Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 5 has been used by the evangelical church at large as a sort of guide for the Christian ethic of divorce. Many teach that Jesus’ teaching is that divorce is only acceptable in cases of adultery, forcing many to stay in abusive relationships and others to suffer in strife for decades, out of a desire to be obedient to the teachings of Christ. It is also understood that Jesus forbids marrying some one who has been divorce, banishing those who have suffered a divorce to a life lived alone.
But is this really what Jesus was teaching his followers? Are victims of abuse forced to stay in the marriage because of a lack of sexual immorality? Are divorcees really forbidden from marriage again? I would argue that this is not the case at all and I am going to attempt to lay out an argument form scripture that points to a different conclusion, but one that I believe is in line with the intention that Jesus had in his teachings on divorce.
We will start with and focus mostly on Matthew 5, but will also look briefly at other NT passages as well, including Matthew 19 and Pauls words in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
The Setting of the text
These two verses sit within a segment of the Sermon on the Mount centered on what it truly means to “fulfill the law.” At its center the “Sermon on the Mount” insists that the motive with which we act matters even more-so than the action itself (This is the righteousness which surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law that Jesus talks about in Mt 5:20. It is not mere obedience in the flesh, but acting from a heart of love). Jesus seems to be focusing in on laws which have been perverted from their original intent, and we shall see that Christ’s teachings on divorce are a prime example of this.
Jesus begins with the proclamation: “It has been said.” He then quotes a passage from the Torah (Deut 24:1-4):
“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house.”
This passage explicitly lays out the rules to divorce for the Israelites in the ancient world. It lists the commands that a woman should receive a certificate of divorce from her husband as a legal means of dissolving or annulling the marriage contract. To better understand the necessity of this law and its relationship Matthew 5:31-32, we must first take a look at the context in which Deuteronomy 24 was written.
Marriage and Divorce in the Ancient World
The ancient world was patriarchal. Women were a commodity, not considered equal with men and were entirely at the disposal of their husbands and fathers. Women could neither initiate marriage nor divorce. Marriage was initiated by a man, usually the woman’s father, and the betrothal was often was motivated by financial reasons (i.e. the financial strengthening of one house by joining it to another). Divorce was easy and swift. “A woman,” said the Rabbinic law, “may be divorced with or without her will; but a man only with his will.” A divorced woman was considered undesirable and would often be left with no resources and no one to care for her. J. Goldingay, writes: “When a husband initiates a divorce, it leaves the woman in an ambiguous position. Her rights need protecting.”
This need for protection is likely the reason for the command that husbands are to write a certificate of divorce for the women they were divorcing. The Torah assumes that divorce in a society is inevitable and therefore the “certificate of divorce” law seeks the minimization of suffering for the woman being divorced by offering protection for her. The certificate of divorce removes her shame and makes clear that she is not an adulteress, while also offering legal protection from her husbands family. And, according to Goldingay, “The assumption that her husband provides her with divorce papers making clear her status is one way the Torah seeks to offer that protection.”
Jesus emphasized this point in Matthew 19 when the pharisees approached and asked him if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife “for any reason.” Jesus’ reply enlightens the reader about the intentions of the law:
“Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard’.”
Jesus claims that the need for the instructions for divorce in the Torah arise from a hardness of heart and a lack of compassion for the women who were being discarded without legal protection and without a hope of finding stability in their lives again. Women abandoned in this manner regularly ended up as sex workers and prostitutes just to survive. David Instone-Brewer, writing about divorce women in the first century, claims that “Unless you have grown sons who are strong enough to work the land (without the help of tractors and weed killer), you have very few choices. There are few professions for women.”
In light of the context of this passage, both the necessity for and the justice of the commands in Deuteronomy 24 become apparent. Divorced women needed protection, and this law gave it to them.
But if the law as written is already concerned for justice, why is Jesus amending it? Why does he include it in his “you have heard it said” statements, and then proceed to correct it and even go into more in-depth detail than the Mosaic law? The surprising answer to that question becomes apparent in light of a broader conversation that was happening in the 1st century and a conversation into which Jesus enters, and even takes sides. It was a debate about the ethics of divorce.
Divorce in the Second Temple period (530-70CE)
There were several schools of Jewish law in the 1st century, and at the two opposite ends of the spectrum there was the school of Hillel, which was considered far more liberal and generous in practice, and there was the school of Shammai, the more stringent and conservative school. At the center of Hillel focus after loving God was loving your neighbor as yourself. Hillel likely played more “fast-and-loose” with the Torah than any other school in its day. The Shammai were the exact opposite. They were strict and austere, they followed the law to the very letter and even built a hedge of laws around the most important laws to ensure that none were broken.
Until just before the first century, there was an almost universal understanding of how to interpret the divorce commands in Deuteronomy 24, simply put: divorce was only permitted in instances of sexual immorality. So the limits that Moses had places upon divorce were observed and followed.
Leading up to the time of Christ, and during his own lifetime, other views had begun to emerge concerning the ethics of divorce and alternate interpretations of Deuteronomy 24. The disagreement was mainly between the two schools. It started just a few decades before Jesus, and it was centered around Hillel’s new interpretation of what verse 1 meant when it said; “if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her….” His new view of divorce was called the “Any Cause” divorce. The phrase comes from his reading of verse 1 as a man divorcing his wife “because he has found a cause of sexual immorality.” He concluded that due to the spurious use of the word “cause”, this must be referring to something other than sexual immorality that was equally grounds for divorce.
The followers of Hillel began teaching that a woman could be divorced for any reason whatsoever, basically overturning the exact reasoning behind the original Mosaic law. They had found a loophole, and it would begin to be exploited to extreme degrees. Keener notes, “The School of Hillel understood the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, even burning his toast (“any matter”-m. Gittin 9:10; Sipre Deut. 269.1.1).” Hillel believed that as long as a man gave his wife a certificate of divorce, then he wasn’t breaking the Mosaic law.
As was his way, Hillel had found a way to apply the scriptures liberally, except this time it was to great harm. Women began to be thrown out and divorced for any and every reason that the men found cause, and many women found themselves without protection, honor, and provisions for their daily life. And many of them ended found themselves entering into sex work and became as adulterers.
This new view, however, was not accepted by the disciples of Shammai. According to Instone-Brewer, Shammai claims that Hillel “had interpreted the Scriptures wrongly and that the whole phrase ‘a cause of sexual immorality’ meant nothing more than the ground of sexual immorality; it did not mean two grounds: sexual immorality, and ‘Any Cause’.” The followers of Shammai, in their attempt to follow the strict letter of the law, also maintain the integrity of this law. Divorce, to them, is only justified on the grounds of sexual immorality.
Hearing Jesus’ answer anew.
When Jesus says : “You have heard it said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce’” he was stepping into the middle of a 1st-century debate on the interpretation of the law of Moses, the Torah. He does so boldly and unafraid of the consequences. Interestingly, he also is unafraid to take the side against those whom he was accustomed to siding with. Jesus answer is clear and precise, with no ambiguity: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Several times throughout scriptures Jesus has sided with Hillel on various issues (The Golden Rule, the welcoming of non-Jewish people, castigating pharisees for apparent excessive legalism, etc.) seemingly because he emphasized grace and love over the law. But here, he sides with Shammai. Jesus bravely rises above earthly categories and insists instead on love and justice. Jesus says that the man who divorces his wife in this way makes her a victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” In other words: A man who casts out a woman unmercifully because he has decided that his vows before God no longer matter is making an adulteress out of her. She is doomed for the streets, the slums, and the sex trade. For no man in that day would take in a woman who bares that kind of shame and who has been thrown out because she now bares the shame of an adulteress. Few men would take her shame upon himself.
Jesus’ answer is Mercy, not condemnation
Many have read this passage as nothing more than a command for Christians to follow regarding divorce. They have understood it to mean simply:
“If there is infidelity, you may divorce. But you may never marry again. Also, do not marry another who has been divorced. Both offenses are equal to adultery!”
But, as we have seen, that was not the intention with which Jesus entered into this ancient discussion about the law. Jesus was confronting the injustice of selfish men who were taking advantage of women, using them, having their way with them, and then abandoning them through simple “any cause” divorce.
Jesus was not calling divorced women “adulteresses,” and he was not calling the men who married them “adulterers”. He was confronting the systemic evil that was being taught and perpetuated by the religious leaders of his day. He was righting the wrongs of “any cause” divorce in his day.
This is further reinforced when we look at other places in the New Testament where divorce is permitted for different reasons. The Apostle Paul, for instance, allows for divorce in the event that someone cannot find peace in their marriage (1 Cor 7:15) because of being married to a non-believer (“The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace”). Paul obviously permits divorce in instances other than infidelity alone. He cites intense strife (i.e. lack of peace) as a plausible motive to dissolve a marriage. So if Jesus only allows for divorce in cases of infidelity, then we have pitted Paul against Jesus, and that ought not be.
If we as followers of Jesus are to find an ethic of divorce that is consistent with not only Matthew 5 but also Matthew 19, Deuteronomy 24, and 1 Corinthians 7, then we must enter into the context of Christ’s own day. We must look to the evils that he was speaking against, namely the abuses of patriarchy that the religious leaders perpetuated and encouraged, as the objects of condemnation. We must also identify and confront any lack of compassion for women, and any a hardness of heart that would allow a man to throw away his wife, thereby bringing shame and suffering upon her. We must also confront these issues in our own day, and join those standing against them.
I have met many pastors who refuse to perform the wedding ceremony of one who has been divorced, and I know that many (if not most) evangelical denominations do not allow their pastors to perform ceremonies for divorce people, and even the denomination in which I am ordained forbids it. I believe this is a poor and uninformed decision that is not based upon a firm grasp of the ancient scriptures. They are ignoring the context in which Jesus spoke these words and are likely hurting or even shaming those who have already suffered great pain and are trying to start again. The ethic of Jesus sermon on the mount is centered on love, restoration and giving hope to the hopeless. The death, burial and resurrection of Christ fully displays that nothing and no one is too far gone. Re-marriage can be a life-giving picture of resurrection and both the pastor and the church have a crucial part to play in that re-birth.
When the church at large condemns one who pursues a divorce for reasons other than “infidelity”, when they pile shame on top of suffering, and when they castigate someone for not sticking the abuse out and waiting for God to intervene, they are missing the point of Jesus teachings.
While divorce is always a tragedy, the writers of Deuteronomy didn’t ignore it’s realities. Instead, they sought to minimize the damage that it causes to the most vulnerable party. I need not present an exhaustive list of acceptable reasons for divorce, but abuse (either physical or emotional) is certainly one of them.
Jesus did indeed give us a law and a rule concerning divorce and remarriage, and they do not include condemnation or shunning. The law is grace, the rule is love and the goal is restoration.
For more info, please see the books below, especially Instone-Brewer.
The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Barclay, William. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. 3rd ed. edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Wright, Tom. Matthew, Part 1: Chapters 1-15. 2 edition. London : Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. (pg 41)
Keener, Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1999.
Barclay, William. 1: The Gospel of Matthew Volume I. Revised, Updated edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. (pp. 174-175)
Goldingay, John. Numbers and Deuteronomy. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. (p. 177)
Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities. 2007 or Later Printing edition. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2006.