“What is the meaning of Luke 16:18 and 3 Nephi 12:32?” Ensign, Jan. 1993, 59–60
Jonathan M. Chamberlain, family therapist, BYU Counseling and Development Center, and first counselor, Lakeview Eighth Ward bishopric, Orem Utah Lakeview Stake. We can understand better why the Lord said what he did about divorce by examining the context in which he spoke. For example, to whom was he responding? What is known of the laws to which he referred? What circumstances prompted questions about divorce?
Pharisees seeking to entrap Jesus asked him a controversial question: “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” (Matt. 19:3.) Jesus’ response that what “God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” did not satisfy the Pharisees, so they pressed further, asking why Moses sanctioned divorce. (Matt. 19:6–7.)
Jesus’ reply suggests that in Moses’ time, the Lord permitted divorce on grounds other than sexual infidelity: “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matt. 19:8; emphasis added.) In other words, divorce was not part of the marriage covenant instituted by the Lord among his children.
The Lord then described a higher law of marriage: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” (Matt. 19:9; italics added.) That is, in the spirit of a higher law, his statement suggests that those who divorce for reasons other than sexual infidelity and then marry someone else have unrighteously divorced, and they commit adultery; but the woman or man whose spouse commits adultery, thus breaking the marriage covenant, may choose to divorce the offending spouse and may marry again and not commit adultery.
The Lord’s disciples, apparently concerned about such a strict view regarding divorce, said to the Lord privately, “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.” (Matt. 19:10.) The subject they referred to was divorce not based on infidelity. And on this subject, the Savior was calling attention to the seriousness of the marriage covenant, stressing that inconsequential differences are not acceptable to God as grounds for divorce.
Jesus said that all could not “receive this saying”—the whole message of verses 4 through 9—“save they to whom it is given.” (Matt. 19:11.) Obviously, he was referring to a law of marriage higher than some of the social practices of that time.
The first part of “this saying” is that ideally men and women were to marry and become “one flesh.” (Matt. 19:5.) The second part of the message is that they should remain married, or one flesh. (See Matt. 19:6.) The third part is that under some conditions—infidelity of a spouse, for example—divorce is acceptable if the offended spouse desires it to be so. (See Matt. 19:9.) In the fourth part, he then referred to those who never marry or who become single for various reasons—either through their own choice or because of matters beyond their choice. (See Matt. 19:12.) If he were speaking in our day, the Savior might identify other reasons why some do not marry or why some divorce. He concluded in verse 12 with “He that is able to receive [this saying], let him receive it.”
Although in Old Testament times only men could “put away” their spouses, the Lord’s words in Mark 10:12 (Mark’s telling of the discussion) indicate a changing status for women. In the social system of Jesus’ time, apparently some men and women were divorcing their spouses with impunity for relatively insignificant reasons. Whereas in a higher law of marriage to which Jesus referred, men and women are equally responsible for the strength or dissolution of their union.
In these texts dealing with divorce, the sincere reader can discern the Savior’s gentle flexibility and acceptance of divorce when it is clearly necessary. The reader can also see the Lord’s recognition of persons whose current societal circumstances are different from the celestial standard.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has commented, “Divorce is not part of the gospel plan no matter what kind of marriage is involved. But because men [and women] in practice do not always live in harmony with gospel standards, the Lord permits divorce [as in Moses’ time] for one reason or another, depending upon the spiritual stability of the people involved. …
“In this day divorces are permitted in accordance with civil statutes, and the divorced persons are permitted by the Church to marry again without the stain of immorality which under a higher system would attend such a course.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973, 1:547.)
If our societies were on a higher plane, then, marriage covenants would be held in great, sacred trust; essentially, divorce would not exist or be considered except for truly serious reasons such as adultery. I would also suggest that in a higher system, with individuals living in harmony with all the Lord’s teachings, there would be no such serious problems and thus no divorce.
Unfortunately, our societies are less than ideal. Some persons do live in unbearably difficult marital circumstances, suffering as victims of spouse abuse, substance abuse, promiscuity, and other evils that are sometimes addressed through divorce as a last resort. In such cases, the Lord in his mercy “permits his agents to exercise the power to loose [to authorize divorce] as well as the power to bind.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 204.)
President David O. McKay stated, “In the light of scripture, ancient and modern, we are justified in concluding that Christ’s ideal pertaining to marriage is the unbroken home, and conditions that cause divorce are violations of his divine teachings. … There may be circumstances which make the continuance of the marriage state a greater evil than divorce. But these are extreme cases—they are the mistakes, the calamities in the realm of marriage. If we could remove them I would say there never should be a divorce. It is Christ’s ideal that home and marriage should be perpetual—eternal.” (Treasures of Life, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1965, p. 66.)