Jesus, domestic abuse, and exaggerating about divorce

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:

  1. 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. [1]
  2. 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. [2]

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.

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  • I have heard a more-responsible position (I believe) that Christians may sanction divorce in the context of “three As” — Adultery, Abuse, or Addiction. I think that may have merit.

    I am grieved by the frequency of divorce in the church today… I can’t escape feeling like somehow we’ve gone off the rails…

    • Mary

      “Christians may sanction divorce in the context of “three As” — Adultery, Abuse, or Addiction”

      I would say in all three cases it has to do with breaking marriage vows. Adultery is only one way to do that. A physically faithful husband can still be guilty of breaking the vow of taking care of his wife in cases of both abuse and addiction.

      I happen to know a woman whose pastor told her to stay with her husband and it almost cost her her life. I have a happily divorced and re-married cousin whose husband beat her. She is like a different person now.She had no joy before. Another cousin was dumped by her gambling addict of a husband and can’t even get a divorce or child support because he went back home to the Phillipines and his family won’t tell her where he is.

      I would say that the biggest mistakes that my cousins made were getting pregnant out of wedlock and marrying the bums. They made youthful misjudgments. But that of course does not mean that they deserved that kind of treatment.

      As far as other reasons for divorce, I do not think that everyone is meant to be together. It does not make sense for them to continue to be miserable just because one or both of them made a mistake in getting married.

  • Corky Riley

    Kurt, I really believe you did some good with your essay. Hopefully those who disagree with your and also my position on divorce will start asking questions. I agree with everything you said and I would go even further with what is acceptable to God. As an Ordained Pastor sense 1978 and a Lic. Marriage and Family Therapist for over 25 years and Mental Health Professional for 33 years I am backing your comments and insights. Corky

  • G.

    Jesus was talking about men getting divorced, in a time where a (non-virgin) woman without husband was in a very bad situation. I think one needs to take that into account.

    What I think he meant was: “If you were morally perfect, you would never divorce your wife (and reduce her to begging, or worse), but Moses knew that you are a bad person and would mistreat your wife if you weren’t allowed to divorce her, so he changed that – but you should be better than that.”

  • mteston1

    “For any and every reason,”I think is the crux of the matter. It exposes an almost cruel disposition on the part of the questioners. I would wholeheartedly agree with your slant Kurt. “For any and every reason” points to a callous and complete disregard for the “other” which happens to be the woman in this case. After 30 plus years of pastoral care it broke my heart and spirit to see women/wives so disregarded as someone, often some-thing less than who they are “from the beginning,” a human being created in the amazing image of God, bearing the print of the creator. And a covenant between a man and woman to bear an aspect of faithfulness that reflected the faithfulness of God. And to imagine that the husband, who promised to love and cherish would utterly disregard, uggggg, well enough said. There were quite a few times in those 30 years that the only thing that stood between such a battered woman and the “disregarder” was me. But the freedom I saw when those women were actually given the liberty to start a new life was amazing. I think Jesus’ in their face approach is appropriate. This group of religious of all people should grasp the finer points of the law, the keepers of Torah of all people should know when a law is being used lawlessly.

  • Bill Heroman

    No. Jesus was simply using gendered language. No first century man would be abused by his wife, so the statement is not exaggerating. Therefore, in this scripture, Jesus actually said nothing at all about women’s grounds for divorce.

    First century Jewish laws and customs about marriage were gender specific.

  • As a fine example of when it is okay to divorce, look to Jeremiah 3 where the Lord says, “Because you have gone whoring after other gods, I have written you a Bill of Divorce…” There you have the Lord divorcing Israel over her Adultery. To say “never” is to place our standards above God’s. For me, I dare not.