What the Bible Says About Divorce?

OK, this is a touchy subject--open to all kinds of misinterpretations as people react to their respective cultures and denominational backgrounds. So we need to establish a few ground rules before we begin.

  1. We let the Scriptures of the Old & New Testaments speak for themselves. I kinda stand on the idea that Scripture is inerrant & infallible.
  2. All of Scripture is inspired--so we don't throw out parts because they are older or because we don't like them.
  3. Scripture is uniform in that all of it is God's Word and Counsel to us. He doesn't lie, or get it mixed up.
  4. When looking at supposed variances, one should engage in both Biblical and Systematic Theology to get the overall broad view as well as see the developmental aspect through history.

If we are agreed--let's continue...



God has intended marriage to be one man--one woman for life (see my article on Marriage). With the marriage itself, come vows of a covenant that are taken in the presence of witnesses, not the least of which is the Lord himself. A study of what God thinks of people breaking vows to him is worth shuddering over.

Deuteronomy 23:23
Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.


Deuteronomy 30:2
2 When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.


Psalm 15:1-5
LORD , who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? 2 He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart 3 and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbour no wrong and casts no slur on his fellowman, 4 who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the LORD , who keeps his oath even when it hurts, 5 who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken.


Matthew 5:33-37
"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your `Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one

There are more, but this will do....


Divorce Used As A Metaphor

In the Old Testament, the Lord speaks of a disobedient and sinful Israel as an unfaithful wife to him. The prophet Hosea is told to take a prostitute for a wife and present the picture to the leaders of Israel to show them their unfaithfulness to God. And yet, the Lord does not "divorce Israel".

The fact of the matter is that God hates divorce...

Malachi 2:13-16
Another thing you do: You flood the LORD's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, "Why?" It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. 15 Has not [the LORD] made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. 16 "I hate divorce ," says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.

Not only does the Lord recognise the "covenantal nature" of marriage vows and the need to keep them, He shows his displeasure at the breaking of a marriage through divorce--and the things that lead to it (vs. 16) .


What Jesus Said...

Matthew 5:31-32
"It has been said, `Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce .' 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

He said this because of the Pharisee's and Leader's misunderstanding of a passage of the Law of Moses...

Deuteronomy 24:1-4
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce , gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce , gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

Jesus further explains his position when confronted later....

Matthew 19:39
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" 4 "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator `made them male and female,' 5 and said, `For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." 7 "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" 8 Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

So, Jesus lays down here, grounds for divorce...namely marital unfaithfulness or in other words, "covenantal unfaithfulness". Only God gets to separate two people...and that through death.


Paul's Contributions:

As an Apostle and representative of Christ speaking with divine authority, Paul presents a more detailed understanding of divorce in 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 7:10-16
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But 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. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

This passage can be divided up into 3 parts:1) two Christians married to each other, 2) a believer married to a non-believer who is willing to put up with it and is willing to stay in the marriage, and finally, 3) a believer married to a nonbeliever who is calling the whole thing quits and abandoning the marriage.

  • On the first one...two people who are confessing and practising Christians cannot ever get a divorce except for unfaithfulness on the part of one of them. And even then, there is the expectation that by God's Spirit, forgiveness can heal the wounds in some cases. But there are no other reasons for obtaining a divorce. Any problems in a marriage are to be prayed over and worked through in the bonds of Christ. If they do decide to live a part...then neither of them can ever remarry and still do so in the Lord.
  • The second group finds a Christian who either married a nonbeliever (which is wrong in and of itself--see 2 Corinthians 6:14-17) or became a Christian after the fact of marriage where both were unbelievers. If the nonbeliever is willing to stay and put up with it...then a divorce is not an option for the reasons given in verse 14.
  • The third group deals with a non-believing spouse that shoots through and abandons the marriage to the Christian. In this case it is not only allowable...but the believing spouse should not try to hang on to it...they are to live at peace (vs. 15).

Grounds for Divorce...(summary)

  1. Marital Unfaithfulness
  2. Abandonment of the Marriage by an Non-Christian


Marital Unfaithfulness Defined

This is where things can get confusing. A Christian marriage has within it all the things that guide any individual Christian in terms of how we relate to God and man. The Law of God and our obedience to it is intrinsic in any marriage, so that as I give out specific examples of marital unfaithfulness, one may draw upon the larger corpus of Scripture to base it on.

  • Having sex with anyone other than your spouse.
  • Having sex with anyone after you have promised/betrothed/become engaged to be married,
  • Abandoning your Christian spouse.
  • Physical abuse of your spouse or offspring.
  • Mental abuse of your spouse or offspring.
  • Financial irresponsibility that leaves your spouse or offspring destitute.

A marriage is a covenant agreement between two people in the presence of God as a witness. The terms of the covenant imply a nurturing, caring environment that for better or worse, is built around mutual trust and love. Much hardship and and many problems can be resolved through faithfulness to each other and to God through regular prayer and righteous living. But there are occasions where sinfulness of the human spirit makes things so that there is no other alternative than divorce. It can be done, but one must remember the tragedy and fallout of every divorce:

  • Separation of children from one parent
  • Division of assets that leads to financial hardship
  • Financial support (or lack of) that leads to financial hardship
  • Broken relationships that carry over into other relationships (children)

In the final analysis, divorce is always ugly. It always is ruinous. It was never intended to be other than a fix to stop continuing sin....and, well, hmm....God hates it! OK?


OK, I'm Divorced or in the Process...Now What?

Recognising you may have erred and fearing God in this matter is the first step. And you need to be afraid here, because God is not kidding around. The consequences of a broken marriage in this life and the life to come are horrendous.

From the information above, determine whether there are sufficient Biblical grounds to get a divorce.

Determine whether there has been any sinful action on your part. In as much as it is possible, seek reconciliation with an estranged spouse, not based on social and secular precepts, but on the basis of marriage found in scripture that deals with love and respect handled with charity and forgiveness.


Recognise the lordship of Jesus Christ who is your Creator and acknowledge him as the only one who can save anyone who has committed any kind of sin. Admit your guilt and ask God to forgive you. Jesus can and will forgive you your sins (any and all of them), if you are willing to accept Him as your Saviour and ask Him to take over your life in such a way as you are now willing to live the kind of life that God has intended for you. The caveat to this is...


Thirdly, you must stop. Stop sinning, no matter what the cost in terms of relationships, finances, or other determinations. You must attempt from this point on...to be pure before God.

If it is too late and the divorce has already happened for all the wrong reasons, then be sure to consider your biblical options (as to whether or not you are free to remarry or not) and remember that God has called you to live in peace. Even if you were wrong and have blown it, you can receive forgiveness from God and start over. God is in the business of rebuilding shattered lives of penitent people.

Scripture taken from the 
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, by International Bible Society,
Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House

Resources you might use:
Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage in the Bible by Jay Adams 1980 P&R Publishing
To Have & To Hold: The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce by David Atkinson 1979 Eerdmanns Publishing

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