Pastoral Responses to Marital Failure

David W. Kendall

In the gospel records the opponents of Jesus attempt to drag him into the controversy over grounds of divorce. They put the question to Jesus, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason? (Matthew 19:3). Clearly these Pharisees, conservative by bent, observing what they perceive to be Jesus’ rather low or liberal view of law based on His treatment of people and apparent violation of the traditions of the elders, put the question in terms of the liberal interpretive view: Are they correct to say that any offense can be grounds for failing to keep the marriage covenant? Jesus refuses to go there. He cites the Genesis-Creative design and supports the permanence of the marriage covenant. He does so over against the liberal view of the law. But Jesus does not stop with a critique of the liberal view. He implies that even the conservative view may be suspect. He does so when the Pharisees respond by citing the Mosaic provision for a certificate of divorce. Why did Moses make this provision, if not to be used? Jesus answers that Moses conceded to the hardness of human hearts. The provision was made to clean up the relational and social mess created by hard-hearted refusal to keep covenant in relation to wife and God. But it was never God’s intent that marriages should end. So, Jesus concludes that one who divorces his wife forces her to commit adultery, except in cases where the wife has already violated the covenant on moral grounds. Furthermore, a man who marries another woman than the wife of his youth is in fact an adulterer, even if he gave his former wife a certificate.

In other words, in His ministry-setting Jesus refused to be drawn into the controversy and side with one interpretive school over another. Hardness of heart leads people to break their covenants and dissolve their marriages. This is always wrong, whatever the particular reasons for it. Those who simply want out of the marriage over trivial matters as well as those who dismiss a wife/husband over more serious offenses both find themselves in violation of God’s plan. Given the context of His day and the background of the question, Jesus would suggest that there simply no grounds for rejecting one’s covenant promises to one’s spouse. That is, disdaining the covenant to pursue another person violates God’s plan. The disciples understood the absoluteness of Jesus’ statements and conjectured that it might be better never to marry at all (Matthew 19:10). But they missed the main point, as have most of their successors.


Note what Jesus does not say or imply. Namely, divorced persons become pariah and may never again marry. No, Mosaic legislation had provided against such an outcome, which would have frightening consequences for women especially. No, a certificate must be given declaring to the community that the divorced one is no longer bound to the marriage. She may remarry, if a partner can be found.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes a similar comment about divorce (Matthew 5:31). There it is in the context of lust and adultery in the heart, and Jesus’ elaboration of a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. There is some question whether this verse represents a discreet antithesis (you have heard it said … but I say to you) or continues that of the preceding verses which speak of adultery. In any event, this passage focuses more on the definition of adultery.

In Mark’s gospel, in a parallel passage, Jesus responds to a slightly different question, is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife (see Mark 10:1-12)? Jesus answers by inviting them to recall what Moses commanded. He may have hoped they would go to Genesis, but they cited the Deuteronomy passage where Moses permits a certificate of divorce. Jesus then responds as in the Matthew text by citing Genesis but in more absolute terms: anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man she commits adultery. This is striking: against the same background as in Matthew 19 but in response to the question put in a different way, Jesus refuses to offer any justifiable basis for dissolving the marriage bonds.

Again, it is important to note what Jesus does not say. He is not saying there can never be divorce. He is saying, every divorce reflects the tragic result of hardness of heart and stands in violation of God’s plan for human life.

In Luke 16:18, in a section of teaching materials, Jesus simply asserts, anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. This saying also is absolute in nature but is lacking specific context in the Lukan story. It seems right to assume the same religious and social context, and the same clashing interpretive understandings of these issues, as in the other texts. Thus, Jesus likely speaks of those who use divorce procedures in order to exchange a current spouse for another (take the two clauses as a two-fold act: divorcing and marrying or divorcing in order to marry). This is adultery.

In the letters of Paul, the teachings of Jesus are reflected. That is, marriage covenants are meant to be kept, even when a new convert finds herself married to an unbeliever. (On the one hand, believers should not marry unbelievers. Yet, a Christian who converted after marrying and now finds herself married to an unbeliever must still honor the covenant she made to her spouse, as long as possible even if he never converts.) In those same letters, the spirit of Jesus and His approach to ministry is also reflected. There are situations when the intent of God for marriage simply cannot be sustained. In such cases, other courses of action are prescribed.

What I am contending is this: The concern to identify “grounds” that legitimize the divorce and permit remarriage, or re-entry into the life of the church, or leadership — is itself alien to the way of Jesus as reflected in the gospel record.


Indeed, as important as specific texts are which show Jesus’ responses to the issues of marriage and divorce, it is as important to consider the entire ministry of Jesus, its focus, orientation and spirit. Among other considerations, Jesus acknowledges unpardonable sin, but divorce and the sins related to it are not unpardonable. We must note how the record portrays Jesus acting toward and speaking to people broken by relational misadventures. We must note His message to them and His call to them. We must never interpret and apply a word from Jesus in a way that leads us to treat people contrary to Jesus’ way and spirit, especially when we have reports of actual responses Jesus made.

Yet that is precisely what the church has done in responding to the complex realities of sexual misadventure, broken marital vows, divorce, and remarriage. Much of conservative evangelicalism in North America reads the New Testament as good Pharisees would — in order to identify rules or principles that are then imposed on dynamic and complex human situations. Divorce is a case in point.

The church looked for all the statements Jesus and His followers made and attempted to live by them. Such statements became the new rules the church would not violate. The orientation has been legal and impersonal, and not fundamentally relational, redemptive and kingdom based. The church’s primary approach flows from her best attempts to do what Jesus said on a few occasions about divorce, rather than living as Jesus lived and responding to the real life circumstances of people in the way Jesus did.

Whereas once the church may have played the legalist heroically or not, on this issue, inevitably the church landed in the condition of all persons and communities that are legal in orientation. A legal orientation breeds pride and rebellion. For those who conform to the law there can be pride. For those unable or unwilling to conform there can be rebellion. Rebellion often leads the community to accommodation, if the “right people,” or a critical mass of people, are out of compliance. Therefore, the community can rail against the ungodliness of the culture and liberal sister-churches, while failing to note its own actual condition of noncompliance. Thus, it is common in the United States church for congregations to be full of people who have divorced, before and after their conversion to Christ. Most churches are “against” divorce and “for” marriage. Once divorce occurs however the two most common fallback positions are either to assess the divorce and the persons who experience it according to “the rules,” questioning whether there are grounds and allowing or permitting a future on the basis of the answer. Or, lest the church appear to be legalistic or condemning or losing too many of its members or would-be members, the church slips into a kind of denial offering no substantive response other than perhaps comforting the hurting. Neither fallback position honors the spirit of Jesus and the intentions of Jesus for His people.

What we propose is a clear, consistent, and strong affirmation of God’s good idea — from the beginning, a man leaves … cleaves to wife … and become one flesh for life. Then we propose an acknowledgement that almost from the beginning this plan experienced failure because of human sin and hard heartedness. Moses recognized this and consented to processes that certified the failure and provided protection for marriage partners, especially women. A divorce properly processed was in itself freedom to remarry. Among the people of God some tried to work the system, to bend the rules, the law, to accomplish their own desires. Perhaps all have this tendency.

In contrast, Jesus’ saving work includes grace and power to redeem human sin in all of its manifestations. Jesus offered no less and much more than is explicitly affirmed in the first covenant. Marriages fail, for several typical reasons, but always involving some measure of the hard-heartedness Moses recognized. That heart condition often prevents people from seeking help for their broken lives and marriages. The grace and power of God can bring healing to any relational brokenness when hearts are open. Jesus welcomed the broken and battered, whether their injuries resulted from personal choice or the abuse of others. Jesus acted to heal and restore them. Jesus wanted them to have new lives. Within that redemptive intent all the blessings God planned from the beginning once again came within reach, including marriage. Divorce —certainly divorce processed under the provisions of the first covenant but also divorce tracing to strategies of sinful abuse, is not unpardonable and does not in itself disqualify one from God’s plan for human life, which includes the possibility of (re)marriage. Divorced persons are to receive pastoral care, healing grace, and whatever future God may grant them. The church must exercise godly discernment in guiding divorced persons from brokenness to wholeness.


Our responses to marital threat, failure and recovery include the following features:

  • Affirm the intention of God from the beginning.
  • Affirm that human sin and rebellion has frequently led to marital failure.
  • Affirm that all divorce is first a violation of God’s intention, involving some element of human hard-heartedness, and often leading to various attempts to cast blame and justify self (which itself is another manifestation of hardness of heart).
  • Affirm that marital failure — for whatever reason — leaves the family broken and wounded and calls for the church’s healing ministries in Jesus’ name.
  • Affirm that marital failure—for whatever reason—can be the occasion for divine power and transforming grace to redeem the relationship, which the church should seek and support as its first and sustained response to the failure.
  • The church welcoming divorced persons into the family of God and its own fellowship as any other sinners. Their relational brokenness in all its complexity, including the sinful choices and responses they made and the sinful wounding they have sustained from others, should be on the discipling agenda as they continue to follow Jesus.
  • The church treating its own members whose marriages fail by holding them accountable for any breeches of their membership covenant that has occurred, and by offering them the same ministries of care, healing, and discipleship as persons receive who were divorced prior to their conversion to Christ.
  • Persons who have experienced marital failure may remarry with the Lord’s blessing and the church’s providing: they have understood how the earlier failure(s) occurred, identified ways in which they contributed, repented of all sinful complicity in the failure, experienced healing for their wounds and transforming grace that empowers Christ-centered relationships in their lives, and intend to marry in the Lord and honor God’s intention for their marriage.

The church must be a community of accountability and healing for persons broken by marital failure and must resource them to become all God created and redeemed them to be.

[1] The members of Jesus’ community were not to be legalists. Instead, they called for new life from above under God’s rule. The Kingdom was at hand, present and accessible, and those who entered began to live a new life. This new life sharply contrasted with the other ways and strategies for living identified by people of God in the first century world.

As represented in the New Testament those other strategies were rooted in an understanding of Torah as interpreted by the various communities of teachers. Separated from the live connection to a covenant -keeping God, their applications became legal rather than relational in orientation. Life in first century Judaism was guided by the commands, as understood by the leading teachers. The popular dilutions of this basic orientation “on the street” led to more or less rigorous application of the law. In the case of divorce, a marriage might well be dissolved under certain circumstances. Moses provided for this possibility (Deuteronomy 24) but his provisions were open to varied interpretation. If a man finds something amiss in his wife — some mortal threat to the integrity of the bond of marriage — he may dismiss his wife, but not without a certificate of divorce. The certificate certified to the community that the two were no longer married, no longer one flesh, and were now free to marry another. It is critical to bear in mind this socio-legal intent — the certificate signaled to the community that the partners were no longer bound by the marriage and therefore at least potentially available to (re)marry.

The provision in Torah for dissolving a marriage was understood in narrow and broad ways. At the extremes, the narrow (Rabbi Shammai) held that only the worst offenses of sexual impropriety warranted the wife’s dismissal. Those of a more liberal mind (Rabbi Hillel) held that a man could end a marriage over most any failure or shortcoming he saw in his wife. This controversy provides the setting for the questions directed to Jesus about the so-called conditions for divorce. Can one get out of a marriage for most any disappointing thing a spouse might do, or only in response to a grievous sexual offense? However the question of grounds for divorce was answered, no one believed that a divorce properly executed precluded one from remarriage and full participation within the community.

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