Divorce, the Church & Mark 10 (Part 1)

Anecdotal experience bears out the statistics: couples claiming the name of Christ and the Bible as their authority divorce at rates equal to, if not greater than, couples who claim neither.

As part of a project I was working on at the time, for one church in one town I counted the number of couples who divorced. The town was small (18,000) and the church was largest in town (350-400 regular Sunday worshipers). In an eighteen-month period, five couples divorced. And these weren’t couples who were on the rolls but never seen on church grounds, but active, involved members. In the eighteen-month period following, two other similar couples from the same church divorced, and several others from evangelical churches in town, one of which involved a church staff member.

The deplorable thing was that apparently nothing was done by the church in these cases.

The pattern was this: rumors from close friends suggest that the couple is having difficulty; respective Sunday school classes seem to “take sides” for either the husband or wife; husband and wife both “drop out” of regular attendance; someone realizes the couple has divorced (and, possibly, moved away from town). Finally — and somewhat ironically — those who knew the couple express shock and surprise that they have divorced.

In Mark 10:1-12, Jesus is continuing a series of lessons to his disciples focusing on the extreme demands of discipleship in the kingdom. Somewhat incongruous is this teaching on divorce, until we realize that marriage is crucial to our understanding of God’s image in the world and his redemption of people.

The Pharisees — seeking confirmation of their “for any reason” justification of divorce — attempt to test Jesus with legal technicalities. But Jesus avoids getting into a debate of just how burnt the toast has to be, or just how tall the un-mowed grass, to warrant divorce. He points his questioners not to legal requirements of marriage, but to ethical expectations that accompany the creation responsibility of marriage.

By doing so, Jesus re-orients the believers’ thinking: marriage is not our convenience that religious regulation should make more comfortable, but it is God’s possession that we should steward to our own benefit and to God’s glory.

His conclusory pronouncement is drastic: “what God has joined together let not man separate.” In other words, do not divorce.

This is understandably problematic for the modern mind, having been inundated with the teaching from culture and from our own sin nature that life should be easy, and relationships that make it hard should be easy to quit. With the prevalence of “no-fault divorce” granted by the state, and the prevalence of the hands-off approach to discipleship in the church, it is no wonder that the hardness of our hearts has not been challenged.

Jesus does not teach here that real conflict won’t arise within divorce. So how does pointing to the creation mandate help those in such conflict (if it does, at all)? What is the church’s responsibility to its married couples? We discuss those issues in Part 2.

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