Why Does the Church of Christ Teach Definitive Parameters on Marriage and Divorce?

Earlier this year, we presented a series of articles about the beliefs and practices of the churches of Christ that were thematically arranged around “why” questions, such as “Why Does the Church of Christ Believe That Baptism is Essential to Salvation,” “Why Does the Church of Christ Lack Musical Instruments in Their Worship Services,” and “Why Do Churches of Christ Observe the Lord’s Supper Every Sunday.” Since the writing of those articles, it has become evident that a few more “why” questions need to be addressed, the first of which deals with the subject of marriage and divorce.

Christianity’s stance on marriage and divorce frequently finds itself in opposition to culture’s stance on marriage and divorce. This is because one’s stance on marriage and divorce is predicated on who or what one deems to be the authority on the subject. The congregations affiliated with the “Church of Christ” acknowledge that marriage is an institution established by God, not by man; therefore, He is the authority on this subject. And the churches of Christ acknowledge God as the authority on marriage and divorce because Jesus acknowledged God as the authority on marriage and divorce. In Mark 10:2-12 (and its sister passage Matthew 19:3-12), Jesus was asked by the Pharisees to weigh in on a doctrinal dispute regarding marriage and divorce. Jesus responded not by consulting cultural practices or government standards, but by referencing the expectations instituted by God when He established the first marriage. Notice what He said in Mark 10:6-9.

“…from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

In other words, when Jesus addressed the subject of marriage, He recognized only one authority on the subject, God, and by referencing God’s involvement in the creation of the first marital union, Jesus not only ascribed authorship and ownership of marriage to God, but also set a standard for defining marriage for all people at all times in all places. Thus, based on Jesus’ reference in Mark 10:6-9 to the original marriage recorded in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, we can conclude that God’s definition of marriage consists of two major parameters:

       1. God designed marriage to be a union between one man and one woman.

Notice that Jesus referenced God’s original creation of genders in Mark 10:6 when He quoted Genesis 1:27, saying, “God made them male and female,” and Jesus’ referenced God’s original marriage in Mark 10:7-8 when He quoted Genesis 2:24, saying, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” By combining these statements, Jesus indicated that God intentionally created genders for the marriage relationship. And by referencing the gender specificity of marriage as male and female, Jesus identified the circumstances under which two individuals could enter into marriage.

It’s worth noting that everything God did in creation was intentionally promoting marriage as a heterosexual relationship. Such is evident in the fact that His first command for both humans and animals was to procreate, which is a process that can only be fulfilled through a heterosexual relationship (Genesis 1:26, 28). Then, when God noticed that “it is not good for the man to be alone,” He created a “helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). That God-designed helper was a woman rather than another man, which indicates that God designed the female gender to fulfill the needs of the male gender.

Therefore, in God’s design of marriage He specifically emphasized heterosexuality to the exclusion of homosexuality and defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. So, regardless of how the culture or government defines marriage, the church must defend, promote, and adhere to God’s definition because He is the originator of this institution.

2. God designed marriage to be a permanent union.

In Mark 10:9, Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). In this statement, Jesus indicated that because God is the author of marriage mankind does not have the right to conclude it without His permission. Paul reiterated this expectation of permanency when he wrote 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. In fact, as Paul penned these words he made sure his readers knew that he was not the source of them but that God was. He said…

Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. 11But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.

One thing that is unique about marriage is that no other human to human relationship requires such permanency. Children leave the home. Siblings go their separate ways. But husbands and wives are called to a relationship that is intended to never dissolve.

But what about divorce? Even Jesus’ opponents pointed out that Mosaic Law “allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away” (Mark 10:4). It is important to notice that the text says “Moses allowed” rather than “Moses commanded.” This statement is referencing Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which does not explicitly command or even approve of divorce, but it does accept it as a real possibility. So, God never commanded for or technically expected divorce to take place under Mosaic Law. In fact, Scripture says that “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). The point is that God alloweddivorce to occur even though He never wanted it to occur.

So, why did He allow it? Jesus said that the reason God via Moses allowed divorce is because of mankind’s “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5). The Greek word from which we get the phrase “hardness of heart” refers to stubbornness, an unwillingness to change your stance or belief system, or, as one concordance states, “destitution of (spiritual) perception.”[1] So, what Jesus was saying is that a divorce provision was included in Mosaic Law because of mankind’s stubborn refusal to understand and keep God’s ideal.

And, just as Mosaic Law “permitted” divorce on one condition, so does Christ, on one condition. Matthew indicates that Jesus responded to the Apostles’ follow up question about divorce saying, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9; cf. Matthew 5:32). So, Jesus offered one exception to the expectation of permanency in marriage—“except for sexual immorality.” “Sexual immorality” is a translation of a Greek word that can be defined as “illicit sexual intercourse,”[2] and, throughout Scripture, it is clearly identified as any sexual activity that occurs outside of the marriage relationship. Therefore, Jesus is saying that any activity which infringes on the “one flesh” design of marriage infringes on God’s parameters and provides permissible grounds for divorce. Since Jesus provided no other “exceptions,” we can say that “sexual immorality” is the only reason that is identified by Jesus as an acceptable grounds of divorce.

So, the Bible indicates that marriage is God’s institution because He created it, defined it, and alone has the right to dissolve it. Therefore, as Christians we have to have a theology of marriage that coincides with God’s definitions, parameters, limitations, and intentions for this sacred relationship. As a result, the churches of Christ uphold the parameters for marriage and divorce as presented by Jesus even if they contradict the standards accepted by the world.

[1] The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible accessed at on November 1, 2017.

[2] Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 532.