In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is asked a question about divorce. His response turned the tables around on the Patriarchal males of the First Century and totally confounded his own disciples.
Most American Christians completely misunderstand the entire conversation. In fact, they tend to quote the words of Jesus here as if it’s a universal statement about how to define marriage [it’s not], or they take the statement about adultery being the only criteria for divorce and weaponize it to ensure that women today continue to remain in marriages where they are continually oppressed and abused by their husbands.
It is in fact the very opposite of what Jesus was trying to say and accomplish.
To understand what’s really going on, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of a First Century male who, according to law and tradition, had all of the power in a marriage relationship. The man could divorce the wife for any reason and take a new wife at any time. This put all married women in a place of powerlessness and subjected them to the fear of being divorced at any moment.
We also need to understand that in this male-dominated society, a divorced woman had almost no means of financial support. Other than begging on the streets for bread or prostituting herself for money, a divorced woman had very few options for survival without a male husband to provide for them.
Now, imagine you’re Jesus. Imagine you see this oppressive system and you hate the way it places women in a state of perpetual fear and bondage to their husbands.
Perhaps you might attempt to diffuse this toxic system by saying something like this: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” [Matt. 19:9]
Do you see how this totally reverses the power structure? It places all the power back into the hands of the woman by giving her the ability to end the marriage covenant – not the man. I mean, sure, the man could commit adultery and dissolve his marriage, but then it would be the man who was shamed, not the woman.
So, how do we know that this is exactly what Jesus intended to do? Just listen to what his very own disciples say in response to his statement:
“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” [v. 10]
Yikes. See that? The disciples totally get it. They understand that Jesus is taking the man’s power of capricious divorce out of their hands and empowering the women instead. That’s why they scratch their heads and say, “Why bother to get married at all, then?”
Why bother to get married to a woman if you literally have to remain in that marriage relationship with her until you die? Why bother to marry if you can’t divorce her at will and remarry a younger, sexier woman whenever you like?
Now, fast-forward a few thousand years and watch American Christians take these words of Jesus and misuse them to re-enslave women to husbands who verbally and physically abuse them.
See, the Bible says that you cannot divorce your husband unless he commits adultery. Right? So, if all he’s doing is beating you, or belittling you, or screaming at the kids, or threatening you with violence, etc. then you can’t divorce him because he hasn’t slept around on you.
This is not at all what Jesus intended.
Again, the context and the culture means everything. In First Century Palestine, the woman had no power of divorce. The man did. Jesus wanted to equalize that abusive power structure between men and women. That’s why he identified adultery as the only reason for divorce – to give women the ability to break marriage covenant [something no woman had up to that point in time.]
To carry that statement into our modern culture without first understanding WHY Jesus said this and WHAT power structure he was intending to dismantle is to foolishly twist his words into yet another oppressive rule that keeps women in bondage to the abusive power of a man who only wants to exploit her for his own pleasure.
This is not Christlike. It’s also not a very good exegesis of scripture.
Jesus’s words in Matthew 19 are intended to set women free from an oppressive Patriarchal system where men had all the power and women were treated as objects to be used and discarded. Modern American pastors who blindly quote the same scriptures to prevent women from leaving an abusive marriage are undoing the will of God in this matter.
Let’s not re-enslave women using the words of Jesus whose only desire was to empower women and level the playing field.
If you’re in an abusive marriage, get out. If your children are being threatened, leave. If your husband verbally, sexually or otherwise physically abuses you, get a divorce.
Jesus doesn’t intend for you to suffer this way. His words are meant to set you free from oppression, not keep you underneath it.
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Keith Giles and his wife, Wendy, work with Peace Catalyst International to help build relationships between Christians and Muslims in El Paso, TX. Keith was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church over a decade ago to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today he is the author of several best-selling books, including “Jesus Unexpected: Ending The End Times To Become The Second Coming” which is available now on Amazon.