Are you struggling to understand what the Scriptures say about divorce? Has divorce left you confused about your relationship with God? If you answered yes to either or both of these questions, you’re not alone.
To fully understand the Scriptures about divorce it’s important to look at the context and times in which they were written. I hope this brief summary helps shed some light.
A Note about God’s Mercy and Grace
Before we delve into individual Scriptures I want to speak to our faith as Christians. First, divorce is clearly not a part of God’s plan for marriage and divorce should never be entered into lightly. Second, the Scriptures make it clear that God’s mercy and grace are abundant. He offers us forgiveness for all our shortcomings when we repent and seek him. Furthermore, he is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. When studying any specific scripture, we should never lose sight of the big picture of the saving grace of Jesus.
Commonly Agreed on Points about Divorce
The scriptures on divorce are interpreted differently by different authorities. There are three points that seem to be consistently accepted.
- God means for marriage to be a life-long covenant.
- God allows for divorce as a concession to man’s sinful nature.
- Divorce may become necessary when the marriage vows are broken through neglect or unfaithfulness.
Moses, Jesus, Paul and the book of Malachi each comment on divorce. A quick look at what was happening during those times can provide more insight into what they said.
Divorce in the Old Testament
Malachi 2:14-16 (NLT)
Written by a prophet, perhaps named Malachi, (which also means my message) sometime after 460 B.C.
“God hates divorce.” Some take this Scripture out of context and wield it like a sword at those who are divorced. Yet, doing that is to miss the point. To better understand this, let’s first look at Malachi 2:14-16:
“You cry out, ‘Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?’ I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows. Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth. ‘For I hate divorce!’ says the Lord, the God of Israel. ‘To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,’ says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. ‘So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.’”
Malachi 2:14-16 draws a parallel between the damage caused when the men of Judah were unfaithful to God and when a man is unfaithful to and unjustly divorces his wife. Both are against God’s will and both cause pain and havoc in the lives of God’s people. Further yet, to a woman of these times, divorce often meant being left on the streets.
In this scripture God addresses those men who carelessly abandon their spouses for the sake of other women. To use this scripture to manipulate a person into staying in an abusive marriage, or to judge those whose marriages have ended because they have been abandoned, abused, or had their marriage vows violated by their spouse, is unconscionable. In fact, this Scripture reflects God’s strong words for those who recklessly harm a faithful spouse.
Yes, God hates divorce. But, God’s love, grace and mercy suggests he hates divorce because of the very damage and pain it causes his children. When seen in context, it is clear that this Scripture reflects the compassion God has for those who are hurt by divorce.
Exodus 21:10-11 (NIV)
Written by Moses in about 1400 B.C.
“If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.”
Jewish law allowed for divorce if a man failed to provide his wife with food, clothing, and marital rights. If he failed to provide her with these things, she was free to go and marry someone else. When Exodus was written, men could marry more than one wife. Women were dependent on men to support them. This law was to protect women so that if a man married a second wife, he still had to provide the basics to his first wife or else she was free to leave and seek another husband.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (NIV)
Written by Moses in about 1400 B.C.
“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, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 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, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.”
The word indecent has been interpreted in different ways. Some believe it specifically means committed adultery or it could refer to any type of sexually immorality. This scripture does allow for legal divorce, but, one thing is clear–divorce was seen as serious. Laws of the time were generally slanted toward the man. This scripture keeps a man from simply tossing his wife aside and then coming back later and claiming her.
(Another protection for women appears in Deuteronomy 25:5-9. It requires a man to marry his brother’s widow if she had not yet had a son. This provided her with support and kept the deceased man’s belongings within the family as well as continued the family line.)
Divorce in the New Testament
Matthew 19:3-9 (NIV)
Matthew was one of Christ’s twelve disciples. This book was probably written in the A.D. 70s.
“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?’
“’Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 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?’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’ ‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.'”
(Note: This is also referenced in Mark 10:2-12; Matthew 5:31-32; and Luke 16:18.)
The Pharisees in this scripture asked Jesus a specific question about no-fault divorce as referenced in Deuteronomy 24:1. During Jesus’ time, men were interpreting that Scripture to mean they could divorce their wife based on any and every reason no matter how trivial. The Pharisees knew that interpretation was inconsistent with Jewish law which referenced sexual immorality. They were trying to catch Jesus between the law and popular opinion. Jesus answers by reflecting on God’s ideal for marriage.
Perhaps Jesus’s passion on the topic was further driven by the reality that divorce was almost a death sentence for women. In this culture where women were dependent, a woman could be made instantly poor and homeless by divorce. Divorce certainly reflected a man with a hardened heart.
It was even worse before the time of Moses which is why Moses required a certificate of divorce. As we saw in Deuteronomy, a man could desert his wife or divorce her and later come back and claim her even if she had already remarried. She was deemed his property for as long as he liked. The threat of having her first husband reclaim her did not make her attractive to a potential second husband. By requiring a certificate of divorce, Moses’ laws added some protection for a woman by permitting her to remarry without fear of her first husband reclaiming her.
Jesus is stressing the seriousness of leaving your wife for insignificant reasons by saying if you do so and then marry another woman you are committing adultery. The message is clear, divorce is not to a part of God’s plan for marriage. Divorce is instead God’s grace in action because he knows our human frailty can lead us to make choices that end a marriage.
Is Unfaithfulness the Only Justified Reason for Divorce?
When Jesus said, except for marital unfaithfulness, was he saying adultery is the only reason for divorce? On face value it may seem so but it may be risky to jump to that conclusion given the context. In this Scripture, Jesus was answering a specific question about divorcing for any reason (no fault divorce) as it related to a debate of his time regarding Deuteronomy 24:1.
During this time there was a trend of men divorcing their wives for other women. Jesus made it clear that if a man had a faithful wife and tossed her away to marry another woman, it was the same as committing adultery. In this context, that he didn’t mention neglect (including physical or emotional neglect or abuse) or abandonment can’t automatically be construed that they were not also valid reasons for divorce.
1 Corinthians 7:10-16 (NIV)
Written by Paul probably around 55 A.D
“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. 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. 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. 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.
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. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”
Is Abandonment a Reason for Divorce?
An article on Christiannet.com says, “Definitive biblical reasons to divorce for abandonment are clearly stated in I Corinthians, verse 15: if an unbelieving spouse cannot abide in the marriage, the Bible gives a Christian husband or wife the right to file for divorce, releasing them from the bonds of holy matrimony to pursue a life of peace and contentment in Christ.”
Does a Divorced Person Have to Remain Single Forever?
When a woman separates from her husband can she never remarry? While Roman law allowed either member of the couple to initiate a divorce, Jewish law permitted the husband to divorce the wife. When a woman separated from her husband, she was not divorced unless he divorced her. Therefore, she could not remarry.
Even within the context of the times, this Scripture has been interpreted in different ways. Grounds for Divorce in God’s Law, (a commentary on biblegateway.com) says this: “No one permitted remarriage if a divorce was invalid, but a valid divorce by definition included the right to remarry, as is attested by ancient divorce contracts and the very meaning of the term.”
What does “Unbelieving Spouse has been Sanctified by the Believing Spouse” Mean?
A study note in the The Quest Study Bible (NIV) states the following about sanctified as used in 1 Corinthians 7:14.
“Sanctified here does not mean saved. The main concern the Corinthian believers had was whether any children born to a Christian/non-Christian union were legitimate. If such marriages were not recognized by God, then their children would be illegitimate. Paul said such marriages were genuine and that the children from them were not unclean but holy.”
This look at the Scriptures is far from an exhaustive study. I encourage you to do your own research, pray about these Scriptures, and then to listen for what God says to you about what they mean in your life. Looking at the Scriptures as a whole I find the following conclusions.
The Scriptures make strong points about marriage, divorce, and the heart of God.
Regarding marriage and divorce:
- Marriage is a life-long covenant by God’s design.
- While divorce is not desirable, it is sometimes unavoidable.
- Divorce should be due to neglect, marital unfaithfulness, or abandonment and should be a last resort.
- God concedes that divorce will sometimes happen and at times is acceptable even though it is not His intention for marriage.
Regarding God’s heart, God:
- Hates divorce but loves his children.
- Is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
- Loves each of us enough to have sent his only Son to die for our sins.
- Is forgiving if we ask and repent.
- Wants us to have an abundant life in him.
I hope this post helps you understand the context of these Scriptures. I also encourage you to never lose sight of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy. Peace be with you.
Please feel free to leave a comment below.
Find Support for Healing from Divorce
The Bible is full of help for those who are coping with or needing to heal from divorce. Peace after Divorce helps you discover those Scriptures and learn how they can support your healing and direct your actions. Get help by clicking on of the links below.
*Named an Exemplary Christian Self-Help Book by the Illumination Book Awards
Interested in Starting a Group at Your Church?
Click here to Learn More!
For a list of resources for this post, click here.