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As I pastor one of the questions I occasionally get asked is “What does God think about divorce?” The Bible most certainly has plenty to say about marriage and divorce. The institution of marriage is introduced in the creation narrative at the very beginning. We are given a picture of God’s original intent. By the time we get to the books of the Law we read some specific instructions regarding marriage and divorce. Maybe surprising for some, the Old Testament Law actually allows for divorce under certain circumstances. However, throughout scripture it is clear that divorce should never be thought of as an ideal but rather as an exception. In one of the books of the Prophets we read that God “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). It is very apparent that although divorce was permitted it is not at all what God desires. In the first three Gospels Jesus teaches on divorce and marriage. He says, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9, ESV). This was in response to a Pharisee trying to “test” him by asking “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” A plain reading of this text, as well as the other Gospel accounts of the same teaching (Mark 10 and Luke 16), will inevitably lead us to the conclusion that the only time God allows divorce is when either partner commits adultery. This is also In keeping with the Old Testament exceptions that we find in the Law. The Apostle Paul reiterates this and adds one other exception that if your spouse is the one who leaves you then you are free to remarry (1 Corinthians 7).

One thing I find fascinating is that marriage and divorce is not at all confined to the Christian faith or to our scripture. Marriage is nearly a universal social institution that in one form or another exists with few exceptions in most cultures. It is easy enough to make a compelling case from the perspective of the Bible of what to do or not to do, but in recent years I have been drawn more to not merely what the Bible says but rather why it says what it says. As mentioned above, the Bible says plenty regarding marriage and divorce, and for many it is enough to just accept it because God said it. God is the ultimate authority and whatever he says we just accept. For good or bad (and maybe some of both) this line of thinking is no longer prevalent and is not an effective way of communicating God’s principles, at least in our North American context. Personally I still place a high authority on scripture, but for me it has more to do with the reality that I believe God’s principles work. For this reason, when I read exhortations in scripture, or specific behavioral condemnations or warnings I find myself asking the deeper question of why. When examine more closely the scriptures that talk about marriage and divorce and as we begin to unpack them we see that there are underlying principles that frankly not only pertain to a Judaeo-Christian ethic but can in fact be applied in a universal sense. Why? Because they are true. 

Jesus called out the Pharisees by telling them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15, ESV). All too often I have seen scripture treated in the way the Pharisees thought of it. Verses in the Bible have been used as a way to justify ones actions or fortify a certain cultural ethic or ideology. During the time of Jesus, Roman culture allowed a certificate of divorce for any reason (much like today in most western cultures). Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees that yes, God allows divorce under certain circumstances because of their “hardened hearts,” but that was never his hope for marriage. My personal conviction has become that divorce is not God’s hope for marriage, not merely because it is contrary to divine law, but because it results in a lot of pain and brokenness. I have divorced friends who told me, “I know God hates divorce, but do you know who else hates divorce? Those who get divorced.” Even with the worst relationships where divorce was the best case scenario, it still leaves in its wake pain and brokenness. It is for this reason I believe Jesus wanted to accentuate the reality that nobody should seek after divorce and if at all avoidable to absolutely avoid it. 

However, there are plenty of instances and exceptions when divorce is not avoidable. And as I unpack the principles underneath God’s words on marriage and divorce I see a God who deeply cares about each individual and wants to protect them. When we focus on the letter of the law we often fail to see God’s heart in the midst of the law. The story of the Bible is one of reconciliation. It is a story about a God who reconciles a people back to him. By its nature divorce is a separation rather than a reconciliation and so of course this goes against God’s bigger story. However, it has become increasingly apparent to me that the Kingdom of God is not one of laws. In fact Jesus warns the scribes and Pharisees by saying “Woe to you hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people” (Matthew 23:13). When we focus on the letter of the law rather than the heart behind it we often are preventing people from being able to live in the true Kingdom of God. We absolutely should take heed and listen closely to what God says through the scripture regarding divorce and marriage. Not because we will be damned to an eternal hell if we do not obey, but instead because we trust that as our creator, God knows best. And in knowing us, he also understands us. God’s laws regarding marriage and divorce are rooted in protection. There are plenty of instances when divorce, even if adultery has not happened, is the path of greatest protection. I think God understands this and I believe his grace is sufficient during these times. Of course it should be thought of as an exception and should be always be a last resort, but I believe in some instances peace can still be found in divorce and remarriage. As long as our heart is set on pleasing God and not bent toward wickedness I believe he honors that and will guide us toward deeper truth.