Christians today accept that the Bible permits divorce for adultery, but they often believe that it does not allow divorce for other reasons such as physical or mental violence; when a man withholds money from his wife, stopping her from going out; or when a wife neglects the children and let them go dirty and hungry, keeping money back from the husband or psyching him out.
When one hears these things happen and does not find passages that literally looks at it as ‘burning child or spouse with cigarette, throw spouse down the stairs or pounding theirs head into the wall’, this has not led to other than confused and worried Christians because they conclude that God is not interested in such things; these problems do not seem to touch his heart – but why?
Why is adultery more valid reason for divorce than other cruelty? We shall see that the Bible actually have laws that address just such situations.
A scripture that is often forgotten in the debate on divorce is 2.Mos. 21: 10-11. This text, or the law arranges just what is needed because it allows the victim (the innocent party) of the breach or neglection, to get free from the marriage (contract).
We touched upon this verse in “Marriage – A Contract”, and saw that this law, among others was a ‘principle-law’, or case law and not ‘statute law’. That is to say that one should follow the principle of the law and not the letter. Let’s look at this scripture.
“10 If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. 11 If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.” (Exo. 21:10-11)
It appears that this verse does not deal with us because we live in a society of monogamy. We did not have two or more spouses and has not slaves, but we will see that this law actually applies to all marriages, polygamy or not.
Polygamy was accepted in the GT, so when a man took a second wife would often the first wife be neglected. To favor the “latest” wife is human nature one might say, but it didn’t come better if the first wife had been a slave. (Mat. 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stick to the one and despise the other. …”) That this law did was to take care and assured that the first wife, slave or not, were treated fairly. The man could not hold back neither food, clothing or conjugal love to the first wife. If this was done, she would (innocent party) have access to walk free – ie she could divorce. Note, the guilty party did not have the opportunity to choose divorce.
Actually, this tells us that the Old Testament recognizes four (4) reasons for divorce. The first three (3) was as we have seen, neglect of food, clothing and marital love (from either the man or wife). The fourth one is to commit adultery or sexual immorality which we find in 5.Mos. 24: 1-4, which also is a ‘principle-law’ – meaning it is not mandatory to file for divorce after an infidelity, it is optional (think forgiveness here).
The problem for the Jews occurred at the interpretation of the law in Deut. 24: 1-4, because polygamy was accepted and the man could therefore hardly be accused of sexual immorality when he could have several wives. Thus, it was also true that only man could file for divorce for adultery. But this did Jesus changes in Mat. 19 when he brings the Pharisees back to Gen. 2:24 and show them that God’s original purpose in marriage was monogamous, and again that sexual immorality was grounds for divorce from both sexes, not only from his wife. (Read Divorce by Any Cause MDR4 and Jesus Teaching in Mat. 19: 3-12 MDR5). Jesus did not change any of the laws of Moses about divorce and marriage.
The Old Testament has very sensitive laws on divorce, and intends to safeguard the innocent party – the victim. The principle behind the details of the contract (the marriage settlement) is that material support (food and clothing) and physical tenderness (conjugal love) should be brought before both. Therefore, situations like maltreatment are covered by these laws, because if we think about it, physical and emotional abuse is extreme forms of neglect of material subsistence and / or physical tenderness.
These two distinct Biblical exceptions, infidelity and neglect, have something in common: both are acts committed by a partner against an obedient believer. In other words, the obedient believer does not break up the marriage, but are confronted with a marriage covenant which is already broken.
We probably have got some of this a bit crooked. We often look down or accuse whoever initiates a divorce to be the culprit, but that is not always so. If the other party is the person who has violated the terms of the marriage contract repeatedly with a hard heart, it is not the suffering part who initiates a divorce that become the culprit. We must be careful to always discriminate those who go to the step to divorce. I have asked myself many times how many there really are sitting in the church that by broken promises from their partner, living under the broken vows, but on the paper is not? Many suffer in silence.
The only person who could choose to adopt a divorce was the victim himself. If one of the party broke marriage vows, could the others choose either to divorce or to forgive and save the marriage. You could not choose to divorce yourself from your partner just because you wanted it, as Jesus also says to the Pharisees in Mat. 19. (Link to: Divorce – Whatever Reason ESG4 and Jesus Teaching in Mat. 19: 3-12 ESG5)
It was the victim Jesus had in mind of and we also see Jesus takes the victim in defense in Mark. 10: 11-12:
“ And He said to them, “ Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12 and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.”” (Mark 10:11-12)
This is the same discussion as in Mat. 19, and addresses the ‘any cause’-practice. What clearly emerges here is that the divorce (any cause) commits adultery, not the other innocent party. It is here committed a sin against the innocent.
It is important to see this verse in context to what the discussion is all about, namely divorce by ‘any cause’-practice and not a violence of matrimonial conditions. Divorce by any cause’-practice is when one takes out divorce for no reason. Divorce by broken promises is; when the person who did not broke the promises had enough and seek divorce.
Many Christians today would say: “I know it sounds terrible, but unless your partner did not commit adultery, the Bible says that one must remain in marriage and trust in God who brought you together.” To make it somewhat easier for the suffering party, is a phrase added: “If you are in danger, you have access to separate, but not divorce.” And this way this can spin all eh way to embrace all abuse and broken vows. The end of this is that it doesn’t matter what reason, besides infidelity, you cannot divorce and must be in distress just be separated.
It is easy to sympathize with this form of solving a problem, and it also seems fair for the victim to escape the abuse in a way, right? But the solution is not Biblical.
A married couple should not separate themselves without getting divorced! Paul says clearly that the Lord requires that married couples are not to separate.
“But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave [chōrizō] (to separate, divide:–leave), her husband 11 (but if she does leave (separate), she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce [aphiēmi] (to send away, leave alone, abandoned) his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Let me explain this parentheses I’ve done in this scripture. In this translation (NASB) is the Greek word ‘chorizo’ translated to leave which is more correct than my Norwegian Bible who translate it to divorce (Gr; χωρίζω chorizo = separate, divide, leave).
Should we take the traditional interpretation of the New Testament seriously, as it means that no one can be separated from a partner who abuse. In other words, the foundation of those who say – “Whatever cause, besides infidelity, you can not divorce but need only be separated” – is gone.
It is quite ironic that the New Testament, which emphasizes God’s mercy and forgiveness, are usually considered much more stringent with regard to the victim for spousal abuse. The traditional interpretation thus assumes that Jesus introduced a new, more stringent policy that turns the Old Testament principle on its head, a principle which states that a victim has the right to bring their suffering to an end. But this traditional interpretation is not correct, Jesus’ attitude toward the Old Testament was very highly regarded, and we find that he did not turn any of its (GT) key moral principles on its head.
We must distinguish between adultery, which is always wrong and divorce. Divorce is the legal recognition that a marriage has been broken up. The law of Moses did not say that it was acceptable to break up a marriage, but the law prescribes the legal process that was required after the violation had occurred. It is said that you can’t have their cake and eat it too; he can not leave his wife and expect her to wait for him at a later date. Whatever sin that leads to an adultery, it should be a clean finish. No partner should keep the other as a prisoner in a marriage that is already dead.
So where are the limits? What about those who no longer love each other – can they be divorced on the basis of neglect of love? Actually such issues is rooted in the quest for an easy exit out of the marriage and possible looks for a greener grass on the other side. But yes, we see it too often today when the crush slipping away, they believe the marriage is ending. Many also use the term “we’ve grown apart”, which I think has no foundation and are simply mist chat.
It will be hard to say that today’s concept of love can be read backwards into the Biblical texts. It may be that some conclude that this was included in the underlying principle of ‘physical tenderness’. Anyway, if we remember that Jesus emphasized that divorce should only occur where there was a ‘hard heart’ violation of the marriage vows, it is then assumed that He would have been strongly opposed to the shallow explanation of “we’ve grown apart”-divorce or ‘the crush has slipped away’-divorce.
Marriage is based on promises and not just feelings. When the passionate heat cools, it’s not a signal of the marriage is failing and has come to an end, but that marriage need safeguarding. Who would sell the house because it needed some painting or heaters needed repairs?
We have seen that God gave clear and fair laws in the Old Testament to limit the devastation of neglect and abuse. The victim was allowed to decide whether they wanted the marriage to end or not. Would God really go from this vice and practical approach in the New Testament times, or is this just a principle in today’s churches?
– MDR stands for Marriage – Divorce – Remarriage. A shortcut I choose to use on this series where I deal with some christian problems in the questions of marriage, divorce and remarriage.
– Bible Verses are from NASB, unless otherwise noted.
What do you think?