What does the Bible
teach about divorce?
Dr. Jim Denison
When is divorce permissible biblically? When is it not? What does the Lord say about such a difficult subject?
This is unfortunately a very common question. America has five percent of the world’s population, but 50% of its divorces. Web sites, magazines, and support groups on the subject of divorce abound.
In all the cacophony of voices speaking to this issue, it’s vital that we hear God’s. That’s my only job in this essay—to give you what the word of God says, and what it means for us. Every one of us has experienced divorce or known someone affected directly by it. Let’s ask the Lord our most common questions about this painful subject, and listen to him as he offers us hope for hurting hearts.
What did Jesus teach?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses our issue: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce'” (Matthew 5:31). “Anyone who divorces his wife” points to an extremely common practice in Jesus’ day.
The Jews typically allowed divorce for any reason whatsoever. A man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner by putting too much salt in his food; if she went into public with her head uncovered; if she talked with men in the streets; if she burned the toast. Rabbi Akiba said that a man could divorce his wife if he found someone more attractive. Divorce was so common in Jesus’ day that many women refused to get married.
To divorce his wife, the husband presented her with a “certificate of divorcement.” The most common form: “Let this be from me your writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that you may marry whatever man you will.” If he handed this document to his wife in the presence of two witnesses, she stood divorced, with no legal proceedings or protection whatsoever.
So Jesus speaks to an extremely common situation, in which the structure of family life is collapsing and national morals are disintegrating. His words are significant and radical: “anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (v. 32). “Marital unfaithfulness” means adultery, sexual relations between a wife and a person not her husband. Such an act breaks the marriage union, rendering it null and void. Divorce otherwise “causes her to become an adulteress,” since she will have to remarry to support herself but is still bound to her first husband in the eyes of God. And he adds, “Anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”
Jesus repeats the very same words in Matthew 19:9. Divorce except for adultery is outside the word and will of God. This is the clear teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What constitutes a biblical divorce?
What is the larger teaching of Scripture on our subject? In addition to Jesus’ clear statement, the Bible also says, “If the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15). If a believer is married to a non-Christian, and the unbeliever deserts the marriage, the believer is innocent.
Abandonment by a believer must be considered as well. What if your spouse is a Christian but refuses to stay in your marriage? What if you want to work, to seek help and restoration, but he or she will not? This person has misused the freedom of will given by God. The Bible forbids this divorce, but the laws of our land do not. And the Bible clearly teaches that we are not responsible for the sins of others, but only our own.
Abuse is a third area we must discuss. Physical, emotional, verbal, and substance abuse are epidemic in marriages today. While the Bible nowhere addresses abuse specifically with regard to divorce, we can draw two conclusions from biblical truth.
First, abuse is always wrong: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). And wives are to just as loving, supportive, and sacrificial with their husbands.
Second, life must be protected: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). You must protect yourself and your children from abuse.
So biblical counselors recommend that an abused person separate from the spouse immediately. Get yourself and your children to safety. Seek intensive counseling. But don’t give up—God can heal any marriage if both partners will surrender fully to him. I’ve seen abusers repent and be restored. Consider divorce only as the lesser of two evils, in order to protect the abused, and only if there are no other options.
As I understand Scripture, these are the conditions under which divorce is permissible biblically: adultery, abandonment, and abuse. Note that the Bible does not prescribe divorce even in these painful circumstances, but only permits it.
If you’re considering divorce
Now we come to the hope God offers hurting hearts today. Hope for those who are considering divorce, and for those who have experienced one. We’ll find both in God’s word and grace.
First, if you’re considering a divorce, please know that God can heal any marriage whose partners are fully yielded to him. He doesn’t want you to have a better marriage, but a new marriage. I know of pastors and staff members who have committed the horrible sin of adultery, but through their repentance and God’s grace their marriage is restored and renewed today. I have seen abuse healed, and abandoners return. God is still the Great Physician of bodies, souls, and homes as well.
And he wants to heal every marriage, to prevent the tragic consequences which so often accompany divorce. Divorce seldom solves the problem it was meant to solve. Financial pressures are enormous: the woman’s standard of living drops 73% in the first year, while men who remarry find themselves supporting two families on the same income. And while you can divorce your spouse, you cannot divorce your child’s parent.