Jesus Got It Wrong, Really Wrong

Jesus gets major demerits for hardening the Old Testament teaching about divorce, thereby bringing incalculable anguish during the ensuing centuries. Many billions of people have gone into marriages for a wide variety of reasons, e.g., convenience, lust, desperation, family obligations and alliances, pregnancy—sometimes even love. It dawns on a lot of people, months or years into a marriage: “Well, this was a mistake.”

Jesus is guilty of a grievous logical fallacy in his pronouncement on divorce. Why do men and women get married? Jesus sees the “natural order” as God’s idea, and said this to the Pharisees:

“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." (Matt. 19:4-6)

If you operate within a theological context, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that God arranged for men and women to hook up, but it doesn’t follow at all that God has actually arranged all marriages, picking each woman for each man, ever since humans began cohabitating.

It is shortsighted, destructive and dangerous to argue that God’s law and intent are violated when couples don’t get along after all. Yet Jesus does just that in Mark 10. He condemns divorce, culminating in the famous verse 9: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Did Jesus really think that it is God who makes all the matches, so many of which are disastrous?

To Mark 10, we can add Matthew 5:31-32: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

In Mark and Luke we do not find the words “except on the ground of unchastity.” Somehow, in a small mercy, Matthew saw fit to add that modification.

Let it be noted, by the way, Christians have shown far more common sense than Jesus on this matter: They do get divorced, as much as their non-Christian neighbors. They’ve figured out that the layer of theology imposed on marriage (“what God has joined together”), is irrelevant and impossible to sustain in reality. They know that Jesus was wrong. This is one of his failures as a moral teacher.

The Catholic Church has maintained a level of rigidity on divorce that defies all logic and compassion—based on Jesus’ bad counsel on the matter. Yet the church has, for money, figured out ways to help couples escape matrimonial bonds. Don’t we all have our favorite stories of shrewd Catholic maneuvering? Mine is about the man who, for enough cash, after more than 20 years of marriage and three children, was able to buy an annulment. The church, it would seem, is not opposed to laying up treasure on earth.

David Madison has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University, and was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for nine years. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in August.