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 subject of divorce is often a "touchy" subject in the church. Why? Because there are many in church today who have been divorced, and some have re-married. I have heard it said, "the divorce rate in the church is the same as outside the church". Recent stats say the church's divorce rate has gone down compared outside of the church, but the rate still is sizeable (the data I researched said roughly 1 in 3 divorce rate among Christian marriages)
So while we clearly need a strong and clear biblical message on divorce, we need to be sensitive to those who have gone through a divorce. Some people who have been recently divorced, don't want to go to church because of the shame of being divorced. And, of course, we usually don't even know what happened to cause the divorce.
So what does Jesus teach us in the Sermon on the Mount in regard to divorce? As we have seen the last couple days, Jesus is taking an Old Testament law and reinterpreting it for the disciples. He spells out the difference between the letter of the Law, and the spirit of the Law. Often times we take the law, and use a very literal approach so we only have to obey the minimum, literal requirement. In this case, in the Old Testament, in some Jewish circles, a man could divorce his wife on many grounds. And the more hard-hearted the men got, they starting liberally interpreting the range and scope of why they could divorce.
For instance. there are examples of men asking for a divorce for "spoiling a dish", "burning a meal" or "careless seasoning". On the other hand, some rabbis sought to use the Law to protect the women and children. This is where the man had to write a "certificate of divorce" and prove in court why he was dismissing his wife. You can see practice differed widely in the various rabbinical schools of interpretation. It is good for us to have an understanding of the Jewish practice, as we know Matthew is written to a Jewish audience, where the disciples would know about these standing practices in their day.
So why is the historical background so important? We see Jesus restricting the grounds for divorce. He limits the rationale for getting a divorce to only sexual immorality. This is not at all suggesting that Jesus is in any way in favor of divorce. We know that he reiterates this line of thinking later in Matthew 19, when the Pharisees ask him about divorce trying to trick him. If he says "divorce is permitted" it will contradict the teaching, "what God has joined together let man not separate". if he says "it is not permitted", they will point to the teaching in the Mosaic Law about Moses' exceptions.
So what do we make of all this?
1. The clear teaching of scripture is that marriage is a life long commitment between a man and woman blessed and ordained by God. Since God established marriage in joining a husband and wife together in a sacred bond, divorce is not God's will. The legal sense of marriage is an issue of the state, not the church.
2. The only exception the bible makes for divorce is infidelity. While the Matthew's version seems to only give that right to the man, Mark mentions a "woman divorcing his husband", so it seems as though it is equally applicable. Here is the verse from Mark 10:11-12, "He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
3. In terms of remarrying, Matthew 19:9 seems to suggest that the only stipulation against re-marriage is if the person re-marrying had committed the adultery. This makes sense from the standpoint that if God doesn't recognize divorce, except for unfaithfulness, the person who divorces for another reason is still married in God's eyes. That is why for them to have sexual relations with another is to commit adultery.
Okay, that can seem very confusing, and we know whybthis is such a complicated issue in our day as well. We can end by saying that although God's desire is for lifelong marriage, even in Jesus' day he had to deal with marriages breaking down for one reason or another. Therefore, for us to make any assumptions about anyone in our church and why they have been divorced is clearly not our place, nor our business. We don't know the details behind anyone's situation, and to talk about it is a sin. It's called "gossip" We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. We all need to rely on God's grace in Jesus, no matter what we have gone through. For those who are married, we see how important it is to protect our marriages and keep them a priority. Finally, although marriage is between a man and woman, the third person involved is Jesus. If Jesus is in the center of our lives, we can forgive, truly love unconditionally and put our spouses first. When there has been infidelity, Jesus can restore a marriage so that divorce is not the only option. Jesus can bring healing, forgiveness and restoration. This is why the greatest recipe for a great marriage is to have Jesus in the center!