I’ve seen the pain of abusive marriages. I’ve seen the agony of divorce. I’ve seen Christians and their children suffer in abusive marriages because they didn’t want to disobey Jesus’ teachings here in Mark 10. And time and again, with this text in view, I’ve wrestled over how to counsel believers caught in an abusive marriage trap. Here’s the text . . .
Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them. Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” “What did Moses command you?” he replied. They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ”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 flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let man not separate.” When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:1-12).
The incident starts with a test question from a few Pharisees. They’re hoping his answer will contradict the law and be self-incriminating. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus answers with a question: “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees cite the Mosaic law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. They want Jesus to discuss the lawfulness of divorce on the grounds of this passage . . .
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, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Consider this passage for a minute. First, Moses isn’t giving guidelines for divorce. Nor does he prohibit it. What he does is recognize men are divorcing their wives (see also Leviticus 21:7; Numbers 30:9). Moses’ aim here is to prevent a man from remarrying a woman he had previously divorced.
Second, two schools of thought existed about the interpretation of “something indecent“ that a man finds in his wife. The Hebrew word (ervah) basically means “nakedness”. In this context, it obviously doesn’t mean literal nakedness. Therefore, it’s vaguely translated, “indecent, shameful”. Two schools of thought developed. One, led by Rabbi Shemei, interpreted it to mean some sort of sexual immorality. The other, led by Rabbi Hillel, interpreted it to mean virtually anything that shames the husband or that he finds displeasing about his wife. These schools of thought lay behind the Pharisees’ question and load it with more complexity for Jesus.
But Jesus easily hits the heart of the issue when he explains why Moses gave the Deuteronomy 24 law: “It was because your hearts were hard (stubborn, obstinate, unyielding toward God) that Moses wrote you this law. But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ “. Jesus concludes: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let man not separate.” According to Jesus, God’s creation ordinance takes precedence over the later Mosaic law given due to “hard hearts”.
Later, when the disciples ask about this, Jesus draws a further conclusion: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
This is stark stuff. What help does it offer a wife suffering an abusive marriage whose husband refuses help? Or a wife divorced and now remarried? Of course, Jesus doesn’t intend to offer help. He’s answering the Pharisees’ test-question. And he answers it with God’s ideal design for marriage. By “ideal” I don’t mean pie-in-the-sky or out-of-reach. By “ideal” I mean model or exemplary. In other words, what Jesus quotes from Genesis 1:24 pictures how God designed marriage to supremely be.
But all marriages aren’t “model”. Why? Sin. Sin in the world. Sin in the husband. Sin in the wife. Sin still in the Spirit-indwelt believer. As iron left in the rain rusts, so sin corrupts. And sometimes, one or both marriage partners allow corruption to continue until the marriage crumbles.
It’s easy to approach this text as a theologian. What Jesus teaches is plain. But I approach this text as a (former) pastor. Before me sits a Christian wife with two young children, all of whom have suffered verbal and emotional abuse for years. She’s prayed. Others have prayed. Things have gotten worse, not better. The pain shows on her face. I wonder the effect on the kids. The wife nervously confides she’s considering divorce. But, knowing Jesus’ prohibition, she’s afraid—almost as if she’s contemplating the unpardonable sin.
My gut wants me to punch this guy in the face; my mind starts looking for loopholes. I find one in Matthew 19:9—“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality (Greek porneia–sexual immorality of any kind, including prostitution, fornication, homosexual practice, adultery, etc.), and marries another, commits adultery.” I ask, “Has your husband cheated on you?” “I don’t think so,” she answers. Loophole closed.
I find another in 1 Corinthians 7:15—“But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” I ask, “Does your husband want to leave you?” “No,” she replies. “He’s got it too good right where he is.” I wonder if “leaving” has to be physical. Can’t it also be emotional or relational? The text plainly means “physical desertion”. But couldn’t it be okay to apply it emotionally? I’m looking for a loophole because I don’t want to counsel this woman to keep suffering.
How could Jesus? Oh, I know Ephesians 5:22-33 makes marriage a picture of Christ and his church. And if we divorce and remarry we wreck our witness. But how can a marriage like this one reveal Christ and his church? Does anybody who knows this family “see Jesus” in their home? I decide neither every marriage nor the institution of marriage pictures Christ and his church—only those that approximate God’s model.
But I still have no loophole. Divorce + remarriage = adultery. Maybe it’s my soft heart, but I decide each “case” must be decided on its own merits. I have to uphold the sanctity of marriage and not condone divorce because the wife feels unappreciated. I have to get the whole picture of the marriage, know what attempts have been made to “make it work”, and see how long this has been going on. If it seems hopeless, I suggest a reasonable time period (six months?) to see what God might do. Then, if nothing’s changed, I agree that divorce seems the only solution. I warn her that’s not simple. Divorce and remarriage come with long-term trouble. I’ll try to help her through the process. She and her kids won’t be alone.
So call me a heretic. Charge me with flagrant disobedience. But I’m not sure that Scripture explicitly tells us everything about the issue. I figure there are certain situations where we have to make the best decision we can, knowing what we know from God’s Word . . . feeling the pain of the people involved . . . and trusting Jesus to be merciful to us as we wrestle with the stinking mess that sin has made of this marriage . . . and hoping our Savior through divorce and remarriage will graciously redeem this stinking mess into a family that smells a lot like his love.