The Sanctity of Marriage

“I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).

- Matthew 19:3–9

Divorce is an ever-present reality in the United States. Nearly all of us have a family member or friend who has suffered the dissolution of his or her marriage. Most marriages today do not last a lifetime. “No-fault” divorce laws make it easy to end the marital bond, and the economic, social, and legal consequences have been catastrophic.

The church feels these effects as well. In fact, the divorce rate of evangelicals is slightly higher than that of unbelievers. Elders routinely deal with “blended” families and must make decisions about the legitimacy of divorces in their congregations. Sadly, however, few churches will discipline those who end a marriage without biblical warrant.

This raises the question: Does Scripture ever allow a believer to get a divorce? Today’s passage addresses this issue. In Matthew 19: 3–9, the Pharisees ask Jesus if a man can lawfully divorce his wife for “any cause.” Their inquiry is based on Deuteronomy 24:1–4, which permits a man to divorce his wife if she has “some indecency.”

The Pharisees debated what “some indecency” meant. One popular school of thought, headed by Rabbi Hillel, said reasonable grounds for divorce could include being unhappy with a wife’s cooking. But these teachers of the Law were hoping Jesus would side with the less popular school of Shammai that taught Moses meant only gross sexual infidelity by the term “indecency.”

Citing Genesis 2:24, Jesus shows God’s plan for marriage did not include divorce (Matt. 19:4–6). When asked then why Moses commanded divorce, Jesus corrects the Pharisees, saying he only allowed it because of sin. God’s people, He teaches, may not end a marriage unless sexual immorality severs the one-flesh bond. In this case, a divorce is permitted but not required (vv. 7–9). The offending spouse must be forgiven, but the offended party does not have to stay married.

Immorality is a broad term and can include things like physical abuse when the abuser is unrepentant and refuses to get help. The only other ground for divorce in Scripture is desertion. When an unbelieving spouse wants to leave a believer, divorce is usually the outcome, but the believer cannot initiate the proceedings (1 Cor. 7:10–16).

Coram Deo

The church must protect the offended party in a divorce. When marriage laws are wisely applied, biblical divorces enable the innocent party to remarry with a clean conscience. Disciplining the offender will also help God’s people better reflect the divine intent for marriage. If you are an elder, do not be afraid to exercise discipline in this area. If you are married, seek to strengthen your marriage by reading a book on the topic or attending a couples retreat.

Passages for Further Study

Prov. 5
Song 8:6–7
Mal. 2:13–16
1 Cor. 7:39
Heb. 13:4

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.