If there is a word that accurately summarizes Jesus' teaching on most subjects, its probably the word hard. As people said about another subject he taught on, "This is hard teaching. Who can accept it?" (John 6:60). Jesus is simply so stark, so unequivocal, so absolute, so hard to follow.
In our day, there is probably no subject (other than perhaps sexual morality) on which it is more difficult to proclaim Jesus' teaching than the subject of divorce. Self-identified Christians (at least according to Barna) get divorced at about the same rate as non-Christians, with 30% or so eventually walking away from their covenant partner. This is a tragedy, a demonstrable failure of discipleship of huge proportions. Listen to the Pharisees and Jesus from Mark 10:
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"This is hard teaching. It cuts completely across the grain of our modern culture, both in society at large and, sadly, also in parts of the church. Here's a summary:
"What did Moses command you?" he replied
They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away."
"It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. "But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate."
When they were in the house again, his disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."
- Divorce occurs because repentance doesn’t. Divorce always involves sin. Often there are greater and lesser degrees of sin by the two spouses, but at the root of divorce is sinful selfishness and a declaration that “I will have my way.” There’s no such thing as loving divorce, is there? Not according to Jesus. Can a man divorce his wife? Yes. But doing so is evidence of a hardened heart toward God and that person to whom you made your vows.
- Stop looking for loopholes. Jesus' called the Pharisees to look not just at the part of the Law that permitted divorce (Deut 24:1-4), but at the whole Law, including the part which made clear God's design for marriage (from Gen. 2). They were focused on the exceptions and "loopholes" to obeying God rather than focusing on obeying God and following his blueprint for marriage, which includes a permanent union. Though the Law permits hard-hearted people to divorce, such was never God's purpose, plan, or ideal.
- Divorce and remarriage = adultery. Jesus himself recognizes adultery as legitimate grounds for divorce in Matthew 19, and in that same passage seems to say also that a person who got divorced under those circumstances can remarry without restriction or breaking God’s commandment. In the same way, Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 permits believers to divorce their unbelieving spouses who abandon them as a consequence of their commitment to Christ, though Bible teachers disagree over whether Paul allows people to remarry in such a case. But we should be careful about allowing our commitment to "interpreting Scripture with Scripture" to rob Jesus' words of their force and hardness here. I think Jesus doesn’t mention any of these exceptional circumstances for the very simple reason that he knows that we will fixate on the exceptions so as to justify our actions and never have to come face to face with our hardened, sinful hearts and actually repent and glorify God in the midst of the ups and downs of our marriages.