Even though divorce is a common occurrence in our society, many Christians who are in unhappy marriages find it to be morally troubling. Do they continue to have an unhappily married couple for the sake of a vow or covenant? Or do they take a contrary course of action and file for divorce? Christians may feel stuck between no longer feeling committed to an unsalvageable marriage and being unable to move forward with a new life due to the stark choices. Scripture makes it clear time and time again that marriage is a lifetime commitment. Jesus said of the marriage between a man and a woman, “They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, let nothing be divided that God has joined together” (Matthew 19:6, NIV).
Concerning divorce, Christians have the following questions:
- Do Christians who divorce sin?
- Do they send themselves to hell by doing this?
- Do they have to endure an unloving, unhealthy union?
- Do Christians have any exceptions to the prohibition against divorce?
Some of these challenging questions do not have clear solutions; there is still tension. Only the most extreme circumstances allow for the end of a marriage.
Sometimes the best a Christian can do when faced with a marriage that may be beyond saving is to look for God’s direction in the Bible, consult with reliable friends who are familiar with the circumstances and pray together for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Divorce: What the Bible says
First, let’s think about what the Bible says. The only divorce-related law in the Old Testament is found in Deuteronomy. Here, a law allowing divorce is given to the Israelites. If a man feels that his wife “does not please him” and “she is free to marry another man,” he may write her a “document of divorce.” (Deuteronomy 24:1-2, NIV).
Many theologians agree that this law was given as a means of protection to people who are in a situation that deals with divorce and/or remarriage. Opinions vary about whether this law was intended to justify divorce and/or remarriage.
In the New Testament, Jesus first presents a more complex answer to this query. “Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” the Pharisees inquire to Jesus in Matthew 19:3. This verse is preceded by the phrase, “The Pharisees came and tried to trap [Jesus] him,” by asking Jesus to give a clear-cut response that would reveal His position on the divorce law that Moses provided in Deuteronomy. But Jesus is aware of their intentions and hardened hearts.
Jesus quotes Genesis rather than responding to their query and adds, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus uses this as an opportunity to elaborate on the law of Moses and explain why divorce is not what God intended as the Pharisees’ questions continued.
Jesus says, “Divorce was not what God had originally intended; Moses only permitted it as a concession to your hard hearts. Anyone who gets a divorce and gets remarried is an adulterer. Jesus said that God’s standard is higher than the law and that God intends that there should never be a divorce.
The situation here is comparable to Peter’s inquiry about forgiveness to Jesus in Matthew 18. “How many times should I forgive,” wondered Peter, “seven?” However, Peter wasn’t seeking an answer like the Pharisees. Jesus recognized his attempt to elevate himself and saw right through it. In response, Jesus said that God’s standard would be to pardon someone seventy-seven times.
This is a real-life illustration of what Jesus demands of us. He doesn’t want a resentful heart. He opposes our checking the box. He wants us to exert every effort to find Him. We are to pursue Him with a sincere heart that is a sacrifice to Him.
Four things to consider about Christian divorce
We shouldn’t file for divorce just because our marriages aren’t giving us everything we want. No one can meet our lofty expectations because they are so high. You can become disappointed in your partner because they’re not as romantic, ambitious, spiritual, or handy as you would like them to be, and you become disappointed because you see someone else who is.
It is easy to become contemptuous or critical or disappointed rather than being grateful and appreciative of what you already have, but a disappointing or challenging marriage is no grounds for divorce, but rather for faithfulness.
Christian divorce is neither encouraged nor promoted by the Christian faith. It does not lightly or casually accept divorce, but in some cases, it does permit it. A hint of why this is can be found in the creation metaphor of “becoming one flesh.” God wants a married couple to grow spiritually, emotionally, and physically close to the point where they are “one flesh.”
The four “A’s” – Adultery, Addiction, Abuse, and Abandonment – are the most frequent causes of broken marriages, though only two of them are biblical grounds for Christian divorce.
One breakdown that Jesus specifically mentions is adultery. Marriages have been destroyed by infidelity throughout history. Adultery strikes right at the heart of the marriage covenant and so, while it does not require divorce, it at least grounds for it.
Addiction will engulf everything in its path if treatment is not received. The drug or alcohol addict puts their addiction before their marriage, kids, and job. While this may be a cause for temporary separation to protect themselves and their children, addiction is not a biblical reason to end the marriage permanently.
Most frequently, we think of physical abuse. However, it can also be verbal and emotional. Does your partner treat you differently when you’re alone than when they’re around other people? Does your partner insult, denigrate, or bully you? These are merely a handful of instances of non-physical abuse.
Sincere couples will work to address these issues because ongoing abuse can destabilize and harm a marriage. The “oneness” that God intends for marriage is violated when a spouse is repeatedly and unrepentantly harmed – physically or emotionally – and if left unattended, can result in brokenness.
Like with addiction, it may be a cause for temporary separation to protect themselves and their children. However, although abuse is a tragic and even dangerous sin, it is not clear from the Bible that it is a legitimate ground for divorce.
And finally, abandonment may result in brokenness. According to the Apostle Paul, in the case of a Christian who is abandoned by an unbelieving spouse, the Christian is not obligated to try to preserve the marriage at all costs and is free to remarry if deserted.
Regardless of the reason for divorce, a marriage can feel like an empty shell that no longer upholds God’s ideal of “oneness.” Marriage is, after all, about coming together rather than breaking apart, and was intended to be a blessing by God, but human sin frequently turns marriage into an intolerable burden. Though sin always works against God’s design for marriage, there are only two situations in which the Bible permits divorce.
Consider speaking with a Christian counselor if you are a Christian in an unsatisfactory or dangerous marriage. A Christian counselor can help you explore your options.
“Bible”, Courtesy of Aaron Burden, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Psalms”, Courtesy of Aaron Burden, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Open Bible”, Courtesy of Carolyn V, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Open Bible”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License