Many of the social issues in our media and politics today – abortion and gay marriage for example -are topics on which Jesus never spoke directly, at least not in any case that was recorded in the Gospels. Christians can consult other books of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience in order to try to draw the correct conclusions on these issues. However, without direct teaching from Jesus, there is always going to be sincere disagreement.
One social issue on which Jesus did speak directly, however, is divorce. There are passages criticizing divorce in three of the four Gospels. Matthew discusses it here and here, Mark here, and Luke here. Jesus’s teaching is also referenced in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, here.
To summarize, a straightforward reading of Mark and Luke suggests that Jesus absolutely forbids divorce. This is pretty close to the policy of the Catholic Church regarding divorce. In Matthew, we find Jesus offering an exception for porneia, a Greek word (subject of much controversy in other church teachings on sexuality, see here for example), alternatively translated in this context as unfaithfulness, unchastity, fornication, or sexual immorality. In 1 Corinthians, we find Paul repeating Jesus’s teaching against divorce (without mentioning Matthew’s exception), and then adding an exception of his own (which he acknowledges was not given by Jesus). In the case where a non-Christian spouse leaves a Christian, the Christian should be free to remarry.
Another perspective that is Jesus’s criticism was being directed at divorce for what is referred to in Matthew 19:3 as “any cause” in the ESV translation; other translations are “any and every reason”, “just any reason”, or (in the main translation for American Catholics) “any cause whatever”. As explored in this article from Christianity Today, the term “any cause” had a specific meaning in Jesus’s day, loosely similar to the term “no-fault divorce” in current usage. Perhaps what Jesus was really criticizing was this type of divorce, something arbitrary and directed at an innocent spouse.
What’s going on here? Clearly the topic of divorce was an important one, being mentioned in several New Testament books. Yet we find either Matthew contradicting Mark and Luke, or Mark and Luke leaving out important context. With Paul, we find him making an exception that he acknowledged was his own teaching, not a specific directive of Jesus. And our understanding of these passages is sensitive to the choice of translation!
If God gave humanity the Bible with the intent that it be used as a clear and authoritative reference book for the rules we must follow in our lives, wouldn’t He have made His policies much more clear than this? And if Jesus had intended to lay down a firm rule about divorce, would not Paul have been afraid to casually add his own idea about what should qualify as an exception?
I think one can best make sense of this matter (and many other difficult questions) by understanding the Bible not as the inerrant Word of God, but the story of man’s relationship to God, written from man’s perspective. The Word of God is the person of Jesus Christ, and only He is free from error. Jesus is reported as quoting the Bible often, sometimes approvingly as the truth, but sometimes (as in Jesus’s reference to Moses in the divorce context) as not having reflected God’s intentions. In criticizing the Pharisees and scholars of the law, Jesus seems to be warning all of us not to put a careful study of the Scriptures ahead of a sincere attempt to get to know Jesus. By choosing not to leave us a book in His own perfect hand, and by allowing errors to creep into the Bible, perhaps even into the Gospels themselves, God seems to be forcing us to exercise our hearts, and our consciences, to resolve the problems of life. I think God wants us to follow the spirit of the law, rather than parse texts and engage in legal analysis to see just how much we can get away with.
What is the spirit of the law? Love. Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the sum total of the law (Mark 12:28-31, Galatians 5:14, 1 John 3:11, James 2:8, among others). And how do we know whether what we are doing is loving? Our hearts, our consciences will tell us the truth (1 John 3:19-24).
Divorce is contrary to love, it is a result of love breaking down. Christians should heed the strong words of Jesus, and should not look to pin down the loopholes or exceptions as a means of finding a way to avoid repairing a broken relationship. Every possible effort should be made to restore a loving relationship, even if the need for forgiveness is well beyond what we would think natural, seventy times seven times as Jesus put it. Furthermore, Jesus’s criticism of remarriage suggests that even after a divorce takes place, both parties are supposed to leave open the possibility of reconciliation indefinitely.
I believe that yes, there are extenuating circumstances where divorce is the least bad outcome, but that there are also circumstances where divorce is wrong even where one of the biblical exceptions is applicable. No one can bring a completely objective perspective to this question (or many others). One who has never gone through a divorce can’t be sure they understand the situation faced by one who did. One who has been through a divorce and remarried (myself included) always wants to believe that their actions were justified by the circumstances, and wants to take solace from the exceptions in the text. But the text is not the ultimate judge, God is, and God judges the heart. Fortunately for us, His judgment is tempered by great mercy (Micah 7:19, Luke 1:76-79, 1 John 1:8-9, and many others).