Divorce is a subject that the Bible speaks about in some noteworthy ways. Sometimes it’s considered a sin, and other times it’s not. The context surrounding each situation determines how we should think about it.
The Old Testament and New Testament both speak about the subject of divorce. It’s established in the Old Testament and then gets developed throughout the New Testament with Jesus Himself even addressing the subject in ways that alter its biblical qualifications. How divorce is treated by the end of the Bible is certainly not how it’s treated in the beginning.
What the Old Testament Says about Divorce
The Old Testament serves as a baseline for us to determine how divorce was understood in ancient Israel. We’re going to cover what warranted it during this time period and a couple of exceptions that prohibited it from happening. Most importantly, we’re also going to learn what God thinks about divorce.
Deuteronomy 24:1 is the original template for divorce in the Bible. From this verse, we learn that men could divorce their wives for “some indecency,” and a certificate of divorce was required to be given to the woman (De. 24:1, ESV). What qualified as “some indecency” is quite debated, even within academia. Later Jewish rabbis would interpret this verse in a variety of ways across the moral spectrum; some interpreted divorce as applicable for trivial things (like an unkind word) and others for only significant matters (like promiscuous behavior). What’s clear is this: the decision to divorce was up to the husband.
That decision was largely rooted in the patriarchal culture of the ancient Near East and most other societies from that period in time. However, Israel had a couple of unique laws that prohibited men from divorcing their wives under certain circumstances. Deuteronomy 22:13-19 records that if a man accuses his wife of not being a virgin due to premarital infidelity and is wrong, he is never allowed to divorce her. The second exception is just a few verses later. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 records that if a man is discovered having sex with a virgin who isn’t betrothed to anyone, because of his actions, he must marry her and is never allowed to divorce her.
These unique and ancient rules for divorce are interesting in their own right, but what God says about the subject is paramount. In Malachi 2:16, He shares a visceral reaction that also reveals His heart on the matter. Leaving no room for confusion, God declares, “I hate divorce” (Ml. 2:16, NASB). Before you continue reading, pause to consider that statement for just a moment: God hates divorce.
What the New Testament Says about Divorce
The New Testament helps clarify the ambiguous nature of the circumstances that warrant divorce. The Apostle Paul and Jesus both give Christians some conditions that merit divorce, and even if those conditions exist, reconciliation is always preferred to severing a marriage. Like God, we are called to hate divorce.
However, there are circumstances outlined by the Apostle Paul that free a believer from needlessly enduring an unhealthy marriage. Particularly, in 1Corinthians 7:12-16, he identifies an important qualifier for divorce using the example of Christians married to non-Christians. In this passage, Paul pinpoints abandonment as an acceptable reason for divorce. He pens, “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (1Co. 7:15, ESV).
Some exegetes also use the Apostle Peter’s letters in conjunction with Paul’s letters to argue for divorce on the grounds of abuse. Verses like 1Peter 3:7 are combined with others like Colossians 3:19 and Ephesians 5:28-33 to mount a biblical case. However, discussing that verdict is beyond the scope of this article but certainly worth investigating.
What Jesus Says about Divorce
As our divine exegete, Jesus opens our minds to understand and apply the Scriptures to our lives. He speaks strongly against initiating divorce flippantly, and He omnisciently reveals the reason for it in the Old Testament. Finally, He presents the primary reason it should be allowed in Christian societies today.
In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus declares remarriage to another person after a wrongful divorce to be the equivalent of adultery. In Luke 16:18, He even takes it a step further; anyone who marries a wrongfully divorced person is committing adultery! Jesus makes us responsible for ourselves and our neighbor here, and exactly like His Father, Jesus hates divorce.
In Matthew 19:7-9, Jesus is questioned about His strict stance on divorce. After being asked why then Moses allowed for it, He reveals that divorce was only allowed because of ancient Israel’s hardness of heart; basically, Jesus identifies divorce as an unwelcome concession due to their stubborn self-centeredness. He makes His point by noting that it wasn’t like this at the beginning of God’s design for marriage (Gn. 2:24).
In the passage above and Matthew 5:32, Jesus reveals the foremost acceptable reason for divorce. Jesus allows for divorce if sexual immorality occurs during the marriage. These divisive sexual sins slash at the metaphysical bonds of being “one flesh” together (Mk. 10:7-9). The destructive reality of this situation is why Jesus permits divorce if reconciliation doesn’t transpire.
Where Do I Go from Here?
It’s wrong to get divorced simply because someone is unhappy with the relationship or desires release from marriage. Divorce should always be avoided if possible, and that potentially includes moving past personal mistreatment and infidelity. Reconciliation is a powerful thing that could make your bonds together stronger than before.
However, sometimes, the destructive pain inflicted by another person makes reconciliation impossible. If someone meets one of the three criteria mentioned above (abuse, abandonment, sexual immorality), talking to their pastor about how to handle the situation is the first step. If seeking reconciliation, professional help may also be needed. They should not make any decisions without seeking counsel (Pr. 11:14).
May God bless you and give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).
Written By: Nicholas Lakin
Nick is an academic scholar, budding theologian, and thoughtful teacher of the Bible. He has a passion to see others grow in their knowledge of God for the purpose of glorifying Christ. He’s also a graduate of Liberty University and a former United States Army soldier.
His academic works range from commentaries and exegetical analyses to nuanced details regarding the Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible. His future endeavors include Chaplaincy and founding a nonprofit organization that’s conducive to ecumenical orthodoxy across Protestantism.