When may Christians divorce?

When may Christians divorce?

I updated this article on 12 April 2021. This paper is not an exhaustive discussion, but rather a brief survey of the primary texts with some brief “pulling the threads together” analysis.

Periodically, throughout the years, I’ve re-visited the “when can Christians legitimately divorce” issue. First time was before seminary, when someone asked me if she had biblical grounds to leave a spouse who beat her. Second time was at seminary, where that particular sub-culture taught the “only for adultery and desertion” approach. Third, fourth and fifth times have been over the past decade-ish, since I’ve been a pastor.

Well, I come before you to declare I’ve figured everything out …

Just kidding.

This is a hard topic. I’ve had to think through this issue again, and so I present my conclusions here to you. I may be wrong, of course. Some will undoubtedly disagree with me. This is not an exhaustive discussion, but a brief positive survey of the most primary texts. I don’t interact with opposing viewpoints; you can find whole books that will do that for you. In this post, I just provide a brief positive statement of my position. Perhaps it will change one day. You may find my complete paper here.

The bottom line

The bottom line is a Christian may divorce under the following scenarios, each of which is an egregious fracture of the marriage covenant:

  1. Sexual betrayal: physical adultery or an egregious, repeated and seemingly (to a reasonable person) unrepentant breach of sexual allegiance more generally (Deut 24:1; Mt 5:32, 19:9)
  2. Neglect: refusal to provide food or clothing ≈ material neglect (Ex 21:10-11; cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please wife/husband”)
  3. Desertion: an implication from the previous, whether carried out by a believer (1 Cor 7:10-12, and principle also logically follows from Ex 21:10-11 (cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please his wife”)), or an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:15).
  4. Physical abuse: an implication from the previous
  5. Failure to provide marital privileges: refusal to provide “marital rights” ≈ the expected matrix of sexual relations, affection, and expressions of love (“love” is a decision, not a feeling). Analysis should be totality of circumstances, not a legalistic weighing of scales

My Interpretive Presuppositions

These are my broader interpretive presuppositions about the texts herein. They help you understand where I’m coming from, up front:

  1. Exodus 21:10-11 provides a general principle about divorce that transcends covenants and the immediate context in Exodus 21.
  2. Genesis 1-2 is the controlling passage for Jesus that expresses God’s idealistic heart for the covenant of marriage. It therefore must be our heart, too.
  3. Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 are both excerpts from larger teaching that God did not see fit to provide for us. They stand alone, without context, as disparate pieces of collected teachings. Therefore, their interpretation should be controlled by the larger context of Matthew 19 and Mark 10.
  4. Jesus’ statements in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 are explicit responses to the pro “any cause divorce” interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, and we must interpret them in that light. They are not blanket statements covering all circumstances; they are simply Jesus’ interpretation of Moses’ intent behind the exemption at Deuteronomy 24. “[T]he Gospels record the whole debate as if it was concerned solely with divorces in Deuteronomy 24:1.”[1]
  5. At 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is responding to a misguided craze for sexual asceticism, and we must interpret his comments on divorce and remarriage there with that context in mind.

Some Overarching Principles to Consider

A pastor (and a congregation) must remember these things:

You’re a Counselor, not God

The pastor’s role is to advise the Christian and guide him to make the best decision in light of the matrix of biblical truth. A pastor can only advise based on his observations and the best data he can gather. He may be wrong because the parties provided skewed data. Everybody is responsible to the Lord for their own decisions.[2]

Sometimes You Gotta Face Reality

Sometimes there has been so much baggage, so much hurt, so much water under the bridge, that one or both parties just will not put forth the effort to repair the damage biblically. Stanley Grenz writes, “it must be admitted that divorce is at times but the formal declaration of the actual state of affairs.” He explains “… divorce is not an abrupt termination of a marriage. Rather, it is but the final statement concerning the process whereby the marital bond has been violated for some time.”[3]

Better Peace Than Forced Misery

See Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 7:15; and the previous heading, above.

Sometimes, human failure and sin in the marriage will cause great suffering. “At this stage, the principle of God’s compassionate concern for the person’s involved, God’s intent to establish shalom or human wholeness, must take precedence over the concern to maintain the inviolability of marriage.”[4]

This peace includes an honest assessment about whether they can continue to live together as husband and wife. “Peace by necessity includes a peaceful parting and a resolution of lingering responsibilities of their marriage, including a division of material goods and a just arrangement for providing for the children. Finally, interpersonal peace must work toward a normalization of their relationship as two separate persons, including the cessation of whatever hostilities the marriage breakup may have engendered.”[5]

In short, when faced with hardened hearts that will not put forth the effort to fix the issues, coupled with the ongoing pain and hurt caused by the compounding baggage, it may be best to just “call it” and acknowledge the marriage has been over for quite some time―no matter that the legal veneer is still in place. Formalize what the de facto reality already is and will continue to be. This is not a “get out of jail free” card, but a call to carefully examine the realities of the situation while balancing all the biblical teaching―especially the command to “if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” (Rom 12:18).

Put the Blame Where it Belongs

“A marriage is ended by the person who breaks the marriage vows, not by the wronged person who decides to end the broken contract by enacting a divorce.”[6]

Yet, There’s Likely Plenty of Blame to go Around

“Legalistic approaches, therefore, run the danger of viewing complex marital problems too simplistically. A legalistic structure seeks to force the situation into categories of ‘guilty partner’ versus ‘innocent partner’ which simply may not fit the case at hand. The determination of ‘innocent partner’ in many cases of marital breakup is difficult, if not impossible. It may well be that both parties share in the guilt.”[7]

Divorce is not the Unpardonable Sin

This shouldn’t have to be said, but it must be said.

Divorce is not God’s Intention for Marriage

This also shouldn’t have to be said. It isn’t a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card. Jesus’ burden was to uphold God’s intent for marriage from Genesis.

Besides the scriptures themselves, the two most helpful resources for me were:

  1. David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), and
  2. Andrew Naselli, “What the NT Teaches about Divorce and Remarriage,” in Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 24 (2019), pp. 3-44.

Again, you may find my full paper here.


[1] “There were no debates about the validity of neglect and abuse as grounds for divorce in any ancient Jewish literature, for the same reason that there are none about the oneness of God: these principles were unanimously agreed on. Rather than indicating that Jesus did not accept the validity of divorce for neglect and abuse, his silence about it highlights the fact that he did accept it, like all other Jews at that time,” (David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church [Downers Grove: IVP, 2003], p. 96).

[2] “Only the Lord really knows the heart; as Jesus said, evil comes from within and loves the dark. We cannot leave it up to a minister or a church leadership team to decide when a marriage ends; it is up to the individual victim, in prayer before the Lord. Only they and the Lord know what their life is really like. Only they know if their partner has expressed repentance, and only they will have to live with the consequences of the decision,” (Instone-Brewer, Divorce, pp. 104-105). 

[3] Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective (Louisville: WJK, 1990), pp. 133, 126.

[4] Grenz, Sexual Ethics, p. 128.  

[5] Grenz, Sexual Ethics, pp. 137-138.  

[6] Instone-Brewer, Divorce, p. 42. 

[7] Grenz, Sexual Ethics, pp. 136-137.  

Moses on Divorce

jailWhat does the Pentateuch say about divorce? Not a whole lot, really; but what it does say is particularly relevant for Jesus Christ’s own discussion from the New Testament. He quoted this passage. That tells us He believes the Old Testament is authoritative and binding. It also gives us some important insight into God’s own view of marriage. But, that is a topic for some other post. Today, we’ll simply look at what Moses wrote on the subject. Here it is:

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance (Deut 24:1-4)

Because I really like bullet-point lists, I’ll outline the passage thus:

  • A man has married a woman
  • She does not find or obtain favor in her husband’s eyes, because of some indecency or uncleanness
  • He may write her a bill of divorce and legally terminate the marriage
  • She will then be expelled from his household
  • She is then free to marry once again
  • If either . . .
    • her new husband despises her and divorces her, or
    • he dies while they’re still married,
      • she may not re-marry the first husband
  • The overarching point seems to be that re-marriage to the original husband is not permissible under any circumstances

The real puzzle here is what on earth this “uncleanness” is that makes a divorce permissible! Now, we certainly aren’t the first people to mull this very question over in our heads. The Jewish Pharisees asked Jesus Christ this question, attempting to back Him into a corner:

The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? (Matthew 19:3)

There were two dominant schools of thought on what, exactly, this “uncleanness” in a wife meant. One group of people believed it referred to gross sexual immorality and indecency, but falling short of adultery. The other group believed this was a broad category for all sorts of real and imagined offenses, such as cooking a meal incorrectly! What does the term mean?

William Tyndale went with uncleanness, with the sense of impurity and unholiness. The KJV imported Tyndale right in, and it also has uncleanness. The NKJV, unsurprisingly, kept uncleanness also. The NASB, however, rendered it indecency. So did the ESV. The NET used something offensive in her. The ISV chose objectionable, as did the LEB. Interestingly, the LEB includes a footnote which further explains the sense is something shameful or repulsive.

The LXX reads ὅτι εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα. The key word here is the adjective ἄσχημον, which means something shameful, unpresentable, indecent, or unmentionable. For example, when Shechem sexually assaulted Jacob’s daughter, the Bible says he had “done a disgraceful thing,” (Gen 34:8, NASB). It sometimes has specific reference to genitalia, the unmentionable and indecent part of one’s body (cf. 1 Cor 12:23; BDAG, s.v. “1235 ἀσχήμων”).

So, what does all this mean? The sense seems to be that a divorce was permitted under Mosaic Law if the wife had done something sexually immoral and indecent. This sexual indecency probably does not rise to the level of outright adultery, because the Law proscribed the death penalty for this act. So, the sexual immorality was something less than adultery, but it was plainly unseemly, outrageous, and beyond the pale of holiness and moral purity.

Messiah Himself gave credence to this viewpoint when He responded to the Pharisees:

They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery (Matthew 19:7-9)

So, we can tentatively conclude that the Mosaic Law only allowed divorce if the wife was engaged in sexual inappropriate, indecent, morally impure and unholy behavior. Of course, this was never intended to be a blank check or a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card to escape from a bad marriage. But, a good understanding of these four verses will ground Christians to better grasp Jesus’ own teaching in the New Testament.