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.