Marriage & Divorce in Mark

by Andrew Forrest

What Jesus says in Mark 10 about marriage is a hard teaching, and harder to live by. In this post, I am not going to offer a comprehensive theology of marriage and divorce, and there are lots of questions I’m not going to try to answer; what I will try to do is explain what I think Jesus is saying in this particular passage. Don’t shoot the messenger!

10 Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Mark 10:1-2

Jesus has now begun his journey to Jerusalem. He’s left the Galilee in the north, and has come south. Unsurprisingly, he has drawn a crowd. And, equally unsurprisingly, the Pharisees–who hate Jesus–have come to try to trip him up. Some things haven’t changed; even today, talking about marriage can get you crucified!

The question about divorce is not an earnest, truth-seeking question, because the Pharisees who ask it are trying to set a trap for Jesus. Why is this question so controversial? In the time of Jesus, there were two rabbinical perspectives on divorce: one perspective (from Rabbi Hillel) said that men could divorce their wives for any reason, and the other perspective (from Rabbi Shammai) said that divorce should be reserved for cases of adultery. In both cases, it was understood that only a husband could seek a divorce, and not a wife. Unsurprisingly, the Hillel perspective was the popular one in the time of Jesus.

As he always does, Jesus throws the question back to his interrogators:

“What did Moses command you?” he replied.
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

Mark 10:3-4

The Old Testament does contain provisions for divorce, as the Pharisees rightly point out. In response, Jesus explains why there had to be divorce, and then goes on to talk about God’s design and purpose for marriage:

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Mark 10:5-9

As he always does, Jesus uses scripture to frame his answer. In fact, he goes back to the very beginning of the Bible itself: Genesis 1-2. (Specifically Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24.)

Note that Jesus doesn’t actually answer their question about divorce directly, but implies that divorce is necessary because people are sinful, and then goes on to talk about the purpose of marriage, as designed by God. I think there are 4 interesting implications to his answer:

  1. Our identities as male or female are not an accident, but part of God’s purpose for our lives.
  2. Marriage makes new families. The husband comes from one family, the wife comes from another, but when they get married, a brand-new family is created through them.
  3. The marriage union is meant to be total: in the biblical language, “one flesh.” Marriage is a complete union: emotional, of course, but also, in some mysterious way, bodily as well. The physical result of that bodily union, obviously, is a child. A child is the “one flesh” that results when a husband and a wife come together through sexual intercourse. A child is one, though it comes from two: a mother and a father. Even at the molecular level, this is true: the child has one DNA sequence, but that sequence has been made from the DNA of two parents. There are billions of us on this planet, and every single one of us–without exception, and whether we know them personally or not–has a biological mother and a biological father. The fact that each of us is the fruit of our parents’ union is really astounding, but because it is commonplace, we overlook it.
  4. The marriage union is meant to be lifelong.

Later, when they are alone with him, the disciples ask for more clarity, and Jesus provides it:

10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Mark 10:10-12

It is important to point out that since it is only men who were able to divorce their wives in the time of Jesus (and not vice versa), then the practical effect of Jesus’s comments is that they protect women, who, without clear divorce laws, could be cast aside for any and every reason. Jesus’s words sound harsh, but they are actually helpful to women whose husbands wanted to divorce them for any and every reason.

The entire passage is extremely counter-cultural for twenty-first century Americans, as it flies in the face of our divorce culture. Since Governor Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law into effect in California in 1969, we have come to accept (not only in law, but in our understanding) that marriage is something that either party can end for any reason whatsoever, and once divorce papers are filed, then the marriage is over. Jesus says that, in effect, marriage is more durable than that, and that regardless of what the papers say, marriage can’t be ended as easily as that. This is a radical teaching.

I am not trying to give a comprehensive Christian understanding of divorce in this post, but I also know that if you’ve read this far, you likely have many questions about grounds for divorce. Remember that this is just one scriptural passage in which Jesus is replying to a specific question put to him about a particular Jewish controversy. So, drawing from the rest of the Bible, here is one answer to the following question.

What behaviors break the marriage covenant and are grounds for divorce?

  • Adultery (Matthew 19:9);
  • Abuse (Exodus 21:10-11);
  • Abandonment (1 Corinthians 7:15).

As for other conclusions, I will let you think on these issues yourself. This is just one passage in all of Mark’s Gospel, which is but one book in the entire Bible–on marriage and divorce, we need to take the whole counsel of scripture. But, what do you think–is Jesus right? Is marriage meant to be lifelong, or can it be ended when either spouse wants to end it?

Scripture Passage:

Mark 10:1-12

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Sheri Vaden June 4, 2019 - 6:30 am

I ABSOLUTELY agree: marriage is life long. However, I also recognize that in many cases, God is not the one who brings people together, as was the case in my first marriage which produced children as proof we married ourselves to the other thereby creating the literal lifelong (for the length of time our children are alive) we will still be “married” to one another, seeing each other at Birthday parties (now for the next generation), graduations, weddings, etc.

As far as adultery in marrying another, I believe He was saying to divorce your wife because you want to have sex with someone else still makes it adultery even though done following the letter of the law (divorcing her first) rather than the intent.

Andrew Forrest June 4, 2019 - 8:35 am

Yes, I think you are right: as Jesus always does, he shows that merely following the letter of the law is less than God wants for us.

Stephen Gist June 4, 2019 - 12:22 pm

Well you waded right into that one, didn’t you, Andrew? Good for you. Going where angels fear to tread.
Yes, it’s a hard saying, but what about the Bible is not hard?
I’ll be holding your hands up, Moses.

Stephen Gist June 4, 2019 - 3:22 pm

Two points of order, please,
1) One flesh does not refer to the production of children, but rather the act of sex itself. See I Cor 6:16, et. al.
2) Separation is not the same as allowing remarriage. Not under bondage does not mean being free to remarry.


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