The Bible shows us that God has the highest standards for marriage. God intends for marriage to be a sanctuary—a life-giving mutual relationship founded on sacrificial love and the building up of one’s partner. And while this is God’s desire for every married person, we live in a broken world, and Christian marriages are not immune to damage and brokenness.
Divorce was permitted under Old Testament law; but it was also regularly condemned. We need to see why it was spoken against: not because it’s an abstract “evil” to be avoided, but because it is a sign of a broken relationship which results in pain, vulnerability, and potentially violence, for the wife who is “sent away.” Divorce in Old Testament patriarchal culture favoured the husband at the expense of the wife. Thus prophets like Malachi speak against divorce, not to reinforce the inherent violence of a power imbalance between husband and wife (that is, to trap a woman in an abusive relationship), but to challenge that very violence. A careful reading of Malachi’s words (Mal. 2.14-16) shows that God is opposing the practice of men abusing their wives through either marital infidelity or divorce. God remains on the side of the “widow and orphan,” those who are marginalized, disadvantaged, or disempowered. And there is this: God seems to choose the messiest and most fractious of family situations as the preferred location to carry forward the divine story of salvation.
Jesus re-establishes the centrality of God’s ideal for marriage. At the same time, he recognizes that even in the patriarchal culture of his era, there are times when divorce is permitted (Matt. 19.8-9). The early church continued in this trajectory, trying to hold on both to God’s holy ideal, and to the necessity of God’s grace for the broken places in our relational lives (see, for example, 1Cor 7.10-16).
Our culture and our understandings of marriage have changed significantly since biblical times. What remains constant is God’s desire for the flourishing of all creation, including in the realm of human marriage. Also constant is God’s ability to extend grace and a second chance to all of us who find ourselves in a broken and incomplete world.