“Divorce and Marriage” (Mark 10:1-12)

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Today’s passage in the Gospel of Mark deals with a tough and controversial subject: divorce. Christians hold different views about divorce. Regardless, from reading the Bible we can see that it elevates the status of women in times when they were often considered the property of men. Before reading from Mark, let’s pray.

[Read Mark 10:1-12]

The Pharisees’ debate on divorce

Back then, the Pharisees were caught in a debate about when divorce was permissible.

The Law of Moses had only one reference to divorce, in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. It’s quite long, so I’ll summarize it. Basically, it says: if a husband finds some “indecency” in his wife, he is allowed to write her a certificate of divorce, but he may not remarry her later. If he does, it is considered an “abomination” before God.

The Pharisees believed that indecency was a valid reason for divorce. But they didn’t agree among themselves what the word “indecency” means. One group thought that it means sexual immorality. Sexual immorality is a term in the Old Testament that includes acts like adultery, incest, bestiality, and homosexuality. Meanwhile, another group thought that “indecency” could include less serious offenses, such as quarreling with one’s husband.

When they asked Jesus for his opinion, their aim wasn’t to solve the debate but to trap him—either by making him to disagree with Moses’ law or with popular opinion.

“What did Moses command?”

First, Jesus responded in Mark 10:3: “What did Moses command you?” In fact, Moses gave no command about divorce. The verses in Deuteronomy 24 were not a command; they were simply a permission, allowing a husband to divorce his wife.

This was actually not for the husband’s benefit but the wife’s! A certificate of divorce was a man’s relinquishment of legal claims on his wife, freeing her from any obligations to him and allowing her to marry someone else. This provision afforded some legal protection to a woman whose husband repudiated her in a society where it was unthinkable for a woman to live on her own.

Next, in Mark 10:5, Jesus said: The reason Moses allowed you to divorce your wives is because of “the hardness of your hearts.” This hardness is a stubbornness against God and his ways.

In the beginning (and in the end)

Then, in verses 6-9, Jesus comments on marriage by quoting the book of Genesis. He adds his own conclusion. See verses 8 and 9: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

In other words the first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells us something important about marriage: Marriage is not just a human invention but a bond made by God himself. No human is authorized to dissolve that bond. Divorce was not part of God’s original plan.

Before we move on, let me add something. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, also tells us something important about marriage. Revelation 19 shows us that marriage was meant to be a reflection of the relationship between God and man, between Jesus and his Church. Just as an engaged couple looks forward to the happiness of their coming marriage, in the same way, believers can look forward the close relationship we will enjoy with our Creator and Savior in the New Jerusalem. Jesus’ death on the cross was part of God’s plan to restore this lost relationship.

Jesus elevates the status of women

Going back to Mark… In verse 11, Jesus elaborates: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” His statement is radical in two ways.

First, unlike the Jews of his time, Jesus said that it is sinful to remarry when your ex-spouse is still alive. Second, unlike the Jews, Jesus recognized adultery as an offense that can be committed by man against woman as well as woman against man. You see, Jewish law and custom viewed adultery as only an offense by a woman against a man. In other words, Jesus viewed women as equally deserving of faithfulness.

Lastly, in verse 12, Jesus says: “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Scholars believe that, here, Jesus may have been thinking about Gentile women who converted to Judaism. Roman women, for example, had a legal right to divorce their husbands. But if they converted to become Jewish believers, Jesus implies, they needed to treat marriage as an unbreakable bond.

What we can learn from this passage in Mark is that marriage is not to be entered lightly. Divorce is generally not an option for followers of Jesus.

Can Christians divorce?

Now, if we only read from the Gospel of Mark, it may seem that Jesus allows no situations for divorce. This is the policy of many churches. For example, in the Roman Catholic Church, a divorced Catholic cannot remarry. If he remarries, he will be barred from taking Holy Communion.

However, I believe that there are situations that allow for a Christian to divorce. Let me explain this with two points.

My first point is: we need to read widely in the Bible before drawing a conclusion on any issue. Though the Old Testament only has one reference to divorce, the New Testament has more references. Let’s look at two examples.

The Gospel of Matthew contains the same story as Mark but more details. In Matthew 19:9 Jesus says, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Unlike what Mark recorded, Matthew has that extra detail which shows Jesus permitted divorce in the case of sexual immorality.

Next, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 7:15. Paul writes, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” In other words, Paul says that divorce is allowed if a non-Christian spouse abandons a Christian spouse.

Looking at these examples, I believe the Bible is clear that Christians can divorce if their spouse is sexually immoral or if their non-Christian spouse leaves them.

But what about cases of domestic violence and abuse? This is such an important question.

What about domestic violence?

This brings me to my second point: When the Bible doesn’t address a certain topic, we need to draw principles from different parts of Scripture and use our critical thinking.

Now, the Bible doesn’t directly address cases of marital abuse. But it has plenty to say about marriage and relationships in general that could be useful in thinking about a situation of abuse.

For example, in Matthew 18, Jesus talks about how to respond to a fellow Christian who sins against us. Although this passage isn’t talking about marriage specifically, the principles may be appropriate. When there is domestic violence in a Christian marriage, the spouse that is abused should not just patiently endure it but ask the church for help. If the abuser does not change, Matthew 18:17 suggests that the abusive Christian spouse should be treated as a non-Christian. What does it mean to treat them as a non-Christian? We can’t delve into that question now, but an example might be this: if the abuser was holding a position of leadership in the church, then they should be removed from that position. Regardless, if no action is taken, then it simply allows the sin of abuse to continue.

Now let’s look at a verse which actually talks about marriage. Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Reading this, I see no room for abuse in a Christian marriage. In the West, one of the popular marriage vows says, “to love and to cherish, until parted by death.” Domestic violence breaks that vow.

So far, we’ve mostly looked at New Testament verses. The Old Testament, meanwhile, contains many laws concerning relationships—relationships with family, neighbors, servants, and strangers. It may not mention the word “abuse” but it often condemns oppression and violence.

To conclude, does domestic abuse allow a Christian to divorce? The Bible does not answer this question directly. However, from reading other verses, I think we can conclude that domestic violence is clearly sin. In my personal opinion, even if abuse is not grounds for divorce, it is grounds for temporary separation.

Let me end by saying: Churches must not simply debate what is right and wrong, but must also provide emotional care and social support for people in difficult marriages.

Staying in a difficult marriage is not easy. On the other hand, the process and effects of divorce can also be traumatic. If you think someone should remain in their marriage, what can you do to make life easier for them? If you think someone should leave their marriage, what can you do to make life easier for them? Either way as a community we should do what is helpful for the person in distress. And we should always pray for God’s help in a difficult situation.


To summarize the main points of today’s message:

1) The Bible says that Christians in a marriage have a bond that should not be broken by divorce.

2) But there are cases in which they may divorce and remarry—such as when there has been sexual immorality, or when a Christian spouses is abandoned by a non-Christian spouse. In those cases, can a Christian remarry? This is a separate topic from divorce so I didn’t address it today.

3) The Bible doesn’t directly address every possible situation, such as marital abuse. When we don’t have clear answers from the Bible, we need to use the wisdom that God gives through the Holy Spirit and study the Bible to understand what God wants for human relationships.

4) In the end, no matter what we believe, we need to show compassion and care for people who are going through marriage difficulties.

One final thought: When people say that the Bible is an archaic book that should not be used by modern people, I would wholeheartedly encourage them to examine what it really says. In a world where women are still often oppressed by men, the Bible is a voice that this was not God’s design for human relationships.

For example, it’s worth rereading what Ephesians 5 says about marriage. Ephesians 5:33 says, “Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Many modern people would say, “Isn’t that obvious?” No, it is not a universally accepted truth. Neither is it universally practiced.

Ephesians verse 21-22 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” Verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Marriage was meant to be mutually loving, mutually respectful, mutually sacrificial. Not everyone is able to experience this ideal. But if we are in a marriage, let us ask the Lord help us to do what is right, good, and wise in our particular situation.

Let’s pray.

O God, you have so consecrated the covenant of marriage that in it is represented the spiritual unity between Christ and his Church: Send therefore your blessing upon all members of our church that we may so love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that we may be a haven of blessing and peace to others; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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