This is a treatise on my personal journey to understanding Christian scriptures on divorce. It is not designed as a doctrinal position but is a quest to comprehend my Father’s heart on the subject. I encourage you to conduct independent studies and come to your own conclusions. It is also important to read the cited scriptures contextually. Due to space constraints, I quote specific verses but in order to gain a holistic view, you will need to read entire Bible chapters or even books.
There are two dispensations in scripture that I will like to highlight – the dispensations of Law and Grace. Paul writes about the two dispensations in detail in the Book of Galatians. You must read all 6 chapters in detail, very slowly.
In order to deeply understand Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, you need to recognise that he often talked about the two dispensations in the same sermon. As his earthly ministry was primarily to the Jews, he spoke to them on matters of the Law a lot of times. Even though he referenced and practiced Grace many times, it was hard for the Jews to understand it. It wasn’t until after Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection that the dispensation of Grace fully came into effect at which point love & faith were said to fulfil every edict of the Law.
Let me help you understand.
The Law is hinged on reciprocity, good works and intermediaries. Basically, it revolves around a system of dos and don’ts and its primary purpose is to show that man in incapable of pleasing God through works. So it is essentially a project rigged for failure.
Galatians 3.19 AMP explores the purpose of the Law and the role of intermediaries:
“What then was the purpose of the Law? It was added [later on, after the promise, to disclose and expose to men their guilt] because of transgressions and [to make men more conscious of the sinfulness] of sin; and it was intended to be in effect until the Seed (the Descendant, the Heir) should come, to and concerning Whom the promise had been made. And it [the Law] was arranged and ordained and appointed through the instrumentality of angels [and was given] by the hand (in the person) of a go-between [Moses, an intermediary person between God and man]”.
On the reciprocal nature of the Law, Jesus gives examples in the Book of Matthew Chapter 7. 1-2:
“So then, whatever you desire that others would do to and for you, even so do also to and for them, for this is (sums up) the Law and the Prophets”.
“DO NOT judge and criticize and condemn others, so that you may not be judged and criticized and condemned yourselves. For just as you judge and criticize and condemn others, you will be judged and criticized and condemned, and in accordance with the measure you [use to] deal out to others, it will be dealt out again to you”.
While the Law focuses on reciprocality, Grace is predicated on another paying the price for your sins, taking the punishment on your behalf, giving you direct access to God (and his resources) and helping you forge a relationship with him. The underlying principle is love and the modus operandi is faith.
This is Paul’s submission on the matter in Galatians 5. 5-6 AMP:
“For we, [not relying on the Law but] through the [Holy] Spirit’s [help], by faith anticipate and wait for the blessing and good for which our righteousness and right standing with God [our conformity to His will in purpose, thought, and action, causes us] to hope.
For [if we are] in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith activated and energized and expressed and working through love”.
Now I will adduce illustrations of how the Law and Grace work. I will demonstrate instances where Jesus spoke of and operated both dispensations in the Gospels and now expects us to make clear distinctions between them in our daily living as Christians.
In Matthew Chapter 7. 6, a principle of the Law states:
“Do not give that which is holy (the sacred thing) to the dogs, and do not throw your pearls before hogs, lest they trample upon them with their feet and turn and tear you in pieces”.
However, in the same Book, Jesus introduces the concept of loving Fatherhood and the kind of relationship God wants to have with us.
In Chapter 15, we are taught that through Faith (and as a demonstration of God’s Love), the “Law” can be superseded by Grace. Chapter 15 (from verse 22) brings to us the story of a Samaritan woman seeking healing for her sick child:
“And behold, a woman who was a Canaanite from that district came out and, with a [loud, troublesomely urgent] cry, begged, Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is miserably and distressingly and cruelly possessed by a demon!
But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, Send her away, for she is crying out after us.
He answered, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
But she came and, kneeling, worshiped Him and kept praying, Lord, help me!
And He answered, It is not right (proper, becoming, or fair) to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.
She said, Yes, Lord, yet even the little pups (little whelps) eat the crumbs that fall from their young masters’ table.
Then Jesus answered her, O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you wish. And her daughter was cured from that moment”.
Was Jesus confused? Didn’t he just break the Law? No, he’s bringing the Law and Grace side-by-side so we can see how one supersedes the other and so we can understand the type of relationship his Father wants to have with us.
Now to the subject of divorce.
In Matthew Chapter 5 where Jesus addresses divorce, he states a principle in the preceding verses.
I quote from verse 17:
“Do not think that I have come to do away with or undo the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to do away with or undo but to complete and fulfil them.
For truly I tell you, until the sky and earth pass away and perish, not one smallest letter nor one little hook [identifying certain Hebrew letters] will pass from the Law until all things [it foreshadows] are accomplished”.
Paul would later explain in Romans 10:4 AMP that this “fulfilment of the law” has taken place in Jesus:
“For Christ is the end of the Law [the limit at which it ceases to be, for the Law leads up to Him Who is the fulfilment of its types, and in Him the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled. That is, the purpose of the Law is fulfilled in Him] as the means of righteousness (right relationship to God) for everyone who trusts in and adheres to and relies on Him”.
In Matthew 22 from verse 36, Jesus shifts the focus of the Law from mere reciprocity (and dos & don’ts) to love:
“Teacher, which kind of commandment is great and important (the principal kind) in the Law? [Some commandments are light—which are heavy?]
And He replied to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (intellect).
This is the great (most important, principal) and first commandment.
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as you do yourself.
These two commandments sum up and upon them depend all the Law and the Prophets”.
Jesus then takes things a step further.
In Chapter 12 of Matthew from verse 1, he introduces two principles – that he is sovereign over the Law and that mercy trumps the Law:
“AT THAT particular time Jesus went through the fields of standing grain on the Sabbath; and His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick off the spikes of grain and to eat.
And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, See there! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful and not permitted on the Sabbath.
He said to them, Have you not even read what David did when he was hungry, and those who accompanied him –
How he went into the house of God and ate the loaves of the showbread – which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for the men who accompanied him, but for the priests only?
Or have you never read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple violate the sanctity of the Sabbath breaking it and yet are guiltless?
But I tell you, Something greater and more exalted and more majestic than the temple is here!
And if you had only known what this saying means, I desire mercy readiness to help, to spare, to forgive rather than sacrifice and sacrificial victims, you would not have condemned the guiltless.
For the Son of Man is Lord [even] of the Sabbath”.
(He displays another example of mercy trumping the Law in verses 10 – 13:
“And behold, a man was there with one withered hand. And they said to Him, Is it lawful or allowable to cure people on the Sabbath days?—that they might accuse Him.
But He said to them, What man is there among you, if he has only one sheep and it falls into a pit or ditch on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?
How much better and of more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful and allowable to do good on the Sabbath days.
Then He said to the man, Reach out your hand. And the man reached it out and it was restored, as sound as the other one”).
Matthew 5: 20 explains that without a righteousness that exceeds that of keeping the Law, we cannot access the Kingdom of God. That is why Jesus replaced the righteousness that comes from keeping the Law with Jesus’ righteousness. As Christians, we are now the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:21: For our sake He made Christ [virtually] to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in and through Him we might become [endued with, viewed as being in, and examples of] the righteousness of God [what we ought to be, approved and acceptable and in right relationship with Him, by His goodness).
Jesus goes on to explain the standard for Law-based righteousness in verses 21 – 48 of Matthew 5, should we choose to go with the legalistic option instead of embracing Grace.
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, You shall not kill, and whoever kills shall be liable to and unable to escape the punishment imposed by the court.
But I say to you that everyone who continues to be angry with his brother or harbors malice (enmity of heart) against him shall be liable to and unable to escape the punishment imposed by the court; and whoever speaks contemptuously and insultingly to his brother shall be liable to and unable to escape the punishment imposed by the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, You cursed fool! [You empty-headed idiot!] shall be liable to and unable to escape the hell (Gehenna) of fire.
So if when you are offering your gift at the altar you there remember that your brother has any [grievance] against you,
Leave your gift at the altar and go. First make peace with your brother, and then come back and present your gift.
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way traveling with him, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.
Truly I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last fraction of a penny.
You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery.
But I say to you that everyone who so much as looks at a woman with evil desire for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye serves as a trap to ensnare you or is an occasion for you to stumble and sin, pluck it out and throw it away. It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be cast into hell (Gehenna).
And if your right hand serves as a trap to ensnare you or is an occasion for you to stumble and sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better that you lose one of your members than that your entire body should be cast into hell (Gehenna).
It has also been said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.
But I tell you, Whoever dismisses and repudiates and divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unfaithfulness (sexual immorality), causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a woman who has been divorced commits adultery.
Again, you have heard that it was said to the men of old, You shall not swear falsely, but you shall perform your oaths to the Lord [as a religious duty].
But I tell you, Do not bind yourselves by an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is the throne of God;
Or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.
And do not swear by your head, for you are not able to make a single hair white or black.
Let your Yes be simply Yes, and your No be simply No; anything more than that comes from the evil one.
You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, Do not resist the evil man [who injures you]; but if anyone strikes you on the right jaw or cheek, turn to him the other one too.
And if anyone wants to sue you and take your undershirt (tunic), let him have your coat also.
And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two [miles].
Give to him who keeps on begging from you, and do not turn away from him who would borrow [at interest] from you.
You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy;
But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
To show that you are the children of your Father Who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the wicked and on the good, and makes the rain fall upon the upright and the wrongdoers [alike].
For if you love those who love you, what reward can you have? Do not even the tax collectors do that?
And if you greet only your brethren, what more than others are you doing? Do not even the Gentiles (the heathen) do that?
You, therefore, must be perfect [growing into complete maturity of godliness in mind and character, [having reached the proper height of virtue and integrity], as your heavenly Father is perfect”.
It is important to note that divorce is listed as one item among many others. Therefore it is noteworthy that many who single out divorce in verses 31 – 32, fail to acknowledge that they contravene the other things that are mentioned by Jesus. This is mischievous. I will now list the other items listed in Matthew 5 in the form of enquiries:
Who hasn’t looked at a woman or man lustfully? Who hasn’t called people names in anger? Who has cut off his eye because he watches porn? Who has cut of his hand because he masturbates? Who swears? Who keeps malice? Who has broken a promise? Who has lied? Who doesn’t fail to give to every beggar who asks? Who goes to court and gladly allows his adversary to win? Who loves his enemies and doesn’t pray for them to die? Finally, who is PERFECT?
Remember if you break one Law, you are guilty of ALL.
God HAD to give us Jesus’ righteousness to make us acceptable to him. Therein lies the essence of Grace and God’s great love. We cannot please him through the Law. In fact, according to Galatians 3, if we choose to live by the Law, we are under a curse:
“And all who depend on the Law [who are seeking to be justified by obedience to the Law of rituals] are under a curse and doomed to disappointment and destruction, for it is written in the Scriptures, Cursed (accursed, devoted to destruction, doomed to eternal punishment) be everyone who does not continue to abide (live and remain) by all the precepts and commands written in the Book of the Law and to practice them”.
Now that I’ve laid a foundation, let me look at the history of divorce as regards the Law and the Bible’s specific references to it. I shall cite the most contentious scriptures.
Jesus and Paul explained that historically Moses (the Prophet God used to communicate the Law to the Israelites) allowed men to give their wives Certificates of Divorce. He did so because of something called their “hardness of heart”. What was this hardness of heart? Deuteronomy and Malachi hold clues.
“WHEN A man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house,
And when she departs out of his house she goes and marries another man,…”
It would seem the men were using “indecency” and “finds no favour” as catch-all excuses for divorce. To protect the women, Moses insisted on Certificates of Divorce so the women could at least remarry and get on with their lives:
By the time Malachi writes about it, God reveals his deep pain over the treatment of women. Men were swapping their wives for the “latest models”, women were being beaten and treated with violence and yet their husbands would come to “church” to give offerings pretending everything was alright.
I cite Malachi 2 from verse 13:
“And this you do with double guilt; you cover the altar of the Lord with tears [shed by your unoffending wives, divorced by you that you might take heathen wives], and with [your own] weeping and crying out because the Lord does not regard your offering any more or accept it with favour at your hand.
Yet you ask, Why does He reject it? Because the Lord was witness to the covenant made at your marriage between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously and to whom you were faithless. Yet she is your companion and the wife of your covenant made by your marriage vows.
And did not God make you and your wife one flesh? Did not One make you and preserve your spirit alive? And why did God make you two one? Because He sought a godly offspring from your union. Therefore take heed to yourselves, and let no one deal treacherously and be faithless to the wife of his youth.
For the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I hate divorce and marital separation and him who covers his garment [his wife] with violence. Therefore keep a watch upon your spirit [that it may be controlled by My Spirit], that you deal not treacherously and faithlessly [with your marriage mate]”.
No wonder God hates divorce. It was a “legal” means to perpetrate great cruelty to women.
Personally, I think there is inherent hypocrisy in a marriage marked by contempt and violence; where any party claims to shun divorce but comes to church regularly to give their “offerings” with straight faces. I believe such a marriage is a sham, regardless of what legal status the party chooses to give it. Such a person needs to seriously study Malachi 2.
I believe marriage is a deep mystery signifying the union of Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5:31-32 says “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is very great, but I speak concerning [the relation of] Christ and the church”).
Therefore, God hates it when people treat marriage or any party in the union with contempt or look for self-serving reasons to dissolve the institution. There are some things that are particularly abhorrent to God and when he sees those things in marriage, they break his heart.
Proverbs 6. 16-19 cites them:
“These six things the Lord hates, indeed, seven are an abomination to Him:
A proud look [the spirit that makes one overestimate himself and underestimate others], a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,
A heart that manufactures wicked thoughts and plans, feet that are swift in running to evil,
A false witness who breathes out lies [even under oath], and he who sows discord among his brethren”.
These things will lead to divorce or a sham marriage. It’s just a matter of time.
Now, within the context of Matthew 5, Jesus is telling the Pharisees that if they want to truly practice the Law as it was originally intended and honour marriage based on its original design then they cannot divorce because they want to change their wives for the latest models.
(According to the Law, it is the man who gives the wife a Certificate of Divorcement and not the other way round so there was little legal recourse for the women, hence God’s rant in Malachi).
However, the foundation I laid much earlier properly situates this statement on Divorce within the context of the Law.
Pay attention to something very important – in the full text, Jesus would cite a Law, then harden it even further. So, for example, according to Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, not only could they not divorce except in cases of marital unfaithfulness, he deepened the very definition of adultery (a type of marital unfaithfulness) later on to include looking at someone lecherously! Herein lies the conundrum of the Law. A look translates to adultery!
Some people may ask, “if we situate Jesus’ statement on Divorce within the context of the Law and if we assert that mercy trumps the Law (for example, in cases of threat to life or emotional/mental health), won’t this lead people to divorce on a whim? No! The truth is those who have made up their minds about what they want to do about their marriages will do so anyway, whether or not you cite the Law. Apostle Paul further addresses this issue in Romans Chapters 5 to 7 – grace empowers righteousness, while the Law empowers sin. It seems counterintuitive but it’s true. See Romans 5. 20-21:
“But then Law came in, [only] to expand and increase the trespass [making it more apparent and exciting opposition]. But where sin increased and abounded, grace (God’s unmerited favour) has surpassed it and increased the more and superabounded, so that, [just] as sin has reigned in death, [so] grace (His unearned and undeserved favour) might reign also through righteousness (right standing with God) which issues in eternal life through Jesus Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One) our Lord”.
Now, the final scripture I will cite that many quote on divorce is found in 1 Corinthians 7 and is credited to Apostle Paul. Context is key here.
Many scholars have noted that in the original language, the word used by Paul for divorce does not refer to a Certificate of Divorce (cited by Moses and Jesus). This is true but as that line of reasoning is open to debate, I will avoid it.
The divorce Paul spoke about wasn’t within the same context as Deuteronomy or Matthew.
During that time in Paul’s ministry, his converts in Corinth wanted to be like him. They believed Jesus was returning soon and so wanted to focus on serving God devoid of the entanglements of this world.
In his letter, Paul encouraged them to maintain status quo or proceed with relationships if they chose to. Slaves were not to leave their masters, virgins could marry, those who were married to unbelieving spouses could stay and married people were not to divorce. That is what he was speaking about. Kindly read the entire book of Corinthians for greater insight.
Finally, some wonder why the Bible isn’t simplistic, clear and devoid of seeming contradictions. My answer is found in Proverbs 25. 2:
“It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the glory of kings is to search out a thing”.
I believe a man’s desire to diligently study scripture portrays his nobility of heart. How you approach scriptures shows whether your heart is filled with love or judgment. Religion has a way of revealing the true substance of people’s hearts – their biases, prejudices, frailties and worldview. I will rather err on the side of love every time.
Thank you for reading.