For better, but not worse: Marriage and Divorce in the 21st century

Posted by on Oct 2, 2015 in Blog | 10 comments

I still remember the day. A woman had moved into the town where I was pastor, and on arriving at the church, announced that she was trying to build a new life for herself. She and her husband had separated after 30 years of marriage. He was now living with a much younger woman, and she doubted he would ever return to her – though she would be happy if she was wrong. She wasn’t.

After 18 months of agonising and of all attempts at reconciliation failing, she filed for divorce. On the day her case was to be heard in court, she asked if I and another person from the church would go along with her for moral support. We agreed. We waited for 4 hours before her case was called. She went to the dock and her lawyer stood to present her case. The divorce was uncontested, he said. The husband had signed acceptance of the terms of divorce and a maintenance agreement had been reached. The relevant papers were before the magistrate.

The magistrate glanced at them and asked her if she wanted the divorce. In a soft voice she said yes. “Divorce granted. Maintenance as per terms of agreement” he said. “Next case please…” It took less than 1 minute.

I looked at her. I’ve never seen anyone look so shattered, forlorn and desolate. Her life had fallen apart. The court was disinterested in her story. There were many cases to get through. Divorce granted. Maintenance as per terms of agreement… next case please… And in that devastating minute the dreams of 30 years crumbled in a heap.

Divorce – perhaps the saddest song in all the world. “After all,” she said, “If he had died, I could have kept pretending that he still loved me. This is a death without any consolation.”

So what are we to make of divorce?

Certainly from a pastoral perspective it presents huge challenges, and invites the church to explore what it means to truly be family to one another. But the focus of this mini series ‘Deciding what’s right’ is on ethics – and so this post will focus on some of the ethical issues raised by divorce.

I will try to write with pastoral sensitivity. I realise that for many readers this is not a topic for study. It is a life story that is being lived… And truth to tell, it is a life story experienced, in one form or another, by far too many people. My own parents were divorced, so I am very conscious that life does not always run to plan.

But let’s try and suspend emotion for a moment and think about divorce from an ethical perspective, before concluding on a more pastoral note.

For those interested in Australian statistics, roughly 1 in 3 Australian marriages end in divorce. The good news is that Australia does not feature in the top ten countries for divorce (the link claims the number 1 spot belongs to Belgium at 71%) but a breakdown rate of 1 in 3 still represents an enormous amount of pain, especially when you factor in that approximately half of the marriages involve dependent children.

What ethical guidance do we find from the Bible on this topic?

Malachi 2:16 sets the stage “I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” God doesn’t say: “I hate people who are divorced.” He says: “I hate divorce.”

The logical question is “why?” The answer is not hard to find… I hate divorce because it falls so far short of what I want for people. I hate it because of the pain it causes. I hate it because of what it does to families. I hate it because it undermines the concept of covenant which is at the heart of my commitment to the world.

But for all the hate of divorce, the Bible philosophically accepts that divorce will take place, Jesus citing the famous exception clause of adultery as being a possible justification for it.


Naturally we need to ask about Jesus’ attitude to divorce. His teaching in Matt 19:3-12 is enormously important. It helps if we understand the background to it.

The context is that some Pharisees come and asked Jesus if divorce was legal for any and every reason (v2). It was a loaded question. Deut 24:1-4 was probably in mind, where Moses makes provision for divorce stating that a man may divorce his wife if she has become displeasing to him because he finds something indecent in her…

Predictably people started to ask: “What does finding something unpleasing or indecent mean…” In Jesus’ day there were 3 schools of thought modelled on three of the most prominent Jewish rabbis.

  • The school of Shammai taught that it meant divorce could only be in the event of adultery.
  • The school of Hillel was more permissive. Finding something unpleasing could refer to some trivial fault that was found. For example, if a wife had burnt her husbands meal that could constitute finding something unpleasing in her. While this made divorce a lot easier, the husband (and yes, there was a strong male bias at the time) still had to provide some justification for the divorce. Reasons like burnt meals and an untidy home sufficed.
  • The school of Akiba was even more permissive. A wife might be unpleasing to her husband because he had found someone he considered fairer or more attractive than her. The petition for divorce did not have to be linked to anything she had done. She might be unpleasing simply because he wanted someone else.

Essentially the Pharisees were saying to Jesus: “So who is right. Shammai, Hillel or Akiba.” Whoever he chose he was going to offend a fair section of the listeners.

Jesus refuses to plunge straight into the answer. In v 4-6 he reminds them of the sacred nature of marriage. Ultimately it is God who brings people together. Therefore “whom God has joined together, let man not separate” (v6).

The implication is clear. Jesus is saying: “You are wanting to talk about divorce. I want to start with marriage. The goal of marriage is that two become one. They aren’t two separate people anymore. The goal of marriage is marriage, not divorce.”

This is where we must begin. Too often our starting point is “under what circumstances can we justify divorce.” But the right question is “How can we help create conditions that will make it possible for this marriage to survive?” That’s the thing to strive for.

For all that, Jesus is not naive. He doesn’t refuse to recognise divorce. He partially aligns himself with a Jewish school of thought. Given the three choices, he selects Rabbi Shammai as right. Divorce can only be for an extreme event. Burning meals or deciding someone else is more attractive cuts no ice with Jesus. But adultery, he concedes, breaks troth in the most destructive way. It is a betrayal at the deepest level.

People routinely then misunderstand the passage… and start to try and put Jesus in a box. So it’s only adultery… nothing else ever. And there have been instances where women have felt obligated to stay in their marriages because although their husbands have battered them physically and emotionally and have created a psychological state in the home which is very damaging to their children, they have never slept with anyone else. Some people have said… but there is no adultery, so divorce is out.

They miss the point of the passage. Jesus is saying that the goal of marriage is marriage. You can’t take a Rabbi Akibah approach – Find a more attractive woman and divorce your wife. But he does acknowledge that under extreme circumstances there may be sufficient justification for divorce. Even as he stresses the need for the focus to be on marriage and not divorce, Jesus, knowing all to well the unacceptable conditions under which some live, points to acceptable, though sad, grounds for divorce.

The right way to interpret Jesus’ answer is to see it as setting the bar… Akibah and Hillel set it far too low. If you are going to get divorced it needs to be for something really serious. It would have to be adultery… or more. And yes, if your marriage places you or your children in physical danger, that is more…

But don’t view this as a box ticking exercise – ‘yes, I think my situation is bad enough’, or ‘pity, but not yet bad enough.’ Go back to the heart of what Jesus is saying. The goal of marriage is marriage, not divorce. And the goal of marriage is to effectively become one. As one of the wedding cards given to Rosemary and me 35 years ago said: “Henceforth there shall be such a union between you that when the one weeps, the other shall taste salt.” Mercifully there has not been that much crying, but it is an interesting sentiment.

What does it mean to embrace the goal of marriage as genuine life sharing – sharing to such an extent that at a certain level you are one?

Like any other goal it means we have to work at it.

Let me put it differently. If you want to be a great sports star, you have to set goals for yourself. There would be fitness goals. There would never be unfitness goals. If your approach to getting into the national team was: “I wonder how slow and overweight I can be and still be selected for the team. I wonder how often I can be responsible for the other team scoring and still keep my place,” do you think you’d make the side? That’s an attitude designed for those who want to lose.

Or if you are a cricketer, can you imagine at the end of a sparkling season saying, “I’m going out for a duck today. I’ve made enough runs this season to do that and still to keep my place. Then I’m going to try and drop three catches. After all, I’ve already made so many that I’m in credit and they won’t deselect me…”

Jesus is saying: “Keep the goal in sharp focus. Never ask: ‘How can I get out’, but rather ask ‘what steps can I take to make sure I stay in…’”

This has practical implications.

As you look at your marriage or that of another you might say: “Brian, we’re beyond the bar set even by Rabbi Shammai. So that means it is over.”

Jesus would say: “Not necessarily. The goal of marriage is marriage. There has been a terrible block and something which is ruining your relationship… But start here. Can you change anything so that you slip back beneath the bar… so that you stop worrying about the bar and simply want to stay married?” Often the way forward is to work really hard on what has gone wrong.

In ethics we draw not only from the Scriptures but also from the wisdom and traditions of the past. The compilers of the traditional wedding vows got it right when they asked us to pledge, “For better or for worse”. They never assumed that it would always be for better, but advocated sticking at it as a means for overcoming difficulties.


But what if it really is over.

Step 1: Ask: “Have I done all I can to reach the goal of marriage… being one?”

Step 2: If it really is over, ask: “How can I end this in a way which most honours Jesus and preserves the well being of us all?” Part of the all is often children. When resentment is high it is common for one partner to explode about the other to their children. When you hear yourself about to say: “Your father always….” or “Your mother is…” it is time to shut your mouth.

Step 3: Recognise you will be vulnerable. Make as few major decisions as possible. Don’t rush into another relationship.

Step 4: Set standards for yourself. When hurt, we often let ourselves go. No matter how painful, embrace the future. Groom yourself well. Keep the house tidy. Get fit. Part of setting standards is not to allow yourself to become lax sexually. Out of the hurt and betrayal of divorce, people are often very vulnerable. Make a firm decision to set a high standard.

Step 5: Learn the lessons from this phase. Even if 90% of the blame for the breakdown was you partners (OK, 99.9%), what have you learnt and what will you do differently? Claim Rom 8:28 – not as trite escapism but as a profound promise. Good can come even from pain. In what way can this experience make you a stronger, kinder more Christlike person.

Step 6: Acknowledge your regrets. Regret is inevitable. There are usually lots of “if only…” moments. Don’t try and pretend they aren’t there. They will always have a corner in your life. Give them their corner. They are part of the truth of your life. But don’t let regret dominate your life. Regret is the lot of those who can only look to the past. It leads to bitterness and in the end becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t let go of the past you will never be able to embrace the new. Christians are people who know that the best is yet to be. God doesn’t love you less because your marriage failed. Look to God’s future with hope…

Step 7: Own what was good in the past. Don’t let the ultimate failure of your marriage rob you of the joy gained from happier times in the past. Those happier moments were real. Embrace them with gratitude.

Step 8: Keep trusting God


A quick closing word to those who are happily married (or happily single)…

We live in a fallen world. God hates divorce… but he recognises it! Under certain circumstances it is the right decision. God is fully aware that many divorced people never made the decision to get divorced – it was a decision imposed on them, or one reached with the greatest reluctance. And God always wants to work for good in our lives.

To co operate with God means to be helpful to those who are in pain, or trapped in bitterness. None of us have squeaky clean lives. We all need the grace of God. Whatever people are going through, remember to be a friend. God is the one who judges all hearts. Don’t try and take on God’s role. Show the love of Christ to all who need it… Tomorrow it might well be you, or me… Actually, we all always need the grace, forgiveness and love of God…

God bless you – whatever your challenges might be…

Nice chatting.




















  1. Great read Brian. Very interesting to read about the three ancient schools of thought regarding divorce.

    • Thanks Stuart, and for passing it on.

  2. Hi Brian, great insight about a really tricky topic. I really like M. Scott Peck’s definition that “true” love is an action that one undertakes consciously in order to extend one’s ego boundaries by including others. I think this really ties up well with the 2 becoming one. Sue and i have been married 25 years, and I still think marrying her was one of the smartest moves I ever made.

    • Thanks Tim. Good to be in touch again.

  3. Really helpful post Brian. Thanks.

    • Thanks Steve. It certainly is a topic that impacts lots of people.

  4. Hi Brian I really enjoy reading your posts. Hope you are all well!

    • Hi Ian. Great to be in touch and glad you are enjoying the posts. Hope things are going well for you.

  5. Brian this is the best and most helpful article I have ever read about divorce in the context of the church. I wish this sort of thing would be included in a sermon sometime. I feel it would be helpful for those in the church who are divorced, and would help those in the congregation who aren’t to be more understanding.

    • Thanks Miranda. I’ve just checked the number of page hits for this post, and already on day 1 it is way ahead of any of the others, so I think you are right. It seems to have met a need for people and I guess that means I should find a way to preach on the topic in the forseeable future.

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