Jesus, Paul and Grounds for Divorce

At the Ecclesia church planter’s gathering last week Bill Webb presented on the redemptive movement hermeneutic and then I “illustrated” Bill’s approach by looking at the divorce texts in the NT to discern how redemptive moves take place with respect to the realities of this world (with marriage, divorce, and remarriage). My focus was on the grounds for divorce and how they expand in the NT, but within that (and in my commentary Sermon on the Mount) I emphasize the permanence of marriage and the new creation power to stay married — and not just “stay” married but to love one another well. (Our definition of marriage is rooted in our definition of love, and until we get love right, we’ll not get marriage right. But that’s for another day.)

Anyway, notice the following:

First, the central Old Testament texts that were authoritative and at work in all thought about marriage and divorce and remarriage are from Deut 24:1-4 (ervat devar); Exod 21:10-11 (food clothing shelter for one’s wife). These are the texts themselves:

Deut. 24:1   Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife.  3 Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies);  4 her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession.

Ex. 21:10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.  11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

Second, in Judaism a permissible divorce entails permissible remarriage. So to grant a divorce in Jesus’ and Paul’s days was to grant remarriage.

Third, notice how the NT texts both express a contextual particularity and shift in emphasis.

The earliest text is from Q, Luke 16:18, where we see a command to males to stay married and no remarriage and this appears to be in and for a Jewish context in which grounds for divorce were permissive and Jesus aimed at that permissiveness with a strict reminder and affirmation of the inviolability of the marital covenant. He targets Jewish males in this teaching.

Luke 16:18   Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

In a different context, now Roman where women had even more rights, Mark expands Q (Luke 16:18) to say this applies both to males and to females:

Mark 10:11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;  12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Matthew’s text however seems to soften (or counter?) the strictness of Q and Mark by saying “But Jesus was not thereby disagreeing so much with Moses but instead countering the widespread permissiveness in Jewish society.” So, Matthew, in both of his texts adds the exception clause: divorce is permitted when sexual immorality has occurred.

Matt. 5:31   “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matt. 19:9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

Paul’s an apostle to the Gentiles in the Roman empire and a new situation arises: believers discover their spouses don’t want to remain married to followers of Jesus; some wonder if they ought to divorce non-Christian spouses. And what about remarriage? Paul both affirms Jesus’ strong words on the inviolability of marriage and yet, at the very same time, discerns (I, not the Lord!) that a new exception must be added:

10  I’m passing on the Lord’s command to those who are married: A wife shouldn’t leave her husband,  11  but if she does leave him, then she should stay single or be reconciled to her husband. And a man shouldn’t divorce his wife.

1Cor. 7:12  I’m telling everyone else (the Lord didn’t say this specifically): If a believer has a wife who doesn’t believe, and she agrees to live with him, then he shouldn’t divorce her.  13  If a woman has a husband who doesn’t believe and he agrees to live with her, then she shouldn’t divorce him.  14  The husband who doesn’t believe belongs to God because of his wife, and the wife who doesn’t believe belongs to God because of her husband. Otherwise, your children would be contaminated by the world, but now they are spiritually set apart.  15  But if a spouse who doesn’t believe chooses to leave, then let them leave. The brother or sister isn’t tied down in these circumstances. God has called you to peace.  16  How do you know as a wife if you will save your husband? Or how do you know as a husband if you will save your wife?

Does this shut down the need to discern? Should we discern about abusive situations (or just work hard to squeeze it into these two “exceptions”)?

1. Paul knows what Jesus said and what he now has to discern

2. Paul’s discernment is rooted in but expands toward the final kingdom of God in his teachings.

3. What is there that teaches us that we are not to discern in a similar manner?

4. Discernment needs to occur in light of Scripture, the church’s tradition, one’s local church discernment, reason and experience.

5. We should respect the discernments of local churches in specific instances.

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