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Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce

Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce

The New Testament scriptures contain just two records of Jesus speaking on the subject of divorce.  In the first instance (Matthew 5) divorce is one of six examples Jesus provides to make a much larger point in his Sermon on the Mount.  The much larger point that our Lord was actually teaching is applicable to the entire law of God including the Mosaic provision allowing divorce.  The second instance (Matthew 19) shows the Pharisees testing Jesus by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”  The reader should understand that most of the religious leaders during the first century interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in such a way as to permit them to divorce their wives whenever they desired and to do so upon the flimsiest of excuses.  In most cases these men were casting their wives aside solely because they had found other women whom they preferred.  On both occasions Jesus did not teach a comprehensive doctrine of divorce.  On the first occasion the reader will see that our Lord was demonstrating what the life of a Christian would look like, and on the second occasion Jesus was teaching against the religious leader’s abusive interpretation of God’s permit to divorce.  A surprising number of biblical scholars throughout the centuries seem to have overlooked both of these important truths leading them to a false conclusion on the doctrine of divorce.

The Sermon on the Mount—Portion Found in Matthew 5:17-48  

We shall now examine Jesus’ first mention of divorce in the context of what he is actually teaching in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.  We are entirely indebted to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ great book entitled, “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount” chapter twenty for the understanding that we have obtained.  Divorce is one of six examples that Jesus uses to teach a very significant Christian principle.  Jesus begins this section by making it abundantly clear that the law continues its function into the Christian era.  In regards to the law Jesus says, “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”  Immediately he adds, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”  He then warns Christians of every era not to annul even the least of the commandments for to do so would cause one to be called least in the kingdom of heaven.  And those who teach God’s laws rightly shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  The sad reality throughout the Christian era is that it has been nearly universally taught that Jesus annuls the Mosaic provision for divorce.  Our forefathers were neither brazen nor foolish enough to use the word “annul”, but the doctrine they espoused on divorce, which they obtained from Jesus’ statement on these two occasions, effectively annuls the Mosaic provision for divorce.

Then in verse 20 Jesus introduces the doctrine of righteousness, which is the topic of this portion of his sermon—the very topic or doctrine for which our Lord provides a most useful principle.  In verse 20 Jesus also mentions those who have been operating outside of this principle, the scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus authoritatively asserts that these will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  As antagonists of truth, they interpreted God’s laws in such a way as to appeal to their own desires.  Jesus, through the use of six examples, provides the divine interpretation of God’s laws over and against that of the scribes and Pharisees.  We cannot hope to understand Jesus’ view on divorce without first grasping the principal for which He chose these six examples of the Law.

In Martyn Lloyd Jones’ Own Words

“The first thing we must consider is the formula which He uses: ‘Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time’.  There is a slight variation in the form here and there, but that, essentially, is the way in which He introduces these six statements.  We must be perfectly clear about this.  You will find that certain translations put it like this: ‘Ye have heard it was said to them of old time”.  On purely linguistic grounds no one can tell whether it was ‘by’ or ‘to’ for, as usual, when you come to matters of linguistics, you find the authorities are divided, and you cannot be sure.  Only a consideration of the context, therefore, can help us to determine exactly what our Lord meant to convey by this.  Is He referring simply to the law of Moses, or is He referring to the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes?  Those who would say it should read ‘to them of old time’ obviously must say that He is referring to the law of Moses given to the fathers; whereas those who would emphasize the ‘by’, as we have it in the Authorized Version, would say that it has reference to what was taught by the scribes and Pharisees.  It seems to me that certain considerations make it almost essential for us to take the second view, and to hold that what our Lord is really doing here is showing the true teaching of the law over against the false representations of it made by the Pharisees and the scribes.  You remember that one of the great characteristics of their teaching was the significance which they attached to tradition.  They were always quoting the fathers.  That is what made the scribe a scribe; he was an authority on the pronouncements which had been made by the fathers.  These had become the tradition.  I suggest, therefore, that the verses must be interpreted in that way.  Indeed, the wording used by our Lord more or less clinches the matter.  He says: ‘Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time.’  He does not say ‘you have read in the Law of Moses’, or ‘It was written and you have read’.”

To compound the matter, “The children of Israel during their captivity in Babylon had ceased to know the Hebrew language.  Their language when they came back, and at this time, was Aramaic.  They were not familiar with Hebrew so they could not read the law of Moses as they had it in their own Hebrew Scriptures.  The result was that they were dependent for any knowledge of the law upon the teaching of the Pharisees and the scribes.  Our Lord, therefore, very rightly said, ‘Ye have heard’, or ‘That is what you have been hearing; that is what has been said to you; that is the preaching that has been given to you as you have gone to your synagogues and listened to the instruction.’  The result was that what these people thought of as the law was in reality not the law itself, but a representation of it given by the scribes and Pharisees…and it was almost impossible at this time to tell which was law and which was interpretation.”

So then, this portion of Jesus’ Sermon teaches a principle that will help Christians live holy and righteous lives, and it cannot be said too frequently that our Lord is unquestionably not providing six new laws for Christians to follow.  Lloyd-Jones makes the case that men love to follow simple, direct codes of conduct.  They ask, ‘what is the bare minimum that I must do in order to be made right with God?’  For this reason institutions like the Roman Catholic Church are so popular.  Catholicism says receive the seven sacraments, through the intermediary of the priest, continue in the seven sacraments and all will be well.  The outcome is that Catholic people know little about the word of God, know next to nothing about doctrine and, most tragically, know nothing whatsoever of God as He has revealed Himself in the word.  They have superstitious notions of God without the benefits of a relationship and without understanding all that He has revealed in His word and through His Spirit.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Let us once and for all get rid of the idea that our Lord came to set up a new law, or to announce a new code of ethics…It (Sermon on the Mount) is not meant to be a detailed code of ethics; it is not a new kind of moral law which was given by Him.”  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus revealed the essence of the new man.  A new race was being created, and the members of that race would be of the essence that Jesus portrayed in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus’ Single Principle in Matthew 5:17-48

Dear reader, focus upon the principle that our Lord teaches in this text using the same method in which He taught it as He contrasted His divine interpretation with the religious leaders’ letter of the law interpretation.  Consider first the interpretation of God’s law by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ interpretation of the law:

  1. Adjust one’s life to the letter of the law or interpret the letter of the law to fit one’s life.
  2. The law was provided to restrict the actions of men.
  3. The law prohibits men from doing certain things.
  4. The purpose of the law is to keep men in a state of obedience to oppressive rules.
  5. The Law is an end in itself. One to which men must strictly adhere.

Now juxtapose alongside the religious leader’s interpretation the interpretation of the Lord Jesus as presented through His use of the six examples found in Matthew 5:21-48.

Christ’s principle in five segments:

  1. It is the spirit of the law that matters primarily, not the letter only.
  2. Conformity to the law must not be thought of in terms of actions only. Thoughts, motives and desires are equally important.
  3. The purpose of the law is not merely negative, but positive: To lead us to do and love righteousness.
  4. The purpose of the law is to promote the free development of our spiritual character.
  5. The Law is a means to the ultimate end of coming to know God.

The contrast could not be sharper, on the one hand are the legal minds of Israel determining the letter of the law.  Then they declare themselves blameless as to the righteousness which is in the Law.  They then assumed the moral authority to lord it over all those who depend upon them for reading and interpreting the Hebrew text.  On the other hand, Jesus demonstrates how the law of God promotes the free development of spiritual character bringing sinners into relationship with God.  Unfortunately Christians frequently take the path of least resistance by falling into the same ruts as the Israelites.  Since Jesus used six examples to demonstrate his principle many have turned them into additional laws that must be followed to the letter.  In other words, instead of comprehending Jesus’ principle and adhering to it, they have continued a letter of the law approach and added six more laws.

Jesus was saying once Bunyan’s Pilgrim has been loosed from his burden, then he will be free to repent of sin, which is shown to him by the law, and draw near to God.  But most of the church heard Jesus say if Bunyan’s Pilgrim can successfully add the additional burden of six more laws to his pack he may someday earn favor with God.   Lloyd-Jones said, “Let us once and for all get rid of the idea that our Lord came to set up a new law, or to announce a new code of ethics.”  Jesus came to establish a new kingdom.  He was the first of a new race of people.  He promised that members of this race would be of a certain type.  They would have a certain character.  They would behave differently from the rest of the world.  The six examples were nothing more than examples of what a genuine believer would look like.

The Six Examples

Example One: The natural man is content to abstain from murder; Jesus is saying that the new man will strive to be at peace with all men.

Example Two: The natural man tries not to sleep with another man’s wife; Jesus says the new man will not look upon any woman with lust in his mind.

Example Three: The natural man says I will try to be fair in my marital divorce from my wife; Jesus says the new man will love and cherish all people but especially their spouse so that divorce would be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, yet in following God’s Law the new man would not keep company with a covenant breaker.

Example Four: The natural man says you can trust my word if I have sworn by one greater than myself; Jesus says that those who are of the new creation will speak the truth always and will be known by their integrity.

Example Five: The natural man says an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; Jesus says the new man will not seek retribution to those who have persecuted them.  They will not act in a vengeful way.

Example Six: The natural man says I love my neighbor and hate my enemy; Jesus says that the new creation will be known by their love for their enemies and those who persecute them.

Conclusions Drawn from Matthew 5

Jesus could not have been abdicating a Mosaic law (negative or positive) because He opened this portion of the Sermon on the Mount saying He did not come to abolish any of the Law.

Jesus’ words discussing marital divorce cannot, in good conscience, be used to change what the rest of scripture says about marital divorce.  His comments on divorce were nothing more than one of six examples to demonstrate how Christians (the new man) would live differently than the natural man.

Honest scriptural interpretation recognizes that Jesus did not here provide a divorce doctrine nor was one necessary.  Those who use the words of the Lord to deny the legitimate use of God’s divorce provision should be ashamed.  Our Lord’s exact words uphold the Mosaic Law permitting marital divorce.

Matthew 19: Jesus’ Second Occurrence Speaking on Divorce

As mentioned earlier Matthew provided a second record of the Lord Jesus speaking on the doctrine of divorce.  In the third through twelfth verses of Matthew 19 a group of Pharisees attempted to test Jesus on the concession for divorce found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  It is difficult to know what they hoped to achieve in asking this question.  The religious leaders at that time were split on the issue of divorce.  The liberal perspective permitted divorce for literally any reason at all following the school of Hillel.  Hillel’s counterpart was a man by the name of Shammai.  Shammai held that the law allowed divorce only in severe cases especially when adultery was involved.  Perhaps they merely wanted to see which side of the debate Jesus took.

Regardless of their agenda, the Pharisees’ inquisition brought about this occasion of our Lord’s speaking on the subject of divorce, and the context is entirely different from Matthew 5.  In both instances Jesus sets the record straight by providing His interpretation of the biblical statements on divorce over and against the interpretations of those from the Hillel school, which were very popular among the Israelites.  The popular Israeli view was also the current Greco-Roman view, so nearly the entire culture held a divorce for any reason position.

It is likely that the particular group of Pharisees questioning Jesus was of the Hillel school because they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”  So then, Jesus is specifically addressing the “Divorce is permissible for any reason at all” position of the Hillel school.  In His reply in Matthew 19 we find Jesus focused upon a single law whereas His focus in Matthew’s fifth chapter was upon the whole law.  It should not surprise anyone which law our Lord focused upon, but I fear that many will, at least initially, be surprised.  Jesus is focused upon the second of the two great commandments: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

The religious leaders who adopted the liberal Hillel view of divorce were men who used the oppression of weaker groups to their own advantage, and they did so because of the hardness of their hearts.  These were men who oppressed their own wives just as the priests, their predecessors, had done in the days of the prophet Malachi.

“Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.  But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit…Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth.  ‘For I hate divorce’, (Lit. sending away) says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘and him who covers his garment with wrong,’ says the Lord of hosts.  “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously’” [Parenthesis mine] (Malachi 2:14-16).

It was Jesus who said, “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another.”  He also taught that all who loved Him would obey Him.  Then, in Matthew 19, Jesus addresses the unloving, hard heartedness of these religious leaders who claim to obey the law, but in actuality have reduced the law to a mere letter all the while hating rather than loving one another.  God called this behavior treacherous throughout the Old Testament.  Specifically in Malachi and in Matthew God is saying that those who deal treacherously with others do not have the Spirit of God.  Why?  The answer is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which we have considered in some depth above.  The Christian, new creation or new man, WILL love others.  They are a new race of humanity unlike any who have gone before.  Multitudes of imposters exist but genuine Christians will forever be wholly different from the natural man who continues enslavement to sin and death.  The remnant of sin remains, but the new man will not be hard hearted, he will not be treacherous and he/she would not divorce their spouse except in cases where the spouse is devoid of the Spirit of God, has the unbelieving hardness of heart and is treacherous with others.  Such behaviors elicited God’s permit or provision for divorce.

So then, divorcing a treacherous spouse is a biblically mandated permit/concession/provision for the innocent spouse.  In such cases no guilt should be cast upon the innocent believer seeking divorce from their treacherous spouse.  These must not be treated as second class Christians or deemed unbelieving and unrepentant.  God forbid.  God loves them enough to provide a way of escape, and it is way past time for the church to grasp this biblical concept as well.  Finally, when the treacherous spouse tries to use God’s provision in his/her treachery they must know that they are guilty of adultery.  They are guilty of a failure to love even their own wife or husband.  These need to repent and believe.  May the grace of God be shown in their hearts.


It Is Time For Sacramental Marriage and Divorce as a Mortal Sin to Take Their Place as Dead Relics

In the 15th Century the Roman Catholic Church invented the idea of mortal and venal sins.  Mortal sins imperil your soul and venial sins are less serious breaches of God’s law. The Catholic Church believes that if you commit a mortal sin, you forfeit heaven and opt for hell by your own free will and actions.  Three conditions are necessary for mortal sin to exist:

Grave Matter: The act itself is intrinsically evil and immoral. For example, murder, rape, incest, perjury, adultery, and so on.

Full Knowledge: The person must know that what they’re doing or planning to do is evil and immoral.

Deliberate Consent: The person must freely choose to commit the act or plan to do it. Someone forced against her will doesn’t commit a mortal sin.

Confusion within Catholic circles exists as to whether divorce is a mortal sin or a venal sin and many believe that some divorce actions fall under mortal sin and some do not.  Many believe that a divorce is a venal sin but remarriage is a mortal sin.  Of course the entire construct of mortal and venal sins is man-made, and the bible does not refer to divorce as a sin at all.  According to God’s word divorce is a provision of God’s law to protect the innocent spouse from a treacherous partner, and no, Jesus did not abrogate this provision in God’s law.  Catholics and Protestants alike have lost site of this biblical reality.  Regardless of marriage and divorce doctrinal positions most seem to believe that venal sins are involved when a spouse breaks the conditions of the marriage covenant, and a mortal sin is committed when the innocent spouse moves to dissolve the broken marriage covenant via divorce.  This superstitious viewpoint is a remnant from the 2,000 year history of theologians arguing over these issues.  The biblical understanding is diametrically opposed as the breaking of the marriage covenant’s conditions is a sin against God and a crime against one’s spouse and Jesus made it clear that such crimes make allowance for a divorce for the benefit of the innocent spouse.  Divorce does not break the marriage covenant, but it is God’s gracious provision for cases where one spouse has already broken the marriage covenant by breaking one or more of the marriage covenant’s conditions.

The first inclusion of marriage among the seven sacraments of the New Law by the Church’s magisterium occurred at the Council of Verona in 1184.  This man-made doctrine of the sacramental marriage preceded and, in large part, it brought about divorce being labeled a mortal sin.  These two man-made doctrines were never entirely overturned during and after the reformation.  To our shame both of these concepts are deeply embedded in the Christian psyche to this day even though they have been, more or less, formally rejected.


Fallen Man Abused God’s Institution of Marriage…So God Permitted Divorce for the Innocent Spouses.  Fallen Man Abused God’s Provision of Divorce…So the Church Shut the Door on God’s Divorce Provision.  God’s Response to Evil Was Good…The Churches’ Response to Evil Was Myopic.

God instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden prior to man’s fall into sin.  From the beginning divorce was unnecessary because treachery and covenant breaking did not exist.  But very quickly man did fall into sin, and treachery and covenant breaking between marriage partners became far too prevalent.  God’s law responded with a permit for the dissolution of such marriages to protect the innocent spouses.  Those who failed to respect the institution of marriage also exploited God’s permit to divorce and conspired to make it serve their wicked desires.  When the Church witnessed the treacherous, covenant breaking spouses using God’s permit for divorce to their wicked advantage they failed to look to God’s word for the answer and chose to take decisive action to stop the wretches.

In response to the godless exploiting God’s permit for divorce the church restricted access to divorce so severely that it became unavailable for the innocent spouses—those for whom God’s permit was provided.  In the churches’ effort to restrict access it disciplined and even excommunicated members who so much as pursued dissolution of their marriage.  In addition they used the state to make anti divorce laws making it a crime to get divorced.  The institution of marriage was exalted and referred to as holy matrimony and numbered among the seven sacraments for the Roman Catholic Church.  The idea was that if marriage was holy, then divorce must be unholy.  Ever since the church responded in this way pastors have pointed to divorce rates as one of the chief proofs of the declension in every century.

The church viewed the marriage union as sacrosanct and demonized God’s provision for its dissolution.  Neither the marriage covenant’s exalted state nor the dissolution of the marriage covenant should have been the churches’ response because both are of God and both are abused by the godless.  The church should have remained on the path that God provided.  It should have taken a position of rebuking covenant breakers and others who wanted to abuse both the institution itself and God’s gracious law ending the marriage union due to the treachery stemming from the hardness of men’s hearts since the fall into sin.

This move against God’s permit for divorce was entirely an initiative of man.  God would not legally grant the dissolution of marriages due to the hardness of men’s hearts only to change his mind later.  In spite of preachers holding the divorce rates out as the number one evidence of a declension in our land Paul never included it at all, but he did include 23 sins that preachers should be pointing out:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, not thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galations 5:19-21).

In fact, when the great apostle was asked whether or not believers should divorce an unbelieving spouse Paul responded first by saying, “But to the rest I say, not the Lord…”, which instructs the reader that Paul was not in possession of any scriptural passage or direct revelation from the Lord regarding divorce from an unbelieving spouse as a sin.  The reality is that no verse exists in the Old Testament or the New Testament that calls divorce a sin.  Those who think marital divorce is a sin can only call upon three passages in the whole bible to make their claim, but clearly they misconstrue the meaning since God permitted divorce and since Paul could not claim a single biblical passage that forbid divorce for the unequally yoked believer.  Of course the abuse of God’s divorce law is a sin, but that is not an excuse for believers calling divorce a sin.

Not only are the innocent, believing spouses suffering at the hands of their treacherous, unbelieving partners, but they cannot count on the support of the church while they pursue God’s permit for divorce.  And if they avail themselves of God’s gracious escape they will discover that the church will hold them in contempt and treat them with disdain throughout the process.


The View that Jesus Singled Out Adultery as the Sole Biblical Grounds for Divorce Is Wrong

Unquestionably the most commonly held view on divorce in Christian circles states that our Lord offered adultery as the sole biblical grounds for divorce in what is called the exception clause (Matthew 5:32, Matthew 19:9).  Our Lord was correcting the “divorce for any reason” doctrinal position of the Pharisees, but he was not teaching the complete doctrine on divorce.  For this reason students of the bible should not have taken the position that adultery alone provides biblical grounds for divorce.

Nevertheless, this view is still the most common out there, but what if scripture provided at least one additional biblical ground permitting divorce beyond Christ’s pornia clause?  Logically, Matthew 5 & 19 could no longer rightfully be used as our Lord restricting divorce solely for those who can prove that their spouse committed adultery.  Well, Paul provides at bare minimum at least one additional biblical ground for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 when the unbelieving spouse refuses consent to live with the believing spouse.  This biblical ground for divorce is traditionally called abandonment, and Paul says, “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15).  Many bible students refuse to acknowledge Paul’s clear teaching hear because they understand that another biblical ground for divorce logically means that Jesus did not intend his correction against permissiveness to restrict divorce to adultery cases only.

Nevertheless, since God’s word unmistakably teaches at least one additional legal ground for divorce, then it is not logically correct to continue teaching adultery as the sole legal grounds for divorce all the while claiming our Lord as the source of this teaching.  Obviously, Jesus was saying that the Pharisees’ “divorce for any reason” doctrine was 180 degrees off.  In Jesus’ use of the Greek word ‘pornia’ he was elucidating that it would take very serious violations of the marriage covenant’s conditions such as adultery to justify dissolving the marriage.  Jesus was arguing that dissolving a marriage takes serious violations by one or both of the marriage partners.  Once covenant conditions have been broken, then dissolution of the marriage is justifiable, but without such treachery a divorce action is tantamount to adultery because the marriage covenant has not been broken, which is to say it is still a legal and binding agreement between two parties.


The Extreme Positions on Marital Divorce

The extreme positions for marital divorce are excessive liberty on the left and excessive restrictions on the right.  It is common for man to respond to an extreme position by moving too far in the opposite direction landing at the opposite extreme.  The Pharisees were practicing excessive liberty, so the church failing to understand our Lord’s correction swung to the opposite extreme and has held on to that extreme for most of its history with a few notable, and I dare say noble, exceptions.

So then, on the left, excessive liberty allows a failure to keep the conditions of the marriage covenant; a failure to even take them seriously.  When it comes to marriage this person fails to cleave, fails to forsake all others, fails to love and cherish.  They fail to take the marriage covenant seriously; therefore, they fail to keep the conditions of the covenant.  They are a covenant breaker.  They treat marriage like a merry-go-round getting off and on as often as it suits their self-centered heart.  The bible allows the innocent spouse the freedom to divorce such a treacherous spouse and remarry in the Lord.

Then we swing all the way out to the right extreme where excessive restrictions prohibit divorce for those who are married to covenant breakers.  Believers are bound up, by the church, where God’s word provides liberty.  They are coerced into a lifetime of being unequally yoked to a treacherous spouse who has broken the marriage covenant by breaking it’s conditions.  As promised in God’s word, this relationship destroys their peace, corrupts their sanctification and development in the Lord, and prevents a godly marriage in the Lord.   The churches’ divorce doctrine effectively treats marriage like a lifetime prison sentence for the innocent spouse handed down for the sins (crimes) committed by the treacherous spouse.  Ridiculously, in the eyes of many in the church, only the treacherous spouse has the ability to commute the innocent spouse’s sentence by choosing to leave the marriage covenant.

Both extremes destroy the sanctity of God’s institution of marriage, but believers are blinded to this reality because the church decided to value the continuation of the covenant more than the quality of the relationship it serves.  The church leaders require believers to serve the institution of marriage while God instituted marriage to serve man and help him to glorify God.  As the Lord Jesus taught on the institution of the Sabbath, marriage was made for man and not man for the marriage covenant.  God instituted marriage to serve man.  If a particular marriage cannot serve God’s intended purpose because one of the spouses acts treacherously toward the other, then God made an allowance in the Law for divorce.  The church in its extreme position has effectively taken away God’s allowance and as a result changed God’s law.

The rest of this blog lays out the biblical view on divorce.


The Spirit of God’s Law Governing Divorce

God’s law permitting divorce is found in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 and 24:1-4.  Jesus acknowledged God’s permission for divorce when he said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives”.  Jesus was correcting Jewish leaders who had taken an extreme position on divorce by turning God’s permission into permissiveness.  Their custom became divorcing their wives without a valid reason.  Consistent with man’s tendency to swing out to extreme positions, the church over corrected by denying God’s permission for divorce almost entirely.  So then, one extreme treats marriage like a marry-go-round allowing anyone to get on and off at anytime, while the other extreme treats marriage like a life sentence.

For those who are thinking, “Well that is what ‘until death’ means”, consider the difference between a life sentence and a marriage that honors God.  The life sentence is imposed by someone outside of the marriage.  It does not account for abuse, neglect, hatred, godlessness, wickedness, deception, treachery and so forth.  From the first days of the church until now it is likely that more spouses have been murdered in their marriages under this monstrous view of marriage than have inmates in prisons.  Whereas a marriage that honors God is happily maintained by both spouses; it supplies companionship, love, happiness, peace, belonging, comfort, friendship, fidelity, adoration, mutual desire to serve, humility, meaningful sex and so much more.  So far from murdering one another these spouses cherish and care for one another over and above all others.  Marriage, as instituted by God, was never intended to be anything remotely like a life sentence.

Jesus spoke words to correct the permissiveness of the Pharisees, and then the church overcorrected by restricting divorce entirely.  The church misapprehended Jesus’ words and used them to abolish God’s law permitting divorce in spite of the fact that Jesus said, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished”, which includes God’s permit for divorce.  How has the church done this?  Note Jesus’ complete statement acknowledging God’s permission for divorce:  “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matthew 19:8).

Our Lord’s statement makes three distinct points:

WHY      1. The hardness of men’s hearts was the cause of Moses’ law.

WHAT   2. Moses permitted marital divorce.

WHEN   3. From the beginning it has not been this way.

Note that point 2 tells us WHAT God did.  Point 1 tells us WHY he did it.  And point 3 tells us WHEN he did it.  Unfortunately, the church takes points 1 and 3 and uses them to nullify point 2 effectively restricting believers’ access to God’s provision for divorce.

Because of The Hardness of Men’s Hearts

It must be said that the hardness of men’s hearts is the cause of every law.  Man’s fall into sin required God’s Law.  Law is absent wherever sin does not exist.  So then, how did the church err in using Christ’s teaching in Matthew chapters 5 and 19 to restrict marital divorce?  Notice the first distinct point in Jesus’ statement: “because of the hardness of men’s hearts”.  It seems pretty clear that the church has misapprehended this phrase to mean that man relentlessly, stubbornly demanded permission to divorce, so Moses gave in to their sinful desires and permitted divorce.  Many contradictions come up immediately with this interpretation.  First, was the law given by God or Moses?  This interpretation assumes that Moses erred, but God and not Moses is the author of the Law and God does not err.  Second, this interpretation assumes that marital divorce is sinful, but would God make a law permitting sin simply to please godless men clamoring for said sin?  And where in all of God’s word is divorce called a sin?  The Pharisees became licentious in their use of divorce, but even then Jesus said they were guilty of adultery.  Of course, he did not say they would be guilty of divorce because our Lord knows that it is not a sin to divorce when grounds for divorce are present.  Third, the church has taken the Lord’s words and used them to do away with one of the Mosaic laws.  They have in essence declared that Moses erred and Jesus is fixing or reestablishing God’s original intent.  The facts are that Moses did not err and Jesus had no intention of restricting appropriate cases for divorce.

The final concern is less a contradiction but a mistaken notion nonetheless.  The church interpreted the phrase ‘the hardness of men’s hearts’ to mean that man stubbornly insisted upon ‘divorce for any reason’ when in fact Jesus meant nothing more than that man since the time of the fall is evil continually and have desperately wicked hearts, hence the necessity for an escape from a truly treacherous spouse.  Jesus’ statement is this simple: Moses permitted you to divorce.  Why would God instruct Moses to permit marital divorce?  God understood that the hardness of man’s heart makes many people treacherous spouses; spouses who would break the conditions of the marriage covenant.  Jesus needed to correct the permissiveness of the Pharisees while at the same time reinforcing God’s provision of divorce for the protection of the innocent spouse’s of treacherous husbands and wives.  Unfortunately, the church interpreted Jesus’ words as if to say that Moses mistakenly permitted divorce to benefit the hard hearted, necessitating Jesus rectifying Moses’ err and removing one of God’s laws, which of course Jesus promised to never remove a single stroke of God’s law.

From The Beginning It Has Not Been This Way

We now come to our Lord’s third distinct point in his phrase.  Jesus said, “But from the beginning it has not been this way”.  The church has taken this to mean that God’s intention for the duration of marriage to be for the entire lifetime of the marriage partners.  I think that we can all agree that God’s intent was for marriage to last as long as the partners lasted, but that is only part of what Jesus was saying.  Jesus’ use of the phrase, “from the beginning” is a clear reference to God’s institution of marriage prior to man’s fall into sin.  Then man’s fall into sin transpired subsequently to “the beginning” bringing the hardness of men’s hearts into every marriage necessitating Moses’ permit for divorce in cases where hard heartedness became treachery and a broken covenant.

Finally, we arrive at Jesus’ second distinct point that reads: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives.”  So then, John Milton explained that God instituted marriage because Adam was lonely (“It is not good for the man to be alone” Genesis 2:18), and God provided the perfect solution (woman) to alleviate man’s loneliness.  God’s intentions were that this special friendship would last forever, but then man fell into sin and his fall was so great that we have the following recorded in Genesis 6:5-7:

“Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.  The Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land…for I am sorry that I have made them.”

The very next chapter records God fulfilling his promise by sending a worldwide flood.  Therefore, man’s hardness of heart deserved God wiping out the entire human race with the exception of Noah and his 7 family members.

What God said in Genesis 6 and did in Genesis 7 demonstrates the spirit of God’s law permitting marital divorce.  It frequently happens that those who enjoy studying law tend to spend most of their time working on the letter of the law.  Man can manipulate the letter of the law to come up with whatever outcome he desires.  The Pharisees manipulated the letter of God’s law on divorce and arrived at licentiousness and permissiveness because that is what they desired.  The church has taken the very same law and turned the letter of that law all the way to the other extreme so that a permit for divorce is virtually impossible to obtain because that is what they desired.  But what does God desire?  Does anyone care to discover the spirit of God’s law permitting divorce?

Just as God frees himself from the wickedness of man both in his destruction of them with the flood and in the eternal punishment of hell, he provides innocent marriage partners a permit to divorce spouses whose hardness of heart causes them to become treacherous spouses.  From the beginning divorce did not exist, but neither did sin, death and eternal damnation.  What is the heart and spirit of God’s permit to divorce?  To protect the innocent from the wicked.  The fact that the church has taken that protection away will forever be a sad chapter in the history of God’s church.  It is time to close that chapter and get this right.


Reclaiming God’s Provision of Divorce: God’s Prescribed Means of Dealing with Sin in the Church

Divorce and divorcees are viewed by the church as unholy.  Yet God divorced Israel for her unrepentant godlessness.  God’s divorce action against Israel cannot be unholy because God is most holy.  If God, of whom it is said is Holy, Holy, Holy, divorced his bride because she was so unholy, then should not God’s children follow their heavenly Father’s example?  So why does much of the church prohibit unequally yoked divorce?  The Old Testament could not be more clear in its teaching that separation between the godly and the ungodly is necessary because the ungodly will pull the godly into idolatry, which is also called spiritual adultery.

Pastors routinely use Christian divorce rates as a proof of the declension in the church.  But should they be doing this?  Christian leaders commonly place divorce alongside sins listed by the Apostle Paul as “the deeds of the flesh”, but Paul never listed divorce with any other sin, and God’s word does not call divorce a sin nor does it prohibit divorce.  The word of God properly places divorce as a provision of God’s laws to protect innocent spouses and to prevent further sin.  Therefore the proper category for divorce is alongside church discipline, rebuke, reproof, punishment, and even giving a so-called believer over to Satan with hopes that he will repent and believe.  This entire category could be called “God’s prescribed means of dealing with sin in the Church”.  This category is chiefly concerned with the punishment/restoration of the unrepentant and the protection of the innocent, which are in essence two halves of the same coin.

Godly men and women lament the scarcity of church discipline, but inexplicably decry every divorce.  Yet, both are similar actions belonging to the same category in scripture.  Both remove the leaven from the body of Christ.  Both have been abused by wicked people.  Both are greatly under utilized by the church.  When a church member is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, then appropriate church discipline will always result in the expulsion of that individual from the body of believers because he is a danger to the body.  Divorce performs the exact same function in Christian marriages and families that church discipline does for the church.

So then, it is no surprise that the very people who hate to follow through with God’s command for church discipline also hate God’s gracious provision of divorce?  Whether they are uncomfortable with confrontation, lack trust in the Lord to bring about a good outcome, fear being called judgmental, lack wisdom and spiritual discernment, have a lax and slothful oversight, favoritism or just not wanting to be drug into the kind of fight that godless people seemingly enjoy, most churches never or rarely do any church discipline and most churchmen get away with repudiating divorce by classifying it with sins listed in Scripture when, in fact, divorce is never called a sin anywhere in the word of God.

In both cases churchmen remain sitting when they should stand up for battle.  Scripture refers to believers as soldiers and provides them with the full armor of God.  Christian leaders are under Christ’s command to protect and feed the flock.  Instead most Christian leaders take a let go and let God approach to these difficult situations involving unrepentant sinners within their flocks.  This disobedient, slothful approach says that if God wants the brother or sister to be set free from a godless, treacherous spouse, then God can always take the life of the wicked spouse.  And if we just wait upon the Lord, then God will remove or redeem the worthless fellow.

This is decidedly not the approach that the great apostle Paul took.  He said, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14), and “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?”  And “In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus…Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened (1 Corinthians 5:4-7).  It is the Christian’s task to clean out the leaven, which means to actively remove unrepentant sinners from their sphere of influence.

Perhaps divorce actions have been improperly categorized because they can be and often are messy, but church discipline is also frequently messy.  Whenever unrepentant sinners are exposed to the light and held accountable for their sin they will usually fight back with wickedness (Contentiousness, lies, accusations, threats, deceptions, disputes, quarrels, comparisons, attempts to divide the church, self-defense, etc.), which pulls the Christians involved into the mire…a very uncomfortable circumstance for believers.  It matters not whether this unpleasant duty is a church discipline action or a divorce action the goal is the same…remove the leaven.  The outcome of obedience is peace, which is God’s desire for his children.

It is clear why church leaders do not enjoy church discipline.  It is equally unpleasant to go through a divorce with an ungodly spouse, and with the current mindset of most Churches unequally yoked divorce is made all the more difficult because Christian leaders turn upon and attack the Christian who is seeking to obey God’s call to separate from the godless.  Understandably, Christians hate the difficult work of separation, but as soldiers they must fight the good fight even when the immediate battle is difficult and unpleasant.  It would be great if the Church would get on the same page, but that will never be the case this side of heaven.  Individual churches and individuals must take upon themselves these difficult tasks because scripture prescribes these measures when unbelievers are in the midst of the people of God.

The heart of this article is that the divorce of an unequally yoked spouse is not a sin and should cease being treated as though it was listed in any of Paul’s “Deeds of the flesh” passages.  Divorce is not classified as a sin anywhere in the Bible notwithstanding Malachi 2:16, Matthew 5 and 19, and 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 all of which have articles addressing them rather extensively on this blog.  Divorce in general and especially unequally yoked divorce is properly classified in God’s word under “God’s prescribed means of dealing with sin in the Church.”  Divorce belongs to the same classification as church discipline, rebuke, being removed from leadership position, restoration and even giving the unrepentant sinner over to Satan with hope that repentance will ensue.

It is well established that divorce is an allowance in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 21 & 24), and Jesus did not annul or overturn that law as many understand from Matthew 19.  Jesus said:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

In Matthew 19 Jesus did not say that the Pharisees were guilty of divorce.  Of course he would not say that because Jesus knew that divorce was permitted by God’s law—it is not a sin.  Jesus said the Pharisees were guilty of adultery because they wanted to cover up their adultery with illegal usage of God’s legal divorce provision.

A comparison will help clear the muddied waters.  Suppose the Pharisees exchanged their desire for gentile wives with a desire for unpaid servants.  If they asked Jesus if it was permissible for them to adopt gentile children, but their real motive was to force the children into unpaid labor, then Jesus would have said they were guilty of human enslavement, child abuse and child endangerment.  But Jesus would not have said the Pharisees were guilty of adoption just as he did not say they were guilty of divorce.  And the church would not have treated adoption as a wicked sin through the centuries, yet this is precisely what has been done with God’s provision for divorce.  Man’s abuse of divorce should not diminish at all God’s gracious provision.  God understood that since the fall people’s hearts were wicked and innocent partners would require relief from wicked spouses.

The Pharisees were merely trying to cover up their adultery with God’s legal provision of divorce.  Jesus showed their argument to be nothing more than a rouse.  He understood that they were not asking about divorce as it is allowed in the Law, but they were asking whether or not legal divorces could be obtained without just cause.  So he said anybody who would carry out what the Pharisees had devised would be an adulterer because they would be divorcing a wife who has not broken her marriage covenant conditions in any way.  Jesus understood that if their wives had given them no just cause to divorce them, then their reason for seeking divorce was in their adulterous hearts, which is why he said they would be committing adultery.

Christian leaders beware of the glibness with which you disagree and continue holding your unbiblical view on divorce.  Both God’s law and Jesus tie judging people wrongly to unjust balances and weights in the market place.  God’s law reads, “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measurement of weight, or capacity.  You shall have just balances, just weights…” (Leviticus 19:35-36 underline mine).  And in his Sermon On the Mount Jesus said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.  For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye” (Matthew 7:1-3 underline mine)?  Do you have an answer to the Lord’s question to the Pharisees?  Try to answer it before reading further.

Jesus is using an analogy to teach about judging others.  It is easily understood that if a street vendor is selling food items using a false scale or balance and deceitful weights, then he is cheating innocent consumers.  Jesus is saying that the religious leaders do the same to the people of God by changing God’s standards or laws by which men are to measure themselves.  In context, Jesus was saying that with their false standard of measure the Pharisees’ were twisting God’s Laws in their attacks on Jesus and his apostles for healing on the Sabbath and picking grain from fields as they traveled on the Sabbath, yet at the very same time these religious leaders refused submission to the very Son of God who was standing right in front of them.

So then, a log in the religious leaders’ eye today is using a man-made standard of measure that restricts God’s allowance for divorce.  Divorce is protected in God’s moral law.  What right do you have prohibiting it for the people of God?  God does not want his people bound together with unbelievers, but you have restricted them from accessing God’s allowance of divorce that would allow them to repent of their unequally yoked marriages.  Millions of new unequally yoked marriages take place because the church has made a propitiation for Christians in such marital relationships.  Young people have no fear of disobeying God by getting unequally yoked because the church long since stopped church discipline for this sin.  In fact, the church has gone so far as to call repentance of these relationships the sin rather than being in an unequally yoked marriage.  Because of this sinfulness a pall of darkness is placed upon all who have divorced wicked spouses even though they followed the provision of God’s law.  God forbid the church continues this lunacy.  The people of God are suffering for it.  Families are suffering in unspeakable ways.  The church is filled with unbelieving spouses as a result.  Churches are so full of unbelievers that the believers are being corrupted by the bad company IN THE CHURCH!  Brethren, these things ought not be this way.  “Clean out the old leaven.”