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The Treachery of Divorce
Paul Earnhart
Louisville, Kentucky, USA
(via Invitation to a Spiritual Revolution, pages 46-48,
reprinted by permission of author)

"Whoever divorces his wife." The subject of divorce can fill the heart of a preacher with dread. More than two thirds of the preachers for America's largest denomination recently admitted they had never spoken on the subject. The issue of divorce (and remarriage) touches the lives of men and women intimately and often painfully. Yet those who come to the kingdom must not expect that any part of their lives will escape the influence of the King; nor should they desire it since His commands are not arbitrary (1 John 5:3) but are always for our good (Deuteronomy 6:24). However agonizing this teaching may be to us, there is no place for the true disciple to hide from its implications.

In Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus continues His discussion of marriage and the principle of love which He began in verse 27.

"Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce'" (Matthew 5:31). This Pharisaic tradition which the Lord cites is based on a distortion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the first part of which says, "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house." The meaning of these verses had been hotly disputed among the rabbinical schools. Shammai. insisting on a criminal and legal cause for the divorce, emphasized the words "some uncleanness," and limited it to adultery. Hillel stressed the words "finds no favor in his eyes," and allowed divorce for anything displeasing to the husband. Rabbi Akiba went even further, permitting divorce if a man simply found a more appealing woman.

From other information available to us in the New Testament it is evident that the Pharisees shared the very loose views of Hillel if not worse ones (Matthew 19:3,7), and were far less concerned about the reason for the divorce and its unholy consequences on the victim than for the following of proper forms. Their obsession with legal niceties to the complete disregard of moral principle is again revealed. The Pharisees viewed divorce as a right, and saw the words of Moses as a command (Matthew 19:7) rather than a permissive allowance. By so doing they had wholly misapprehended the law and its purpose.

God's attitude toward divorce had been made abundantly clear in the Old Testament whose canon had virtually closed with the ringing words, "For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce" (Malachi 2:16). Consistent with that divine sentiment the words of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 were intended to put a check on already rampant divorce, not to introduce and encourage it. Jesus describes the teaching of the law on divorce as a concession to Israel's "hardness of heart" (Matthew 19:8), not surely a "hardness" of stubborn rebellion, which would have been intolerable (Hebrews 3:7-11), but one borne of spiritual backwardness (Mark 6:52). The law worked its restraint on divorce in three ways. It limited divorce to certain causes (Jesus' contrast of His own teaching of divorce for fornication alone with that of the law would indicate that Moses allowed more than one reason for divorce, Matthew 19:7-9). It required that a certificate of divorce be given to the wife (usually in the presence of two witnesses [Matthew 1:19] and containing the words, "Lo thou art free to marry any man"). And it gave a compelling argument against hasty and intemperate action by forbidding the husband to ever again take his divorced companion (once she had remarried) to wife.

"But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery" (Matthew 5:32). In His response to the Pharisaic gloss about divorce Jesus is primarily concerned with principle rather than procedure. Any man who casts out his faithful wife has acted without love and must share in the guilt of her adultery (her remarriage is assumed). The only exception is divorce for fornication which would preclude her husband making her what she had already become. In this context it seems evident that although "fornication" (porneia) can cover illicit sexual union both in and out of marriage the Lord uses it here of sin within the marriage covenant rather than before it.

The current disposition of some to justify divorce for any reason if there is no remarriage causes me to stress that the sin Jesus speaks of here rests in divorce, not remarriage. Such a divorce is wrong on three counts. It is wrong because it shows no love for the mate. It is wrong because it could push the divorced mate into a damning relationship. And it is wrong because could involve another otherwise innocent person in adultery. To this we feel compelled to add that even in cases where fornication has occurred the redemptive love of the kingdom would seem to counsel mercy and reconciliation where possible. Divorce is never a commandment. Love is.

Finally, it is evident that Jesus in His answer to the Pharisees has traveled beyond Deuteronomy, even properly understood, and has stated the law of the kingdom of heaven which rests upon God's will "from the beginning" (Matthew 19:8-9). The law of Moses would have allowed the divorced woman to remarry; the law of the kingdom will not.

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