Christian living Divorce

When does the Bible permit divorce?

Updated: 4 August 2020

No-one ever marries intending to get divorced, but divorce is a reality – even in the church. Divorce can be for biblically permitted reasons or non-biblical reasons. In my experience we are tempted to make two common mistakes in the church when dealing with divorce:

We treat divorce as the unforgivable sin

Divorce is certainly not the unforgivable sin; rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit who leads us to Jesus is.

In some cases in the past, I have advised some that they should seek a divorce. Rather than being subjected to unmentionable evil, at times divorce can be the only way out of a wicked situation.

All too often in churches we do not care for and help divorcées as we should.

We view divorce too lightly

This happens mostly in churches that are more liberal in their understanding of the Bible and therefore don’t respect the Bible as God’s authoritative word to us today.  These churches would say things like, “Times have changed; we can’t take the Bible in a literal sense; we must remember that the Bible was written by primitive people reflecting their primitive views.” 

Churches like this would say that God wants us to be happy more than anything else and if you can’t get along as a married couple, get divorced and marry someone you truly love. We are therefore tempted to condone wrongful divorces on the basis of irreconcilable differences.

Each divorce has its own circumstances and challenges and it is impossible to speak to every eventuality, but the Bible does give us some solid guidelines:

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord); the wife should not separate (word used interchangeably with ‘divorce’, v11) from her husband.”11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

Some in the Corinthian church were claiming to be super-spiritual and said that the body, including sex, is bad; but the soul or spirit is good. They were saying that the really spiritual wives needed to divorce their husbands in order to be more godly and devout.

In contrast, Paul says that these church (Christian) couples should not separate because marriage is good and sex in marriage is good. I think that these wives probably wanted to get divorced anyway and now had a found a supposedly “religious” excuse.  Lifelong marriage is God’s intention.

These verses also say that if you do divorce on unbiblical grounds you cannot get remarried – except to your previous spouse. You may think this is unfair, but remember that marriage is a picture of Christ the bridegroom’s relationship with the church his bride. Imagine Christ divorced us? Impossible*.  Marriage is a binding covenant.

Jesus’ disciples were also shocked when Jesus taught this about divorce and remarriage and they said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10) The disciples had a good point. We need to make sure we exercise due caution when deciding who to marry and therefore who to date. You’re stuck with that person till at least one of you dies! Singles need to be wise in their dating and date fellow Christians. Being unhappily married is far worse than being unhappily single.

Some of the couples in the Corinthian church were unhappily married and Paul said to them, “Sort out your differences; practice forgiveness; see a counsellor; divorce is not an option.”

When you know that divorce is not an option, you are forced to work out your differences.

What are the biblically permissible reasons for divorce?

1. Adultery

In Matthew 19 we find Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce.

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The religious leaders asked Jesus about reasons for getting divorced, which was a controversial issue in those days, and Jesus reminded them of the importance and sanctity of marriage. Lasting marriages are what honours God and that’s been the case from the very beginning of the Bible.

7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 allowed divorce in very specific situations, but this was because of people’s stubbornness, not because it was God’s purpose.

9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality (porneia), and marries another, commits adultery.

The only permissible reason here for divorce is sexual immorality or adultery, where one spouse breaks the marriage covenant. But even in cases of sexual immorality or adultery, divorce is not demanded, it is permitted. Repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation is always the first prize.

2. Abandonment

Back to 1 Corinthians 7.

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.

The “rest” in v12 were Christians married to non-Christians. The gospel had to come to Corinth and married people believed the gospel and were saved, but their partners were not. The Corinthians were worried that their non-Christian spouse was in some way defiling them and their family.

14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

Rather than the unbelieving spouse defiling your marriage, the opposite happens: the believing spouse makes the marriage and children holy. This does not mean that the children and spouse are saved, but that they experience the grace of God and the influence of the Christian spouse. 

Jesus touched a leper on one occasion and instead of Jesus becoming unclean – as the law stated – the leper miraculously become clean.   Similarly, the Christian spouse has a great influence and effect on the family, and may even lead to their salvation.

16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Christians should not divorce their non-Christian husbands. However, if the non-Christian spouse wants a divorce because he is unwilling to stay married, so be it:

15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.

God has called us to peace and if the unbelieving spouse separates from the believer – Paul says divorce is permitted. This is the second biblically permitted reason for divorce: abandonment. In such a case the believer if not enslaved to her previous marriage covenant and may get remarried.

3. Abuse

In the above 1 Corinthians passage we also see the third biblically permitted reason for divorce: abuse. Paul writes in v13,

“If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.”

The phrase “he consents to live with her” presumes that he consents to live with her “within the normal bounds of marriage”. I would argue, along with others (including Frank Retief), that abuse is not within the normal bounds of marriage spoken of here.  A spouse in an abusive situation has legitimate grounds for divorce.  The abusive spouse is acting like a non-Christian who has refused to live at peace.

I would counsel that if there is no repentance, the sooner the abused party files for divorce the better.

Abuse can be physical, psychological, sexual, social, financial, spiritual or systemic (e.g. using the medical system, mental health system or legal system to abuse)**.

Frank Retief writes in his book, Divorce: Hope for the hurting:

“It is possible for a marital situation to become so bad and the behaviour of one of the spouses so evil that it is more sinful to stay in the situation and allow it to continue than for the marriage to be dissolved. One need only to think of the current spate of child abuse, often by fathers, or of wives who have to put up with sexual perversion because their spouses try to enact the pornographic video material they watch. The demeaning, disgusting things wives are called to do make it impossible to continue in the home and make it imperative they move out.”

Christians should remain married unless their spouse abandons or abuses them.

4. Death

The death of a spouse breaks the marriage covenant and the widow or widower can choose to marry or not to marry. The Apostle Paul preferred singleness, but he recognised that each has his own preference.

39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 7:39-40)

A challenge to us is that there are so many unique scenarios when it comes to divorce and remarriage.  There are so many specific situations that one post can’t possibly speak to all of them. These situations require wisdom in seeking the best, biblical and God-honouring way forward.  God honours those who honour him.

A note on abuse

If your spouse is abusing you, you need take your children and leave the house immediately. 

If you are at all able, lay a criminal charge with the police.

Seek protection from the police via a restraining order.

Contact your church elders and let them know what’s happening.

Contact an organisation that specializes in domestic abuse to plot the wisest way forward.

Repentance and reconciliation are the first prize, but if your spouse refuses to repent and live God’s way, you may, and most probably should, seek a divorce.

* Sometimes we are confronted with the scenario of a Christian being divorced in their pre-conversion days. If reconciliation with their precious spouse is not possible, I would counsel that they may remarry another Christian.

** Thank you Barbara Roberts for the insights. 


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