What Does the Bible Say About Divorce? Are There Grounds for Biblical Divorce?

Dr. Roger Barrier

Preach It, Teach It
Updated Mar 28, 2019
What Does the Bible Say About Divorce? Are There Grounds for Biblical Divorce?
The more contact I've had with those divorced and divorcing, and with people who needed to get out of miserable, dangerous, abusive and broken marriages the more my heart aches. Too many situations simply don't fit the rules.

Divorce in the Bible

The Bible gives us very straight-forward reasons for divorce. Three specific things the Bible says about divorce are: adultery is always grounds for divorce, a Christian may divorce a non-Christian if the non-Christian wants a divorce, and physical (many cases mental and emotional abuse as well) may mean it's time to consider abandoning a marriage. 

Now in order to lend some credibility to my comments, you may need to know that I've counseled married, remarried, cohabitating and divorced couples and individuals for over forty years. Nothing surprises me anymore. Of the hundreds of letters that I receive to Ask Roger, almost one-half of them deal with marriage issues.

While the issues in marriage and cohabitating remain much the same, I'm not the same. When I first began pastoring (at age 20) the rules for divorce were clear. First, according to the Bible, adultery was always grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:31-33). Second, a Christian married to an unbeliever may get a divorce if the unbeliever wants to get out of the marriage (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

In those days it was easy for me to apply the rules. It's very clear what the Bible directly says about divorce. People either obeyed them or they didn’t. If they didn't they weren't really welcome in our fellowship.

I look back with sadness. A lot of people in broken marriages turned to the church for help and comfort and all we had to offer were two rules.

The more contact I've had with those divorced and divorcing, and with people who needed to get out of miserable, dangerous, abusive and broken marriages, the more my heartaches. Too many situations simply don't fit the rules.

Let me give you an example of a letter that I recently received from a woman with two daughters. She is tragically trapped in a marriage sham but feels is obligated to keep married because God will punish her if she divorces the miserable dead beat.

Dear Roger, 

I am 23 years old, and I got married when I was 19. I've got 2 kids... as of right now my husband is passed out. He was drunk and he came home and picked a fight and when I told him I just want to sleep he punched me and grabbed my hair and said I don't care about him. I just didn't want to talk to him...I really don't know what to do... I love my two daughters so much...I don't want them to grow up and see that they don't have their parents together..Please pray for me and my daughters. Today is Sunday; I'm supposed to go to the church, but I can't open my eyes cause I've been crying all night...Please help me pray for me and my daughter...

Today, I try to interpret what the Bible says about divorce and it's teaching- and there are many - as a selection of godly principles. With this approach, I find the Scriptures full of help which provides much truth to work with in helping hurting people.

No two marriages are alike. Each needs individual attention. Any decision to divorce - or to recommend it - comes only after a careful consideration of a multitude of factors. Prayer and seeking God's will in every situation is essential.

What does the Bible say about divorce? 

1. Adultery is always grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:31-32).

2. A Christian may divorce a non-Christian if the non-Christian wants to divorce (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

3. Physical abuse, and in many cases emotional, cruel and/or mental abuse may mean that it is time to consider abandoning the marriage (Malachi 2:16).

"God hates divorce; but, He also hates a man covering himself with violence" (Malachi 2:16). This term comes from a Hebrew word that can also mean, "covering his wife with violence."

I advise any woman who has been hit by her husband to consider getting as far away from him as soon as possible - and never to look back - divorce or otherwise. Continued belittling and mental and emotional badgering fits under the "violence" umbrella. Notice that this principle holds true if the roles are reversed and the wife is the one instigating the violence.

A quick way to break your marriage vows is to hit the one that you promised to love.

4. The husband who consistently refuses to live up his responsibility of loving his wife as Jesus loved the church, may, in some cases, have violated his marriage vows and made the marriage contract null and void (Ephesians 5:25-33).

Paul taught that the marriage vows made by a husband include loving and sacrificing for his wife as Jesus loved and sacrificed His life for His church. According to the vows laid out in the Bible, the husband is to invest his life in loving his wife and caring for her needs even before he takes care of his own. He is responsible to make her into the best woman she can possibly be. He is to watch over her and protect her from “evil things.” He is responsible for his wife’s spiritual development so that one day she may be pure and holy as she comes into the presence of Christ.

Based on years of observation, many husbands walked out on their wives long ago—even while they both lived under the same roof.

5. The wife who undermines and/or disrespects her loving husband, may, in some cases, have violated her marriage vows and made the marriage contract null and void (Ephesians 5:22-24).

As you read the Ephesians 5 passage, notice that while the husband is commanded to love his wife, his wife is never asked to love him. She is to obey and respect him, but she's never told to love him. Many have trouble with a wife being told to obey and respect her husband. It doesn't seem right or fair.

Let me tell you what I see going on here. Women whose husbands are fulfilling their roles of loving and sacrificing their lives for them don't have to be told to love their husbands. Loving men like that comes naturally. It is easy to love and respect someone who has your best interests at heart.

6. The husband who refuses to get a job in order to meet the needs of his family is worse than an unbelieving non-Christian (1 Timothy 5:8). He has forfeited his role as a husband and violated his marriage vows.

Of course, there are times when few or no jobs are available. This is different from the husband who refuses to work. In the former case, the wedding vows are not broken by the failure to make a living.

7. God never originally intended for people to remain single forever (Genesis 2:18 and Matthew 5:32; 19:8-9).

Jesus said that it is wrong to marry someone who has been divorced who did not have the proper grounds for divorce. In the same way, it is not right for a person who is divorced without biblical grounds to remarry.

However, the overriding principle here comes from before the Fall when God says to Adam, "It is not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). It is my opinion that after an appropriate amount of time, and after seasons of brokenness, humility, confession, and repentance, God still intends for marriage to be the first defense against loneliness.

8. If you have proper grounds for a divorce, then you have proper grounds to remarry (>1 Corinthians 7:15, 39).

9. If your previous partner has remarried, reconciliation is impossible. There is freedom to remarry.

10. In certain cases it is God's will to remain unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

11. When a marriage is irrevocably marred and broken it may well be time for both parties to consider simply picking up the pieces and starting over again (John 8:1-12).

Remember how Jesus gave a second chance to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-12). He helped her to pick up the pieces of her broken life and start over again.

Jesus is still in the business of helping people pick up the pieces of their broken lives so that their best days are ahead!

So, Let's Practice.

I have repeated below some of the marriage and cohabitation questions I have recently received at Ask Roger. Take a few moments, just for fun, and think about how you might handle each one. Some are easy. Others are inscrutably difficult.

  • “What if I am married to a person with an incurable personality disorder that I never should have married in the first place, whose aberrant behavior is destroying our family? Is it OK for me to get a divorce?”
  • “What if I can handle my spouse’s angry and belittling verbal abuse—but I see my children being mentally and emotionally destroyed before my very eyes?”
  • “What if my husband puts a gun in my mouth and threatens to shoot me?”
  • “What if I don’t love my spouse anymore?”

I've heard Christians say, "Well, I don't love him anymore." Not loving someone has never been grounds for divorce. The Bible says that we are to love our wives/husbands. If you can't do that, then love her/him as your neighbor. If you can't love her/him as a neighbor, then love your enemy.

  • “What if my spouse is involved in illegal behavior (gambling, drugs, gun-running, etc) which could get us all in trouble?”
  • “My husband divorced me for another and I'm really praying that God will break them up and bring him back to me."
  • "One month after I got married to the father of my two youngest children I found out he was having an affair... He moved another woman into his home….after about six months of rejection I filed for divorce. Our divorce will be final in man's eyes. my question is in references to >Matthew 19: 3-11. Can I re-marry? Will it be adultery? Will any future marriage be cursed? Did I do the right thing?
  • "When I became a Christian I learned that I had no Biblical grounds for my divorce. In order to make things right should I divorce my new wife in order to return to the old one?"
  • "In my culture polygamy is both allowed and encouraged. The missionary told me that the Bible says that we are to have only one wife and family. I have three wives and nineteen children. Is he right? If I choose one, the others will be put on the street with no support. What should I do?"
  • "I have been taught in my church that it is ok to leave someone who is abusing you and be separated, but it is not ok to get divorced and marry someone else (unless widowed.)."
  • "If God doesn't recognize divorce, and marriage is a covenant, how can someone get remarried?"
  • "I'm told if your first spouse is alive, you are committing adultery if you remarry."
  • "Is it OK to have sex with my ex?"
  • "My boyfriend likes looking at porn more than he likes having sex with me. What should I do?"
  • "I married my then spouse for all the wrong reasons. I thought things would change after the marriage, but they got worse. My then spouse confessed he didn't believe in God and he brought all types of evils into our family. After many failed attempts to get him to join a church or get counseling, I decided it only be wise to leave him. My concern is on remarrying, we were married in a court building, not on biblical grounds. So am I able to remarry if I cleanse myself, repent for those sins?"

When I talk to high school and college kids on the subject of marriage I ask them to raise their hands if they intend to get married someday. Most all hands go up. Then I ask how many have actually seen the type of marriage they would like to have? A few hands raise. Not many.

Then I encourage them to look at everyone else in the group; one of every two persons in the room will be divorced at least once. I have never yet married anyone who intended to be in the divorced group—but half of all people tragically end up there anyway.

A failed marriage is an awful thing. The ripples of pain flow outward in ever-widening circles just as a stone tossed into the middle of a quiet pond sends ripples out in all directions.

So, make having a successful marriage a top priority in your life. You want to be in your rocking chair, rocking on the front porch someday in retirement with your very best friend—the love of your life. That will be sweet.

Bible Verses About Divorce

Matthew 5:31-32 - "It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Matthew 19:8-9 - "Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Luke 16:18 - “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

1 Corinthians 7:10-11 - 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 7:15 - But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.

Read more Bible Verses about Divorce at BibleStudyTools.com

rogerDr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.

Publication date: July 18, 2013

5 Bad Reasons to Leave Your Marriage by Cindi McMenamin - "After 28 years of marriage and nearly 20 years counseling and coaching other couples who were ready to give up, I’ve learned that there are certain phrases or “reasons” that one or both spouses will cite for why a marriage is crumbling. Yet these reasons are often ones that one or both parties later realized were workable. Here are those phrases, which I now call “5 Bad Reasons for Leaving Your Marriage”…"

The Unraveling of a Christian Marriage, 3 Common Questions by Elisabeth Klein - "One woman wanted to know why I stayed in my hard marriage so long, because she doesn’t understand why God wouldn’t want me to be happy, and why I didn’t just do what was “right for me” a long time ago. One woman wanted to know how I stayed in my hard marriage for so long because she’s in one too and sometimes feels like she can barely make it another day, let alone the rest of her lifetime. And one woman wanted to know why I’m not staying in my marriage forever no matter what because she believes there are a select few biblical reasons for divorce and she thinks my circumstances don’t fit the profile..."

This is the Reason God Actually Hates Divorce by Laura Petherbridge - As he did with Adam in the Garden, God took the cinders of my shattered heart and created a new purpose. Malachi 2:16 states that God hates divorce.  And I learned that God does hate divorce, but not for the reasons we hear in most churches (“it breaks his law”). No, the root reason is much more intimate, more affectionate. God knows that divorce deeply wounds and attempts to destroy his precious Beloved. Divorce endeavors to steal, kill, and destroy God’s creation. Divorce tried to assassinate me. That’s why God hates divorce.

Christianity.com: What does the Bible teach about divorce and remarriage?-David Powlison from christianitydotcom2 on GodTube.