Divorce: A Difficult Topic for the Church

- Pastor Jim Kniseley


The gospel text for Sunday, October 8, 2006, is Mark 10:2-16.


Dear Friends in Christ,


Today’s sermon presents a difficult subject for the church.  It’s about divorce.  You haven’t heard me preach much about this subject because it hits too close to home.  It has taken many years for me to be able to stand here and publicly remember a part of my life that has sometimes made me feel “second class” in the church. 


Every three years this appointed gospel text comes around for us to read in worship.  Each time it is my turn to preach I preach on one of the other lessons.  The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  Today I’m not sidestepping this topic.


The often-seen repartee continues between the Pharisees and Jesus.  This image from sword fighting seems appropriate since the Pharisees often strike at Jesus with something to try to catch him off guard and Jesus has to defend his position and deliver a thrust that gives a divine message.


The concluding words that Jesus presents about divorce is what has been heard in the church community these past 2,000 years: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate….(and) Anyone who divorce his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.  And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.


That message seems pretty clear.  Is there anything more we need to understand?


Well, yes.  The gospel writer, Mark, believed sincerely that he was writing in the end times, just before Jesus would return to this world.  Mark emphasizes that our relationships are temporary.  There is not enough time left for getting married or divorced.  Our thinking and acting needs to be getting us ready for living in the new kingdom of God.  So, for now, just keep all relationships as they are.  Remember Paul’s same thinking when he wrote to the Corinthians: What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short.  From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none…for the world in its present form is passing away (I Corinthians 7:29 and 31).


Folks, we are in a different situation today.  Some of the biblical writers misunderstood God’s timeline.  The world is continuing and there is time for building good relationships.


Today, let me play “what if” with you.  What if it’s 2,000 years after that encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees, and Jesus is being asked the same question about divorce by some other folks.  This time the folks aren’t hardened rivals trying to trip him up, but instead one is a woman beaten within an inch of her life by her lawfully wedded husband?  Or a long-married senior citizen that is now widowed and faces the loss of health and retirement benefits if they legally remarry?


How do you think Jesus would respond?  How do you respond?


It strikes me that the Pharisees were dwelling on man-made laws to justify their thinking. According to them, if a man and woman want to be together, you do what the law requires, whether it be the civil law or the religious law.  In Jesus’ day it was lawful for a man to have a number of wives.  In Jesus’ day a man could divorce a woman for a variety of reasons but a woman did not have the same rights. 


What Jesus did was pluck the whole notion of relationships out of the realm of law and place it in the hands of God who thought up the whole notion of relationships.  Jesus’ thinking goes back to the creation story in Genesis when there was only one human being.  And God said it wasn’t good that man should be alone.  So, God created another human being for companionship.  We often use that story in wedding ceremonies, but I am struck by the omission of the word “marriage” from the creation story.  Marriage comes later in scripture when laws are created and rituals are instituted and communal relationships are safeguarded.


There is a wonderful metaphor in the movie “Castaway” with Tom Hanks.  You’ll remember that his plane goes down and he is the only survivor and finds himself on an island.  What he does for companionship I think represents a basic human need.  He invents “Wilson.”  He takes a volleyball that obviously was manufactured by Wilson, draws a face on it and talks to it all the time to keep from going mad.  God did the same for Adam and wants to do the same for us today.


I suspect that many of us here today have been touched by the pain of divorce.  Would you permit me to do a short survey?  I want to ask some questions and have you raise your hands.  But I also want to respect your privacy.  So, everyone, close your eyes!  (1)  Who has been divorced?  (2)  Who has parents who were divorced?  (3)  Who has a son or daughter who was divorced?


Some here today come from denominations that are harsh on the subject of divorce and the members are judgmental.  I too was that way until I was divorced and then I understood from a perspective that judgmental folks could never understand.


Let’s be clear today what the holy scriptures teach us about divorce.  The scriptures say this: divorce is legal (the laws of Moses made provision for it), divorce is sinful (it means broken hopes and promises and pain) and divorce is forgivable (and even church folk need to be reminded of that).


The Church through the years has taken a firm stance against divorce for good reasons.  We never want folks to treat marriage and family lightly.  Good marriages provide stability and love and nurture.  They are good for children.  They can be a foretaste of God’s heavenly kingdom when all things will be in harmony with our Lord.  Bad marriages, on the other hand, do not provide stability and love and nurture.  They are not good for children.  They are not a foretaste of God’s heavenly kingdom.


This is what the Church of Jesus Christ in our day needs to be about.  We need to there in the good times and in the bad.  We need to encourage and uplift relationships that are good.  We need to celebrate healthy family life.  We need to be supportive if relationships turn sour.  We need to be non-judgmental when persons fail in their marriage relationship.  We need to rejoice with folks who again wish to commit themselves in a marriage relationship and seek God’s blessing.


Some of you probably know the official proclamations of other church bodies when it comes to the subject of divorce.  Let me conclude this sermon by sharing with you the position of our denomination in this statement from the ELCA Church Council in 1996:


Regrettably, some marriages end in divorce.  Divorce is tragic, a consequence of human sinfulness.  It is a serious breach in the community God intends for marriage (Mark 10:9).  In some situations, however, divorce may be the better option.  Continuing some marriages may be destructive and abusive to those involved.  In such cases, those involved should examine their responsibilities for the breakdown of the marriage.  Confession and forgiveness bring healing and new life to persons who divorce.


The church is called to proclaim God’s intentions for the permanence of marriage and to minister compassionately to those who suffer as a result of divorce.  The church should be a community of care and hope for those who divorce, rather than blaming, ostracizing, or being indifferent to their needs.  The Gospel promises healing through the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church’s ministry of Word and Sacraments.





Remarriage can be an opportunity to use wisdom gained from the past to create a new relationship of loving commitment and joy.  Those considering remarriage should seek counsel from pastors and other professionals that enable them to assess their previous marriage and prepare for the unique challenges facing a new marriage and family.


Thanks be to God for grace!