What Does the Bible Say About Divorce? When Is It Allowed?

Three steps to take if you are considering divorce.

by Dennis Rainey New FamilyLife Calendar

In our culture today many see divorce as a positive solution to a troubled marriage. But Harvard sociologist Armand Nicholi III concluded, "Divorce is not a solution, but an exchange of problems." In a more personal way, novelist Pat Conroy said of his own marriage break-up, "Each divorce is the death of a small civilization."

One woman wrote after her divorce, "Our divorce has been the most painful, horrid, ulcer producing, agonizing event you can imagine….I wish I could put on this piece of paper for all the world to see, a picture of what divorce feels like. Maybe my picture would stop people before it's too late."

Marriage is a covenant

It should not be surprising that God declares, in Malachi 2:16, "I hate divorce!" And why does He hate divorce? One reason is that marriage is meant to be a special covenant between a man, a woman, and their God.

The vows I shared with Barbara went like this:

I, Dennis, take you, Barbara, to be my lawful wedded wife. I promise and covenant, before God and these witnesses, to be your loving and faithful husband; to stand by you in riches and in poverty, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, as long as we both shall live."

When we spoke these words, Barbara and I weren't agreeing to provide some personal services via a contract that could be terminated if one of us defaulted. Instead, we were entering into a covenant—the same type of sacred obligation that God made with His children on several momentous occasions, such as with Noah after the flood.

Any covenant—including the marriage covenant—is a binding, weighty obligation. In Proverbs 20:25 we read, "It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows" (NIV). Deuteronomy 23:23 says, "You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised." Jesus said that "every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment" (Matthew 12:36).

God takes the wedding covenant seriously, even when we do not.

God's purposes for marriage

Another reason God hates divorce is because it tears at the very heart of God's redemptive plan for the world. It is interesting to note the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3-9. When the Pharisees ask, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?'' Jesus answers by pointing them to God's purposes for marriage:

And He answered and said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, and said, "FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH'? "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."

One of God's major purposes for marriage is to mirror His image. After God created the earth and the animals, He said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." The account continues, "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:26–27).

What does it mean to mirror God's image? Your marriage should exalt God and glorify Him to a world that desperately needs to see who He is. Because we're created in the image of God, people who wouldn't otherwise know what God is like should be able to look at us and get a glimpse of Him.

A second purpose is to complete each other and experience companionship. Scripture clearly outlines a second purpose for marriage: to mutually complete each other. That's why God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18).

A third purpose for marriage is to multiply a godly legacy. God's original plan called for the home to be a sort of greenhouse—a nurturing place where children grow up to learn character, values, and integrity. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 tells us, "These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up."

Marriage is far more important than most of us realize. It affects God's reputation on this planet. That's why He hates divorce. And that's why it's essential for you to set Jesus Christ apart as the Builder of your home.

The "exception clauses"

If I could end this discussion about what the Bible says on divorce at this point, the lives of many pastors across this country would be much easier. But Scriptures also discuss what some call the "exception clauses" for divorce.

Earlier I quoted from the discussion between Christ and the Pharisees in Matthew 19. After Jesus refers to God's original purposes for marriage, He is asked, "Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?" Jesus then answers, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery" (Matthew 19:7-9).

Another passage, 1 Corinthians 7:15-17, tells us:

Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches.

However you interpret these passages, one thing is clear: God never ordained or created the institution of divorce. Man did.

Beyond that, the generally accepted interpretation among a majority in the conservative evangelical community is that these passages indicate there are a couple of circumstances in which God releases a couple from the lifelong covenant of marriage:

  • In the case of consistent, unrepentant immorality
  • When an unbelieving spouse deserts a believer.

Most pastors and Christian leaders will discourage divorce even in these situations but ultimately will not discourage it when all other options have been considered. This is the position held by FamilyLife.

The minority interpretation among evangelical Christians holds that the only exception for divorce is death. A key verse in is Matthew 19:8 where Jesus says to the Pharisees, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way." In addition, Paul states in 1 Corinthians 7:24, "Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called….Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released."

Clearly, this is a difficult, thorny issue, around which there is much debate. But both sides on this debate would agree that most couples seeking a divorce today do so for unbiblical reasons. They cite reasons such as poor communication, incompatibility, financial problems, lack of commitment to the relationship, changes in priorities. In short, when marriage isn't working, the common solution is to get out.

If you are considering divorce

During my years of ministry I've seen story after story of couples deciding to trust God for a reconciliation. Many have been on the verge of obtaining a divorce—even for reasons we might consider biblical—yet have decided instead to allow God to work in their relationship.

In our culture, which emphasizes meeting individual needs no matter the cost (so as to gain pleasure and avoid pain), I believe we need to challenge Christians to be open to trusting God's plan to come to pass in their marriage. Remember, God's plan is to redeem. And very few spouses who consider divorce have done everything they can to salvage their marriage.

At this point, some of you might be saying, "Dennis, you just don't understand my mate and my situation." And you're right, I don't. However, given the seriousness of this subject, let me clearly say a few things here.

First, you need someone who is willing and able to walk with you during this time. Someone who will not just sympathize with you, but will also hold you accountable to look at the biblical issues and do what is right. I believe that if at all possible, the best person to do this is your pastor. Another person might be a counselor trained to use the Bible.

Second, you need the church of Jesus Christ surrounding you. Be very careful you don't pull away from the church. Each part of the body needs the other. Make it clear to others in your church you don't want to be left alone. You need their love, encouragement and good counsel. The last thing you need to do is make any decisions about your marriage in a vacuum.

Third, you need to seek God in His Word and cry out to Him to know His ways and His heart for what you should do and how you should respond to your spouse. If you are looking to legitimize your reasons for divorce … slow down, even stop. Notice how much of Scripture is given to God's messages of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, understanding, and patience.

How much value will you place on the vows you spoke to your mate before the face of your God? When you consider how much God values a covenant, what are the obligations of your marriage covenant before Him?

Will you be patient to wait for God to work in your marriage in a way you have not considered? Will you look to Him to give you the wisdom, the resources, the encouragement you need to do above and beyond what you ever could imagine or think?

Ask God to show you what you can do to rebuild your marriage. Remember, God specializes in redeeming the unredeemable. It is His preeminent desire for your marriage.

In closing, I'd like to challenge you to begin to pray together for 30 days as a couple that God will restore your marriage? That He will be the Builder of your home and that He will bring healing to your relationship. Ask Him for a miracle. Then join us at one of our Weekend to Remember marriage getaways so that you can be equipped with the biblical blueprints for your marriage and family. You will never regret that you prayed and then joined us for a life-changing weekend. 

© 2013 by FamilyLife.  All rights reserved.

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