(A) Introduction. See Matthew5v31to32, Matthew19v1to10, Mark10v1to12, Deut24v1to4 and Deut23v13to14.

Many Christians adopt a hard line stance on divorce. They hold the view that no Christian should divorce and remarry. It is an issue that divides churches and causes a lot of ill will. Christians who believe divorce and remarriage is prohibited quote Mt5v33 and Mt19v1to10 in support of their view.

None of the preachers and commentators who address these Scriptures has much to say on how God's law discriminates against women. Only men could initiate divorce proceedings. There is a reference in Mark10v12 to a woman divorcing her husband. Times were changing! Gentile women were permitted to divorce their husbands. Would we want to go back to a time when a man could physically abuse his wife and the wife had no recourse to divorce?

Another failure of the hard-hearted brigade who would deny a divorced person the opportunity to remarry is their unwillingness to acknowledge Jesus' use of irony. If we take Jesus literally and the divorcee who remarries actually commits adultery the Law says he should be stoned to death. Yet Jesus was unwilling to condemn to death an actual adulteress - caught in the very act.

(B) The abuse Jesus addressed.

Jewish men in the time of Jesus thought they were entitled to divorce if they gave their wives a piece of paper - a certificate of divorce. They argued that the Law of Moses gave them this right. It is as well to read what the Law actually says. See Dt24v1to4 and Dt23v13to14. A man could issue a certificate of divorce to his wife if he found something indecent about her. The Hebrew word translated 'indecent' means 'the nakedness of a thing'. It is a word only used on one other occasion in Scripture: Dt23v13to14. This passage of the Law orders the Israelites to bury their excrement outside the camp so that God would not see among them anything indecent and turn away from you.

Divorce was only permissible if a wife's conduct brought shame on her husband as unburied excrement swarming with flies would shame the Israelites in the wilderness. The wife's conduct had to be abhorrent; it had to stink like fly ridden turds. So a certificate of divorce had to be justified by appalling conduct on the part of a wife - conduct which shamed her husband. The certificate of divorce was only warranted if the wife's conduct genuinely deserved it.

Sexual impropriety wasn't the only conduct that brought shame on the husband. I think the following could be included as well: habitual drunkenness, physical abuse of children, gluttony, chronic idleness, loose and bawdy talk and contempt for her husband.

William Barclay wrote in his commentary on Matthew: If any man divorced his wife, on any grounds than those of flagrant immorality, he must return her dowry and this must have been a barrier to irresponsible divorce. I could not find a reference to this in the Old Testament. Perhaps it was a later addition to the Law.

In the time of Jesus there were two schools of thought about divorce. One group of scholars taught that a husband could only divorce his wife for truly shameful conduct of the sort outlined above. In contrast there was an increasingly popular liberal school of thought that permitted a man to more or less divorce his wife at will - for just trivial offences. Just so long as a certificate of divorce was issued all was legal and above board.

Jesus opposed men acting in this way - casting aside their wives for no good reason. He said, "Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness causes her to become an adulteress and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery."

Jesus is undoubtedly taking the part of women. He tells men who divorce a woman on trivial grounds that they are leading women into sin. If there were no justifiable grounds for issuing a certificate of divorce it was invalid and so the wife remained married to her husband. Consequently if subsequently she had sexual intercourse it made her an adulterer.

I have no doubt that Jesus spoke ironically to highlight a farcical situation. The certificate of divorce. far from being in God's will, was actually a means of legalising adultery. Luke includes Jesus' teaching on divorce in chapter rich in irony. See Luke17v18.

(C) God's intention. See Mt19v1to12.

Later in his ministry Jesus gets asked a series of test questions by different religious leaders. One of these, posed by the Pharisees, was: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" Mt19v3.

It seems likely that these Pharisees were of the party that held divorce could only be granted if the wife's conduct was abhorrent and involved, for example, unchastity. However, it is probable that representatives of the other party were also present - those who advocated that a certificate of divorce could be issued for anything that annoyed or disappointed the husband - such as warty armpits! The liberal doctors of the law belonged to the school of Hillel and it can be well imagined that most men were happy to go along with what was in effect no fault divorce.

Jesus refused to take sides! He didn't pander to the masses. Instead Jesus went back to the beginning when God made Adam and Eve for one another. They were incomplete without each other. They could only find fulfilment with one another. So, it was God's intent for a married couple to leave, cleave and weave. These formed the headings of the address I gave at my nephew's wedding.

When a man and woman marry they leave their parents, they are united and cleave together and as their lives become interwoven they become one. God made us the way we are with this intent in mind. Jesus concludes with one of his very controversial, high risk, remarks, "Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

Nearly all the commentaries I consult take Jesus literally and concur with the translators of the Living Bible who have Jesus establishing the rule: "No man may divorce what God has joined together." One of the contributors to the Pulpit Commentary on Matthew states: If we regard our Lord's language in this passage without prejudice, and not reading into it modern notions, we must consider that he here decrees the indissolubility of the marriage tie.

Unfortunately this flies in the face of experience. Marriages do break down for all sorts of reasons. I believe Jesus spoke in exasperation and meant something like this: "For goodness sake - men and women were made for one another so why this preoccupation with divorce."

I am certain that Jesus was not announcing the eleventh commandment: 'Thou shalt not divorce.'.

Anyway Jesus' observation displeased the liberal Pharisees some of whom were doubtless present. They want to know why Moses commanded that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away.

We must bear in mind that only a man had the right to divorce. This was manifestly unjust. The Pharisees seem to have conveniently overlooked the fact that the wife's conduct had to be such as to warrant a certificate of divorce. She must have brought dishonour on her husband by shameful conduct.

Jesus responds to the liberal Pharisees comment by saying: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard." v8. Jesus didn't say, as we might have expected, "Moses allowed divorce because some women's behaviour was intolerable." No, Jesus made clear that Moses sanctioned divorce because such was the callousness of men the alternatives were worse. For example:

  • Women could be forced out of the home for no good reason.

  • Women could be driven away without the possibility of remarriage. At least an official certificate of divorce meant they could marry again.

  • It provided a non-violent way of dealing with an erring wife when a vengeful husband would not forgive.

Moses introduced the law on divorce to provide some protection for women in a male dominated world in an age when they had few rights. It was evidence of God's concern for women at a time when men treated them more like possessions than people.

It was never God's intention that men should treat women in this way. How can a husband and wife become one flesh if the husband is domineering and in charge. If he is the master the wife will be little better than his slave.

Finally Jesus concludes by saying that there is only one ground for a man to legitimately divorce his wife and that is marital unfaithfulness or gross immorality. Anyone who issued a certificate of divorce for no justifiable reason but just so he can marry someone else commits adultery by doing so.

The disciples' reaction is typical of a rather sexist group of young men. I think they were being jocular rather than serious when they responded to what Jesus said by saying: "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry."

(D) Conclusion.

(1) Society changes through time and the law will change with it. For instance, in the time of Paul Gentile women were allowed to divorce their husbands. Paul seems to accept that if a Christian woman is deserted by her non-Christian husband divorce is permissible. See 1Cor7v15. Today a women's status is very different to that in the time of Moses and it seems doubtful if the Old Testament law on divorce applies.

(2) Gross immorality will always remain a genuine justification for divorce. Behaviour qualifying as gross immorality would include:

(a) Adultery.

(b) Cruelty - physical abuse of spouse or children.

(c) Sexual abuse of children.

(d) Substance abuse - drugs, alcohol and food.

(e) A vile and vicious tongue.

(f) A prolonged unwillingness to have sexual intercourse.

(g) Desertion.

It is ridiculous to suppose that a Christian woman who marries a man professing to be a Christian but turns out to be a control freak and wife beater should remain locked into a soul destroying marriage or be denied the opportunity of happiness with someone else.

(3) Ideally any couple who marry should conform to God's pattern and leave parents, cleave to one another and weave their lives together to the extent they become one.

This doesn't happen without commitment and effort on both sides. But it does happen for lots of marriages. Nearly all the boys I was brought up with both Christians and non-Christians have had long and happy marriages. Very few of those I was at primary school with have divorced. It just goes to show that God's design was a good one!

(b) Genuine Christians who marry should do everything possible to remain married. Paul made this clear in 1Cor7v10and11. It is possible! Hardly any married Christians in my youth divorced.

Ideally Christians should not divorce. However even Christians fall from grace. Christian pastors commit adultery. In such circumstances Jesus teaches that it is permissible to divorce and for the innocent party to marry again. It is wrong to be legalistic about Paul's statement: And a husband must not divorce his wife. No, he shouldn't but in some circumstances he can! He certainly should not divorce his wife because he has found someone he likes better! This is tantamount to committing adultery.