Here's What The Bible Really Says About Divorce

Divorce is one of the uglier realities of life. Not all marriages work out, and while breaking a marriage contract is, at its core, a simple matter of doing some legal paperwork that undoes some earlier legal paperwork, the fallout can have wide-reaching consequences. These consequences can include children having parents in two households, two parties working out financial matters, and the families of the divorced couple will have to deal with each other in the context of the new reality.

In Biblical times, however, divorce was much simpler — for men, anyway. Essentially, as My Jewish Learning notes, the only real requirement was for the man to publicly declare that he wanted out of the marriage, for just about any reason, and the woman was left to fend for herself, often dealing with public shame and scorn. Further, key figures in the New Testament, including Jesus Christ, and later, the Apostle Paul, taught about divorce, and their teachings seemed to tighten up the requirements. That was 2,000 years ago, and still today, Christians wrestle with the Biblical teachings on divorce against the modern realities of failing marriages.

According to family law attorneys Wilkinson And Finkbeiner, Christians do have a lower divorce rate than the rest of the population, and it even varies by denomination. They reported that in 2020, married evangelical Christians have a 26% likelihood they will divorce, married Catholics come in at 28%, and married non-Christians have a 38% chance of divorcing.

There have always been lots of rules around divorce

On the whole, the Bible is solidly anti-divorce. Indeed, according to the Christian question-and-answer column Got Questions, the entirety of the sacred text's teachings on the subject can be summed up in one verse — Malachi 2:16 — in which God basically says that He hates divorce. However, elsewhere in the Old Testament, divorce is allowed, and God's law further lays out how, why, and when it could be accomplished.

According to Seattle Christian Counseling, in Jesus' time under Jewish law, divorce was pretty permissible, if one-sided. A man could divorce his wife, but a woman could not divorce her husband. And he could do it simply because he was displeased with his wife in regard to how she dressed, that she was aging, or that she could not produce children. But in Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, one passage refers to the "sin" of divorcing and remarrying on a whim, as it ultimately defiles the women and leaves them in dire straits.

Yet there were two instances in which a man in Jesus' time was not permitted to divorce his wife. First, according to My Jewish Learning, if the husband had falsely accused the wife of not being a virgin when they married, then divorce is not allowed. Second instance when divorce is not permitted is if the woman was a virgin and the man raped her and that assault led to a forced marriage, which was done as a favor to the woman who would be damaged goods — no other man would marry her after the loss of virginity. 

The Bible says there are only two legit reasons for divorce

In the New Testament, Jesus and Paul suggested that divorce should only be considered in light of adultery, according to Got Questions. Christian Bible Reference says that adultery is an often addressed sin in the Bible — 52 times to be exact— with only murder, idolatry, and self-righteousness mentioned more.

Another verse, meanwhile, may or may not allow Christians to divorce if one is a believer and the other not. Per Bible Gateway, Corinthians 7:10-16 says it depends on the situation, and in this case, it looks like the women can choose to divorce. The caveat is that if the non-believer wants to stay in the marriage, the believer cannot divorce them, "Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy." The verse goes on to say if the non-believer wants to leave, "let it be so."

However, modern realities are different from ancient ones. Women are not dependent on men for survival, and all marriages don't subscribe to the same rules as were once the norm. What's more, the Bible is utterly silent on other matters that can ruin a marriage besides adultery, such as abuse (be it physical, emotional, financial, or otherwise) or a loveless marriage. 

At the end of the day, says the Got Questions writer, divorce should only be considered as a last resort and should not be entered into lightly. Further, Christians who are victimized by unfaithful spouses should, if at all possible, seek forgiveness and reconciliation before considering divorce.