Why does God allow divorce? For what reasons did God allow for his beautiful creation of marriage to be dissolved?
I mention divorce on this blog often, and it may have given some the impression that I believe in “easy divorce”, or divorce “for any cause”. This could not be further from the truth. I believe that marriage is sacred, and before sin entered the picture in the Garden of Eden, God meant for marriage to be for life. However because of sin, God allowed divorce because he knew that some husbands and wives would commit such grievous sins against their marriage and their spouse that it would break the marriage covenant.
Divorce is a huge topic, so it will take several posts to adequately cover it. This first post will lay the foundation for other posts in this series on Biblical Divorce.
When did God first regulate divorce?
Undoubtedly divorce, or “a man putting away his wife” occurred long before the nation of Israel existed. But God’s first regulation regarding divorce was issued through Moses in his Laws to the nation of Israel:
“When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.” – Deuteronomy 24:1 (KJV)
So here we see that God allowed for a man to give his wife a bill of divorce and send her away because he had “found some uncleanness in her”. The English word “uncleanness” is a translation of the Hebrew word “ervah” which literally means “nakedness of a thing, indecency, improper behaviour”.
There were competing schools of thought on what Moses meant by “ervah”. One group taught that Moses was only allowing divorce for serious transgressions committed by the wife, while the second group taught that a man could divorce his wife “for any cause” including trivial things such as being a bad cook. Later in the Gospels Christ would settle this dispute once and for all.
But before we get to the discussion of divorce in the Gospels, we need to address another statement on divorce from Moses. Most people incorrectly think that this was Moses’s only regulation on divorce but they would be mistaken.
In Deuteronomy 24 Moses addressed divorce from the husband’s perspective, but in Exodus 21 Moses addressed divorce from wife’s perspective:
“If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.” – Exodus 21:10-11 (KJV)
Here Moses states that there are three critical duties a husband has to his wife – he must provide her with food, clothing and duty of marriage. The English phrase “duty of marriage” is a translation of the Hebrew word “ownah” which literally means “conjugal rights” (right to sex).
If a man did not provide these three things to his wife – he had to free her.
Notice the language of divorce is very different when talking from the husband’s perspective than from the wife’s. One of the major differences is that a husband sends his wife away in divorce, while a wife is freed from her husband in divorce.
The reason for the difference in language is that in marriage a woman was made the property of her husband. A wife could not give her husband a bill of divorce, because she was his property, only he could give her a bill of divorce and thus “free her” from the marriage.
Some have asked – “Why would a man free his wife even if he was not giving her the three things God commanded him of food, clothing and duty of marriage?” While the woman could not free herself – her male relatives or the elders of their town could force a man to give his wife a bill of divorce and free her if he was neglecting these things.
Christ settles the debate on divorce in the Gospels
Christ addressed the issue of divorce in four different passages in the Gospels – Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18. As with any other issue in the Bible – the only way we can know the truth of God’s Word is to put the entire witness of the Bible together and that means the entire Old Testament and the New Testament. This concept is especially important when dealing with the Gospels. The truth is that Christ probably spoke many times on the subject of divorce, but God only chose to have four of those instances recorded by the Apostles.
Matthew’s Gospel gives us two accounts of Christ’s words on divorce, the first one in Matthew chapter 5 gives us one of his short statements on divorce. Matthew 19 gives us a much lengthier word from Christ on divorce. Mark’s Gospel also records a lengthy discourse on divorce, very similar to that of Matthew 19. Luke gives us a very short statement on divorce, similar to that of Matthew 5.
The biggest and most controversial difference between the four Gospel accounts is what is sometimes referred to as “the exception clause”. In Mark’s account and Luke’s account it would appear that Christ says a man cannot divorce his wife and a wife cannot divorce her husband, thus wiping away allowance for divorce in God’s law, but in Matthew’s accounts we see an exception allowing divorce in the case of fornication.
But in both of Matthew’s accounts – an exception is given, for “fornication”, or sexual immorality. This is why Matthew 19 is considered by most scholars to be the most complete teaching of Christ on divorce.
The fullest account of Christ’s answer to the question of divorce
“3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.
11 But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.
12 For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
Matthew 19:3-12 (KJV)
Many Pastors and scholars have made the mistake of looking at Christ’s answers on divorce, without fully understand the question he was answering. If you don’t understand the question, then you can’t correctly understand the answer.
The Pharisees were asking Christ to settle the dispute on divorce – would he side with those who taught that a man could divorce his wife “for any cause” or would he side with those that a man could not divorce his wife except for serious immorality?
Christ answers their question by going back to the Garden of Eden, before sin entered the picture. God meant for man and woman to be together for life in marriage. He then explains that Moses’s allowed them to divorce their wives because of the hardness of their hearts. God allowed them to divorce their wives because of the presence of sin.
But let’s remember – that is was not really Moses that allowed divorce – it was God himself speaking through Moses. We need to remember that.
Now that we have setup the background of Christ’s answer in Matthew 19:9 we can fully understand it better.
“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”
Matthew 19:9 (KJV)
Two key words in Christ’s answer
There are two key words used in Christ’s answer – “fornication” and “adultery”. The English word “fornication” is a translation of the Greek word “Porneia” which literally means “sexual immorality”. It encompasses premarital sex, sex with prostitutes, adultery, homosexuality, incest, bestiality and any sin that is sexually related. Some have mistakenly taught that fornication only refers to premarital sex and therefore Christ’s exception for fornication applies only to a woman betrothed and since the couple was technically married the man could give his wife a bill of divorce. But since we know that historically speaking fornication included adultery and all sexually related sinful activity this interpretation is far too narrow and cannot be correct.
So why didn’t Christ just say “except it be for adultery”? The reason is that adultery is only one type of sexual immorality. The English word “adultery” is a translation of the Greek word “Moichao” which means “to have unlawful intercourse with another’s wife”. Christ was saying that if a woman commits ANY type of sexual immorality – including but not limited to her sleeping with a man not her husband that her husband had the right to divorce her.
Christ’s big change-up on adultery
In our modern English dictionary “adultery” is a gender neutral term, but in the Bible it is not. In the Bible – both in the Hebrew Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament adultery always has at its center a married woman. In its most literal form the only way adultery occurs is when a married woman has sex with a man other than her husband, whether the man she has sex with is married or not is irrelevant.
If a man (married or single) had sex with a woman other than his wife, like a prostitute or some other unmarried woman, this was NOT considered adultery. It would have been whoremongering, but not adultery.
But here Christ expands the definition of adultery from its literal form, to a symbolic form. He says that a man commits adultery against his wife when he divorces her for any other reason than sexual immorality. This would have left all the men in his audience scratching their heads. They were thinking “Wait, only a woman can commit adultery against her husband, a man can’t commit adultery against his wife”.
So in other words Christ was saying “Men you think only your wives can commit adultery against you? But you commit adultery against your wives by divorcing them for any other reason EXCEPT sexual immorality”.
Was Christ’s answer on divorce comprehensive?
One of the common heresies we see today is some Christian groups taking the Gospels and trying to cancel out the inspired Scriptures that followed them (like the Pauline epistles). This is because of a complete lack of understanding of progressive revelation and the inspiration of the Scriptures. There are many important subjects not covered in the Gospels but covered later in the Epistles of Paul or the other writers of the Scripture. Some things Christ briefly touched on, but he did not fully cover them.
On this subject of divorce we know that Christ’s answer was targeted at the idea of “divorce for any cause” which he was vehemently rejecting. But when we understand the targeted question he was answering we know that his answer was NOT comprehensive but was in fact targeted at “men divorcing their wives for any cause”.
We know this because if it was comprehensive then Paul could not have wrote this under the direct inspiration of God:
“10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:
11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.
12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.
13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.
14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.
16 For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?”
I Corinthians 7:10-16 (KJV)
So in verses 10 and 11 – Paul is referring back to Christ’s words on divorce. He does not mention Christ’s exemption – but Christ’s general tone toward divorce. Divorce should not occur “for any cause”. He then adds a new allowance for divorce saying “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord”. Some have wrongly used Paul’s statement to say that this was not inspired Scripture. But this is not the case.
Paul was trying to draw a distinction between what Christ said during his earthly ministry and what Christ was speaking through him now. I will have a dedicated post on this passage from Paul where he addresses divorce. But for now I am only using this passage to illustrate that Christ’s words on divorce during his early ministry as recorded in the Gospels were not his final word on the subject, nor was it comprehensively taking on all the allowable causes of divorce.
It is a mistake to ignore the gender in Christ’s answer
Now that we have established that Christ’s word on divorce in the Gospels was not in fact comprehensive, because of Paul’s expansion on it, we need to look closer at the aspect of divorce he WAS targeting in his response. Unlike most of what passes for Christian marriage counseling today, the Bible is very gender specific when it comes to commands regarding marriage as well as divorce. Even many Christians who embrace Biblical gender roles in marriage often fall into the trap of forgetting that there are also gender differences in divorce.
If you look very carefully at all the Gospel passages regarding divorce – Christ always speaks of how a man can divorce his wife in answer to the question of the Pharisees. He does not address reasons a woman can divorce her husband. Remember that he was clarifying what Moses meant when he said a man could divorce his wife for “uncleanliness”.
It is a mistake to say that God took away a woman’s right to be freed from, to be divorced from a man who would not provide for her and who refused to have sex with her. Exodus 21:10-11 still stands and Christ did not cancel that out when we look at his answer in context of the question that was asked him.
We must remember that Moses law can be divided into 5 parts – moral law, civil law, sacrificial law, priesthood law and ceremonial cleanliness laws. God reinstates his moral law in the New Testament while leaving behind the other four parts of the law as those laws were made for Israel as a theocracy as Part of the Old covenant he made with Israel. When Christ died on the cross, he ushered in a new covenant and a new priesthood – the priesthood of the believer.
Exodus 21:10-11 is confirmed to be moral law reinforced by God based on these two passages from the New Testament:
“So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:”
Ephesians 5:28-29 (KJV)
This passage from Ephesians 5 confirms that a husband providing for food and clothing for his wife, as he would for his own body is part of the moral law of God. This is a reinforcement of the provision clause of Exodus 21:10-11.
On the issue of sexual relations between a husband and a wife – Paul reaffirms and expounds on the right of sex in marriage. Where previously Exodus 21:10-11 spoke only of the right of sex from the woman’s perspective – Paul makes it clear this is in fact a right of the husband as well.
So it is correct to say that Exodus 21:10-11 still stands, and Christ did not cancel out these requirements for marriage, or the fact that a woman could divorce her husband he neglected to give her “these three”.
Is it unbiblical for a woman to be allowed to divorce her husband?
As I pointed out previously in the Old Testament the language of divorce had with it that a husband would “send away his wife” in divorce, while a woman was “freed” in divorce because she was (and I would still argue that she is) his property.
Today the mechanism of divorce is different, but the principle remains. In Biblical times a neglected wife could bring her grievances to her male relatives or to the town elders to bring pressure on her husband to free her (divorce her).
Today a woman has been given the right by our government to divorce her husband – she brings her grievances to the court and the court grants that divorce. There is no sin in this process as we are not the nation of Israel and we are NOT a theocracy. If a woman divorces her husband for reasons God does not allow only then does her seeking a divorce become sinful.
Christ settled the century’s long dispute regarding the question “Can a man divorce his wife for any cause?” His answer was clearly “No”. Instead we see that man can only divorce his wife for reasons that God allows. We also see that Christ’s reason of sexual immorality is NOT the only reason a man can divorce his wife as he inspired Paul to expand on his answers regarding divorce. His response was not meant to take away a wife’s right to be freed from her husband under certain allowable circumstances that are shown in other passages of Scripture. In the next posts in this series we will more closely examine each of the reasons that God allows a husband or wife to divorce their spouse.