A topical sermon on Divorce.
Matt 5: 31-32: It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
Today’s sermon is on the topic of divorce. This is a serious issue and a worrying trend. And if the church seeks to be relevant to the society, this issue must be addressed. On the other hand, it would be wildly presumptuous that we can solve this problem with a dictum that divorce is disallowed in the church. I will begin today’s sermon with this general premise that I will spell out clearly now. And the premise is this: I am not here to tell you whether divorce is allowed or disallowed in the church. And I hope nobody leaves this church today with the presupposition that divorce is allowed or disallowed in Christianity. The reason for this is a simple one. Allowing or disallowing divorce does not really resolve the issue itself. If there are serious problems in the marriage, disallowing divorce will not make those problems disappear. Couples in a marriage can be still married legally, but totally separated in reality. In the same manner, even if divorce is allowed, it does not mean that the problems are hence resolved. We know of many cases where the problems in the first marriage are carried over to the next marriage.
To put it more clearly, the question of “Is divorce allowed or disallowed?” is a very superficial one and in effect is a wrong question to ask. We should ask instead “How does God perceive divorce and marriages?” and “How do we make marriages work for Christians?” Even more dangerous than setting a legal pronouncement on divorce is to use the biblical text as direct backing for our foregone conclusions. I wish to lay out a direct warning that today’s text on divorce is a very tricky one and it has numerous interpretations over the entire church history. If we want to use any text in the Bible as a direct legal pronouncement over the issue of divorce, I’m afraid there isn’t one. Hence, this is an important consideration for us to be cautious about being overly judgmental about the issue of divorce. I believe that most people do not enter into a marriage aiming for it to be broken and unhappy. To those contemplating a divorce or others who have had a divorce before, which I must add is a growing number, divorce is a bitter experience that is surely to be avoided if it is possible. Hence, it is fruitless to take the moral high ground here and condemn those who are already in pain. We must remember also that a divorce not only involves the couple but also the family members. The Church is a place of a new hope and a new beginning, and we must be ever ready to provide a second chance. Let us put aside our prejudices and refrain from adding to the burden of those with a heavy heart. Hence we do not proceed to asking if divorce is allowed or disallowed. And we do not judge those that have taken this painful path.
On the other hand, being non-judgmental does not mean that the Bible is silent on the matter of divorce. In fact, it is very clear that God treats divorce as a serious matter. Being sensitive to those who are suffering does not mean that we become apathetic. In fact, it means we must go beyond the level of right and wrong, and grapple with the complex problems of marital conflicts. Only then are we being fully responsible in loving our neighbors and ourselves. Therefore, with the clear premise given in the introduction that we are not here to allow and disallow divorce, I shall proceed to share what the Bible says about divorce in three aspects. Firstly, it is how God perceives divorce. Secondly, it is on the danger of adultery. Lastly, it is on the responsibility of the people.
Firstly, the text begins with a quotation “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce”. This is most likely a quotation of the teachings by the religious leaders at that time. This line itself is not found in the Old Testament scriptures itself. But this does not mean that the teachers are intentionally deceiving or misleading. It is quite common during that time to shorten laws into short catchphrases, and these shortened forms are assumed to carry the entire meaning of the entire original law itself. What is the original law that is quoted? It is found in Deut 24:1-4.
“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.”
It is pretty difficult to decipher what exactly is the meaning of this law. It is also difficult to reconstruct the context of this law or the reason of its existence. What is described is that the woman, who is divorced from the first man, cannot be married back to that man, even if she is divorced from her subsequent marriages. This is the original usage of the certificate of divorce. To show whom she has been divorced from, and to ensure that she does not get married back to the same man she had been divorced from. Perhaps it is to protect the woman. So that she does not get repeatedly passed back to the same man who had once rejected her. Perhaps it is to protect the man, so he does not get defiled from marrying a defiled woman. Perhaps it is something about the distribution of the land and property rights. Like I said it is hard to reinterpret the original meaning of this law.
But one thing we can be sure, the interpretation of the religious leaders during Jesus’ time regarding the use of this law is inadequate, if not wrong. They had taken the first part of the law, “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”, as justification for the right to divorce. The original meaning gives a special allowance in the special case of the husband “finding something indecent” about her as reasons for a divorce. This usually refers to sexual immorality, and most probably adultery. But the Jewish teachers have given greater emphasis to the earlier phrase “woman who becomes displeasing to him”, and this is the predominant interpretation even until today. Hence, it is permissible for a divorce even on grounds as trivial as burning one’s dinner. We can imagine the wives of those times having a hard time pleasing their husbands. And all the husband has to do for the divorce to take effect is to write a certificate of divorce. The woman is often left helpless and forced to seek another marriage because women in those times depend on men for survival.
Such an interpretation may be admissible in terms of linguistics and Hebrew semantics. The giving of a certificate of divorce is admittedly already a mark above the other cultures and in the past where women were just sent away, without a certificate she would have difficulty getting married to others because she cannot prove the divorce. We need to look no further than Abraham himself who was forced to send away Hagar with nothing to depend on, not even a certificate. We can read about that in Genesis 21. However, what is admissible in terms of language may not be the true meaning of the law. We know that laws today have to be written so that nobody can try to exploit any legal loopholes. But even then the legal word cannot be held above the spirit of the law, and it is this spirit that must be upheld. In this case, we have reasons to believe that laws are created to limit divorce, rather than promote it.
Deut 22:13-19 “If a man takes a wife and after lying with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” then the girl’s father and mother shall bring proof that she was a virgin to the town elders at the gate. The girl’s father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. Now he has slandered her and said, “I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.” But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the girl’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife, he must not divorce her as long as he lives.”
Here we see a clear example of the law protecting the rights of women, and against unfair divorces taking place. It is therefore reasonable to assume that other laws relating to divorce are also in the spirit of protecting women, and limiting rampant or irresponsible divorces from taking place. Therefore, the interpretation of the religious leaders on the law given in Deut 24 is inadequate. If a divorce can be allowed simply because a man finds his wife detestable, and a divorce is finalized with a certificate, then the law is not protecting the rights of the women and it is against the spirit of limiting divorce from taking place. Furthermore, Jesus goes beyond just the spirit of the law to seek after the will of the Father. In Matt 19: 4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and said ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. He later said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” Here, Jesus makes clear that the allowance of the certificate of divorce is not a form of proof that God allows for divorce for whatsoever reason. The original intention of God is not so.
Here is an important concept that it is God himself that brings about marriage between male and female. It is God that puts them together. We might not follow the Catholic teaching that there is a real physical union of two persons into one. But still, the implication is that in a marriage God had meant for a couple to be so close, they are not separable. I am not setting up a new law here to disallow divorce because God does not permit it. If it is just another law, then we are no different from the Pharisees who are just interested in what is allowed, and what is not. But rather, knowing the original intention and design of God forces us who are believers of God to gain a correct perspective of marriage. A marriage is put together by God. It is not for convenience or selfish desires or fulfilling social norms. In marriage we receive God’s blessing, as well as his providence. Hence, if it is God that puts a marriage together, a certificate of divorce is powerless to dissolve it. This is why Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife causes her to be adulterous, and whoever marries her commits adultery. This is because the first marriage was never annulled, so how can a new marriage take place. Therefore the first point I want to bring out is that divorce is a serious matter to God and the religious leaders in thinking that a certificate of divorce will annul a marriage is deeply flawed. A marriage is put together by God and divorce in the sense of destroying the work of God is never desirable.
The second point that I would like to bring out is that Jesus has given special allowance here for divorce if adultery had first taken place. This is however not to be misinterpreted as if you want to have a divorce, then you need to commit adultery or if an adultery had already taken place then Jesus is promoting the idea of divorce. The special case here rather is to signify the destructive force of the sin of adultery. I will not be elaborating on the details of what constitutes adultery since that has already been covered in an earlier sermon. But perhaps now we should try to understand why a divorce is permissible in the case of adultery. As stated earlier, the reason why a divorce causes the divorced woman to become an adulteress is because the previous marriage was never annulled. However in the case of an adultery, the woman in question here is already in sin and hence you can’t make person who is already in adultery more in sin. Hence a point must be strongly emphasized here that adultery breaks up a marriage and all people in marriage must be strongly vigilant and guard against this temptation. This sin is so destructive it is as if the marriage, which is brought together by God, is destroyed to the extent of even being annulled.
But I would like to say once again that it is not the intention of Jesus to promote divorce in the occurrence of adultery. The situation here is only that a divorce in the case of adultery is understandable. However, as with all cases of sin, the ultimate desired result is not the breaking up of relationships but rather the reconciliation. With the occurrence of sin, we must be repentant and seek the forgiveness of God and your partner. We must feel the pain of a relationship broken up by sin and seek the cleansing and restoration that only God can bring about. It is precisely because the sin is big and that the hurt is deep that we can only turn to God for salvation. I know of some couples that are still together in marriage but the agony and grief of an adulterous incident in the past still lingers on. I applaud these people for their courage to stay together but they must also allow God to act in such a dire situation. For in God, we must believe that faith, hope and love abound and there is always a new beginning. Divorce does not truly solve the situation, instead it is the love that comes from God that will prove to be the one that will never fail.
Another point I want to bring up about this special exception that Jesus had brought up is that it is also an act of grace. We are humans and flesh and blood after all and sometimes the sufferings in this world are beyond what we can bear. It would be simple for God to just lay down a law to disallow all divorce but like I said, God’s intention is not to set up a law and order system but rather to help man in this world. I’m sure there are times where it is more painful for a couple to stay together than to be apart and we must not be so legalistic to force people to stay on together for the sake of it. The point of adultery is not meant to be a deterministic factor but rather an example of how sin can render a marriage to the brink of being annulled. Other situations such as spouse abuse, substance abuse, gambling habits and many others can all force a couple to contemplate a life of divorce as better than staying in marriage. While the first point is that divorce is never the intention of God, Jesus had in His grace allowed for some circumstances where it could happen.
The third point on this topic is a sharing of how I feel the church and the Christian community can work towards the elimination of divorce. Like I said earlier, the issue of divorce is not whether it is allowed or disallowed, but how God perceives it, and the circumstances in which a marriage is rendered broken. Since we know that God brings marriage together and that sin is a major destructive force in breaking up marriages, the Christian community has a responsibility to act against the infiltration of sin into a marital relationship. Of course a lot of this advice I am about to give is not directly lifted from the Bible but I believe it is in line with the Christian theology and the will of God.
Firstly, one should never enter into marriage lightly. It is no major surprise that many of the seeds of a full-blown divorce are planted from the very beginning of the marriage itself. What is the reason for the marriage and can this reason withstand the test of time? Have the issues of both parties entering into the marriage been resolved? Are they able to learn to accept one another? How are they like in the face of hardship? Needless to say, if these basic issues are not ironed out from the beginning, couples would surely be ill prepared to deal with an actual situation of conflict when it occurs in the marriage. Of course, you can never be Ms and Mr. Perfect, but you can work towards being Ms and Mr. Right. Lessons like commitment, patience and sensitivity start from the time of youth.
Secondly, besides entering into a marriage well prepared, a couple who is married must continue to work hard to keep a marriage intact. Besides the absolutely necessary element of keeping a healthy relationship with God through prayer and scripture reading, there are many other elements that help a marriage as well. One must learn to communicate. Know the seven languages of love. Know the differences between man and woman in the way they express themselves. If you don’t know the answer to “Do I look fat in this?”, maybe that’s why you always sleep on the sofa. Communication goes beyond the expression of feelings, but also involves conflict management, mutual guidance and even just a healthy discussion of ideas. Another element besides communication is good planning. Financial planning is crucial to prevent future woes. Family planning is to be prepared for major changes to lifestyles. But I think the most important of all is the planning in time and energy. If you don’t give the time to be together, you are bound to drift apart. But being together is not enough, if one is always watching TV and the other is doing housework. You must plan to develop common hobbies that promote interaction. Learn things together that enrich the uniqueness of this marriage. Let’s put it this way, you need barriers to entry in a marriage relationship. If you have spent years to develop into a special someone to a person and that person is groomed to be so special as to be only satisfied by you, then it is hard for a third party to butt in.
Lastly, it is the role of the church. We must continue to strive to become a community of support and love that couples can turn to when care and concern is needed. The church must avoid gossip, and also learn when to be silent and when to give advice. This is the bare minimum. This is only at the fire-fighting level, but instead we can make the church a place that couples can grow in maturity. We must promote openness in self-revelation, forgiveness in spirit and integrity in character. Through careful teaching and sharing of the Word, we make genuine believers that have fruits of the Spirit, such that they are ideal partners. They are honest in truth and kind in their hearts. They have the strength to withstand hardship and yet the wisdom to accept the Church and God as their help. They are diligent in the care of the family, and yet fun-loving with a good sense of humor.
The Church must also have a prophetic voice in this world which is sometimes simply not conducive to marriages. We must speak against gathering treasures on earth, which robs families of precious times together. We must speak against the use of the body and sex as objects of selfish lustful desires, which poison the minds with fantasies instead of truly knowing one another as created beings of God. We must speak of the paradox of forgiveness and righteousness, instead of a postmodern interpretation of morality and the vindictive nature of personal rights over others.
All these, the individuals and the church must do so that we are not there just to tell people to allow or disallow divorce. Divorce must be dealt with by spending effort working on the development of the self and on the marriage relationship. We see from the beginning that the Jewish religious leaders were only interested in validating their divorce by using the certificate of divorce as an excuse. In light of God’s intention for marriage, that is an unreasonable conclusion. Since it is God that puts marriages together, we must work towards treating marriage as sanctified and a very serious affair. The big pitfall that we must all be wary of is adultery. Adultery is extremely destructive and needs the intervention of God before true restoration can happen. But let’s not be worried and think that we are helpless before temptation. God has given us spiritual discipline to make us prepare before and during the marriage together with the church as a community. May God help every one of us.