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What does the Bible say about divorce?

Quick Answer: While God intended marriage to last a lifetime (Matthew 19:6), there are some circumstances in which it is healthy for a believer to divorce their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15; Exodus 21:10-11). 

Diving Deeper: Marriage is designed to last a lifetime as it reflects Christ’s faithfulness to the church (Mark 19:6; Ephesians 6:21-33). But even in the Old Testament, God allowed for divorce under a few conditions: deprivation of “her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights” (Exodus 21:10). Scripture states that if a wife is deprived of these things, she may “go free for nothing without payment of money” (Exodus 21:11).

In Exodus 21, the wife is in focus as she was essentially the property of her husband. The husband was to care for the wife and not deprive her. Today we live under a different covenant and a different culture. Yet, we may still apply this concept to modern-day marriage. If spouses are being abused in some way, or having their “marital rights” threatened in whatever manner, then it seems divorce is an option (as God’s grace is not stricter than the Law!). And obviously, God does not want His children remaining in harmful or abusive relationships.

However, it is important not to “proof text” this verse to one’s life, looking for an excuse to divorce and call something “abusive” when it really isn’t. Note that these verses are describing a genuinely abusive situation that is unhealthy for the spouse.

We also see a condition for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:15. The verse describes an unbeliever leaving a marriage. In this context, Paul encourages the believing spouse to let the person leave without a fight. In this scenario, it seems there is precedent for divorce so that both parties can move forward.

It can also be argued that the word for “divorce” used in 1 Corinthians 7 is actually referring to putting away a spouse without a certificate of divorce which enabled them to remarry.  This is further supported by the grammar in 1 Corinthians 7, as only the husband could issue the certificate and for that reason active language is used for him while passive “recipient” verbiage is used for the wife.

With this in mind, Paul is saying that a believing husband should not “put away” his wife without a certificate enabling her to remarry, and doing so would be a cruel move. Furthermore, if a wife is put away without a certificate, then she was not to remarry because of reputation – all the more reason for her husband to issue her the freedom to move on. (Note: If this is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 7, then Paul was not “outlawing” divorce for Christians but was instead encouraging them to only divorce legally in order to free their spouse to remarry.)

The bottom line is that God intends marriage to last a lifetime in order to reflect His unconditional love for us. However, even in the Old Testament, God allowed divorce because of hardness of hearts. Today, there are indeed circumstances (such as neglect and abuse) in which God will counsel a spouse to get away to safety and health.

Let’s Make It a Conversation!
1. A large percentage of Christians have been divorced. In your experience, how has divorce (and remarriage) been viewed in the church?
2. Some say divorce is always a sin, and one is in perpetual adultery if they remarry. How might the “put away without a certificate” perspective change one’s view?
3. How would this viewpoint impact the way you’d offer counsel to someone considering divorce? Someone already divorced? Someone considering remarriage?

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