Christians and Divorce

What biblical grounds are there for divorce in the face of emotional, financial, sometimes physical and spiritual abuse?

Marriage was ordained by God to be a loving partnership. It is to be a picture of Christ’s love for and relationship with His church. Marriage should be the most special and intimate relationship where safety and love are mutually expressed (Ephesians 5:22-32). Proverbs 31:12 says, “Her husband trusts her to do him good, not harm all the days of his life.” However, when an individual in that partnership is repeatedly abusive, destructive, indifferent, and deceitful towards the other, some may suggest “forgive and try harder to make it work.”

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Adultery is one place where most church leaders agree that there are Biblical grounds for divorce. However, there isn’t always agreement on what constitutes adultery.

We know that the act of sexual intercourse with a person who is not your spouse qualifies as adultery.  But what about an emotional affair or habitually viewing pornography?

However, adultery is not just about sex. It’s about selfishness, wanting what you want and not caring that it will deeply hurt one’s spouse. It’s about lying to get what you want or covering up what you did so that you continue to get the benefits of a marriage without consequences for one’s actions.  Adultery breaks the marital covenant of trust, harms one spouse and an entire family, children included, and the Bible says it is grounds to legally end the marriage.

If there are other behaviors that also break the marriage covenant and constitute grounds for divorce, one should dig a little deeper…so what does the Bible say?

The Old Testament said adulterers should be punished by death, not divorce (Leviticus 20:10). It follows that God allowed for divorce for other reasons.

God used the word “adultery” to describe his divorce with Israel for unfaithfulness – repeated idolatry and disregard for God – not a sexual act (Jeremiah 3:8).

When Jesus spoke to the religious leaders regarding marriage and divorce he knew that they were trying to trap him into contradicting Moses or endorsing their casual view of marriage and divorce (See Matthew 19).  Jesus did neither. He talked about the sanctity of marriage, but he also reinforced that divorce was allowed because of the hardness of man’s heart.

The key is this – there are two different words for the term divorce throughout both the Old and New Testament. Our English Bibles translate one word as a certificate of divorce and the other word is translated simply divorce. They meant different things back then.

The certificate of divorce was an official document of divorce where a woman was free to remarry. The other kind of divorce was a “getting rid of” kind of divorce.  This kind of divorce left a woman with few options – she might remarry but she was not officially divorced.

It is this last kind of divorce that the Pharisees asked Jesus about and it is this kind of divorce that Jesus was referring to when he said that when you divorce your wife this way if she remarries you make her commit adultery because she is not officially divorced.  Jesus wasn’t forbidding all divorce, but this particular kind of divorce.

The passage that is normally used to prove that God hates divorce is Malachi 2:16. Here’s what the verse says in the NIV translation of the Bible. “The man who hates and divorces (notice the word choice – not gives her a certificate of divorce but simply divorces) his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty.  So be on guard, and do not be unfaithful.”

This kind of divorce God hates.  When a spouse is physically or emotionally abused, chronically lied to, treated in treacherous ways, or living with someone who is repeatedly unfaithful, she (or he) has Biblical grounds for divorce.  The marriage covenant has been broken. An official divorce just makes that reality public and final.

Long-term separation puts both spouses in legal nowhere land. They can’t remarry, but they aren’t reconciled. For some people, it might work but most individuals need the protection that the law provides so that one has access to a share of the financial assets that were accumulated in the marriage.

So ultimately you must take responsibility and stewardship for yourself, which includes your physical, sexual, spiritual, emotional and financial health and well-being. You can’t put your entire well-being in the hands of a counselor, or pastor, or doctor or any other professional or person without also using your own prayerful discernment about what the Bible says and what is the best course of action for you to take.

– Mark Rush Williamson