Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Surprising Interpretation of Jesus' Teaching on Marriage and Divorce

A youth leader I know once asked me whether I though sexual purity is easier or more difficult than most youths think. I wasn't sure.

He said that in one way it is in fact easier because a lot of kids think that if they've blown it and had sex already before marriage, then it is impossible to be sexually pure ever again. He said that repenting of your sin and trusting in the death of Jesus to satisfy God's wrath against it enables God to purify you, and so it is in fact possible to become sexually pure even after sinning.

Then he said that it is also much more difficult to be sexually pure. When I asked why, he said that kids think that as long as they don't have sexual intercourse, then they are pure. But Jesus said that anyone who even looks lustfully at another sins sexually. God calls us to a much, much higher standard of purity than merely refraining from physical, sexual intercourse.

Christianity is unique this way. It sharply divides the sinner from the sin, and is extremely intolerant of sin, but extremely merciful and even gracious toward sinners who repent.

A man I know abuses his wife and children, so I have been thinking about divorce and what Jesus has to say about it.

Jesus says divorce is not supposed to happen. When pressed, he frustratingly grants exceptions but insists that they are beside the point. The point is that divorce is not supposed to happen. Period.

Do you think it's easier or more difficult to follow a truly Christian policy for marriage than most people think?

I say both.

It is easier in certain respects, because some Christians think that they can't ever get legally divorced, even because of things like physical abuse, since Jesus didn't mention it as an exception. He only mentions infidelity. But Jesus' sermon as recorded in Matthew 5 isn't about legality.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Jesus was talking about matters of the heart. This is where I think a truly Christian policy on marriage is much more difficult than most people think. If you divorce your spouse in your heart, you have already sinned maritally. So many Christians are walking around divorced without knowing it, just because the government still has it on paper that they are married. Now, to be fair, many of these Christians are still living together and parenting their children together, and that is to be praised. I am not advocating that couples widen their divorce. I am saying that it is not enough to be legally married. You must be married in your hearts as well.

So what about cases like physical abuse? Certainly it would be foolish to allow yourself and your children to be within physical or relational reach of a chronic, unrelenting abuser. In the case of the man I know who is committing abuse, Jesus would say that he has already divorced his family in his heart, and with his actions.  Jesus doesn't care about his paper marriage.

So should the couple stay legally married?

I don't think it matters much to Jesus. Jesus seems pretty unconcerned with matters like political laws and taxes. When asked, he says things like "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.".

Did you know that it is only within the last 100 years that the state of California even begun recording marital unions and treating them differently for taxation and legal purposes?

Who cares what the state has on its books?

Like sinners from their sins, Jesus' teaching seems to also sharply divide matters of the heart and matters of legalism. It nearly disregards legalistic matters, and very sternly addresses matters of the heart, raising the standards high.

If you're married and there are facets of your marriage in which there exists a divorce between you and your spouse, admit that area of relational divorce to God, a close friend, yourself and to your spouse. Then repent and pursue change. Close the gap and pursue oneness with your spouse. Don't be fooled into thinking that legal marriage is all you need to follow Jesus' teaching.

But if you are married and your spouse is abusive and unwilling to change, feel free to be shrewd with your legal status and place of dwelling so that your former spouse can't harm you and your children physically, financially, or legally.

Don't mistake this for an endorsement of divorce. God's greatest desire is that you do absolutely everything in your power to be married and stay married for life. I am absolutely not saying that any type of relational struggle counts as a relational divorce and therefore warrants legal divorce. Exactly the opposite. Every relational struggle counts as a type of relational divorce and therefore you bear responsibility to mend it as soon as possible.

You are responsible for your decisions. And if it is your decisions that are causing any relational chasms, then you bear the responsibility of changing. Seek help. Repent.

But you pastors out there, let's not tell women in our churches who are being chronically abused by men refusing to be disciplined that they should not get legally divorced.  They should prevent their unrepentant spouses from harming them and their children physically - and legally and financially.

God hates divorce. And He hates destruction. Discourage both, but don't permit abuse just to avoid "divorce".

All you're doing is permitting real divorce in order to preserve legal marriage.

So when you tell these women to stay in their homes and refrain from legal divorce as well, you are standing the teaching of Jesus on its head, and encouraging destructive situations.

This makes God very angry, and it makes me furious.

Shame on you.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

-Matthew 5:27-31

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? how me the coin for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar’s." Then he said to them, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s." When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

-Matthew 22:15-22


  1. Thanks for the post. This is a difficult topic. What is your interpretation of Matthew 19:1-12 and Romans 7:1-3?

  2. This is one of the most insightful interpretations of these passages that I have come across. Well done.


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