We recently concluded our teaching series on family with a message about marriage. During that message, I could almost feel the questions bubbling up from a congregation who has had a vast variety of experiences with marriage. I could see the pained look on the faces who had not experienced the ideal of marriage as presented in the scriptures. For some, as I talked about marriage as oneness, it may have felt like divorce is an unspoken unforgivable sin, or they may have walked into the foyer feeling like damaged goods. There are so many specific situations that it is difficult to try to address all of them, however, I do think there has been a lot of misunderstanding in the church around this concept of divorce. There are divergent interpretations of the scripture’s treatment of this issue and even among our own leaders at Grace, I’m sure there are a variety of opinions around the allowable reasons for divorce.

Some of the most common questions I hear are, “What constitutes a ‘biblical’ divorce?”, “What does The Bible say about divorce?” and “Is adultery the only reason a Christian can get divorced?”

One of the prevailing policies in many evangelical churches is that the only biblical reason for divorce is if the spouse commits adultery. This belief can be traced back to the words of Jesus in a specific passage in the gospels. I think this view needs a deeper look (which is the main purpose of this blog post). But before we dig into that passage, and in the end arrive at a more comprehensive list of biblical reasons for divorce, let me just start with 3 Foundational Truths about Divorce.

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3 Foundational Truths about Divorce

1. Christians let their cultural sensibilities overshadow God’s view of divorce

This happened to the Pharisees in Jesus’ day as they tried to trap him with a question about divorce that was driven by their cultural understanding, and we do it too. The pendulum of our society has swung in favor of a divorce-on-demand approach. When your marriage runs into to trouble you have a variety of voices to consider. Your attorney is saying get out, and your sister says to leave the bum, and your fellas at the gym are saying you don’t have to put up with her nagging. The reason marriage is in such bad shape in the church is not because of the judicial system, it’s not liberals, it’s not Hollywood, it’s because the Christians have given up on what Jesus said about marriage and listened instead to the voice of culture.

2. Divorce is a product of sin

When Jesus answers questions about divorce, he appeals to the original blueprint. Jesus was part of a three-man team who invented marriage. In Genesis 2, we see God establish marriage, and the relationship is defined by intimacy and partnership. The first couple is named “Ish” and “Isha.” The similarity of the names reinforces God’s desire for marriage to be a beautiful, life-long partnership between a man and a woman. That project went off the rails by Genesis 3. Through the rest of the book, we see God’s vision for marriage battered by deceit, blame, power struggles, polygamy, and infidelity. Every divorce is the product of sin. Before it ever is a breach between a husband and a wife, divorce is a breach in the relationship with God. In Scripture, the most dreaded condition for a marriage to fall into is a condition called “hardheartedness”? It’s when stress cracks appear in a marriage, and you don’t pay attention to it. It’s when there’s a little drifting of affection, but you’re not attentive to it. It’s when there are little bits of hostility forming, but you don’t act on it. You just get a little further apart and a little less loving and a little less communicative and a little less tender and a little less forgiving and a little less understanding, and you do further and further. Pretty soon, you fall into this condition that the Scripture calls terminal when it comes to marriage — hardness of heart, where something snaps inside of you, and you say, “I don’t give a rip anymore. I don’t care about this person that I went to the altar with. In fact, I may even wish them ill. I’m done with this.”

3. Divorce is permitted, but not required in a select number of instances.

There are grounds for divorce layed out in the scriptures. I believe, sadly, tragically, painfully, there are occasions when divorce is permitted. Remember, this is a last resort. God says in Malachi 2:16, I hate divorce. And do you know why God hates it? Because he’s been through it. He knows the pain of betrayal when his people walked away from their covenant relationship. So, God feels it deeply. But the key in every legitimate reason for divorce is the hardness of heart. Because even if one spouse commits a terrible sin against the other, if they are truly repentant – I believe the spirit of the scriptures is to seek reconciliation and restoration. We will come back to what I believe is the comprehensive list of biblical reasons for divorce at the end of this post. But first, let’s look at why so many Christians believe that things like abuse and abandonment don’t warrant a divorce, but the only legitimate reason is adultery by a spouse.

What the Bible Says about Divorce (Bible Verses on Divorce)

I want to look at the main passage where Jesus speaks to the issue of divorce in Matt. 19:3-9.

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 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 his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no person is to separate.” They *said to Him, “Why, then, did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “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 sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

These are pretty direct words from Jesus. This passage has led many Christians and churches to assume policies around divorce that only allow for it if one partner or the other has had an affair. There is no room, they say, for other offenses like abuse or abandonment. Because Jesus said, the only thing that can un-one what God has made one is adultery (obviously the death of a spouse is also assumed). Is that really what Jesus is saying? This question from the Pharisees comes with a lot of cultural and historical baggage that we have to sift through in order to get at what Jesus is really driving at. And remember as we go, this question was intended to trick or trap Jesus. These were rabbis trying to catch a rival rabbi in a philosophical snare. Let’s start with Moses.

Here, the Pharisees reference Moses’ divorce reform, and in Mark’s version of this teaching, Jesus is the one who first brings up Moses. So we better figure out what Moses had to do with this question and answer. By the time of Moses, values from the surrounding culture had already displaced God’s vision of a Genesis 2 marriage. Women were viewed as inherently inferior to men and viewed as property. So, Israel abandoned God’s way and adopted the moral and legal positions found in the Hammurabi Code. The code stated that a husband had the right to divorce his wife on a whim. Not only that, but the husband also reserved the right to change his mind and come back and claim his ex-wife, his kids, and the estate as his own again if he happened to change his mind at any point. The wife was not only abandoned but also powerless and left financially destitute and unable to get work in a society that wouldn’t allow it.

So, God responded by giving Moses laws regarding divorce that stood in direct opposition to the cruel, patriarchal cultural code that left women high and dry. In Deuteronomy 24:1-5, Moses offers a divorce reform. Whenever a man divorced his wife, it had to be in writing. The divorce certificate allowed the woman to pursue another marriage relationship after a divorce. It also kept the husband from changing his mind when his anger passed. A woman who held a divorce certificate had no obligation to return to her husband, even if he summoned her back. The divorce certificate was a reform designed to make men stop and think before breaking their marriage vows. They had to put it in writing. And it also made provisions for the abandoned wife.

Deuteronomy mentions divorce on the grounds of “indecency.” In the Hebrew, it read “for the cause of sexual immorality.” This raises the question, “What about other cases. Was there any precedent for divorce because of abuse or abandonment?” Yes, in fact, those cases were covered as well, just in a roundabout way. In Exodus 21, we find another classic text on divorce. The law asks, “What happens if a man takes a second wife?” And answers with provisions to protect the interests of the first wife: If the husband takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her (the first wife’s) food, her clothing, or her conjugal love. If he does not provide her with those three things, she is free to go without payments of money (Exodus 21:10-11).

Once again, the law is seeking to protect the woman. In this case, the husband takes a new wife and, human nature being what it is, the new wife tends to get the good stuff, so the law said, “When he (the husband) married his first wife, he made a vow to provide support (food and clothing) and love. So, if he breaks that vow, then the first wife is free to leave, free to get a divorce, free to get a certificate, free to remarry.” Over time the rabbis looked at these two passages (Dt 24 and Ex 21) as the classic Scriptural texts governing divorce. They said: Based on these texts, marriage involves a vow, and those vows include three primary promises: 1) Fidelity. To be faithful, and that there be no sexual unfaithfulness (Deuteronomy 24); 2) Provision. To provide food, clothing, and other basic needs (Exodus 21); and 3) Affection. Sexual intimacy and conjugal love.

The question becomes, did the rabbis who were questioning Jesus believe that Biblical grounds for divorce could include things like abandonment or abuse? The answer is yes. Abandonment was considered the extreme form of breaking the vow of Provision (#2 above). Abuse would be the extreme form of breaking the vow of Affection (#3 above). In Israel, those would be grounds for divorce. That did not mean that anybody thought God believed divorce was a good idea. It was not, but this was a way of preventing worse injustice and suffering when vows were broken. That was the framework for marriage and divorce in ancient Israel. That was the reference to Moses’ referendum that both the Pharisees and Jesus are referring to historically.

In Jesus’ day, there was a new development. Two of the most famous rabbis who had lived a few decades before Jesus was born and dominated rabbinic teaching were named Hillel and Shammai. They were the “big dogs” among rabbis. Schools were founded around them to interpret the Law. These two often had different interpretations of important issues.

Hillel looked at the law in Deuteronomy 24:1, where Moses says a man can divorce his wife for “a cause of sexual immorality.” He reflected on this text and said: Moses could have said that a man could divorce his wife “for sexual immorality,” but he includes this phrase: “for the cause of sexual immorality.” Why does he include that phrase? The rabbis loved every word and believed that no word was random or redundant. Hillel reasoned that this word must refer to another cause, different grounds for divorce besides sexual immorality. Since it was just the word “cause,” Hillel concluded that it must mean “any cause.” In other words, Hillel said that Deuteronomy 24 meant that a man could divorce his wife for two reasons: sexual immorality OR basically any cause. Hillel was a man. The rabbis in his school were men. So, they also decided that this “any cause” divorce would be available only to men.

Hillel concluded that this “any cause divorce” would cover just about any fault you could conceive of in your wife. The list of offenses that fell under this “any cause” provision were things like:

  • If a wife spoiled her husband’s dinner, he could divorce her.
  • If she walked around with her hair unbound, her husband could divorce her.
  • If she argued in a voice loud enough to be heard by others, he could divorce her.
  • If she forced them to watch two consecutive chick-flicks on Netflix, he could divorce her. ( I made that one up).

“Any cause divorce,” was the “irreconcilable differences” of the ancient world. One drawback is that it was expensive. If a husband could prove adultery in court, he was not permitted to pay the marriage inheritance that was promised at the wedding. But if he pursued an “any cause divorce” he still had to pay the inheritance. But that didn’t deter many. And as soon as Hillel’s school of thought introduced it, it grew like wildfire. “Any cause divorce” became the most popular form of divorce in all of Israel.

This context sheds light on Matthew 1:19. Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant with Jesus, and because he didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace, the bible says he agreed to divorce her quietly. The word “quietly” is not just a vague adjective, it is a technical term. He had decided not to take her to court to prove she was guilty of adultery and thus get out of her marriage inheritance. He decided to get an “any-cause divorce” to avoid the scandal. This was an invention of the rabbi Hillel.

The other important rabbi of the day named Shammai disagreed. He said, “No, Deuteronomy 24:1 only applies to divorce for sexual immorality. It doesn’t throw the floodgates open to every other possible cause.” Shammai would certainly have also agreed that divorce could happen due to abuse or abandonment based on Exodus 21, but the real disagreement was over the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24. Does it mean any cause or adultery only?

Is Adultery the only reason a Christian can get divorced?

In Jesus’ day, there was a huge debate among rabbis regarding this interpretation. Some followed Hillel’s interpretation and some followed Shammai’s. And every rabbi was expected to weigh in and come down on one side or the other. It’s like how politicians in our day have to declare themselves – are you for open borders or closed borders, pro-choice or pro-life, etc. So when the Pharisees came to Jesus to trap him, they pulled out the most divisive issue, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” (Mt. 19:3) They were asking, do you agree with Hillel or Shammai on the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24. He goes on to say, that a person can’t divorce and remarry “except for sexual immorality.” (Mt 19:9)

Many Christians have universalized this one statement and ignored all other causes for divorce and I’m just not sure that’s what Jesus is doing here. He is simply answering a direct question about his stance on these two extreme positions and says he comes down against “any cause divorce.” He’s saying, “I’m a Shammai guy on this issue.” Other passages in the New Testament and some of Paul’s counsel to the church in Corinth would indicate that the Christian approach allowed for divorce in the case of other breaches of the marriage covenant by one spouse.

I have heard people in my church say, “You mean that if my husband beats me, beats our children, is addicted to drugs and alcohol, steals money, tries to kill me, I have to stay married to him, but if he strays one time sexually, then I can get a divorce?” People have thought this is what it means to be Biblical on this issue. I don’t think this understanding is the spirit of Jesus’ response in this passage to a very specific question. So, in the spirit of clearly spelling it out and extrapolating the full counsel of scripture on the issue, here is what I believe about

What Constitutes the legitimate ending of a marriage?

  1. Death – (1 Corinthians 7:39; Romans 7:2-4) This is obvious, but the death of a spouse warrants a legitimate ending to the covenant of marriage.
  2. Adultery – (Deuteronomy 22:22 and Matthew 5:32) – Part of the covenant of marriage is that one man and one woman would be one flesh, and adultery is the betrayal of the oneness of the covenant. It is the breaking of the covenant vows. This does not mean, if adultery is committed, that you must get a divorce, but it means that you may have biblical grounds to do so.
  3. Sexual immorality – (Deut. 24; Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9) This covers a wide range of sexual sins. The word that is often used in the scriptures is porneia. It’s the same root from which we get pornography and it’s a general term meaning all kinds of sexual immorality and sin. There are other kinds of sexual sin that may not fit the technical definition of adultery, but they do qualify as infidelity.
  4. Betrayal by an unbelieving spouse – (1 Cor. 7) – Sometimes a Christian marries a non-Christian and the non-Christian just leaves at some point in the marriage. Sometimes two people marry as non-Christians, one becomes a Christian, and then the non-Christian says, “I did not sign up to be married to a Christian,” and they leave. They file for divorce, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
  5. Treasonous breach of covenant vows – (Exodus 21; Mal. 2:14-16) – Treachery is a breach of the covenant that evaporates the one-fleshness of the marriage. Any breach of safety and loyalty that puts one spouse in danger is insinuated in this case. Included here are cases of abuse or abandonment. Those being harmed should be removed from the environment that endangers them as immediately as possible.

The common denominator in all of these instances (except for point #1) is the hardness of heart. Starting with Moses, the concession was given to divorce as a last resort in instances of hardness of heart. Hardness of heart violates two primary relationships simultaneously: the relationship with the spouse and the relationship with God.

Whenever possible, reconciliation is the primary motivation behind our actions against those who have done great harm (1 Corinthians 7:11) because Jesus says we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-45). The Bible also commands sinners to repent. If there is no repentance, then there is no requirement to remain married (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

Finding Peace Through the Grief

We hope you found this post helpful for finding answers about divorce. If this is a difficult time of grieving for you, we want to help support you through it! Consider downloading the free replay of our webinar with Grief Specialist Pam Presler as we discuss some of the most commonly asked questions about navigating times of grief and loss.