Divorce and the Heart of Jesus


Divorce is unfortunately a common experience in congregations today and in the past, churches of all denominations have done a poor job of communicating Biblical teaching on Divorce to their members. Here are some guidelines for ministers and church leaders to consider when dealing with marriage and divorce in your congregation:

Be Compassionate: People who have been through a divorce have had every aspect of their family affected by it. If you are going to respond with the heart of Jesus to a family who has been through a divorce, you will need to be compassionate.

Read the Scriptures Carefully: Consider Matt. 19: 1-9. Guard yourself against Proof-Texting (Using a text to ‘prove’ a position you already hold). In order to truly understand a text and read it responsibly you must place yourself as close to the original hearers as possible. Especially guard yourself against using Jesus’ response in the text to answer your own questions without considering the question the Pharisees are asking.

Our Questions:

Is a person allowed to get a divorce? When?

Is a divorced person allowed to get remarried? When?

Can a divorced person be a member of our church?

Can a divorced person be a Deacon? Elder? Minister?

Pharisee’s Question:

Is a man allowed to get a divorce for any reason? (v. 3) Remember that Jesus is answering the Pharisee’s question and not ours.

Background: Shammai vs Hillel

Jesus is being asked a loaded question here that had been debated for many years. Followers of Rabbi Shammai believed that a divorce was allowed only on very specific grounds. Followers of Rabbi Hillel believed that a divorce could be had for just about any reason. Many people followed Hillel’s interpretation of divorce during Jesus time. The question before Jesus is: “Which interpretation is correct?”

Jesus’ Answer:

  • Marriage between a man and a woman has been God’s plan from the beginning.

  • God wants marriages to be forever.

  • God wants vows honoured and promises kept.

Pharisee’s Follow-up Question:

‘If we’re not supposed to get divorces then why did Moses describe a certificate of divorce?’

Jesus’ Answer:

  • Because you refuse to keep your promises.

  • In order to protect women from being abandoned without hope of remarriage.

The Invention of Divorce

Divorces existed long before Moses’ Divorce Certificate was instituted in Deut. 24: 1 (see Ex. 21: 10-11). Outside Israel an Assyrian Law from this time allowed a man to reclaim a woman he had divorced up to five years later, thus acquiring any property, or children she had acquired since the divorce. In this situation, women were trapped between marriages for years; unable to marry again, and unable to provide for themselves. Moses’ certificate was a guarantee that a man who divorces his wife could not take her back. (If he was going to divorce her he had better mean it!)

Interpreting Verse 9

Matthew records Jesus using a passive form of the verb ‘adultery’ (lit. “If a man divorces his wife he ‘adulterates’ her). The word adultery here is intended to capture the unfaithfulness of the act of divorce. It was God’s plan for a man to be faithful to his wife for their entire life. Remarriage is not adultery, divorce is!  Remarriage was assumed by Jesus and his heares! That’s what Moses’ certificate of divorce was for in the first place. Divorce is never preferred and to be avoided at all costs, but it is part of this fallen world and is a sin that we must repent of.

Two Things Churches Should Teach Married Couples about Divorce:

God intended married couples to remain faithful to their marriages for life. The most ‘God-honouring’, faithful thing a married person could do is to be faithful to the marriage they are in. Past divorces are sins of the past that should be repented of and left at the foot of the cross. Divorced people should be invited into full fellowship with our congregations and should be counselled in how to best honour their marriage vows past and present:

  • Is reconciliation possible? If it is safe and responsible for a single, divorced person to attempt to reconcile with their former spouse it should be explored with much prayer and Biblical counsel.

Sexual Infidelity is not the ‘Escape Clause’ of Marriage. According to Matt. 19: 9 sexual infidelity is an example of the kind of unfaithfulness that grieves God. It is equally unfaithful to abandon, or to abuse your spouse as it is to commit adultery or to divorce them for no reason at all. Waiting for ‘Biblical Grounds’ for divorce is just the kind of Pharisaical legalism that Jesus is teaching against here! Unfaithfulness in any form in a marriage is a sin that needs to be repented of.

The New Testament teaches that Divorce is allowed but should be avoided whenever possible. It is allowed only on the grounds of broken marriage vows and the decision to divorce can only be made by the injured party. If divorce does happen, remarriage is permitted.

The church should humbly admit that in many cases they have taught practices that do not reflect Biblical teaching. We should not regard Church traditions as superior to the teachings of Jesus and Paul and continue in unbiblical practices.

Further Reading:

David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman Publishing, 2002.

David Instone-Brewer, Divorce And Remarriage In The Church: Biblical Solutions For Pastoral Realities. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006.

Rubel Shelly, Divorce & Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology. Abilene, TX: Leafwood Press, 2007.

Further Resources:


This site has excellent visual aids and slide shows that summarize Biblical teaching on Divorce and Remarriage.



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