Divorce, Remarriage & Adultery – The Ignorance of Modern Church Interpretation

With more than 50% of marriages ending in divorce…IN THE CHURCH! It seems to me that this subject would be one that is intentionally studied and clearly covered by pastors and churches around the globe. But in my experience, I’ve never heard a clearly defined explanation as to why marrying someone who is divorced or remarrying after a divorce is NOT necessarily adultery (as we understand it today)…Until now!  Personally, I’ve always simply resorted to the “it’s covered by grace no matter what” card, but I’ve recently discovered that there may be more to it.

I study a LOT of different content, from theoretical physics to diverse perspectives on theology. I recently finished the book The Divine Conspiracy by the late theologian, Dallas Willard. This book is an amazing expose’ of scripture and its practical application for the lives of believers.

Remembering that the necessary steps to interpreting any writing or teaching (especially historical) is asking:

  1. Who wrote it?
  2. Who it was written to?
  3. How would they have interpreted it?
  4. Are there any idioms or applications that would have been understood by those it was written to that may not directly translate in modern culture through simply the written words taken absolutely without consideration of their culture?

On the subject of divorce, Willard gives a concise and clearly defined explanation of Jewish law, divorce in the time of Christ and what Jesus was specifically referring to when He made the statements about remarriage & adultery in Matthew chapters 5 & 19.

Although I would like to keep this writing to my typical 500 words or less for a blog, this is not a subject that I can fairly do justice to by keeping it short when people are warring with doing the right thing and concerning pleasing God in their relationships. Willard accomplishes in 5 pages what it may take others an entire book on the subject of divorce to do. So, for this blog I’m going to simply quote him directly.

As a pastor, this teaching has definitely given me some clarity on divorce from Jesus’ perspective and hopefully it will answer some of your questions as well.  It is a must-read for any Christian who cannot authoritatively explain what Jesus said and meant about divorce.


Taken from – The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God – by Dallas Willard, HarperCollins publishing pages 168-173


“Now we come to arrangements that did not quite have the status of law in the fullest sense, but nonetheless are understandings that in important ways defined the “old” rightness being displaced by the presence of the kingdom. And the first of these arrangements concerns divorce.

One of the most important things in the male mind of Jesus’ day and perhaps every day, was to be able to get rid of a woman who did not please him. And on this point the man really had great discretion, whereas form the woman’s point of view divorce was simply brutal and, practically speaking, could not be chosen. When Jesus gave his teaching that divorce as then practiced as unacceptable, the men who were his closest students responded by saying, “If that is how things are, it’s better not to marry at all!” (Matt. 19:10)

A man was generally thought to be righteous or good in the matter of divorce if, when he sent his wife away, he gave her a written statement that declared her to be divorced. She at least had, then, a certificate to prove her status as unmarried. This allowed her to defend herself against a charge of adultery if found with a man, for such a charge could result in her death. It also made it possible for her to see marriage to another, or, if all else failed to make her living as a prostitute.

Certainly there was a long-standing disagreement among the interpreters of the law as to whether the man was free to divorce his wife “for every reason whatsoever” (Matt. 19:3), or only for adultery. The Pharisees dragged Jesus into this controversy, and he clearly took the highly restrictive position of the school of Shammai, which allowed divorce only on “moral” grounds. The school of Hillel, by contrast, permitted it “for every reason.” For example, if the wife burned the food or merely over salted it. Rabbi Akibah even allowed divorce if the husband merely saw a woman whose appearance pleased him better ad he wanted her as wife instead of a wife he had. (Note: see the article “Divorce” in Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, edited by John M’Clintock and James Strong (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894), pp.839-44.

In practice, however, a woman knew very well that she could be divorced for any reason her husband chose. The law as practiced was entirely favorable to the husband’s slightest whim, even though the Mosaic codes, chiefly found in Deuteronomy 22-24, are obviously much more restrictive and require some sort of sexual impropriety in the woman. They also specify conditions under which a man entirely loses the right to divorce a woman

When Jesus himself comes to deal with the rightness of persons in divorce, does not forbid divorce absolutely, but he makes it very clear that divorce was never God’s intent for men and women in a marriage. The intent in marriage is a union of two people this is even deeper than the union of parents and children or any other human relationship. They are to become “ one flesh,” one natural unit, building one life, which therefore could never lose or substitute for one member and remain a whole life (Matt. 19:5; Gen. 2:24).

The Principle of Hardness of Heart

Yet he does not say that divorce is never permissible, To begin with, he accepts the Mosaic exception of “uncleanness,” which may have covered a number of things but chiefly referred to adultery (Matt. 5:32, 19:8-9). His interpretation of the grounds of the Mosaic exception is not, however, simply that adultery and the like are intrinsically so horrible that a marriage relationship cannot survive them. That, of course, is really not true. Many marriages have survived them. Misunderstanding this point, some people even today think that where there is adultery divorce is required by the biblical teaching. But it is not.

Rather, it is the hardness of the human heart that Jesus cites as grounds for permitting divorce in case of adultery. In other words, the ultimate grounds for divorce is human meanness. If it weren’t for that, even adultery would not legitimate divorce. No doubt what was foremost in his mind was the fact that the woman could quite well end up dead, or brutally abused, if the man could not “dump” her. It is still so today, of course. Such is “ our hardness of heart.” Better, then, that a divorce occur than life be made unbearable. Jesus does nothing to retract this principle.

But though not absolutely ruling out divorce, he makes very incisive comments about what divorce does to people. First of all, he insists, as already noted, that divorce was never God’s intention for men and women in marriage. Divorce disrupts a natural unit in a way that harms its members for life, no matter how much worse it would have been for them to stay together. Marriage means that “they are not longer two, but one flesh” (mark 10:8). This is an arrangement in the nature that God has established, and no human act can change that order.

Perhaps one of the hardest things for the contemporary mind to accept is that life runs in natural cycles that cannot be disrupted without indelible damage to the individuals involved. For example, a child that does not receive proper nutrition in its early years will suffer negative effects for the rest of its life. The deficiency cannot be made up later. And failure of a newborn baby to bond with it s mother in its early weeks is thought by many researchers to do irreparable psychological damage.

These are representative of a wide range of natural cycles to be found in human life. We now know that even the physical structure of the brain will never develop in crucial directions unless it does so within a particular period of the individuals life. In the order of nature some things can simply never be regained if they are lost.

Divorce also powerfully disrupts one of the major natural cycles of human existence. And the individuals involved can never be the same-whether or not a divorce was, everything considered, justifiable. That is why no one regards a divorce as something to be chosen for its own sake, a “great experience,” perhaps. But of course a brutal marriage is not a good thing either, and we must resist any attempt to classify divorce as a special, irredeemable form of wickedness. It is not. It is sometimes the right thing to do, everything considered.

Second—and this is the main point of the teaching in matt. 5:31-32—just the fact that man (or woman) has given the woman (or man) a “pink slip” and “done everything legally” does not mean that he or she has done right or has been a good person with regard to the relationship. This is what Jesus is denying with his teaching here, for that is precisely what the old dikaiosune, as operative among the men of his time, affirmed.

Forced into “Adultery”

Third, he very clearly gives his reasons for rejecting the old view of rightness in divorce by saying that anyone who sends away his wife on grounds other than “uncleanness” forces her into adultery, and whoever takes as wife a woman who ahs been sent away from another engages in adultery (matt. 5:32; 19:9).  This is not to forbid divorce, but it is to make clear what its effects are. What, exactly, do these statements mean?

In the Jewish Society of Jesus’ day, as for most times and places in human history, the consequences of divorce were devastating for the woman. Except for some highly unlikely circumstances, her life was, simply, ruined. No harm was done to the man, by contrast, except form time to time a small financial loss and perhaps bitter relationships with the ex-wife’s family members.

For the woman, however, there were only three realistic possibilities in Jesus’ day. She might find a place in the home of a generous relative, but usually on grudging terms and as little more than a servant. She might find a man who would marry her, but always as damages goods” and sustained in a degraded relationship. Or she might, finally, make a place in the community as a prostitute. Society simply would not then, as our does today, support a divorced woman to any degree or allow her to support herself in a decent fashion.

These circumstances explain why Jesus says that to divorce a woman causes her to commit adultery (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). To not marry again was a terrible prospect for the woman. It meant, in nearly every case, to grow old with no children as well with no social position, a perpetual failure as a human being. But to marry was to live in a degraded sexual relationship the rest of her life, and precious few husbands would allow her to forget it. As in the phrase “adultery in the heart,” Jesus speaks of being forced into “adultery” to point out the degraded sexual condition that as, then if not now, sure to be the result of divorce.

Is It Then Better Not to Marry?

As noted already, when his apprentices heard what Jesus said about divorce, they immediately concluded that it was better not to marry at all than to be unable to get rid of a woman easily (Matt. (19:10). But Jesus, like Paul later (1 Cor. 7:9), points out that not marrying can also force one into an impossible situation. It is, accordingly, an option only for those especially qualified for it (vv. 11-12). More important, of course, he knew that the resources of the kingdom of the heavens were sufficient to resolve difficulties between husband and wife and to make their union rich and good before God and man—provided, of course, that both are prepared to seek and find these resources.

And we must remember, of course, what we have been saying all along about the order in the Sermon on the Mount. It is not an accident that Jesus deals with divorce after having dealt with anger, contempt, and obsessive desire. Just ask yourself how many divorces would occur, and in how many cases the question of divorce would never even have arisen, if anger, contempt, and obsessive fantasized desire were eliminated. The answer is, of course, hardly any at all.

In particular, the brutal treatment of women received in divorce in Jesus’ day—and men too in our day—would simply not happen. Hard hearts may make divorce necessary to avoid greater harm, and thence make it permissible. But kingdom hearts are not hard, and they together can find ways to bear with each other, to speak truth in love, to change—often through times of great pain and distress—until the tender intimacy of mutual, covenant-framed love finds a way for the two lives to remain one, beautifully and increasingly.

Is, then, divorce ever justifiable for Jesus? I think it clearly is. His principle of the hardness of hearts allows it, though its application would require great care. Perhaps divorce must be viewed somewhat as the practice of triage in medical care. Decisions must be made as to who cannot, under the circumstances, be helped. They are then left to die so that those who can be helped should live. A similar point applies to some marriages. But just as with the case of going to trial, discussed earlier, it is never right to divorce as divorce was then done and as is now usually done. And it makes no difference today whether you are a man or a woman.

Divorce, if it were rightly done, would be done as an act of love. It would be dictated by love and done for the honest good of the people involved. Such divorce, though rare, remains nonetheless possible and may be necessary. If it were truly done on this basis, it would be rightly done, in spite of the heartbreak and loss it is sure to involve.

This position certainly represents a change on my part. I recall with embarrassment sitting around a seminar table at the University of Wisconsin in the early sixties. The professor had not yet arrived for our seminar in formal logic, and one of the class members was talking about his divorce proceedings. Without being asked for my opinion, I ventured to say, “Divorce is always wrong.”

Looking back on it, the strangest thing of all was that no one objected to what I said or even my saying it. Everyone seemed accepting of it. Of course that was because my words represented a cultural assumption of those days. But in fact I was vastly ignorant of the things men and women do to one another.

Later I came across the situation of a devout woman whose husband had married her as a cover for is homosexuality. He consummated the marriage so it couldn’t be annulled, and after that he had nothing to do with her. They had no personal relationship at all. He would bring his male friends home and in her presence, have sex in the living room or wherever else they pleased any time they pleased. Her religious guides continued to tell her that she must stay in “the marriage,” while she died a further death every day, year after year.

I was simply an ignorant young man full of self-righteous ideas. This and later episodes of discovery educated me in the hardness of the human heart. But Jesus, of course, always knew.”

Although I differ in perspective on a few issues that Willard expounds upon in this book the insight he brings to so many aspects of Christian living rank this book among the most impacting that I have ever read.  I would strongly encourage anyone seeking a deeper understanding of practical biblical application to buy this book and read it.

It is listed at this link as a top shelf read of mine among several other books that have impacted my life.  if you click on the picture of the book it will take you directly to amazon to view it.



Please leave a comment and let me know what you think…Did this help you… Do you agree or disagree?  Why?


  1. carlamahlberg

    Wow, the writing is strong, but needed. You know he is right when saying basically that sometimes divorce is right. When I was a child, my father started using and abusing drugs and alcohol. Eventually we lost our father mentally and emotionally to drugs. He was never there for us and it took us down this cycle of mental abuse.

    My mom feared leaving him because she felt that it was a sin, and there was no support with her church in her leaving him. We went through a lot; even went without food at one point because my dad decided that he preferred drugs more. I remember writing him every night and putting a letter in his sock drawer asking him to get off drugs because we loved him, but sadly he didn’t.

    Although my dad is a Christian now and we have a relationship, there were scars left behind that has affected all of us., and I think it’s important for people to hear that under circumstances, not just sexual sin, divorce although I hate the word, is needed.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Aaron Davis

      Thank you for your transparency Carla. Sometimes insight into someone else’s circumstances helps ground a thought that experience may not lend insight to.

  2. pray3rwarr1or

    Reblogged this on pray3rwarr1or's Blog.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social Media Icons Powered by Acurax Web Design Company
Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On LinkedinVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Google PlusCheck Our Feed