What the Bible Says About Divorce: A Guide for Men
- Chris Bolinger Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2019 2 Apr
Steve used to be one of your best friends at church. You enjoyed talking with him before and after the couples’ small group that you attended. You did some service projects and Bible studies with him…when he wasn’t traveling on business or attending his kids’ sports events. He seemed like a good husband, a good dad, and a solid Christian guy.
But when Steve’s wife Stacie told him to move out and then filed for divorce a few months later, Steve disappeared from the life of your church. That was nearly a year ago. You really hadn’t interacted with Steve until a few days ago, when he sent you a text message about having breakfast.
You’re worried about Steve, so you agreed to meet him for breakfast.
Breakfast is tomorrow. You want to support and encourage Steve, but you don’t want to say the wrong thing. So, you decide to do some research on divorce and Christians. You start with what Jesus said about divorce.
What (You Think) Jesus Said about Divorce
There are four passages in the Gospels that record Jesus speaking about divorce. Two of them are short: Mathew 5:31-32 (in the Sermon on the Mount) and Luke 16:18. The other two are fairly long: Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. The two short passages are almost identical, and the two long passages are almost identical. So, it looks like Jesus actually spoke twice about divorce.
In the short passage, Jesus says this: ““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.”
Is Steve making Stacie commit adultery? She kicked him out. You’re not sure what to do with that.
The long passage doesn’t look very encouraging for Steve, either. In it, Jesus seems to indicate that the only valid reason for a divorce is sexual immorality. Because Stacie kicked Steve out and initiated the divorce, maybe Steve was unfaithful. If both of them were faithful, then they shouldn’t have gotten a divorce, and they shouldn’t remarry.
Maybe you missed something in these passages, so you go online and check out what some prominent Christian pastors say on the topic of divorce between Christians. You find that they all say the same thing:
- The only valid reason for a Christian couple to get a divorce is if one is unfaithful (and unrepentant).
- If one spouse really isn’t a Christian and abandons the marriage, then the Christian spouse is allowed to divorce the unbelieving spouse.
- A Christian who divorces is allowed to remarry only if he or she was the wronged party in the failed marriage.
How are you going to encourage Steve? You’re tired, and you should have gone to bed a while ago.
Then you stumble upon a reference to Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, a book by researcher David Instone-Brewer. And everything changes.
The “Any Cause” Question
When the Pharisees approached Jesus to talk about divorce (as recorded in Matthew 19), they asked him a very specific question, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” Today, we interpret the question to mean, “Is there any valid reason for divorce?”
But that’s not the question they were asking.
A few decades earlier, a new form of divorce, called the "any cause" divorce, had been invented from a single word in Deuteronomy 24:1. A group of rabbis argued that you could divorce your wife not just if she was unfaithful but also for "any cause". She burned a meal? That’s a cause. She wasn’t as attractive as she used to be? That’s a cause. Other rabbis disagreed with this interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 but the “any cause” divorce had become all the rage.
Where Did Jesus Stand on This Issue?
That’s what the Pharisees were asking. "Is it lawful to divorce your wife for any cause?" really meant "Is it lawful for us to use the 'any cause' divorce?".
Jesus’s response meant that the “any cause” divorce was a terrible interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. Men couldn’t get a divorce for anything; they had to have a lawful cause. Because the “any cause” divorce was wildly popular, many “divorced” people really weren’t divorced. If they had gotten remarried, then they were committing adultery, because they still were married to their previous spouse.
Jesus didn’t speak twice on divorce (and remarriage). He spoke only once. The shorter passage (Mathew 5:31-32 and Luke 16:18) is just a summation of the longer passage (Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12). And the longer passage is a commentary on “any cause” divorce.
What the Bible Actually Says about Divorce
Instone-Brewer argues that Jesus not only defended the true meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1 but also accepted what the rest of the Old Testament taught on divorce. Exodus taught that everyone had three rights within marriage – the rights to food, clothing, and love. (We see these even in Christian marriage vows to “love, honor, and keep.”)
Paul taught the same thing: married couples owe each other love (1 Cor. 7:3-5) and material support (1 Cor. 7:33-34). If these rights were neglected, the wronged spouse had the right to seek a divorce. Abuse, an extreme form of neglect, also was grounds for divorce.
There was debate on whether or not abandonment was grounds for divorce, so Paul dealt with it. He wrote that believers may not abandon their partners and, if they have done so, they should return (1 Cor. 7:10-11). If someone is abandoned by an unbeliever, or a spouse who will not obey the command to return, then the abandoned person is "no longer bound."
The Old Testament allows for, and the New Testament affirms, the following grounds for divorce:
- Adultery (in Deuteronomy 24:1, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
- Emotional and physical neglect (in Exodus 21:10-11, affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7)
- Abandonment and abuse (included in neglect, as affirmed in 1 Corinthians 7)
Of course, having grounds for divorce does not mean that one should divorce. God hates divorce, and for good reason. It can be devastating for all involved, and the negative effects can last for years. Divorce always should be a last resort. But God does allow for divorce (and subsequent remarriage) in some cases when marriage vows are broken.
Implications for Steve, and Other Divorced Christian Men
In Biblical times, wives were dependent on their husbands for material support, and divorced (and widowed) women were in a precarious position economically and socially. A married woman would do everything she could to stay married and would consider divorcing her husband only if her husband was habitually unfaithful or was neglecting her, was abusing her, or had abandoned her. As a result, divorce was rare and always justified.
Obviously, things are different now. Divorce among U.S. Christians is about as common as in the general population, and roughly seven out of 10 of those divorces are initiated by women. For some of these divorces, there is a valid, Biblical reason for the divorce. But for some, there is not. In an era of no-fault divorce in every state, a healthy marriage takes the cooperation of two people, but a divorce takes the actions of just one.
So, how do you support and encourage Steve? Let him take the lead in the conversation. If he expresses frustration about what other Christians have told him about his divorce, then give him insight into what the Bible really says about divorce.
Leave it to him to respond. And walk with him as a friend.
If you want to share your thoughts on this topic, feel free to email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Bolinger is the author of Daily Strength for Men, a 365-day daily devotional from BroadStreet Publishing. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Christian Book Distributors, DailyStrengthForMen.com, and other retailers.
Photo Credit: @Thinkstock/4maksym