You open your Bible to Matthew 19 and read the words of Jesus:
“Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9 NKJV)
The old King James Version translates it this way:
“Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” (Matthew 19:9 KJV)
The phrase “put away his wife” jumps out at you. What did Jesus mean here? Does this apply to you and your spouse? You want to honor God in your marriage, so you are eager to understand what Jesus intended with these words.
As we dig into this important topic, here are the key takeaways we will cover:
- The historical context of divorce and “putting away” in Jesus’ day
- The two main interpretations of Jesus’ words on divorce
- A walkthrough of the key biblical passages on divorce
- Guidance on whatSeparation means in a Christian marriage
- How to apply Jesus’ teachings on divorce in your own life
The Historical Context of Divorce in Jesus’ Day
In Jesus’ day, Jewish culture had developed a loose approach to divorce. The debate centered around two schools of rabbinic thought:
- The school of Shammai took a stricter view, allowing divorce only in the case of sexual immorality.
- The school of Hillel took a looser view, allowing divorce for basically any reason.
This led to a proliferation of divorces, often leaving women destitute. Men could easily “put away” their wives for any complaint or whim.
Jesus made it clear he sided with the school of Shammai. By saying the only valid grounds was sexual immorality, he rejected the casual approach to divorce found in the school of Hillel.
When we see the phrase “put away his wife” we should hear it in this historical context. Jesus opposed the cavalier divorce culture of his day.
Two Main Views on What Jesus Meant
There are two major interpretations of what Jesus meant when he talked about divorce:
1. The “exception clause” view
This view sees sexual immorality as the only grounds for legitimate divorce. If your spouse commits adultery you have the option to divorce. But apart from that situation, divorce results in adultery.
This is the majority view held through church history. It reflects the typical Protestant understanding.
2. The “no exception” view
This view says Jesus prohibited all divorce, without exception. Even in cases of sexual immorality, they argue Scripture calls us to extend forgiveness and pursue reconciliation.
This view is held by the Catholic church and some Protestant groups. They take the most absolute prohibition on divorce.
Which view is correct? As we look at the key biblical passages, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions. But both perspectives do agree on this:
Divorce should be avoided if at all possible. It brings tremendous pain and should only be pursued in the direst of situations.
With that context, let’s walk through the biblical evidence.
A Walkthrough of Biblical Passages on Divorce
Let’s look at what the Bible says about divorce, particularly focused on Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels.
Old Testament Background
In the Old Testament, Moses permitted divorce:
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house…” (Deuteronomy 24:1 NKJV)
This passage regulated divorce without ultimately endorsing it. The certificate of divorce protected the woman’s ability to remarry.
So while divorce was permitted, the Old Testament makes it clear it is not part of God’s original intent. Malachi says:
“For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce.” (Malachi 2:16 NKJV)
With that background, let’s see how Jesus discussed divorce in the Gospels.
Jesus’ Teaching in the Sermon on the Mount
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus raises the bar on righteousness:
“It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32 NKJV)
Jesus tightens the Old Testament standard. No longer is divorce acceptable for just “any reason.” He permits it only in cases of sexual immorality.
Jesus’ Exchange With the Pharisees
The Pharisees later attempt to trap Jesus with a question on divorce (Matthew 19:3-12).
Jesus responds by affirming God’s original intent in creation: one man and woman united for life:
“Haven’t you read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6 NKJV)
Jesus then reiterates the exception clause:
“I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9 NKJV)
This exchange highlights Jesus’ high view of marriage. Divorce and remarriage constitute adultery, except in cases of sexual sin.
Paul’s Teaching in 1 Corinthians
The Apostle Paul provides further teaching on divorce in addressing issues in the Corinthian church:
“Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11 NKJV)
Paul echoes Christ’s heart against divorce. But if separation occurs, reconciliation should be pursued. Neither spouse should remarry another.
So in summary, Scripture permits divorce only in extreme circumstances. Even then, reconciliation is the ideal.
What Does “Separation” Mean in a Christian Marriage?
With such a high standard against divorce, you may ask about separation.
Scripture does not explicitly address separation, but here are some biblical principles to consider:
- Separation should be a last resort. The goal should be repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Don’t rush into separation.
- The motives matter. Seek guidance from your pastor or counselor. Ensure your desire to separate involves no sinful motivations.
- Set clear parameters. Clarify expectations with your spouse on finances, child custody, length of separation, etc. Give focus to restoring the marriage.
- A set timetable is wise. Avoid open-ended separation. Set a fixed term of 3-6 months. Reassess progress toward reconciliation at the end.
- Use the time purposefully. Grow closer to God, address any personal issues, and seek counsel. Don’t make rash decisions.
- Remain faithful to your vows. As 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 explains, separation does not dissolve the marriage bond. Uphold your commitment to marital faithfulness.
If you pursue separation, make it a season of intentional growth. Keep the end goal of reconciliation.
Applying Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce to Your Situation
In light of all we’ve covered, how do you apply Jesus’ teachings to your own marriage? Here are some closing principles to guide you:
- Study Scripture deeply. Don’t rely on fragments of Bible verses. Study Christ’s full teaching in context. Meditate on His heart for marriage.
- Commit to the long game. Every marriage hits rough patches. Determine to persevere even in difficult seasons. Divorce should be an absolute last option.
- Surround yourself with wise counsel Talk to mature believers who know you and your spouse. Get their perspective and advice.
- Focus on your own heart first. Examine your own words and actions. What changes could you make to be a more loving, forgiving spouse?
- Pursue professional help if needed. For issues like emotional neglect, addiction, or abuse, seek guidance from a Christian therapist or counselor.
- Stay anchored in Christ. Ultimately, He is the One who sustains marriages. Abide in Him daily through prayer and Scripture. Depend on His strength, wisdom and peace.
The journey may be difficult, but God rewards those who honor their marriage vows. Walk closely with Him in discerning next steps. He promises to lead you on the path of righteousness for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3).
May the Lord bless and strengthen your marriage for His glory. By His grace, keep pursuing Christ-centered love and reconciliation. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2). He will carry you through, if you let Him.