One of the ‘rules’ for interpreting any piece of writing is discerning the intended audience. This applies to the Bible and if this rule is neglected, misinterpretation can cause harm and grief.
Years ago, when I was a new Christian and newly divorced, the Bible teaching on divorce confused and upset me. I argued with it but couldn’t get away from it. A passage that catches my attention again today is Matthew 19:8. “He (Jesus) said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.’”
In those days, divorce was initiated only by the men. They could divorce their wives for something as simple as burning the bagels. Women did not have the same rights, yet divorce was a horrible fate for them. They were not to remarry, but would have little support or way of earning a living.
This verse speaks to the men. It makes me think of the different basic needs of men and women and how that might affect the reasons either would want a divorce. My observation is that men want admiration and respect. The Bible affirms this in its instruction to wives. If the husband doesn’t get that admiration they need, they might look for another woman who will give it to them. Of course this is a general statement, not intended to cover every situation, yet it seems to be a bottom line.
On the other hand, women want security. For us, a secure relationship where we are loved and cared for, makes us happy. If anything threatens that, we are fearful and maybe feisty. If our spouse does not give it to us, we might look elsewhere.
Thinking about what Jesus said, it seems more likely that men in an unhappy marriage would be guilty of having hard hearts, whereas a woman's heart would be fearful and unsure. Since women could not (and likely would not) initiate a divorce, it fell on the men to love their wives (“even as Christ loves the church”) and keep their hearts soft toward them, burned bagels or not. Women were to respect their husbands and fit into their plans.
If Jesus confronted married men today, He might say the same thing. He might tell men to soften up, be tender toward their wives, make them feel loved and secure. Don’t do anything that threatens their sense of safety and so on. Don’t lie to them, don’t betray them.
Today, women can initiate divorce as well as men, so what would Jesus say to us? From my understanding of my own needs and fears, He might tell me to not be afraid, that He will take care of all my needs. He would remind me that my security comes from Him, and that He loves me with an everlasting love. He might also say that He would deal with any sinful or harmful behavior in the life of my spouse, that I can trust Him to take care of any fear I might have in that area.
While Jesus’ words in Matthew speak to the men of His day, there are other sections of the New Testament that speak to Christians in general about divorce. Paul (and Jesus also) makes clear that marriage is important, but give ‘exceptions’ for the innocent party in the strict rule against divorce. God knows that there are situations where one person is doing all they can to make the marriage work while the other one rebels against God and breaks all the rules in any book. For those in a marriage like that, the Lord has compassion and sympathy. He says, “If the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.”
My heart is settled on this issue, and has been for years, but sometimes this comes up and each time it does, God reminds me that I need to be careful in how I interpret what He says. I’m not to twist it to fit my situation in a way that gives me an excuse for what I do or don’t do, but at the same time, I’m not to feel condemnation by assuming He is saying something to me when He is not.