Marriage is one of the most common and least understood relationships in human experience. Over its millennia-long history, no relationship has been more misunderstood, misused, abused, or twisted beyond God’s original intention. If we believe in a real devil (and we should), and that God ultimately designed marriage to be a deeply profound, physical portrait of His union with His people (and He did), then the myriad distortions and misuses of the marriage relationship ought to be understood as a direct attack on a gospel-proclaiming divine institution by the Enemy of God and men’s souls. We must also realize that this attack did not begin with the push towards homosexual “marriage.” At least in our own nation, an increasing secularization and undue emphasis on personal fulfillment reshaped marriage as an autonomous, inward-focused relationship revolving around the personal satisfaction and fulfillment of the individual parties, sexually and otherwise, rather than a one-flesh union designed by God to say something to the world about Him and that was positioned outward, towards the welcoming of new life. This new way of thinking brought into the American consciousness the notions of “falling in (and out of) love”; that marriage was primarily about meeting my emotional and relational needs; that the sex act was rooted in a Freudian notion of a “need” for sexual expression; and that since marriage was primarily about me, if it did not make me happy, I could just have an affair or get a divorce. As these and other apostate ideas began to take root in and reshape the culture, it led to the explosion of promiscuity, serial monogamy, open relationships, no-fault divorce, and hook-up culture we see today. Only after these notions of personal fulfillment were deeply entrenched in the culture did that redefinition get applied to homosexuals. After all, if marriage is primarily about me feeling fulfilled and sexually satisfied, and feeling happy and loved, why can’t two men or two women do the same thing?
The Church has embraced, rather than stood consistently against, these ideas. We oppose gay marriage while refusing to condemn the ungodliness and redefinition of marriage that many of us contributed to long before Obergefell. As with everything else, our minds must be renewed and reformed by the Word of God. Our Lord has not been silent about His design for marriage, nor about the myriad ways in which humans deface it. Mark 10 gives us an insightful, if not exhaustive, examination of what God has to say about His beloved institution of marriage.
A. Divorce is a Provision for Sin (vv. 1-5)
The Jews of Jesus’ day had abandoned the Scriptures in almost every way imaginable while still attempting to hold to external conformity. Their view of marriage and divorce was no different. The Pharisees’ hatred of the Lord Jesus extended to His opposition to their revisions and attempts to evade the Word of God in favor of human tradition, and so they wish to trap Him on this issue. After all, did not Moses permit divorce? So either Jesus must set Himself against the Pharisees (a social and theological faux pas the incarnate God is all too willing to commit), or He must contradict Moses.
The Jewish culture had devolved spectacularly by the time our Lord walked the earth. With respect to divorce, a Jewish husband could send his wife away for any reason at any time, even for something as trivial as burning dinner or finding a more physically attractive woman. The rabbis based this on a misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 24. All the rabbis agreed divorce was permitted, but there was disagreement on legitimate grounds; the Pharisees with whom Jesus contends here are of the opinion that it is allowed for any reason at all!
As He does in the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord rejects the self-centered, autonomous redefinition of the Scriptures in favor of the true, inerrant interpretation He intended when He gave His words to Moses. The point of Deuteronomy 24 is allowing (not commanding or requiring) a husband to divorce his wife in cases of adultery. If she has broken the marriage covenant, he may divorce her. If that woman then marries another man and is divorced again or widowed, her first husband may not remarry her because of the sexual defilement that has taken place (likely both because of the initial adultery and because her remarriage after, as the sinning party, was not understood as valid in the eyes of God and thus constituted further adultery). The “certificate of divorce” is simply used in those cases to dissolve the marriage as a way of protecting the innocent spouse. No other exception is given.
Jesus highlights the undefined “indecency” in Deut. 24 as sexual immorality, regardless of whether it is perpetrated by husband or wife (cf. Matthew 19:9). Later, Paul will add that if a believing spouse is abandoned by an unbelieving one, divorce is also permitted, but again, neither required nor commanded (1 Cor. 7:15). I would add that abandonment by a professing Christian spouse, including in cases where the marriage covenant is abandoned through ongoing and impenitent physical or other abuse may also be grounds for divorce, and certainly physical separation and every form of legal protection available. A Christian wife should not fear the reprisal of her elders or the shame of her church family if she must take legal action against a professing Christian husband who harms her or the children. These are not times to simply pursue church discipline, in the name of obeying 1 Cor. 6, while he is threatening to kill her or hurts their children. Abusers are skilled at deflection, manipulation, and maintaining control, and even godly elders can be misled by these attempts to evade the consequences of his sin (particularly if they have no firsthand experience with abuse and do not know what to look for). The police must be informed immediately (in most states, church leadership are considered mandated reporters), and any biblically permissible legal action can and should be taken, with the full support of the elder board. That physical desertion is considered abandonment, but utter violation of the marriage covenant through any form of ongoing and impenitent abuse are not, seem to me to be a misinterpretation and misapplication of the general principle taught in 1 Cor. 7.
In any case, God hates divorce. He only allows it because men and women are sinners—sometimes, one sins against the other so grievously that as a way of protecting the innocent spouse God permits the dissolution of the marriage. Were there no sin, every marriage would be a happy one and divorce would be unnecessary, as well as unthinkable. But because people are sinners, God allows dissolution in limited instances. What a testimony to the sinfulness of men that they take an exception and make it the rule!
The exception is just that—an exception, a concession, from God’s original intent. It is to that we now turn.
B. Divorce Was Never God’s Intent (vv. 6-9)
Jesus goes back before Deuteronomy, before even the sin that made divorce a possibility. He goes back to creation. The design and intent of God, built into the very fabric of creation from the first day man and woman were on the earth, is one man and one woman cleaving together for life. Indeed, there was no death prior to the Fall, so marriage would have been permanent in the most literal sense! There is no thought of homosexual marriage, polygamy, fornication, serial monogamy, adultery, or any other misuse of sex. Man was created for woman and vice versa, to image God’s perfect work of gathering a people to Himself, to use their complementarity to create a one-flesh portrait of their Creator, to produce new life through their physical and emotional union—new life that could joyfully and humbly surrender to its Creator and spread His image and kingdom over the whole earth.
That is God’s intent for marriage. What a gorgeous portrait it should be! Divorce, like death, is a result of sin, a marring of God’s perfect design. There was no divorce in God’s original design because there was no sin. The leaving of father and mother to cleave unto the spouse images the devotion and consecration and self-sacrifice God and the sinner undergo in their union. The one-flesh union that points to the oneness of God and His bride could not be marred because there was no death to terminate the union, to sin to disrupt the intimate fellowship. To make marriage other than what God intended is to do the work of Satan and to directly attack the gospel, which marriage pictures in solemn and beautiful color.
God joins husband and wife together, even if they are atheists, because He is the One who designed, created, and instituted marriage. Because marriage is thus a work of God, no human possesses the authority to redefine or end a marriage. Only He does. Because God created marriage and is its sovereign Lord, it must be done His way—and that includes how and when the marriage is dissolved. We discuss this below.
C. Apart from God’s Authority, Divorce is a Perversion (vv. 10-12)
We have established that God allows, but does not require or command, divorce in limited circumstances as a last resort when the marriage covenant has been so irreparably violated by sin that, to protect the innocent party, the marriage may be permissibly dissolved. But apart from these limited instances, to pursue divorce is sinful. Of course, a simple look at the sheer frequency of divorces in the United States, especially among professing Christians, would be a sufficient indicator that the vast majority of them are to be considered unbiblical. This also means that any remarriages that follow these divorces are also unbiblical and constitute adultery because in God’s eyes the first marriage was never legitimately dissolved.
This is precisely the concern of the disciples once Jesus is alone with them. They do not understand the rigidity of His teaching on the matter. Surely, Lord, they must have said, it is not that stringent?!
But Jesus is clear: Whoever divorces a spouse (other than in the instance Jesus permits; Matt. 19:9) and then remarries commits adultery against the original spouse. If God has not dissolved the marriage, then it isn’t dissolved, regardless of what the state or lawyers say.
As divorce culture in the world and poor teaching in the church continue to proliferate, many believers will be confused and even disobedient regarding God’s design for marriage. Some were divorced unbiblically and perhaps even remarried prior to conversion, in which case the entire ball of sin has been thrown into the depths of the sea. Godly elders who know the Scriptures can be of help to both these believers and to those who have (perhaps unwittingly) flouted God’s design after salvation. The righteousness of Christ washes away all our imperfections and gives power to obey Him in all things. May we seek Him for grace to believingly and joyfully do as He tells us—regarding marriage, and everything else!