R. T. France on Divorce and Creation Ethics

Much debate surrounds Jesus’ remarks about divorce in Matthew 19:3-12. R. T. France observes why so much of the discussion is off-base from the start. In doing so, he provides some sage advice about Christian ethics in general. He writes:

Ethical norms should be sought not in legal texts which deal with the situation where things have already gone wrong, but in the most fundamental statements available of the positive will of God for human behavior. There is a saying, “Hard cases make bad law,” and it may be suggested that they make even worse ethics. The ethics of the kingdom of heaven…seek not primarily how evil may be contained and alleviated, but how the best may be discerned and followed. It would make a huge and beneficial difference to modern debates on divorce if this priority were observed, so that the focus fell not on what grounds for divorce may be permitted (as in the Pharisees’ question), but on how marriage may best live up to the Creator’s purpose for it. There will, no doubt, always be a need for trouble-shooting legislation and pastoral help when things have gone wrong, but if that is where our ethical discussion begins, the battle is lost before it is joined. Those who start from Deut 24:1-4 will have as their basic presupposition that divorce is to be expected, the question being only how it is to be regulated. Those who start from Gen 1-2 will see any separation of what God has joined together as always an evil; circumstances may prove it to be the lesser evil, but that can never make it less than an infringement of the primary purpose of God for marriage (The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT, p. 714).

Three take-aways here: (1) There is an order in creation that must form our ethical thinking; (2) that order reveals God’s purposes for our moral life; (3) we ought to evaluate our actions not only by whether or not they are “permissible” but by whether or not they achieve God’s purposes.

Christian, if you are wondering whether or not you should do a certain thing, do not simply ask “Is it permissible?” The question that you need to be asking is this: “Does it fulfill God’s purpose?”


  • Don Johnson

    And in some cases, divorce DOES fit into God’s purposes. This is so obvious from the Bible, as God divorced Israel, Abraham divorced Hagar and Moses divorced Zipporah. That it is not taught much is a shame to the teachers that decline to teach it.

    It is true that God’s perfect will is that there is no sin in marriage and that it last for a lifetime, but sometimes there is serious sin and God provides a way out for the party that is sinned against. Some marriages are so NOT like what God intends that they should be blown up.

  • Brent Hobbs

    I would like to add that France’s comments on divorce in other sections of the NICNT volume are equally as good and worth reading. The whole volume should be the new standard on the Gospel of Matthew, IMO. (Released in ’07 and Carson’s commentary survey hasn’t been updated to include it as far as I can tell.)

  • Don Johnson

    I do not have this book, but if he does not get into how Mat 19:1-12 has Jesus correcting seven misinterpretations of Scripture by the Pharisees then he does not do that pericope justice, as well as whether he discusses the silence of Jesus on the other unstated common interpretations that the Pharisees had.

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