Periodically, throughout the years, I’ve re-visited the “when can Christians legitimately divorce” issue. First time was before seminary, when someone asked me if she had biblical grounds to leave a spouse who beat her. Second time was at seminary, where I was taught the “only for adultery and desertion” approach. Third, fourth and fifth times have been over the past decade-ish, since I’ve been a pastor.
Well, I come before you to declare I’ve figured everything out …
This is a hard topic. I’ve had to think through this issue again, and so I present my conclusions here to you. I may be wrong, of course. Some will undoubtedly disagree with me. I don’t interact with opposing viewpoints; you can find whole books that will do that for you. This is not an exhaustive discussion, but a brief positive survey of the most primary texts. Perhaps it will change one day. You may find my complete paper here.
The bottom line
The bottom line is a Christian may divorce under the following scenarios, each of which is an egregious fracture of the marriage covenant:
- Sexual betrayal: physical adultery or an egregious, repeated and seemingly (to a reasonable person) unrepentant breach of sexual allegiance more generally (Deut 24:1; Mt 5:32, 19:9)
- Neglect: refusal to provide food or clothing ≈ material neglect (Ex 21:10-11; cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please wife/husband”)
- Desertion: an implication from the previous, whether carried out by a believer (1 Cor 7:10-12, and principle also logically follows from Ex 21:10-11 (cf. 1 Cor 7:33-34 “how to please his wife”)), or an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:15).
- Physical abuse: an implication from the previous
- Failure to provide marital privileges: refusal to provide “marital rights” ≈ the expected matrix of sexual relations, affection, and expressions of love (“love” is a decision, not a feeling). Analysis should be totality of circumstances, not a legalistic weighing of scales
My Interpretive Presuppositions
These are my broader interpretive presuppositions about the texts herein. They help you understand where I’m coming from, up front:
- Exodus 21:10-11 provides a general principle about divorce that transcends covenants and the immediate context in Exodus 21.
- Genesis 1-2 is the controlling passage for Jesus that expresses God’s idealistic heart for the covenant of marriage. It therefore must be our heart, too.
- Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 are both excerpts from larger teaching that God did not see fit to provide for us. They stand alone, without context, as disparate pieces of collected teachings. Therefore, their interpretation should be controlled by the larger context of Matthew 19 and Mark 10.
- Jesus’ statements in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 are explicit responses to the pro “any cause divorce” interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, and we must interpret them in that light. They are not blanket statements covering all circumstances; they are simply Jesus’ interpretation of Moses’ intent behind the exemption at Deuteronomy 24. “[T]he Gospels record the whole debate as if it was concerned solely with divorces in Deuteronomy 24:1.”1
- At 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is responding to a misguided craze for sexual asceticism, and we must interpret his comments on divorce and remarriage there with that context in mind.
Some Overarching Principles to Consider
A pastor (and a congregation) must remember these things:
You’re a Counselor, not God
The pastor’s role is to advise the Christian and guide him to make the best decision in light of the matrix of biblical truth. A pastor can only advise based on his observations and the best data he can gather. He may be wrong because the parties provided skewed data. Everybody is responsible to the Lord for their own decisions.2
Sometimes You Gotta Face Reality
Sometimes there has been so much baggage, so much hurt, so much water under the bridge, that one or both parties just will not put forth the effort to repair the damage biblically. Stanley Grenz writes, “it must be admitted that divorce is at times but the formal declaration of the actual state of affairs.” He explains “… divorce is not an abrupt termination of a marriage. Rather, it is but the final statement concerning the process whereby the marital bond has been violated for some time.”3
Better Peace Than Forced Misery
See Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 7:15; and the previous heading, above.
Sometimes, human failure and sin in the marriage will cause great suffering. “At this stage, the principle of God’s compassionate concern for the person’s involved, God’s intent to establish shalom or human wholeness, must take precedence over the concern to maintain the inviolability of marriage.”4
This peace includes an honest assessment about whether they can continue to live together as husband and wife. “Peace by necessity includes a peaceful parting and a resolution of lingering responsibilities of their marriage, including a division of material goods and a just arrangement for providing for the children. Finally, interpersonal peace must work toward a normalization of their relationship as two separate persons, including the cessation of whatever hostilities the marriage breakup may have engendered.”5
In short, when faced with hardened hearts that will not put forth the effort to fix the issues, coupled with the ongoing pain and hurt caused by the compounding baggage, it may be best to just “call it” and acknowledge the marriage has been over for quite some time―no matter that the legal veneer is still in place. Formalize what the de facto reality already is and will continue to be. This is not a “get out of jail free” card, but a call to carefully examine the realities of the situation while balancing all the biblical teaching―especially the command to “if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” (Rom 12:18).
Put the Blame Where it Belongs
“A marriage is ended by the person who breaks the marriage vows, not by the wronged person who decides to end the broken contract by enacting a divorce.”6
Yet, There’s Likely Plenty of Blame to go Around
“Legalistic approaches, therefore, run the danger of viewing complex marital problems too simplistically. A legalistic structure seeks to force the situation into categories of ‘guilty partner’ versus ‘innocent partner’ which simply may not fit the case at hand. The determination of ‘innocent partner’ in many cases of marital breakup is difficult, if not impossible. It may well be that both parties share in the guilt.”7
Divorce is not the Unpardonable Sin
This shouldn’t have to be said, but it must be said.
Divorce is not God’s Intention for Marriage
This also shouldn’t have to be said. It isn’t a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card. Jesus’ burden was to uphold God’s intent for marriage from Genesis.
Besides the scriptures themselves, the two most helpful resources for me were:
- David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), and
- Andrew Naselli, “What the NT Teaches about Divorce and Remarriage,” in Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 24 (2019), pp. 3-44.
Again, you may find my full paper here.
1 “There were no debates about the validity of neglect and abuse as grounds for divorce in any ancient Jewish literature, for the same reason that there are none about the oneness of God: these principles were unanimously agreed on. Rather than indicating that Jesus did not accept the validity of divorce for neglect and abuse, his silence about it highlights the fact that he did accept it, like all other Jews at that time,” (David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church [Downers Grove: IVP, 2003], p. 96).
2 “Only the Lord really knows the heart; as Jesus said, evil comes from within and loves the dark. We cannot leave it up to a minister or a church leadership team to decide when a marriage ends; it is up to the individual victim, in prayer before the Lord. Only they and the Lord know what their life is really like. Only they know if their partner has expressed repentance, and only they will have to live with the consequences of the decision,” (Instone-Brewer, Divorce, pp. 104-105).
3 Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective (Louisville: WJK, 1990), pp. 133, 126.
4 Grenz, Sexual Ethics, p. 128.
5 Grenz, Sexual Ethics, pp. 137-138.
6 Instone-Brewer, Divorce, p. 42.
7 Grenz, Sexual Ethics, pp. 136-137.