Murder Is Not Better Than Divorce
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 19:7 (Holman) “Why then,” they asked Him, “did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away?”
Jesus took the Pharisees back to God’s original intent for marriage: one man, one woman, till death. The Pharisees, though, were far more interested in finding a loophole than in complying. Being typical legalists, they were strict in matters they wanted to be stern in, but were lax in what they wanted to be lenient in. I guess they felt they needed a little fun in their lives somewhere.
This debate between our Master and His foes is a classic example of a problem we often encounter in Biblical interpretation. Jesus used the Bible against divorce. The Pharisees used the same Bible to support divorce.
Scripture is often a tug-of-war victim, as in eternal security vs. falling from grace, right form of church polity, slavery, polygamy. Lincoln noted the irony of our Civil War being fought by opposing armies that read the same Bible. Interpret Scripture humbly. We may be wrong as the Pharisees were here.
The Pharisees felt they had snared Jesus. They essentially accused Him of contradicting none other than the greatest lawgiver himself, Moses.
To justify easy divorce laws, the Pharisees pointed to a passage Moses had given. “If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something improper about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, give it to her, and send her away from his house” (DT 24:1). Jesus was undaunted. He had known Moses, and had known what the writer meant.
Matt. 19:8a He told them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts.”
In other words, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was a concession, not a law. Moses tried to do the best he could under the given circumstances. Divorce was rampant in the ancient world. It’s probably safe to assume the institution of marriage had suffered among the Israelites during their 400 years in Egypt.
Moses was trying to restrain hard, mean men from excessive cruelty. The Pharisees incorrectly interpreted Moses differently, equating what Moses was reluctantly permitting with what God approved as best. More interested in self-indulgence that in in holiness, they flippantly turned concession into license.
What did Jesus see in Moses’ words that the Pharisees overlooked? They saw only gratification and pleasure for men. Jesus saw compassion for women.
Moses’ edict was meant to protect women in at least three ways. One, the requirement for a divorce certificate kept a husband from throwing out his wife haphazardly. The divorce had to be done in a legally correct way that assured the woman total freedom to marry again without her being accused of bigamy.
In Israel, anyone legally divorced had the right to remarry. Women rarely remarried, but for men, remarriage was often the reason for the divorce. Men still almost never leave a wife without already having another woman available.
Two, Moses’ edict protected women by preventing wife swapping. Once a divorced woman married someone else, she could never again marry her first husband (DT 24:2-4). Without this prohibition, women could have been passed back and forth between men, an abhorrent evil common in the ancient world.
Three, Moses’ edict protected women by giving cruel husbands an option other than abusing their wives for life. God, who hates meanness, refused to let a woman’s only option be hurt and pain. Moses was saying, “Husbands, there’s a way for you to treat your wife that’s better than abuse.” It’s better to send her back to her former family than for her to have to endure a husband’s meanness.
In essence a woman could not sue for divorce. The fact it was an option in her miserable marriage at least gave some hope she could someday leave.
Marriages are made in Heaven, but can develop in Hell. This is why there always has to be some allowance for divorce. It can literally keep people from killing each other. This is good, because murder is not better than divorce.
What about a marriage that endangers children, possibly causes sexually transmitted diseases, or entails physical beatings? I never recommend divorce when counseling, but I do tell people to be reasonable. If you or your children are in a dangerous, abusive situation, seek a legal separation—everyone has the right to safety and security—and then try to get help for your marriage. Also, don’t be naïve. If your spouse hires a lawyer, secure one to protect yourself.
Matt. 19:8b “But it was not like that from the beginning.”
Divorce was not among God’s original options, because sin was not present. Sin tampered with the plan. Our natures fell. Depravity became real. Every divorce has a sin lurking behind it somewhere. Hidden in the heart of one spouse, or both, is a sin that becomes the piston driving the machine amuck.
We no longer live in Paradise, but we must always return there to find the high standards we are to strive to live up to. Don’t start setting goals with concessions. Start with ideals, and then adjust them to painful current realities.
In our text, hear Jesus’ plea for us to always go back to the first. Start at the beginning. This is why Baptists believe each generation must for itself go back to the Bible. We embrace no non-Biblical law, no binding regulations, no creed. Our mantra is, return to Scripture. Let each generation start afresh and anew. This is the best way to scrape barnacles off the hull of the ship of Zion.
Beware traditions. Dad’s generation preached against playing pool, cards, mixed bathing, owning a TV, selling merchandise in church, and playing drums or guitars in worship. Keep going back to the beginning to decide what is cultural versus what is universal. Scripture adequately emphasizes the latter.
Matt. 19:9 “And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
This “exception clause” is famous, but difficult to know how to apply. In Mark (10:11) and Luke (16:18), Jesus allowed no exception whatsoever. The issue in all three Gospels ultimately is not divorce, but remarriage after divorce.
The Biblical ideal is for the divorced to remain single and celibate. The second best option, remarriage, is better than the third option, promiscuity. One reason for marriage is to reduce the number of sex sins (I Corinthians 7:2).
Danger begins when Pastors and churches use the “exception clause” to try to play the blame game in an effort to determine if a remarriage in a given case is okay. However obvious the cause of a divorce might appear to be from the outside, only the spouses know everything that went on behind closed doors. They alone, under God, can determine the level of their own guilt or innocence.
Hear the stories of three preachers I know. In all three cases, the sex sins and divorce appeared to be 100% their fault. They did sin; no doubt about it. I am not justifying, making light of, or condoning their sin, but their level of guilt may not have been bad enough to warrant all the condemnation they received.
One wife’s family convinced her sex was dirty, and should be done only when trying to conceive. The second’s wife let him be intimate with her twice in the years they were married; he told me the birth of their child was a timing miracle. The third wife had to forego intimacy for years due to cervical cancer.
Three preachers. Guilty. “Brand the scarlet A on their brow” (which is precisely what Christians did). Again, I do not condone their sin. All I’m saying is, we cannot be judge, jury, and executioners in the divorces of others.
Therefore, what should the church’s response be to a divorce? Try to determine where most of the blame lies? Write off the guilty by treating them like they committed unpardonable sin? This is where our next lesson will begin.