What Does the Bible Say About Divorce? Defining "Divorce"

I can relate to my Pastor Steve Bullmer because he, like I, went through one of those divorces from hell.

When he first came to the First United Methodist Church of Crystal Lake in July, 2008, he preached a series of sermons based on the titles of TV soap operas. Lnks to my articles on them are at the bottom.  The first three relate to his first marriage and divorce.

In his mid-July sermon this year, Bullmer talked about the woman who came to the well in mid-day in order to avoid the other women in the village.  She had been married five times. Jesus talked to her. Bullmer provides an interpretation of the story that I have heard no where else.

It is one of hope and provides concrete evidence that one who has been divorced can have a fulfilling lift after divorce.

But, first, Bullmer answers the question:

“What does the Bible say about divorce?”

To do that he goes back to the two words used to refer to divorce.  They do not have the same meaning.

That’s what addressed in the first part of the sermon that is found below:


July 18-19, 2009
Matthew 5:31-32

This week’s extended study guide is an invitation for you to do your own Bible study on almost all of the passages in Scripture that deal with divorce. I am inviting you to think for yourselves; to think carefully and critically about what you believe about divorce … what the Bible actually says about divorce.

I want you to dig into this for yourselves because everyone here today, somewhere along the way, is going to need to know what you believe about this.

You will have a family member, a friend, a parent, a brother, a sister, a child who is going to talk about getting divorced.

We have to be clear:

  • What do we think about this issue? 
  • What do we think God thinks about this issue?

It’s a challenge to preach about divorce; because there are different people here today who need to hear different messages about divorce.

Some of you just need to hear about God’s love, and His mercy, and His healing.

But if I give you a healthy dose of God’s mercy and grace, will I be giving others of you who are struggling in your marriage permission to give up; will I be pushing you over the edge … when what you need is a message about perseverance?

And while there are some who need to persevere through the tough times, there are others who are in marriages that are so dysfunctional, that by preaching on perseverance I’m just giving them a huge dose of guilt and prolonging an anguish that God doesn’t will for their lives. There are landmines all around when we talk about divorce; and the potential to hurt a lot of people is huge when we bring up this subject.

So the temptation is to not bring up the subject, and that’s what a lot of pastors do. I mean, when was the last time you heard a United Methodist preacher preach on divorce?

But if the church doesn’t talk about it where are you going to get your guidance?

And so many of you are struggling with this; and we are looking at the Sermon on the Mount for help for life’s struggles.

So with a pastor’s heart, and as a person who went through divorce myself, I come to you today to talk with you about real answers to real questions about a real problem–divorce.

The only way I can see to negotiate the minefield is to preach four sermons on the subject.

Now, don’t worry, they are all short!

But I want to try to speak to all of you who are at different places in your life.

So please understand what’s about to happen: I will preach the first sermon, and it may not be directed at you. And the words of that first sermon might be hurtful to you if you think it’s directed at you. But it’s not.

Gospel is always “Good News,” so if the message sounds like bad news to you instead of good news, that’s probably not the message intended for you.

So hang in there. Listen to the second message … or the third message … or the fourth message.

My goal is healing and hope; I am not a tour guide for guilt trips. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, one message among four will be the words that God wants to implant in your heart.

I wanted to begin by examining everything the Bible has to say about divorce, but that turned this into a forty-minute sermon!

So the Bible study is in your study guide. I really want you to read and pray through that this week. There is surprising information there.

The Bible doesn’t say what most of us think it says about divorce.

In a nutshell, here’s what the Bible teaches.

God is not fond of divorce … but provision is made for it.

Jesus says marriage is supposed to be a lifetime commitment … but the apostles make provision for when the ideal cannot be achieved; because what Jesus teaches about divorce is a hard teaching, and for some people this will be nearly impossible to do.

Let’s look at today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount and hear what Jesus says about divorce. Matthew 5:31-32: It has been said,

“’Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”

Let’s talk about this for a minute. I find it a little confusing why, in the midst of all the passage on forgiveness that Pastor Heath so ably walked us through last weekend, this is the one instance where forgiveness is wrong, you can’t get divorced, and divorce is ramped up to the sin of permanent adultery.

Isn’t that inconsistent?

I don’t love my cheating wife anymore; okay. But some guy comes along who does love her, and appreciates her, and wants to minister to her and care for her and encourage her—all the things we’re supposed to do in a marriage and I just won’t or can’t any more; but if they get married they’re committing adultery? And if I find my soul mate I can’t marry her because that makes me an adulterer? Does that make sense to you?

I really wrestled with this one when I was considering divorcing my first wife. I’ve told you the story. (See links below.)

This was the worst time of my life:

  • My marriage was a train wreck, and
  • my relationship with my kids was going down the toilet, and
  • parishioners and friends alike are berating me for considering this, and
  • the Methodist clergy colleague in town starts a rumor that I’m having an affair with the Sunday school superintendent, and
  • my soon-to-be ex-wife is worshiping at another church—a church that takes a dim view on divorce—and
  • one day some guy calls me on the phone looking for pastoral care, so we make an appointment and he comes to my office, and it turns out he’s a guy from my ex-wife’s church and what he really wants is to beat me over the head with all the Bible passages that condemn divorce, and how can I call myself a Christian much less a pastor if I’m considering divorcing my wife….

This is my life!

All I’ve got left is God!

And I really want to be right with God. But I’m not sure I can be right with God and get a divorce….

But this marriage is killing me.

And I will confess to you that I was considering suicide because I’m thinking that the only way to stop the pain … is to escape to heaven where none of these people can torment me anymore.

And I’m clinging to my relationship with God by my fingernails … but I’m afraid if I get divorced then I’ll lose that, too … that’s what other Christians are telling me, and I’m afraid they are right.

And then, in another church’s newsletter, is this insert:

“Divorce, the Law, and Jesus.”

The church is UCC; the author of the article is Baptist. And with fear and trembling I read the article. This is what I learned:

Many men in biblical times married more than one wife, and without bothering about divorce.

If he did not divorce her, what did a man in those days do with the first wife?

He put her away.

The word for that in Hebrew is “shalach.”

It is different from the Hebrew word for divorce, which is “keriythuwth.”

Keriythuwth literally means excision, a cutting of the marital bonds; legal divorce, as commanded in Deuteronomy 24, permitted subsequent marriage.

Shalach—“to put away”—described when wives were not divorced by their husbands, just abandoned emotionally and financially as they gave their hearts to another woman.

They were “put away,” available if needed or wanted again; “put away,” reduced to unwanted property. They were “put away” in favor of another, but not given a divorce and the right to marry again.

It was a cruel tradition, and it was contrary to Jewish law; but men did it … and they got away with it.

Then Jesus came, and he hated this tradition as much as God did.

In the New Testament the Greek word for “put away” is “apoluo.” The Greek word for divorce is “apostasion.” Apostasion is the technical term for a certificate of divorce.

Apoluo, “putting away,” was not technically a divorce, even though the words were often used synonymously.

In that age of total male domination, men often took additional wives, and did not provide written release, required by the Jewish law, when they abandoned their wives and married others.

If a man married another woman, so what?

If a man “put away” (apoluo) his wife without bothering with a written divorce, who was going to object?

The woman?

Well, Jesus had some objections!

Jesus loved mistreated women!

He told them that this earth would go up in smoke before the law requiring a written bill of divorce should fail.

And he said, when you put away a wife (without written divorce), and marry another (while still legally married), you are guilty of adultery.

Moreover, she who is put away is in real trouble. She has no divorce papers.

If she marries again she would, literally, commit adultery.

The distinction between “put away” and “divorce,” between apoluo and apostasion is critical.

Apoluo left women were enslaved, with no rights and no recourse.

They were abandoned emotionally and financially.

Apostasion ended marriage and permitted a legal subsequent marriage.

In the Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew 19, and Mark 10, and Luke 16, it is the word apoluo that Jesus uses—eleven times in these passages.

In every passage he forbade apoluo, putting away. He never forbade giving apostasion, written divorce.

In fact, he demanded obedience to the law.

What Jesus is objecting to is the dehumanization and abandonment of women.

In the first century human rights were for men only.

Jesus changed that! Grace does abound in Jesus Christ!

So what does this teach me about divorce?

Divorce is a privilege, provided as a corrective for an intolerable situation.

It is a privilege which can be, and often is, abused.

In most cases, divorce is not a pretty picture.

It leaves you feeling lonely, rejected, and like a complete failure at the one thing you wanted to get right in your life.

Your self-esteem is crushed, relatives and friends criticize and abandon you, child care becomes a problem, property settlements are contentious—this is what confronts the person going though a divorce.

Divorce is still only what it was in Jesus’ day—a partial solution to a serious and cruel situation; and it is always a tragedy!

We might be able to prevent some divorces by tightening our divorce laws or by religious prohibitions against divorce, but those actions aren’t going to prevent broken marriages.

Believe me; the marriage fails first, long before the divorce proceedings begin.

The high divorce rate is just an indicator of our high bad marriage rate.

And to correct this we will have to do more than preach against divorce, sounding more like the judgmental John the Baptist than Jesus.

Simply preaching judgmentally against marriage doesn’t solve anything.

In fact, it makes things worse.

When couples stay together only because of the shame of getting divorced, or because the church prohibits it, or “for the sake of the children,” the tragedy compounds.

Disastrous marital triangles, domestic cruelty, child abuse, murder, and suicides are some of the documented consequences of marriages which had failed but were not terminated.

I shall never forget the young man who put a gun barrel in his mouth and ended his marriage that way … because his church forbid him from divorcing.

All right, the four sermons I want to offer to you, very briefly.

Tomorrow, Pastor Steve Bullmer’s message to those not yet married who want to be married sometime in their life.

Below are the links to my articles on Pastor Bullmer’s introductory sermons, the first three of which concentrate on his failed marriage:

One Life to Live – The Soap Opera Life of Steve Bullmer, New Methodist Minister in Crystal Lake

General Hospital – The Soap Opera Life of Steve Bullmer, New Methodist Church Minister in Crystal Lake

The Bold and the Beautiful – The Soap Opera Life of Steve Bullmer, New Methodist Minister in Crystal Lake

Guiding Life – The Soap Opera Life of Steve Bullmer, New Methodist Minister in Crystal Lake

= = = = =
Services at the First United Methodist Church (at the corner of West Crystal Lake Avenue and Dole, both of which intersect with Route 14 at a stop light) are 5 PM on Saturday and 8 AM, 9:30 AM and 11 AM. The 9:30 service is the most traditional. The 11 o’clock one is the most contemporary.

Other parts of the message can be found by linking to the articles below:

If You Haven’t Been Married

Temptations During a “Good” Marriage

When Your Spouse Has Left You

Hope After Divorce

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