The institution of marriage has fallen on hard times in our society as indicated by the fact that the divorce rate, though less than the common wisdom that “50% of marriages end in divorce,” is still a little over 40%. Just as people get married for the most trivial reasons these days, so people get divorced for the most trivial reasons – everything from vague “irreconcilable differences” (whatever that may mean) to “falling out of love.”The concept of “no-fault” divorce has made the ending of marriages easier than ever and is both a cause and a symptom of the lack of seriousness with which people take their vows. Celebrities and other public figures have not helped the issue either, as people watch their favorite actors, singers, or television personalities get divorced seemingly at the drop of a hat, normalizing a practice that God never intended to be acceptable.
One would think that things would be different in the church, and while the rates are lower for committed Christians, divorces among this group (according to a recent study by Shaunti Feldhahn) are still 28%. Though the statistics for Christians are lower than for the unbelieving world, the fact that so many marriages in the church end in divorce is a sad statement about many Christians’ views of the institution of matrimony.
What Does the Bible Say about Divorce?
Divorce is not God’s plan.
The Bible, however, tells a different story. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were created for each other and the idea that they would divorce was unthinkable. Genesis 2:24 tells us that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” There is no provision made for any sort of separation or permanent dissolution of the bond that God created.
Had nothing changed, Adam and Eve would have remained married to each other forever. Tragically, in the very next chapter, sin entered the world and brought with it the tidal wave of evil, alienation, and misery that has plagued humanity ever since, and which will continue unabated until the Last Day.
We can see its effects in the blame-shifting that Adam and Eve engaged in immediately after the Fall. Adam blamed God and Eve for eating the fruit, and Eve blamed the serpent.
God punished Adam by cursing the ground and Eve by making childbirth excruciatingly painful. Though Eve sinned first and subsequently drew Adam into sinning as well, it is important to note God did not speak even one word about their marriage ending.
The only thing that would end the marriage was the death that came about as a result of their sin. Thus, we see that God’s intention for marriage was that a man and woman be married to each other until death parts them.
Divorce in the Old Testament
In this passage, we read laws concerning divorce. On the surface, it appears to be condoning divorce. After all, it provides for the issuing of a certificate on the occasion of a divorce, and a sending away of the wife who is then free to marry again to another man. This has led some to conclude that divorce and remarriage are allowed for a wide variety of reasons.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4
Two things should be pointed out here. First, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 does not speak at all to the propriety of divorce, it merely regulates it (if she finds no favor in his eyes . . . and he writes her a certificate of divorce . . .). While God permitted divorce in the Old Testament, He never commanded it or approved of it.
Second, Jesus Himself addressed this passage directly when confronted by the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3-9. They asked Him if divorce “for any and every reason” was permissible and when Jesus answered in the negative, they, thinking they had trapped Him, pounced on Him by quoting Deuteronomy 24:1 and asking why Moses commanded them to send their wives away with a certificate of divorce.
Jesus, however, pointed out that the provision made in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was made to regulate divorce because men, out of their sinful hearts, were leaving their divorced wives without any kind of protection from being executed as adulterers when they remarried. However, in the beginning, when God created Adam and Eve, He intended for the marriage relationship to be permanent.
For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So, guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless. – Malachi 2:16
Though we could multiply passages from the Old Testament, one more passage will do to show God’s general attitude toward divorce. Malachi 2:16 makes it abundantly clear that in general, divorce is considered an act of violence and a breach of faith with one’s spouse.
Divorce is permitted for infidelity.
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32
Here, Jesus directly addresses that question of divorce and gives the first of two exceptions to the prohibition on divorce that are found in the New Testament (see also Matthew 19:3-9). He explicitly states that divorce for any reason is prohibited, with the sole exception of situations where there is sexual immorality involved.
This is a difficult statement for some people to accept. Many have glossed over or ignored this passage because they want to be free to divorce their spouses for any and every reason. But Jesus was never one to cater to the desires of sinful humanity. He was a speaker of truth because as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, He was truth, itself.
But what constitutes “sexual immorality?” Does it only mean having an actual sexual encounter with someone that is not one’s spouse? Is pornography included? What about “emotional affairs”? Space does not permit us to address these questions in this article, but it is important to note that whatever “sexual immorality” includes, it is the only exception to divorce that Jesus gives here.
This does not mean that a marriage struck by adultery must necessarily end in divorce. If the adulterer is truly repentant and the offended spouse is willing to work to save the marriage, then divorce does not have to happen. However, if the adulterer is unrepentant, or if the offended spouse is not willing to reconcile, then divorce is permitted.
Divorce is permitted for abandonment.
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. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him…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. – 1 Corinthians 7:13,15
In 1 Corinthians 7:13 and 15. the Apostle Paul gives the second situation in which divorce is permitted. Here, a Christian finds themselves married to an unbeliever who does not wish to remain married to them. Paul tells the believer that they are “not enslaved,” meaning that they are not bound to the marriage. After making every effort to preserve the marriage, if the unbeliever is bound and determined to dissolve it, then the believer is to let them go.
Christian Counseling for Marriage Problems
The Bible’s view of divorce differs radically from that of modern culture. Divorce is not permitted because you “fell out of love” with your wife, because your husband snores too much, because the two of you fight all of the time, because your wife has become unattractive, or because you have “irreconcilable differences.” To put it plainly, if the reason that you are getting divorced is not for either of the two exceptions listed above, then your divorce is unbiblical and hateful in God’s eyes.
But what is a person to do when they have seemingly insurmountable marriage problems that don’t fall under the two biblical exceptions? The short answer is to get to work and solve them. Marriage is a lot of work – anyone who says differently is selling something.
If you are having marital issues or you are contemplating divorce for less than biblical reasons, then Christian marriage counseling can help. A Christian counselor will come alongside you and your spouse and help you to work through whatever problems you may be facing and assist you in getting your marriage back on track.
If you are already going through a divorce for reasons related to sexual immorality or abandonment, then Christian counseling can also help. A Christian counselor will offer compassionate guidance as you work through the issues involved and find your way to a place of hope and healing.
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