What does the Bible say about divorce? Is divorce a sin?
It wasn’t so long ago that divorce was a taboo subject within the Church. Today the controversy has been replaced with normalcy and even support for those going through it. But there still is a lot of misconceptions and questions regarding divorce in the Bible.
I want to bring some clarity to this by looking at what the Bible actually teaches. We are going to look at some of the most common verses and see what they really mean.
But before we look at those we need to look at what divorce was like in the 1st Century. This will help us better understand why the Bible says what it does.
Divorce In The 1st Century
When the Bible talks about divorce we need to understand this backstory and what was happening. If we fail to understand what was happening culturally we will struggle to properly answer our question, what does the Bible say about divorce?
So, before we can understand the passages about divorce in the Bible, we need to look at what the culture looked like. This will help us better understand what the Bible says what it does.
The nation of Israel was a patriarchal society, meaning men were in control and women were subservient. This wasn’t unique to the Israelites, just about every nation was patriarchal. In fact the Israelites tended to value women higher than other societies.
This mindset played heavily into their views on marriage and divorce. Only men were allowed to divorce their wives; women had no say in the matter. Many of their views were based out of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and they commonly held that a man could divorce his wife for anything improper. What exactly is improper? That was the debate.
By Jesus’ day, there were two primary camps of thought. On one side you had a group that followed the teachings of Shammai, who said divorce was only acceptable if the woman committed a sexual offense, such as adultery. However the more commonly held view was that of Hillel. He taught that a man could divorce his wife if she displeased him in any way. Even something as trivial as burning dinner. It was a man’s world.
Because of the patriarchal society and the rules surrounding divorce, this created a system that had terrible consequences for women.
Divorce for a man was easy to move past; all they needed was an accusation of something their wife did that was improper. Typically men could get remarried and have little to no financial or social hardship due to divorce. Culturally they did nothing wrong.
However for women the story was much different and the repercussions much more severe. A divorced woman was seen as damaged and likely lived the rest of her life single. To complicate the situation, women typically weren’t allowed to work. Typically they had three options: move back in with their family (IF they were accepted), beg for money, or go into prostitution. Their life was forever changed, often through no fault of their own.
This created a system that put women, and often children, at a severe disadvantage and often in dangerous situations. Divorce in Jesus’ day was “good” for the man but detrimental for the woman. And Jesus was not okay with that.
So, what does the Bible say about divorce?
What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?
Now that we know about the context of divorce in the Bible we can dive into what it says.
There’s too many Bible verses about divorce to break down in one post. So what we are going to do is look at some of the most commonly quoted verses. But if you want to look through all the verses you can find them here: Bible Verses About Divorce
Let’s start by looking at Jesus’ words about divorce.
Matthew 5:31-32 Meaning
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32
This is one of the most quoted verses about divorce in the Bible. As we look at what it says it’s important that we pay attention to the context.
The first thing we should note is who Jesus is talking to. This passage is clearly addressed to husbands. Remember, they are the ones that are making the decision to divorce, not the wives. They thought they could divorce their wives and get off free and clean. And Jesus is challenging this belief.
“anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
This sounds strange to most of us because most people read this literally. But Jesus is using a metaphor, comparing divorce to adultery figuratively. Jesus is not saying that divorce = adultery. Rather he is saying divorce is like adultery in that the consequences are the same.
When a man divorces his wife the foundation of commitment is broken, thus the marriage is dissolved. When one commits adultery, the foundation of faithfulness is destroyed, thus the marriage is broken.
Both divorce and adultery end the same way. So in that way, they are the same. What Jesus is saying is the result of divorce is the same as that of adultery.
The point of this teaching is that divorce destroys a marriage just as adultery destroys a marriage. They result in the same, but they are not the same thing.
Again, this is directed at the men in the audience. Jesus is pointing the finger at them. He’s telling them that they are as guilty as a woman who commits adultery. Those who divorce their wives for their own selfish reasons are guilty.
Jesus is flipping the script and offering protection for the women of the day.
Matthew 19:1-12 Meaning
Let’s look at another commonly quote passage about divorce in the Bible, Matthew 19:1-12.
At this point in Jesus’ ministry the Pharisees are always trying to trap him. But Jesus doesn’t back down; he’s not afraid of a good fight. In this case, Jesus is tested about his knowledge of divorce (Matthew 19:1-12). “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
We know this is a trap, Matthew points that out to us. But what we might miss is how exactly this traps Jesus. This question is based around whether Jesus follows the teaching of Shammai or Hillel. No matter how he answers, which side he chooses, he is likely to alienate half the crowd listening.
Knowing what’s going on, Jesus starts off with a jab at the Pharisees… “Have you not read,” which would have been an offensive question to the religious elite who not only have read but had memorized much of the scriptures. But Jesus is showing that while they might know what the scriptures say, they missed the true meaning.
With that Jesus dives into his teaching on divorce.
The question posed to Jesus aligns closely with Hillel’s teaching, that a man could divorce his wife for any offense. We clearly know that is not where Jesus lands. However he doesn’t fully align with Shammai’s view either in two key ways.
- As we talked about already Shammai bases his theology of divorce on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus goes further back and bases his theology on Genesis 1-2.
- Shammai takes a patriarchal approach, only giving permission to the men. Jesus deals with the obligations of men AND women.
The bottom line here is the same as in Matthew 5:31-32, however this time Jesus expounds more on his reasoning. In this case, Jesus goes all the way back to the beginning, creation. Jesus’ argument is that marriage unites. A married couple is one. God’s original design was one of lasting unity that was brought together by God himself. This was God’s original design and intent.
1 Corinthians 7:10-15 Meaning
Let’s look at one more verse about divorce. Outside of Jesus’ words, 1 Corinthians 7:10-15 is one of the most common verses people go to.
In this passage Paul gives a series of instructions regarding divorce.
- A wife must not separate from her husband. 1 Corinthians 7:10
- If a wife does divorce her husband she must remain unmarried. 1 Corinthians 7:11
- A husband must not divorce his wife. 1 Corinthians 7:11
There’s more in this passage about what to do when one spouse is a believer and the other is not, but the above three are what is regularly quoted.
The problem with the way this verse is often interpreted is that we miss the context of what was happening that caused these words to be penned. Paul here is not addressing all reasons for divorce. Rather he’s addressing misplaced views that some people held in the church in Corinth. (1 Corinthians 7:2-5)
We see in verses prior that Paul is pushing back a false teaching that Christians should not have sex, even if married. This common belief in the church held that the highest spiritual level for Christians was to be celibate.
This lead some to believe that they needed to divorce their spouse to attain higher levels of spirituality.
Paul is rejecting these false ideas in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15. This really isn’t a passage that pertains to all reasons for divorce, rather the specific issue that this church was facing.
So, Is Divorce A Sin?
God’s design from the beginning was for marriage to last forever. Throughout the Bible that is made clear and is clearly where Jesus lands. Divorce in the Bible was never part of the plan; marriage should last for a lifetime.
But it’s not so cut and dry. The problem is sin. We often think sin separates us from God, and it does. But it also separates us from each other.
In a marriage that can mean the sin of one person (adultery, abuse, etc.) can cause irreversible harm. Or it could be a mixture of both party’s sin that ultimately drives a wedge between them. Our sin separates us from each other.
It is not God’s desire for divorce to happen. It’s his desire for reconciliation to take place. But for that to happen, all parties have to be willing. And that’s not always the case. Sometimes sin wrecks a marriage beyond repair. While God’s design was one of lasting unity, sin disrupts that.
So, is divorce a sin? Here’s how divorce is best understood Biblically… Divorce is ALWAYS bad. However, sometimes all you have in life is two bad options. So you have to choose the lesser of the bad options.
I’ve never known someone who went through a divorce and just loved it. Or thought it was the best thing ever. However, I do know many people that divorce was the best option they had.
Take an abusive relationship for example. Divorce is still messy, difficult, and will cause damage. In other words, it would be hard to call that a “good” option. However in that case, divorce is clearly the better option than staying in an abusive relationship.
That’s not to say we should bail on our marriages the minute they get difficult. Too many Christians get divorced before even trying to reconcile their relationship. And that’s not God’s desire. His desire is to redeem our brokenness, and through Jesus all sin is redeemable. In other words, if you are in a broken marriage there’s hope!*
*If you are in an abusive marriage I don’t mean to imply that you should stay. You should seek help and leave. God’s desire for you is not that you would continue to face abuse.
What Divorce In The Bible Means For Us Today
So where does this leave us? Now that we’ve looked at the question (What does the Bible say about divorce?) it’s time to switch gears and look at what it means for us today.
Here’s what we can learn from the passages about divorce in the Bible.
1. Jesus Protects The Vulnerable
The first thing we should recognize in Jesus’ teaching on divorce is his protection of the most vulnerable, the women. They were being taken advantage of by a system that was set up against them. Jesus evens the playing field in marriage showing an equal responsibility for both men and women. He puts an end to the rules that put women at a disadvantage and restores his intention for marriage.
Jesus does a lot more for women, you can read that here: Jesus Treatment Of Women
2. Jesus Stands Firmly on Truth
God intended for marriage to last for our lives. From the beginning in Genesis he makes that clear. It seems today we take marriage less and less seriously, but God doesn’t. The Bible shows us the level of commitment we ought to enter marriage with. For some that should come as a kick in the pants. If you are in a marriage that is falling apart you should pursue your spouse to the extent that Jesus pursued the church.
3. Jesus Offers Restoration
It was never God’s intention for marriages to be broken. But sin has destroyed many marriages. But it doesn’t end there. The message of the Gospel is one of hope, of reconciliation, and God’s not going to leave us in our brokenness. Whether you’ve been divorced or are in a struggling marriage, God’s desire for you is not for you to stay broken, but be restored.
You might also like: What Does The Bible Say About Sex? (4 surprising truths)
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