh.” That is the measure of care we are to have for each other. My body is not my own; it belongs to my wife, I am just the steward of it. It cannot be used for things opposed to her and our marriage.

Prophetic View

As time went on God revealed more of his will on the subject of marriage to the prophets.

·         He explicitly equates idolatry with adultery. In so doing, we see the beginnings of the picture of the church and her relationship to Jesus Christ. It is as if God had taken the living canvas of our bodies and painted on them a picture of his love for the church.

·         God is shown to be love. Adultery shatters that relationship. God makes it clear, high and low, that adultery is not to be done. There is no favoritism in this; remember David and Bathsheba?

·         Interestingly, he proclaims this: once divorced, there is no going back.[1] Once the shattered marriage is acknowledged, it’s over.

New Testament View

The view of the Old Testament is carried forward and enhanced.

·         Christ explicitly makes it clear that “one flesh” is meant to apply to married couples.

·         In so doing, he makes divorce unthinkable except for adultery.

·         Paul – in line with the equivalence of idolatry and adultery – allows the additional exception of the non-Christian spouse abandoning the marriage.

Why are we in this mess? How do we get out?

We’re in this mess because

We have a complete lack of faith. You don’t think so?

·         We go about securing divorce in calm confidence – because we believe that either God is powerless, or he doesn’t care. When we go through divorce, the last thing either party stumbles upon is the idea that God would not approve and do something about it.

·         We think we are the exception to the rules. We know much more about how difficult our situation is; God obviously would approve.

·         We fail to perceive his love – and our duty to imitate it. How often we hear from one partner or the other the burning desire to vindicate themselves! “Tell him/her that I’m right” is usually the first thing heard in a marital counseling session. God did not vindicate his righteousness by destroying the sinners of this world. He displayed his love on the Cross instead.

In short, we do not fear God, we do not obey God, we do not imitate God.

We’re in this mess because

We are moral hypocrites. You don’t think so?

·         Consider your workplace. If a stranger walked in and observed your workplace all day (minus the cute Christian posters) could he tell who were the Christians by their actions? Could he tell that you are a Christian?

·         “I don’t want to get involved.” Suppose a Christian couple, friends of yours, began to have serious marital difficulties. What would you do? What have you done?

·         After the divorce, do we accept the situation as normal? Isn’t it the case that the divorced move on to another local church, or another Bible Fellowship in the church, and continue as if nothing had happened?

What should we do?

·         Is your marriage a sound one? Then praise God for it, and thank him for it. Continue to work at making it sound; recommit yourself to your partner for life.

·         Is your marriage in trouble? Then begin by humbling yourself before your God. Ask for his powerful aid; when you do, recommit yourself to your partner for life. Go to the church and ask for help. Don’t vindicate yourself; the knowledge of who pulled the trigger will not stop the bleeding.

·         Has your marriage already ended in divorce? Then humble yourself before God and – I know this is not going to be popular – tell him that you have sinned. Admit that he is right; adultery is the only real cause of divorce. Then commit yourself to him, either to staying out of marriage or, as appropriate, making your next marriage your life long one.

If you happen to be one of those souls who knows of a marriage in trouble, then take the first step of church discipline. Talk to them. Support them in love; rebuke them in private. Like Christ, stand at the door and knock. Be a source of strength to both of them, encouraging them to seek the aid of both God and man.

[1] Deuteronomy 24:1-4

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