Dangers of Divorce – Matthew 5:31-32

Pastor Scott L. Harris
July 26, 1992; October 18, 1997

Dangers of Divorce
Matthew 5:31-32

War on the family

I first preached on this passage over 6 years ago. James Dobson of Focus on the Family was then using the phrase “civil war” to describe the moral turmoil our nation was in. That is still a fitting description of what is going on between those still holding to a Judeao-Christian ethic and those who have fallen under the influence of secular humanism, which is the philosophy now controlling much of our governmental and school systems.

One of the major areas of battle is the family, not just family values, but even the very definition and existence of the family. While historically the family has been defined as those people related by marriage, blood descent or adoption, that is not the definition used now by many in our society. Marriage is not important to them in defining a family and neither is the gender of those living together. Laws have passed in several cities that have given “spousal” privileges to those who co-habit. This is usually without regard to the gender of those co-habiting. This has been pushed heavily by homosexual rights advocates as a way to gain both financial advantage and legitimize their relationships. The push to make homosexual marriages legal and recognized by the state is part of this redefinition of the family.

There is also a move by some social engineers to eliminate the traditional family altogether because they see it as the greatest hindrance to their goals. Feminist Kate Millet said over twenty years ago that, “the family unit must go, because it is the family that has oppressed and enslaved women.” That line has not changed any since then. The so called “Pro-Choice” movement is part of feminism’s anti-family thrust. The idea that only the mother has the right to decide whether the baby lives or dies redefines the family as a mother and child. Dad is eliminated from the family picture. I have always found it curious that Planned Parenthood, the nations single largest provider of abortions, chose that name. It sounds like a group that will help a couple plan and prepare for the birth and rearing of a child, not a place where parenthood is terminated.

But amazing enough, radical feminists, homosexuals, and amoral legislators are not the biggest threats to families. The greatest threat to the family is the dissolution of the institution of marriage. One force against marriage is unwed motherhood and the promotion of single parenting as a viable alternative lifestyle. There has been some progress in this area in terms of the financial support through welfare, yet unwed motherhood is still regarded in large portions of our society as legitimate, if not normal.

However, unwed motherhood is a tragedy. Of children who live with unmarried mothers: 63% live in poverty. 33% will repeat a grade in school. 17% will be suspended or expelled. 39% are in families that have been on welfare for more than 10 years. 56% of those that have lived with only one parent will spend time in juvenile correctional facilities. Unwed motherhood is not what the entertainment media portrays. There is nothing glamorous about it.

It is tragic enough that so many live in the hollowed out shell of what is supposed to be a family, but we have to add to that the calamity of families shattered by divorce. Now let me say before I go any farther that I am not speaking against single parent families per se, but I am saying that the situation is tragic. It is not God’s ideal for the family, and it is a very difficult circumstance to live in. Anyone that has been there or has had a friend or relative there knows what I am talking about. Single parents need help and encouragement regardless of whether the situation was caused by death, being the victim of a divorce, or because of their own sinfulness. I advocate helping single parents, but I am also speaking against two sins that result in single parent families. These are unwed motherhood and divorce.

But now you say, “Pastor, what about when the marriage goes bad? Isn’t it better to get a divorce and not have to live is such a horrible situation. And isn’t it better to spare the kids having to live in such a negative environment?” Let me ask you a question, “Have you considered the high cost of divorce?”

High Cost of Divorce

Without even taking the time to analyze the reasons for most divorces, the high cost of divorce speaks against it. Consider the financial aspect first.


The Family Research Council reported in April 1992 that *The poverty rate for children living in single-parent homes is 5 times the rate for children living with two parents. *Divorced men increased their standard of living an average of 42% while divorced women and their children decline 73%. Add to this the cost of the divorce itself. No-fault divorces are advertised in California for under $100. But the cost rises rapidly if anything is contested like the house, personal property, and especially custody of children. Lawyer and court fees can quickly rise to the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars. Add to this the cost of having to reproduce another household with all the start up costs of basic furniture, kitchen ware, and cleaning supplies.

In looking through the local yellow pages I found one add saying, “When a family breaks in two – the right lawyer can make the difference.” Another add says “Divorce – very low fees.” It had a picture of a heart with a swan at either end going in opposite directions. Sort of makes divorce seem romantic, but the financial costs are only the tip of the ice-berg.


The Family Research Council also reported that: *School age children living with a parent & step-parent or only the divorced mother are 40% – 75% more likely to repeat a grade and 70% more likely to be expelled from school. *Children who grow up in a fractured family are less likely to graduate from high school than those from intact families. *A disproportionate number of runaway teens come from step-parent households. *Young sons often experience nightmares and a “father hunger” soon after dad leaves home. In their teens, they are more likely to have increased levels of aggression, gang membership and other emotional and behavioral problems. *Young daughters of divorce often experience anxiety and guilt. In their teens, they are more likely to be sexually involved, marry younger, be pregnant more often before marriage, and become divorced or separated themselves from their eventual husbands. *Children of divorce typically experience depression, drug and alcohol experimentation and a diminished ability to form lasting relationships.

Dr. Armand Nicoli of the Harvard Medical School has said, “The trend toward quick and easy divorce, and the ever-increasing divorce rate, subject more and more children to physically and emotionally absent parents.” He added that if the trend continued, “the quality of family life will continue to deteriorate, producing a society with a higher incidence of mental illness than ever before.”

Add to this the personal pain endured. Pat Conroy described his pain in a book entitled, “Death of a Marriage.” He said, “Each divorce is the death of a small civilization. Two people declare war on each other, and their screams and tears infect their entire world with the bacilli of their pain. The greatest fury comes from the wound where love once issued forth . . . “When I went through my divorce I saw it as a country, and it was treeless, airless; there were no furloughs and no holidays. I entered without passport, without directions and absolutely alone. Insanity and hopelessness grew in that land like vast orchards of malignant fruit. I do not know the precise day that I arrived in that country. Nor am I certain that you can ever renounce your citizenship there . . . “For a year I walked around feeling as if I had undergone a lobotomy. There were records I could not listen to because of their association with Barbara, poems I could not read from books I could not pick up. There is a restaurant I will never return to because it was the scene of an angry argument between us. It was a year when memory was acid . . . “I began to develop the odd habits of the very lonely. I turned the stereo on as soon as I entered my apartment. I drank to the point of not caring. I cooked elaborate meals for myself, then could not eat them . . .”.

Seventy percent of divorces involve children. For them the pain persists because issues with the children require continued interaction between the divorced couple. The children are often used as tools against each parent. And the pain your children have reminds you of your own pain.

If you do not believe me, have a serious talk with someone that has gone through a divorce and they will tell you of the pain. Divorce is not a solution to problems. It just creates new, often more complex ones.

In light of all this, it is no wonder that God says in Malachi 2:16, “For I hate divorce.” It destroys the family which God Himself instituted.

Divorce is a problem now, and it was also a problem at the time of Christ, and it was a problem made worse by the teaching of the Scribes. Turn to Matthew 5:31 as we continue to examine Christ’s examples of true righteousness as compared with the self righteousness of the Scribes.

Teaching of the Scribes

“And it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of dismissal.”

This quote comes from Deuteronomy 24 where Moses gives instruction concerning a permitting of divorce. Turn there so we can see the background for Jesus statements concerning divorce.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.”

Nowhere in the passage is divorce commanded or even recommended. In fact, it is a series of conditional sentences ending with the conclusion that the man who divorces his wife cannot remarry her if she remarries and her second husband dies or divorces her. The commands within this passage were given for a couple of reasons. First, divorce had been occurring for nearly any reason and this passage restricted it to only one reason, no favor because of some indecency. It also protected the woman by giving her a certificate she needed to have legal standing. It also prevented her from being accused as an adulteress and stoned when she remarried. The passage does not prohibit divorce, but instead regulates it and brings out its seriousness. It is no temporary separation. It has permanence. But note that it leads to defilement.

The Scribes of Jesus’ time had in effect circumvented what Moses had said and had gone back to the practices that brought about Moses’ regulations on divorce in the first place. In fact, the Pharisees had gone so far as to say that Moses commanded divorce. In Matthew 19 the Pharisees came and asked Jesus about divorce. In verse 7 they said to Jesus, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate and divorce her?” They had twisted what Moses had said into a command to divorce rather than a restriction and a caution against it.

There were three religious views concerning divorce at the time of Christ. Two of them were very strict and the third, that of Hillel, allowed divorce for nearly any reason at all. Almost needless to say, the view of Hillel was the most popular. It even allowed for divorce if the man had just found someone else he liked better. The reasoning being that if the husband liked someone else better, then his current wife would not be favorable in his eyes and therefore indecent to him.

We live in a society much like that today. She burns the bagels, divorce her. He snores too loud, divorce him. We’re board, lets divorce and change partners. No-fault divorce is one of the great tragedies of our society because it tries to reduce much of the pain of divorce. Yet, that very pain makes people think twice before seeking a divorce and encourages them to try harder.

The thrust of the teaching of the scribes was that you could get a divorce for any reason as long as the paper work was done. If you got the paper work done, then you are okay. Since the Scribes were the lawyers of their society, they were good at paper work and always got theirs done, therefore they must be righteous in their divorces.

Teaching of Jesus

Jesus corrects the teaching of the Scribes in Matthew 5:32 and in doing so also contradicts the prevailing view of our own society.

“but I say unto you, that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Jesus’ comment here about divorce follows directly from his comments concerning adultery just prior. The Scribes thought they avoided adultery because they were not physically intimate with another man’s wife. But Jesus said they committed adultery in their hearts when they looked on a woman to lust after her. (See: Lust & You Lose). The Scribes thought they would be righteous as long as they got the paper work done when they divorced their wives for whatever reason at all. Jesus says that apart from one exception, who ever divorces his wife multiplies adultery all over. Legal paper work does not make something right or wrong before God. God looks at the heart and Jesus condemns the teaching and practice of these religious hypocrites here because they proclaimed to be righteous before God while teaching and practicing what amounted to legalized adultery.

In the 60’s and 70’s it was popular to justify living together apart from marriage by saying that marriage was only a piece of paper. Marriage was seen by these people to be worthless because “love would keep them together” and the “dried ink stains on some line” would not, so why bother with marriage? The result of that in the 80’s and 90’s the common practice became living together prior to marriage to see if things will work out. In 1970 only 11% tried “trial marriage” prior to marriage. It is now over 66%. The result is another tragedy. About 40% will break up before marriage, yet that split is as emotionally devastating as a divorce (a major reason so many single people do not get married). Of those who do marry, 75% of them will divorce after marriage which is about twice as high as non-cohabitants. The woman in such a relationship is 56 times more likely to be physically abused by her husband. That is not God’s design for marriage.

All this is in contrast to what God says about the nature of marriage. The Scribes regulated it to a legal relationship. Modern culture has regulated it to the fleeting whims of romantic love. The legal aspects seem more to do with contractual law and business partnerships than husbands and wives.

What is marriage? The ceremony marking the beginning of a marriage varies from culture to culture. Most of the elements in western culture weddings come from ancient Roman ceremonies – including the ring ceremony. Some wedding ceremonies last a few minutes (Las Vegas) and some many days (ancient Jewish weddings lasted 7 days). But the real question is when God sees the couple as “married.”

Turn back to Genesis 3:21f. God creates a woman from one of Adam’s ribs. Vs 22 – God gives the woman to Adam. Vs 23 – Adam accepts the gift and names her. Vs 24 – God pronounces the marriage institution saying, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Marriage takes place upon the man cleaving to his wife and becoming one flesh with her. The word cleave means “to glue.” And like two pieces of wood glued together, they become one and cannot be separated without permanent damage.

Central to marriage is the idea of the two becoming one flesh. It is interesting to note this idea is strengthened by the fact that in the Old Testament Law, though the death penalty was instituted for sins of adultery, incestuous relationships and sexual perversions, it was not required of unmarried people. Instead, Exodus 22:16,17 and Deuteronomy 22:28,29 indicate that a man who seduces an unbetrothed virgin and lies with her must pay the dowry and she becomes his wife unless the father absolutely refuses, in which case he still must pay the dowry. The illicit sexual relationship results in a marriage. Deuteronomy 22:29 adding that “he cannot divorce her all his days.”

Jesus says here that just because the paper work has been done does not mean that the marriage is over in God’s eyes. Jesus tells them that when they divorce for any other reason than the exception Jesus notes here, then you cause your wife to commit adultery when she remarries, and whoever marries a woman so divorced commits adultery. The paper work may be done, but the marriage is not over in God’s eyes. The teaching and practice of the Scribes and Pharisees only ended up promoting more adultery. Imagine how that truth began to sink on the religious leaders that had divorced their wives for some other cause than the exception Jesus mentions here.

Now you say, “What is the exception?” Different words are used to explain it in the various Bible translations – unchastity (NAS) – fornication (KJV) – marital unfaithfulness (NIV) – sexual immorality (NKJV). All I will say about it at this point is that its meaning is very narrow and if you want to know what Jesus meant by that you will have to come back next week when I will discuss it fully. The point of the passage is not on the exception given but on the contrast between the self-righteous teaching of the Scribes and true righteousness. Too often our human hearts want to know the exceptions to the rules so we know how and when we can get around God’s commands instead of following God from the heart and letting Him take care of it. Next week we will discuss in detail the exception clause, but for this morning I want the stress to remain properly on the nature of true righteousness as opposed to self-righteousness.

Self-righteousness tries to manipulate the law to achieve one’s own ends. True righteousness wants to do God’s will at all costs. Self-righteousness is concerned with a good self-image. True righteousness is concerned with a bringing honor and praise to God and viewing the self from God’s perspective. Self-righteousness will see how close it can get to the line without crossing over while true righteousness wants to stay safely away from the line.

Jesus’ correction of the Scribes and Pharisees tells them that all their efforts at self-righteousness are futile. They look down on others, elevating themselves that they are not murderers or adulterers and that they take care of the legal paper work. But Jesus says they are in fact guilty of murder in their hearts because of their hatred. They are guilty of adultery because they lust after other women, and their legal paper work of divorce has resulted in a proliferation of adultery.


Some final thoughts on this subject.

1) It is clear that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:15-16). He hates the sin of the one causing the divorce. He hates the victimization of the children and the innocent party. He hates the breakup of marriage which He instituted. The example of Hosea demonstrates how much even the offended party should be seeking to restore the relationship.

2) Divorce is not the best in any situation, but because of the hardness of men’s hearts (Matthew 19) there are Biblical grounds for divorce, but those grounds are very strict.

3) To divorce apart from the exception given in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 is sin, but it is not the unforgivable sin. There are still consequences, but the sin can be forgiven. Even the adultery that causes divorce, or the adultery that results from an unbiblical divorce when remarriage occurs, can be forgiven by Christ. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 even lists those who were fornicators and adulterers as those who were “washed . . . sanctified . . . and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” If you have committed these sins and never asked Christ for forgiveness, you can do that right now in your own heart where you sit, and His promise is to those that confess that He is faithful and just to forgive that sin and cleanse from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Anyone that looks down on another Christian because they have been divorced is in the same danger of self-righteousness as the Scribes and Pharisees.

4) Are you already divorced and remarried? You cannot divorce again to try to reconcile with your first spouse for that would be sin. Eggs can not be un-scrambled. Follow the advice of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 and in what ever position you are in this moment, live it totally for the Lord seeking His will and His glory.

Divorce is a terrible tragedy. There is a high cost financially, personally, and spiritually. It destroys God’s plan for the family. Divorce always has lasting effects that cannot be changed, but God can heal and restore a vessel that is tarnished by sin regardless of whether that sin is an unbiblical divorce, sexual immorality, murder, greed, envy, deceit, slander, arrogance, boasting, being untrustworthy, unloving or unmerciful. God can take that tarnished vessel, clean it and make it a useful treasure in His kingdom.

I praise God that this church is filled with people that were once tarnished vessels that are now cleaned and being used for God’s glory. If you are still without Christ and therefore still in your sins, today can be the day that God can begin to clean you and restore you to useful purposes. Talk with me or one of our church leaders after the service.

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