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Did Jesus forbid divorce and remarriage?

Author: Mark Woods, 3 April 2024

Just over nine per cent of adults in England and Wales have been divorced; that’s according to the 2021 Census. That figure has been more or less stable since 2011, but ten years before that, it was only 6.2 per cent.

It still represents a very large number of people who’ve been through a process that’s often traumatic and always very sad. And the couples aren’t the only people affected – their families are too, and especially their children. So what does the Bible have to say about divorce, and how should we understand it? 

The words of Jesus in Matthew 5.31–32 seem quite clear. It’s part of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus says: 

 ‘It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’ 

Later in Matthew (19.3–12) he’s asked about divorce by some Pharisees. He finishes his reply by saying, ‘ I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’

Many Christians today take these words absolutely literally; for Christians there’s no divorce, and if someone who’s divorced in the eyes of the law who marries again commits adultery. 

This is a hard saying, and it’s one which in our own time has really serious pastoral implications. We know how bad marriages can be, even when there’s no sexual immorality involved; violence and coercive control can ruin lives. But the fact that a text is difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t true or that we shouldn’t try to live with it; Jesus said, ‘’Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16.24). 

Is this the only way to read these verses, though? Some scholars think it is, and are sure that Jesus is forbidding divorce and remarriage. There’s another way of looking at it, though, and that’s to step back a little and look at the context of what he says. One of the things we need to remember when we’re reading the Bible is that it was written for us, but it wasn’t written to us. How would Jesus’ first listeners have heard it? Do we need to do a little digging to unearth what he actually meant?

Other scholars say that when we understand the Jewish context of Jesus’ time, we end up in a different place. One thing to bear in mind is the two schools of Rabbinic teaching of the time, Hillel and Shammai. Hillel’s followers said that Deuteronomy 24.1, which says a man could divorce his wife for ‘a cause of indecency’, gives two grounds: a ‘cause’ – any cause, like preparing food he didn’t like – and ‘indecency’, or adultery. Shammai’s followers said there was just one ground, ‘indecency’. So when the Pharisees asked Jesus if someone could divorce ‘for any cause’, they weren’t asking if there was ever a good reason for divorce, but which school he belonged to. Jesus took Shammai’s line: marriage is a serious commitment. And of course in those days a Jewish woman might have been in a perilous position if her husband tired of her and divorced her; she would have been shamed and possibly destitute. On this interpretation, Jesus was standing up for women. 

Another perspective is from Exodus 21.11, which the rabbis of the first century agreed meant that husbands should provide their wives with ‘food, clothing and love’. Both men and women could obtain a divorce if these were lacking. According to some scholars, Jesus – and Paul – accepted, like other rabbis, that divorce was possible for adultery, neglect or abuse. Someone who divorces for a valid reason could remarry, but not someone who divorced for an invalid reason. These scholars argue that Jesus taught strict lifelong monogamy, but not that people should stay in loveless or abusive marriages. 

Does our reading of the Bible’s teaching about marriage (and this is only scratching the surface of it) change if we understand more about the kind of things that were being discussed at the time? Perhaps it’s like hearing one side of a conversation and having to work out what the other person was saying. Usually it’s clear enough, but sometimes we struggle. And sometimes, of course, we struggle if we’re hearing ideas we haven’t heard before. We should always approach the Bible with humility, knowing we have a lot to learn. 

What’s crystal clear, though, is that Jesus valued marriage very highly indeed, and taught that faithfulness and commitment were profoundly important. The Sermon on the Mount has some beautiful lines in it which even someone who never goes near a church could agree with. Often, though, it challenges the things our culture assumes are normal and right; this is one of those times.

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