Divorce is a sensitive topic for many Christians. While Scripture emphasizes God’s ideal for marriage as a lifelong union, it does make provision for divorce in certain circumstances. This article will examine four biblical grounds for divorce and the key biblical passages that discuss them.
- Adultery is universally recognized as a justified ground for divorce in Scripture.
- Abandonment by an unbelieving spouse is permitted as grounds for divorce by Paul.
- There are strong grounds in the Old Testament for divorce in cases of sexual immorality.
- Physical abuse and threat to life may be legitimate grounds based on principles of protection and sanctity of life.
For Christians seeking to honor God in their marriages, the question of when divorce might be biblically justified is important. While Scripture upholds life-long marriage, it does recognize that due to sin and hardness of heart, divorce will occur. Jesus himself affirmed this in his dispute with the Pharisees over divorce practices:
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8 NKJV)
Jesus sets the original standard as no divorce, emphasizing God’s creational intent for marriage to reflect Christ’s union with the church (Eph. 5:22-33). But God through Moses did permit divorce in certain situations because of human failings. So we must seek to strike a biblical balance – upholding the permanence of marriage while recognizing God makes gracious provision for divorce in some circumstances.
This article will examine four biblically-based grounds for divorce: adultery, abandonment by an unbelieving spouse, sexual immorality, and threat to life/abuse. It will look at the key biblical passages undergirding each reason and seek to apply these Scriptural teachings to our current context. The goal is to provide wisdom for Christians wrestling with these difficult situations and seeking to honor God.
Adultery as Grounds for Divorce
Adultery is universally recognized in Scripture as a legitimate grounds for divorce. Jesus himself affirmed this:
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9 NKJV)
The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” is porneia, a term encompassing sexual sin including adultery. Jesus states that divorcing and remarrying another person is adultery, except in cases where one’s spouse was guilty of porneia/adultery. The injured party is free to divorce and remarry without sin.
Paul echoes Christ’s teaching on this issue in 1 Corinthians 7:
“Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10-11 NKJV)
He initially forbids divorce, but then says if separation does occur, the woman must either remain unmarried or pursue reconciliation. The assumption is the separation would be justified if the husband committed porneia/adultery.
So Scripture is consistent on this – adultery breaks the marriage covenant and frees the innocent spouse from the obligation to remain married. Where adultery has occurred, the betrayed spouse is biblically entitled to obtain a divorce and remarry another, as this does not constitute adultery on their part.
Abandonment by an Unbelieving Spouse
Another situation where Scripture permits divorce is when an unbelieving spouse abandons a marriage:
“But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace.” (1 Cor. 7:15 NKJV)
Here Paul counsels believers married to non-Christians. If the unbelieving spouse “departs” or abandons the marriage, Paul says the Christian is “not under bondage” – i.e. not bound to preserve the marriage at all costs. They are free to let the unbelieving spouse leave and obtain a divorce.
Some key principles can be drawn from this passage:
- The unbeliever initiates the separation/divorce, not the believer.
- This constitutes abandonment – the unbeliever is deserting their covenant obligations.
- The believer is not obligated to fight to preserve the marriage in this situation.
- Freeing the abandoned spouse from bondage/obligation implies permission to divorce.
So in cases where an unbelieving spouse abandons a marriage, the Apostle Paul permits the injured Christian spouse to pursue divorce since they have already been deserted by their partner.
Sexual Immorality as Grounds
While adultery is the specific sexual sin Jesus cited as justifying divorce, the Old Testament provisions God made also included other forms of sexual immorality as legitimate grounds.
In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Moses permits divorce for “uncleanness”:
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce…then let him write her a certificate of divorce…” (Deut. 24:1 NKJV)
While the specific “uncleanness” here is not defined, it was a broad term referring to sexual immorality and lewdness. Mosaic law clearly prohibited all sexual relations outside of marriage. So here God through Moses permitted divorce in cases where the spouse was guilty of sexual immorality.
Some key implications of this passage are:
- Uncleanness refers to sexual sin like adultery, incest, rape, prostitution based on the holiness code.
- God through Moses permitted divorce for these situations under OT law.
- Immorality constitutes breaking the marriage covenant.
- The faithful spouse was free to divorce the immoral partner.
Therefore, on the basis of Old Testament precedents, sexual immorality does appear to be legitimate biblical grounds for pursuing divorce, in addition to the specific case of adultery Jesus cited.
Abuse and Threat to Life
A final category where divorce may be biblically defensible is in situations involving domestic abuse or severe threat to physical health/life. While Scripture does not directly address this situation, biblical principles related to protection of life and prevention of murder would arguably apply:
- God instituted civil government to punish evildoers and protect life (Gen 9:6; Rom. 13:1-5).
- God prohibits murder and values human life as sacred (Ex. 20:13; Ps. 139:13-16).
- God hates oppression and violence against the vulnerable (Psalm 10; Micah 6:8).
- God commands husbands to love wives sacrificially as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25).
- Church leaders have an obligation to protect the sheep from wolves (Acts 20:28-30).
Based on these principles, an abused spouse or one whose life is endangered may justly seek divorce as a measure of protection. Fleeing a situation of violence to preserve one’s life and the lives of children fulfills the greater spirit of God’s law to preserve life. And allowing divorce and remarriage provides permanent protection from an abusive spouse. So threatening abuse or conditions dangerous to health/life could potentially serve as biblical grounds for divorce.
In troubled marriages where divorce becomes inevitable, it is reassuring for believers to know Scripture does make gracious provision in some circumstances. Where adultery, abandonment, sexual immorality or violence occur, the innocent injured spouse can justly seek permanent separation through divorce. God does not demand spouses stay in situations where the marriage covenant has already been sundered or where harm is occurring. As believers seek God’s wisdom amidst divorce, they can find grace and biblical support for at times needing to initiate a just divorce and opportunity to remarry another. Church leaders should provide counsel and support for those facing these difficult situations.
While God’s heart is for marriage to reflect Christ’s love for the church, brokenness sometimes necessitates divorce. In such cases Scripture allows it as a regrettable but necessary concession to human sinfulness. The church should exhibit grace, allowing the justly divorced opportunity to remarry and live out God’s call in their lives. Though divorce falls short of God’s creational ideal, the Bible recognizes it as a needed remedy when moral, physical or relational realities necessitate it. Believers should seek wisdom from Scripture and spiritual counsel when faced with these situations.