Biblical Divorce – A Pastor’s Perspective

What do you believe about divorce? Many believe that according to the Bible, the only two valid causes for divorce are adultery and abandonment by an unbeliever. I have written about this before. Recently, Pastor Ryan Paulson from South Fellowship church gave one of the best sermons on this topic I have ever heard. His treatment of this very sensitive topic was so great, I just had to share it. To hear the entire sermon, (45 entertaining minutes) click here.

Here is my summary of his main points about divorce which begins around minute 10.

Ryan was preaching from Matthew 5:31-32 where Jesus says during the Sermon on the Mount:

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.”

This passage is one of the most hotly debated passages in the Bible. What does Jesus mean when he says divorce makes a woman an adulteress?

Ryan gave some background information about what Jesus was talking about here. Jesus is referring back to Deuteronomy 24:1 which says:

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 . . .

At the time of Jesus, there were two schools of thought about this topic. The first school was based upon the teachings of Rabbi Hillel who taught that a man could divorce his wife for ANY reason . . . even something as small as she burned his toast.

The problem with this was that, according to Pastor Ryan, “a divorced woman had three options, and really, only three.  She could go and live with a wealthy family member or maybe her parents.  She could move back in with her parents.  She could get remarried, and many, many women did in this day and culture.  But it was almost as though they entered into this marriage and it was tainted; it was seen as sort of second-class.  Or she could become a prostitute.  She had to make money somehow.  A lot of commentators say that when Jesus says “You force her to commit adultery,” that’s what he’s talking about.  She’s got to go “work the streets” because she has to make ends meet somehow.  So, this was Hillel’s teaching.  He said listen, if there’s any cause for divorce . . . burn the toast—divorce.  Don’t like her looks anymore—divorce.  It doesn’t matter if she violates the marriage covenant, if you don’t like her anymore, you can divorce her.”

The other school of thought was proposed by Rabbi Shimei, who believed this passage from Deuteronomy implied the wife had committed adultery. Which school of thought is correct? Pastor Ryan goes on to explain:

Jesus chimes in and he does what he does throughout the Scriptures.  He comes to the defense of women, because they were the ones getting pushed down by this. Tweet This

They were the ones getting run over.  They were the ones being wronged.  Jesus comes, and he says no, this “Any Cause” divorce, which Hillel talked about, is absolute rubbish.  What Deuteronomy 24:1 is talking about is not “Any Cause,” it’s talking about uniquely adultery.

What About Abuse?

Take a deep breath.  We all know people who have gotten divorced for reasons other than adultery.  Some of you are reading this now.  We’ve heard some teaching around that says is adultery really the ONLY time where divorce is an option?  Is that it?  What about abuse?  Should a woman stay in that situation?  It’s not adultery.  Should she just go into an adulterous relationship so that she can get divorced?  Is that the option?  I think we’ve heard some potentially inaccurate teaching on this, and I’ve been a part of that . . . because we want to stay true to the Scriptures and we haven’t really stepped back to ask the question, “What is Jesus really talking about?”

Before I tell you what he’s talking about, let me tell you what he’s NOT talking about.  He’s NOT saying that adultery is the only time divorce is an option period.  You’re going, Paulson, that’s the way it reads.  I get it.  But what he’s answering in this discussion is what is Moses talking about in Deuteronomy 24:1?  He says well, Moses, right there, is talking about adultery.  That’s what Moses is talking about.  The question is – is that the only time in the Old Testament that divorce is discussed?  Here’s the answer . . . no, it’s not.  So, he answers a question that’s a common discussion amongst the rabbis, amongst the Pharisees, and goes this is what Moses is talking about.  You also have Exodus 21:10 – 11 that talks about divorce as well.  The context is an Israelite who marries a slave and then takes on a second wife in addition to her—that’s for a whole other message.  Here’s what it says:  If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.  {Some translations say conjugal love.  He can’t stop sleeping with his first wife because he likes his second wife better.}  If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.  She can leave the marriage.  She doesn’t have to pay back any dowry.  She can leave because she was wrongedSo, all throughout the Jewish culture during that time, you have Deuteronomy 24, which talks about adultery, and you have Exodus 21, which talks about neglect.

Did you know that in the Jewish marriage vows, they vow these three things to each other?  I vow to clothe you. . . I vow to feed you. . .  I vow to make love to you often. That was the marriage vows that they took.  Jesus wasn’t talking about these, they weren’t debatedThey were just assumed within the Jewish culture that these are reasons that people exit a covenantal marriage.  What Jesus isn’t saying in this teaching is that adultery is the only reason for divorce, because he’s not discussing Exodus 21.  This is a whole other teaching and a whole other debate that the Scriptures don’t talk about them having much in the New Testament.

Here’s the question—If you’re going, Paulson, I’m not sure I agree with you, because it says clearly, I do not permit divorce EXCEPT for adultery.  Okay.  I hear you, but my encouragement to you would be to flip over to 1 Corinthians 7 and read it.  The Apostle Paul says . . . oh, and abandonment.  Did God change his mind between Matthew 5 and 1 Corinthians 7?  No, he didn’t.  Did Jesus get it wrong?  No.  Did Paul get it wrong?  No, I don’t think he did.  I think they’re talking about two different instances and two different cases.

We need to read the Scriptures intelligently Tweet This

and ask how do these things fit together?  Neither Paul nor Jesus intends to give a complete list of where divorce is acceptable.  They don’t.  If we want to figure out why divorce takes place, we need to figure out, first, what the covenant of marriage is about, then we can figure out why divorce is even an “option” when God designed it to be one man, one woman for one life.  That’s what we need to figure out.  I think Scot McKnight, in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, says it well:  “If covenant love is commitment to be ‘with someone and for someone as someone who is working unto divine ends,’ then marriages are destroyed when one partner refuses to be ‘with’ the spouse or who becomes someone who is ‘against’ that spouse.  When a man obviously fails to be the husband that covenant love demands, or when a wife obviously fails to be the wife that covenant love demands, grounds for divorce may be present because the covenant is being destroyed.”

Bad Teaching

So, you may have heard, what I would humbly submit to you, some potentially bad teaching on this.  So much so that you have women who are being physically abused stay in a marriage because they want to be true to the Scriptures.  You have well-intentioned, typically, men that would counsel them, “Stay in it, stay in it.  Jesus only says divorce is an option when adultery’s the case.”  I just want to humbly submit to you that I don’t think that that’s what the Bible actually teaches.

When Jesus says, “You force her to commit adultery,” what he’s saying is . . . you go back, and you read it, but I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife . . . This “Any Cause” (Hillel), any reason . . . she burned the toast, divorce and sort of tosses her to the curb . . . anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her a victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery . . . he’s going, listen, the marriage isn’t really void if you just tossed her aside without any violation of the marriage vow.  You read all throughout the Scriptures that the only one who’s capable of breaking the marriage vow is the one who is wronged, the victim.  Which opens up a whole other line of questions, which is probably for a different sermon.

What Jesus is NOT Saying

So what Jesus is NOT saying, number one, is that adultery is the only case or reason for divorce ever.  And he’s NOT saying that anyone who remarries commits adultery.  He’s saying that if someone’s tossed aside and that man decides to go get another wife and potentially do another “Any Cause” divorce, he’s going THAT person is committing adultery because they never really were divorced.  Does that make sense?  I hope it does.  If it doesn’t, let me recommend some reading for you.  I found this book to be THE book I wish I was given in seminary about this issue.  It’s called “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church” by David Instone-Brewer and it’s wonderful.  It’s brilliant!  It’s gracious!  And it actually explains the issues.

What is Jesus saying?  Jesus IS saying that giving your wife a certificate for divorce is a pretty low bar.  That’s what he’s saying.  He’s going let’s talk about this.  Is that really our standard?  That we could just toss a woman to the side and as long as we give her a certificate of divorce because she burned the toast we’re okay in God’s eyes?  He says no, that’s not the case.  In the Sermon on the Mount, the bar is being raised and raised and raised so that we’re forced to go deeper and deeper into our souls and wrestle with what’s on the inside. Jesus wants to address what’s on the inside, and what’s on the inside is that we typically want to get our way.  And what’s on the inside is that we want it our way right now!  Jesus goes that’s not the way that marriage works. 

What Jesus IS Teaching

What is Jesus teaching?  That he did design marriage to last a lifetime—one man, one woman, for life.  But the reality is that doesn’t always happen.  From the get-go, it didn’t always happen.  So in Matthew 19:7-10, which I would say is a companion passage to Matthew 5, Jesus says:  “Why then,” they (disciples) asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”   {The context (in verse 3) is Jesus, are you for “Any Cause” divorce?  Go read it, it’s right there.  It would help if it were capitalized in our Bibles.  It’s a discussion that they’re having.  Here’s Jesus reply.}  Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.   {There’s two ways a heart could be hard.  One, it could be hard in the person who is violating the covenant.  Maybe they’re sleeping around.  Maybe they’re neglecting.  Maybe they’ve abandoned, and they refuse to repent and they refuse to come home.  That could be one way.  Another way a heart can be hardened is by a spouse that’s been wronged and can forgive but can’t come to the place of reconciliation.  They just can’t get there.  The perpetration has been too long, it’s been too painful, and it’s too much.  Jesus says that’s why we have the “provision” of divorce.} But it was not this way from the beginning.    In verse 10, the disciples said to him, “Oh my goodness, if we can’t have “Any Cause” divorce . . . this situation between husband and wife, it’s better not to marry at all.   They’re going that standard is really, really high, Jesus.  If we can only divorce our wives if they violate the covenant, we shouldn’t even marry at all.  It gives you an insight into the context that Jesus is speaking into.

Pastor Ryan Concludes

Pastor Ryan concludes this section by saying: I just want you to know that I get it.  There’s a ton of pain in the room around this issue.  There’s pain on the side of people who’ve been walked out on, and you went I wanted to fight for that and I didn’t get that option.  I want you to know, Jesus sees you, Jesus hears you, he has compassion for you.  Then there’s people that have made decisions. . . . .maybe some of them you regret or maybe some of them you don’t, but you’ve made decisions that have led to divorce and there’s pain around that too.  I want you to know, go read through the discussion where Jesus meets a woman at the well, who is in her fifth marriage, and see the grace that he gives her.  See the grace he gives the woman in John 8 who’s caught in the act adultery.  He just showers his love down on us.  Grace always meets us exactly where we’re at and moves us forward.  So wherever you’re at this morning, know that God, in his grace, wants to meet you and he wants to move you forward.

My Take-Aways

  1. We need to read the scriptures intelligently, not just literally.
  2. Jesus was not saying the only cause for a biblical divorce was adultery, and Paul was not saying the only cause is abandonment by an unbeliever. 
  3. Divorce can be biblical when a spouse chooses not to fulfill the marriage covenant. This can include abuse, neglect, or a hard heart.
  4. Jesus’ teaching on the subject of divorce was meant to free spouses (specifically women) from being bound to a covenant-breaking spouse.  
  5. God is grace-filled. His purpose is to allow us to live in freedom.

Question: If you have divorced (or are considering divorcing) an abusive spouse, does this sermon give you hope?

I pray you will be able to receive these words of hope and grace. Bless you,



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