Unfortunately, divorce is a real and prevalent issue in modern society, among those inside and outside the Church. There are myriad reasons why people get divorced these days, including adultery, abuse, finances, or simply falling out of love.
The question that many wonder is: is divorce a sin? Obviously divorce is not something that pleases God, but is it actually a sin? This is a complicated and controversial issue, but one that cannot be ignored. Let’s dive in.
So, is divorce a sin? The short answer is … it depends. Divorce can be sinful, yet it is not always so. According to both Jesus and Paul, there are a few factors that can allow a divorce to be justified and therefore not sinful. However, if such factors are not present, then the divorce would be considered sinful.
So what makes something sinful?
In the New Testament, the Greek word that we translate into English as sin is hamartia. This word can be translated as anything that is contrary to the will of God. Obviously, God does not desire for a divorce to occur because God instituted marriage to be a covenant between man and woman. Covenants are not intended to be broken.
Therefore, God’s will is for every marriage to thrive and last until death parts the spouses. Whether the actual act of divorce is sinful, every divorce is the product of sin. If there were no sin in a marriage, divorce would never happen. Every marriage would endure, as that is the will of God. For a divorce to occur, for any reason, sin must be present somewhere in the equation.
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Where Does the Bible Talk about Divorce?
“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.”
Take note of Paul’s initial point concerning divorce: do not divorce! The wife should not separate from her husband and vice versa. This was a bold claim at this point in history because Roman law allowed a husband or wife to divorce their spouse for no stated reason. Therefore, divorces were even more prevalent then than now.
Paul’s specific focus in this passage is couples in which a believer is married to an unbeliever. The thought of his readers was that a believing spouse is defiled and made unclean by being married to an unbeliever. This thinking then justified believers to divorce their unbelieving spouses.
Paul flips this thinking, explaining that the believing spouse actually makes the unbelieving spouse holy, and should remain in the marriage for the good of the spouse and kids. While an unbeliever marrying a believer does not automatically mean the unbeliever will be saved, God can work through the believing spouse, and make it much more likely that the unbeliever will be saved over time. If the believing spouse has any say in the situation, they should remain in the marriage and not seek divorce. It is only justified if the unbelieving spouse abandons the believing spouse.
While Paul is speaking about a specific set of circumstances here, the principle is important. If possible, do not divorce!
Related: Listen to The Bible Never Said That Podcast:
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Does Jesus Talk about Divorce?
The other most frequently referenced passage in Scripture about divorce is found in the teachings of Jesus. While found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, let us turn to Matthew 19 for the purposes of this article.
This teaching contains Jesus’ most direct comments on divorce. It is written:
“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery’” (Matt. 19:3-9).
Similar to Paul, Jesus’ initial point in regard to divorce is this: do not divorce! What God has joined together, let not man separate. It is generally against the will of God for a marriage to be destroyed. As Paul gave one specific factor that justifies divorce, Jesus does as well. According to Jesus, divorce is justified as a result of sexual immorality. If a spouse commits adultery, then the other spouse has the opportunity to seek divorce.
Jesus does not endorse or encourage divorce. However, Jesus allows it in extreme cases in which the marriage continuing as is does not glorify God and His purpose for marriage.
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Are There Appropriate Times for Divorce?
While Paul and Jesus only make two explicit exceptions to divorce, does this mean there are no other reasons? Neither Paul nor Jesus say that abuse is an exception to divorce. Does that mean that a victim of abuse must remain in a marriage? Absolutely not!
Remember the context. Paul and Jesus lived in a time during which the legality and normalcy of divorce was assumed. Just because they did not explicitly name abuse as a reason for divorce does not mean that they do not believe it to be so.
It is reasonable to conclude that abuse was assumed to be a legitimate excuse for divorce by both Jesus and Paul. In ancient Israel, abuse was common within marriage, and it is ridiculous to assume that either Jesus or Paul would require a victim of abuse to remain in a dangerous marriage.
Can a Divorced Person Remarry?
If a divorce is legitimate, then a remarriage is also legitimate. Jesus makes this clear in his brief teaching on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says,
“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” (Matt. 5:31-32).
Jesus’ basic point here is that, if the divorce is legitimate, then remarriage is permissible. The giving of a “certificate of divorce” is what permits a spouse to get remarried. However, without a certificate of divorce, remarriage is considered to be adultery.
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2 Tips for Healing a Struggling Marriage
Note: The following is for those experiencing struggles in marriage. If you are a victim of abuse and find yourself in a dangerous situation, seek help immediately. God does not want you to endure through abuse, and you have every right to seek divorce.
If you have been married for any length of time, you have experienced some extent of struggle and difficulty. This is inevitable in marriage and should be expected. Such struggles are normal, and divorce is almost certainly not the solution. Here are two tips for struggling spouses.
Tip #1: Do not isolate yourselves
If divorce is not the solution, then you and your spouse need to work through the issues and resolve them. My primary tip for those struggling in marriage is this: do not isolate yourselves. While struggling in marriage can feel embarrassing, it is almost impossible to resolve marital struggles without outside support. Seek out wisdom from mentors, parents, pastors, and/or professional marriage counseling.
There is no replacement for good support in a marriage. Be honest with your supporters. Do not allow the enemy to trap you and your spouse in isolation. Iron sharpens iron, as one [married couple] sharpens another.
Tip #2: Prioritize holiness
Divorce is always the product of sin, as is everyday marital struggle. Allowing sin into your life and marriage is a road to struggle, and you owe it to yourself, your spouse, and God to pursue holiness in your own spiritual life and that of your spouse. Engage in spiritual disciplines with your spouse. Make time for prayer and Bible reading. Be involved in church as much as is possible right now. Seek holiness and righteousness, and you will be well-equipped to thrive in marriage.
Divorce is always a result of sin and is never pleasing to God, however, there are reasons for divorce to be justified before God. Sin causes divorce, but divorce itself is not always a sinful act. If possible, seek support and make every effort to reconcile with your spouse. Your marriage is worth it, and God will be glorified through the love and grace that you demonstrate in your marriage.
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Lucas Hagen is a freelance writer, recently graduated from Taylor University with majors in Biblical Literature and Youth Ministries. When he is not writing for Crosswalk, you can find him reading great books, playing guitar, competing in professional disc golf tournaments, and spending quality time with his lovely wife, Natalie, and their fluffy cat, Woodward. You can read more of his writing at habitsofholiness.com.