Q: Does the Bible forbid all divorces?

No, but it is a sobering reality that when Jesus came to our world, he seemed to always expand or exalt the intentions of his Father’s law. Israel considered “murder” to be strictly the act of killing another human being. Jesus responded, “No, it’s also in the heart, in the core of your soul, when you hate someone or harbor anger against them.” In the same way, when religious people defined adultery in a very narrow way – strictly an extramarital case of full-blown intercourse – Jesus again raised the high bar and told his listeners that even lustful thoughts counted as sin.

In the Old Testament, the legal code broadly allowed for women to be “put away” for many petulant and trivial causes. In Deuteronomy 24:1, it seems that if a man simply became displeased, he could casually issue a certificate of divorce and hand it to his wife as he pushed her out the door. In Matthew 19, Jesus actually faces a showdown of sorts with the religious rulers, who asked him this very question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” Jesus reminds them of the scene in Eden where God joined a man and a woman together in a bond of absolute permanence. “Why then,” they ask, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Here’s Jesus’ reply: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman, commits adultery.”

So the Bible considers a couple’s marriage vows to be a high and holy promise, sacred before God and binding in a heavenly sense. Today’s casual divorces and multiple marriages – even within the church – are a tragic departure from the blueprint of security God has ordered for his people.

So what constitutes marital unfaithfulness or adultery – beyond the surreptitious trip to Argentina to hook up with a clandestine lover? Admittedly, none of us know the private heartaches that another couple might be enduring. Judge not, that ye be not judged. There have been wives who finally fled from an abusive husband, or because their spouse was physically beating her children. In a case like that, no, there may not have been a physical affair where defined “adultery” took place . . . and yet the spirit of unity Jesus is talking about here has been destroyed beyond repair. Adultery is a matter of the mind, and we can all think of people whose partner stubbornly strayed into a minefield of emotional adultery involving porn or an inappropriate office friendship even while staying home every night of the week.

All through the Bible, from the adult love scenes in Song of Solomon to the practical advice on sexual fulfillment that Paul describes in I Corinthians 7, we find that a marriage is to be a haven of intimacy and happiness, of resting securely in the knowledge that your life partner will love and serve you through good times and hard, “for better or for worse.” Those of us who are blessed to be in abundant marriages should deal gently, not judgmentally, with a friend battered by a marriage where the intimacy has been shattered, whether or not a physical transgression ever took place.

In conclusion, we can agree that God’s Word holds up a tough but resilient standard that we should graciously proclaim and obey. One Christian writer conceded that divorce was a reality even within the camp of God’s people, but that we should consider divorce a sometimes necessary tragedy, “like the amputation of a limb,” a sad measure of last resort after every other heroic measure has been tried.