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When Should Christians Seek Divorce?

Jessica Brodie

Award-winning Christian Novelist and Journalist
Updated Apr 12, 2024
When Should Christians Seek Divorce?

Clearly, divorce is not God’s preference or something he likes, but rather something he permitted as a way to provide for his people who were suffering.

Divorce is typically not the end most couples have in mind when they walk down the aisle, though nearly half of all first marriages are said to end in divorce.

Today, we live in a society where it can be relatively easy to get married and then, for almost any reason, get divorced. In some states in America, it can take a few days to a month to file and finalize a divorce, while other states have a far longer and more complex process.

Christians, however, typically do not enter a marriage covenant lightly — nor do they attempt to end one without serious forethought and very good reason. Yet many who are contemplating divorce struggle with whether they can or should do so. They worry they will be kicked out of their church for getting divorced, or they are subjected to extreme pressure to stay together in spite of serious, even dangerous, circumstances.

Many of us have heard “God hates divorce,” a sentence that comes from Malachi 2:16, one of the Old Testament prophetic books. Some translations state this directly, though others only imply it, and it comes from a passage where God is speaking to his prophet about the woeful state of marital relations among the Israelites of that day. While debate exists about whether that sentence even appears in the original Hebrew manuscripts of God’s Holy Word, God does express disappointment about and dislike of divorce.

And we know divorce is not what God intended when he created man and woman and gave them to each other to be “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

This begs the question: What does the Bible say about divorce? What did Jesus say about divorce? And when should Christians seek divorce, if at all?

Let’s take a look at what Scripture tells us about divorce.

What Is Divorce?

A divorce is the process of terminating a marriage. Typically, the dissolution of marriage is a decree issued by a court under the rule of law in that country or state.

The word “divorce” also appears throughout the Bible with seemingly the same meaning. Its first mention comes in Leviticus 21 and 22, and there are mentions throughout the Old Testament, both in the Torah and the books of major and minor prophets, as well as throughout the New Testament.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the Hebrew word for “divorced” is garas, also meaning banished, expelled, driven out, or cast aside. The Hebrew word for “divorce” is salah, meaning to send out or send away, let go (as in a marriage relationship), release, or thrust out. Another word, kerithuth, means the official divorce decree, something in writing.

In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for divorce is apolyo (send away or release) or apostasion (certificate of divorce). Another word for this is aphiemi, meaning cancel, let go, desert, or abandon.

Divorce in those days typically meant that the law (both God’s law and human law) allowed for a marriage relationship to be cancelled or terminated and the woman could be released or sent away. The Bible doesn’t specify precise terms of this “cancellation,” such as whether the woman would have any rights or monetary protection or on what grounds this could occur, but we do know it did occur.

When and Why Did Divorce Originate?

As with most issues discussed in the Old Testament, divorce was included in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy because God cared for his people and wanted to be sure his people were fairly treated. He knew sometimes marriages did not work, and he wanted to make sure his people understood fair treatment of others was important to him. He wanted to ensure divorced women could reenter their father’s homes and have protection and a family once more (Leviticus 22), but that divorced women were not considered proper spouses for priests (Leviticus 21).

Much later, in Matthew 19, Jesus explained that divorce was not God’s original intent for men and women but rather a solution God offered because of the people’s stubborn and obstinate hearts. As he noted, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).

Clearly, divorce is not God’s preference or something he likes, but rather something he permitted as a way to provide for his people who were suffering.

What Did God Say about Divorce?

Beyond establishing laws about divorce, God also said a few things about divorce.

First, he spoke about it in a relatively negative way, implying divorce occurs when a man “dislikes” his wife or she becomes “displeasing” to him (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

To the prophet Jeremiah, God expressed displeasure about his people’s fickle hearts, equating it with divorce and therefore implying his distaste for divorce. As he said, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries” (Jeremiah 3:8).

In the Book of Malachi, we find the strongest Old Testament expression about divorce. God expressed displeasure in this book about the many ways his people were going astray and displeasing him. In addition to faulty sacrifices, withholding tithes, marrying women who worshipped false gods, and being generally disrespectful to the Lord, the people were getting divorced without proper grounds. In the Torah, God specified the people could get divorced for adultery (Deuteronomy 24:1) or abuse (Exodus 21:10-11). Yet now, men were divorcing without good reason, and God was not happy about this.

As God said, “Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. ‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful” (Malachi 2:15-16).

What Did Jesus Say about Divorce?

God also spoke through his son, Jesus. We know Jesus, as the Word that became flesh (John 1:14), is also God, part of the holy trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three in one.

And Jesus had strong words about divorce.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said 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 5:32).

Later, when questioned by the Pharisees, Jesus talks about how marriage between a man and a woman was God’s plan at the beginning, as two became united as one flesh. “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate,” Jesus said (Matthew 19:6).

He further added, expressing displeasure about divorce on improper grounds, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9).

It’s important to note that the Greek word translated here as “sexual immorality” is porneia, and it includes more than sexual immorality but also spiritual immorality, fornication, greed, lust, and other improper marital intimacy. Therefore, scholars also agree this word applies to spousal abuse.

So bottom line: Unless it’s for reasons of abuse, adultery, or other marital immoralities and perversions, Jesus is saying that divorce is wrong.

When Should Christians Seek Divorce?

But it’s also important to note that people in adulterous, immoral, abusive, or otherwise improper marriages are not stuck and condemned to a lifetime of cruel suffering.

God is a loving Father, and he allows divorce when people are in terrible situations like this. While he acknowledges this is not his preference, and that he prefers a man and woman to join as one flesh, when this union is perverted, corrupted, or distorted in some way, he allows divorce as a protective measure.

Therefore, a woman or man who is experiencing abuse, adultery, or other wrongful marital situations may free themselves from the bonds of this union.

What about Remarriage?

Jesus has harsh words about remarriage: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).

When his disciples note that perhaps it’s better not to marry in the first place, Jesus says, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. ... The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Read more about this important question here: What Does the Bible Say about Remarriage?

What if the Divorce or Remarriage is Not Considered “Proper”?

Of course, sometimes Christians find themselves in situations where they are divorced yet there was no porneia, no improper marital circumstances. Sometimes, they divorce simply because they have fallen out of love or for some other reason they know to be not in line with the Lord’s provision or liking.

Other times, they have divorced and remarried and now — maybe even years later — they find themselves convicted that perhaps they behaved sinfully in one or the other area.

If this is the case, as with any other conviction of sin, a person should repent wholeheartedly, then devote themselves to living in accordance with God’s will from now on. That is, they should not seek to dissolve the new marriage but rather commit themselves wholly to the union and strive not to sin again.

And for those who divorced and remarried before they came to Christ, the important thing is to understand that from now on, they are to live in accordance with the will of the Lord. For instance, in the early church, circumcision was a big controversy. Many insisted new converts should be circumcised, yet this was not a typical cultural practice for many Greeks and others and quite off-putting for many. The apostles determined we are saved through God’s grace alone.

As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:20, “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.”

Just as with the issue of circumcision, those who are remarried can rest in the knowledge that God understands and accepts us as we are — so long as we strive to repent and follow his commands from here on out.

As Jesus told the adulterous woman in John 8:11, “Go and sin no more.”

Remember: God loves us. His original plan is perfect and holy. But even when we go astray, we are welcomed into his kingdom when we repent and believe.

RELATED PODCAST: While divorce is never easy, sometimes it is the only option left for individuals to protect themselves and their families when abuse, adultery, abandonment, and addiction are involved. Marriage coach Dana Che Williams helps you explore each of these situations and provides you with information on how to recognize when it may be time to consider divorce.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Martin Barraud

Jessica Brodie author photo headshotJessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Her newest release is an Advent daily devotional for those seeking true closeness with God, which you can find at https://www.jessicabrodie.com/advent. Learn more about Jessica’s fiction and read her faith blog at http://jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional and podcast. You can also connect with her on Facebook,Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed