A LOOK AT THE SCRIPTURES RELATED TO DIVORCE

The scriptures on divorce are interpreted differently by different authorities. There are three points that seem to be consistently accepted.

  1. First, God means for marriage to be a life-long contract.
  2. Second, God allows for divorce as a concession to man’s sinful nature.
  3. Third, the scriptures indicate that divorce may become necessary when the marriage vows are broken through neglect or unfaithfulness. Moses, Jesus, and Paul each address divorce. A quick look at what was happening during their times can provide more insight into what they said.

Is Divorce a Sin?

Jesus reminds us in Mark 10 that while Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away, it was not that way at the beginning of creation. He reminds us that marriage was designed by God to be forever. That is God’s perfect will for marriage.

Jesus says, It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law…. God knows there can be reasons for divorce but it does fall short of the perfect will of God. Through his grace, God has made a concession for human nature and allows for divorce when the marriage vows have been broken. This does not mean that divorce should be taken lightly.

Malachi 2:16 tells us that God hates divorce. It never says God hates divorced people but it does speak to his seriousness on the subject. God’s grace and love suggests he hates divorce because of the damage it causes.

What are the Main Components of Wedding Vows?

The only Biblical reason for divorce is a violation of the wedding vows. Most wedding vows are based on Ephesians 5 and include a promise to love, honor, and keep, (and possibly obey). Of course some people divorce for reasons that are not biblical. If you are divorced for other than biblical reasons, earnestly ask God for forgiveness for your part in the divorce.  Seek to follow God and be renewed.

Divorce in the Bible

Neglect and unfaithfulness/adultery are stated grounds for divorce. Yet, if the marriage partner regrets and stops their destructive choices and their spouse forgives them, a marriage may still survive.  Below are some specific scriptures related to 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 him.

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. The 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.]

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.”

(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, people were interpreting Deuteronomy 24:1 to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any and every reason.  A man could divorce his wife on a whim–she snored, her cooking was lousy, or for any reason that annoyed him.  The Pharisees knew that interpretation was inconsistent with Jewish law which referenced sexual immorality but they were trying to trip Jesus up and catch him between the law and popular opinion.

Interpreting Deuteronomy to mean a man could divorce his wife for any reason would mean that in this culture where women were dependent, she could be made instantly poor and homeless. Prior to Moses, a man could desert his wife, even divorce her, and then come back later and claim her–even if she had already remarried. This threat of loosing her did not make her very attractive to a potential second husband. Moses’ laws added some protection for women by requiring that her husband give her a certificate of divorce permitting her to remarry.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” Marriage is intended to be a serious life-long contract. God is not happy about divorce. In fact, Jesus is stressing the seriousness of leaving your wife for insignificant reasons by saying if you do so and then marry another woman it is as bad as committing adultery! This was a real kick in the pants to men who believed they should be able to divorce their wives for any reason. Divorce is not to be taken lightly. Divorce is instead, God’s grace in action because he knows our human frailty can lead us to make choices that end a marriage.

When Jesus said, except for marital unfaithfulness, was he saying adultery is the only reason for divorce? In context, 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.

His silence on neglect or abandonment can’t be interpreted that they were invalid, says Greg Surratt, Senior Pastor of Seacoast Church, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Physical abuse and emotional abuse are extreme forms of neglect of support and affection.  Surratt goes on to indicate that neglect of material support becomes physical abuse and neglect of physical affection becomes emotional abuse.

1 Corinthians 7:10-16 Written by Paul probably around 55 B.C.

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?”

Abandonment

Christiannet.com contends that,

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. If a woman separated from her husband, she would not be 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. Whatever the interpretation of this scripture, a commentary on www.Biblegateway.com, Grounds for Divorce in God’s Law, states, … a valid divorce by definition included the right to remarry, as is attested by ancient divorce contracts.

What Does the Bible Mean When it says the Unbelieving Spouse has been Sanctified by the Believing Spouse?

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.

Summary

Divorce is a hot topic in the church.  Some look at the Scriptures in the context of the times and culture.  Some look strictly at the words they read. I encourage you to pray about this article, the Scriptures, and what your church teaches, and to then listen for what God says to you.

This analysis has been compiled from several sources to provide further insight into divorce in the scriptures but is far from an exhaustive study.  Divorce should never be viewed as an easy out.  Pulling what I’ve read on the topic together, and refining it to its essence, I return to the most important of concepts–God loves us and wants what is best for us.

The Scriptures make strong points about marriage and divorce…

  • Marriage is intended to be a life-long contract.
  • Divorce is definitely to be avoided and yet, is at times 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 Biblically acceptable even though it is not His intention for marriage.

The Scriptures also makes strong statements about God…

  • God hates divorce but he loves his children.  He is close to the brokenhearted.
  • God loves each of us enough to have sent his only Son to die for our sins.
  • God is forgiving if we ask.
  • God wants us to have an abundant life in Him.

Resources:

Are there any biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage? RBC Ministries (publishers of Our Daily Bread devotional) www.rbc.org/questionsDetail.aspx?id=45840&Topic=598.

Biblical Reasons to Divorce for Abandonment, www.Christianet.com http://www.christianet.com/christiandivorce/biblicalreasonstodivorceforabandonment.htm

Grounds for Divorce in God’s Law, http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/index.php?action=getCommentaryText&cid=1&source=1&seq=i.47.19.3.

Hamilton, Ron. Campus Pastor, Seacoast Church, West Campus, Charleston, SC.

Surratt, Greg. Pastor, Seacoast Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC. New and Improved message series, part 16.

The Quest Study Bible (NIV), Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1994.