Growing up, I was similarly taught as Suzanne Burden points out: “No one should divorce, ever, unless their spouse cheats on them; then they can get divorced and remarried.”
The problem, of course, is that this sort of teaching leads to Christian women enduring violence – being “Battered into Submission.” Many pastors have gone to the extreme of teaching that an abused spouse need only to “work stuff out” and ought to do a better job of “submitting.” This is a demonic doctrine, one that has little to no rooting in the teachings of Jesus.
Suzanne recently explored the statements Jesus makes in the Gospels. Here are some of her reflections from her first post, titled, When Jesus Exaggerates About Divorce, part 1:
From what Jesus says about divorce in Matthew 19 one could draw any number of theological conclusions… He answered their question on divorce and remarriage in a first century Jewish context, commenting on a law already on the books in the Torah. He didn’t nullify the Torah, but rather commented on the passage the Pharisees had already been arguing about. This is a distinction that appears to rarely be made when reading the Bible on divorce, but if you want to know what Jesus meant, you have to take the whole of Scripture into account, and you have to accept his words for what they meant when and where he said them.
Let me be blunt: I believe to do anything less is a failure to take the words of Jesus seriously.
God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it for me! can only be true if God really said what you think he said.
Here is the passage in question: Matthew 19:3-8
- Pharisees’ question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
- Jesus replies: Reminder of “one flesh” marriage; “what God has joined together let no man separate”
- Pharisees shoot back: “Why then did Moses command that a man give a wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
- Jesus replies: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Favorite evangelical conclusion: No one should divorce, ever, unless their spouse cheats on them; then they can get divorced and remarried. (And yes, there are many variations on this view.)
This is an attempt to take Scripture seriously and I applaud the intention here. Jesus was most certainly slapping the Pharisees upside the head regarding the casual nature with which a group of them viewed divorce. But Jesus wasn’t making a hyper-literal statement: he was making a point.
In here second post in this series, When Jesus Exaggerates About Divorce, part 2, she goes deeper:
As a chaplain, an interim pastor, and a theology student, I watched with astonishment as the number of my friends who had endured or were enduring abusive “Christian marriages” began to rise….
And as I begin to study the Bible more deeply—and to read about the 1st century Jewish Greco-Roman context into which Jesus and Paul spoke, I began to see things differently. I have begun to grasp two things: 1) the Bible doesn’t give a “no-fault” divorce as an option—you can divorce and remarry only if a spouse breaks their vows; 2) the OT laws on divorce always protect the victim.
The picture painted of a God of justice who fights for the oppressed throughout the Old and New Testaments does not need to be checked at the door when an evangelical considers cause for divorce and remarriage. In fact, I’ve become convinced that it must not be.
Here are two reasons why:
- Jesus was employing exaggeration/overstatement in Matthew 19. In Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament, Robert H. Stein asserts that “a statement which is interpreted by another Evangelist in a nonliteral way may contain exaggeration.” What does this have to do with Matthew 19? It appears it is quite likely that Matthew was expressing the meaning of Jesus’ exaggerated statement to the pharisees in a way that was least likely to be misunderstood. Why? Because when this statement of Jesus is quoted in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18, there is NO exception. Not even adultery “appeared” to be grounds for divorce. It is as if Jesus is replying to the pharisees (who were seeking divorce for “any cause”) that he is not so concerned with exceptions as he is “zealous for the perfect purpose of God.” Jesus is not setting down a new legal dictum for the religious Jews to follow, but an overstatement that exposes their hardness of heart. 
- First century Jews would not have understood Jesus as abolishing the Old Testament laws on divorce, but as commenting on them. During the time of Jesus, a divorce debate raged: did Deuteronomy 24:1-4 say a man could divorce his wife for indecency/sexual unfaithfulness or for “any cause?”Those Pharisees who followed the teaching of the Rabbi Hillel “understood the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, even burning his toast.” Clearly, Hillelites were smoking something! Talk about a creative translation. [Ahem.] Those following the school of thought of Rabbi Shammai believed that a man could divorce his wife for the cause of unfaithfulness. 
I think that Suzanne is pointing out some important theological conclusions on divorce. I encourage you to read her third post on this subject as well where she discussed practical and theological reflections on how the church can do better on the issue of abuse and divorce.