In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said this about divorce and remarriage:
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 sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32, NIV)
The words of Jesus are meant to impart life, but a misreading of this passage can bring condemnation and despair. Women have even been beaten and killed on account of this passage. They’ve been told, “You cannot leave your violent and abusive husband unless he’s been unfaithful.” If your spouse is intimate with another person, you can walk away. But if they beat you, you have to stay there and take it.
Was Jesus saying that infidelity is the only legitimate grounds for divorce? Was he deaf to the cries of those suffering domestic violence? Something doesn’t add up.
Jesus came to defend women against all forms of violence and abuse. In the first century, Jewish women suffered abuse in the form of quickie divorces and abandonment. This is the issue Jesus was addressing in the Sermon on the Mount.
“It has been said.” In the passage above, Jesus is referring to the following Law of Moses:
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… (Deuteronomy 24:1)
If she burns your steak, she’s out!
What makes a wife indecent or unclean to her husband? Schools of Jewish thought were divided on this issue. The House of Shammai said uncleanness meant unfaithfulness. It was only lawful to divorce your wife if she had committed adultery. However, the House of Hillel, a rival school, said you could divorce your wife if she did anything displeasing, such as putting too much salt on your dinner.
It may seem a frivolous debate to us, but it divided the Pharisees. This is why they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matt. 19:3).
Jesus’ response was we shouldn’t be getting divorced at all. But when pressed to interpret Moses’ law, he came down squarely on the side of Shammai (see Matt. 19:4-9). In other words, you can’t divorce your wife over a burnt or salty meal, but if he or she has taken another partner, your marriage may be over.
But what if your marriage is abusive? What then?
Domestic violent – the secret shame of the church
Research shows that the prevalence of abuse among churchgoers is higher than expected, and that pastors don’t talk about it and wouldn’t know what to say if they did.
What would Jesus say about domestic violence? The Lord’s heart was to protect the weak and downtrodden. He would have told abuse victims to run, not walk, to safety. There is never any excuse for abuse. Homes ought to be safe places, especially for women and children.
Now we come to the second part of the Sermon on the Mount passage. “Anyone who divorces his wife, makes her the victim of adultery.” Which seems a strange thing to say. When does adultery come into it?
Look at the Law above and you will see two verbs. A man who divorces his wife gives her a certificate and sends her from his house.
The problem was some men were doing one thing but not the other. They were sending their wives away without giving them divorce certificates. Those same men were then remarrying making their first wives “the victims of adultery.” Jesus is using the law to chide men who had abandoned their wives.
This brings us to the last part of the passage. “Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Let’s set the scene. The dumped wife has been sent from the house. Her bum of a husband has remarried and moved on. What is she to do?
Because she has been raised in a patriarchal world, she has no education and few opportunities. She needs another husband to provide for her. Another man comes along and marries her. However, since she was not properly divorced and is still technically married to her first husband, he becomes an adulterer. He may not be an adulterer in his heart – he’s trying to do the right thing. But in the eyes of the law, he has transgressed.
Jesus covers quite a lot of ground in two verses and it’s easy to come to all sorts of muddled conclusions. But the short version is he was defending women against an evil practice. Notice how Jesus never calls the dumped woman an adulterer, even when she remarries. Any transgression is laid squarely on the men who dump their wives and the men who marry them. The abandoned wife is a victim.
Remarriage and adultery
Which makes us wonder, what is wrong with marrying such a woman? Surely loving her and saving her from destitution is a good thing. The second man is a hero. So why does Jesus call him an adulterer? Because the woman is still technically married.
To the men marrying abandoned women, Jesus is saying, “If you really love her, go and find her first husband – the one who dumped her – and compel him to do what he should’ve done in the first place. Make the divorce legal. Get that certificate. Then she will be free and you can marry her without committing adultery.”
Incidentally, Jesus was equally interested in protecting husbands from unfaithful wives. A woman who dumped her husband for another man was just as much an adulterer as a husband who dumped his wife (Mark 10:12).
To reiterate, Jesus was opposed to divorce. “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:6). But he never condemned those who were the victims of abuse and unfaithful behavior. Nor did he say that such people were adulterers if they remarried.
If you are the victim of abuse or infidelity, religion may shame you. It may condemn you to remain in the confines of a dangerous situation. But your heavenly Father does not condemn you. He loves you and cares for you! He wants you to be safe and be blessed. Your life is not over. The best is yet to come.
This article is an early draft of a chapter that appears in The Silent Queen: Why the Church Needs Women to Find their Voice.