One last, very important point. “Divorces” in Mat 5:32 translates a word meaning to release, let go, or dismiss. The word was routinely used of ending a marriage, and so we translate “divorce,” but that’s not quite right. There’s a huge cultural divide we have yet to navigate.
You see, in American law, a husband cannot divorce his wife except with the consent of state government. A court proceeding is required.
In contemporary practice, the court really can’t say no. No-fault divorce laws mean that anyone asking for a divorce is going to get one, but only if they file a petition in court and let the court resolve property rights and custody of the children. To an American, “divorce” is a privilege granted by the government.
Back in the 1960’s and earlier, many states would not grant a divorce except for adultery or cruelty. Laws varied, and some couples who had grown to despise each other could not end their marriages. The result was a “quickie divorce” industry where couples traveled to other states to obtain a divorce from a more lenient legal system.
But in First Century Judaism, the husband “divorced” his wife by declaring the marriage ended. Period. He was required to give her a certificate of divorce (a get) to allow her to remarry, but the get followed the divorce. If a husband refused to issue a get, a rabbi would order him to do so, but the rabbi had only the power of family and societal pressure. He had no authority to force the issuance of a get, and sometimes a vengeful husband refused.
As explained in the Jewish Virtual Library,
One of the most agonizing, and pressing, issues facing the Jewish community arises when a husband refuses to grant his divorced wife a get, thus preventing her from marrying again in the future. Such women, called agunot (literally, “chained wife”), have little recourse in the matter since the issuance of a get lies solely in the responsibility of the husband. The problem of agunot has a long and painful history in Judaism and it remains even more problematic today, especially outside of Israel, since the Jewish establishment has relatively little power in terms of domestic law.
In Israel, however, steps have been taken to ensure that the problem of agunot is mitigated. In 2012, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, ruled that a husband has 45 days maximum to provide his wife with a get once a rabbinical court has ruled that one is needed. If the husband refuses to do so within that time frame, the court must hold a hearing to arbit whether to impose punitive sanctions, which can include preventing the husband from traveling abroad, confiscating his driver’s license, and even incarceration.
Imagine! It took 2,000 years for the Jewish government to adopt a law requiring a husband to issue a get!
And so, when did a marriage end? Not when the government issued a divorce decree. There was no such thing. No, the marriage ended when the husband ended it, when he dismissed his wife.
Now, the rabbis also taught that if the husband failed to provide the wife with the necessities of life, food, clothing, and marital rights (Exo 22:20-21), then she had the right to insist on a get. And most husbands complied with the rabbinic requirement.
In short, the marriage ended when one spouse so violated the marriage covenant that the marriage was ended. This might have happened due to fornication or due to denial of marital rights. But once the covenant was violated, the spouses would either reconcile or else be divorced.
American churches tend to focus on who is the “guilty party” and define this based on who seeks the divorce in the court system. In reality, the “guilty party” is the one who violates the marriage covenant so as to end the marriage. If the husband abandons his wife, leaving the house and disappearing, he has violated Exo 22:7-11, violated the marriage covenant, and loosed his wife, even if she is the one who files the divorce petition. She is not the one who broke the marriage and she is not the guilty party.
In addition, I can’t speak harshly enough of the theory, all too common, that there never is an innocent party. This position, taken by countless Church of Christ preachers, denies reality, is often cruel toward one of the spouses, and is not justified by scripture. And as a practicing attorney for nearly 40 years, it’s just not true.
The only reason to take such an uninformed, absurd position is to avoid the theological problem of how to deal with the innocent spouse in light of the false theory that God does not recognize a marriage as ended, even when the couple is divorced, remarried, and one spouse is in prison for repeatedly, brutally beating his wife. Sometimes we love our legalism far more than we love abused spouses — sometimes even forcing women to go back into physically dangerous situations just to satisfy an un-studied, tradition-bound theory that has proven cruel — and often dangerous — to both women and men.
It’s high time we left Medieval Scholasticism behind and came up with a better approach, truer to the scriptures and to the heart of God.
To wrap up —
* God hates divorce. Really.
(Mal 2:16 NASB) “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”
For very good reason. Divorce is a sin. Always.
* But “divorce” in the scriptures is not brought about by filing papers in court. Rather, “divorce” in the scriptures translates “putting away,” “sending away,” or “loosing,” that is, breaking the marriage covenant in a way that undoes the core promises of marriage.
* Divorce is not to be used as a means of sanctifying sin against a spouse. A spouse may not lust after a man or woman other than his or her spouse. Divorcing in order to marry another is adultery. In fact, desiring someone other than your spouse is adultery long before the divorce and long before having sexual relations with other person.
* Putting away a spouse without cause is a sin against him or her and a sin against whomever marries the put-away spouse because the divorce taints both. This was certainly true in the culture in which Jesus lived, and it’s also true in much of the U.S. today, especially in more conservative Churches of Christ where both spouses are routinely tainted as “guilty parties” regardless of the facts.
* The solution to our failing marriages and unacceptably high divorce rate is not stricter interpretations of the scriptures or tougher state laws. Laws do not solve spiritual problems, and we really need to get that into our heads.
The solution is Jesus — not as a slogan or as a teacher of morality or giver of law. Rather, it’s the cross. If we would learn to emulate Jesus on the cross, we’d all be far better spouses and parents, and we’d have far stronger marriages.
The idea is simply this. We must teach as one of the central goals of Christianity living as Jesus lived: committed to service, submission, sacrifice, and even suffering. This is what it means to pick up our cross daily and follow Jesus. This answers the question: “What Would Jesus Do?” And this is NOT what we preach from our pulpits or teach in our Bible classes. But if it was, we’d have a far easier time in our marriages and as parents. (And our oldest members would be our least selfish.)
(Eph 5:1-2 NIV) Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
(1Jo 3:16 ESV) 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
(Phi 2:4-8 ESV) 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
This is one of central themes of the NT, and we miss it because we’ve been looking for laws and rules and commands, when we should have been looking at Jesus so we could imitate him.