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  • Writer's pictureTerrell Pugh

What Does the Bible Say About Divorce?

What Does the Bible Say About Divorce

The Bible speaks to the sanctity of marriage and the conditions under which divorce is discussed, offering guidance that has evolved from ancient legal codes to nuanced New Testament teachings. Notably, the Scriptures do not address the topic of divorce lightly, reflecting the gravity of marital dissolution and its impact on individuals and communities. This article seeks to unpack the biblical perspective on divorce, with a special focus on the vivid imagery used in Malachi 2:16, where the act of divorce is likened to covering one's garment with violence, an idiom illustrating the deep scars and lasting consequences of severing what God has joined together.

Old Testament Views on Divorce

The Old Testament treatment of divorce is primarily found in the Pentateuch, particularly within the legal codes that were intended to regulate various aspects of daily life in ancient Israel. Here, divorce is acknowledged as a part of societal practices but is regulated to protect the rights of the involved parties, especially women.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 - The Law of Divorce

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is often cited as the foundational text regarding divorce in the Old Testament. It states that a man can write a certificate of divorce for his wife if he finds something indecent about her, send her away from his house, and she can then become another man's wife. The passage is notable for several reasons:

  • Protection of Women: By requiring a written certificate of divorce, the law aimed to protect women from being arbitrarily dismissed by their husbands. This certificate served as proof of her status, allowing her to remarry without the social stigma associated with being sent away.

  • Indecency: The term "something indecent" has been the subject of much interpretation. It suggests that divorce was not to be taken lightly and was based on serious grounds, though the exact nature of these grounds has been debated among scholars and religious authorities.

  • Prohibition of Return: If the woman remarries and becomes divorced or widowed again, the first husband cannot take her back. This rule was likely intended to discourage hasty divorces and to uphold the sanctity of marriage by preventing manipulative practices.

Malachi 2:16 - God's Dislike for Divorce

Malachi 2:16 presents a more direct divine perspective on divorce, stating, "I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel. This strong language reflects God's intention for marriage to be a lifelong commitment. The metaphor of a man covering his garment with violence highlights the destructive nature of divorce, not just to the individuals involved but to the fabric of society. The garment, often a symbol of one's identity and status, being covered in violence (blood from battle), serves as a powerful image for the turmoil and pain divorce can cause.

  • Violence Against Women: The phrase can also be interpreted as a condemnation of violence against women, a reminder of the covenantal nature of marriage, and a call to treat one's spouse with respect and dignity.

  • Covenantal Faithfulness: The broader context of Malachi addresses Israel's unfaithfulness to God, drawing a parallel between marital unfaithfulness and the people's unfaithfulness to their covenant with God. Thus, divorce becomes a metaphor for spiritual apostasy.

Societal Norms and Marriage

In ancient Israelite society, marriage was not merely a personal relationship between two individuals but a crucial institution that secured familial lineage, property rights, and social stability. Marriages were often arranged, with significant emphasis placed on the continuation of family lines and the establishment of alliances between families. The patriarchal nature of this society meant that men held legal authority over their households, including their wives and children.

Legal Frameworks for Marriage and Divorce

The legal codes in the Old Testament, particularly those found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, provide detailed regulations covering various aspects of daily life, including marriage and divorce. These laws reflect a blend of moral imperatives and practical considerations, aiming to ensure community cohesion and protect vulnerable members of society.

  • Certificates of Divorce: The requirement for a written certificate of divorce, as mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, was a relatively progressive measure for its time. It served as a legal document that formally freed the woman from her marital obligations, allowing her to remarry without the stigma of adultery. This practice underscored the importance of legal and social procedures in the dissolution of a marriage.

  • Protection of Women's Rights: The legal stipulations around divorce, including the prohibition against remarrying a former spouse after she had been married to another man, were designed to protect women from being treated as property. By imposing restrictions on the conditions under which divorce could occur and what could happen afterward, the law aimed to prevent impulsive decisions that could lead to social and familial disruption.

Religious Beliefs Influencing Marriage and Divorce

The religious context of ancient Israel also significantly influenced attitudes towards marriage and divorce. Marriage was seen as a covenant not just between two individuals but also with God, reflecting the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. This sacred dimension of marriage underscored its importance and the ideal of indissolubility.

  • Prophetic Teachings: The prophets, including Malachi, often used marriage as a metaphor for Israel's relationship with God, with unfaithfulness to one's spouse paralleling the nation's unfaithfulness to God. This analogy highlighted the seriousness with which marital fidelity and the act of divorce were regarded, framing them within the larger narrative of covenant and commitment.

  • Cultural and Religious Identity: Maintaining social and religious laws around marriage and divorce was also a means of preserving Israelite identity in the midst of surrounding pagan cultures. The distinct practices and legal codes set the Israelites apart, reinforcing their communal bonds and shared values.

New Testament Teachings on Divorce

Jesus' Teachings on Divorce

In the Gospels, Jesus' teachings on divorce are presented as part of broader discussions on the nature of marriage and the requirements of the Law. His teachings are captured primarily in Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:2-12, with a parallel account in Luke 16:18.

  • Matthew 19:3-9: Jesus responds to a question from the Pharisees about whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. He cites the creation narrative, emphasizing that "what God has joined together, let no one separate," and declares that divorce and remarriage constitute adultery, except in cases of marital unfaithfulness. This teaching underscores the original intent for marriage as a lifelong union and sets a high standard for marital commitment.

  • Mark 10:2-12: In this account, Jesus again references the creation narrative when discussing marriage and divorce. He focuses on the mutual responsibilities of husbands and wives, making no exceptions for divorce. This reinforces the idea of marriage as an unbreakable covenant before God.

Jesus' approach to divorce was revolutionary for its time, challenging both the permissive divorce practices of some Jewish sects and the patriarchal norms of the society. By elevating the status of marriage and advocating for the protection of women who were often most adversely affected by divorce, Jesus emphasized the heart of the Law over its letter.

Paul’s Teachings on Divorce

Paul addresses the issue of divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15, offering guidance that reflects the early Christian community's challenges in navigating marriage, especially between believers and unbelievers.

  • To Believers: Paul echoes Jesus' teachings by advising married couples not to divorce. For Christians who are married, Paul's counsel is to maintain their marriage in accordance with the Lord's command, reinforcing the idea that marriage is a lifelong commitment.

  • Marriage to Unbelievers: Paul introduces a degree of pastoral flexibility for Christians married to non-believers. He suggests that if the unbelieving partner leaves, the Christian is not bound in such circumstances, acknowledging the complex realities facing mixed-faith marriages. This guidance illustrates an early instance of applying Christian principles to diverse and challenging real-life situations, emphasizing peace and the well-being of the believer.

Denominational Interpretations of Scriptural Teachings on Divorce

  • Orthodox Christianity: Similar to the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church views marriage as a lifelong covenant. However, it recognizes the human failure and allows for divorce and remarriage under specific circumstances, guided by pastoral care and often involving penitential practices. This approach reflects an emphasis on the mercy and healing offered by the Church.

  • Protestantism: Protestant denominations exhibit a wide range of views on divorce, often influenced by the interpretation of scriptural texts and the emphasis on grace. For example:

  • Mainline Protestant Churches (such as the Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist traditions) generally allow for divorce and remarriage, emphasizing God's grace and the possibility of new beginnings while also promoting the importance of marriage counseling and reconciliation efforts.

  • Evangelical Protestant Churches often emphasize the authority of scripture in moral and ethical matters, including divorce. While many uphold the sanctity of marriage and encourage couples to work through difficulties, there is also recognition of the complexities of modern relationships, leading to a pastoral approach that seeks to balance truth with grace.

  • Pentecostal and Non-Denominational Churches may vary widely in their approach, with some adopting more conservative interpretations of scripture that limit grounds for divorce, while others may adopt a more flexible, grace-oriented approach, particularly in contexts of abuse or neglect.

The Balance between Sanctity of Marriage and Grace

Across Christian denominations, there is a shared commitment to the sanctity of marriage as a reflection of God’s covenantal love. Yet, there is also a recognition of the brokenness of the world, which affects relationships and can lead to divorce. The challenge for churches today is to navigate this tension, offering support, guidance, and compassion to those facing the pain of marital breakdown.

  • Pastoral Care and Counseling: Many churches offer marriage counseling services, retreats, and workshops designed to strengthen marriages and address issues before they lead to divorce. For those going through divorce, pastoral care aims to offer support and healing, acknowledging the emotional and spiritual pain involved.

  • Community Support: The role of the church community in providing a network of support for individuals and families affected by divorce is vital. This support can take many forms, from practical assistance to spiritual guidance, emphasizing the church's role as a place of refuge and healing.

  • Redemption and New Beginnings: Central to the Christian message is the theme of redemption. Churches strive to communicate that, despite the pain and failure associated with divorce, there is hope for healing and new beginnings. This perspective is crucial in helping individuals move forward with grace and dignity.

Biblical Grounds for Divorce

The biblical grounds for divorce involves a closer examination of the specific scriptures that outline these conditions—sexual immorality and abandonment by an unbeliever. These grounds are derived from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Sexual Immorality (Matthew 5:32; 19:9)

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus addresses the issue of divorce in the context of His broader teaching on the Law and righteousness. He states:

  • Matthew 5:32: "But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

  • Matthew 19:9: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

The term "sexual immorality" (porneia in Greek) is understood to encompass a range of sexual sins outside the marital covenant, including adultery, fornication, and other forms of illicit sexual behavior. Jesus’ teaching emphasizes the sanctity and exclusivity of the marital bond, allowing for divorce in cases where this bond has been fundamentally violated through sexual immorality. This exception acknowledges the deep betrayal and harm that such actions can inflict on the marriage, rendering the covenant broken in a way that justifies dissolution.

Abandonment by an Unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:15)

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians addresses a variety of issues facing the early Christian community, including questions about marriage and divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul introduces a second ground for divorce:

  • 1 Corinthians 7:15: "But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace."

This passage speaks to the situation where a Christian is married to an unbeliever—a common scenario in the early Church, as individuals converted to Christianity while their spouses did not. Paul advises that if the unbelieving spouse chooses to leave the marriage, the believing partner is not bound to maintain the marital union. This teaching recognizes the challenges of mixed-faith marriages and prioritizes the spiritual well-being and peace of the believer. It underscores the importance of mutual commitment in marriage and acknowledges that the departure of an unbelieving spouse constitutes a breach of this commitment, allowing for divorce.

Theological and Pastoral Implications

The biblical grounds for divorce—sexual immorality and abandonment by an unbeliever—highlight the New Testament’s recognition of the realities and challenges of marital relationships. These teachings provide a framework within which Christians can navigate the painful decision of divorce, balancing the commitment to marriage with the acknowledgment of circumstances that fundamentally undermine the marital covenant.

  • Sexual Immorality: This ground for divorce underscores the expectation of fidelity and the seriousness with which the New Testament views sexual sins within marriage. It calls for accountability and the protection of the injured party within the marital relationship.

  • Abandonment by an Unbeliever: This condition speaks to the early Christian context and the complexities of faith within marital relationships. It offers a compassionate provision for those facing the dissolution of their marriage due to religious differences, emphasizing the importance of peace and spiritual integrity.

These grounds for divorce, while specific, also invite broader theological reflection on the nature of marriage, the impact of sin, and the possibilities for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. They challenge the Church to provide thoughtful, compassionate pastoral care to those navigating the difficult terrain of marital breakdown, offering guidance that is both faithful to scripture and responsive to the complexities of human life.

Seeking Guidance and Support

  • Church Community: The church serves as a vital source of support for individuals facing the prospect of divorce. Pastors and church leaders can offer pastoral care, spiritual guidance, and practical advice grounded in biblical principles. Churches might also provide or recommend support groups for those going through divorce, creating spaces where individuals can share their experiences, find mutual support, and navigate their journey within a community that understands the complexities of marital breakdown from a faith perspective.

  • Christian Counseling: Professional counseling from a Christian perspective can be invaluable, offering a safe space to explore the emotional and psychological dimensions of divorce. Christian counselors integrate faith with therapeutic practices, helping individuals process their feelings, make sense of their experiences, and find paths toward healing and growth. Counseling can also assist in discerning the next steps, including efforts toward reconciliation where possible or navigating the challenges of separation and divorce.

  • Prayer and Spiritual Practices: Prayer, meditation, and other spiritual practices offer profound sources of comfort and strength. They connect individuals to God, reminding them of His presence, love, and sovereignty even in the midst of pain. Engaging in these practices can help foster a sense of peace, provide guidance, and open pathways to forgiveness and healing.

Community, Forgiveness, and Healing

  • The Role of Community: The Christian community is called to walk alongside those experiencing the pain of divorce, offering love, acceptance, and practical support. This community reflects Christ's love and compassion, acting as a tangible reminder of hope and the possibility of new beginnings. In doing so, the church embodies a space where the wounded can find restoration and where the sanctity of marriage is honored through the care extended to its members.

  • Forgiveness: Central to the Christian faith is the concept of forgiveness, which becomes especially pertinent in the context of divorce. Forgiveness can be a challenging journey, involving the release of bitterness, anger, and hurt. The church can guide individuals in understanding and embracing forgiveness, not as condonation of wrongs but as a pathway to freedom and healing.

  • Healing: The process of healing from divorce is both individual and communal. It involves grieving the loss, confronting the changes it brings, and gradually rebuilding one’s life. The church can support this process by providing resources for spiritual and emotional healing, facilitating encounters with God’s grace, and encouraging continued engagement with the life and ministry of the community.

Upholding the Sanctity of Marriage

While the church offers support and guidance to those facing divorce, it also upholds the sanctity of marriage by addressing issues that can dishonor the marital covenant. This includes confronting abuse, neglect, and other behaviors that undermine the dignity and safety of individuals within marriage. By providing support for divorce in contexts where the marriage covenant is broken beyond repair, the church recognizes that preserving the appearance of marriage at the expense of one’s well-being does not honor the sacred institution. Instead, the church seeks to protect and dignify individuals, affirming that the sanctity of marriage also involves the respect, safety, and flourishing of its members.

For Christians facing the possibility of divorce, the church, counseling, and prayer serve as essential supports, offering guidance grounded in compassion, biblical principles, and a deep commitment to the well-being of the individuals involved. Through community, forgiveness, and healing, the church not only assists those navigating the pain of divorce but also upholds the sanctity of marriage, ensuring it reflects the love, respect, and justice at the heart of God’s covenant with His people.


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