Mark 10:1-12—Divorce or No Divorce?
It appears that in our society today the highest goals in relationships are “self fulfillment, personal happiness, and pleasure”. This selfishness has been basic to the human race since the original sin and fall of Genesis 3. From the beginning of written history, separation and divorce have been a common normal way of life, yet God hates it and Jesus condemned it. Nevertheless, Moses allowed divorce in the laws of Israel and made provision for divorce. Historically God seems to overlook it, have patience with it, or forgive it. Moses wrote Deuteronomy 24 permitting divorce as a concession to human fallenness. Therefore God seems to have three types of will. God has a “desired will” of perfect obedience. God has a “tolerated will” in which He temporarily puts up with or allows things that displease Him, and God has a “determined will” that we end up being conformed to the image of Christ”. God would rather there be no divorce, but because of our sin nature He allows it because He has a long term view of us being conformed to the image of Christ in the Kingdom.
In Mark 10:1-12, Jesus conceded that Moses did allow divorce under certain conditions, but in the beginning before the original sin it was not even a possibility. In Genesis 2:21-25, we can see four reasons marriage was originally an indissoluble union. God made one man and one woman to be together. Secondly, the word “joined” means a strong bond held them together, unbreakable. Thirdly, the union is so strong they became “one flesh”. Finally, their marriage was an act of God. After the original sin, God found it necessary to curse the creation in hopes that He would be able to redeem it. Part of the curse was on relationships in Genesis 3:16 where God said the woman’s desire would be to rule over the husband but God would place the man in the position of authority. This was the beginning of the battle of the sexes. Wives seek to be independent of their husband’s authority, but husbands seek to dominate the wives often in a harsh unloving manner. This natural conflict between two sinners would naturally lead to divorce. I am certainly not, in no way saying that God planned or caused divorce, but the sin nature of the human race caused divorce. Consider the Old Testament Patriarchs had multiple wives and routinely committed adultery. Therefore with a view to a future return to perfection, God allowed Moses to permit legal divorce.
The Accommodation, Mark 10:5
After the Exodus, men were routinely dismissing or sending wives away because “they found no favor in the man’s eyes”. Therefore Moses created legal divorce in Deut. 24:1-5 as a provision to limit the problem and to protect the woman’s rights. The man had to have found “some indecency in her” to divorce her, and he had to give her a written release so she would have her freedom. Afterwards he could not claim her back. The big question then would be what constitutes “indecency”? In the first century during Jesus’ ministry the leading Rabbi Hillel taught that the husbands could decide on their own what indecency meant, and naturally it came to mean for any reason at all a man could divorce a woman, but a woman could not divorce a man. Jesus’ early teaching in Matt. 5:31 and John the Baptist’s teaching (which got him killed) was very restrictive and so very controversial. In Matthew 19, Jesus added a condition under which divorce was allowed—adultery. In Mark 10 at the end of His ministry, the Pharisees “test” Jesus hoping to discredit Him by creating a controversy about a very accepted institution—divorce. Knowing the popular opinion, the Pharisees were trying to discredit Jesus by getting Him to comment on this controversial issue. Were they really interested in truth? No, but they want to stir up a hornets nest by getting Jesus to comment in a dogmatic way.
Jesus’ Response Concerning Divorce
Jesus’ early teaching in Matthew 5:32 in His Sermon on the Mount appears to be much more restrictive and without conditions than His response in Matt. 19:8-9 and Mark 10. In Matt. 5, Jesus was addressing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who claimed to be perfectly keeping the law, but Jesus pointed out that the absolute nature of God’s law was being violated by the Pharisees. In Matt. 19, Jesus added that Moses allowed divorce because of their “hardness of heart”, meaning that because they were sinners, God temporarily allowed it. Moses gave a divine concession to human weakness. God reluctantly permitted it. Moses permitted divorce, but he didn’t legitimatize it.
At this point we may ask, “What does divorce disclose about human nature?” The root cause is the selfishness that is in our heart. Since sin originates in the heart, the only hope of reconciliation is a change of heart, and of course only God can change hearts. In his base nature, man’s interest is in what he can get away with, and the legalists looking for a loophole, seek to hide behind a mask of legal rectitude. Based on Jesus’ condition of “except for immorality” in Matt. 19:9, I know guys who have actually set their wives up to hook up with other guys so they would have a religious excuse to divorce her. Obviously marriages like that, even Christian marriages held together by legalism, have no chance to survive. People look for loopholes and escape clauses, but God knows their heart, and if they have already ended their marriage in their heart, a contract with the state of Texas means nothing to God. People in marriages always say I’m right and he/she is wrong, but the truth is God is right and we submit. So, what makes a marriage work? In Ephesians 5, Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus about relationships, and he began with “walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us..a sacrifice”. We are to love each other from the heart with a sacrificial and unconditional love. Jesus sacrificed Himself for us, and Jesus loved us undeserving people unconditionally while we were still sinners. Then in Ephesians 5:21, Paul continued to say “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ”. Imagine a marriage where each party considers themselves in subjection to one another and puts their spouse above themselves. Their motivation is love, but also fear or reverence for Christ who gave so much for them.
Divorce American Style
Divorce rates in America are about 50% for first marriages, 67% for second marriages, and 74% for third marriages. Consider what we might learn from Hollywood celebrity divorce rates, which are about 90%. Obviously, Hollywood celebrities make their living to a certain extent by their physical appearance, and their degree of vanity and self obsession is off the charts. Therefore it is much harder for them to be “subject to” their spouse or to love their spouse sacrificially. My conclusion is that the major cause of divorce is selfishness and love of self over love of spouse. Is this problem that simple—no way, because people are very very complicated. When I was in school at Dallas Seminary, I took a course entitled “Biblical Counseling” taught by Dr. Frank Minirth the well known psychiatrist who founded the Minirth Meier Clinics. I kept expecting him to lecture on marriage counseling, but he never did, so I asked him why after the last class. He said he never did any marriage counseling because it was just too difficult, and very rarely was effective. Dr. Minirth said that counseling one mixed up complicated sinner was hard enough, but two of them together was almost impossible.
My own experience doing marriage counseling was also discouraging because it always seemed like one of the parties just didn’t have their heart in it. They were going along with the meetings out of obligation and trying to do the right thing, but in their heart they had already “fallen out of love”. The possibility of them subjecting themselves to the other party and loving them sacrificially and unconditionally was marginal without a change in heart. Because of Paul’s direction in Ephesians 5 to “subject yourself”, I used to think that instead of a 50-50 deal, marriage is a 100-100 deal, but I came to realize that people with a sin nature can’t give 100%. Romans 3:23 says “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, and Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick—Who can understand it?” Therefore, now I see a marriage like a 100 yard football field. Each spouse should go at least 50 yards to meet the other, but because of their inherent selfishness each party’s concept of 50 yds is flawed. Theoretically, they each have good intentions, so lets give them the benefit of each going about 40 yards. That leaves about 20 yards of issues that separate them. That 20 yards is like a minefield of unresolved issues, and every time they venture forth into it, the danger of a blow up is prevalent. The challenge of their marriage then is to “subject” themselves and love sacrificially in order to resolve those festering issues that separate them. Unfortunately, the ideal of subjecting and loving that God intended in marriage is all too rare, and sometimes like Moses, we have to accept the necessity of divorce. When that occurs each party needs to accept responsibility, ask God for forgiveness, and move on. All too often one party will act like it is completely the others fault. Dr. Hendricks related how a student was sharing with him about how awful his wife was. Dr. Hendricks asked him, “How could you marry someone so horrible?” The guy said she wasn’t like that ten years ago when they married. Dr. Hendricks replied, “So ten years married to you made her a horrible person, huh?” The guy had no reply, and neither should we stand before God and take no responsibility. God allows divorce because the hearts of men are hard, so it is a divine concession to human weakness and sinfulness, but it cannot be taken as approval.