Are There Biblical Reasons For Divorce?
I recently received an email from a former church member who asked whether there were biblical grounds for a Christian to seek a divorce. If Jesus tells us we are not to separate (Matthew 19:6) what God has joined in a life-long covenant (Genesis 2:24), then are there biblical reasons for getting a divorce?
I turned this into a public post for several reasons: 1) to answer the question 2) to help others who know professing Christians who may be considering divorce 3) to serve as a warning about pursing divorces that are not biblical 4) to remind us that divorce is not defining. The gospel of Jesus is greater. The gospel is greater than divorce.
The following answer is not exhaustive, but it is a beginning attempt to answer a very challenging question. Here is what I wrote in response to the aforementioned question.
(If you read any part of this, please read the next to last paragraph too.)
To begin with, this is a very difficult topic because so many have been divorced and in many cases many feel and/or believe they are justified in divorcing because of any number of reasons that makes the commitment to their spouse undesirable. This is very emotional to people and that makes it a hard topic to address. When trying to talk with people about what God says about divorce, people will have many reasons for which they deeply believe they have the right to divorce. Maybe they just are not happy. Maybe they chose the wrong “soulmate”. Maybe all trust was lost because of money. In a no-fault culture of divorce, the reasons are many and varied. Many people just steer clear of it to avoid confrontation or causing further hurt, but the Bible has something to say about it. Are we to ignore God’s word and say nothing?
First, let’s reestablish what marriage is and what God’s part is in bringing it about. The idea from the beginning, is that marriage was intended to be a life-long, covenant commitment between one man and one woman (Gen. 1:27; 2:24 and Matthew 19:1-6). That is God’s beautiful design and will for the lives of those who would make this covenant, one-flesh commitment. Jesus said in Matthew 19:6, “What God has brought together, let no man separate.” So when someone pursues a divorce, you can be sure of one thing: There is hardness of heart (Mark 10:5) and that means sin is flourishing instead of God’s original and perfect design. Divorce is ALWAYS the result of sin, and what is sin? Sin is the rejection of God’s goodness and God’s way, which results in trusting the way of the world and our way, and this leads to disobedience. Obedience is what we do when we trust God’s goodness toward us and others. Divorce is the result of not trusting God.
Second, divorce that is unsanctioned by the Bible leads to adultery. “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18) Why is this so? Because the person who declares and acts like they have ended the existing marriage, then goes to another person and engages in a second marriage when the first marriage has not ended. They are committing adultery against the first union which no one should separate. God brought the first union together, and the person who did the divorcing is acting like God and pretending they can just dissolve the union. They can’t. It still exists and they are going on to another relationship and acting like they are unmarried. Biblically, they are still married and, therefore, they are committing adultery. Are you tracking with me?
However, there are biblical reasons for divorce. There are exceptions. But before we explore the exceptions, keep in mind that even if there are legitimate reasons for divorce, sin that flows from a hard heart that is set against God is still the root problem. Sin always confuses, distorts, destroys, hurts, scars, etc. Divorce is never a good thing. Having said that, the first biblical exception that allows for divorce, resulting in termination of the covenant that God created, is physical adultery (Matthew 5:31-32). So if a man or woman commits physical adultery, that infidelity would be grounds for divorce. However, my hope would be that the one who was sinned against would grant forgiveness if the offending partner repented. Sometimes people make really bad decisions, but that doesn’t always mean they are not a believer who desires to trust and obey Jesus. If they repent, that is a good sign that they have growing to do, or just had a really bad lapse in judgment. The consequences will not soon be forgotten, but there is hope for that marriage if repentance happens. If adultery becomes a pattern, I don’t see how a person could do anything but get a divorce since the faithful partner would be stuck in a lie that they are in a monogamous, biblical relationship. It takes two faithful people to be married. The second exception that allows divorce is that of abandonment – particularly by an unbelieving spouse. The fact is that a true believing disciple would not abandon their spouse permanently, and even if they did for a moment, we should expect them to show signs of listening to Godly counsel and moving toward repentance since this is such a cut and dry teaching in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, writes that if a believing spouse has an unbelieving spouse, they are not to divorce them. However, if the unbelieving spouse abandons the believing spouse, Paul says to let them go (1 Cor. 7:15). More than likely the context here is that either a husband or wife has become a new believer and their spouse did not convert or get saved, so the natural question would be: “Should a new believer stay married to an unbeliever?” Paul says as long as the unbeliever consents to continue the covenant, stay with them and work for peace in the relationship. The covenant should be honored and the believer should not leave the unbeliever, but the opposite may indeed happen. I also want to suggest that any abandonment must be a physical abandonment. Many men, and sometimes women, are emotionally and spiritually absent, but it seems to me the context is one in which the unbeliever says I don’t want to stay together, and decides to move on literally (1 Cor. 7:12). These are the only two exceptions I see in scripture to Jesus’ command, “What God has brought together, let not man separate.”
A couple of other thoughts might be helpful regarding this very difficult topic. When I have encountered this, it is always very messy and very confusing to those who are divorcing and to those who are trying to help the divorcing couple save their marriage. When the word divorce starts getting tossed around, it usually is the result of many years of hurt and pain that often leads to a really bad decision like adultery. I say this, not to make an excuse for adultery, abandonment or divorce, but to point out that these twisted webs that have been woven, often take a lot of challenging work to untangle. Sometimes it will take many, many meetings and many years for relational health to flourish. There are often no quick fixes and repentance often is a process of many decisions and many ups and downs, not just a one-time decision.
So what if someone has divorced their spouse but did not have a legitimate biblical reason, and now a long time later, they realize that they were wrong? The good news is this: Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are a new creation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1 and 1 Corinthians 5:17). Be careful though, no one should continue to sin that grace may abound or increase (Romans 6:1). But if you are just now realizing, “Oh No! I was wrong!” – that is good news. That means you are sensitive to the work of God’s Spirit through the Word of God. One of the most certain marks of a true believer in Christ is that of conviction of sin (John 16:8-11). What then can be done, especially sense there are those who likely can’t undo what they have undone with divorce? Repent. Trust in God’s forgiving grace and boldly confess to Him the wrong that has been done. And then seek forgiveness from those who have been hurt, as much as it depends on you. This may mean contacting by phone or letter a former spouse, children or anyone who was hurt in the process. If you are convicted and you can change course in the short term, then do that before too much time goes by. The good news of the gospel is that when Jesus saves us and transforms us, we have a righteous standing before the Holy God of the universe. We are righteous in Christ, by faith alone in Christ alone. God’s grace through Christ, is greater than all our sins. A divorce that is not biblically sanctioned may seem like a special sin that can’t be forgiven, but if God can forgive, then there is something to rejoice about despite the hurt and pain. The person that I am most concerned about is the person who claims to be a Christian, and runs headlong into sin thinking, “Well, I will just ask for forgiveness later. After all, God wants me to be happy.” Yes, God wants you to be happy. But the kind of happiness God has for you is not the kind of happiness the world promises. Eternal and lasting happiness is the kind that comes from pursing holiness and obeying God’s commands. Any happiness that comes from opposing God’s clear and written word will not last.
Divorce is never good. It tears a part what God has done. It comes from a hard heart toward God, and is not loving toward others. And it produces a lot of damage and even spiritual death. But keep in mind that God can also rescue and restore. By the power of the Holy Spirit, I pray He uses Bible-trusting Christians for the good of others and His glory. There is lasting joy in trusting and obeying God’s word and loving others with it.
I hope this helps far more than it hurts. But sometimes things have to hurt before there can be help and healing.