Divorce: Scarlet Letter or Valid Option?; pt. 4


At the end of my first post in this series, I said that I wanted to get around to discussing the import of the phrase “hard heartedness” and its relationship to the intentional violation of the marriage vows. Because of my verbosity, I didn’t feel I could extend the next two articles to get to that subject, but now is the time to go there.

In my last post, I demonstrated how Matthew told the story of Jesus debunking the Talmudic Reasoning that was applied to God’s Law by rabbis that created an “Any Cause” clause in support of their version of No-Fault divorce. And as we saw, after Jesus blew up the “Any Cause” clause, the Pharisees sprung their trap:

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Well, they thought it was a trap.)

However, He came right back at them:

“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Permission, Not Command

I hope you caught the difference between what the Pharisees and Christ said. The Pharisees say that God commanded a man to divorce his wife, but Jesus said that it was optional. It is “allowed”, it is an option.

I don’t want to get all New Testatment-y on you, but Jesus is in the reconciliation business. Marriage is no bed of roses, and Lord knows, there is something to the old adage “Familiarity breeds contempt.” After all, who among us (other than my wife) hasn’t had to pray, “Father, give me the strength to keep from using my strength to murder Hubs/Wifey!”

But to approach divorce? This isn’t some small matter of an irritant, such as leaving the toilet seat up or not squeezing the tube from the end. To get to the point of ending the marriage involves more than pique, it involves breaking the marriage covenant/contract vows.

When a man and woman marry, they pledge to undertake certain responsibilities and fulfill certain roles for the other, in order to enter into this union. These vows, in OT times, were specified in scripture, and supported by rabbinic teachings, and written down in marriage contracts called ketubahs (read Marriage: Covenant or Contract, #2); in fact, they still are. And failure to fulfill these vows constituted the breaking of the covenant and the end of the marriage.

Jesus’ approach to this, however, was the option of reconciliation. Yes, divorce is a choice that the offended party may pursue. But if there is still love and care for the other, and if the offending spouse is willing to enter back into covenant and fulfill his/her vows, then there isn’t necessarily a command to issue a divorce; there is a chance for reconciliation and restoration.

Did I say that this was Jesus’ approach? Well, this was also the approach of God the Father, in the Old Testament. Read the story of God’s relationship with Israel and Judah, and trace His attempts to reconcile with His faithless wives, in Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Over and over, He tries to bring Israel back into covenant, but finally sends her away:

Thus says the Lord:
“Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce,with which I sent her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
to whom I have sold you;
Behold, for your iniquities you were sold,
and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.
(Is. 50:1)

Using Hosea as an object lesson, God demonstrated His attempts to call Israel back from her unfaithfulness, time and again. But the time finally came when He severed the marriage covenant between Him and Israel.

Whose Hard-Heartedness?

Jesus told the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives….” This appears to say that God ceded His will to hard-hearted people who insisted on the option of divorce or they wouldn’t accept Him as God. As I said in my last post, I don’t buy that.

What does it take to break a covenant? In the case of Israel in the OT, it was hard-hearted refusal to repent, to turn from other gods and return to the one true God, JHWH. Although He gave them chance after chance, sent prophet after prophet to warn them, to chastise them, they went merrily on their way to their own doom and enslavement.

The hard-hearted are those who refuse to honor their covenantal marriage vows, who refuse to honor their pledge to their spouse. We know that in OT times, there were four promises/expectations of a marriage covenant/contract. They were

sexual faithfulness (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 24:1; Matt. 19:9)
provision of food (Ex. 21:10-11)
provision of clothing (Ex. 21:10-11)
conjugal rights (Ex. 21:10-11).

If you read the Ex. 21 reference, you will see that it is speaking about “slave wives” and the right of slave wives to leave freely, without price. If you are tempted to say some like, “Well, that was just for slaves,” then you need to recall that I said these were the laws of “OT times.” Very quickly after the giving of the Law, the leaders and judges of Israel realized that the rights of a Hebrew wife should not be less than those of a slave wife, and in Hebrew marriage documents, ketubahs, for three thousand years, now, these three things (food, clothing, and conjugal rights) have been placed in Jewish marriage contracts.

As an interesting sidebar to this discussion, the Talmud even has a passage on the minimum frequency a husband owed his wife sexual pleasure:

“The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey drivers, once a week; for camel drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months.”

(Sailors, of course, took long journeys).

All this is to say that when a man and woman pledge to each other, vow to each other, to love and care for each other, they are promising to fulfill certain obligations and responsibilities to the other in order to maintain the marriage. In the eyes of God and in the eyes of Israel, to intentionally fail to honor the covenant promise entitled the spouse who had been sinned against to declare the covenant broken and the relationship at an end.

Covenant Breakers Break Covenants

In response to my last post, one commenter said that he was interested in getting my thoughts on what would constitute “sexual immorality with regards [to] a legitimate basis for divorce.” He also referenced Matt. 5:28 (even looking with lust constitutes adultery) and said that just about everyone could be divorced, if we went by that standard.

Well, thankfully, we don’t use that standard. In His response, Jesus referenced the continuous, unrepentant, hard-hearted choice to violate God’s covenant as the standard for divorce. If a husband has the morals of an alleycat and makes no bones that his porn and affairs are his way of life, then that is valid reason for divorce. If a wife decides to say that sex is no longer going to occur in the marriage, then the husband has valid reason to divorce his wife.

The Three A’s

All Christians agree that Adultery, breaking the marriage vow via an affair, is an acceptable reason for divorce, so that doesn’t need to be discussed. A second reason that there might be somewhat less agreement on, as far as validity for divorce, is Abuse, whether physical or emotional. But under the laws of divorce as given by Moses, this would fall under the broad heading of failure to provide care, a la Ex. 21:10-11.

A third one reason that I believe to be a valid reason for divorce is Abandonment of the marriage bed. (Hence, the Three A’s, as I refer to them: Adultery, Abuse, Abandonment). The Greek word, pornea, has been analyzed ad nauseum, and I’m not going to do it here. Suffice to say that the word means more than adultery, and has been translated as “sexual immorality” in a number of translations.

Does abandonment of the marriage bed rise to the level of sexual sin, like adultery? At the very least, it is the failure to fill the expected role of friend and lover that is sworn in the marriage vow. And it is clear that the writer of the Torah thought so (Ex. 21), and, to my astonishment, so did one of my Heroes of the Faith. In his tractate, The Estate of Marriage (1522), Martin Luther wrote this:

The third case for divorce is that in which one of the parties deprives and avoids the other, refusing to fulfil the conjugal duty or to live with the other person. For example, one finds many a stubborn wife like that who will not give in, and who cares not a whit whether her husband falls into the sin of unchastity ten times over. Here it is time for the husband to say, “If you will not, another will; the maid will come if the wife will not.” Only first the husband should admonish and warn his wife two or three times, and let the situation be known to others so that her stubbornness becomes a matter of common knowledge and is rebuked before the congregation. If she still refuses, get rid of her; take an Esther and let Vashti go, as King Ahasuerus did [Esther 1:1 :17].

“Only first he should admonish and warn his wife two or three times”!! Well, what do you know? Luther was advocating for the Shot Across The Bow™ long before anyone on TMB! And do you see what he also advocates? Making her stubbornness a matter of common knowledge! He is calling for a Matt. 18 confrontation with a sinning wife. How many preachers and teachers do you hear calling for that in this day and age?


In my first post in this series, I said, “rather than divorce being a sin, it is a valid option to a hard-hearted, intentional violation of the marriage covenant/contract. An unfortunate option, yes, but a valid one.” As I believe I have shown, God does not see divorce as a scarlet letter sin committed by a hard-hearted reprobate, but the final sad action needed to formally end an irreparably broken relationship.

Divorce is not a happy act, nor is it a vengeful act. But it is sometimes a needed act, and we, as a Church, as the Body of Christ, need to realize that we need to reach out, not with the traditions and teachings of men, but with the healing power of God’s word.



Filed under Marriage & Sexuality

3 responses to “Divorce: Scarlet Letter or Valid Option?; pt. 4

  1. I suppose that marriages with “average” problems might not find Mt.18 to be an onerous burden. I tend to think Mt.18 is more for reconciling two people when neither has authority over the other. If divorce is needed or sought, I wish the secular government had no part. Going to the church would be better.

    I Cor.11:3 shows more than a “chain of command”. I think it describes the nature of the headship in each of those relationships. Bringing a church, or it’s elders in for something more than counselling and teaching can end up with triangulation and coercion. I’ve had to deal with that just looking for counsel! Those kinds of burdens can damage a marriage a lot more and easier than they would in other kinds of relationships, IMO.


  2. Thinking about this a little more, something occured to me. The four things that were determined to be the core obligations of the marriage were mostly from the perspective of the wife. Even the expectation of conjugal rights continues the thought about ensuring the first wife won’t be disregarded by her husband in favor of another wife added to the family.

    This got me wondering about 2-3 things.

    1. With respect to providing, a man should clearly provide. But there is no treatment of the topic of a man who hasn’t provided because of injury, because of disaster (crops ruined), etc.. The sin is really about devaluing an old wife compared to the new. If the first wife is completely, even lavishly provided for, but the provision of sex, food, clothing show that she has been “demoted” compared to the new wife, this is still a problem. So I wonder how the rebbis considered the situations when a husband is struggling or injured.

    2. I wonder why the expectations do not mention anything with regard to the spiritual needs for love, etc..

    3. Maybe the reason that Moses wrote the law without direct, explicit requirements for divorce is because he expected that people who are walking in His way will be able to discern the required wisdom. The more details are defined, the more “loopholes” can be found by the unscrupulous.


  3. Pingback: Amputation As An Analogy | The Curmudgeonly Librarian

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