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Life of Christ (2007-2009)

Divorce and the Church

Matthew 19:3-12

Lesson audio

One of the missing sermon topics of our day is divorce. Long ago the church in America gave up teaching against divorce; indeed, it is rare to hear a sermon opposed to adultery. Fornication is still preached against – by youth ministers – but this is rather a rare phenomenon too. The church has “moved beyond” all this and is now struggling with homosexuality. Most denominations have now embraced this as a form of marriage; the stricter denominations are still a generation away from that. But can there be any doubt where this will end? Even now pedophilia is being declared to be harmless, even good for children.

The Scripture paints a different picture:

Mat 19:3-12 NIV Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" (4) "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,'[1] (5) and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'[2]? (6) So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." (7) "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" (8) Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. (9) I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." (10) The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry." (11) Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. (12) For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage[3]because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."

Dramatis Personae

We may begin by analyzing the cast of characters provided to us.

The Pharisees

These are the people closest to our view of divorce today. The major difference, of course, is that they are talking solely of a man divorcing his wife – as the wife in these times could not divorce her husband except in the unusual incidence of him becoming a follower of some other god. They see this question as not only a hot topic, but a way to tempt Jesus.

It is a fact: if you run to the doctor constantly, you are sick – one way or another. Bringing this up is a sign that it’s on the Pharisees’ minds. It takes a lot of study to become a Pharisee, so they would be likely ones to look for a younger, cuter wife.

But there is more to it than that. Caiaphas has just pronounced that “for the good of the people, this Jesus must die.”[1] They are thus trying to find occasion to enforce this prophecy.


Jesus has just finished telling the crowd the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.[2] It’s pretty clear that this was a hammer stroke at the Pharisees. It is evident that Jesus desires the repentance of these men – and doesn’t think he’s going to see it.

It appears that Jesus is caught “on the horns of a syllogism.”[3] If he approves of the looser standard of divorce, they can use much the same argument Christ will use against them. If not, they will ask (and do) just why Moses allowed divorce by such a simple procedure, with no apparent standard set. (Note that in the argument there is no mention of the penalty for adultery: stoning to death. The correct Mosaic Law answer is “stone the woman.” Thus Moses must be talking about cases where there is some other reason.)

You will kindly note that Christ is therein tempted. It is a temptation of social pressure as well as dilemma; it is not unknown today. He knows how this works.

The Disciples

The disciples correctly conclude that Christ’s words make marriage a much riskier business. They cannot share our modern attitude of “we can always get a divorce if it doesn’t work out.” But they are also still having trouble with the radical nature of the church of God: they do not yet see women as important, let alone equals. They are about to hear Christ on the subject of little children,[4] which is even more shocking. So they are unprepared for Christ’s argument, just as the Pharisees are.

Christ’s Reasoning

It is fashionable in evangelical churches today to equate the intellectual side of Christianity with legalism. As Christ will here produce a logical argument consistent with intellectual Christianity, we hereby forewarn all who think us legalists to please use your search engine to find some less taxing version of this. We wish you all success.

Christ’s argument comes in three steps:

  • First, no matter what the Law says, what is the will of God? Surely this is what we should follow if at all possible.
  • Next, the relationship of the will of God to the Law of Moses.
  • Finally, a conclusive statement of direction.

As we shall see in the next section, this is largely ignored by the modern church.

God’s will

Christ brings up three quotations from the Old Testament which describe the nature of marriage – as willed by God.

  • From the beginning God created us male and female.[5] It is a “law of creation” – it is intrinsic to the human being that one is either male or female. So this distinction is part of God’s will.
  • Also from the beginning, we see that the man leaves his father and mother for his wife – thus establishing marriage as the most important of human relationships.
  • And to make it clear how well cemented this relationship is supposed to be, Christ reminds us that we are “one flesh.” It’s a point that is seen physically in the children we produce; Paul indeed says this comes not from ceremony but from simple sexual intercourse.[6] This union is mystic as well as physical, having been established “in the beginning.”

So what does God want? His will is simple:

  • Marriage is to be life long, broken only by death.
  • There is to be no adultery.
  • There is to be no divorce.

So why, then, does Moses have this rule about divorce?

Will and the Law

Consider for a moment: what changes would you make in the traffic laws if you could have your way? Reasoning logically, we might go this route:

  • The objective of traffic laws is to combine the fastest, most efficient ride with complete safety from accidents.
  • Assuming that these objectives can be combined, we would than produce a flood of new laws designed to prevent all accidents.
  • Which would require an impossible number of policemen to enforce.

“Will” means that which is your objective. Law is the practical implementation of the people’s will. It is limited in its effectiveness.

Indeed, most law is a compromise of one sort or another. Many of these compromises come from the fact that we are all sinners, and therefore we have laws which are not ideal but rather the best thing we can enforce. (Think about the 55 mph speed limit from a few years ago.) Moses had much the same problem; and much the same solution.

But one thing is clear: the will of God is superior to the Law of Moses. It is better to stay married to one wife than it is to divorce her. We might even see some sense in this today.


These being so, we may conclude the following:

  • God put the two of you together; do not let mankind tear you apart.
  • Divorce, with the exception noted, is equivalent to adultery. (And we stone adulterers, remember?)

We might do well to remember, however, that even with adultery there is no requirement for a divorce; only permission. Forgiveness exists, if we choose to use it. The Old Testament model for this is found in Hosea.

Curiously, however, the Old Testament gives us one other connection to examine: the link between adultery and idolatry. God characterizes the unfaithfulness of Israel as being her adultery – for she is His bride. That connection has serious implications for the church today.

The Modern Connection

We may observe the following facts:

  • The divorce rate in evangelical churches is higher than in the general population – currently greater than 25%.
  • The church’s actions concerning divorce are largely focused on cleaning up the mess afterward, not prevention.

Why? Because the church now teaches the world’s view of marriage – an egalitarian marriage with neither partner in charge. Egalitarian partnerships are notably unstable – when the first serious argument comes along, the 50-50 split. The 51-49 don’t.

That’s the central fact: we no longer have “headship” in marriage. We therefore cannot recommend obedience of the wife – it is prohibited by definition. This is a great change. But we would do well, perhaps, to examine the older model. We shall see that this decision to promote egalitarian marriage has consequences unforeseen and unintended.

How submission works

Submission is simply the right response to right authority.[7] The model is simple:

  • In the kingdom of God, authority comes from responsibility.
  • Therefore, if you want to know what legitimate authority someone has, you must ask what responsibility he/she has.
  • To misuse authority goes by a simple name: tyranny.
  • In the kingdom of God, authority is given to benefit those in submission.

It seems rather simple. But – especially as it applies to marriage – the church no longer teaches this model of submission and authority. We now teach that submission is evil, and to be avoided when possible. This has had some interesting effects on those in authority; consider the antagonism which now greets police officers and even firefighters. Nor has this effect left the church untouched; but its greatest impact has been on marriage.

Effect on the church

The primary effect on the church comes from the metaphor of the church as the Bride of Christ. As long as wives were in submission to their husbands, it was logical to conclude that the Bride of Christ should be in submission to Him. We no longer teach submission in marriage, and thus we have abandoned (quite logically) our submission to Christ. Jesus is now our friend, not our Lord.

So how do we reconcile this with being a “Bible-believing church?” It’s simple, really. We do not teach on divorce nor preach against it; we ignore it. In large measure we have stopped preaching against adultery, and confined preaching against fornication to youth ministers. We have “solved” the problem by ignoring it and hoping it will go away.

We must leave it to the reader: as you sow, so shall you reap. What fruit will come of this?

[1] John 11:49-50

[2] Luke 18:9-14

[3] Jerome

[4] Matthew 19:13-15

[5] What this statement does to the arguments of those Christians advocating homosexual ministers I leave as an exercise for the student.

[6] 1st Corinthians 6:16

[7] Hebrews 13:17

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