The Bible and Divorce

We are all familiar with three short words from Malachi 2, which seem to sum it all up: “God hates divorce.”  And yet the most recent George Barna Research Group statistics (2007-08) on divorce indicate that rates in the U.S. Christian community are 32%, about the same as in the population generally (33%).  Clearly this is an issue we need to examine, since it is such a common concern in the Christian community.

In his book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, David Instone Brewer notes that “The Old Testament recognizes four grounds for divorce. The first three are neglecting to provide food, clothing and conjugal love by either husband or wife, and the fourth is committing adultery. These four obligations parallel the vows exchanged by couples in Jewish marriages.” (1)

“God hates divorce,” the quote often taken from Malachi 2:10-17, is set in a larger context, which indicates that God’s concern was to provide safety, security and some freedom for women, who were commonly considered little more than property at the time these words were written.  As the whole passage is read, we discover that unfaithfulness and violence were the underlying causes of God’s anger. (2)

Today, in a marriage where one partner is exercising abusive power and control over the other, refusing to give a divorce may be another way to continue that control, even long after the person experiencing the abuse has left the destructive relationship. Considering this dynamic is essential in preventing further abuse to the marriage partner who has already experienced so much pain.

Turning to the New Testament, we see Jesus being questioned on the matter of divorce by the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3. Women had no right to request a certificate of divorce, polygamy was still being practiced, and the community was divided in their opinion of what constituted the right of a man to divorce his wife.

Jesus, however, does not enter into the rabbinic debate. Instead, after remarking that the only reason Moses allowed divorce certificates was because of men’s hard-heartedness, he makes a strong statement of the seriousness of the marriage covenant.(3)  He reminds his hearers that God created us “male and female,” indicating equality (Genesis 1:27).  He expresses his high view of the marriage covenant, where “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh… therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:5,6)

The disciples were so shocked by Jesus’ response, they remarked that it would be better not to marry. Jesus’ high regard for women led to some unexpected and radical conclusions regarding what was commonly assumed and practiced.  Again, the emphasis here was not so much on divorce but on affirming God’s original intention that in the marriage covenant, men and woman live together in mutuality, respect and love.

1) Brewer, David Instone, p 36.
2) More information on this passage can be found at the following; under Newsletters, January/February, 2009.  The article by Catherine Clark Kroeger entitled ‘Divorce, Domestic Violence and Saddleback Church’ describes the setting and helps to clarify what the concern really was in the text.
3) Matthew 19:1-11; Mark 10:1-9

By Elsie Goerzen, MCCBC End Abuse Program Coordinator, June 2010.

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