Four Sundays ago, I was attending an online service (no thanks to COVID-19) where the minister preached on ‘Jesus’s teaching on divorce’. I am not telling you this because it is the first time I attended an online service (though I am not a big fan of those). I am telling this story because of the topic of the sermon (and how he handled it).
Mark, Luke, and Divorce
The preacher began his ‘exposition’ of this topic with Mark 10. He tried to emphasize Jesus’s insistence that divorce was not part of God’s creational design for marriage. He wanted us to understand that what “God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10:9).
The preacher lamented that there are many reasons out there why people (even some ministers) will want to subscribe to divorce. He believes that Mark 10 stands against that inclination. He condemned the rising spate of divorce in the culture and in the church.
He then went over to Luke 16:18, where once again we see that “he who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18). In his words, “Mark and Luke are perfectly consistent” in affirming that divorce is wrong.
After establishing these unqualified statements where Jesus stood against divorce, he went on to argue against those believe that there are conditions (or circumstances, as he puts it) where divorce is permissible. He was concerned that many people use Mathew’s version of this text to argue that divorce is permissible in the case of adultery.
The Mathean texts
After reading the texts from Mathew 5 and 19, he asks, “Does that mean that divorce is allowable on the ground of adultery?” His answer? “The thrust of the Scriptures argue against that interpretation.” In essence, he believes that we cannot interpret Mathew 5 and 19 as providing a circumstance or condition where divorce is permissible.
He believes “there are evidences in Mathew’s account that calls that interpretation into question.”
So what are those evidences?
First, he referred to Peter’s question about how often he should forgive those who sin against him. There, Jesus told Peter that he should forgive seventy times seven times rather than seven times. To this preacher, this statement of Jesus in Mathew 18:21-22 should inform our interpretation of Mathew 19:9 (don’t mind the context).
Furthermore, he affirmed that Jesus insisted that we forgive our brothers (unlike the forgiven servant who grabbed and choked his debtor). Our preacher used these two passages to make the point that Jesus cannot be telling us to always forgive everyone except our wives.
To him, Jesus’s teaching about forgiveness in Mathew 18 cannot exclude our wives. Since adultery is an offence, we should apply the seventy times seven rule of Mathew 18 to it. He believes that it is “insensible” to think otherwise.
Second, he believes that the disciples’ reaction – if this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry – proves that Jesus was not really making an exception. For him, this statement could only mean there was no reason for divorce (why else would the disciples make such statement?) In fact, this preacher said, “If Jesus had said you may only divorce your wife if she commits adultery that would not have been a new message to them.” He emphasized that their reaction only means Jesus was saying something new and radical – never divorce.
Since we are adulterous in our relationship to Christ and he forgives us, he argues, we must also forgive as Jesus forgave us. Marriage is a permanent, lifelong relationship. He believes that adultery, domestic violence, abuse are only grounds for temporary separation, not divorce. “We need to focus on forgiving and loving the erring spouse”
What is the problem with this “exposition”?
I would not spill much ink arguing against our preacher. Instead, I will briefly highlight what is wrong with this kind of exposition and how it reveals a deeper problem among us believers.
First, the preacher did not interact with the key verse at all. Mathew 19:9 is a complete statement on its own. It is a simple and direct statement that is easy to understand. “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” There is no iota of ambiguity in this text.
If what our preacher said is correct, Jesus did not need to insert that interrupting phrase (except for marital unfaithfulness) into the statement. The purpose of those four words (except for marital unfaithfulness) is to say that there is a condition where divorce is permissible. If Jesus was trying to say there is no justifiable reason for divorce, why insert this phrase into the statement? Is Jesus an author of confusion? God forbid. This phrase is supposed to mean something. To ignore it and merry-go-round the text is bad exegesis.
Secondly, Jesus never applied his teaching on forgiveness to this chapter. Jesus was not unaware of what he had just said. He had just taught us to forgive. But he did not apply his teaching on forgiveness in Mathew 18 to his teaching on divorce in Mathew 19. Our preacher is putting words into the mouth of Jesus that he never said.
Furthermore, Mathew 18 is not a direct context for Mathew 19. While Mathew 19 follows 18 in the canonical arrangement, the setting of the former is different. Mathew 18 is a series of Jesus teachings directed at the disciples (Mathew 18:1). In Mathew 19, they had moved from Galilee to the other side of the Jordan in Judea. Here, he was teaching a large crowd that included the Pharisees in addition to his disciples. It is a widely different context.
Jesus’s plain words is that marital unfaithfulness is a condition for divorce. He did not qualify that qualification by applying his previous teaching on forgiveness. Jesus could have easily said if your wife commits adultery, forgive her and never divorce her. Contrarily, he said if there is marital unfaithfulness, you are free to get a divorce.
Of course this is not to say that a wife or husband cannot decide to forgive the other party. But he or she is not obligated to continue with the marriage (even after forgiving the other party). Jesus is not mandating that a divorce must take place but he is stating categorically that it can.
Thirdly, Jesus made a similar statement in Mathew 5 where the context is not about forgiveness. If Mathew 18 is so integral to the interpretation of Mathew 19 (as our preacher argues), what do we do with Mathew 5? Jesus gave the same qualification – except for marital unfaithfulness – and he did not qualify the qualification.
Fourth, it is so simple to understand why the disciples reacted that way. We do not need to posit that Jesus was saying there is no ground for adultery to justify their reaction. Their reaction is explainable if we notice that the standard belief is that you can divorce your wife for any reason as long as you issue a certificate of divorce (Mathew 19:3; Mathew 5:31).
This limitation of justified grounds of divorce to marital unfaithfulness is the reason for their reaction. ‘So you mean I cannot divorce my wife if I think she suddenly became too big?’ ‘So I cannot divorce my wife if I am tired of her excessive nagging.’ No, you cannot. The fact that they can no longer divorce for any and every reason (except one) is enough explanation for their reaction. To argue that only an absolute embargo on divorce can justify their reaction is wrong, to say the least.
Fifth, our preacher did not interact with 1 Corinthians 7. In that passage, Paul allows for the believing man or woman (became a believer after the marriage) to agree to a divorce if the unbelieving partner so desires. (Verses 12-16).
Sixth, citing Mark and Luke’s gospel where the qualification is absent does not prove anything. This is not a case of a textual variant. There is no textual variant in Mathew 5:32 and 19:9. Therefore, unless we want to argue that Mathew added to what Jesus actually said, that point is irrelevant to the argument.
Don’t go beyond what is written
My main problem with this sermon (the primary reason I am writing this article) is that it is an example of how we want to be more righteous than God by going beyond what the bible clearly teaches (with clearly being the keyword).
God said that divorce is permissible in the case of marital unfaithfulness but some of us want to show our pietism by arguing that it is not permissible on any ground. Why do we try to be holier than God is? Do we hate divorce more than God does? Do we love marriage more than its creator does?
We should hate divorce and hate what it does to the society and the church. We should lament the increasing cases of divorce and the reasons for divorce that have nothing to do with marital unfaithfulness. However, we cannot go beyond that to argue that divorce is never permissible when God says otherwise.
God said (clearly) many times over that women should not serve in the position of Pastors/Elders/Bishops/Overseers/Teachers in the church (1 Timothy 2:11-15; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Corinthians 14:33-28).
However, many of us believe we love and value women more than God and insist that they can. We think we understand the giftedness of women more than the God who created them. We are not content to submit to God, we think we are more pious and holy.
God said it is not what goes into a man from the outside that defiles him but what comes out of him (Mark 7:9-23), but some of us will still insist that a Christian cannot eat pork or drink beer. We believe we know more about holiness than the thrice-holy God himself does. God said drunkenness is the sin (1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:10; Romans 13:13; Galatians 5:21) but many of us will insist that a tablespoon of beer is the fast track to hell.
Heavy Burdens and Yokes
Christ placed a woe (curse) on the Pharisees because they “tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders” (Mathew 23:4). The problem with the Pharisees is that they go beyond what is written. The commandments of God were not good enough for them so they added the traditions of the elders/commandments of men. (Mathew 15:2,9)
They believed obedience to the actual commands of God would not make them holy enough; they piled it up with the commands of men.
Many believers today are treading in the path of the Pharisees, laying burdens upon people that God has not placed on them. They are laying yokes on the neck of God’s disciples (to borrow words from Peter in another context – Acts 15:10).
Some of these believers have genuine desire to do God’s will while some are just card carrying Pharisees. Nevertheless, whatever it is, we have a responsibility to God to stay with what is written. We must never call good evil and evil good (Isaiah 5:20). We must never come up with our own man-made rules or swear by our church standards of morality when those standards are unbiblical or sub-biblical.
We must be careful to distinguish between what God actually commands and what our pietistic background or church tradition imposes.
It is bad to tell people to disobey what God has commanded, but it is also bad to lay on them burdens that God has not.
Don’t go beyond what is written
Paul wrote to the Corinthians imploring them to learn from him and Apollos not to go beyond what is written. He is probably referring to their exaltation of the apostle and Apollos to a position that belongs only to Christ (1 Corinthians 3:1-9). Paul was instructing them not to go beyond what is written in dealing with their ministers. They are God’s servants but they did not die for you.
Paul’s statement should be a guiding rule for us. Let us speak with boldness and clarity where the bible has spoken and let us be silent where it is silent. Let us command what it commands (explicitly or implicitly) and refrain from commanding what it does not. Let us forbid what it forbids (explicitly or implicitly) and refrain from forbidding what it does not. Let us permit what it permits (explicitly or implicitly) and refrain from permitting what it does not permit.
Let us remain with what is written.
As one Pastor will say, “When the faithful exegesis of the text is done, we must never have a problem with any text of scripture.” That is, we must accept what the text says, period.
Last week, we considered those who have a mental image of God and will ignore or misinterpret anything the bible says about God that is different from that image. They will go beyond what is written about God to formulate their own ‘God.’
It’s the same problem with those who think they are more righteous than God is and will go beyond what God has written in his word.
It is only by staying faithful to scriptures that we can be safe. Do not go beyond what is written.
“These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2) May God give us more grace to tremble before his word.