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Christ’s Teaching on Divorce
“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32 KJV)
The passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount,” published as Second Edition in 1976 by Inter-Varsity Press.
WE now come to consider our Lord’s statement in verses 31 and 32 (Matthew 5:31-32) on the subject of divorce. Let me begin by pointing out that, when we come to a subject and passage like this, we see the value of a systematic study of the teaching of Scripture. How often do we hear an address on a text such as this? Is it not true to say that this is the kind of subject that preachers tend to avoid? And thereby, of course, we are guilty of sin. It is not for us to study some parts of the Word of God and to ignore others; it is not for us to shy at difficulties. These verses that we are now considering are as much the Word of God as anything else which is to be found in the Scriptures. But because of our failure to expound the Bible systematically, because of our tendency to take texts out of their context and to choose what interests and pleases us, and to ignore and forget the rest, we become guilty of an unbalanced Christian life. That in turn leads, of course, to failure in actual practice. It is a very good thing, therefore, that we should work our way through the Sermon on the Mount in this manner, and so find ourselves face to face with this statement.
For some reason or another many commentators, even though they may have set out to write a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, slide over this and do not deal with it. One can easily understand why people tend to avoid a subject like this; but that is no excuse for them. The gospel of Jesus Christ concerns every part and portion of our life, and we have no right to say that any part of our life is outside its scope. Everything that we need is here provided for us and we have clear teaching and instruction upon every aspect of our life and being. But at the same time, anyone who has ever troubled to read up this subject and the various interpretations will realize that it is a matter that is surrounded by many difficulties. . . . .
As we approach these verses, let us once more remind ourselves of their background or context. This statement is one of six statements made by our Lord in which He introduces the subject by the formula ‘Ye have heard. . . but I say unto you’. It comes in the section of the Sermon on the Mount in which our Lord is showing the relationship of His kingdom and teaching to the law of God that was given through Moses to the children of Israel. He began by saying that He has not come to destroy but to fulfil; indeed He says, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled. Then comes the following: ‘Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ He then proceeds to display His teaching in the light of this background.
Bearing all that in mind, let us also remember that in these six contrasts which our Lord draws, He is comparing not the law of Moses, as such, with His own teaching, but rather the false interpretation of this law by the Pharisees and scribes. Our Lord obviously does not say that He had come to correct the law of Moses, because it was God’s law, given by God Himself to Moses. No; our Lord’s purpose was to correct the perversion, the false interpretation of the law which was being taught to the people by the Pharisees and Scribes. He is therefore honouring the law of Moses and displaying it in its great fullness and glory. That, of course, is precisely what He does with regard to the question of divorce. He is especially concerned to expose the false teaching of the Pharisees and Scribes with regard to this important matter.
The best way to approach the subject is to consider it under three headings. First of all we must be clear in our minds as to what the law of Moses really did teach about this matter. Then we must be clear as to what the Pharisees and scribes taught. Lastly we must consider what our Lord Himself teaches.
First, then, what did the law of Moses really teach concerning this problem? The answer is to be found in Deuteronomy 24, especially verses 1—4. In Matthew 19 our Lord again refers to that teaching and in a sense gives us a perfect summary of it, but it is important that we should look at the original statements. There is often a good deal of confusion about this. The first thing to notice is that in the old Mosaic dispensation the word adultery is not mentioned in the matter of divorce, for the good reason that under the law of Moses the punishment for adultery was death. Anybody under that old law who was found guilty of adultery was stoned to death, so there was no need to mention it. The marriage had come to an end; but it was not brought to an end by divorce but by punishment by death. That is a very important principle to have clearly in our minds.
What then was the object and purpose of the Mosaic legislation with regard to divorce? You see the answer at once, not only as you read Deuteronomy 24, but especially when you read our Lord’s pronouncement upon, and exposition of, that legislation. The whole object of the Mosaic legislation in this matter was simply to control divorce. The position had become entirely chaotic. This is what was happening. In those days, you remember, the men generally held a very low and poor view of women, and they had come to believe that they had a right to divorce their wives for almost any and every kind of frivolous and unworthy reason. If a man, for any reason whatsoever, was anxious to get rid of his wife, he did so. He brought forward some trumpery excuse and on the basis of that he divorced her. Of course the ultimate cause of it all was nothing but lust and passion. It is interesting to observe how, in this Sermon on the Mount, our Lord introduces this subject in immediate connection with the subject that went before it, namely, the whole question of lust. In the Authorized Version of the Bible, these two things are put together in one paragraph. That may not be right, but it does remind us of the intimate connection between the two. The Mosaic legislation, therefore, was introduced in order to regularize and control a situation that had not only become chaotic, but was grossly unfair to the women, and which, in addition, led to untold and endless suffering on the part of both the women and the children.
In the main, it laid down three great principles. The first was that it limited divorce to certain causes. It was only to be permitted henceforth when there was some natural, moral or physical defect discovered in the wife. All the various excuses which men had been using and bringing forward were now prohibited. Before he could obtain a divorce a man had to establish that there was some very special cause, described under the title of uncleanness. He not only had to prove that, he had also to establish it in the sight of two witnesses. Therefore the Mosaic legislation, far from giving a number of excuses for divorce, greatly limited it. It dismissed all the frivolous, superficial and unjust reasons, restricting it to one particular matter.
The second thing it enforced was that any man who thus divorced his wife must give her a bill of divorcement. Before the Mosaic law, a man could say he no longer wanted his wife, and could turn her out of the house; and there she was, at the mercy of the whole world. She might be charged with unfaithfulness or adultery and so be liable to being stoned to death. Therefore, in order to protect the woman, this legislation provided that she should be given a bill of divorcement in which a statement was made that she had been dismissed, not because of unfaithfulness, but because of one of these reasons which had been discovered. It was to protect her, and the bill of divorcement was handed to her in the presence of two witnesses whom she could always call in any case of need and necessity. Divorce was made something formal, something serious, the idea being to impress upon the minds of those people that it was a solemn step and not something to be undertaken lightly in a moment of passion when a man suddenly felt he disliked his wife and wanted to get rid of her. In this way the seriousness of marriage was emphasized.
Then the third step in the Mosaic legislation was a very significant one, namely, that a man who divorces his wife and gives her a bill of divorcement is not allowed to marry her again. The case was put like this. Here is a man who has divorced his wife, and given her a bill of divorcement. With that in her hand she is entitled to marry somebody else. Now the second husband may also give her a bill of divorcement. Yes, says the law of Moses, but if that does happen and she is free to get married once more, she must not marry the first husband. The whole force of that enactment is again exactly the same; it is to make these people see that marriage is not something you can walk in and out of at will. It tells the first husband that, if he gives his wife a bill of divorcement, it is a permanent enactment.
When we examine it like that, we can see at once that the old Mosaic legislation is very far indeed from being what we thought it was, and especially what the Pharisees and scribes thought it to be. Its object was to reduce to a certain amount of order a situation that had become utterly chaotic. You will find that this was the characteristic of all the details of the Mosaic legislation. Take for example the matter of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. The Mosaic legislation enacted that. Yes, but what was the object of it? It was not to tell the people that if a man knocked out another man’s eye, the victim must retaliate in the same way. No; its purpose was to say this: You are not entitled to kill a man for that offence; it is only an eye for an eye, or if a man knocks out another’s tooth, all you are entitled to is a tooth. It is restoring order in a state of chaos, limiting the consequences and legislating for a particular condition. Now the law concerning divorce was exactly the same as that.
Next we must consider the teaching of the Pharisees and Scribes because, as we have seen, it was to this especially that our Lord was referring. They said that the law of Moses commanded, indeed urged, a man to divorce his wife under certain conditions. Now, of course, it never said anything of the kind. The law of Moses never commanded anybody to divorce his wife; all it did was to say to a man: If you do want to divorce your wife you should do so only under these conditions. But the Pharisees and scribes, as our Lord makes particularly plain in Matthew 19 when He was speaking on this same subject, were teaching that Moses commanded divorce. And, of course, the next step was that they were again demanding divorce and insisting upon their right to it, for all kinds of inadequate reasons. They took that old Mosaic legislation with regard to this question of uncleanness and had their own interpretation as to what was meant by it. They actually taught that, if a man ceased to like his wife, or for any reason found her to be unsatisfactory to him, that, in a sense, was ‘uncleanness’. How typical, this is of the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes, and their method of interpreting the law! But in reality they were avoiding the law in principle as well as in letter. The result was that at the time of our Lord terrible injustices were again being done to many women who were being divorced for most unworthy and frivolous reasons. There was only one factor that really mattered to these men, and that was the legal one of giving a bill of divorcement. They were very punctilious about that, as they were careful about other legal details. They did not, however, state why they were divorcing her. That was unimportant. But what did matter supremely was that she be given a writing of divorcement! Our Lord puts it like this: ‘It hath been said’--- that is the sort of thing you have been hearing from the Pharisees and scribes. What is the important thing for ‘whosoever shall put away his wife’? ‘Let him give her a writing of divorcement.’ Well, of course, that is important, and the law of Moses had enacted it. But you see that is not the main thing, or the thing to be stressed and emphasized. But it was in the centre of the picture as far as the Pharisees and scribes were concerned and, in emphasizing this, they had been failing to see the real meaning of marriage. They had failed to consider this whole question of divorce, and the reason for it, in a true, just and righteous manner. Such was the perversion by the Pharisees and scribes of the Mosaic teaching. They were avoiding it and circumventing it with their clever interpretations and traditions which they added to the law. The result was that the ultimate object of the Mosaic legislation had really been entirely concealed and nullified.
That brings us to our third and last main heading. What does our Lord say about this? ‘But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.’ Now the statement in Matthew 19:3-9 is most important and helpful in interpreting this teaching, because it is a fuller explication of what our Lord puts here in a summarized form. The Pharisees and scribes said to Him---they were trying to trap Him---‘Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?’ They were really giving themselves away in asking such a question for they themselves were actually sanctioning this. And here is our Lord’s answer. The first principle He emphasizes is that of the sanctity of marriage. ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication.’ You notice that He goes back beyond the law of Moses to the law that was given by God at the very beginning. When God created woman to be a help mate for man He made that great pronouncement. He said, ‘They twain shall be one flesh.’ ‘What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.’ Marriage is not a civil contract, or a sacrament; marriage is something in which these two persons become one flesh. There is an indissolubility about it, and our Lord goes right back to that great principle. When God made woman for man that was His intention, that was what He indicated, and that was what He ordained. The law which God laid down was that a man should leave father and mother and be joined to his wife and that they should become one flesh. Something new and distinct has taken place, certain other ties are broken and this new one is formed. This aspect of ‘one flesh’ is all-important. You will find that it is a principle running right through Scripture whenever this subject is dealt with. It is seen in 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul says that the terrible thing about fornication is that a man becomes one flesh with a harlot---a most solemn and important teaching. Our Lord starts there. He goes back to the beginning, to God’s own original view of marriage.
‘If that is so’, asks someone, ‘how do you explain the law of Moses? If that is God’s own view of marriage why did He allow divorce to take place on the conditions which we have just considered?’ Our Lord again answered that question by saying that, because of the hardness of their hearts, God made a concession, as it were. He did not abrogate His original law with regard to marriage. No, He introduced a temporary legislation because of the conditions then prevailing. God controlled it. It was exactly the same as we have seen with regard to ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. It was a tremendous innovation at that time; but in reality it was God leading the people back in the direction of His original pronouncement. ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts’, says our Lord, ‘Moses gave you this concession.’ It was not God advocating divorce, or commanding anybody to divorce his wife; it was God just reducing the chaos to a certain amount of order, regularizing what had become utterly irregular. We must keep in the forefront of our minds in these matters God’s original object and intention with regard to this whole estate of marriage: the one flesh, the indissolubility, and the coming together in that way.
The first principle leads us to the second, which is that God has never anywhere commanded anybody to divorce. The Pharisees and scribes were suggesting that this was so with Moses’ law. Yes; he certainly commanded them to write that bill of divorcement if there was to be a divorce. But that is not the same thing as commanding them to divorce. The idea taught by God’s Word is not only that of the indissolubility of marriage, but that of the law of love and forgiveness. We must get rid of this legalistic approach which makes a man say, ‘She has spoiled my life, therefore I must divorce her.’ As unworthy and undeserving sinners we have all been forgiven by the grace of God, and that must enter into and control our view of everything that happens to us with respect to all other persons, and especially in the relationship of marriage.
The next principle is one which is of the utmost importance. There is only one legitimate cause and reason for divorce---that which is here called ‘fornication’. Now I need not emphasize the urgent relevance of all this teaching. We are living in a country in which conditions have become chaotic in this matter of divorce, and there are still further bills proposed which are designed to make divorce easier and which would aggravate the position still further. Here is our Lord’s teaching with regard to the subject. There is only one cause for divorce. There is one; but there is only one. And that is unfaithfulness by one party. This term ‘fornication’ is inclusive, and it really means unfaithfulness on the part of one party to a marriage. ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery.’ We must realize the importance of this principle. It was particularly important in the days of the early Church. If you read 1 Corinthians 7 you will find there that this matter is referred to again. In those early days the problem presented itself to many Christians in this form. Imagine a husband and wife. The husband is suddenly converted, the wife is not. Here is a man who has become a new creature in Christ Jesus, but his wife still remains a pagan. These people had been taught the doctrine about separation from the world and sin. They, therefore, immediately jumped to the conclusion which forced them to say, ‘It is impossible for me to go on living with a woman like that who is a pagan. Surely, if I am to live the Christian life, I must divorce her because she is not a Christian.’ And many a wife who had been converted and whose husband was not, was saying the same thing. But the apostle Paul taught these people that the husband was not to leave his wife because he was converted and she was not. You see, even that is not a ground for divorce. Take all this modern talk of incompatibility of temperament. Can you imagine anything more incompatible than a Christian and a non-Christian? And according to modern ideas, if ever there was cause for divorce surely there it is. But the plain teaching of Scripture is that even that is not a ground for divorce. Do not leave the unconverted one, says Paul. The wife who has been converted having an unbelieving husband sanctifies that husband. You need not worry about your children; if one party is Christian they are covered and have the privilege of Christian nurture within the life of the Church.
Now that is a most important and vital argument. It is the way of impressing upon us this great principle which is laid down by our Lord Himself. Nothing is a cause for divorce save fornication. It does not matter how difficult it may be, it does not matter what the stress or the strain, or whatever can be said about the incompatibility of temperament. Nothing is to dissolve this indissoluble bond save this one thing. But I emphasize again that this one thing does. Our Lord Himself says that this is a cause and a legitimate one for divorce. He says Moses granted certain concessions ‘because of the hardness of your hearts’. But this is now laid down as a principle, not as a concession to weakness. He Himself tells us that unfaithfulness is a cause for divorce and the reason for this is surely obvious. It is this question of the ‘one flesh’ again; and the person who is guilty of adultery has broken the bond and has become united to another. The link has gone, the one flesh no longer obtains, and therefore divorce is legitimate. Let me emphasize again, it is not a commandment. But it is a ground for divorce, and a man who finds himself in that position is entitled to divorce his wife, and the wife is entitled to divorce the husband.
The next step makes this even clearer. Our Lord says that if you divorce your wife for any other reason you cause her to commit adultery. ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery.’ The argument is this: There is only one thing that can break this bond. Therefore, if you put away your wife for any other reason you are putting her away without breaking the bond. In this way you are making her break the bond if she should marry again; and she is therefore committing adultery. So that a man who divorces his wife for any reason but for this is thereby causing her to commit adultery. He is the cause, and the man who marries her is in like manner an adulterer. Thus our Lord enforces this great principle in this positive and clear manner. There is only one cause for divorce, and no other.
What, then, is the effect of this teaching? We can summarize it in this way. Our Lord here shows Himself to us as the great Law-giver. All law comes from Him; everything appertaining to this life and world has come from Him. There was temporary legislation for the children of Israel because of their peculiar circumstances. The Mosaic penalty for adultery was death by stoning. Our Lord abrogated that temporary legislation. The next thing He has done is to make divorce for the case of adultery legitimate; He has established the law on this matter. These are two main results of His teaching. From that time onwards men and women are not stoned and put to death for adultery. If you want to do anything you are entitled to a divorce. Out of that we may legitimately draw one very important and serious deduction. We can say not only that a person who thus has divorced his wife because of her adultery is entitled to do so. We can go further and say that the divorce has ended the marriage, and that this man is now free and as a free man he is entitled to re-marriage. Divorce puts an end to this connection, our Lord Himself says so. His relationship to that woman is the same as if she were dead; and this innocent man is therefore entitled to re-marriage. Even more than this, if he is a Christian, he is entitled to Christian re-marriage. But he alone is in that position and she is not, or vice versa.
‘Have you nothing to say about the others?’ asks someone. All I would say about them is this, and I say it carefully and advisedly, and almost in fear lest I give even a semblance of a suggestion that I am saying anything that may encourage anyone to sin. But on the basis of the gospel and in the interest of truth I am compelled to say this: Even adultery is not the unforgivable sin. It is a terrible sin, but God forbid that there should be anyone who feels that he or she has sinned himself or herself outside the love of God or outside His kingdom because of adultery. No; if you truly repent and realize the enormity of your sin and cast yourself upon the boundless love and mercy and grace of God, you can be forgiven and I assure you of pardon. But hear the words of our blessed Lord: ‘Go, and sin no more.’
There, then, is our Lord’s teaching on this important subject. You see the state of the world and of society round about us today. Is it surprising that our world is as it is while men and women play fast and loose with God’s Word in this vital matter? What right have we to expect nations to stand to their bonds and keep their vows if men and women do not do it even in this most solemn and sacred union of marriage? We must start with ourselves; we must start at the beginning, we must observe the law of God in our own personal, individual lives. And then, and then only, will we be entitled to trust nations and peoples, and to expect a different type of conduct and behaviour from the world at large. (256-265)
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