Is the Bible clear on grounds for divorce? Does the Old Testament and the New Testament agree on grounds for divorce?
Divorce in the Old Testament
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 says
“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.”
To be sure, the word “indecency” is a key word in this allowance for divorce. If we look at a definition of indecency we see it means “a morally or sexually offensive quality; behavior that is morally or sexually offensive: indecent behavior.”1 Indecency obviously means sexual immorality and/or adultery. This does not mean that if she treats her husband or if the husband treats his wife badly that they can divorce. Indecency by definition is sexual immorality and that is the only reason that divorce was ever permitted in the Old Testament. This is also the only reason given in the New Testament. If a spouse dies they are free to remarry and this is seen throughout the Old Testament like in Deuteronomy 22:19: “She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.” Of course this applies to the men as well. This is what Jesus spoke about, as we shall later read, when asked whether Moses actually “commanded” a certificate of divorce be written (Matt 19:8). This is contrary to what the Bible says because it says that God hates divorce (Mal 2:16).
God divorced Israel because of her immorality in turning to other gods which are not gods at all. Israel had prostituted herself (Jer 3:1) and so God gave her a certificate of divorce (Jer 3:8) since this was legal grounds for divorce according to teachings in the Old and New Testament.
New Testament on Divorce
Paul was commanded by the Lord to say that “the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:10) and by all means “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 (1 Cor 7:12b-13) for how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife” (1 Cor 7:16)? Paul’s desire is that, if possible, no one should ever divorce, whether it is a Christian married to a Christian or one that has only one believing partner in the marriage. The unsaved partner may be persuaded to come to Christ on account of the believers’ faith in Him because “even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Pet 3:1b-2).
Paul reiterated the grounds for divorce in his other places too like in Romans 7:2-3 that
“by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.”
Jesus on Divorce
In Matthew 19:3-9 the “Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 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’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 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. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” These Pharisees were not sincere in their asking Jesus about divorce. They wanted to trap Him to bring the wrath of the Jewish nation and leaders upon Him. Jesus was crystal clear the only grounds for divorce was adultery. The Pharisees twisted the Scriptures by saying that Moses “commanded a certificate of divorce” (Matt 19:7). Wrong! Jesus corrects them by saying that Moses only permitted it or allowed for it and even then it was only because of the hardness of their hearts (19:8).
Jesus mentioned grounds for divorce in several places like in Matthew 5:31-32, Luke 16:18 and in Mark 10:2-12.
Debatable Divorce Grounds
Is abuse grounds for divorce? Many Bible scholars believe that it is because violence by a spouse against another or against children is a breaking of the marriage vows. Also, many teach that Paul grants grounds for divorce if a believer is abandoned by his or her spouse (1 Cor 7:15). Paul says that “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 Cor 7:15). Does he mean that when a believing spouse or an unbelieving spouse leaves they are not bound in their marriage? It doesn’t seem so because in this paragraph Paul doesn’t say it is from the Lord, but this is from Him (“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord)” (1 Cor 7:12a). Where the Lord does speak Paul indicates this. The Lord actually tells Paul to teach that the wife shouldn’t divorce her husband and the husband shouldn’t divorce his wife at all, except for adultery (1 Cor 7:10b-11). One is “from the Lord” while the other is from Paul and not directly commanded by the Lord. By allowing for adultery as grounds for divorce, it is understood that a one-time affair should not be a license for a quick divorce. Hopefully the offended party can be forgiving if a person makes such a tragic mistake but where there is ongoing, unrepentant adultery, there is every reason to seek a divorce. Certainly if abuse occurs police should be informed and any abuse that includes children, either sexual or physical, should be immediately reported. The guilty party should be jailed and should have to pay for such a criminal act and Christians are to abide by the laws of the land even if it includes turning in a spouse who physically and/or sexually abuses them and/or the children in that marriage (Rom 13).
God hates divorce but He loves divorced people and this is certainly not the unpardonable sin. You cannot unscramble an egg any more than a person who is divorced can divorce another to remarry their original or first spouse. We should all “lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called” (1 Cor 7:17) and to “remain in the condition in which [they] was called” (1 Cor 7:20) so “in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor 7:24). I cannot possible address all the grounds for divorce in your or someone else’s particular case. You must seek godly counsel. Ask God for guidance. If you are separated, seek to be restored. If abuse, either physical, sexual, or both occur, turn in the abuser and separate yourself and any children that are in that home immediately. No one needs to suffer abuse at the hands of a law breaker because “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13:2) either in this present life or the life to come. Ultimately, all will have to stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ to give an account for every idle word and every deed while done here on earth (Rom 14:21; 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 20:11-15).
Another Reading on Patheos to Check Out: What Did Jesus Really Look Like: A Look at the Bible Facts
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want to Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design available on Amazon.
1 “Indecency.” Merriam-Webster.com http://www.merriam-webster.