Divorce is a sensitive issue. It usually involves not only the married couple concerned but their children and extended family members and sometimes, the community as well. Acceptance of divorce depends on societal norms in that community and nation.
In modern days, especially for Christian couples, just because they have made wedding vows before family and friends they would live till death before they part, it becomes even trickier when face with the issue of divorce when it arises. Are there biblically justifiable grounds for divorce?
Searching for justifiable grounds for divorce is nothing new. It has been going on since time immemorial. In fact, divorce is sanctioned in the Bible, especially under the Old Testament. Divorce has been enacted into law by none other than Moses who wrote the first five books of the Holy Bible.
The Pharisees were custodians of the law and they sat in Moses’ seat.
Matthew 23:2: Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:
They were also regarded as masters and rulers in Israel and of course well versed with the law of Moses.
John 3:1: There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
John 3:10: Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
The Pharisees certainly knew the law concerning divorce. However, the law on divorce seems to be questionable and subject to abuse. So this was a good opportunity to trip up the Lord Jesus Christ who was never schooled under their authority.
Matthew 19:3: The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
These Pharisees certainly knew the law on divorce very well. So the question was whether divorce for every cause was lawful. They were baiting the Lord to see how He would respond.
It was funny how they thought the Lord didn’t know the law on divorce allowed by Moses. So the Lord turned the table on them for not reading their Bible and hence not knowing God’s will on marriage and divorce.
Matthew 19:4: And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
Matthew 19:5: And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
Matthew 19:6: Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
Well, they certainly didn’t like this reply. How could they overlook such simple and fundamental decree from above concerning earthly marriages? Divorce was obviously not God’s will. The Lord’s reply to their question gave them cause to continue their scheme to find occasion to accuse the Lord for challenging Moses’s decree which was a serious offence.
Matthew 19:7: They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
They thought they had cornered the Lord to back down with this question appealing to the authority of Moses. So far these religious elites could not find any fault and occasion for them to nail the Lord during His earthly ministry.
It seemed like they were finally succeeding. Disputing the law on divorce allowed by Moses would be a serious challenge to the authority of Moses and would thus get the Lord into big trouble with serious consequence.
But what actually does the law on divorce allowed by Moses entail?
Deuteronomy 24:1: When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
So here is the law regarding divorce. The ground for divorce here is not based on moral or character deficit of the wife or serious transgression of the law of Moses. It is based on what the husband regards as uncleanness and he no longer favours her.
One would think that divorce is based on serious offence such as adultery committed by the wife. But it is not the case. In fact, adultery attracts the death penalty under the law of Moses.
Leviticus 20:10: And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.
As such, divorce could be based on something as frivolous as uncleanness determined by the husband and hence, the Pharisees’ question concerning divorce under every cause that could be subject to abuse. Under such arrangement, the husband has the upper hand. Whenever he doesn’t find the wife pleasing anymore he could easily find occasion and excuse allowed for as uncleanness to divorce his wife.
Moses not only allowed divorce under such seemingly unfair statute that favours the man, he also codified the divorce where this woman once divorced by this husband could no longer return to him under any circumstance when she becomes another man’s wife. After the woman has been divorced she is free to remarry but she can never return to her former husband and this is the condition whereby the husband must understand before divorcing his wife. There would be no turning back after the divorce if she remarries.
Deuteronomy 24:2: And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.
Deuteronomy 24:3: And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife;
Deuteronomy 24:4: Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.
So this was the divorce statute given by Moses. Well, the Pharisees were not ignorant to this statute. They were using this statute hoping to trip the Lord so that they could find occasion to accuse Him for disobeying Moses.
But the Lord pulled no punches. He didn’t shy away from addressing this issue on divorce allowed for under the law of Moses. He turned around and accused the Pharisees and blamed them for this law on divorce where Moses allowed because he really had no choice due to the hardness of heart of the men of Israel.
Matthew 19:8: He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
Here the Lord told them point blank they were the cause for divorce being allowed by Moses. Under the law, man could have more than one wife. Polygamy was practiced by the children of Israel and many famous biblical characters had more than one wife. They were never condemned nor rebuked by the Lord. However, polygamy is so recognized that the rights of the firstborn of the non favoured wife cannot be removed and replaced.
Deuteronomy 21:15: If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated:
Deuteronomy 21:16: Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn:
Deuteronomy 21:17: But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.
With polygamy allowed and recognized, some men might want to get rid of the wife he no longer finds favour. He could get himself off the hook and needs not fulfill to her his duty of marriage. This would also lighten financial burden and commitment with one less woman to care for and feed.
There is no alimony required under the law of Moses during a divorce. So the woman is obviously caught in a bad situation under such divorce arrangement.
What about her children after divorce if she has any? It would be unlikely the children are chased out of the house with her. Which man would want to marry her together with her children? It would be a sad situation for the children losing their mother in a divorce.
The only positive point about divorce as far as the woman is concerned is that she is free and she could remarry. With divorce allowed by Moses, other man could have this privilege to fulfill the duty of marriage to this divorced woman. But the woman could not return to her former husband and all her children if she has them in her previous marriage.
While it might sound good to get out of an abusive and unhappy marriage when divorce is allowed, divorce could be abused too and many times the case as questioned by those Pharisees. Divorce as allowed by Moses was a social expediency not the perfect will of God and the Lord told these Pharisees off in no uncertain terms.
The abuses under the terms and conditions of divorce have been so abused that the God of Israel rebuked the children of Israel severely in the last book of the Old Testament before the Lord turned silent on them for four hundred years.
Malachi 2:14: Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.
Malachi 2:15: And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.
Malachi 2:16: For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.
Malachi 2:17: Ye have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delighteth in them; or, Where is the God of judgment?
Jehovah God clearly had been very angry with the children of Israel who had been dealing treacherously with the wife of their youth. They had been warned to take heed to their spirit and not deal treacherously with the wife of their youth as though the God of judgment was no longer around. Divorce allowed under Moses was the best platform to deal treacherously with the wife of their youth.
When the wife grows older and no longer attractive, finding faults such as uncleanness would be so simple and easy. Divorce could be so easily carried out and the poor woman would have to fend for herself after divorce and if she has children, she would no longer have rights to have access to her children. This is a terrible loophole for treacherous man to exploit.
Nevertheless, if divorce is not allowed, the wife who has lost favour might find herself in even more terrible plights. Being ignored and abused by the husband and perhaps even the husband’s other wives could be even more trying and painful.
Physical violence could become her constant companion too if she has to live on under the same roof with her husband. As such, getting divorce might be the lesser of the two evils and hopefully, the woman could live on happily either on her own or have a better second marriage.
Truly God hates putting away. Marriage bond is a symbol of God providing eternal salvation for His people. If divorce is the norm, this is a direct attack on God’s eternal security promised to His people.
The Pharisees raising the question on divorce hit a wall. They didn’t know they were dealing with God manifest in the flesh. This same God had been watching them tolerating their treacherous dealings with their wives for years. In addition, the Lord raised the bar for divorce where the only justifiable ground for divorce is fornication and not some frivolous uncleanness as determined by the husband.
Matthew 19:9: And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
Actually, fornication as a justifiable ground leading to divorce is not new. The case of the conception of the Lord Jesus Christ is a case in point.
Matthew 1:18: Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
Matthew 1:19: Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.
Mary was with child of the Holy Ghost. Joseph, Mary’s espoused husband was a just man. His espoused wife was pregnant and he could put Mary to death.
But he could not find the adulterer and putting Mary to death was unjust because death penalty are carried out on both the adulterer and the adulteress and not on the adulteress alone. So if Mary was with child due to fornication, it would be better off to put her away privately in a divorce settlement.
By tightening this law on divorce and raising its standard, even the Lord’s disciples were displeased. They remarked that if that be the case, it was not good to marry.
Matthew 19:10: His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.
One could imagine the spiritual maturity of these disciples. They wanted to reserve the rights and privilege to divorce their wives under the law of Moses where they could easily abuse the system. No wonder the Lord concluded the Old Testament with that sharp rebuke concerning the men of Israel dealing treacherously with the wife of their youth.
These Pharisees practiced creative and selective obedience to the law of Moses. They could come up with justifiable grounds to get waiver from compliance to the law of Moses such as not having to honour their parents.
Mark 7:10: For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death:
Mark 7:11: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free.
Mark 7:12: And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;
Mark 7:13: Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
Hence are these Pharisees so concerned about equity in the law on divorce allowed for under Moses? The treacherous dealings of their forefathers continued with them and their hypocrisy was simply disgusting to say the least.
They were not trying to discuss the finer points on the law of Moses with the Lord. It was not a sincere enquiry with regards to learning something useful for them to apply under the law of Moses. It was a question raised to tempt the Lord. Their silence after this rebuke was surely deafening.
Even the disciples of the Lord were displeased with the new requirement for divorce. Raising the bar with this new justifiable ground for divorce disadvantaged them.
So the Lord concludes that not all men can accept the duties and responsibility in a marital union. Only selected few, by birth, forced of circumstance or even voluntarily remaining single, are not having to deal with troubles in marriage.
Matthew 19:11: But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.
Matthew 19:12: For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
Most people on earth are not so gifted to remain single like the apostle Paul who for the Lord’s Kingdom sake went all out without a wife to distract him in the Lord’s work.
Staying single might avoid having to deal with all the troubles and distractions that come with married life but not getting married could get one into more serious trouble.
1 Corinthians 7:9: But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
1 Corinthians 6:18: Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.
1 Corinthians 7:2: Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.
Hence, fornication is the only justifiable ground under the New Testament for divorce. Nevertheless, forgiveness and reconciliation should be sought before entering into divorce, especially for the sake of children having to suffer the trouble and trauma of parents going separate ways in a divorce.
Hebrews 13:4: Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.
John 1:17: For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.
Let no Christian man and woman ever consider the possibility and acceptability of divorce allowed by Moses in the Church Age. Grace and truth have come and hence, let no Christian man and woman entertain the notion of possible separation in a divorce for frivolous reasons.
1 Peter 3:7: Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
1 Peter 3:8: Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:
1 Peter 3:9: Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.
Any Christian couple taking heed to this admonition will never find themselves heading into the dark narrow alley of despair in a divorce.