Thoughts on Divorce in Light of the 7th Commandment
UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.
Exodus 20:14, “You shall not commit adultery.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord set out the heart of true religion. He said that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Mat 5:20). He then sets out to contrast this genuine righteousness with the false, outer righteousness that whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones practiced. “You have heard that it was said…. But I say to you….” is His repeated formula.
At Matthew 5:27, Jesus says this –
Matthew 5:27-30, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (28) But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (29) If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (30) And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
You see His purpose. He will do the same thing in regard to making oaths (5:33ff), personal vengeance (5:38ff), and loving our neighbor AND our enemy (5:43ff). This comparison and contrasting will continue on into chapter 6 as well. We must not sound a trumpet when we give, like the hypocrites do. Nor are we to pray like they do with their pious, public stance. The same holds true in regard to fasting. Hypocrisy in judging others while having a log in one’s own eye is condemned in chapter 7. Jesus’ purpose then is to expose the tricky little end runs around the Law of God that the prevailing climate of religious hypocrisy endorsed.
And thus, in verse 27, Jesus cites the 7th commandment which forbids adultery. He says that this law must be kept in one’s heart as well or outward avoidance of the physical act is for naught. The lustful intent of the heart and one’s sinful imaginations are sufficient to condemn under the Law. Apparently the Pharisees and hypocrites were adept at finding loopholes to avoid the strict requirements of the 7th commandment. And at verse 31, Jesus exposes one of their favorite tactics –
Matthew 5:31-32, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ (32) But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Now, think very, very carefully here about the context of these words from our Lord. What is His plain intent here? Is His object to establish a universally-binding, all-inclusive rule that covers every single scenario of marriage and divorce and remarriage? That, you see, is how these verses are so often taken by people who insist that God prohibits all divorces, or that he only allows divorce in the case of adultery, and that any remarriage to a divorced person is in itself adulterous. There are numbers of variations on the particular details and prohibitions. But if we carefully consider the context of Jesus’ words here (vss 31-32), what is He obviously dealing with? He is exposing and rejecting the practice of the hypocrites who once again were using trickery to excuse them from the requirements of the 7th commandment. He is telling them that their divorcing of their wives – doing the required paperwork – was just a pretense. They were adulterers. Their invented traditions did not excuse them.
But Jesus was certainly not setting forth here a rule for all people in all times and in all circumstances. He was not forbidding all divorce nor all remarriage. He was rebuking these hypocrites’ sin. He wasn’t talking to everyone. He was not addressing every single situation, nor was He giving a comprehensive teaching about divorce and remarriage.
Therefore it is a serious error to cite Matthew 5:31-32 as a comprehensive rule for every Christian. In fact, these words of our Lord are more along the lines of the Apostle Paul’s observation to Timothy about those who distort the Law –
1 Timothy 1:5-11, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (6) Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, (7) desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. (8) Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, (9) understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, (10) the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, (11) in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”
It seems to me that in our day, we have many teachers who are teaching without understanding, using God’s law unlawfully. How? By applying it to the righteous rather than to sinners. And that only brings Christ’s people into bondage. Many, many innocent victims of abuse are having words that were meant for hypocrites, for the ungodly and for sinners, laid heavily upon them. The letter kills. The Spirit gives freedom.
Many of you have studied these verses in far more detail than I have, and I would be very glad to hear your comments, corrections, and clarifications.