What do we make of Jesus' strong words about divorce?


Jesus said: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her..." (Mark 10:11)

I received a heart-rending message on Facebook after writing about how Jesus defines marriage in the previous article in this series on discipleship from Mark's Gospel.

The post said this: "Thanks Christian Today! And where does that leave those who are divorced not by choice, who have had to pick up the pieces with their children????? Some people do all those things and still end up divorced!!!!" The writer later added: "I think the author needs to acknowledge the issues..., otherwise people can feel like utter failures!"

It is a fair point, and I felt bad about the pain the individual concerned had expressed. I responded by saying that the particular article was about how Jesus defines marriage, and that we would think more about Jesus' words on divorce in the next article. So here we now are...

And to be honest, it's a toughie. Because when one reads Jesus' words they appear very stark. He says: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Ouch! Anyone who has seen or experienced divorce close-up will know how excruciatingly painful it can be. So is Jesus just adding to that anguish?

Like all of Jesus' teaching, his words need to be read in the context both of the culture of the time and the whole of Scripture. As the saying goes, "a text without a context is a pretext". The context of the time is that some (such as a leader called Rabbi Hillel) thought men could divorce their wives for all sorts of trivial reasons, including cooking a bad meal, being argumentative, or indeed finding another woman more attractive. Not so, says Jesus! No, that's just the same as adultery, he says. The fact that it is given a veneer of legitimacy by completing divorce proceedings makes no difference. Spouses cannot just "trade in" one partner for another and think that if they tick off all the legal boxes that somehow makes it ok with God. It isn't, Jesus says, because the effect on the wronged party is just the same as having an affair. This turns out to be a word of affirmation to victims divorced by cruel spouses, and a word of warning to those who want to go off with someone else and think a divorce makes it all alright.

When we read the rest of the Bible we find that elsewhere (Matthew 5:32 and 19:9) Jesus gives fuller teaching which does allow divorce in cases of p0rneia – a Greek word meaning 5exual immorality. And Paul (1 Corinthians 7:10-16) says that if a non-Christian husband or wife insists on leaving their partner, the one left behind "is not bound" in such circumstances.

So somehow we need to hold on to the facts that:

1. The Bible gives clear teaching on the life-long nature of marriage.

2. Divorce is never commanded, but is sometimes permitted.

3. Divorce is not the unforgiveable sin.

As Professor Oliver O'Donovan has written, the church has to have arrangements which "give adequate form both to its beliefs about the permanence of marriage and to its belief about the forgiveness of the penitent sinner". It seems to me the Church of England gets this roughly right when it states: "The Church... teaches that marriage is for life. It also recognizes that some marriages sadly do fail and, if this should happen, it seeks to be available for all involved. The Church accepts that, in exceptional circumstances, a divorced person may marry again in church during the lifetime of a former spouse."

John Stott writes: "On the one hand, we need the courage to resist the prevailing winds of permissiveness... On the other hand, we shall seek to share with deep compassion in the suffering of those whose marriages have failed. But we have no liberty to go beyond the permissions of our Lord. Wisdom, righteousness and compassion are all found in following him."

And, for sure, all of us, whatever our circumstances right now, need all three of those things.

David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly series.