What Does the Bible Say About Divorce? (understanding what Jesus said)

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It wasn’t so long ago that divorce was a taboo subject within the Church. Today the controversy has been replaced with normalcy and even support for those going through it. But there still is a lot of misconceptions. So let’s look at the question, What does the bible say about divorce?

The Bible actually says quite a lot about divorce (you can read all the verses here: Verses About Divorce) The problem is when we read these verses we impose our understanding of divorce onto the text. This has left many people with incorrect ideas and led many to wrong, and sometimes dangerous, practices. 

Since there are so many verses I had to do some picking and choosing. We will look at two key passages from Jesus. Since he incorporates many of the Old Testament teachings into his, this will still give a good understanding of what the Bible says about divorce. 

Before we look at the scripture we need to look at what divorce was in the 1st Century and who it affected so that we can understand what the Bible is actually saying about divorce.

Divorce in Jesus’ Day

The world was very different in First Century Israel. Maybe the most difficult thing for us to grasp today is their extreme patriarchal society. This wasn’t unique to their culture; it was the norm for the time. Men were in control and women were second class.

This mindset played heavily into marriage and divorce. Only men were allowed to divorce their wives; women had no say in the matter. Based out of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 the belief of Jesus’ day was that a man could divorce his wife if something “improper” happened. What exactly is improper? That was the debate.

By Jesus’ day there were two common camps of thought. Some followed the teachings of Shammai, who said divorce was only acceptable if the woman committed sexual offense, such as adultery. But the more commonly held view was that of Hillel. He taught that a man could divorce his wife if she displeased him in anyway. Even something as trivial as burning dinner.

Divorce for a man was easy to move past, especially with an acceptable (albeit misplaced) reason. However for women the repercussions were severe. A divorced woman was seen as damaged and likely lived the rest of her life single. To complicate the situation women typically weren’t allowed to work. Typically they had two options, move back in with their family (often they weren’t accepted) OR beg for money.

This created a system that put women, and often children, at a severe disadvantage and often in dangerous situations. Divorce in Jesus’ day was “good” for the man, but detrimental for the woman. And Jesus was not okay with that.

What Does the Bible Say About Divorce: Matthew 5:31-32

While short, Matthew 5:31-32 is an often quoted text as to what the Bible says about divorce. Again, the problem is that we impose our understanding of divorce onto this text. So the first thing we need to remind ourselves of is the context of the culture to which Jesus is speaking.

The first thing we should take note of is who this is addressed too… the husbands, the men. They are the ones that are making the decision to divorce, so Jesus directs this towards them. That might seem odd to us, but knowing the context that makes sense. Not only does Jesus direct this towards the men, but he shows them that they aren’t getting off so free and clean as they thought.

“anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

What a strange thought, right? At least at first glance. Most people read this literally. But Jesus is using a metaphor, comparing divorce to adultery figuratively. Jesus is not saying that divorce = adultery. Rather he is saying divorce is like adultery in that the consequences are the same.

When a man divorces his wife the foundation of commitment is broken, thus the marriage is dissolved. When one commits adultery, the foundation of faithfulness is destroyed, thus the marriage is broken. Both divorce and adultery end the same way. So in that way they are the same. What Jesus is saying is the practical result of divorce is the same as that of adultery.

The point of this teaching is… Divorce destroys a marriage just as adultery does. They result in the same thing, but they are not the same thing.

Again, this is directed at the men in the audience. Jesus is pointing the finger at them. He’s telling them that they are as guilty as a woman who commits adultery. Those who divorce their wives for their own selfish reasons, they are guilty.

Jesus is flipping the script and offering protection for the women of the day.

What Does the Bible Say About Divorce: Matthew 19:1-12

At this point in Jesus’ ministry the Pharisees are always trying to trap him. But Jesus doesn’t back down; he’s not afraid of a good fight. In this case Jesus is tested about his knowledge of divorce.

“Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

We know this is a trap, Matthew points that out to us. But what we might miss is how exactly this traps Jesus. This question is based around whether Jesus follows the teaching of Shammai or Hillel. No matter how he answers, which side he chooses, he is likely to alienate half the crowd listening.

Knowing what’s going on, Jesus starts off with a jab at the Pharisees… “Have you not read” would have been an offensive question to the religious elite who not only have read, but had memorized much of the scriptures. Now he dives into his teaching on divorce.

The question posed to Jesus aligns closely with Hillel’s teaching, that a man could divorce his wife for any offense. We clearly know that is not where Jesus lands. However he doesn’t fully align with Shammai’s view either in two key ways.

  1. As we talked about already Shammai bases his theology of divorce from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus goes further back and bases his theology on Genesis 1-2.
  2. Shammai takes a patriarchal approach, only giving permission to the men. Jesus deals with the obligations of men AND women.

The bottom line here is the same as in Matthew 5:31-32, however this time Jesus expounds more on his reasoning. In this case Jesus goes all the way back to the beginning, creation. Jesus’ argument is that marriage unites. A married couple is one. God’s original design was on of lasting unity that was brought together by God himself. This was God’s original design and intent.

But Then Came Sin

God’s design was for marriage to last forever. Throughout the Bible that is made clear and clearly where Jesus lands. But it’s not so cut and dry. The problem is sin. We often think sin separates us from God, and it does. But it also separates us from each other. Just as sin separated us from God, it can also separate us from each other.

In marriage that can mean the sin of one person (adultery, abuse, etc…) can cause irreversible harm. Or it could be a mixture of both parties. We need to know that divorce was never part of God’s plan. It is not God’s desire for divorce to happen. It’s his desire for reconciliation to take place. But for that to happen, all parties have to be willing. And that’s not always the case.

Sometimes sin wrecks a marriage beyond repair. While God’s design was one of lasting unity, sin disrupts that.

Here’s how I think divorce is best understood Biblically… Divorce is ALWAYS bad. However, sometimes all you have in life is two bad options. So you have to choose the lesser of the bad options.

I’ve never known someone that went through a divorce and just loved it. Or thought it was the best thing ever. However, I do know many people that divorce was the best option they had. Take an abusive relationship for example. Divorce is still messy, difficult, and will cause damage. In other words, it would be hard to call that a “good” option. However in that case, divorce is a much better option than staying in an abusive relationship. Because of sin, either of one party or both, divorce is sometimes the better of two bad options.

Of course we know that sin is forgivable and our situation is redeemable through Jesus. In other words, if you are in a broken marriage there’s hope! But both parties have to be willing to let God restore them.

Implications For Us Today

So where does this leave us?

1. Jesus Protects The Vulnerable

The first thing we should recognize in Jesus’ teaching on divorce is his protection of the most vulnerable, the women. They were being taken advantage of by a system that was set up against them. Jesus evens the playing field in marriage showing an equal responsibility for both men and women. He puts an end to the rules that put women at a disadvantage and restores his intention for marriage.

Jesus does a lot more for women, you can read that here: Jesus Valued Women (and why that matters)

2. Jesus Stands Firmly on Truth

God intended for marriage to last for our lives. From the beginning in Genesis he makes that clear. It seems today we take marriage less and less seriously, but God doesn’t. The Bible shows us the level of commitment we ought to enter marriage with. For some that should come as a kick in the pants. If you are in a marriage that is falling apart you should pursue your spouse to the extent that Jesus pursued the church.

3. Jesus Offers Restoration

It was never God’s intention for marriages to be broken. But sin has destroyed many marriages. But it doesn’t end there. The message of the Gospel is one of hope, of reconciliation, and God’s not going to leave us in our brokenness. Whether you’ve been divorced or are in a struggling marriage, God’s desire for you is not for you to stay broken, but be restored.

What are your thoughts? How have you understood the Bible’s teaching on divorce? 

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