In our six-week study of the Old Testament book of Malachi, the subject of divorce is the focus of chapter 2. Most anytime this subject arises, there are numerous questions that people have, including the reasons divorce is permitted according to the Bible. This subject is one of the most debated and complicated in all of Scripture, largely because of the complex nature of the marriage relationship and great emotions surrounding the family. Here are four scenarios, or grounds, for a possible divorce according to the Bible:
- Romans 7:2: “a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage”.
- 1 Corinthians 7:39: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:15: “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved”.
3. Adultery and Sexual Immorality
- Deuteronomy 22:22: “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die.” (Old Covenant)
- Matthew 5:32: “everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality…” (New Covenant)
- Matthew 19:9: “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery”. (New Covenant)
4. Hardness of heart
- Mark 10:5-9: “They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and 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.’”
The categories are in order from easiest to the most difficult to evaluate. If someone is no longer alive, obviously the marriage has ended. If someone has abandoned the marriage (e.g. moved far away in an effort to disappear and not have any relationship or is serving a life sentence in prison) then it is impossible to have a marital relationship. Sexual immorality, including adultery, is sometimes obvious but often hidden and secret sin. Lastly, hardness of heart is admittedly a judgment call. But, people with an ongoing hard heart against God and their spouse do some very awful and painful things that make the relationship unhealthy, unsafe, and unlivable. After a few decades of ministry as a senior pastor, I have walked with people through the unimaginable and won’t repeat these things because they are unspeakable.
Admittedly, this subject is so important that it cannot be fully addressed in a brief daily devotion. But, as a pastor who loves folks, here are some practical recommendations:
- Your heart is wrong if you are actively seeking to meet some criteria. If you are trying to figure out the grounds for divorce so that you can get your relationship to qualify, then you have a heart problem.
- You do not have to divorce even if you have grounds to. Couples can and do forgive one another, work through a process of healing with a pastor or counselor, and some make it through from awful times to wonderful times.
- You cannot make this decision in isolation. The issue of divorce is so complicated, especially where children are involved, that discreet wise counsel needs to be invited in. These people cannot be friends and family who take your side, but godly people seeking to help everyone involved find God’s side (such as professional counselors or godly pastors).
- You cannot make this decision in haste. In anger or hurt, we can make a short-term decision that we later regret.
- You cannot make this decision in lust. If you have an emotional and/or physical relationship with someone other than your spouse and your motivation for the divorce is to move on to another person, then your reasoning and motives are polluted, which will keep you from walking in God’s will.
- It is unfair, unjust, and unhealthy to make only one person in the marriage obey biblical commands. Through the Bible, God repeatedly speaks to both husbands and wives about their roles and responsibilities. Subsequently, both husbands and wives should be lovingly encouraged to obey God and trust Him for the outcome of their relationship.