Marriage is not easy. And it becomes extremely difficult when serious sin enters the picture. For believers, is divorce an option; and if so, under what circumstances? We need to look to the Bible for God’s instruction concerning this challenging issue.
If you attend a traditional wedding today, you will hear some vows exchanged—promises to have and to hold from this day forward. Those are solemn words, and they go all the way back to God’s ideal for marriage, which includes harmony and permanency and unity.
Now the trouble with marriage is that it is the union of two sinners. You may have thought marriage would be easy—until you got married! Then you realized you were so different from your spouse—and you have been working at understanding that person ever since.
One man who had been married for over fifty years told me one Sunday morning after the service that he and his wife are very different. He said, “We’re so different, the only thing we have in common is that we were married on the same day.”
Let me tell you, God put into place this unwritten law that opposites attract. Marriage becomes the greatest tool of spiritual development you have on earth.
But what happens when a spouse decides to pursue a lifestyle that is sinful or begins to embrace a sinful addiction or becomes physically abusive? Is divorce biblically justified?
We are in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 16. Jesus has just finished giving a parable about the godly use of money, and we read in verse 14, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.”
Jesus knows their hearts—He knows they don’t really care about God’s Word. He says to them in verse 17, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”
Even the smallest dot is important. Jesus is referring to that the little serif—that little pen stroke that distinguishes Hebrew consonants. The liberals love to say that the Bible contains the word of God; no, the Bible is the Word of God—even that little dot.
Jesus brings up an illustration to prove these Pharisees were trying to get around the Word of God—verse 18: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
Jesus’ gives a fuller statement regarding the issue in Matthew 19:9, where, in a different context, He says, “I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Here He adds what we call an exception clause to a permanent marriage—the exception of sexual immorality.
In the Lord’s day, there were two schools of rabbinical thought with regard to divorce, and they both quoted Deuteronomy 24:1:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her . . . he [may write] her a certificate of divorce.
The conservative school defined “indecency” as adultery. The more liberal school, represented by the Pharisees, focused on the phrase “she finds no favor in his eyes.” The rabbis defined this lack of favor to include burning his dinner, speaking to another man on the street, or even talking too loudly.
However, a woman could divorce her husband only if he became an apostate, a criminal, or a leper. So obviously, divorce was nearly impossible for a woman, even if her husband was self-centered, immoral, and cruel.
What Jesus does here is clarify the law. He says divorce can take place if either spouse commits “sexual immorality.” The Greek word here is porneia. Some versions translate it “fornication,” but it’s a broad term for sexual immorality.
Don’t misunderstand, Jesus does not say, “You must get a divorce because of sexual immorality.” Divorce isn’t required, but it is permitted.
Sexual immorality is not automatic grounds for divorce, but it certainly is grounds for genuine repentance. For those who are married to someone who refuses to genuinely repent, the Lord opens the door with this exception clause so the innocent spouse can be free to divorce and remarry.
Now you might be wondering if immorality is the only grounds for a biblically justifiable divorce and remarriage. The apostle Paul speaks to this in 1 Corinthians 7:
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. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Paul is talking here about a Christian couple who have no biblical grounds for divorce. Should one of the spouses leave, that one is not free to marry someone else. Paul says the one who leaves should either remain unmarried or reconcile with his or her spouse.
Paul then adds these words in verse 12: “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord).” This does not mean Paul is just giving his own opinion. It means the Lord had not delivered this instruction during His ministry, so Paul is not quoting Jesus here. He is now being led by the Holy Spirit to give further direction to the believer:
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. (verses 12-13)
The word “consent” is critical here. It is a word that refers to pleasing agreement—a mutual desire to be together.
Consent is a two-way street. So, if there is a clear desire, even from an unbelieving spouse, to pursue the wedding vows, Paul says, do not divorce that spouse.
But if that is not the case—if there are decisions and addictions and actions that clearly communicate a spouse really does not consent to live responsibly as a husband or wife—Paul presents that as an act of abandonment. He says in verse 15, “But if the unbelieving partner separates”—and I might add, the partner who is acting like an unbeliever—“let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.”
In other words, do not fight it or argue about it; allow it. In fact, there is nothing that forbids the innocent spouse from initiating it. Paul writes here, “God has called you to peace.” And that is your goal now: to leave the battle behind with that sinful, unrepentant spouse whose decisions acted out abandonment—a lack of consent to dwell with you.
Paul says here in verse 15, “In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” This is the only time in the New Testament this phrase, “in such cases,” is found. It means, “In cases like these, which involve abandonment.” It is an umbrella phrase for any kind of case that reveals the spouse is not genuinely repenting and genuinely demonstrating consent to live respectfully and agreeably with his or her spouse.
I believe those other cases that effectively communicate abandonment of the wedding vows would include unrepentant immorality; unrepentant pornography, gambling, and other addictions like drugs and alcohol that accompany a lifestyle of deception; stealing from the household income; verbal threats of physical harm; and most certainly, any kind of physical abuse.
There is a popular view out there in the Christian community that says a wife should endure physical abuse like a missionary endures persecution. Absolutely not! Let me tell you, leaving an unrepentant, cheating, stealing, drunken, deceitful, immoral, abusive spouse is a better way to witness to our world what God considers a marriage to be than supporting and subsidizing a spouse who dishonors the sanctity of marriage.
In cases like these, there is biblical ground for divorce and remarriage so that the believer can show the world what a true, biblical marriage is all about.