The Old Testament says God hates divorce, and Jesus made strong statements about divorce. How should a Christian apply this in a failed or failing marriage today? Can a Christian divorce?
Several verses in the Gospels record instruction from Jesus in which He advises against divorce. Some Christians find themselves divorced even though they personally did not want their marriage to end. Others are nominally still married, but the relationship is nonexistent.
All are rightly concerned with following what Christ taught, although the path they should take isn’t clear.
What would God have them do? Does the Bible say?
What Jesus taught about divorce
While giving instruction on divorce, Jesus observed: “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’” (Matthew 5:31). By saying “it has been said,” Jesus was referring to a statute from the Old Testament, which allowed for divorce due to sexual immorality. Conflicting applications of this law were taught by Jewish authorities.
Jesus upheld and amplified the original principle for believers: “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).
That presented a higher standard for marriage than what the Pharisees were teaching in the first century. We read more of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:3-9, where He reiterated that God intended marriage to last a lifetime.
Examples of Christians facing failed or failing marriages
But do the principles covered in the Gospels speak to every situation that confronts modern Christians? There are circumstances that seem to be outside of these parameters. What are those who want to honor His Word to do in such situations?
Following are five examples of scenarios our readers have put to us:
- I am a Christian. My husband says that he is too, but he hasn’t lived as a Christian for a long time. Now he says that he wants a divorce. He says that our marriage is over and that he doesn’t want to try to work on it any longer. The Gospels say that Christians shouldn’t divorce. What can I do?
- I have been a Christian for many years; my wife was not. We struggled with marriage problems for a long time, and she eventually divorced me. I believe Jesus said we shouldn’t get a divorce, but what can I do?
- I am a married Christian. My husband doesn’t believe as I do. He has been unfaithful to me many times and shows no intention of changing. But he does not want a divorce. I know Christians are supposed to stay married all their lives, just as Jesus said. What should I do?
- I am a Christian wife, and my marriage is in trouble. My husband has never been unfaithful to me in the sense of having a physical relationship with other women. But he looks at pornography all the time. I really think he is addicted to it. It is a horrible trap. Jesus taught that believers should never divorce, but honestly, our marriage has been shattered for a long time. What should I do?
- I am a Christian, and I want to honor God and Jesus in my marriage, but I am in a difficult situation. For the first several years, I thought our problems were just ups and downs that every couple probably experiences. Slowly, it dawned on me that we were actually in a repeating cycle. You see, my husband has a terrible temper. He gets violent and strikes me. Then he is very, very sorry. For a long time, he is kind and generous—even romantic—before losing control and hitting me again. I know God says we should not divorce. But I am at my wit’s end. I am on edge all the time, because I never know when his temper is going to explode. What would God have me do?
These people are probably referring to the verses quoted above. Do Jesus’ words cover the circumstances and questions these people pose?
Each is slightly different.
In the first example, the couple appears to be headed for divorce due to the decision of one spouse. While one spouse takes the label “Christian,” he isn’t practicing Christianity. They are still in the same house.
In the second, only one claims to be a believer. Divorce has already occurred due to the wishes of the non-Christian spouse. That spouse is already gone from the home. But still, the Christian is distraught.
In the third, fourth and fifth examples, the non-Christian spouses are still in the home and have no intention of leaving. But are these spouses still “in the marriage”? There is a difference, as we will explain.
Does the Bible provide any further guidance for believers beyond Jesus’ words in the Gospels? Yes, it does!
More biblical guidance on Christian divorce
Jesus inspired the apostle Paul to add more advice and counsel in 1 Corinthians 7. The section begins with verses 10-11, in which Paul repeats Jesus’ counsel. God intends that practicing Christian believers should remain committed to their marriage for life. (Even in Christian marriages, there can be exceptions, but this topic is beyond the scope of this article. For an explanation of these verses, see “Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible.”)
Paul begins the next verse with, “But to the rest I, not the Lord, say” (1 Corinthians 7:12, emphasis added). Obviously, the Lord inspired what Paul wrote, because it is preserved in the New Testament! Paul meant that what follows was not a direct quote from the Gospels. Yet it gives needed guidance to various marriage relationships.
Paul then discusses scenarios in which a Christian is married to a non-Christian. In both examples, the non-Christian spouse is described as “willing to live” or “pleased to dwell” (King James Version) with the Christian spouse.
This phrase implies more than merely a willingness to remain together under the same roof. It indicates a commitment to living as a husband or wife should, committed to making the marriage successful. Further, it implies that commitment is evident in the person’s actions, so that a wife might say: “I know my spouse is committed to our marriage, because he shows it.”
Part of God’s advice to believers would be: Do not divorce your spouse under these circumstances. The fact that he or she isn’t a believer is not grounds for divorce.
Next, Paul discusses scenarios that apply to those at the beginning of this article. In contrast to the unbelieving spouse who is committed to the duties of marriage, the unbelievers in these examples are not.
In the language of 1 Corinthians 7:15, which is speaking of a failed marriage, a spouse is said to “depart” the marriage. The meaning of this might seem obvious, but it is not always the case. It may be quite evident if one spouse “departs” by leaving the home, but there is another meaning that applies to different circumstances.
A spouse who “departs” but doesn’t leave
A less obvious situation occurs when the spouse withdraws from the relationship but wants to stay in the home. This is not referring to the normal ups and downs that occur in any marriage, but rather to a spouse ceasing to fulfill even the most basic requirements of being a husband or a wife. Has this spouse left the marriage?
(For the sake of clarity, we will use “he” from this point forward. But many of the following illustrations could apply to either a man or a woman.)
Yes, he has departed in the way Paul uses the term. The unbeliever is just there, but he does nothing to contribute to the marriage or home.
That is, even though he doesn’t move away, he still effectively “departs” the marriage contract by his behavior.
In addition to not fulfilling the basic duties required in marriage, he may exhibit behavior that shows he is unwilling or unable to be in a marriage relationship. He may be verbally cruel, whether with harsh words or by neglect, refusing to communicate altogether. He may refuse to support the family financially. He may be abusing alcohol. He may be viewing pornography, which perhaps leads to introducing sexual aberrations to the marriage. He may be physically violent.
What did Paul mean by “let him depart”?
When an unbelieving spouse departs the marriage relationship and the home, the biblical advice to the Christian is “let him depart.” You cannot stop him. That is, you cannot make someone be committed to marriage with you if he does not want to be.
Let’s stop for a moment to compare the wording of 1 Corinthians 7:15 in several different translations, which will give us a better idea of its meaning.
- “But if the unbelieving partner [actually] leaves, let him do so; in such [cases the remaining] brother or sister is not morally bound. But God has called us to peace” (Amplified Bible).
- “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace” (New International Version).
- “But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace” (New King James Version).
- “But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace” (New Living Translation).
- “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you” (New Revised Standard Version).
“Let him depart,” “let them go” or “let it be so”—these phrases don’t imply that you would be casual about your marriage breaking up. “Oh, my spouse has left. I guess I will simply get on with being single.” Certainly, as long as any window of possibility is still open, a Christian should do everything possible to rescue his marriage relationship. God expects a Christian to practice this from the beginning and throughout one’s marriage—not merely in times of crisis.
A Christian should change his behavior as necessary. He should seek the help of a qualified counselor. He should continually cry out to God for His help.
There is a distinction between a believer who departs from a believer, and a believer whose unbelieving mate departs.There is a distinction between a believer who departs from a believer, and a believer whose unbelieving mate departs. Under extreme circumstances believers are allowed to depart the relationship and remain married to each other, but are told to work to reconcile as God’s Spirit enables them to forgive and make the changes necessary.
You have no choice but to let go
“Let him depart” (and other similar wordings) acknowledges that there can come a point at which that window is closed—when your spouse has taken the decision out of your hands. That might seem to happen suddenly, but in reality, the breakup of a marriage typically occurs over a long period.
It may happen by one or both spouses neglecting their relationship. It may happen by one or both taking actions adverse to a successful marriage. Marriage relationships often die the death of a thousand cuts—the result of numerous small problems rather than one major one.
This clearly seems to fit the first two scenarios presented at the beginning of this article. In these cases, the unbelieving spouse either is departing or has already departed.
Although it is less obvious, the same is likely true for the third, fourth and fifth examples. In all of them, the spouse has departed the marriage by deliberate action or through inaction. If he doesn’t move away and/or file for divorce, the marriage will continue, but in name only.
That is, unless the Christian takes action. Is that permissible? Would a Christian be failing to live by God’s Word if he is the one who files for separation or for divorce? Can a Christian divorce?
The decision is taken out of your hands
Would it be a sin for the Christian to file for separation or divorce? It can seem so, but in reality the unbelieving spouse (or the spouse acting in an unbelieving manner) has already broken the marriage contract. Nothing the Christian can do would change that. When this is the case, which party files for divorce may be a moot point. The Christian is not required to separate or divorce, but it would not be a sin for him to do so in these circumstances.
(There may be situations in which one’s mental, physical or spiritual health requires some form of separation, and additional counsel would be wise. There also may be financial reasons for doing so, but this involves legal questions that are beyond the scope of this article.)
Even so, the idea of the marriage ending can be extremely difficult for a Christian, who is committed to remaining married for a lifetime.
Discerning when Christian divorce or separation is allowed according to the Bible
By God’s design, marriage is the most intimate human relationship possible. Your life is entwined with your spouse’s life, even in a troubled marriage. That makes a divorce painful for a Christian. It has an impact. It does damage from which you will need God’s help to heal.It isn’t always obvious from the outside that a spouse has departed the marriage if he remains in the home. Is his use of alcohol over the line to the point of abuse, if not alcoholism—or does he merely drink more than he should? Is he emotionally abusive—or is he just not naturally sensitive to the feelings of others? Is he physically abusive—or does he just have a temper control problem?
These distinctions are very important when you are trying to determine if your spouse has “departed.” And there are several reasons why it can be difficult to discern the answers accurately.
First, it requires objective thinking. And that’s very difficult when one is in the throes of a troubled marriage relationship. An unbiased outside perspective is often needed.
Also, living for a long time in a marriage from which your spouse has departed (without leaving the home) can seriously skew your ability to think rationally. You can feel an unjustified sense of guilt. This sensitivity can be manipulated by a selfish spouse.
Lastly, even a Christian can also become selfish, perhaps from fatigue, and look for excuses to end, rather than repair, a troubled marriage. A Christian can give in to natural, selfish impulses to declare his spouse “departed,” when that is not yet true!
For all of these reasons, you might need the help of an objective third party to be able to recognize whether your spouse has departed the marriage relationship. Be aware of the fact that many friends and family members are not able to be objective! Seek the help of a qualified person who understands the biblical rules of Christian divorce. Someone who has the necessary skill will guide you through your situation and will not try to impose his personal opinion on you.
Even when permissible, Christian divorce is never easy
Societal norms are unquestionably a great deal more accepting about divorce today than in previous generations. But don’t be lulled into thinking that this means that divorce is easy. As our articles about the marriage relationship on Life, Hope & Truth explain, God’s intent is that marriage should last a lifetime. (See the numerous articles in this “How to Have a Happy Marriage” section and download our study guide 5 Keys to Improving Your Marriage.)
By God’s design, marriage is the most intimate human relationship possible. Your life is entwined with your spouse’s life, even in a troubled marriage. That makes a divorce painful for a Christian. It has an impact. It does damage from which you will need God’s help to heal.
We have seen from 1 Corinthians 7 that God understands that believers cannot prevent their spouses from departing the marriage relationship. And God certainly understands the pain that conscientious believers experience when that happens. He inspired Paul’s words to guide believers through these very difficult times.
You might be familiar with the plain statement that God “hates divorce” found in Malachi 2:16. He doesn’t hate the people who divorce, but rather, the damage that it does to all involved. If you are going through a divorce, or have been divorced, you need His strength and wisdom more than ever in order to move forward.