What does God think about divorce?
It was great to have Dr. Greg Campbell on our podcast today.
If you are interested in any of the books he referenced they are listed below
When my daughter Sterling was 7 she was the sweetest thing in the whole world. It’s not that she’s not sweet now, but you know, teenagers. I know some of you have seven year olds, but I’m sorry, they weren’t as sweet. I know that’s hard to hear, but deal with it. I have never been told, “I love you” by anyone so much in my whole life. At any given moment, during any conversation, during any event, I could expect her to say, “I love you Da Da.” Either that, or I get the sign language version of “I love you.” I taught her that a few years back. That has upped my “I love you” quotient up ten fold. I often get the double barreled I love you. And most of these “I love you’s” are absolutely sincere. The only reason I would cast any suspicion on any of those “I love you’s” is that I know sometimes they take on a different meaning. Like, when I discipline her. My seven year old was practically perfect in every way, and as I have already established, she is better then your seven year old, but she does need discipline from time to time. She also has this habit of waking people up by standing above them and doing a knee drop. So I have to discipline her and every time I do I get an “I love you Da Da.” But it sounds different. It’s poutier. It’s a little more pathetic. “I love you Da Da.” In those moments, I don’t doubt she loves me. But I’m not sure that’s what that phrase means at that moment. In those moments “I love you” doesn’t mean “I love you.” It’s more of a question. She’s not saying, “I love you” she’s asking, “Da Da, do you love me?”
“Does God hate divorced people.” Why would we even bother to ask such a silly question with such an obvious answer. Of course God loves divorced people. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. The reason I’ve titled this message like that is because I believe that our world is full of people who aren’t sure of the answer to that. They’ve sat in been to a church where they give a message that divorce is the unforgivable sin, or made you feel that you are damaged goods. They, like my seven year old, are wondering, “Da Da, do you love me? Do you still accept me after my divorce?” This morning we are going to see if we can give you an answer to that question.
I’ve relied heavily on three different people to write this message. One is Jesus. Duh. One is David Instone-Brewer, the writer who has done the best research on this topic. Another is John Ortberg who gave a great message on this topic and I’ve stolen as much as I possibly could from him.
Let’s begin by taking a look at what Jesus has to say about divorce in the sermon on the mount.
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew 5:31-32
If that’s all you know about divorce from the bible, it sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? It sounds like Jesus is saying that there is only one reason for divorce. Marital unfaithfulness. If that’s the case, what do you do with the spouse who is physically abusive. What do you do with the spouse who sexually abuses your kids. What do you do about the person with an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
For us to understand just what Jesus meant we have to go back several thousand years to get some context.
Way back in the ancient world, before Jesus and even before the Old Testament, the ancient near east was pretty much governed by the Hammurabi Code. If you were a wife, under that code your husband could divorce you at any time and for any reason just by walking out of the house. You would be stuck with the kids, if there were any. You’d have no money. Let’s say that you had sons and found some way to raise them. They might get old enough to work the farm and turn a profit. Then your ex-husband could return anytime he wanted to, reclaim you and the kids and the money and the farm.
What that meant was, if you were a wife and your husband left, even though technically you could remarry, the reality was that no man would ever marry you if husband number one were lurking around out there somewhere and could come back. So, if you were a woman in that world and your marriage broke up, you were in trouble. In that day, divorce involved a lot of contention around money and finances. Fortunately, in our day, people are more mature going through a divorce, and they hardly ever fight about money. But they did back then!
Women were very vulnerable in the ancient world. One of the striking aspects of the Law of Moses, compared to the law of the ancient near east, was its concern for women. It was clear from Genesis that God’s intent for marriage was that it be a permanent commitment from a husband and wife. If it did break up, Moses said:
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house. Deuteronomy 24:1
Now, the “certificate” was a way of protecting the woman, because it meant the first husband could never come back and reclaim her. The certificate always had a phrase on it: You are free to remarry any Jewish man, or any Jewish woman that you wish. Deuteronomy here mentions divorce on the grounds of “indecency.” In the Hebrew, it read “for the cause of sexual immorality.” This raises the question, “What about other cases. Was there provision for divorce because of abuse or abandonment?” Actually, those cases were covered in the old testament as well.
In Exodus 21, we find another classic text on divorce. The law here covers the question, “What happens if a man takes a second wife?” and it’s designed to protect the interests of the first wife:
If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. Exodus 21: 10-11
Once again, the law is seeking to protect the woman. In this case, the husband takes a new wife and, human nature being what it is, the new wife tends to get the good stuff, so the law said, “ When he (the husband) married his first wife, he made a vow to provide support (food and clothing) and love. So, if he breaks that vow, then the first wife is free to leave, free to get a divorce, free to get a certificate, free to remarry.”
Over time the rabbis looked at these two passages that became the classic text in the Scriptures governing divorce. They said: Here is the principle that is involved: Based on these texts, marriage involves a vow, and those vows include three primary promises:
1) Fidelity—to be faithful . . . no sexual unfaithfulness (Deuteronomy 24)
2) To provide—food, clothing and so on (Exodus 21)
3) Love, including Sexual intimacy and affection.
Marriage is a vow: to be faithful, to provide and to love. When these vows are broken, the victim of the broken vows has a right to get divorced. Male or female . . .. That would include the right to be remarried.
There was no such thing in Judaism as a divorce that did not include the right to remarry. That was the idea behind the “certificate.” Rabbis would debate what constituted the breaking of these vows, because they took them very seriously. How much food was included in that promise? What about clothing? How about conjugal love? This is the kind of thing that rabbis did.
They came up with rules around the idea of physical intimacy. The husband had to offer to be physically intimate with his wife at least twice a week, or she had the right to divorce him if he didn’t do it. They made exceptions in some cases. For instance, if he was a donkey driver, he only had to offer it one time a week. They figured it was like being a trucker out on the road. If he was unemployed, a husband had to at least make the offer of physical intimacy every night, seven nights a week, or his wife could divorce him. I’m not making that up. Rabbis actually said that, and they were probably all unemployed rabbis.
Did rabbis believe that Biblical grounds for divorce could include things like abandonment or abuse? Of course they did. Abandonment would simply be the extreme form of breaking the vow to provide. Abuse would be the extreme form of breaking the vow to love. In Israel, those would be grounds for divorce. That did not mean that anybody thought God believed divorce was a good idea. It was not, but this was a way of preventing worse injustice and suffering when vows were broken. That’s the framework for marriage and divorce in ancient Israel.
Fast forward to Jesus day. Two of the most famous rabbis who lived a few decades before Jesus and dominated rabbinic teaching were named Hillel and Shammai. They were the leading rabbi’s and they polarized teaching on this topic.
Hillel looked at the law in Deuteronomy 24:1, where Moses says a man can divorce his wife for “a cause of sexual immorality.” Hillel reflected on this text and said:
Moses could have said that a man could divorce his wife “for sexual immorality,” but he includes this phrase: “for the cause of sexual immorality.” HIllel reasoned that this word must refer to another cause, a different grounds for divorce beside sexual immorality. Since it was just the word “cause,” Hillel concluded that it must mean “any cause.” In other words, Hillel said that Deuteronomy 24 meant that a man could divorce his wife for two reasons: sexual immorality or any cause. Hillel was a man. The rabbis in his school were men. They decided that this “any cause” divorce would be available to only one gender. Anybody want to guess which gender that was? Men.
“Any cause,” Hillel said, covered just about any fault you could conceive of.
They listed things like:
• If a wife spoiled her husband’s dinner, he could divorce her.
• If she walked around with her hair unbound, her husband could divorce her, because that was considered improper.
• If she argued in a voice loud enough to be heard in the next house, he could divorce her.
• If she rented two consecutive chick-flicks from Blockbuster, he could divorce her. (That one I made up …)
For your information, that kind of divorce still exists. According to Islamic law, if you merely say “I divorce you” three times to your wife, that’s all you need to do and you’re divorced. I read this last week about a man in Dubai that had already told his wife “I divorce you” two times and one morning she failed to show up on time to make his tea so he got out his cell phone and texted her “You’re late. I divorce you.” She took it to a Muslim court, but the court upheld the man’s right.
I’m not sure we are too far from this form of divorce, at least in our attitudes. In my research I ran across a legal firm that ran this billboard. “Life is short, get a divorce.” That’s the Hillel divorce theory.
The other important rabbi, Shammai, disagreed. He said: No. Deuteronomy 24:1 refers only to divorce being allowed for sexual immorality. Of course, Shammai would have agreed that divorce could also happen, on the basis of Exodus 21, when the vow for provision was broken, or when the vow for love was broken. But when it comes to Deuteronomy 24, Shammai said: An “any cause” divorce is wrong. Bad interpretation. Not correct.
In Jesus’ day, this caused a big debate between the rabbis who followed Hillel and the rabbis who followed Shammai, and everybody wanted to know exactly where every rabbi stood on this subject. It’s like the way, in our day, we ask politicians, “Where do you stand on capital punishment, etc. Are you pro or con?” This brings us to Jesus:
Jesus was asked where he stood on this debate in Matthew 19. Let’s look at it
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
In my opinion, they are not asking“Rabbi, is divorce always against the law?” That was never debated in that day. Divorce was in Moses’ law. No rabbi would have ever asked, “Is it lawful for us to follow Moses’ law?” It was in the law. What they’re asking is: Jesus, how do you interpret Deuteronomy 21? In other words, are you a Hillel guy or a Shammai guy? They’re not really even interested in Jesus’ answer. The text says: They came to test or trap him. Let’s keep reading
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19:3-9
Jesus is saying, in my opinion, if you do the “any cause” deal, you’re wrong. If you do that and get remarried—which would have been the expectation in that culture— that’s adultery. Here, Jesus is not talking about the whole Jewish framework of marriage and divorce that was a part of his
A similar situation in our day would be if someone asked, “Do you think it’s OK for sixteen year old to drink?” We will automatically supply the words “drink alcohol,” because we understand what that question means. First century readers understood the debate.
Because the only grounds Jesus mentions here is sexual immorality, some people have thought that the New Testament position is that the only Biblical grounds for divorce is infidelity. This has led to anguish and heartbreak and confusion, and, I believe, tragedy.
I have read a story this week about a woman who was being abused by her husband, so the woman went to live with her sister. Her husband got a shotgun, found her, chased her out into the field, pinned her to the ground and pulled the trigger. Fortunately the gun jammed. Her case was taken before her church and the churches initial response was that she needed to get back together with her husband or it was sin. They finally backed off and said she could separate, but she could never remarry or it would be adultery and sin. People have thought this is what it means to be Biblical on this issue. I disagree, wholeheartedly. I believe that breaking any of the three promises is grounds for divorce. Breaking the vow of fidelity, breaking the vow of provision, breaking the vow of withholding love, they are all grounds.
I want to be very direct here for a moment. If you are in an abusive situation, if you or your children are in danger, then get out now. Get safe.
Let me also say this. Don’t use a message like this as a license to get divorced. If you are married, fight for it. I’ve heard time and time again from people who have gotten a divorce that they wished they had worked harder to save it. Sometimes it can’t be saved. But if it can, do the work. Try to restore the romance. It’s worth it.
Maybe you don’t believe any of this Hillel, Shammai stuff. Maybe you think that divorce, under any circumstances is sin. If you believe that, let me see if I can put this another way. If you asked me if I believed that a person who had gotten divorced had sinned, my answer would be simple. Duh! Yeah. You bet I believe they have sinned. Of course they have. Whether it’s an anger problem or lust problem or a relationship that ends in divorce, we need Him and He wants us to see that. But don’t think for a moment that because you messed up, your Da Da doesn’t love you. He does. He’d do anything for you. He knows what it feels like to have His heart broken.
Let me let you in on a little secret about God. He’s been divorced. The old testament paints a picture of the nation of Israel’s relationship with God. It was like a marriage. But Israel was unfaithful. They ran away from God. And this is how ended. Look with me at Jeremiah
I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Jeremiah 3:8
Do you understand what that is saying? God goes through a divorce. In the Book of Malachi, God says: I hate divorce. Malachi 2:16
Do you want to know why God hates divorce? He’s been through it.
God says: I’ve been through all the humiliation of being rejected.
God says: I know all about the pain of betrayal.
God says: I know all about the anguish of broken vows from hard-hearted people.
The prophets of Israel say that God is a divorcee. So God invented the first divorce recovery program at a place called Calvary. And the price for the course was one blood stained cross. Jesus paid that price for all of us—for you and for me— and God was the first one to go through it. It’s still in session for anyone who wants to come.
I will make you my wife forever, showing you righteousness and justice, unfailing love and compassion. Hosea 2:19 NLT
There is love and compassion at the cross for hard-hearted vow breakers like me. When it comes to this divorce, we are all on the wrong side of it. We have all been unfaithful to God. That is why any church that divides people up into superior, non-divorced, first-class Christians and inferior, beat up, divorced, second-class Christians is theologically errant and spiritually destructive. On the most important spiritual level, every one of us has been unfaithful. We are all divorcees. We all need the cross.