Up until a few days ago (as I write this), David Petraeus had a life that many would envy, and that many more looked up to. He had retired from the U.S. Army as a four star General after a stellar career that included over thirty-seven years of distinguished service, culminating in some of the highest postings in the Army. Upon retiring from military service, Petraeus took up a new position as head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), having been nominated for that position by President Barack Obama and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate.
In his younger years, shortly after he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Petraeus married a highly intelligent and capable young woman named Holly Knowlton, daughter of Army General William A. Knowlton. The two of them have now been married for thirty-eight years. Holly Petraeus has become known as an advocate for military families. She is currently serving as director of the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the recently formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). David and Holly Petraeus have two adult children, Stephen and Anne.
The picture-book quality of this story of a highly distinguished general with a long and spotless career, and his long and fruitful marriage to a distinguished and capable wife, came to an abrupt end on November 8, 2012.
How the mighty has fallen
That was the day Petraeus offered his resignation as CIA chief to President Obama—a resignation that Obama accepted the next day. In his resignation letter to CIA employees, Petraeus stated his reason for resigning: “After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”
The woman with whom he had the affair was Paula Broadwell, an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves and co-author of a laudatory biography of David Petraeus titled, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Broadwell had become close to the general in Afghanistan, where she was embedded with Petraeus and his staff and soldiers for a year, following his career and spending many hours interviewing him for the biography. Broadwell is herself married and has two young children.
Both Petraeus and Broadwell now face public scandal and humiliation in the wake of the affair. Both must also go through the much more personal repercussions of their adultery as they face their own spouses and families. And of course, due to their actions their families must also bear the burden of public shame.
Why did these two successful, disciplined, and apparently happily married people do such a thing? We may never know. But I found one woman’s sage advice, based on personal experience, to be very practical. You can read about it here: “The Truth Is… Hanging Out Alone A Lot With Someone You Find Attractive Is Asking For Trouble.”
To Petraeus’s credit, he has admitted that what he did was wrong, taken full responsibility for his actions, and done the honorable thing by resigning from his prominent position.
The evils of divorce?
If, in the wake of the affair, Petraeus’s wife or Broadwell’s husband decided to seek a divorce, would they be condemned by society? Would they be condemned by Christians?
Even in today’s laissez-faire social climate, it is widely agreed that when one partner in a marriage commits adultery, the other partner is justified in obtaining a divorce should she or he decide to do so. Marriage is built on faithfulness and trust. Adultery is the very definition of unfaithfulness. It violates the commitment and destroys the trust that are at the core of marriage.
The principle that adultery is a legitimate cause for divorce is also solidly embedded in Christian scriptures, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. No Christian minister could reasonably object if someone whose husband or wife had committed adultery decided to file for divorce.
And yet, we hear this statement bandied about:
“God hates divorce.”
It is based on Malachi 2:16, which says, “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord.”
This passage has been badly misinterpreted and misused by many Christians and Christian ministers to condemn both divorce itself and people who are divorced or are seeking a divorce.
But the real target of the passage is not divorce—and it is certainly not divorcées. It is the unfaithfulness, deceit, and violence that commonly lead to divorce.
If we read the whole passage in Malachi 2:10–16, we find that it is speaking figuratively of “Judah”—meaning the ancient Jewish people who formed the Biblical kingdom of Judah—breaking their covenant with God by being faithless to one another.
However, the passage can also be read as applying to literal marriages between individual human beings. If we read it this way, we find that:
Malachi 2:13–16 is admonishing men not to be faithless, deceitful, and violent to their wives.
The Hebrew in this passage is somewhat difficult to clearly understand and translate. But as is shown in various translations that do their best to interpret its meaning, it is speaking to men and chiding them for cheating, lying, and dealing “treacherously” or violently with the wives they married when they were young.
In other words, the passage is not only about adultery, but about all the other ways men are unfaithful to their wives and to the vows of marriage.
What leads faithful wives to seek divorce from their husbands? Adultery, violence, abuse, deceitful lies, abandonment, and many other things that men do in violation of the sacred vows that they made to their wives on their wedding day. These are all evils, and they all involve unfaithfulness to the “wife of one’s youth.” Adultery is not the only way that men are unfaithful to their wives. And of course, though the Malachi passage speaks to men, the same principles apply to women as well.
Here is what the Malachi passage focuses on: the faithless and destructive things men and women do that destroy marriage and lead to divorce. Divorce itself is the result, not the cause of these things. The Bible, as usual, focuses on the causes behind the pain and suffering we humans endure—including the pain and suffering that regularly accompanies divorce.
In other words, divorce is not the true evil. The true evil is all of the faithless and abusive actions by husbands, and also by wives, that lead to divorce.
Another thing we find if we read the passage carefully is that:
Malachi 2:16 says, “I hate divorce.” It doesn’t say, “I hate divorcées, people getting a divorce, and people thinking about getting a divorce.”
God loves all people, including those who have been, are now, or will in the future be caught in the tangles of divorce.
Who loves divorce? Divorce is awful. God hates divorce because it is a horrible thing for anyone to have to go through. But sometimes we do have to go through it. See 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
God keeps right on loving divorced and divorcing people, while hating just as much as they do the fact that they have to suffer through the terrible, heart-wrenching experience of divorce.
As for David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, I hope they are both truly sorry and repentant for the unfaithfulness they engaged in, and that they commit themselves to remaining faithful to their spouses in every way for the rest of their lives. It will be up to their spouses to decide whether they wish to remain in their respective marriages or file for divorce. If either of them chooses the latter, the real issue will still be the faithlessness of their spouse, not the divorce sought as a consequence of that faithlessness.
What Malachi 2:10–16 is really about
In short: Malachi 2:10–16 is not about the evils of divorce. And it is certainly not about the supposed evils of getting a divorce or being divorced. It is about the faithlessness, deceit, treachery, and violence that causes divorce. That is what God truly hates.
Parts of this article previously appeared in a different and briefer form in a comment I made on anewfreelife’s blog post titled “Grandma’s Wisdom.”
I wish there was a LOVE IT button! Like just doesn’t seem strong enough.
I have meditating from what I have been reading from the conjugial love and I believe this verse ‘Do Not Be Unfaithful to the Wife of Your Youth’ seems to not be directly referring to the first wife of a man (as per the literal definition) but it is a mostly a symbolic reference to his mother.
Wives as described in the book of proverbs seem to be a correspondence to ‘wisdom’. And such ‘wisdom’ moved from the Lord > Mother/Wife > Father/Husband > Child
from this marriage to his mother or rather the flesh of his mother, he is joined to the wisdom of his wife.
and this probably explains why Mary is highly revered as symbolic of the wisdom of the people of the old covenant.
Just sharing my thoughts. Sorry this may be an advanced discussion for this article.
Is there some specific passage that led you to this idea? As I mentioned briefly in the article, the passage itself is speaking of the unfaithfulness of Judah. And when collective unfaithfulness of the people is spoken of in the Bible, it usually means unfaithfulness to God.
At any rate, if there is any reference to unfaithfulness to Wisdom as mother, that would certainly be a highly metaphorical reading. The passage itself does mention literal wives, and admonishes against marrying foreign women. Further, from a Swedenborgian perspective, wisdom as mother would mean either the Lord’s divine wisdom or the Church, not an individual such as Mary.
Could you also explain the meaning behind verses such as Matthew 5:32, Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18, and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11? Firstly, I find it unusual that Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 seemingly permit divorce and possibly remarriage on the grounds of sexual immorality, while the other verses provide no grounds for divorce and remarriage at all. Secondly, do the verses actually forbid divorce and remarriage, according to you?
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and questions. I do have in mind to write a full article about divorce in the future. For now, here are a few thoughts on the subject.
First, rules and teachings about divorce change throughout the scriptures, from Old Testament times when a man was allowed to divorce his wife for any cause, to Jesus’ rather strict teachings forbidding divorce for anything but adultery and equating remarriage to adultery, to Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 6:14–18 that believers should not remain matched with unbelievers, unless, as he says in 1 Corinthians 7:12–16, the unbeliever is content to live with the believer.
Sorting all of these changes out is a significant undertaking, and not one I can do in a comment. But I do believe that the changing rules about divorce have a lot to do with the particular social and cultural situation at the times they were given, and are not necessarily meant to literally apply to all cultures in all times. There certainly is a solid and enduring commandment against adultery that still applies interculturally today. But on the matter of divorce, I believe things are not so cut-and-dried. Paul raises the issue of religiously mismatched marriages, and says in 1 Corinthians 7:15 that if an unbelieving partner separates from a believer, the believer is not bound by that marriage.
My own view is that couples should not get married with the thought that if it doesn’t work out, they’ll just get divorced, and that couples who are married should stick it out unless there are very strong reasons not to. Major mismatches in faith are, in my view, one such strong reason. Spousal abuse, either verbal or physical, is another, as mentioned in the above article. And of course, adultery is a legitimate cause for divorce.
I also believe that major strictures on or penalties for divorce should not be imposed by the church or the state, but that this must be a decision made by the couple. No one outside a marriage can fully understand what is going on within the marriage. And I believe that even if someone has gotten a divorce that may not fit one’s own or one’s church’s standards on marriage and divorce, it is not others’ job to judge. Our lives are not lived in black and white, but in many gray areas and many different shades of color. This is reflected in the varying laws and teachings about divorce in the scriptures.
Finally, for now, it is part of God’s mercy toward us that even though we regularly fail to live up to God’s commandments and to live according to God’s love, God does not reject us, but still reaches out the arms of love and salvation to us. Jesus himself did not condemn the woman caught in the act of adultery, but saved her from the crowds who were saying she should be stoned, simply telling her to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Divorced people, I believe, have that opportunity to learn from the hard experience of their former, broken marriage, and move on more thoughtfully into a better marriage in the future if they still wish to be married. God does not hold our past mistakes and sins against us forever. And the experience of divorce is punishment enough for those who must go through it.
As for a more detailed look at the specific passages you mention, that will have to wait for my planned future article on divorce.
Thank you for responding. I’ll look forward to your article. I’ve been puzzling over why widows and widowers are free to remarry, but not divorcees. Why is separation by death grounds for remarriage, but not separation by mutual consent? Moreover, it has also bothered me why remarriage would be considered adultery, especially if your former spouse was abusive and possibly doesn’t even want you back. I know this probably doesn’t align with your beliefs, but it’s what I’ve commonly heard from Christians.
On an unrelated note, did you receive my question regarding Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac back in February? I’m not sure if you plan on addressing the topic in the future.
You’re welcome. I did receive your question, and it’s a great one! I simply have far more submitted questions than I can possibly answer, and I’ve had to slow down on my writing for the blog lately. So I can’t make any promises. Meanwhile, I can recommend this book to you, which includes an excellent commentary on the story of “The Sacrifice of Isaac” in Genesis 22:1-14:
Bible Study Notes, by Anita S. Dole, volume 1
Full disclosure: Anita Dole was my maternal grandmother, and the editor of the six volume series, William R. Woofenden, was my father.
About the Bible on divorce, a common mistake traditional Christians make is to take various statements in the Bible out of context and make universal rules out of them. There are many laws and rules given in the Bible that, while they relate to general principles of right and wrong, are adapted to the particular culture in which those laws and rules were given.
For example, both Paul and Peter tell slaves to obey their masters. Does this mean that God condones slavery, that the institution of slavery should exist in every culture, and that in every culture slaves should be required to obey their masters? I don’t think so. Those statements were an accommodation to a very low, unspiritual culture in which slavery was universally accepted as normal and even good.
Paul also says that women should cover themselves with a veil, and should not speak in church. Does this mean that in every culture, women must be veiled, and must remain silent in church? I don’t think so. That was a recognition of the rules of social propriety at the time, and the view of women at the time. The underlying message is not that women must be covered and silent, but that people, including women, should act respectfully within the particular social structure in which they live.
Having said that, the Bible also has many stories of women who bent or broke the rules of the social structures of their day, and had a profound impact on the cultural and spiritual history of humankind. On this, see:
Is the Bible a Book about Men? What about Women?
Jesus’ statements about divorce were made in the context of questions directed at him about the Old Testament allowance for men to divorce their wives for any cause whatsoever. Especially in that culture, in which women were generally precluded from making an independent living, and were also heavily stigmatized if they were divorced, this was very hard on women, and commonly drove them into prostitution. When Jesus said in Matthew 5:32 that “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery,” he was probably speaking quite literally: any man who does this to his wife is very likely forcing her into prostitution, which involves a great deal of adultery.
In today’s culture, women are increasingly able to support themselves independently, and a divorced woman is not in such dire straits that she would have to resort to selling her body in order to keep herself (and her children) alive. Most of the world lives in a very different culture today than existed in Jesus’ day. Yanking Jesus’ statements out of their cultural context, and away from many of the pragmatic reasons he gave those rules, is a serious mistake that causes traditional Christians to bind many rules on people that create great burdens without giving any real benefits. This is exactly what Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of his day of doing. The modern day scribes and Pharisees of traditional Christianity are doing exactly the same thing.
A better way to read the Bible, and to understand Jesus’ statements, is to look deeper, to the spirit of his words, understand what he was aiming to achieve for his listeners in making those statements, and then seek to achieve the same goals in the context of our society and culture today. Jesus wanted people to engage in loving, faithful, God-given marriages, and he gave various rules that were aimed at moving the people of his day and culture toward that ideal. Based on that, we’ve made much progress in the past 2,000 years. The real question for us in this day and age is how we can best move our culture and people today toward that ideal of loving, faithful, monogamous marriage. And in today’s culture, making very restrictive rules about divorce isn’t a very effective way of accomplishing that goal.
For an article taking this general approach on a different subject related to sex and marriage, see:
Is Sex Before Marriage Forbidden in the Bible?
About Jesus’ teachings on marriage, you might also find the series starting with this article helpful:
Didn’t Jesus Say There’s No Marriage in Heaven?
In general, many of the harsh, unyielding rules promulgated in traditional Christian denominations are examples of focusing on the letter that kills rather than on the spirit that gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6, John 6:63).
While I agree that it’s possible the initial portion of Matthew 5:32 could have been alluding to divorced wives being forced into prostitution and incidentally committing adultery (i.e. having sexual relations with married men), the rest of Matthew 5:32 states “anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This wouldn’t make sense under the context of prostitution, given that it discusses remarriage between a divorced woman and a man (regardless of his marital status). This implies that a marriage between a divorced woman and a previously unmarried man would be considered adultery as much as a divorced woman prostituting herself to a married man, thus expanding the biblical definition of adultery to encompass sexual relations between a divorcee and anyone besides the former spouse. Moreover, isn’t Jesus practically denying divorced women the opportunity to flee prostitution through remarriage by charging anyone who marries a divorced woman with adultery?
In general, the laws in those days had to be stricter because the people were “hard-hearted,” as Jesus said. Although a divorced woman might find a husband, she was very unlikely to do so. So Jesus’ teaching was meant to prevent men from divorcing their wives, and wives from divorcing their husbands. Once again, the teachings in the Bible have to be read within their historical and social context. Some of them, such as “You shall not commit adultery,” are universal laws, applicable in all cultures in all times. Others are adapted to the particular culture in which they were given, and cultures similar to them. The basic laws are in the Ten Commandments. The other ones are meant to induce people to honor and obey the laws of the Ten Commandments within the structure of their own society and culture.
Firstly, are you implying wives were allowed to divorce their husbands during the time of Jesus’ teachings? Secondly, why did Jesus say “anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” in Matthew 5:32? You’ve asserted that a divorced woman was unlikely to find a new husband, so why would Jesus compound the problem by charging anyone who married a divorced woman with adultery? It seems like Jesus wasn’t only trying to prevent divorce, but remarriage as well. Thus, I’d like to know the historical and social context behind Jesus’ discouragement of remarriage.
Jesus refers to wives divorcing their husbands in Mark 10:10-12:
Scholars tend to interpret this as referring to Roman wives divorcing their husbands rather than Israelite wives divorcing their husbands, which wasn’t allowed for in the Law of Moses. However, the Jews were living under Roman rule, so it’s quite possible that the right of Roman wives to divorce their husbands seeped over into Israelite society, similar to how Catholics aren’t supposed to get divorced and remarried today, but some of them do anyway under civil law, contrary to church law.
The biggest cultural differences between then and now related to issues of marriage and divorce are:
On point 1:
In the ancient world there was nothing like our present-day idea and ideal of marriage as an equal partnership between a man and a woman. I’m aware that many marriages today are unequal. But we do have the idea, and in some cases, the practice, of man and woman being equal in a marriage. (See: “What Do Women Really Want?”) This simply didn’t exist in the ancient world. Women were considered inherently inferior to men, and subject to the authority of men. They did have some rights, but men’s rights generally superseded those of women, and a wife was considered to be subject to her husband’s authority, and required to obey him. (For my commentary on this, see: “Wives, submit to your husbands.”)
In other words, marriage as a partnership as we think of it today did not exist in the ancient world. It was, rather, a hierarchical structure, with the man as the boss and the wife, or wives, as underlings. (Unfortunately, many modern portrayals of the ancient world in popular movies and TV shows project present-day romantic culture back into the past, giving a false impression of what marriage and society were like back then.) Women could be married from their teens onward, and it was common for them to marry men who were significantly older than they were. For example, Abraham was ten years older than Sarah. So a man having authority over his wife not only involved his being a man, but commonly also involved his being considerably older. Women were married right out of their family home, with no experience of living out on their own as with most women today.
On point 2:
Though the Bible does mention men loving women and women loving men, that was not a significant part of why they married. It was, ideally, a pleasant add-on to marriage, but certainly not a necessity. Isaac had never even met Rebekah before he married her. His father Abraham sent a trusted servant north to obtain a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s clan of origin. Rebekah knew little or nothing about Isaac when she agreed to marry him, except that he clearly came from a wealthy family. The primary consideration in contracting that marriage was family connections. It had nothing to do with love, even though it does say after the fact that Isaac loved her.
Even the “love” that the Bible does mention is probably not much like what we think of as love today, but more a physical, sexual, and cultural attraction, compared to today’s understanding of love as an inner attraction of like minds and hearts to one another. That concept barely existed in the ancient world, if it existed at all. (Again, modern movies tend to project contemporary ideals and experiences of romantic love into the past. Every popular movie has to have a love story!)
If you survey the marriages of the Bible, they were generally made either within clans to preserve the clan, or between clans to create inter-clan political and financial bonds and advantages. Much of it had to do with securing heirs for family land and wealth, and preserving the husband’s name and lineage. Among the nobility, marriages were contracted to seal political and trade alliances. For the most part, love as we think of it today didn’t enter into it, and was a pleasant add-on if a couple was lucky enough to experience it in their marriage.
In short, marriage in the ancient world was a very different institution than it is in the Christian world today. It was primarily an external political, social, and financial connection whose main purposes among the common people were securing family wealth and power and preserving the family through bearing sons that could inherit their father’s property, and additionally among the nobility to seal alliances with other clans and nations. The idea and ideal of an inner connection of love and common values as the basis for marriage simply didn’t exist in the ancient world. Nor did the idea of marriage as a partnership of equals.
All of this is the main reason laws regarding marriage and divorce were so much stricter back then than they are in most of the Christian world today. When marriage is all about property, inheritance, and political and financial advantages, allowing men and women to divorce for any and every cause, and remarry, creates social and financial chaos.
On a deeper level, since most marriages in the ancient world were not based on any inner connection or oneness, that connection and oneness had to be maintained and enforced by externally imposed rules.
As a general rule, people in the ancient world did not live based on internalized rules and self-direction as in much of today’s individualistic society. Rather, they lived based on externally imposed social and legal structures. This was what kept them in line morally and spiritually. Without those external structures guiding every aspect of their lives, they would have no compass at all, and would most likely rush into all sorts of immoral and destructive behavior. Their culture and its laws gave them a rudder to keep their lives on course.
The strict laws about marriage and divorce were simply part of that larger structure of being regulated by external law rather than by internal principles and ideals. And though Jesus looked beyond that system of external law as the key means of keeping people on track morally and spiritually, he still had to speak to people who were embedded in that culture and system. And so he imposed strict laws about marriage and divorce to keep the people from rushing into all sorts of adultery and fornication, and destroying themselves and their families, clans, and society in the process.
Today, many people still have to be regulated by external strictures and laws to prevent them from rushing into all sorts of evil and destructive actions and practices. That’s why some people still must live under those restrictive rules regarding marriage and divorce.
But many people today have made the shift from acting well because the law requires it, and because they’ll get in trouble if they don’t, to acting well because their conscience and their beliefs require and direct them to do so. These are the same people who can marry for love and inner oneness rather than for external reasons such as social, financial, and sexual attractiveness. And for people who marry for inner reasons, there must be love and inner oneness in the marriage, or there simply is no marriage.
That, I believe, is why the strict rules Jesus gave on marriage and divorce for the people of the culture of his day no longer apply in literal fashion to people in most of the Christian world today. We have now moved, in much of our society, from merely external marriage to inner marriage. This means that marriage today has an entirely different basis than it did in the ancient world. In the ancient world, family, clan, political, and financial relationships were the basis of marriage. Today, love and an inner oneness of beliefs and values is the primary basis of marriage. And whereas the former can be regulated by external laws, the latter cannot.
I believe that today we are finally moving toward God’s original ideal of marriage. This means that marriage will no longer be a matter of external law and its requirements, but a matter of the internal law of love. With that shift comes a shift in the reasons for marriage and divorce. Today, if there is no love in a marriage, that is widely—and correctly, I believe—seen as a basis for dissolving the marriage. This simply wasn’t the case in the culture of Jesus’ day. And since such a basis for marriage didn’t exist in his day, he couldn’t speak to the people about it. He had to speak in terms of their view of marriage. For more on this, see these two articles:
For some people today—people who are more external in their thinking and motivation—Jesus’ strict teachings about marriage and divorce still apply. But for others, who are more inward in their thinking and motivation, there is a “new covenant” of marriage. It is a covenant of love rather than of external attraction and expediency. This new, inner basis of marriage requires differences in the external law as well. Specifically, people must be allowed to divorce because there is no love in the relationship. The general legal term for this, which is also a bit of a euphemism, is “irreconcilable differences.” This would never have been seen as a valid reason for divorce in the ancient world. But today, it must be, because of the different basis for marriage today compared to that of the ancient world.
There is also a deeper meaning to Jesus’ rules about marriage and divorce that applies to all people. But that’s a whole subject unto itself, and this has already gotten quite long, so I’ll stick with this much for now.
I’m aware that marriage generally wasn’t motivated by love in the ancient world, but how exactly were the laws regarding marriage and divorce strict in the ancient world? In Matthew 19:3, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason. And Matthew 19:7 implies such permission came from Moses. Plus, Deuteronomy 24:1 permitted a man to divorce his wife if he finds anything wrong with her. Thus, it seems like men could divorce for any cause and remarry before Jesus came along and imposed stricter laws on divorce and remarriage. Wouldn’t this imply there was social and financial chaos before Jesus’ arrival? Speaking of which, I can understand how preventing men from divorcing their wives for any reason besides sexual immorality would reduce social and financial chaos, but why would permitting men to marry divorced wives entail such chaos? Why did Jesus need to prohibit men from marrying divorced wives in Matthew 5:32? Assuming women could divorce their husbands, was this law meant to discourage wives from doing so?
I was referring more to Jesus’ strictures on marriage and divorce. It’s true that according to the Law of Moses the laws weren’t so strict with regard to men divorcing their wives. Meanwhile, there was no provision at all for women to divorce their husbands. Jesus had to speak to that because unlike in earlier Israelite society, women were gaining the legal right to divorce their husbands. And about men divorcing their wives, I think Jesus was redressing the catastrophic effects this commonly had on the divorced woman in that society. So yes, I think he saw a breakdown of society specifically in regard to the situation with divorced women, who were generally in a very bad way. Few men would be willing to marry a divorced woman, and if they were, it’s likely they were at the low end of the social and economic ladder. More reputable and well-to-do men would choose to marry a virgin. So at minimum, a divorced woman was likely to move considerably farther down the social and economic ladder from where she was before, even if she was not forced all the way down into prostitution. I would call that social and financial chaos.
Additionally, if there were children in the marriage, sending away their mother would cause considerable harm to the children, especially in polygamous marriages, since the mother of a child would be that child’s primary advocate for the child’s position in the family. The same effect can take place in “serial polygamy” in which a man divorces one woman and marries another, at which point the children of his second marriage may well become privileged over the children of his first marriage. Not only the woman herself, but any children of a divorced woman could be in a bad way.
The Pharisees’ statement in Matthew 19:7 that “Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” is putting it much more strongly than the actual wording in Deuteronomy 24:1, where it is phrased not as a commandment, but as something that a man might do. A certain amount of the “Law of Moses” was just existing social customs either enshrined in law or recognized by the law. There is no actual commandment in the Law of Moses for a man to give a woman a certificate of divorce. This seems to have been just a recognition of actual practice in that society. And Jesus was saying that it was a wrong practice that should not have been allowed, but was allowed because of “the hardness of their hearts.” I.e., this practice that crept into the Law of Moses from the cultural practices of the time was a wrong and destructive practice in that society.
I suspect Jesus’ reason for prohibiting men from marrying divorced wives was also tied to the general social situation with regard to women and marriage. For one thing, it’s an easy out for a man to say, “I’ll divorce my wife. She can just go and marry another man, and she’ll be fine.” Jesus was taking that away as an option. A man who followed that law would know that if he divorced his wife, he was consigning her to life without a husband, which was a very hard life for a woman. And Jesus was prohibiting men from divorcing her wife as well. So he was hitting them from both sides.
For men (and women as well) who are unspiritual and materialistic in their thinking, marriage is all about money, power, sex, and reproduction. Such a man will naturally want to “trade in” his wife for a “better model” if he can. Or he may just want to have sex with a different woman whom he finds more attractive than his wife. Some will want to have sex with as many different women as possible. Jesus’ commandments about marriage and divorce were putting as many roadblocks as possible in the way of that sort of attitude about marriage, women, sex, and procreation. He was taking away excuses, and requiring men especially, and also women, to take their marriages seriously and not just figure that they can swap wives with someone else if they don’t like the one they have.
By the same principle, I believe that even today, if a man or woman is thinking, as the couple approaches the altar, “If this doesn’t work out, we’ll just get divorced,” then they should walk right back out of the church and not go through with it. That is the wrong attitude with which to enter into marriage. Even today, marriage on this earth is meant to be a lifelong commitment. If a man or a woman cannot make that commitment, he or she should not get married.
Of course, even for those who do make that commitment, life might have other plans. For example, one partner may make and abide by that commitment, but the other may not. That’s one of the reasons divorce has to be allowed.
But I believe the spirit of Jesus’ teachings about marriage and divorce is that both men and women are to enter into marriage with a firm intention and commitment to stick with it to the end of their lives. And if, as I discussed in my previous response, they aren’t going to do that from internal reasons and motivations, then for people who are unspiritual, there must be external laws and social structures to keep them faithful to their marriages.
I see. So Jesus’ prohibition against marrying divorced women wouldn’t have imposed any gravely negative impact on them since very few reputable, well-to-do men would be willing to marry divorced women anyway. Rather, it was meant to prevent more wives from being tossed aside by their husbands to suffer the stigma of society. However, there is one more issue I have with Matthew 5:32: Why would Jesus goes so far as to say that marrying a divorced woman was adultery? Assuming God doesn’t actually consider remarriage adultery, given His lack of opposition today, doesn’t this mean Jesus lied in order to discourage divorce in Matthew 5:32?
Jesus didn’t lie. Rather, he spoke to the situation and psyche of his listeners.
In Matthew 12:39 and Matthew 16:4 Jesus refers to the people of his times as “an evil and adulterous generation.” This was in response to the Scribes and Pharisees asking him for a sign to demonstrate his genuineness and authority. This reflects the reality that the people of those times were focused on external things, not on internal things. They would be convinced only if they had physical, visible proof. This is a recurring theme in the Gospels, right through to Thomas being unwilling to believe Jesus had risen from the dead unless he had physical, sensory proof.
The relevant part here is Jesus calling that generation “adulterous.” Though he was probably speaking broadly and metaphorically, in the sense of Israel “committing adultery” against God by disobeying God’s commandments and worshiping other gods, it also applies to what we think of as adultery: marital unfaithfulness.
To make a long story short, people who are materialistic and physical-minded, which means they are unspiritual and unregenerate, are adulterous in their thinking and attitudes toward sex and marriage. Their attitude toward marriage is that it’s not any different from adultery or prostitution, and that a wife is no different than a prostitute, except that having sex with a woman within the bonds of marriage is legally and socially sanctioned, whereas having sex with someone else’s wife, or some other woman, or some prostitute, is not. These people are adulterers in their minds and hearts even if they remain faithful to their wives in their actions.
Being adulterous in their mind and heart, there is no internal force preventing them from sleeping with as many women as they want, and having as many wives as they want, either simultaneously or serially. They are adulterous in their heart, so their sexual and marital relations will tend to be adulterous. The only way they can be said to not be adulterous is if they marry one wife, and stick with her until death. This at least gives an external semblance of marital faithfulness and not being adulterous even if the person is inwardly adulterous in attitude. And for many people, maintaining an external semblance of right behavior is the best they’re going to achieve.
If a man’s wife dies before he does, then he is released from that marriage and commitment. This is necessary on a pragmatic level because he is going to have sex, and it is better for him to have it within a marriage, where it is limited to and focused on one woman. That is why, in answer to an earlier question of yours, remarriage after the death of a spouse is allowed.
Meanwhile, for such men, if divorce and remarriage are allowed, their adulterous mind and heart will cause them to think and behave adulterously. They will divorce and remarry, not only for sound reasons, such as their wife being unfaithful, but for any other reason they may come up with, such as their wife getting “too fat” or their wife “not giving them proper respect” or some other superficial reason. For them, divorcing and remarrying, except for actual unfaithfulness, is almost inevitably a matter of being unfaithful to their marriage and their spouse for invalid and self-centered reasons. And as women gain more status in society, all of the same principles apply to them if they are materialistic and physical-minded in their thinking.
So another way of saying what Jesus was saying is: If people in this evil and adulterous generation divorce their wives and husbands and marry someone else, that is a product of their adulterous minds and hearts, and therefore is committing adultery. He was not lying. He was speaking the psychological and spiritual reality about unspiritual and unregenerate people when they divorce and remarry.
The situation is different for people who are on the path of rebirth that Jesus spoke of to Nicodemus, and are inwardly spiritual. These people are not adulterous in their heart. They marry out of a desire to be one with another person who shares their beliefs, values, and general outlook on life. And if they find such a person, they form a very close bond with him or her, such that they have no desire to be with, or sleep with, anyone else. Many of them will not remarry even if their spouse dies, because they feel a oneness with that person and simply don’t want to be with anyone else. Some do remarry, but it is hard for them, and involves much soul-searching.
For such people, divorcing their spouse and marrying another has nothing to do with a naturally adulterous bent that is focused only on external things and seeks mere pleasure and variety in sex, or mere social status and wealth. Rather, if they divorce, it will be because of “irreconcilable differences” with their spouse. What that means psychologically and spiritually is that they may divorce their spouse if there is no real, inward marriage, no oneness of heart and mind. For people who long for that inner oneness, being in a marriage where that oneness doesn’t exist can be intensely painful and disheartening. They must live within a shell of a marriage year after year after year, in which there is no love, no connection, and likely no intimacy.
Such people do not divorce because of an adulterous heart. They divorce because they long for true marriage, and it has become clear that this will never be possible with their current partner. They may even stick with their current spouse for the sake of children, or for other reasons. But they will continually long for a real marriage all the while.
That is the difference between the people of the “evil and adulterous generation” in which Jesus lived and many people today who have an ideal of true marriage based on mutual love and understanding, in which two are inwardly one. And that is why Jesus had to give such restrictive laws about divorce and remarriage to the people of that evil and adulterous generation. Those laws still apply to evil and adulterous people today. But for those who are not evil and adulterous, but who seek true oneness with another person, Jesus’ words apply spiritually rather than literally. If such a person were to violate the oneness with his or her spouse, and have sex with or marry another person, it truly would be adultery, not just legally and socially, but spiritually.
However for such spiritually-minded people who are legally, but not spiritually, married to another person—i.e., there is no oneness of mind and heart in the marriage even though there is a legal certificate of marriage—there is no adultery involved in divorcing and remarrying because there wasn’t any marriage in the first place. Or if there ever was, it no longer exists. They are therefore not violating the spiritual law of marriage, which is that those whom God puts together should not be put asunder. And ultimately, the marriages that God puts together are the inward marriages of mind and heart, not the mere external, legal and social marriages that have no inner reality.
So if a previously unmarried man decided to marry a divorced woman, how is he guilty of adultery? How is he being adulterous in his mind and heart? Nothing in your entire reply addresses this. If Jesus wanted to hit husbands on both sides to prevent them from divorcing their wives and remarrying, he could have explained the social consequences that divorced women must suffer or simply stated “No man shall marry a divorced woman”. He didn’t need to charge those who married a divorced woman with adultery.
Saying “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32) is the same as saying, “No man shall marry a divorced woman.” So Jesus did say that. However, even though Jesus didn’t spell it out, I think we can safely say that this doesn’t apply to a woman who is divorced because her husband committed adultery.
As to why Jesus said, in effect, “no man shall marry a divorced woman,” I suspect it has to do with what today would be called “enabling” wrong behavior. If a woman is divorced for invalid reasons, that, Jesus said, is adultery. If a man marries such a divorced woman, he is ratifying that adultery by taking her as his wife. So he becomes guilty because he is supporting her guilt, or the guilt of her former husband, and thus enabling a culture of divorce and remarriage for invalid—i.e., adulterous—reasons.
Once again, Jesus had to speak, in his literal teachings, to the culture that existed in his day. And one aspect of that culture that we may chafe against, but that was a reality, was that it was not an individualistic culture as many cultures are today. People lived embedded in their culture, and often times guilt was collective rather than individual, and people were collectively punished for that collective guilt. It was the generation that was adulterous, not just the individuals.
Unfortunately, this does mean that some innocent people suffered (and still do today) for the sins of the guilty. And unfortunately, that is not entirely avoidable. But in a culture in which people are not self-directed, and do not act rightly due to an internal compass, but based on external laws and social strictures, the law necessarily becomes “one size fits all” much more than the individualized, situational law that we are moving toward today. So there certainly are some casualties of the harsh, no-exceptions (except adultery) rule about divorce and remarriage that Jesus pronounced. And yet, for the society of that time, it had to be that way, or the fabric of society would break down.
It’s similar to kids’ camps in which there are rules that everyone must follow. Some kids might not really need some of those rules, because they’re well-behaved kids generally, and if they do something they’re not supposed to, it isn’t for bad reasons, and probably won’t result in any harm. But you can’t make one set of rules for the “good” kids and another set of rules for the “bad” kids. The same rules must apply to everyone. Otherwise there will be endless arguments about why he can do it, but I can’t, and the unfairness of it all.
Spiritually, the people of Jesus’ day were like children. They were undeveloped spiritually, and they were not capable of making the fine distinctions of situation ethics, determining when the law applied to them and when it didn’t. They simply had to learn and know the law, and obey it, or face the consequences.
When it came to marriage and divorce, the consequences of allowing people to divorce and remarry for any and every cause were too disastrous, especially for women, to allow people individual choice as to whether they will or won’t remain with their married partner. It had to be forbidden, and forbidden in no uncertain terms—unless there was adultery involved, in which case the spouse who committed adultery had already broken and invalidated the marriage, and the other spouse couldn’t be held responsible for that.
So yes, it was not an ideal system. Yes, there were women who were unfairly harmed by it. But it was necessary in that low-level, unspiritual society in order to prevent even greater harm and social chaos. The fact of the matter is that allowing men to divorce their wives for any reason did cause great harm, to women and children especially, and Jesus said what he did in order to put an end to that harm as much as possible.
He therefore had to disallow men from marrying divorced women because that would have put a chink in the law that would allow all sorts of exceptions, and would cause the system to break down. The consequences of divorce had to be severe, and both social and legal pressure had to prevent both men and women from doing it. Don’t forget that wives came from families too, and if a man was seen as divorcing his wife for invalid reasons, that man could become a social outcast, and possibly face retaliation from the family of his divorced wife. And that was as it was intended in that society. The only proper course of action was for him to not divorce his wife unless she committed adultery, and vice versa for women as they began to get the right to divorce their husbands. Start making all sorts of exceptions and providing outs, and the system breaks down.
This, once again, applies to cultures in which the people are unspiritual and physical-minded. It is very different in cultures in which the people are more spiritual minded.
>Saying “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32) is the same as saying, “No man shall marry a divorced woman.” So Jesus did say that.
Let me pose a scenario: If Jesus had said “No man shall marry a divorced woman” to the Israelites of the ancient world, and came down to Earth today to proclaim that a man may marry a divorced woman, we would interpret this as the abolition of an old law. On the other hand, since Jesus claimed “Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” to the Israelites, if he came down to Earth today to proclaim that anyone who marries a divorced woman isn’t guilty of adultery, you can’t simply interpret that as a mere change of law; it’s a blatant contradiction between two conflicting claims. The passage of time shouldn’t affect the truth of whether marrying a divorced woman is adultery; marriage to a divorced woman has either always been adultery or never been adultery. Assuming God never truly considered marriage to a divorced woman to be adultery, then Jesus lied to the Israelites by asserting the opposite. On the other hand, if Jesus had simply stated “No man shall marry a divorced woman” to the Israelites, such instruction bears no direct contradiction to God’s true view that marriage to a divorced woman isn’t adultery. Thus, Jesus wouldn’t have been lying to the Israelites.
>As to why Jesus said, in effect, “no man shall marry a divorced woman,” I suspect it has to do with what today would be called “enabling” wrong behavior. If a woman is divorced for invalid reasons, that, Jesus said, is adultery. If a man marries such a divorced woman, he is ratifying that adultery by taking her as his wife. So he becomes guilty because he is supporting her guilt, or the guilt of her former husband, and thus enabling a culture of divorce and remarriage for invalid—i.e., adulterous—reasons.
Couldn’t such logic easily be applied to our era? If you’re arguing that a man in the ancient world who marries a divorced woman is ratifying the adultery of either the woman or her former husband (who’s automatically guilty of adultery if he divorces his wife for any reason besides adultery, I presume), then couldn’t you say the same about anyone in the modern world who marries a divorcee? If divorcing for any reason besides adultery is invalid and thus automatically constitutes as adultery in itself, then you can technically charge many divorcees today with adultery. And anyone who marries them would also be guilty of supporting such “adultery”.
>He therefore had to disallow men from marrying divorced women because that would have put a chink in the law that would allow all sorts of exceptions, and would cause the system to break down.
What kinds of exceptions would emerge from permitting men to marry divorced women? Could you provide examples?
On your first point:
God doesn’t make arbitrary laws just for the sake of making laws. If God makes a law, it is for a reason, and that reason has to do with preventing harm from being done—especially spiritual and eternal harm.
The difference between “No man shall marry a divorced woman” and “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” is that the second statement provides grounds for the prohibition given in the first. The reason no man shall marry a divorced woman is that doing so constitutes adultery. Stating a law without giving a reason for it and then later changing the law would not be less “lying” or less “contradictory” than stating the law with a reason for it and then later changing it when the conditions under which the law was originally given change.
What matters in each case is the reason for changing the law. And in this case, as I’ve been saying in my earlier comments, the change in the law, and its reason, is based on a change in the character of the people to whom it would apply. In a nutshell, the law of divorce and remarriage that Jesus gave, in its literal application, was designed for the people of a materialistic and unspiritual culture. For people in a more spiritual culture, the law must change in order to accomplish good in that culture. With regard to marriage specifically, the difference is that people in the ancient world married for external reasons, whereas much of the population in the Christian world today (and increasingly in much of the rest of the world as well) marry for internal reasons.
In the context of a culture in which marriage is purely external, such that it would barely even be recognized as a valid marriage by the bulk of the population today, the practice of getting divorced and remarried for reasons other than adultery constitutes adultery because it violates the only thing that holds marriage together: external cultural and financial matters, especially with regard to children, property, inheritance, and clan alliances. If divorce and remarriage is allowed in such a culture, it will tend to tear apart the only reasons for the existence of marriage, and in the process destroy the external morality of that culture—which is the only morality it possesses. And once that is gone, there isn’t much to hold society together, and large numbers of people suffer and die due to the breakdown of the social order.
This means that the strict, no-exceptions (except adultery) rules that Jesus promulgated within the context of that type of society were necessary to prevent both social and spiritual harm. Social due to the breakdown of society and the suffering this always entails, especially for women and children, and for men on the low end of the social ladder, and spiritual because in an external-minded society, external morality is the only kind of morality there is, and once it’s gone, there is no morality at all—and that has eternal consequences for the people in the immoral aftermath of such a breakdown of morality.
The reason for abolition of that law for much of the Christian world today, and increasingly for much of the rest of the world as well, is that the basis of our morality, especially with regard to marriage, is increasingly no longer external, but internal.
Much of Jesus’ teaching was aimed at moving his hearers toward doing what is right for internal reasons rather than for merely external reasons.
This is also the real meaning of Paul’s teachings about the faith vs. the law, or the law of faith vs. the law of works. The law of works was not the law of good deeds, but the general pattern of people not sinning, and doing good instead, merely because that is a requirement of the law, and because they would get into trouble if they broke the law. Paul was arguing that people should not sin, and should do good instead, because that is a part of their faith, meaning their internal acknowledgement of and commitment to following the path of love and truth that Jesus taught. Paul was teaching a paradigm shift that involved following the law of righteousness simply because it is right, from an inner acknowledgment of its rightness, rather than because the law says so and you’ll get punished if you don’t.
When people move from that earlier and lower stage of mere obedience to the next, and higher, stage of acting from faith, or inward faithfulness to what is true and good, the external law also changes in many ways.
For example, within four decades after the end of Jesus’ life on earth, the entire Jewish law of sacrifice was abolished. Historically, that happened because the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and the Jews no longer had a valid location in which to offer sacrifices. But spiritually, it happened because the new Christian era that Jesus was ushering in was to be one of doing good based on inner faithfulness rather than doing good based on obedience to external law. People in this new phase would still generally obey the law, but they would do so because they recognized that obeying the law is necessary for a good and civil society, not because if they didn’t, they would get arrested and fined, imprisoned, or executed. People in this new phase will follow the law even when there are no police officers or soldiers around to enforce it.
The ancient law of sacrifice was a purely external, ritual observance for people who had no internal religion. It enforced behaviorally a continual repentance from sin and a continual re-connection with God in a culture that could be religious and connected to God in no other way.
At the time of Christ, humanity went through a phase shift in which at least in the Judaeo-Christian world, people could and would connect with God for internal reasons, and based on internal motivation, rather than through externally imposed rituals. Judaism itself went through a major shift in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in which it became a religion of learning, understanding, and following a code of morality rather than a religion of rigid obedience to externally imposed laws such as the law of sacrifice. As a result, in many ways present-day Judaism is more like Christianity than it is like ancient, pre-Christ Judaism—though of course, without any recognition of Jesus Christ as God.
It took many more centuries for marriage to undergo a similar phase shift. The ancient patterns of marriage continued throughout much of the Christian era. The main difference from ancient Judaism was that polygamy was gradually eliminated from Christianity (and from Judaism also), and monogamy was established as the religious and secular law. But marriage was still contracted for largely external reasons. What we think of today as marriage, based on love and an inner connection, still didn’t exist—or if it did, it was so rare that the culture as a whole had no concept of it, let alone a practice of it. It was only around the time of the Enlightenment that marriage began to go through the phase shift that eventually brought it to today’s ideals. And it was only in the 20th century that marriage for love became the dominant concept of marriage in the Christian world, from which it has been spreading to the rest of the world as well.
Jesus’ strict rules about divorce and remarriage were aimed, not only at the Israelites to whom he was immediately speaking, but also at Christians of the first eighteen or more centuries of Christian history. Marriage was still an external institution, so obedience to strict external laws was still necessary to hold it together. And so Christianity for most of its history was obliged to follow the literal import of Jesus’ commandment on divorce and remarriage.
However, we are now, I believe (and recent history supports that belief) in a new era of humankind, in which another paradigm shift has taken place. It’s the paradigm shift that should have happened at the time of Christ. But people weren’t ready for it, so they quickly reverted back to a pre-Christian model of religion. On that, see:
Christianity is Dead. Long Live Christianity!
The reason the law regarding divorce, remarriage, and adultery has changed today is not that Jesus was lying, or that God contradicted his own law, but because the conditions under which the former, stricter laws on that subject no longer exist in most of the Christian world, and increasingly no longer exist in the rest of the world either, as the non-Christian world increasingly adopts the contemporary Christian culture of monogamous marriage based on love.
As covered in my previous comments, for a culture in which marriage is purely external, divorce and remarriage for reasons other than adultery does constitute adultery because it is done from an adulterous heart, for adulterous reasons. But in a culture in which marriage is an inner, spiritual bond between two people, divorce and remarriage commonly happens because a particular marriage has no inner reality. There is no love, no shared beliefs and values, no inner oneness in the marriage, and one or both partners in that shell of a marriage wants to form a real marriage instead.
There is no such desire on the part of people who are in purely external marriages, in a culture in which marriage is contracted for purely external reasons. Such marriages have no inner core, and are therefore not real marriages from a spiritual perspective. And since external reasons of financial gain, clan alliances, heirs, and property are all that exist in those purely external marriages in such cultures, divorce and remarriage must be prohibited in order to protect those external things that marriage in those cultures do provide, and to keep the people in those cultures engaged in some semblance of morality, even if it is a purely external, unspiritual morality.
TL;DR: For Jesus’ listeners and for the first eighteen or more centuries of Christianity, divorcing and remarrying was adulterous because it destroyed the external social and moral foundations of marriage. But starting very recently in Christian history, marriage went through a phase shift in which it was no longer based on external factors, but on inner oneness. And when inner oneness is the basis, the primary goal is to unite people who have that inner oneness, and divide those who don’t. Hence divorce and remarriage is adulterous and must be prohibited in societies that have merely external marriage, but it is not necessarily adulterous and must be allowed in societies that have internal marriage.
Of course, the ideal is still faithful, monogamous marriage to one’s first wife or husband that lasts to the end of one’s life on earth, and then to eternity. Unfortunately, many people today marry for the wrong reasons, or when they’re too emotionally immature to get married, and realize only months, years, or decades after the wedding day that they’re married to someone with whom they have no inner connection. In the ancient world, that didn’t matter because internal connections didn’t exist within marriage. But in today’s world, given today’s aspirations and ideals of love and inner oneness in marriage, it matters greatly. And so today’s society rightly allows divorce for “irreconcilable differences,” when that would be wrong and adulterous in the ancient world where no internal marriage existed.
Another TL;DR: It wasn’t God’s law that changed, but people that changed. God’s law is that people are to unite in the oneness of marriage. If marriage in a particular culture is purely external, then the oneness also is purely external, and it must be socially and legally—i.e., externally—enforced. But if marriage in a particular culture is internal, then it must be enforced internally, by couples recognizing within their own minds and hearts whether a real marriage exists with their partner, and if not, dissolving that marriage in order to free both partners to find and marry a partner with whom they do have an inner oneness. In such a situation, divorce and remarriage is not adulterous. No marriage was violated because no real marriage existed in the first place.
This also answers your second point and question.
Along these lines, you might also want to read this short piece:
Real Marriage vs. Legal Marriage
And on your third question:
It would allow exceptions because it would provide a release valve. A man could, as I said earlier, say to himself, “If I divorce her, she can just marry another man, so she’ll be fine.”
Here’s an example:
An ancient Israelite or early Christian man marries a wife and has children with her. Ordinarily, children would come very soon, probably immediately, in a marriage, because that was the main reason a man married: to produce sons as heirs. However, this man’s wife turns out to be quarrelsome. She’s always resisting his authority and arguing against what he wants her to do. So he decides to divorce her.
Now she is cut adrift, and the children from that marriage are thrust into a no-man’s-land in which they might go with their mother, or they might stay with their father, and in either case their position is greatly harmed and weakened. It’s likely that the man will marry again and have children with his second wife. If the children from the previous marriage stay with him, the children of the new wife will become the favored children, whereas the children of the first wife are likely to be disfavored or disinherited altogether.
If the children go with their mother and she remarries, their situation isn’t any better. Their mother’s new husband will have further children by her. (In those cultures, no man in his right mind would marry a woman who couldn’t bear sons and heirs for him.) These children will become their stepfather’s heirs. The children from the previous marriage may or may not receive any inheritance at all. And whose name would they carry on? They would be social outcasts, and probably financial outcasts as well.
The biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac is an example of this sort of thing happening, albeit with a concubine and her child vs. a wife and her child rather than with a first vs. a second wife. In that case, Hagar’s son Ishmael did go on to become wealthy and prolific in his own right. But in the ancient world that would be the exception rather than the rule. In the story, it is presented as a special dispensation of God because Ishmael’s father was Abraham, whom God had blessed with the promise that he would become the father of many nations.
This is an example of why, in the ancient world, even what we today would call bad marriages had to be kept together by force of law and social stricture. The consequences for divorced women and children in such a society were too damaging to allow divorce and remarriage for any cause other than adultery—which is a direct violation of the Ten Commandments, which constituted the core of ancient Israelite law.
Today the situation is very different for divorced women and their children. It’s still not an ideal situation. But it is nowhere near as catastrophic as it was in the ancient world. In today’s more individualistic, character- and merit-based society, children are not widely stigmatized because they come from a marriage that ended in divorce. Though the divorce does commonly cause pain and scarring in their psyche, they can grow up on an equal basis with children of intact marriages, and become successful in society based on their own efforts and merits. They can also go on to have good, loving, spiritual marriages, even if they may have to overcome the shadow of their parents’ divorce in order to do so. In short, there simply isn’t the severe damage to a woman’s, or child’s, future prospects due to divorce today that there was in ancient Israelite society, and for most of Christian history as well.
Yes, there is damage. But it is damage that can be overcome much more easily in today’s society than in ancient society. The ideal is still lifelong, faithful marriage to one’s first wife or husband. But if that is not possible because there is no inner oneness between the partners, and they therefore divorce and move on to more loving marriages, the situation is commonly better for the children than growing up with their original parents in an environment of emotional coldness and quarreling between mismatched parents. When a child’s parents break up, it is always painful. But many children can then go on to experience an atmosphere of love when one or both of their parents remarry and form a loving and warm home, or homes, for the children. It’s not as good as if the children’s own parents remain in a lifelong, loving marriage. But it’s better than if the child’s own parents continue in a marriage that is either a cold war or a hot war because there is no love and no inner connection in the marriage.
So once again, the law changed, not because Jesus lied or because God contradicted himself, but because the character of the people, and therefore of marriage, changed, and the external law changed and adapted to bring about the best good for marriage and family within that new and changed paradigm of marriage.
>The difference between “No man shall marry a divorced woman” and “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” is that the second statement provides grounds for the prohibition given in the first. The reason no man shall marry a divorced woman is that doing so constitutes adultery. Stating a law without giving a reason for it and then later changing the law would not be less “lying” or less “contradictory” than stating the law with a reason for it and then later changing it when the conditions under which the law was originally given change.
If the actual reason no man shall marry a divorced woman is because doing so constitutes adultery, then such a law would still have to apply today. The fact that a man can marry a divorced woman in the modern era without being guilty of adultery as long as they’re both genuinely seeking internal oneness of mind and heart implies that Jesus didn’t actually prohibit marrying a divorced woman because it was adultery. Rather, as you’ve explained, Jesus prohibited marrying a divorced woman because of the social consequences the woman and her children would have suffered if a man thought “If I divorce her, she can just marry another man”. Plus, if marrying a divorced woman truly constituted adultery, then a shift in people’s spiritual character and culture shouldn’t be able to reverse the fact.
>In the context of a culture in which marriage is purely external, such that it would barely even be recognized as a valid marriage by the bulk of the population today, the practice of getting divorced and remarried for reasons other than adultery constitutes adultery because it violates the only thing that holds marriage together: external cultural and financial matters, especially with regard to children, property, inheritance, and clan alliances. If divorce and remarriage is allowed in such a culture, it will tend to tear apart the only reasons for the existence of marriage, and in the process destroy the external morality of that culture—which is the only morality it possesses. And once that is gone, there isn’t much to hold society together, and large numbers of people suffer and die due to the breakdown of the social order.
So let me get this straight: What actually held marriage together in the ancient world? Cultural and financial matters, or Jesus’ prohibition against divorce and remarriage? If permitting divorce and remarriage would have entailed societal chaos, then could you really say that cultural and financial matters truly held marriage together?
>As covered in my previous comments, for a culture in which marriage is purely external, divorce and remarriage for reasons other than adultery does constitute adultery because it is done from an adulterous heart, for adulterous reasons. But in a culture in which marriage is an inner, spiritual bond between two people, divorce and remarriage commonly happens because a particular marriage has no inner reality. There is no love, no shared beliefs and values, no inner oneness in the marriage, and one or both partners in that shell of a marriage wants to form a real marriage instead.
>There is no such desire on the part of people who are in purely external marriages, in a culture in which marriage is contracted for purely external reasons. Such marriages have no inner core, and are therefore not real marriages from a spiritual perspective.
So the external marriages of the ancient world and the failed marriages of the modern era were never real marriages because they both lacked an inner, spiritual bond? And yet divorce and remarriage constitute as adultery in the ancient world, but not in the modern era? Or should I presume from what you’ve said that the motives behind one’s divorce and remarriage determine whether it’s adultery? Assuming this is the case, what are some adulterous reasons behind divorce and remarriage today?
Speaking of which, if a man decided to divorce his wife over a petty reason today (thus making the ex-husband guilty of adultery), would another man be supporting the ex-husband’s guilt by marrying the divorced woman? Is that how the second man would be committing “adultery”? Because it’s still unclear to me how a previously unmarried man who marries a divorced woman would be committing adultery in the ancient world. If Jesus believed anyone who married a divorced woman was enabling an adulterous culture of divorce and remarriage, then it would have been more accurate to say “Anyone who marries a divorced woman promotes adultery”, not “commits adultery”.
First, let’s pan out and get the bigger picture.
Humans are multi-leveled beings. Most generally, we have a physical level (our body) and a spiritual level (our mind or spirit). Within our mind or spirit, we have:
Each of these levels of our self, in turn, has its own division into these three levels as well, such that, for example, on the lowest level there is loving to have practical know-how and understanding of practical matters leading to an ability to get things done, whereas on the next level up there is a love of intellect and ideas, the intellectual understanding itself, and the ability to apply ideas to make sense of and navigate in the world. And even the level of love has a wisdom that goes with that love, leading to acting wisely. So our psyche is like a multi-layered nested pattern.
Though all of these levels exist in every person, they start out largely undeveloped when we are first born, and the focus of our conscious life develops sequentially through these levels from the bottom up.
Not everyone develops through all of these levels, however. Many people get no farther than the lowest level, which can be called the “earthly” part of our mind because it is the part that enables us to get practical work done in the world and it focuses on our outward, behavioral life. This is probably where the bulk of the world’s population is at any given time. They’re not intellectuals, nor are they great souls with universal love for everyone around them. Rather, they’re worker bees. Their lives are focused on practical matters of work their job, taking care of their family, having fun with friends in their spare time, and so on. When they get older they may become more philosophical, but during their younger, working life this is where people tend to be psychologically and spiritually.
These can be good people, but they are not particularly spiritual people. I.e., their lives are not focused on spiritual matters such as God and heaven, but on earthly matters, such as doing their job and supporting themselves and their families. In terms of their psychology of good and evil, they don’t think things out for themselves, but rely on external social and legal structures to tell them what’s right and wrong, and their character is measured by whether they follow or violate civil law and social propriety.
In the ancient world, this was the level at which virtually everyone lived. They were earth-oriented, unspiritual people. Their religion was largely a matter of ritualistic worship and behavioral laws. If they followed the laws of their culture and properly engaged in the prescribed religious rituals, they were considered good people. If they didn’t, they were considered evil people. It was all about external behavior, because the deeper levels of their mind were largely undeveloped. Their intellect and love was all on the natural, earthly, behavioral level.
At the time of Christ, humanity went through a phase shift in which many people became capable of moving on to the next level. This, as I said in one of my previous replies, was what Paul was really talking about when he spoke of “faith” vs. “works.” People were meant to transition from being good and righteous merely because they obeyed the law behaviorally to being good and righteous because they mentally understood and accepted the principles of right living and were directed from within to act rightly toward their fellow human beings. Unfortunately, the bulk of the population wasn’t quite ready for this, and as I also said earlier, Christianity as a whole fairly quickly reverted back law- and obedience-based religion. And yet, many people over the centuries of the Christian era were able to internalize those laws, and live from “faith,” meaning an understanding of and commitment to the truth, rather than from mere behavioral obedience to external laws and social strictures.
Today, I believe we are going through yet another paradigm shift. First of all, the ability to act from principle and understanding has now become quite widespread. Today there are many millions of people who obey the law and live rightly, not because they’ll get in trouble if they don’t, but because they have adopted principles and standards for their lives, and they have committed themselves to living by those standards and principles because they believe it is the right thing to do.
But I believe we also today have the ability as a people to take the next step, into acting primarily from love. This is the love for God and the neighbor that Jesus taught 2,000 years ago. And when that becomes central to our life, we move beyond acting rightly because we know and understand that it is the right thing to do. Now we act rightly because we truly care from the heart about the people around us, and we want to do whatever we can to give them love, support, help, and happiness. This, once again, is not just because we know in our head that it’s the right thing to do, but because we feel and want it in our heart.
It’s not that people in the past were never able to achieve this. But in previous eras it was rare, whereas today it is becoming more and more common for people who are spiritually oriented to go through the full cycle of spiritual rebirth from an earthly focus to a focus on living by the truth to a focus on loving God and the neighbor from the heart.
This full cycle of spiritual rebirth is, then, a process of opening up deeper and deeper levels of our mind or spirit, and developing each one as it is opened up.
In people who only get as far as the first level, the second and third levels are there in potential, but are undeveloped, and therefore are not a part of that person’s active consciousness and life. And that is precisely where the vast bulk of the population was in ancient times, when the Hebrew and Greek Bibles (the Old and New Testaments) were written.
When people are developed only to the lowest level, their entire life consists of that lower level, and that is the basis on which they are judged as well. I.e., they are judged almost entirely by their behavior. Inner thoughts and motives have little to do with it. If you read the legal codes of the Old Testament, though motive does occasionally enter into it, it is almost entirely focused on behavior: right behavior brings life and reward, while wrong behavior brings punishment and death. People were expected to learn the law, and live by it. Ignorance of the law was no excuse because if you didn’t learn the law, you were already in violation of the law, which commanded that people learn the law, and teach it to their children as well.
These people, for the most part, didn’t have the higher levels that many people today have, and take for granted: an intellectual understanding of the principles of right and wrong, and a inward love and compassion for others in the heart. What they had was a knowledge of how they were supposed to behave based on what their laws required, and either a willingness to abide by that law or a pattern of flouting and breaking the law. An ancient Israelite did not need to know why God gave a particular law. Only what God’s law was.
At the same time, being unspiritual, these people were naturally focused mostly on the wellbeing of themselves and their own families and clans. They didn’t act based on broad principles of justice toward all people, nor did they have a universal love of all people. They looked out for their own best interests, and outsiders were valued or not depending upon whether or not they contributed to the wellbeing of oneself and one’s family, clan, and nation. When the ancient Israelites (or any other nation at the time) went to war against other nations, slaughtered them, and took their land for themselves, this was in no way seen as evil or wrong. In fact, if it added to the wellbeing of their own people, it was seen as good, right, and blessed by God. This mindset is present throughout the narrative parts of the Old Testament—though by the time of the prophets some questioning and repudiation of it does begin to take hold, and God begins to be presented as a God of all nations, and not just of the Israelites. But for the bulk of its history, ancient Hebrew culture was focused largely on benefiting oneself and one’s own people.
Moving into the subject at hand, this attitude applied to marriage as well. People in ancient times did not marry because they loved another person and wanted to make that person happy. They married because they wanted benefits for themselves, such as wealth from inter-family and inter-clan cooperation and trade, prestige in their community, sons to be their heirs and carry on their name after their death, and daughters to marry into other families and clans to enhance their wealth and standing in the community. And of course, in all times and ages, sex has been experienced as pleasurable. This has been especially so for men, but not always for women, since women commonly did not have any say or control over when or how sex would occur. However, women had similar motives for marriage, even though they had less control of it, and benefit from it, than men. A woman who married a capable man who was well-to-do and a leader in his community would live a much better and more comfortable life than if she married a poor and marginalized man.
Since marriage was not for love, but for social, financial, and political gain, the laws pertaining to it were different, and generally much stricter, than they are today. This was especially so for women, but even men were expected to adhere to the laws relating to marriage. And divorce, while allowed for men, was generally discouraged, and commonly had negative repercussions. In practice, most men did not divorce their wives. And of course, polygamy was allowed, so a man could take on more than one wife, and would commonly have a favored wife even if legally he was supposed to treat his wives equally. This also provided a pressure relief valve for men who were not entirely pleased with their first wife. Instead of divorcing her, if they had the financial means they could simply add another wife or even several more wives.
Looking at this from an inward perspective, as I’ve said previously, real spiritual marriage—a oneness of minds and hearts—didn’t exist in those days. Marriage was an external institution, for external and earthly purposes. And since that was the case, adultery was judged as a purely external, behavioral matter. The general expectation was that a man would marry a wife and would stay with her for the rest of his life, adding more wives if he was able. However, a man was allowed to divorce his wife, and this generally had negative consequences. It was a fly in the ointment of ancient society, commonly causing women and children to descend into poverty, destitution, and crime.
The rules regarding divorce and remarriage that Jesus gave were meant, in their literal application, to correct the wrongs of that external, unspiritual culture with regard to marriage, and to mitigate the damage that laxity in honoring the commitment of marriage had done to Israelite society. It was also meant, as I said, to continue to serve throughout much of the Christian era, since Christianity would for many centuries fail to achieve its potential of moving up to the next level spiritually, and would remain a largely law- and obedience-based religion, with merely external marriages.
Since people in Israelite and earlier Christian society had no real spiritual life because their deeper levels were not opened up and developed, they also had a naturally self-centered and adulterous attitude toward marriage. Their natural tendency was to want to marry as many wives as they could afford, having sex with them and gaining children by them—which ancient Israelite law allowed, and Christian law only gradually disallowed. This tended to keep in check their natural tendency to want to sleep with as many women as they could, limiting it to sex within the bounds of marriage.
In other words, their mind was naturally adulterous, and they could be said to be non-adulterous only if they obeyed their culture’s laws and practices about marriage, taking a wife or wives and remaining faithful to that wife or those wives. Divorce was, as I said, a fly in that ointment, and one that Jesus intended to correct by his stricter rules about divorce and remarriage. These people were inwardly adulterous because they desired sex with many women, and thought nothing was wrong with having sex with another man’s wife if they could get away with it. Only legal and social strictures restrained them from acting on their adulterous desires.
This also meant that if they divorced their wives and married other women, they were doing it for self-centered and adulterous reasons. And though it does not seem right to you and me today that a single man who married a divorced woman would be committing adultery, after Jesus’ time that was what the law said for Christians, so disobeying that law was adulterous for them. The general rationale was that because the woman’s divorce was seen as invalid, she was regarded as still married to her original husband in the eyes of God. So in marrying her, even another unmarried man was committing adultery because he was marrying another man’s wife.
This may seem preposterous, but Catholic canon law continues to operate on this general principle to this very day. The Catholic Church generally does not recognize any divorces except if one or the other has committed adultery (though there have been and continue to be various exceptions). If a Catholic gets a civil divorce anyway, the Catholic Church regards that person as still married to the person that the Church married them to, and therefore regards the second marriage as adulterous, even if non-Catholic society and secular law do not. By Catholic canon law, both the husband and the wife in the second marriage are living in sin and are in an adulterous relationship even if the new husband or wife was previously unmarried. In the Catholic Church, this is regarded as protecting the sanctity of marriage.
So yes, Jesus’ law of divorce and remarriage has been understood in much of Christianity, throughout most of Christian history, to mean that a man who marries a divorced woman is committing adultery even if he himself is not married and has never been married.
And to answer one of your questions, in subsequent Christian history both cultural and financial matters and Jesus’ prohibition against divorce and remarriage held marriages together.
All of this means that divorce and remarriage (except for adultery) is considered adultery in these low-level, unspiritual cultures for at least two reasons:
This may not seem right to us today, but both by historical Christian (canon) law and by psychological law, someone who is entirely earthly and natural-minded is not just promoting adultery by marrying a divorced woman (or man), but is actually committing adultery.
The same is not true for someone who is developed to the higher spiritual levels that involve acting from understanding and love, and who does not marry purely for external gain and self-benefit, but out of a desire to be one with another person whom they love and wish to make happy. These people are not naturally adulterous. They do not desire to marry or have sex with many different women (or men). They want to love, marry, and have the physical oneness of sexual relations with only one woman (or man) with whom they are spiritually one in mind and heart.
Since these people do have their higher levels opened up and developed to a greater or lesser extent, they are not judged solely on the basis of their behavior, but primarily on the basis of whether they are living according to their beliefs (on the second level of development) or by whether they are living from active love for God and their fellow human beings. They will still be good, law-abiding people, but that will come from a deeper source within the person.
When it comes to marriage, their marriages are based in the first instance on whether they have lived according to their principles of commitment and faithfulness to their spouse, and in the second instance on whether they have truly loved their spouse from the heart with an unselfish love and desire to give their spouse all happiness and joy. And of course, the marriage itself is judged by whether the two actually are one in heart and mind.
To sum up, unlike people who remain on the earthly level and don’t develop their spiritual self, people who do open and develop these deeper levels of themselves:
In other words, for spiritually developed people “marriage” means something quite different than “marriage” among spiritually undeveloped people:
This means that for spiritually undeveloped people, they are married or not based on whether the law, the church, and the society say that they are married. And if they violate the laws and practices of any of those with regard to marriage, they are in an adulterous marriage.
But for spiritually developed people, the sole criterion for whether or not they are married is whether or not they have an inner union of minds and hearts. All the rest may cause their marriage to be recognized by the church, the courts, and the society, but it has little or nothing to do with their actual marriage. The actual marriage flows from within, not from civil, church, or social law.
If spiritually developed people civilly divorce, they do so because no real marriage exists between them. And if they remarry, it is not adulterous, regardless of civil or church law or existing cultural patterns, because their former marriage was not a marriage in the first place. It was a legal and social fiction that didn’t represent an actual marriage.
For external and spiritually undeveloped people, a marriage is a marriage because the law, the church, and the society say it is. But for internal and spiritually developed people, a marriage is a marriage because God has brought together two people who are spiritually one.
Once a critical mass of the general society reaches the point where marriage is for love and inner oneness rather than for external legal and social reasons, the strict law of divorce and remarriage that Jesus gave no longer applies literally and legally to that population. People who have no inner oneness with their married partner must, in such societies, be allowed to divorce and remarry.
But Jesus’ law on divorce and remarriage still does apply spiritually. If a man or women who is spiritually married to his or her spouse divorces and remarries, then even if that divorce and remarriage are recognized by the law and by society, that person is spiritually committing adultery. He or she has violated a genuine marriage, and is now married to the new spouse for reasons other than inner oneness. This is an extremely serious offense. Whether or not it is a threat to that person’s civil and social life here on earth, it is a threat that person’s eternal life. Someone who violates a true, spiritual marriage has committed a very deep and serious form of adultery, likely for extremely selfish and destructive reasons. A person who does this has turned around from his or her path toward heaven, and is now traveling toward evil and hell instead. This is true even if the civil law, society, and even the church recognizes his or her new marriage as valid.
So it’s not that Jesus was lying, or that the law was abrogated. Rather, it’s that in an external society the law applies only externally because the marriages are merely external, whereas in an internal society, the law applies primarily internally, and externally only if the external marital status corresponds to the internal reality of marriage. In an internal society, if the law and society recognizes as valid a marriage that doesn’t actually exist internally and spiritually, there is no actual marriage there, and therefore divorcing and remarrying does not constitute adultery, nor does marrying a divorced woman (or man) constitute adultery.
In actual practice, the law in most Christian nations today recognizes this reality, and allows legally married couples to divorce at will. So the civil law of marriage has changed to correspond to the spiritual law of marriage—albeit not perfectly.
I should add that for a spiritual person, this will not result in one marriage after another after another, and it certainly won’t result in sleeping around promiscuously. A spiritual person will learn from a bad and mismatched marriage, and will be unlikely to make the same mistake again. (Though of course, we’re all fallible, and even some thoughtful and well-intentioned people do blunder around for many years before finally getting on the right track in their relationships.) A spiritual person who divorces a mismatched spouse will seek out someone with whom he or she does have that inner oneness.
The difficult part comes because we actually live in a mixed society. Some people are spiritually developed and some are not. And that makes it very difficult to write and apply the law, both civilly and spiritually. That’s why civil law in the area of sex, marriage, children, and divorce has been so heavily argued and contested in so many countries.
As an example of this mixed society, young people today commonly grow up with the idea that you should marry for love. But most of them, at the time they are young adults and eligible for marriage, are still largely focused on external, earthly matters, and on gaining advantage and pleasures for themselves. So though they believe in marrying for love, they don’t actually have the sort of selfless and spiritual love that forms the basis of a real, spiritual marriage. Think they’re “in love” with someone when in fact they are merely sexually or socially attracted to that person. This’s why so many marriages today fail and end in divorce. The reality of the two partners’ emotional and spiritual development doesn’t correspond to the ideal of marrying in order to love another person and make that person happy.
At the same time, people focused on external matters can’t clearly discern inner oneness or lack thereof. As a result, they commonly “fall in love” with and marry someone who is not a good match for them, and don’t realize it until well into the marriage. Before long their masks of politeness and “love” start to wear thin and they begin to appear to one another as they really are, warts and all. And then many couples are in for a rude awakening about the “love” that brought them together.
People who marry when young and spiritually undeveloped may have a successful, long-term marriage. But only if they managed to marry someone who is at least a fairly good match for them, and both partners are willing to do the hard personal work of learning to think as much about the happiness and wellbeing of their partner as of their own happiness and wellbeing. Real, spiritual marriage based on a oneness of heart and mind can exist only when both partners are actively engaged in a process of personal, emotional, and spiritual growth. On that, see:
How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?
This has gotten very long, and I’ve got to get some sleep. However, I think and hope it addresses most of the questions you’ve asked, and has put them in a larger context to make this whole issue a little more understandable. If I’ve missed something important, please feel free to ask again, and continue the conversation.
For the sake of discussion, I would appreciate it if you could engage my questions more directly and concisely.
>This also meant that if they divorced their wives and married other women, they were doing it for self-centered and adulterous reasons. And though it does not seem right to you and me today that a single man who married a divorced woman would be committing adultery, after Jesus’ time that was what the law said for Christians, so disobeying that law was adulterous for them. The general rationale was that because the woman’s divorce was seen as invalid, she was regarded as still married to her original husband in the eyes of God. So in marrying her, even another unmarried man was committing adultery because he was marrying another man’s wife.
So if a man divorced his wife for a selfish reason besides adultery in the ancient world, the divorce would be considered invalid and thus the woman was still married to her original husband in the eyes of God? Yet if a man divorced his wife for a selfish reason besides adultery today, God would consider the divorce valid and permit the woman to remarry because a critical mass of general society now seek marriage for love and inner oneness?
>Externally, divorce is not recognized except in the case of adultery, so any marriage with a man or woman divorced for any other reason is considered a marriage with an already married man or woman. He or she is considered still married to his or her previous spouse, so the subsequent marriage is seen as adulterous on the part of both partners.
So if a previously unmarried man found a woman who was indeed divorced for her adultery, and decided to marry the divorced woman, then the marriage wouldn’t be adulterous because the woman was no longer considered to be married to her original husband? Regardless of whether the man was enabling her adultery, it doesn’t change the fact that the woman wasn’t married to her original husband in God’s eyes anymore, correct?
Moreover, if I’m understanding you correctly, Jesus prohibited marrying a divorced woman because doing so was adultery. And doing so was adultery because the woman was still married to her original husband. And she was still married to her original husband (assuming the divorced woman didn’t commit adultery) because Jesus’ external law didn’t recognize divorce except in the case of adultery. And Jesus’ external law didn’t recognize divorce except in the case of adultery because doing otherwise would cause more wives to be divorced and become victims of adultery. And these women would be victims of adultery either because their former husbands divorced them to marry other women, or because they were forced into prostitution which heavily involved adultery. Yet Jesus’ external law no longer applies literally today even though there may still be men and women with adulterous hearts amid a spiritually developed society?
>Once a critical mass of the general society reaches the point where marriage is for love and inner oneness rather than for external legal and social reasons, the strict law of divorce and remarriage that Jesus gave no longer applies literally and legally to that population. People who have no inner oneness with their married partner must, in such societies, be allowed to divorce and remarry.
Assuming Swedenborg truly received divine revelations from God, is there anything in his writings which support your assertion that Jesus’ strict law regarding divorce and remarriage only applied literally to an external, unspiritual society? I need confirmation that your explanations regarding the paradigm shift behind divorce and remarriage aren’t mere conjecture.
>But Jesus’ law on divorce and remarriage still does apply spiritually. If a man or women who is spiritually married to his or her spouse divorces and remarries, then even if that divorce and remarriage are recognized by the law and by society, that person is spiritually committing adultery. He or she has violated a genuine marriage, and is now married to the new spouse for reasons other than inner oneness. This is an extremely serious offense. Whether or not it is a threat to that person’s civil and social life here on earth, it is a threat that person’s eternal life. Someone who violates a true, spiritual marriage has committed a very deep and serious form of adultery, likely for extremely selfish and destructive reasons. A person who does this has turned around from his or her path toward heaven, and is now traveling toward evil and hell instead. This is true even if the civil law, society, and even the church recognizes his or her new marriage as valid.
If a married couple divorces and remarries, isn’t it simply evidence that the couple had lacked a spiritual bond to begin with? Why would a man or woman ever divorce his/her spouse and remarry if the couple had truly achieved inner oneness in their marriage? Can you describe a scenario for why a person would divorce and remarry despite enjoying a spiritual bond with his/her spouse?
I would love to do so. However, these are immensely complex issues. I did attempt to give some simpler answers at the beginning of this conversation. Apparently these were not sufficiently satisfying, since you continued to pursue more deeply the issues and questions involved. I’m game for that. But it does require delving into the reasons behind the answers so that they don’t just come across as arbitrary and as flat contradictions of what’s in the Bible.
Also, quite honestly, one of the reasons I haven’t written an article about divorce yet is that I’m still working out some of these issues in my own mind. This conversation is prompting me to do that, which I appreciate. Some of what I’m saying here is still a bit tentative in my mind—which I’ve indicated here and there along the way.
Swedenborg did not spell out all of these issues in detail in his writings. But he did give some good material on which to base further conclusions. He did state that no real marriage existed in earlier eras (after the earliest human societies on earth), and that real marriage love was so rare in his time that people hardly knew what it was, or even that it existed at all. So the parts about the fundamental change in marriage in recent times compared to biblical times is on solid ground in Swedenborg’s teachings. However, he more commonly expresses it as a difference between marriage in heaven and marriage on earth. You can see some of those statements from his writings in this article:
Marriage in the Resurrection: The Deeper Meaning
About divorce, the old, strict rules on divorce were still in effect in Swedenborg’s day. He did not have to confront and comment on today’s much more relaxed divorce laws, and he tended to be fairly restrictive about divorce. (He did add two further reasons besides adultery as legitimate causes for divorce: malicious desertion and open obscenity in the home.) However, the situation that he describes in the spiritual world is completely different. There, he says, married couples who are not inwardly one simply end their marriage relationship and find someone with whom they are inwardly one, with whom they then enter into an eternal marriage. So in Swedenborg’s writings there is a stark dichotomy between strict rules about divorce here on earth and easy, almost casual divorce based solely on lack of inner oneness in the spiritual world.
My interpretation of this dichotomy is that the human culture of Swedenborg’s day was still very much the old, no-real-marriage era, so that the old, strict rules on marriage and divorce still applied. Now, however, I believe that the New Jerusalem has begun its descent to earth, so that conditions here are gradually moving closer to those of the spiritual world.
This, I believe, means that marriage will increasingly be based on the inner oneness of real, spiritual marriage rather than the external connection of financial, social, legal, and political bonds. And that necessitates moving divorce laws and practices in the direction of how these things function in the spiritual world, where external bonds give way to internal ones.
However, as your various questions highlight, we do live in a mixed culture, in which some marriages are spiritually based and others are not. As I said, this makes it very difficult to deal with these issues here on earth. The widely lamented “breakdown of marriage and traditional family values” is all tied in with this. We live in a time of major social and spiritual transition. This always involves upheaval and chaos as the old social patterns give way to new ones.
Just to clear up something I left cloudy in my earlier comments:
Before Jesus’ time in Israelite society a man was allowed to divorce his wife for any cause. It was after Jesus’ time that much more stringent divorce laws came into effect, in the Christian world at least. This, I believe, was (in its literal application) to correct the wrongs of the previous system in Israelite society of easy divorce for husbands and no right to divorce for wives.
Ancient Israelite society did not have the same sense of marriage as a God-given institution that Christian society did after Jesus’ time. It’s true that the passages Jesus quoted in favor of this are taken from the Hebrew scriptures. But the whole idea that marriage is something God puts together such that humans should not put it asunder seemed new and rather shocking even to Jesus’ own disciples, and certainly to the scribes and Pharisees who were challenging him on this subject. It’s also true that one of the Ten Commandments was “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But in practice, this was applied mainly to women, and was used in that society as a way of ensuring that the children of a man’s wife were his own children and not some other man’s.
So despite some lack of clarity in my earlier comments, in ancient Israelite society if a man divorced his wife she was not still considered married in the eyes of God, because marriage was not seen as an inviolable, God-given institution except inasmuch as it enforced a man’s parentage of his children and his rights to property and inheritance. Jesus’ teachings about marriage and divorce were not in force then. The “strict laws of divorce” in that era applied mainly to women, because the primary goal in the marriages of those day was to produce sons and heirs for men. Anything that damaged or put a cloud over that goal had to be strictly prohibited and severely punished.
To answer your question more directly, then, before Jesus’ time the answer was “No,” but after Jesus’ time the answer was “Yes.” However, to re-muddy the waters a bit, Jesus seems to have applied these “new rules” retroactively in a sense, in that he said that the law of Moses on that point was merely due to “the hardness of their hearts,” and that that law was never God’s law.
Following up on my response just above, it’s necessary to keep civil law distinct from spiritual and divine law in our minds, even if they do interact with one another.
Civil law on marriage and divorce is concerned entirely with the social and financial aspects of marriage—i.e., its external aspects. Spiritual and divine law are concerned primarily with the internal aspects of marriage—i.e., the oneness of mind and heart or lack thereof, and the growth or destruction of that inner oneness in a marriage.
Only when there is no internal marriage, but only external marriage, do civil law and divine law become telescoped into one another, such that violating civil law is violating divine law. The reason for this is that in people whose inner, spiritual levels are not developed, but who live only in the external, social and behavioral levels of the mind, the only way a person’s actions, and marriage, can be judged is by whether that person follows or violates the religious, civil, and social laws of the society in which that person lives. There are no deeper levels to that person’s psyche that could be the basis for judging the person’s marriage, or actions in general, based on anything else than the existing civil, religious, and social law. (By “social law” I mean the often unstated rules of acceptable conduct within a particular culture.)
To directly answer your question, if a man divorced his wife for selfish reasons besides adultery today, civil law in most countries would allow the woman to remarry, and in a sense, so would God, in that God does not prevent us from marrying whom we chose. But in evaluating that woman’s marriage from a spiritual perspective, it would depend upon whether she had the capacity for an internal marriage, and if not, on whether the laws of her religion, country, and society permitted her to remarry.
According to civil law both then and now, the man would not be committing adultery by marrying a woman whose husband divorced her because she committed adultery, since she was no longer considered married to her former husband.
However, the woman would still be an adulteress. And the man would be marrying her “at his own risk.” Someone who has committed adultery once, and doesn’t see anything wrong with it, is very likely to commit adultery again. Spiritually, that person is adulterous, and remains so unless she or he repents from the adultery, and commits herself or himself to remaining faithful to her or his marriage from then on.
If an adulterous person does not repent from adultery, there will be no genuine, spiritual marriage in any future marriage that person may enter into, even if it may be a civilly valid marriage.
Of course, under ancient Israelite law all of this would be a moot point because the punishment for adultery was death. So the situation wouldn’t even arise unless there had already been a violation of the law on adultery.
Yes. There is more to it than that as well. In particular, Jesus’ law didn’t recognize divorce except in the case of adultery also because it made adulterers out of the men who did so. And in general, it allowed for all sorts of invalid reasons for divorce in a culture that had no internal proclivity for faithful, monogamous marriage, and was internally adulterous in its thinking about marriage.
However, this general chain of reasons is, I think, valid. Jesus’ literal commandments prohibited divorce except in the case that the Ten Commandments’ prohibition on adultery had been violated, in which case the other partner could legitimately divorce the adulterous partner. And Jesus closed off loopholes that would allow people to wriggle out of that law.
I should add that in external, unspiritual cultures, there is no “ideal” law that provides universal justice for all. Unspiritual cultures necessarily have rather strict, one-size-fits-all laws that are enforced regardless of the internal state of the individuals involved. And some innocent people do get crushed under the wheel of that rigid, unadadaptable type of law. Spiritually, however, it all gets sorted out after death in the spiritual world, so that no innocent person is eternally crushed or punished.
Another way of saying this is that in more or less corrupted societies, there is no real justice for many people. That’s just a stubborn fact of reality. However, spiritually all people do ultimately receive real justice. And in comparison to the temporary justice or injustice of human society on earth, that spiritual justice is eternal. So those who suffer injustice here on earth will not have to live with that injustice forever.
The Catholic Church still imposes its version of Jesus’ external law on its people. A faithful Catholic who violates that law could still be spiritually liable for it. People who truly believe that they are living in a way that violates the rules of their religion have a conflict of conscience. This it can and often does drag down their spiritual state such that it becomes actual sin because they are violating their religion and their conscience.
Some very conservative Middle Eastern countries still have divorce laws, or at least cultural attitudes and practices on divorce, very similar to the ones that existed in ancient, pre-Christian Israelite society. People in those cultures who accept their culture’s rules on divorce would similarly have a conflict of conscience and lapse into sin if they violated those rules.
However, much of the world today has more liberal divorce laws. So in a pragmatic sense, Jesus’ external law no longer applies literally because people live under the laws that actually exist in their culture.
A hallmark of people who are not internally developed is that they don’t have the ability to validly formulate rules of behavior for themselves, but must rely upon their religion, government, and culture to formulate rules of behavior for them. And they are judged not only civilly and culturally, but also spiritually, based on whether they abide by those externally imposed rules of behavior. So although Jesus’ specific literal laws on divorce may not apply to them because they don’t actually live under those laws, they still live under the “law of law,” meaning under the law that they must obey whatever are the external laws of marriage and divorce in their culture, or they will be guilty of sin.
For people who have developed their inner spiritual self, the situation is different. They are not spiritually subject to civil laws that violate their conscience as developed according to their spiritual beliefs, even if they are still civilly subject to those civil laws. If they violate civil law, though they may be charged and punished for it civilly, they will not be charged for it spiritually (i.e., it will not be sin) if they were acting according to their conscience.
For people who have adulterous hearts, the only possible way not to be engaged in an adulterous marriage is by strictly adhering to the religious, civil, and social laws of their culture on marriage and divorce. If they do so, even though inwardly they have no real marriage love, they develop an external semblance of marriage. This external semblance of marriage is accepted by God as living according to the commandment against committing adultery because it’s the best this type of person can do.
You say, in response to a statement I made about a spiritually married person who divorces his or her spouse:
Just as an evil person can repent from sin and begin a new life of righteousness, so a good person can forsake righteousness and enter into a life of sin. And the farther a person has gone in his or her spiritual development, the more damaging and destructive that is.
In Swedenborg’s writings, this is referred to as “profanation.” In civil society, it is referred to as “corruption.” If a person who has attained high civil or religious office abuses the power of that office for personal gain or other evil purposes, that is corruption. And it is far worse in high officials, who have a great deal of power, than it is in ordinary working people, who have little or no power.
For example, today many instances are coming to light of corporate CEOs who have engaged in sexual harassment and victimization of women, which has fostered a culture of sexual harassment throughout the entire company, from the top down. If some low-level cog in the corporate machine were to engage in sexual harassment, it would be bad, but would most likely result in that employee being disciplined or fired. But when that sort of wrong behavior comes down from the top, it affects the entire company.
Similarly, no matter who engages in sexual abuse of minors, it is very bad. But it is especially bad when it is a priest or other leader in the church who does so. In that case, it not only does great emotional damage to its victims, but it commonly estranges them from the church and from God, damaging their spiritual life, because the priest was seen as God’s representative on earth.
In each case, even though the wrong action itself is the same, the damage is greater when the action is done by a person in a position of authority and responsibility, either secular or religious.
That’s why, if a person who is in a true, spiritual marriage turns away from it, divorces his wife or husband, and enters into sexual and marital relationships with others, it is a very serious spiritual offense.
Why would someone do that? Here’s an example:
A man in a good and happy marriage partnership with his wife goes through a midlife crisis. His wife has gotten a bit fat, the sex isn’t as good as it used to be, and though he’s done okay financially, he hasn’t been as successful in his career as he expected. He starts looking with envy at rich and powerful men with their beautiful and sexy wives, and decides he wants a piece of that. So even though he’s been happy with his wife up to this point, and their marriage has been a good one of mutual love, understanding, and support, he has an affair with an attractive woman he knows from the office. The sex is great, and the whole thing is very exciting. He finally feels like he’s really living!
However, it’s only a matter of time before his wife finds out. Then all hell breaks loose. Most likely it will end in divorce. The good marriage he had before will be destroyed, and his former life reduced to a shambles. Most likely, the affair will turn out to be just a fling. Soon he’ll be single again, and on the prowl for another sexual encounter with some other woman, which will never feel as exciting as the first one. From being a stable husband and family man in a good, if not very exciting, marriage, he’ll become a playboy on the prowl. And that is not a good life.
But worst of all, he will have completely destroyed the life within himself of being spiritually married and on the path to heaven, and will have entered into a hell-bound life of adultery and sexual indulgence. That will be because he turned away from the inner satisfactions of a good marriage to the purely physical and self-indulgent satisfactions of adultery and promiscuous sex.
Once a person falls away from marital faithfulness in this way, it is difficult, if not impossible, to return to his former life of faithful marriage. What good and self-respecting woman would ever accept him as her husband, given the way he has behaved? His former wife can no longer trust him, and neither can any other woman. If he ever gets out of the destructive life he is now engaged in, it will truly be only by the grace of God.
This phenomenon of profanation is what Jesus was talking about in this parable:
And also his saying that:
Having started on the path toward righteousness, or in this case, having formed a spiritual marriage, it is highly destructive both civilly and spiritually to turn back toward adultery and mere sensuality—far more so than if the person had never developed his spiritual self, and entered into a spiritual marriage, in the first place. This is why, in Divine Providence #221–233, Swedenborg expands upon the proposition: “We Are Not Granted Inner Access to the Truths That Our Faith Discloses and the Good Effects of Our Caring Except As We Can Be Kept in Them to the End of Our Life.” Unfortunately, even though a person may be capable of following through with a good life, not everyone does do so. Some people do “put a hand to the plow and look back.”
I should add to the above scenario that perhaps the man does marry the sexy woman with whom he had an affair. But that marriage will always be tainted by the fact that it began with adultery. And it will likely never move much beyond being based on the physical sexual desires with which it started, without the real inner connection that the man had with his former wife. It will be an external marriage rather than an internal one.
I’ve recently been contemplating a few more questions I’d like to ask you.
>Following up on my response just above, it’s necessary to keep civil law distinct from spiritual and divine law in our minds, even if they do interact with one another.
>Civil law on marriage and divorce is concerned entirely with the social and financial aspects of marriage—i.e., its external aspects. Spiritual and divine law are concerned primarily with the internal aspects of marriage—i.e., the oneness of mind and heart or lack thereof, and the growth or destruction of that inner oneness in a marriage.
>Only when there is no internal marriage, but only external marriage, do civil law and divine law become telescoped into one another, such that violating civil law is violating divine law.
So when Jesus stated “Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” in Matthew 5:32, He was implementing a civil law (which held that a woman was still married to her original husband if he divorced her for any reason besides adultery) against marrying a divorced woman, but not a spiritual and divine law against such marriages?
>To directly answer your question, if a man divorced his wife for selfish reasons besides adultery today, civil law in most countries would allow the woman to remarry, and in a sense, so would God, in that God does not prevent us from marrying whom we chose. But in evaluating that woman’s marriage from a spiritual perspective, it would depend upon whether she had the capacity for an internal marriage, and if not, on whether the laws of her religion, country, and society permitted her to remarry.
>If she has the capacity for internal marriage, and goes on to form a marriage with a man with whom she is one in spirit, then yes, God would “permit” her to remarry.
So if a divorced woman seeks to establish an internal marriage with another man, then she is free by divine law to ignore her nation’s civil laws against remarriage? If so, then could any divorced women in the ancient world hypothetically bypass Jesus’ civil law against remarriage without any spiritual consequences as long as they were pursuing a spiritual marriage? Since Jesus’ civil law doesn’t recognize divorce except in the case of adultery, would any women who’ve been “divorced” for reasons besides adultery actually be committing legal adultery in the ancient world (after Jesus’ time) if they sought a spiritual marriage with another man? After all, aren’t such women still legally married to their original husbands by Jesus’ civil law? Or would Jesus’ civil law against remarriage not have applied to them?
>For people who have developed their inner spiritual self, the situation is different. They are not spiritually subject to civil laws that violate their conscience as developed according to their spiritual beliefs, even if they are still civilly subject to those civil laws. If they violate civil law, though they may be charged and punished for it civilly, they will not be charged for it spiritually (i.e., it will not be sin) if they were acting according to their conscience.
But wouldn’t Romans 13:1-5 imply that God disapproves of anyone who disobeys the civil laws of their nation’s government? The passage seems to indicate that people are meant to submit to the governing authorities, so I’m curious about the underlying context. Moreover, if a certain country’s civil laws do not recognize divorce except in the case of adultery, then wouldn’t a “divorced” woman be committing legal adultery by pursuing spiritual marriage with another man (assuming her husband “divorced” her for reasons besides adultery)? Or better yet, what if the woman herself wanted a divorce because her husband has been verbally and physically abusive, not to mention overly possessive and controlling, yet her country’s civil laws strictly forbid divorce except for adultery? Since the marriage lacks a spiritual bond and the woman cannot request a legal divorce, would she be justified in God’s eyes to defy her country’s civil laws and pursue a spiritual relationship with another man? Is a divorce even necessary if there was no “real marriage” to begin with? Or would God condemn the relationship as adultery, just like her country?
On a separate note, since marriage exists in both the external and internal sense of the word, what about divorce and adultery? The meanings of both terms are comprehensible from an external perspective, but what about an internal perspective? Right now, I’m contemplating three kinds of marriage situations: Legal marriage without spiritual marriage, legal marriage with spiritual marriage, and spiritual marriage without legal marriage. In a legal marriage without spiritual marriage, would a spouse also be committing spiritual adultery (despite the lack of internal marriage) by having an affair or simply legal adultery? In a legal marriage with spiritual marriage, is a legal divorce the equivalent of a spiritual divorce (assuming the concept of spiritual divorce even exists)? And if a legal divorce isn’t possible, is a spiritual divorce still somehow possible? If so, would a spouse be committing spiritual adultery if he/she married someone else despite being legally married yet spiritually divorced to his/her original partner? In a spiritual marriage without legal marriage, how would a divorce take place? If “real marriage” is possible without the state’s authorization, then couldn’t you say the same thing about divorce? Or does divorce solely register as a concept under legal marriage, not spiritual marriage?
These are very complicated questions involving a whole range of factors including civil law, spiritual law, individual situations, and individuals’ consciences. Though there are some general principles involved, there aren’t really any hard-and-fast rules about these things because we humans do not live black and white lives, but live in a range of shades of gray and of many different colors.
For just one example, yes, Romans 13:1–5 says that we should obey the civil authorities. But it would be a mistake to take that as an absolute. Its intent is to encourage people to live law-abiding lives. But the early Christians themselves defied civil law on various issues, such as sacrificing to the Roman gods, and were regularly imprisoned and martyred as a result. Jesus also violated various laws of his civil society, such as the strict laws against doing anything defined as “work” on the Sabbath. He even stated that he and his followers were not subject to the Temple tax. So although the New Testament does establish a general principle that the civil authorities are doing God’s work in keeping order on earth, and are therefore to be obeyed, there are also many examples in the New Testament of Christians, and of Jesus himself, violating civil law when it conflicted with spiritual and divine law.
And pragmatically speaking, civil disobedience against bad laws is one of the most effective ways of getting bad laws repealed. Does Romans 13:1–5 really mean that everyone in the United States prior to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation was obliged by their Christian religious beliefs to obey the various state laws that classified slaves as the legal and rightful property of their owners? I don’t think so. I think, rather, that it became the moral and right thing to do, once people began recognizing that slavery is inherently wrong, to disobey and flout the unjust laws that kept slavery in place, until those laws were repealed and the slaves were set free.
Now on your questions more specifically about external and internal marriage vs. civil and spiritual law:
First, I would hesitate to say that Jesus was “implementing a civil law” in pronouncing his strict standards on marriage and divorce. Jesus was not in a position of civil authority, and did not have the ability to make civil law, nor was that a significant part of his purpose here on earth. Once Christianity became the dominant religion throughout most of Europe and some adjacent areas, civil authorities began to make civil law that conformed with Jesus’ statements on various subjects. But that still is not Jesus making or implementing civil law. That is humans making and implementing civil law according to their understanding of what Jesus taught. Jesus’ own primary purposes involved people’s eternal spiritual life, and their temporary civil and social life only as it affected their spiritual life.
Second, at the time Jesus said what he did in Matthew 5:32 and related passages, for all practical purposes there was no such thing as internal marriage. There was only external marriage. In plain terms, nobody in those days married because they were spiritually one in mind and heart. They married for various external social and financial reasons. About the closest approach to anything with the slightest resemblance to spiritual marriage was the general injunction against marrying someone of a different religion. This led to some of the softening of Jesus’ strict rules on marriage in Paul’s letters, in which Paul gave fairly clear support to Christian believers abandoning their marriages if their partners did not also become believers and created a disturbance because of the believing partner’s faith. But even that stipulation of marrying within one’s own religion did not amount to real internal marriage, both because the religion itself was still largely external and behavioral and because the people of that day and age had not yet become spiritual within themselves.
This means that the literal application of Jesus’ strict law about marriage and divorce applied to the kind of marriage and divorce that existed in his day: external marriage with no internal marriage. Since external marriage is held together only by external bonds such as civil and social law, those who violated that law were violating their marriages. And Jesus was for strong bonds of external marriage that were not to be violated for any and every cause, but were to be stuck with until one or the other partner died. With no internal bonds to hold marriages together, those external bonds were all that was left. Throw those external bonds to the winds, and there is no longer even an external semblance of marriage, which would result in societal breakdown as people’s naturally adulterous character took over.
Meanwhile, the spiritual application of Jesus’ strict law about marriage relates to breaking the bonds of internal or spiritual marriages. Unlike civil marriages, which are a creation of the state and apply only temporarily, to our time of living on this earth, spiritual marriages exist only when there is a real oneness of mind and heart between two people. That is not a temporary bond, but an eternal one, because the two people are spiritually one in an indissoluble bond. Breaking that kind of marriage is not just civil, but spiritual adultery because it is a violation of a oneness between two people that is by its nature both spiritual and eternal. If a person in an internal marriage is unfaithful in spirit and in body to that marriage, then that person has not just committed adultery, but has turned back from his or her path toward heaven, and has embarked upon a path toward hell instead. This type of adultery is far more serious than any merely civil adultery, and it has not just temporary, but eternal consequences. Such a spiritual divorce would mean not only divorcing oneself from one’s spiritual partner, but divorcing oneself from God.
These are some of the general principles involved in sorting out the realities involved in your various questions. And it’s difficult to give hard-and-fast answers because these issues involve not only civil and spiritual law, but also the conscience of each person involved in the situation. Even if from an objective point of view a particular action on someone’s part would be considered wrong, if that person doesn’t believe it’s wrong, and is acting according to his or her conscience, then although there will likely be some negative and harmful consequences of breaking civil or spiritual law with regard to marriage, that person will not be spiritually changed with sin because that person was acting according to his or her conscience. So these questions are even more complex than just sorting out civil and spiritual law with regard to marriage.
Another generality, however, is that even people capable of spiritual marriage should generally follow the marriage laws of their society if possible. For some people this may mean remaining in a marriage that is not a real, spiritual marriage. And some people do indeed remain in marriages that have no real spiritual connection in order not to harm spouses, children, family, friends, and society. In more strict societies with draconian divorce laws, getting divorced may have such destructive social and financial consequences that it simply isn’t a real option. On the other hand, if there is abuse or secret infidelity involved, a husband or wife may decide to seek a divorce or simply abandon the marriage even if the laws of their country are likely to make that difficult if not impossible. And then they face the question of whether to leave their country, thus leaving behind all of their family and friends, and everything they’ve known. These and many other factors mean that the only person who can make these complicated decisions is the person walking in those shoes. No outsider can say, “She should do this,” or “He shouldn’t have done that,” because they were not in the situation that she or he was in.
One more generality for now: No matter what we do, God never condemns us. Even when we do things that are civilly or spiritually wrong, and even when we do things that are contrary to our own conscience, God does not condemn us, but rather seeks to bring good out of the bad events that have taken place. God’s effort is always to bend what is bad toward what is good, and what is worse toward what is better. So even if we have wholesale violated civil and social rules of marriage and divorce, and even if, God forbid, we have engaged in spiritual adultery, God will still seek to turn us back toward the good. We can’t undo what has been done. But if we are ready to learn from our wrongs, repent, and turn ourselves back toward God and God’s way, then God will never shut us out, but will always welcome us back.
This is not a license to sin. Sin always has damaging consequences. Rather, it is a call to repent from our sins, and begin a new life of righteousness instead. In terms of marriage, this means that even if we have violated civil and spiritual laws of marriage, we can still recognize that what we did was wrong, and commit ourselves to living according to the civil and spiritual laws of marriage from now on. It most likely will not fix previously broken relationships. Those are probably broken for good. But it may make it possible for us to enter into a new and more sound marriage relationship in the future. And if we are sincere in our repentance from our previous ways and in committing ourselves to loving, faithful, monogamous marriage from now on, then the path toward heaven and true marriage is always open to us.
I realize this doesn’t specifically answer each one of your questions. But I hope it at least throws some additional light on them. And if there are some questions that you still want specific answers to, feel free to ask them again.
I have some more questions regarding spiritual marriage and divorce.
>First, I would hesitate to say that Jesus was “implementing a civil law” in pronouncing his strict standards on marriage and divorce. Jesus was not in a position of civil authority, and did not have the ability to make civil law, nor was that a significant part of his purpose here on earth. Once Christianity became the dominant religion throughout most of Europe and some adjacent areas, civil authorities began to make civil law that conformed with Jesus’ statements on various subjects. But that still is not Jesus making or implementing civil law. That is humans making and implementing civil law according to their understanding of what Jesus taught. Jesus’ own primary purposes involved people’s eternal spiritual life, and their temporary civil and social life only as it affected their spiritual life.
>Meanwhile, the spiritual application of Jesus’ strict law about marriage relates to breaking the bonds of internal or spiritual marriages. Unlike civil marriages, which are a creation of the state and apply only temporarily, to our time of living on this earth, spiritual marriages exist only when there is a real oneness of mind and heart between two people. That is not a temporary bond, but an eternal one, because the two people are spiritually one in an indissoluble bond. Breaking that kind of marriage is not just civil, but spiritual adultery because it is a violation of a oneness between two people that is by its nature both spiritual and eternal. If a person in an internal marriage is unfaithful in spirit and in body to that marriage, then that person has not just committed adultery, but has turned back from his or her path toward heaven, and has embarked upon a path toward hell instead. This type of adultery is far more serious than any merely civil adultery, and it has not just temporary, but eternal consequences. Such a spiritual divorce would mean not only divorcing oneself from one’s spiritual partner, but divorcing oneself from God.
So what would be the spiritual application of Jesus’ prohibition against marrying a divorced woman today? And if spiritual marriage is an indissoluble bond, then does that mean a spouse is still spiritually married to his/her partner even after the latter commits spiritual adultery and the couple legally divorce? If so, then doesn’t this mean there’s no such thing as “spiritual divorce”? And if that’s the case, then should we assume Jesus was only referring to legally divorced women when He prohibited men from marrying divorced women in Matthew 5:32? Speaking of which, if Jesus wasn’t implementing an external civil law in the ancient world decreeing that divorce was invalid except in the case of adultery, then by what law was He basing His claim that marrying a divorced woman was adultery? By what type of law was a divorced woman still married to her original husband in the ancient world (assuming he divorced her for a reason besides adultery)? If spiritual divorce doesn’t exist (and spiritual marriage didn’t exist in the ancient world), then doesn’t it render Jesus’ strict prohibition against divorce (except for adultery) a case of civil law, not spiritual law?
Or if spiritual divorce does exist and Jesus’ strict law against divorce (except for adultery) also applies spiritually, I assume a spiritual divorce is justified under the context of spiritual adultery, correct? But if adultery can emerge within a spiritual marriage, then what about domestic abuse? Why wasn’t abuse mentioned in Matthew 5:32 as a sufficient reason for spiritual divorce? For example, isn’t it possible that a couple genuinely falls in love and marries, but the chronic stress of work drives the husband into alcoholism, which in turn causes him to become abusive towards his wife? What if the wife has repeatedly tried to convince him to stop drinking for years, but to no avail? Is spiritual divorce an option? Or am I misunderstanding the nature of spiritual divorce?
These are all good questions.
To start with the matter of Jesus and civil law:
Civil law is law implemented by earthly authorities, and enforced by penalties imposed upon those who break it. In ancient Hebrew society, for example, adultery was punishable by death—although in practice that wasn’t always enforced.
Jesus, by contrast, specifically did not impose a punishment upon the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8:1–11. This suggests that Jesus had no intention of making civil law, to be enforced by civil authorities, but rather was making moral law as a guide to people in living their lives.
The difference is that civil law is imposed and enforced by external authorities and by externally imposed punishments for violating it, whereas moral law is something we impose upon ourselves based on our own faith, our own beliefs, and our own conscience.
This is what Paul was really talking about when he spoke of being saved by faith apart from the works of the law. He meant that our salvation was no longer to be based on our adherence to externally imposed laws, but rather on our adherence to the “law of faith,” meaning living according our own internally accepted moral and spiritual law, which for Christians involves accepting and living by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christians, according to Paul, were to avoid doing evil works, and were to do good works instead, not based on an externally imposed law with its punishments and rewards, but based on a moral law that we impose upon ourselves in accordance with our faith in Jesus Christ and his commandments.
When Jesus gave his strict teachings about marriage and divorce, then, I do not think he intended them to be taken as civil laws, to be externally imposed and punished by civil authorities. Rather, I believe he intended them to be accepted and practiced by his followers based on their own internal sense of right and wrong as formed and guided by his teachings and the teachings of the Bible generally.
So no, I don’t think Jesus was imposing civil law, but rather was articulating moral laws for his followers to live by. Those followers who were merely natural- and physical-minded would have to follow them in literal fashion. But those who were spiritual-minded would have to follow them spiritually, as discussed in some of my previous responses to you.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Jesus was explicitly departing from established civil custom and law in Israelite society on the issue of divorce.
Moses didn’t actually command husbands to give their unwanted wives a certificate of divorce, as the Pharisees overstated it to Jesus in Matthew 19:7. However, the law of Moses did tacitly recognize this as an accepted practice in Deuteronomy 24:1–4. And Jesus reversed that allowance for a man to divorce his wife for any cause in Matthew 19:8–9:
Once again, I do not believe Jesus’ intent here was to codify civil law, a violation of which would be punishable by civil penalties. That would be up to the civil or religious authorities to decide. Rather, he was saying that this common practice of a man divorcing his wife because “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her” (Deuteronomy 24:1) or because “he dislikes her” (Deuteronomy 24:3) is immoral and wrong, and is a violation of the commandment not to commit adultery. In other words, he was equating with adultery casual divorce of a wife who has been faithful to her husband. This is independent of whatever civil laws a particular society may impose on marriage and divorce. It is a moral law, meant to be followed by moral people based on their faith, their beliefs, and their conscience.
Now about spiritual adultery:
First, keep in mind that according to Jesus’ law on divorce, if a woman (or man) commits adultery, then divorce is justified. A person who divorces his or her spouse because the spouse committed adultery is free to remarry, and is not thereby committing adultery. This applies not just to social or civil divorce, but also to spiritual divorce.
Though I said that a spiritual marriage is “an indissoluble bond,” of course if one or the other commits adultery than that bond is indeed broken. The “indissoluble” was meant more a statement of its inherent nature as a spiritual oneness than as a statement that it is impossible to break it.
For those who remain spiritual and heavenly in their life, that bond is indissoluble because the two have become one in an eternal union.
Of course, here on earth, especially from the outside, we cannot always tell which marriages have such a spiritual oneness at their heart and which do not. People here on earth are still “under construction” spiritually, and may go through fundamental changes in their character that would cause them no longer to have a connection with their current spouse if their current spouse doesn’t go through similar changes along the way. But by the time we die and enter the spiritual world, our fundamental character is set: “the pot is fired,” to use a biblical metaphor. At that point the oneness of two spiritually married people does indeed become indissoluble. Such marriages will never break up, but will last to eternity because the two have become one, just as Jesus said.
Spiritual adultery involves one (or both) of the partners breaking a oneness of mind and heart with his or her spouse that was meant to be eternal and indissoluble. As I said in my previous reply to you, doing this is not just committing adultery, but is also setting one’s face toward evil and hell. Anyone who has spiritual oneness with a husband or wife, and breaks that oneness, is doing it for sinful reasons: greed, mere physical lust, anger, revenge, or some other bad motive. Only a person who turns from being motivated by good to being motivated by evil would violate an inner spiritual union with his or her spouse.
However, assuming only one and not both of the partners committed this sort of spiritual adultery, according to Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce the other partner is then free from that marriage, and free to remarry without being guilty of committing adultery. Once again, adultery is a legitimate grounds for divorce, and this applies to spiritual adultery just as it does to civil adultery.
This also, incidentally, means that the idea that there is one and only one possible partner for each one of us is not sustainable. Though it is a romantic idea, and from the perspective of eternity it is true, as we travel our path toward eternity here on earth there may be several people who could be potential eternal partners for us. When we unite with one of those people, we become eternal partners to one another by growing ever closer to one another. This commonly involves each adopting habits and even character traits from the other, or habits and character traits that are complementary to the other, so that the two become more and more one in heart, mind, and action.
About spousal abuse and alcoholism:
First, alcohol is never a cause of, nor an excuse for, spousal abuse. If a person becomes abusive when drunk, then that person has two problems that must be fixed: alcoholism and abuse. These are distinct issues. A non-abusive person will not become abusive under the influence of alcohol. The alcohol only causes latent tendencies toward abuse to come to the surface and be expressed. And getting sober will not by itself cause an abusive person to be non-abusive.
However, to your questions, a person in a spiritual marriage who is or becomes an alcoholic, or who is or becomes abusive, has violated that marriage by turning toward evil. Alcoholism is evil. Spousal abuse is evil. These are sins that must be shunned. In other words, alcoholics have a moral responsibility to get sober, and abusers have a moral responsibility to cease from and reject spousal abuse on principle. If they don’t, they are headed toward hell rather than heaven.
I know that sounds harsh. And perhaps some alcoholics are actually overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control. But adult human beings must take responsibility for their own lives, no matter how hard that may be. And people who allow themselves to descend into alcoholism have abdicated responsibility for their lives. They may manage to avoid eternal hell if they die alcoholics. But their spiritual growth will have been stunted, and at best they will end out in the lower levels of heaven, where marriage is nowhere near as deep and spiritual as in the higher levels of heaven.
As for why spousal abuse wasn’t mentioned in Matthew 5:32 as a sufficient reason for divorce, I think this was a factor of the very low spiritual level of society at that time.
Though there is no statement or commandment in the Bible allowing a man to beat his wife, unfortunately it was a common and accepted practice in those days. A wife was considered subject to her husband’s authority. And corporal punishment was very common in those societies for all sorts of infractions and crimes. Severely beating one’s wife was frowned upon, and could be punishable if it caused death or serious bodily injury. However, it was socially acceptable for a man to physically punish his wife if she was disobedient to him or engaged in some behavior that he disapproved of or that brought dishonor upon his family and clan. If a man’s wife was flagrantly and persistently disobedient and quarrelsome, he could punish her quite severely without incurring social disapproval. It was seen as his duty to tame such a wife and reduce her to obedience to his authority. A husband who didn’t do so was seen as weak.
Also unfortunately, today’s understanding of the nature of spousal abuse did not exist in those days. There was no clear line between punishing one’s wife and abusing one’s wife. It was considered a wife’s duty to obey and please her husband so that she did not incur his wrath. Today we understand these things much better. But there was no such understanding in ancient times. Only a general disapproval of churlish and brutish men who stepped over a rather ill-defined line in physically punishing their wives. Such a man was more likely to be punished by his wife’s male relatives than by the civil authorities.
Beyond that, Jesus made no attempt to provide detailed behavioral laws for every circumstance of life. He laid down general spiritual principles, and gave us stories and parables to illustrate what it means to live—or fail to live—a moral and spiritual life. It is up to us to learn and understand those principles, and apply them to the many and varied situations of everyday human life. Although there are no specific teachings or rules about spousal abuse in the Bible, the principles taught in the Bible are sufficient for us to recognize that spousal abuse is evil and wrong, and destroys a marriage.
Though I may still not have specifically answered every one of your questions, I hope these responses help.
Great insight.And is true.
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I’m glad you found this article helpful.
Godspeed on your spiritual journey!