When is Divorce Permissible?

wedding band placed over definition of divorceWhen is divorce permissible?

This question is asked over and over.  People want an itemized list of the precise situations in which divorce is permissible, accompanied by specific scriptural references to back it up.

Most pastors are more than happy to provide such a list.

The tradition in which I was raised said divorce is permissible only for adultery or abandonment.  Then they would hasten to add that divorce is never required, only permitted…implying divorce is never the best course of action…just an option for those of lesser faith.

Some were quick to add, “Divorce really shouldn’t even be in a Christian’s vocabulary”…as though they hadn’t just made use of the word divorce themselves in forming the sentence prohibiting its use…and as though divorce were such an awful thing we’re better off pretending it doesn’t even exist.

If pressed, they would emphatically state that divorce is always sin…though sometimes permissible.  Which doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Why would sin ever be permissible?  And if it is permissible, how could it be sin?

They had a ready list of scripture references to back up their position…Matthew 19 for adultery…1 Corinthians 7 for abandonment.  They called these the exception clauses…because divorce is prohibited except for these exceptions in which it is permissible…though not required.

Notice the use of legal language, here.  Make no mistake.  This is a legal discussion.

The topic of biblical divorce is almost always discussed in theological circles as a point of legality.  What does The Law say about divorce?  Except they don’t use the words legal or law, because the New Testament scripture is quite clear in telling us that those who are in Christ are not under the law.

So, we have this legal debate amongst theologians making use of legal terms to argue their points…in which all participants are making their arguments based on the assumption that The Bible (i.e. The Law) generally prohibits divorce, but then provides these exception clauses for which divorce is permissible in some circumstances.

And it is these exception clauses that everyone is debating.  It is the exception clauses that parishioners ask questions about.

When is divorce permissible?

Does physical violence count as abandonment?  Does emotional abuse count as abandonment?  Does emotional withdrawal count as abandonment?  Does being too lazy to work to provide for your family count as abandonment?

And we have a wide array of legal points being continually debated…with most parties very emphatically stating their position in very confident tones…as though only an idiot or a reprobate could possibly fail to agree with their position.

Sadly, many are also more than willing to sacrifice an abused woman’s health, safety, and well-being to protect the position they’ve staked in this legal debate…despite acknowledging that as a Christian she is not even under The Law.

And this legal debate has literally been going on for thousands of years.

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” (Matthew 19:3)

Theologians (also known as lawyers…because in a theocratic society they are the same thing) were having this same debate over 2000 years ago, when Jesus walked this earth.

When is divorce permissible?

If the answer is as clear as these legalistic theologians would have us believe, why has it been a point of debate for thousands of years?

I’ll tell you why.  It is because scripture is not at all clear in answering this question.  In fact, the biblical authors seem to almost go out of their way to be intentionally vague on this topic…persistently refusing to answer this question.

In Deuteronomy 24:1-4,  the Mosaic Law very clearly makes provision for divorce.  It requires that if a husband sends his wife away, he must also give her a certificate of divorce, so that both parties are free to remarry, with no obligation to the marriage vows.  Furthermore, if the woman marries another husband and he also divorces her, then the first husband is forbidden from remarrying her.

Most theologians today agree that in this Deuteronomy passage God was protecting women from a form of legalized prostitution that was common at that time.  For enough money, a man would verbally divorce his wife (put her away without providing a certificate of divorce) and allow another man to have sexual intercourse with her.  Then the second man would divorce her, and the original husband would reclaim his rights as her husband.

So, in order to protect women from this immoral practice, the Mosaic Law required a certificate of divorce be issued, and forbade a former husband from remarrying a wife who had married another man.

The Mosaic Law is virtually silent on the topic of when divorce is, or is not, permissible.  It simply says, “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 indecency in her…”  The Mosaic Law made no attempt to define what all circumstances might be considered “some indecency.”  Although it clearly made provision for just divorce, The Law never defined under what circumstances divorce was permissible.

This was, in fact, the point of the legal debate the Pharisees brought to Jesus in Matthew 19.  They were in agreement that The Law required a certificate of divorce to be issued, as Jesus noted in Matthew 5:31.  However, they had an ongoing legal debate as to what was permitted under “some indecency.”

At that time, some were exploiting the lack of legal definition of permissibility to say a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever…including because he found another woman more desirable…or because another man found his wife desirable.  So, they were right back to the wife-swapping tricks of their ancestors, except with slightly more protection for the abused wife in the form of a divorce certificate.

One publicized example of the day was King Herod’s marriage to the wife of his brother.  John the Baptist incurred the wrath of both Herod and Herodias by calling them out on their adultery.  As a result, John was imprisoned and beheaded.  The Pharisees were probably hoping for a similar demise for Jesus when they asked him this question.

Jesus did not hold back in denouncing this immoral wife-swapping practice of divorcing for the explicit purpose of marrying someone else.  Jesus called it adultery.  However, Jesus clearly upheld provision for divorce as being necessary, yet fell short of giving a detailed list under what circumstances divorce is permissible.  Here’s what he said:

Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:8-9)

If Jesus wanted us to have a well-defined legal list of conditions under which divorce is permissible, this was a perfect chance to provide that.  Yet He did not.  Jesus said Moses made provision for divorce because of hardened hearts…one spouse’s heart becoming hardened against the other.  He went on to say divorcing for the purpose of wife-swapping is adultery.  Yet, he included the phrase “except for immorality.”

And theologians today debate the phrase “except for immorality” in exactly the same manner the lawyers of Jesus day debated the phrase “some indecency.”  In both cases, they are attempting to draw specifics that simply are not there.  Both phrases are intentionally vague…intentionally open-ended.

Why?  Why did Jesus and Moses both refuse to explicitly answer the question, When is divorce permissible?

I would submit the question is never answered because it is not a valid question.

The question presumes divorce is forbidden except for specific clearly legally defined circumstances.  The question presumes divorce permissibility is first and foremost a legal issue.  The question presumes it is the right of a judge, or pastor, or fellow Christian to judge for someone else whether or not they should divorce…as though anyone else besides God could possibly know and judge the deeply personal issues that can arise within the intimate bounds of marriage.

I would submit that scripture is silent on this topic specifically because each individual Christian must search out for themselves the guidance of The Holy Spirit in determining the best course of action in their specific marriage.

If that makes you uncomfortable, maybe you should spend some time prayerfully contemplating why you are uncomfortable with Christians relying on the guidance of The Holy Spirit for major life decisions…and why you feel the need for legalistic rules by which to admonish others.

Jesus was, apparently, quite comfortable with that.


21 thoughts on “When is Divorce Permissible?

    • I always love your encouraging comments, Lisa! 🙂

      Yes, we clearly were raised in similar church traditions.

      The funny thing, though, is I was raised in a broad spectrum of churches. My parents were non-denominational and felt called to attend any church of any denomination at which they could be a blessing. So, I was exposed to a very broad spectrum of doctrines at an early age.

      I know now, looking back, that many of those denominations do not teach or believe the Divorce Mythology I absorbed. I’ve also learned that many of my individual pastors are much more open to divorce sometimes being the best course of action, when spoken to one-on-one. And my own parents were not nearly as legalistic on this topic as the teaching I’ve described here.

      The odd thing, though, is those preachers who were less dogmatic on the topic of divorce never preached about divorce. The folks who were outspoken on the topic of divorce all followed the Divorce Mythology. As a result, that is the only teaching I heard on the subject.

      My parents usually discussed each sermon on the drive home. So, I had the benefit of hearing their views of each sermon…the parts the really liked or saw as insightful…as well as the parts they disagreed with and why they disagreed.

      Yet, I don’t recall ever hearing them voice an opinion against the Divorce Mythology…even though I now know they did not completely agree with it…or at least were less dogmatic in their perspective.

      I think that’s part of why I continue to speak out. Christians need to hear a more balanced view. Otherwise, all they’ll hear is the dogma of the Divorce Mythology preachers.

      Thank you, Lisa! 🙂
      joe recently posted…When is Divorce Permissible?My Profile

  1. So many ways in which you are dead wrong. Excuse my harshness, but like Jesus talking to the Religious leaders of His day you should know better so He was hard on them. First off, Jesus’ answer was the most specific answer one could give. When he says, “except for immorality” your English translation is trying to tell you something. It does not say, “except for adultery.” That is an important distinction. The original Greek does NOT use the word for adultery, but the word for immorality (porneia). Jesus is most certainly referring to His own earthly father’s situation with Mary. He assumed at first that she was unfaithful and sought to put her away. It was not considered adultery since they had not come together to consummate the marriage even though legally (YES LEGALLY) they were married. So, it was a very specific situation Jesus was talking about.
    Second, you skipped right over the fact that Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” In other words, it is NOT God’s plan and not something He wants. So, how can you then conclude that God would advocate something that He does not like. Not smart. Further, please explain how twice in Scripture it says that anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery, but that is somehow OK. Adultery IS sin, and there is no wiggle room on this one. The Bible says it. If you dare say, “Well, it was only talking about the wife swapping thing,” then it is clear to me that you are adding to Scripture and contextualizing far beyond what the plain text says to fit what YOU want it to say. You are wrong. Luke 16:18, “18 Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Plain as day. The Holy Spirit wrote that!!
    Third, to come to a vague, confusing, and very convenient conclusion that “we have to let the Holy Spirit tell them what to do.” WOW, what a spiritual laden bunch of filth. The Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit. You don’t need to seek Him about something that is already clearly talked about in Scripture. That’s like saying, “It seems that the Bible says stealing is wrong, but we don’t know anyone’s personal struggles so we have to trust them to seek the Holy Spirit about it and we can’t judge their actions.” You are speaking Relativism at this point. Let’s just contextualize all sin and rationalize things that God hates. You are a Heretic of the worst kind.

    • Sigh… 🙁

      So…yeah…this is exactly what I was talking about. The legalistic approach finding proof-texts pulled out of context…developing a system of rigid rules…then indiscriminately applying the same rigid rules to every marital situation with no discernment. The never-ending debates over exception clauses…the emphatically stating positions in very confident tones…as though only an idiot or a reprobate could possibly fail to agree with your position. This is what I was talking about. 🙁

      We never see Jesus taking this approach. We do find him harshly rebuking the Pharisees for this approach.

      Although I was very tempted to simply not approve your toxic comment, I decided to go ahead and let it display. Maybe at some point I will find it necessary to start filtering what comments I permit. Thus far I’ve chosen to display all comments that remotely are on topic, no matter how harsh.

      Your perspective and mine are so far apart I’d scarcely know where to begin explaining. Yet, I would gladly take on the task of attempting to explain if you showed the slightest interest in understanding my perspective. However, your stance has made it clear no matter what I say you intend to dig your heels in and spew dogmatic references plucked out of context.

      So…just two things…

      First, as mentioned in the post, my perspective was once much closer to yours than it is now. So, I probably understand your perspective much better than you understand mine. There is a reason my perspective has changed. The Holy Spirit has used many life experiences and much study of scripture to give me a clearer understanding of God’s heart in this matter.

      Second, if you really do want to learn more of my perspective, please feel free to browse this blog. I have plenty of posts on the topic of marriage and divorce. Here are a couple of posts to get you started: http://josephjpote.com/2014/01/divorce-mythology/

      If you’re not interested in better understanding my perspective, then please just agree to disagree. I haven’t time to waste on useless arguments.

      May God bless you, teach you, and draw you ever to a clearer understanding of His heart of love and redemption!
      joe recently posted…When is Divorce Permissible?My Profile

      • There are numerous times in the NT, where the Apostles relied directly on the leading of the Holy Spirit and say that the Holy Spirit “spoke to” or “led them”. I often think that people use the Bible to replace the Spirit leading them. It’s an interesting thing to know that the Apostles and believers in Bible times only had the Law to read, which they were told they were no longer under, and neither are we. They were and had to be led by the Spirit. Today we say we have the Bible, so God only uses His written word to lead us. I am not denying the importance or accuracy of Scripture, but the Bible itself says we need no man to teach us because we have the Spirit Who will teach us all things. The Bible is not the fourth part of the Trinity, but a guide for us as believers, to train us to know it is Him leading us.

        I am so thankful that my knowledge and relationship with God is intimately personal and not just what is written within the pages of the Bible. I am so glad that He can and does lead us by His Spirit, when we have difficult problems in life to walk through and that I can trust His leading. God knows all things and the hearts of mankind. We cannot know those things and make proper godly decisions in life, without the leading and guidance of the Spirit.

        Thanks for an excellent article, Joe. You are certainly not a heretic! You are one of God’s and He is using you to bring His truth and deliverance from evil, to others.

        • Yes! You nailed it, Joenne!

          The Bible is God’s word…intended to lead us into intimate relationship with Jesus…who is the Living Word.

          If we stop at the Bible and never take that next step into intimate relationship through the Holy Spirit, we’ll have missed the whole point.

          Here’s a blog post, where I discussed that further: http://josephjpote.com/2017/12/on-book-learning/

          Thank you, so much, for sharing and encouraging! I appreciate you! 🙂
          joe recently posted…Enduring HardshipMy Profile

      • Joe,
        Thank you for letting the comment through, as your gracious reply to him, with words fit in the Lord, and it shows the legalistic type of toxic thinking, with no discernment, that I have been subjected to for decades.

        Rigid harsh rules of “submit” to every treacherous abuse where Christ is not exalted. Just “submit” and be “silent” while your soul being devoured so you would be lead away from Christ, instead of towards Him.

        That is why Christ sought me out, gave birth to me, saved me to the uttermost, He is the one that got me medical care, He is the one who loves me and is delivering me from the bondage of a cruel man that never cared for my soul one whit.

        My perspective also was much closer to Concerned Christian at one time. It has taken me three years of reading your blog and several years of reading the Word and praying to get past the twisting of the Scriptures by legalists that would like you to “dwell” in fear with the unrepentant.

        Matthew Henry stated, “Submission is the duty of wives. But it is submission, not to a severe lord or stern tyrant, but to her own husband, who is engaged to affectionate duty. And husbands must love their wives with tender and faithful affection.”

        • Deborah, I am so sorry you endured such awful treatment!

          Spousal abuse is the worst sort of treachery…second only to religious leaders indiscriminately applying rigid rules to prevent escaping the abuse.

          I am so thankful our Faithful Lord is delivering you from that toxic erroneous doctrine!

          I pray with confidence, that His precious Holy Spirit will continue to lead and guide you out of bondage into liberty in Him.

          Thank you for sharing!
          joe recently posted…Enduring HardshipMy Profile

          • Joe,

            Thank you for the validation. Yes, treachery only leads to more treachery.

            Being circumspect and waiting on the Lord. He has been faithful in leading me through my wilderness experience every day, therefore I have abiding peace.

            Thank you for praying for me.

  2. I think you are right on. For some reason, many Christians want to be under law. They seek out laws to follow and live as though God is judging them by how well they keep rules. I wonder sometimes if these people have actually gotten the point of the New Testament.

    • Yes…humans seem to have a strong bent toward legalism. Even when we’ve been told of God’s amazing grace, we still try to turn it into being about keeping a bunch of rules.

      Thank you for sharing, Shy1!
      joe recently posted…Enduring HardshipMy Profile

  3. I think Concerned Christian is dead wrong in his analysis, but I also think you are wrong in yours. That is, my take is that the question is valid and there is a Scriptural answer to the question. Once one figures it out, then CC position can be seen as legalism, where yours would be much closer to the Scriptural position, but misses some important things.

    If you wish to discuss further, just indicate it. I do not claim to be an infallible interpreter.

    • Thank you, Don!

      You and I have had enough conversation on this topic for me to have a pretty good idea where you’re coming from, and I have a lot of respect for your views and your scholarship.

      I appreciate your input.
      joe recently posted…Enduring HardshipMy Profile

  4. Hi, I want to ask if you will pray for me and my husband, Eric. I have been praying and contemplating divorcing him, but we have only been together since 2015, married since June 2017.. And have 2 very young children together (I also have a 6 yr old). He has a lot of issues that I didn’t think would become problems because we were in a recovery group, but that group doesn’t exist anymore. He has been drinking heavily since March this year ( he was sober 3 1/2 yrs) and I don’t know if he’s been unfaithful – there’s a lot going on and we fight a lot now. I found your blog because I was searching for answers about divorce. He also won’t talk to anyone from the church… I don’t know what to do so I wanted to ask for your prayers for clarity for me and guidance for my family and restoration for my husband, Eric. We are not too young, I’m 37, he’s 43. We met at church, I’m his 3rd wife and the only one he has children with.

    • Lord, God, I lift Ashleigh and her precious family up to you. Lord, you know the pain and uncertainty Ashleigh is experiencing now. You know the relational issues, the breaches of trust, and the deceptions.

      Lord, you also know both the trauma occurring and the plans you have for each person involved. Lord, only you know.

      Lord I ask you to wrap Ashleigh in your embrace. Fill her with a deep sense of your presence and your love for her. Lord, speak wisdom and courage to her heart. Lord, give Ashleigh supernatural discernment. Enable her to see the situation clearly…to see past the lies and deception…to see past the despair. Lord, give her eyes to see your will in her situation. Lord, I ask you to speak to her heart and give her a confidence of what steps she needs to take now…what positive steps to begin to reclaim a sense of herself as your daughter…as your ambassador…full of wisdom, grace, courage, and strength.

      In your might name we pray.
      joe recently posted…EmpathyMy Profile

  5. Nice guidelines,and thanks for pointing out that a divorce attorney will effectively handle all necessary paperwork.According to me a person might require a lawyer to help them through a divorce.

    • Good point!

      The article focuses on religious/biblical perspectives rather than modern legal boundaries.

      However, I agree that a good attorney should be consulted for handling a divorce…or for most other things requiring appearing in court.

      joe recently posted…Emmanuel – Seed of EveMy Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge