Is Divorce Lawful?

Text: Mark 10:2-12

2. Now when Pharisees came to him, they were asking him, in order to test him, if it is permissible for a man to divorce a wife.
3. And answering, he said to them, “What did Moses command you?”
4. Then they said, “Moses permitted a man to write A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND TO SEND HER AWAY.”
5. But Jesus said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote this decree for you. 6. But from the beginning of creation ‘GOD MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE. 7. THEREFORE A MAN WILL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND WILL CLEAVE TO HIS WIFE, 8. AND THE TWO WILL BE ONE FLESH.’  For this reason they are no longer two but one flesh. 9. Therefore, what God joined together, let man not separate.”
10. When in the house again the disciples began asking him concerning this matter. 11. And he said to them, “Whoever should divorce his wife and should marry another woman commits adultery against her. 12. And if she after divorcing her husband should marry another man, she commits adultery.”


Weddings are joyous occasions with lots of well-wishers.  But it takes more than best wishes to make a happy marriage.  A father of a groom once told me, “The wedding was easy.  Now comes the hard part, making it a marriage.”  I told him, “If couples spent as much time planning their marriage as they do planning their wedding day, they’d have something.”

The wedding is easy; the hard part is keeping the marriage like a sweet honeymoon.  In the book, Deepening Love--For Marital Happiness, published by Northwestern Publishing House, it is stated:

“A honeymoon may be like a surprise--
The beginning of even better things to come,
Or the end of the good things that had been.”

Unfortunately, in too many cases it turns out to be the end of the good things that had been.  Divorce then results.

People have questions about divorce, specifically: Does God permit divorce?  And if so, when?  To answer these questions we will raise this question: “Is Divorce Lawful?”

This question was put to Jesus.  “Now when Pharisees came to him, they were asking him, in order to test him, if it is permissible for a man to divorce a wife.”  Matthew reports that the Pharisees asked if divorce was lawful for any and every reason, in other words, for even the least little thing.  Divorce was commonplace among the Jews.  The men divorced their wives for any and every reason.  As one professor put it: They divorced their wives for burning their toast.

Is divorce lawful?  Divorce is commonplace in our society.  In 1992 1,215,000 couples divorced.  An average of 2.31 couples divorced per minute.  In the time it would take to deliver this sermon 69 couples would have divorced.  Since then the divorce rate has dropped slightly, but not significantly.  The divorce rate is still about 1 out of every 2 marriages.  If the 6% of failed marriages that do not file for divorce is factored in, the failure rate approaches 2 out of every 3 marriages.

The divorce statistics show how our society answers the question “Is divorce lawful?”  “Yes,” it says, “by all means.  Better couples divorce than remain miserable all their lives.”  The states have even passed no-fault divorce laws to make obtaining a divorce easy.  No-fault divorce has contributed to our high divorce rate.

No-fault divorce is a misnomer.  There is no such thing as a divorce in which both spouses are innocent.  Both have faults, which they failed to address and which ruined their marriage.  Every marriage has its problems.  The disciples knew this.  For this reason they thought that if a man could not divorce his wife, it was better not to marry in the first place.

Since no perfect marriages exist, the couples that stay together are the couples who resolve their marital problems together.  The couples who do not resolve them split.  Generally, but not in every case, a lack of commitment lies behind the high divorce rate.  The high divorce rate indicates the marriage vows were not “Till death do us part” but “Till problems do arise!”

The question still remains “Is divorce lawful?”  Let’s see how Jesus answered the question.  "Answering the Pharisees, Jesus said to them, 'What did Moses command you?' Then they said, 'Moses permitted a man to write A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND TO SEND HER AWAY.' ”

Since Moses, God’s prophet, permitted divorce, the Pharisees reasoned God must approve of it.  Jesus corrected their error: “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote this decree for you.” God opposed divorce.  He hated it, as Malachi said.  But the Jews wouldn’t listen.  Their hardened hearts intended to divorce their wives anyway.  For the sake of civil order, Moses had made divorce contingent upon a certificate of divorce, in which the husband declared the marriage was dissolved.

In the Greek the certificate of divorce is literally a scroll of abandonment.  This clarifies that divorce was actually an abandonment of the marriage.  The husband who issued it was a deserter.  He abandoned his wife, to whom he owed absolute fidelity and loyalty, to marry another.  Having written the scroll of abandonment, he then sent his wife away and dismissed her.  Two additional Greek words that mean to send away and dismiss are also translated with our English word "divorce."  The Greek words clarify what divorce really amounts to.  It is both an abandoning, or separating oneself from, the marriage, and a sending away and dismissing one’s spouse to be rid of him or her.

Jesus clarified such divorce was never in God’s plan for marriage.  He told the Pharisees, “But from the beginning of creation ‘GOD MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE. THEREFORE A MAN WILL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND WILL CLEAVE TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO WILL BE ONE FLESH.'” God made male and female for the purpose of marriage.  He demonstrated this when he joined Adam and Eve in marriage.  In doing so, he established marriage for all future men and women.  The men would leave their parents’ families to unite with their wives to start families of their own.  Their uniting with their wives in marriage made them one, a unit.

In quoting Genesis 2 Jesus clarified what marriage is.  It consists of one man and one woman, not one man and more than one woman, not two men, or not two women.  In marriage the man and woman become united, one.  According to the Scriptures their mutual consent and pledge to be husband and wife makes their marriage.  Thus we define marriage as the mutual vow of one man and woman, who are free to make such a pledge, to live together as husband and wife for life.  Whatever breaks this vow breaks the marriage.

Note that marriage is a vow to live together as husband and wife for life.  The Hebrew word for the man’s being united to his wife literally means to cleave, to be glued and stuck together.  In marriage the man and woman become like two boards that are glued together into one indivisible unit that cannot be broken.  Thus marriage is a permanent relationship for life.

Jesus plainly stated marriage was a permanent, life-long relationship when he said, “Therefore, what God joined together, let man not separate.”  Once married husband and wife were not to separate, to split apart, which is the action of divorce.  They were not to break the marital bond that God made to join them together.

So, is divorce lawful?  Based on Jesus’ words we must answer: “Not when it separates and divides a married couple who are abandoning and breaking up their marriage.”

A divorce that breaks up a marriage and separates husband and wife is unlawful.  Such divorces occur when husbands and wives have marital problems and are not getting along.  At the root of their problems is sin.  The husbands and wives sin against one another.  Their sins make their lives miserable and unhappy.  They then say they are incompatible and complain they no longer love one another.  Such a complaint is understandable, for who loves what gives them a pain in the neck?  The couples see divorce as the only way out of their miserable relationship.  They run to the state’s divorce court to abandon their marriage and to send their spouse away.  They fail to perceive that divorce does not put an end to their problems but only creates additional new ones, which often includes poverty and the broken lives of their children.

Marital problems, due to the husband’s and wife’s sins, do not justify divorce and make it right before God.  God says divorce is not the answer.  The solution is the couple repent of their sins, become reconciled through their apologies and forgiveness, and make changes to correct what is wrong in their marriage.  God says in 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11 state: “And to those who are married I give this command, not I but the Lord: A wife should not separate herself from her husband – but if she should leave, let her remain unmarried or let her be reconciled to her husband – and a husband should not send away his wife.

Now suppose we have been a party to a divorce that we sought to separate ourselves from a problematic marriage and partner.  Our spouse had not committed adultery or deserted our marriage, but we didn’t get along and were unhappy.  Through the state’s divorce court we broke up our marriage.  This violated God’s law, “You shall not commit adultery.”  Having done so, are we forever condemned with no hope of salvation?  No, not any more than the woman caught in the act of adultery was condemned.  Jesus told her that he did not condemn her, and that she ought to go and sin no more.  Jesus upheld God’s law against adultery, calling it a sin, but he did not condemn the woman in the process.  In telling her to go and sin no more, he called upon her to repent of her sin.

In the blood of Jesus there is forgiveness for the penitent sinner.  Jesus suffered and died for all sins, unlawful divorce being just one of them.  If we have sinned through an unlawful divorce, Jesus calls out to us to repent of our sin and to come to him for the forgiveness of that sin, and then go and sin no more in that manner.  Whether we have been guilty of an unlawful divorce, or any other sin that might be named, let us take comfort in God’s Word that assures us in 1 John 1:7: “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

Then let us go and sin no more.  Let’s preserve our Christian marriages to honor our Lord and to heed Jesus’ instruction: “Whoever should divorce his wife and should marry another woman commits adultery against her. And if she after divorcing her husband should marry another man, she commits adultery.”

Jesus did allow one exception for divorce.  Matthew 19:9 reports that he said, “But I say to you that whoever should divorce his wife, except for sexual immorality, and should marry another woman commits adultery.”  A spouse’s sexual immorality and marital unfaithfulness are scriptural grounds for divorce.

Sexual immorality and marital unfaithfulness are the illicit sexual involvement of a spouse with a third party.  Such sexual sin with a third party breaks the marriage vow, in which the man and woman pledged themselves to one another for life.  All sexual sins break the marriage, whether it be an extra-marital affair, prostitution, homosexuality, lesbianism, incest, or bestiality.  Such sexual sins give the innocent spouse a right to a divorce.  The divorce in this case does not break the marriage, it merely announces the marriage was broken by the sexual sins of the guilty spouse.

In our text Jesus is speaking of the case where no such sexual sin has taken place.  When there has been no sexual immorality and unfaithfulness, neither spouse has grounds for a divorce.  Neither can literally send away and dismiss his spouse to break off the marriage.  Anyone who does so and marries another commits adultery.

To honor our Lord, who loves and saved us, we will preserve our marriage, not break it in an unscriptural divorce.  By faith we will remain committed to our Lord, to his Word, to our mate, to our marriage, to fidelity in every marital duty, for life, till death do us part.

When it comes to our marriage, let’s remember this proverb from Deepening Love--For Marital Happiness:

Marriage is like an investment:
The more you put into it, the more you get out of it;
And if the transactions are handled wisely, it pays dividends.