How Should Christians Respond to Divorce (even if it is a relative or friend)?

How Should Christians Respond to Divorce (even if it is a relative or friend)? (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:1-12; 1 Cor. 7; etc)

Prepared and preach by Pastor Steve Rhodes for and at Bethel Friends Church in Poland, OH on Sunday, September 11, 2022 or Sunday September 18, 2022

Prior to serving as a pastor, I never thought that I would ever recommend divorce. The Bible says that God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). However, I have too often sat with couple and thought, wow! This should be so easy to work out, but it is not. That goes along with what Jesus say in Matthew 19:8, Moses gave the divorce laws because of hardness of heart.  

About divorce Dallas Willard shares:

This position [his admittance that sometimes divorce is the best option in a bad situation] certainly represents a change on my part. I recall with embarrassment sitting around a seminar table at the University of Wisconsin in the early sixties. The professor had not yet arrived for our seminar in formal logic, and one of the class members was talking about his divorce proceedings. Without being asked for my opinion, I ventured to say, “Divorce is always wrong.”

Looking back on it, the strangest thing of all was that no one objected to what I said or even to my saying it. Everyone seemed accepting of it. Of course that was because my words represented a cultural assumption of those days. But in fact I was vastly ignorant of the things men and women do to one another.

Later I came across the situation of a devout woman whose husband had married her as a cover for his homosexuality. He consummated the marriage so it couldn’t be annulled, and after that he had nothing to do with her. They had no personal relationship at all. He would bring his male friends home and, in her presence, have sex in the living room or wherever else they pleased any time they pleased. Her religious guides continued to tell her that she must stay in “the marriage,” while she died a further death every day, year after year.

I was simply an ignorant young man full of self-righteous ideas. This and later episodes of discovery educated me in the hardness of the human heart. But Jesus, of course, always knew.[1]

Today, we deal with the very difficult topic of divorce.

How should a Christian respond to divorce.

My theme today is that a Christian should always respond in love.

  1. First, when is divorce permitted?
    1. I do not want this to be a comprehensive study on divorce. I can approach this topic in two ways. One is a message on divorce, when is it permitted, when can one re-marry. Secondly, how can Christians respond to divorce? I am going to try to do the latter.
    2. How should you respond if your adult children are divorced? You should respond in love and forgiveness.
    3. First, I need to talk about divorce in the Bible.
    4. The Bible mentions and comments about divorce in the following passages:
    5. Deuteronomy 24:1-4;
    6. Malachi 2:16;
    7. Matthew 5:31-32;
    8. Luke 16:18; and
    9. 1 Cor. 7:10-16.
    10. Let’s read and talk about Matthew 19:1-9.
    11. Matthew 19:1-9: Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
    12. Mark 10:1-12: this passage is almost identical except that in verses 11-12 Jesus mentions that if a woman divorces her husband. Mark is written to a gentile audience and that may be why.  
    13. However, the exception clause, which is added by Matthew is very important. There are other times in which Matthew adds and expands on what Jesus teaches in the other gospels.
    14. The ESV Study Bible shares:
    15. This implies that divorce and remarriage on the grounds of sexual immorality are not prohibited and thus do not constitute adultery. This is the one exception Jesus makes to the requirement that marriage be lifelong, for sexual immorality grievously defiles and indeed corrupts the “one flesh” union (v. 5). [2]
    16. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 Paul adds abandonment as a reason for divorce.
    17. So, it seems that divorce is permitted because of hardness of heart (verse 8). Divorce and remarriage is permitted if adultery was present.
    18. Hardness of heart leads to the adultery and hardness of heart leads to neglect, or abandonment.
    19. The Old Testament divorce laws come from Deut 24.
    20. Note: Jesus nowhere encourage divorce. It is almost like triage. In bad situations we must do triage and divorce is the best in an already complicated and harmful situation.
    21. We can expand on this.
    22. I have several quotations and I do not know that I will read all of them, but they are helpful.
    23. Dallas Willard shares: Certainly there was long-standing disagreement among the interpreters of the law as to whether the man was free to divorce his wife “for every reason whatsoever” (Matt. 19:3), or only for adultery. The Pharisees dragged Jesus into this controversy, and he clearly took the highly restrictive position of the school of Shammai, which allowed divorce only on “moral” grounds. The school of Hillel, by contrast, permitted it “for every reason.” For example, if the wife burned the food or merely oversalted it. Rabbi Akibah even allowed divorce if the husband merely saw a woman whose appearance pleased him better and he wanted her as wife instead of a wife he had.[3]
    24. In practice, however, a woman knew very well that she could be divorced for any reason her husband chose. The law as practiced was entirely favorable to the husband’s slightest whim, even though the Mosaic codes, chiefly found in Deuteronomy 22–24, are obviously much more restrictive and require some sort of sexual impropriety in the woman. They also specify conditions under which a man entirely loses the right to divorce a woman.[4]
  2. Divorce in the Old Testament protected the woman. Otherwise, the husband would make life unbearable for the woman and children. Bobby Murphy shares: Jesus expresses His concern for women in the language of His teachings. Look at Matthew 5:32, for example. He’s speaking to men and instructs them not to divorce their wives because they’ve burned dinner, gained weight, or so on as the school of Hillel allows. If men do, they make them commit adultery, which probably refers to them becoming prostitutes. In addition, those who subsequently marry them also commit adultery. That likely refers to the new husbands viewing them as damaged goods, still the wives of their first husbands. Those interpretations are consistent with the premise that Jesus is rejecting the school of Hillel and its liberal approach to divorce.      
    1. Again, Willard: It is not an accident that Jesus deals with divorce [in Matthew 5: 31-32] after having dealt with anger, contempt, and obsessive desire. Just ask yourself how many divorces would occur, and in how many cases the question of divorce would never even have arisen, if anger, contempt, and obsessive fantasized desire were eliminated. The answer is, of course, hardly any at all.[5]
    2. Is, then, divorce ever justifiable for Jesus? I think it clearly is. His principle of the hardness of hearts allows it, though its application would require great care. Perhaps divorce must be viewed somewhat as the practice of triage in medical care. Decisions must be made as to who cannot, under the circumstances, be helped. They are then left to die so that those who can be helped should live.[6]
    3. Divorce, if it were rightly done, would be done as an act of love. It would be dictated by love and done for the honest good of the people involved. Such divorce, though rare, remains nonetheless possible and may be necessary. If it were truly done on this basis, it would be rightly done, in spite of the heartbreak and loss it is sure to involve.[7]
  3. Further: Richard Foster captures the essence of Jesus’ teachings on divorce better than anyone I’ve read.  He writes: “Jesus was not trying to set down a legalistic set of rules to determine when divorce was allowable.  He was striking at the spirit in which people live with each other.” 
  4. How is a Christian to respond?
    1. Suppose that you have a relative going through a divorce, how do you respond? I believe that we should respond with compassion, with love, and with forgiveness.
    2. This is the case regardless of whether we believe that the divorce was permitted or not.
    3. Certainly, if they are Christians and respect the Scriptures, and if you have opportunity prior to the divorce, you can share the above material and recommend they get marital counseling.
    4. Suppose that the divorce is over and has happened, then it is time to offer support.
    5. We must support them, and we must love them.
    6. Loving them does not mean condoning the divorce, but the divorce is over now.
    7. Encourage others to calm down from vindictive or self-centered hostile ways of relating.[8]
    8. Make sure that you forgive your relatives, or friends.
    9. If there are children involved, do not talk negatively about either spouse in front of the children.
    10. Divorce affects more than the immediate family, and so I encourage you to be willing to get help. I am glad to talk with you and support you. Celebrate Recovery can help. A Christian counselor or friend can help as well.
    11. Avoiding Harmful Thinking: They include the following, which are not limited to divorcing couples but can apply to other problem situations as well:
      1. Making sweeping generalizations about oneself or others. These generalizations may have little or no basis in fact, but they can pull people down. Examples might include: “I am completely incompetent as a parent,” or “My former spouse wants to get even with everybody.”
      2. Developing and anticipating unrealistic expectations.
      3. Living out self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, a person may conclude that “from now on my life will be miserable.” This attitude, in turn, can make life miserable.
      4. Always being defensive and expecting the worst. This can lead to behavior that alienates people and brings the worst.
      5. Wallowing in one’s problems, talking about them incessantly, and always focusing on the negative.
      6. Blaming others persistently, especially one’s mate.
      7. Rushing to new jobs, new locations, or new churches in an attempt to start fresh but without careful prior thought to the wisdom of the new moves.
      8. Living through others, such as finding satisfaction only in one’s children or in the achievements of others.
      9. Assuming that life only can be meaningful again when there is another marriage.[10]
      10. I can go on and on about how important it is to get help after you or a relative go through divorce. I know that this affects extended family as well. For example, what do you do at Thanksgiving and holidays? I believe it is important to do the most loving thing possible. This is especially important if children are involved.
      11. Always remember grace. God gives us grace and we must give grace to others.
      12. Remember, you may not want to be around someone, but that person is the mother or father of your grandchildren. Try to view it from the children’s perspective.
  5. The following is especially helpful for the immediate victim of divorce, but it applies to relatives and friends as well. It comes from a counseling book by Dr. Gary Collins:

C.S. Lewis writes:

…Christianity teaches that marriage is for life. There is, of course, a difference here between different Churches: some do not admit divorce at all; some allow it reluctantly in very special cases. It is a great pity that Christians should disagree about such a question; but for an ordinary layman the thing to notice is that the Churches all agree with one another about marriage a great deal more than any of them agrees with the outside world. I mean, they all regard divorce as something like cutting up a living body, as a kind of surgical operation. Some of them think the operation so violent that it cannot be done at all; others admit it as a desperate remedy in extreme cases. They are all agreed that it is more like having both your legs cut off than it is like dissolving a business partnership or even deserting a regiment.[11]

Yet, it does happen and that is when we must exercise love, forgiveness, and support.

Below from Dr. Stratton, Asbury Theological Seminary

  • Remember the hurt: you don’t have to forget

“When we are hurt, we often try to protect ourselves by denying it.  But if unforgiveness keeps intruding into your thoughts and feelings, consider forgiving. Recall the hurt as objectively as possible. Don’t rail against the person who hurt you, waste time wishing for an apology that will never be offered, or dwell on your victimization. Instead, admit that a wrong was done to you and set your sights on its repair.” (from class notes powerpoint: PC510 Asbury)

  • Empathize

Empathy involves seeing things from another person’s point of view and identifying with the pressures that made the person hurt you.

How would he or she explain the harmful acts? Forgiveness is facilitated when we can look at the transgression from multiple perspectives.  The harmful act is seen more objectively when we can step outside of the victim role.  We have a chance to view what happened from a bigger perspective – one that includes the human and the divine.  (from class notes powerpoint: PC510 Asbury)

  • Altruistic gift: selfless gift

Empathy can prepare you for forgiving, but to give that gift of forgiveness, consider yourself. Have you ever harmed or offended a friend, a parent, or a partner who later forgave you? Think about your guilt. Then consider the way you felt when you were forgiven. Most people say, “I felt free. The chains were broken.” By recalling your own guilt and the gratitude over being forgiven, you can develop the desire to give that gift of freedom to the person who hurt you. (from class notes powerpoint: PC510 Asbury)

  • Commitment: you will have to stay committed

When you forgive, you can eventually doubt that you have forgiven. When people remember a previous injury or offense, they often interpret it as evidence that they must not have forgiven. If you make your forgiveness tangible, you are less likely to doubt it later. Tell a friend, partner, or counselor that you have forgiven the person who hurt you. Write a “certificate of forgiveness,” stating that you have, as of today, forgiven. (from class notes powerpoint: PC510 Asbury)

  • Hold on

When you doubt that you’ve forgiven, remind yourself of the Pyramid, refer to your certificate of forgiveness, and tell yourself that a painful memory does not disqualify the hard work of forgiving that you have done. Instead of trying to stop unforgiving thoughts, think realistically about the forgiveness you have experienced. If you continue to doubt your forgiveness, work back through these steps to REACH forgiveness. (from class notes powerpoint: PC510 Asbury)


[1] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (p. 173). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 1860–1861.

[3] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (pp. 168-169). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (p. 172). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. (172-173)

[8] Gary R. Collins, Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), 619.

[9] Gary R. Collins, Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), 621.

44 Mel Krantzler, Creative Divorce: A New Opportunity for Personal Growth (New York: M. Evans, 1974), 103–116.

[10] Gary R. Collins, Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), 621–622.

[11] Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 105). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s