Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:32a “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife,
saving for the cause of fornication,. . .”
The words “saving for the cause of fornication” are commonly called the exception clause. In this phrase Jesus accomplished four important objectives.
First, Jesus lessened the civil punishment for adultery. Before Jesus the only Biblical punishment for adultery was death. Christ gave an alternative. Instead of seeking to have a spouse killed, one was instead entitled to sue for a divorce.
Second, Jesus revealed the ravages of adultery. Its seriousness is shown by its being the only Biblically justified grounds for divorce. Sex sins devastate, leaving behind wounds sometimes too deep to heal. Jesus knew adultery might be a rupture too terrible to overcome, and granted this exception, but if your marriage has been torn by an affair, try to heal the rift, seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
Third, Jesus made divorce more difficult. He reduced the number of justifiable reasons for divorce down to one. Jesus restored the original will of God regarding marriage to its rightful place of priority over Moses’ governmental divorce decree (DT 24:1). Moses, being human, was unable to exert enough authority to enforce God’s initial plan of one man with one woman till death do they part, but Jesus, being God, unapologetically re-established the original high standard.
It is wrong to seek in Christ’s teachings a loophole, a way of making divorce easier. Jesus tightened the divorce laws, and gave an ideal of marital permanence which no one else would have ever dreamed of. The disciples were so shocked at Christ’s incredibly high standard for marriage that they exclaimed, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry” (MT 19:10).
Marriage is sacred, a covenant of God (PR 2:17). God joins two together as one, and what “God has joined together, let no man separate” (MT 19:6 NAS). The Christian understanding of wedlock is that God is the primary partner in the marriage. This fact presents a problem when a couple decides to dissolve their marriage, for God, the lead partner, can not be called upon to sign the divorce decree. Thus, divorce is obviously a declension from God’s perfect will for marriage. The Lord Himself said, “I hate divorce” (ML 2:16 NAS). These are solemn words, and reason enough for a Christian never to seek a divorce lightly.
Fourth, Jesus protected the weak from the strong. In the eyes of civil law, a woman was property, at the absolute disposal of her husband. She had few legal rights. Technically a wife could sue her husband for a divorce (MK 10:12), but in reality such opportunities were extremely rare. By stating the exception clause, Jesus was essentially saying a husband could divorce his wife solely due to sexual misconduct on her part. What a wonderful protection this became for a Christian wife of a Christian husband. Since she could be divorced only due to her own unfaithfulness and unchastity, she controlled her own destiny in this matter.
For the sake of the weak, those helpless ones left stranded, Jesus sought to make divorce rare and difficult. When a marriage is undergoing strain, as all marriages do at times, divorce should not be an easy alternative. This is still generally the best way to protect the weak from the strong. By and large, women and children suffer most from easy divorce laws. In American divorces, the wife is usually given primary custody of the children, the result often being that the woman and her children are left at poverty’s door. Jonathan Pond, financial consultant for “The Today Show,” says in his book, “1,001 Ways to Cut Your Expenses,” the single worst thing you can do to your financial health is to get divorced.
Thirty years of widespread acceptance of and access to divorce in America has left its deepest scar on the weakest of the weak, our children. We now know by bitter experience that “divorce for the children’s sake” is a misnomer, an oxymoron. Divorce often leaves deep scars on children. Children of divorce are more likely to have low self-esteem, be depressed, drop out of school, do drugs, go to jail, earn less income, be poor, have dysfunctional relationships with parents, commit suicide, be sexually active at a young age, commit child or spousal abuse, be a single parent, divorce. Our grandparents said, “Stay married for the children.” We said, “Get divorced for the children.” The oldtimers’ philosophy was right, and saved a lot of children. When children are involved, divorce disrupts but does not end the couple’s interaction with each other, and is often a sad widowhood in which the dead are not buried, but keep coming back to re-open old wounds.
If you are married and having trouble, I plead with you–beg, borrow, or steal every idea, plan, counselling session, and anything else you can think of to save your marriage. I caution you to be reasonable. If you or your children are in danger, in an abusive situation, seek a legal separation–everyone has the right to safety and security–and then try to get help for your marriage. I also caution you not to be naive. If your spouse hires a lawyer, secure one to protect yourself.
Having said this, I reiterate, do your best to make it. In the vast majority of cases, it is to your advantage to save your marriage. Some of the best marriages I know were in their earliest years a disaster, but over time developed into bliss.
If you are divorced, I encourage you. Some of you had no choice; divorce was forced upon you. Many of you faithfully loved and served your spouses, and worked harder at your marriage than some have who will never face divorce. Often you did a better job of handling your situation than the ones who condemn you could have done. Many of you abhor divorce now more than ever.
Let me now speak to the church about the divorced. Our Master championed the cause of the hurting. We must do no less. Cool the rhetoric. Our task is not to be a judge standing over the divorced and telling them of consequences. They feel hurt, embarrassment, and pain, and sense failure well enough already. The joy of my twenty-fifth anniversary was muted by a card from my divorced sister in which she congratulated me, and then wrote two words which for me summed up the pathos and hurt of God-fearing, Christ-loving divorcees, “I failed.”
Do not increase the pain. Let us heal the hurting as Jesus did. If you have a single parent working for you, and he or she calls in running late due to seeking a babysitter for a sick child, in the name of Jesus show compassion. If a single parent’s car is going to be in the shop a day or two, try to arrange transportation.
Brothers and sisters, let us help our brothers and sisters. Christ was not harsh with the hurting. He held the standard high, but at the same time stooped to catch falling, hurting human beings. Do you think the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet (LK 7:38) believed He condoned her behavior? Absolutely not. She knew He hated her deeds, but she felt in Him a love for herself so strong that it helped push from her the behavior she herself probably had hated, but had been previously unable to overcome. Let the Church be like Christ. Hold the standard high–divorce solely for adultery. Hold the safety net low–catch the falling.