Jesus’ Teachings on Divorce
3 Nephi 12:31-32
A Historical Context
In the Old World, carnal and fallen men had begun to take advantage of the divorce laws in their culture. Though marriage had been established in the beginning as a religions institution, a rite intended to bind the participants forever, yet in the days of Moses divorce had been permitted “because of the hardness” of the hearts of the people (see Matthew 19:3-8). By the time of Christ the situation had degenerated markedly. One historian writes: “Among Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries no one questioned the legitimacy of divorce. The only question was what constituted adequate grounds; and it was this question of grounds, not the legitimacy of divorce as such, that split religious schools into opposing factions. The teacher Shammai, for one, took the conservative position: the only offense serious enough to justify divorce was the wife’s infidelity. Shammai’s opponent Hillel, famous for his liberal judgments, argued instead that a man may divorce his wife for any reason he chooses, ‘even if she burn his soup!’ The well-known teacher Akiba, who agreed with Hillel, added emphatically, ‘and even if he finds a younger woman more beautiful than she.'”1
Given his understanding of life among the Palestinian Jews in the meridian of time, one can appreciate why the Savior would desire the reform of a system that allowed men to slip capriciously in and out of marriage! His was a call to a higher righteousness, an invitation to consider carefully the sacred nature of marriage and the importance of fidelity and commitment between married partners.
Teaching from Elder McConkie:
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written: “Divorce is totally foreign to celestial standards, a verity that Jesus will one day expound in more detail to the people of Jewry. For now, as far as the record reveals, he merely specifies the high law that his people should live, but that is beyond our capability even today. If husbands and wives lived the law as the Lord would have them live it they would neither do nor say the things that would even permit the fleeting thought of divorce to enter the mind of their eternal companions. Though we today have the gospel, we have yet to grow into that high state of marital association where marrying a divorced person constitutes adultery. The Lord has not yet given us the high standard he here named as that which ultimately will replace the Mosaic practice of writing a bill of divorcement.”2
Joseph Fielding McConkie (the son of Bruce R. McConkie), when addressing the question if the Nephites had the same practices as those of the Jews in the Meridian of time stated, “We are uncertain as to whether such marital difficulties also existed among the Nephites or whether the Savior provided these teachings so that the Nephites would know what was taught on the eastern hemisphere”. 3
I appreciate the thoughts on the subject of divorce by Elder Faust. His humility in approaching this sensitive topic is something that I hope to emulate:
“Just cause” for breaking covenants
What, then, might be “just cause” for breaking the covenants of marriage? Over a lifetime of dealing with human problems, I have struggled to understand what might be considered “just cause” for breaking of marriage covenants. I confess I do not claim the wisdom or authority to definitively state what is “just cause.” Only the parties to the marriage can determine this. They must bear the responsibility for the train of consequences that inevitably follows if these covenants are not honored. In my opinion, “just cause” should be nothing less serious than a prolonged and apparently irredeemable relationship that is destructive of a person’s dignity as a human being.
At the same time, I have strong feelings about what is not provocation for breaking the sacred covenants of marriage. Surely it is not simply “mental distress” or “personality differences” or having “grown apart” or having “fallen out of love.” This is especially so where there are children. Enduring divine counsel comes from Paul: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25). “That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, [and] to love their children” (Titus 2:4).
In my opinion, members of the Church have the most effective cure for our decaying family life. That cure is for men, women, and children to honor and respect the divine roles of both fathers and mothers in the home. In so doing, mutual respect and appreciation among the members of the Church will be fostered by the righteousness found there. In this way the great sealing keys restored by Elijah and spoken of by Malachi might operate “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse” (D&C 110:15; see Malachi 4:6). 4
- Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, pp. 13-14.
- Bruce R. McConkie, Mortal Messiah 2:139; see also 3:291-96; Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 1:546-48.
- Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987-1992], 4: 75.
- James E. Faust, Finding Light in a Dark World [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1995], 136. See also “Father, Come Home”, Ensign May 1993, pp.35-37.