Divorce—What Does the Bible Really Say?
“WHAT God has yoked together let no man put apart.” (Matthew 19:6) We often hear those well-known words by Jesus Christ quoted as the final pronouncement in a marriage ceremony.
By those words, though, did Jesus mean that all marriages are to be permanent and that there is not to be any divorce whatsoever? Taking the words by themselves, that would appear to be the case. However, what prompted Jesus to make such a statement? Was he setting out something new?
‘Not the Case From the Beginning’
Jesus’ statement quoted above was part of his answer to the Pharisees’ question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on every sort of ground?” (Matthew 19:3-6) Not being satisfied with the answer, the Pharisees questioned him further by asking: “Why, then, did Moses prescribe giving a certificate of dismissal and divorcing her?” Thereupon, Jesus said: “Moses, out of regard for your hardheartedness, made the concession to you of divorcing your wives, but such has not been the case from the beginning.” Then he added: “I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication, and marries another commits adultery.”—Matthew 19:7-9.
We must note that Jesus’ statement, “such has not been the case from the beginning,” was made in reference to divorce that was accomplished by “giving a certificate of dismissal.” In other words, when God instituted the first marriage between Adam and Eve, he did not provide them with “every sort of ground” for dissolving their marriage. As a perfect couple, they had every reason to make their marriage a success. It would be successful if they continued to live according to God’s law and direction.
When mankind lapsed into sin and imperfection, so did the institution of marriage. (Romans 5:12) Since humans were no longer perfect, human relations became strained and tainted by selfishness, greed, and self-interest. That was what Jesus referred to as “hardheartedness,” because of which the Mosaic Law made room for divorce. Yet, Jesus reminded the Pharisees: “Such has not been the case from the beginning.” Now, under imperfect conditions, mates should put forth the effort needed to resolve any difficulties and problems instead of using them as grounds or excuses for breaking up their marriage. However, Jesus pointed out that there is one exception, namely, fornication. Marital infidelity can be grounds for breaking up a marriage.
It is interesting to note how various explanations of the clause “except on the ground of fornication” have been put forth to uphold certain views on divorce. Catholic authorities generally dismiss this clause on the ground that parallel accounts in Mark and Luke do not contain it. However, McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia explains: “The plain reconciliation of the passages must be found in the principle that an exception in a fuller document must explain a briefer one, if this can be done without force. Now, as divorce for that one reason was admitted by all, Mark and Luke might naturally take this for granted without expressing it.”
Some argue that since Jesus used the word “fornication” (Greek, por·neiʹa) and not “adultery” (Greek, moi·kheiʹa), he must have meant some improper act before the marriage that would make the marriage null and void. This is unnecessarily restricting the meaning of the word. Various authorities recognize that por·neiʹa means “unchastity, harlotry, prostitution, fornication,” and that at Matthew 19:9 “it stands for, or includes, adultery.” Others argue that Jesus was citing fornication merely as one example among many grounds for divorce. Clearly, this is forcing an opinion on the text.
From the foregoing, it is clear that the Bible does not say that all marriages are to remain permanent and no divorce is permissible for any reason at all. On the other hand, the Bible provides only one acceptable basis for divorce, namely, “the ground of fornication.”
“Let Marriage Be Honorable”
By allowing a ground for divorce, does the Bible encourage it? Does this allowance trivialize marriage or rob it of its dignity? Or by allowing only one ground for divorce, is the Bible placing an unreasonable burden on those who marry?
Quite to the contrary, the Bible speaks of marriage as one of the closest and most intimate bonds that two people can enjoy. “A man will leave his father and his mother and he must stick to his wife and they must become one flesh,” says the Genesis account of the first marriage. (Genesis 2:24) And mates are to guard this “one flesh” relationship as something precious. “Let marriage be honorable among all, and the marriage bed be without defilement,” counsels the Bible.—Hebrews 13:4.
It has often been said, in one manner or another, that the foundation of a lasting and happy marriage is not romantic love but unselfishness. That is just what the Bible indicates. It says: “Husbands ought to be loving their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself, for no man ever hated his own flesh; but he feeds and cherishes it, as the Christ also does the congregation. . . . On the other hand, the wife should have deep respect for her husband.” (Ephesians 5:28-33) And in frank language, the Bible counsels: “Let the husband render to his wife her due; but let the wife also do likewise to her husband. The wife does not exercise authority over her own body, but her husband does; likewise, also, the husband does not exercise authority over his own body, but his wife does. Do not be depriving each other of it.”—1 Corinthians 7:3-5.
When both mates are willing to abide by such wise counsel, it is very unlikely that their marriage will deteriorate to the point where one of them would resort to extramarital affairs, thus, in effect, destroying the “one flesh” relationship. Even if one of the mates does not accept such Bible principles, the believing mate can have confidence that God’s way is still the best, and many marital problems can thus be solved or avoided.
Rather than recommending divorce as a means of ending an unhappy marriage, then, the Bible urges Christians to work hard to hold their marriage together and to make it a happy one. “Rejoice with the wife of your youth,” says a Bible proverb. “With her love may you be in an ecstasy constantly.”—Proverbs 5:18, 19.
Is Divorce the Answer?
What if one’s marriage mate does become unfaithful? To be sure, marital infidelity creates a severe crisis. The adulterous mate has brought much pain and suffering upon the innocent one, who has the Scriptural right to divorce the guilty party and remarry. But must there be a divorce? Is that the only recourse?
We must bear in mind that although Jehovah God has provided a just ground for divorce, the Bible also says of him: “He has hated a divorcing.” (Malachi 2:16) Rather than quickly jumping to the conclusion that divorce is the only solution, one might consider the possibility of extending mercy and forgiveness. Why?
A divorce will not necessarily remove the hurt and bitterness, but mercy and forgiveness will, especially when the offender truly regrets the wrongdoing. Love shown at such a critical time may actually strengthen the marriage. Viewing the matter in this light will help the innocent mate to evaluate what may be the best course to follow, remembering Jesus’ words: “Happy are the merciful, since they will be shown mercy.”—Matthew 5:7; compare Hosea 3:1-5.
Also to be weighed in the balance are the problems that may result in connection with children in a single-parent home. The loneliness of a divorced person, too, merits consideration. For a woman, the problems are compounded by the fact that in most parts of the world today, women are still disadvantaged economically. After being a homemaker for a number of years, it is hard for a single mother to get back into the job market and compete with others.
Some women feel that while they are married, they should prepare themselves for the possibility of divorce. They may enroll in special schools or keep up their careers in order to maintain their financial independence. Whether an individual should pursue such a course or not is a personal decision. However, instead of spending time and energy preparing for a possibility, would it not be a wiser investment to put time and energy into building a happy and lasting marriage? By working hard at developing the fruitage of God’s spirit and maintaining a healthy spiritual outlook, the Christian woman is likely to enjoy the love and praise of her husband. She can also have confidence in God’s promise that he cares for the needs of those who seek first the Kingdom.—Matthew 6:33; Proverbs 31:28-30; Galatians 5:22, 23.
The Ultimate Solution
As long as we live in this imperfect system of things, we can expect that there will be marital problems. However, by following the Bible’s wise counsel, these can be minimized or dealt with effectively. Furthermore, men and women who are willing to live by Jehovah’s standards in marriage and in other areas of life are blessed with the prospect of entering a new system in which “righteousness is to dwell.”—2 Peter 3:13.
In that system, mankind will become free of the ravages and all the sad consequences of sin and imperfection. As long as the marriage arrangement continues here on earth, ‘what was the case from the beginning’ will be the standard. Indeed, what God has yoked together, no man will put apart.
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What did Jesus say about divorce?
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In the new world, there will be no marital problems that lead to divorce