What Does the Bible Say About Divorce?

Divorce is a sensitive, complicated, emotional topic. It is so prevalent in our culture, both in the Christian and secular world. The divorce rate in America is 44-45%. But regardless of our many reasons, what does the Bible say about it? In this article we are going to delve into bible verses covering divorce, the impact on children, as well as personal experiences.

I am not a licensed counselor or pastor, so if you are seriously considering divorce or are in an abusive marriage, please seek professional counsel.

The Bible says:

Mark 10:2-12 (NIV)

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” he replied.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

God does not condone divorce. In fact, God hates divorce.

Malachi 2:16 (MSG)

16 “I hate divorce,” says the God of Israel. God-of-the-Angel-Armies says, “I hate the violent dismembering of the ‘one flesh’ of marriage.” So watch yourselves. Don’t let your guard down. Don’t cheat.

An article from John MacArthur and GraceChurch.org states,

“God hates divorce. He hates it because it always involves unfaithfulness to the solemn covenant of marriage that two partners have entered into before Him, and because it brings harmful consequences to those partners and their children (Mal. 2:14-16). Divorce in the Scripture is permitted only because of man’s sin. Since divorce is only a concession to man’s sin and is not part of God’s original plan for marriage, all believers should hate divorce as God does and pursue it only when there is no other recourse. With God’s help a marriage can survive the worst sins.”

“In Matthew 19:3-9, Christ teaches clearly that divorce is an accommodation to man’s sin that violates God’s original purpose for the intimate unity and permanence of the marriage bond (Gen. 2:24). He taught that God’s law allowed divorce only because of “hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). Legal divorce was a concession for the faithful partner due to the sexual sin or abandonment by the sinning partner, so that the faithful partner was no longer bound to the marriage (Matt. 5:3219:91 Cor. 7:12-15). Although Jesus did say that divorce is permitted in some situations, we must remember that His primary point in this discourse is to correct the Jews’ idea that they could divorce one another “for any cause at all” (Matt. 19:3), and to show them the gravity of pursuing a sinful divorce. Therefore, the believer should never consider divorce except in specific circumstances (see next section), and even in those circumstances it should only be pursued reluctantly because there is no other recourse.” (GraceChurch.org)

The Grounds for Divorce

God does not hate divorced people. Every single one of us is broken and sinful. However divorce is not something to be done lightly. Once that commitment and union is made, there are few biblical excuses to break it.

The only New Testament grounds for divorce are sexual sin or desertion by an unbeliever. The first is found in Jesus’ use of the Greek word porneia (Matt. 5:3219:9). This is a general term that encompasses sexual sin such as adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest. When one partner violates the unity and intimacy of a marriage by sexual sin—and forsakes his or her covenant obligation—the faithful partner is placed in an extremely difficult situation. After all means are exhausted to bring the sinning partner to repentance, the Bible permits release for the faithful partner through divorce (Matt. 5:321 Cor. 7:15).” (GraceChurch.org)

“The second reason for permitting a divorce is in cases where an unbelieving mate does not desire to live with his or her believing spouse (1 Cor. 7:12-15). Because “God has called us to peace” (v. 15), divorce is allowed and may be preferable in such situations. When an unbeliever desires to leave, trying to keep him or her in the marriage may only create greater tension and conflict. Also, if the unbeliever leaves the marital relationship permanently but is not willing to file for divorce, perhaps because of lifestyle, irresponsibility, or to avoid monetary obligations, then the believer is in an impossible situation of having legal and moral obligations that he or she cannot fulfill. Because “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Cor. 7:15) and is therefore no longer obligated to remain married, the believer may file for divorce without fearing the displeasure of God.” (GraceChurch.org)

1 Cor. 7:15 also allows divorce for domestic abuse. It has been interpreted that the abuser has pushed away the spouse in the marriage, causing a separation. Any spouse who is abusing the other is also presumed to not be a true believer. Check out this article from Christianity Today or this article from Restored Ministries for more information about divorce in a domestic abuse situation.

A Brief Theology of Marriage for Believers (Written by Jarrod Gunn)

Divorce is not only hateful to God because of the painful sin exhibited between a man and wife but also because of the damage to the testimony of the marriage itself. Throughout Scripture, God’s relationship with His people is described with marriage language. In the prophets, God speaks of bringing Israel into relationship with Him using the language of betrothal and a wedding (Eze 16:8-14, 59-60; Jer 2:2; 31:32). A right relationship with God is seen in descriptions of a joyous marriage (Psalm 45; Song of Solomon). Heartbreakingly, God refers to Israel’s idolatry using the language of adultery, betrayal, and divorce (Jer 3:6-10, Hosea 2:1-13).  But even in those times of heartbreak, love and reconciliation can be seen. Hosea 2:14-23 has a beautiful marriage scene that looks forward to the redemption of a sinful people by a loving Messiah, “And I will betroth you to me forever.  I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.  I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.”

In the New Testament, Jesus’ disappointment with the religious leaders’ callous allowance of divorce shows his understanding of the deeper meaning of marriage. In Ephesians, chapter five, Paul fully explains what this means for the believing husband and wife. A higher calling of love and submission is commanded, and Paul explains how this is an analogy for our relationship with Christ. In verses 31-33, Paul states “”Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” By appealing to the institution passage of marriage from Genesis 2:24 (also quoted by Jesus in his discussion of divorce), Paul is showing the testimony power of a marriage between believers. The relationship between a man and wife who are both in relationship with God reflects God’s own relationship with His people, redeemed in Jesus Christ. Divorce then, for a believing couple, is not to be entered into lightly; just as a marriage for a believing couple is not to be entered into lightly. The Christian marriage stands as a testimony to the world of the redeeming nature of our Savior by showing the power of sacrificial love and intimacy between two redeemed humans.

For more information on remarriage, repentance and forgiveness after divorce, the role of the church, or the pre-conversion divorce, see this article by GraceChurch.org.

The Impact of Divorce on Children

There is an enormous amount of research on divorce and children and it all points to the same truth: kids suffer when mom and dad split up. Despite the prevailing myths that kids are resilient and bounce back, this is just not true. Or the myth that if the parents aren’t happy, the kids aren’t happy; so divorce could be good for both the parents and children. The research shows that kids suffer from the divorce for the rest of their lives. And while the kids might seem to be ok in the early years, the effects tends to blow up once they are adults.

In a Focus on the Family article, licensed counselor and therapist Steven Earll writes,

“Children (and adult children) have the attitude that their parents should be able to work through and solve any issue. Parents, who have given the children life, are perceived by the children as very competent people with supernatural abilities to meet the needs of the children. No problem should be too great for their parents to handle. For a child, divorce shatters this basic safety and belief concerning the parents’ abilities to care for them and to make decisions that truly consider their well-being. Children have the strong belief that there is only one right family relationship, and that is Mom and Dad being together. Any other relationship configuration presents a conflict or betrayal of their basic understanding of life. In divorce, children [tend to] resent both the custodial and absent parent.” Steven Earll, M.A., M.S., L.P.C., C.A.C. III, August 2001.

Most children suffer from lost relationships and security. But, for many, the emotional scars have extra consequences. They are at higher risk for the following:

  • Children from divorced homes suffer academically.
  • Kids whose parents divorce are substantially more likely to be incarcerated for committing a crime as a juvenile.
  • Because the custodial parent’s income drops substantially after a divorce, children in divorced homes are almost five times more likely to live in poverty than are children with married parents.
  • Teens from divorced homes are much more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use, as well as sexual intercourse than are those from intact families.

The odds are against your kids if you divorce. The children represented in these statistics are normal kids. These facts are revealed by several studies comparing children of divorced parents to children with married parents. (“How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” Amy Desai, J.D. 2007)

Other statistics to consider are:

  • Children from divorced homes are ill more often, and take more time to recover from sickness.
  • Children of divorced parents suffer more frequently from symptoms of psychological distress.

The scope of this last finding — children suffer emotionally from their parents’ divorce — has been largely underestimated. Obviously, not every child of divorce commits crime or drops out of school. Some do well in school and even become high achievers. However, we now know that even these children experience deep and lasting emotional trauma. For all children, their parents’ divorce colors their view of the world and relationships for the rest of their lives.” (“How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” Amy Desai, J.D. 2007)

Wallerstein Study

Renowned psychologist Judith Wallerstein completed a 25 year study on the effects of divorce on children, starting in the early 1970’s and ending in the late 1990’s. She expected to find the children had bounced back, but what she found was dismaying. Even 25 years after the divorce, the children continued to experience substantial expectations of failure, fear of loss, fear of change, and fear of conflict. And they especially struggled with romantic relationships. As Wallerstein explains,

Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage . . . Anxiety leads many [adult children of divorce] into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether.” (“How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” Amy Desai, J.D. 2007)

“Parents tend to want to have their own needs met after a divorce – to find happiness again with someone new. But not only do the old problems often resurface for the adults, new problems are added for the children. As Wallerstein observed, “It’s not that parents love their children less or worry less about them. It’s that they are fully engaged in rebuilding their own lives — economically, socially and sexually. Parents’ and children’s needs are often out of sync for many years after the breakup.” (“How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” Amy Desai, J.D. 2007)

“Children again feel abandoned as parents pursue better relationships after the breakup.” Feelings of abandonment and confusion are only compounded when one or both parents find a new spouse. A second marriage brings complications and new emotions for children — not to mention new stepsiblings, stepparents and stepgrandparents, who often are in competition for the parent’s attention. (And the adjustment can be even more difficult — because it is the adults who choose new families, not the children.) Lilly expressed it this way: “My loss was magnified as my father remarried and adopted a new ‘family.’ Despite attempts on my part to keep in touch, we live in different cities, and his life now revolves around his new family with infrequent contact with me. This has only increased the feelings of abandonment and alienation from the divorce.”

And the high rate of second-marriage divorces can leave children reeling from yet another loss. Full “recovery” is nearly impossible for children because of the dynamic nature of family life. While you and your ex-spouse’s lives may go on separately with relatively little thought, your children will think about their loss almost every day. And 25 years after the fact, they will certainly be influenced by it. Life itself will remind them of the loss at even the happiest moments. As Earll explains: “Children never get over divorce. It is a great loss that is in their lives forever. It is like a grief that is never over. All special events, such as holidays, plays, sports, graduations, marriages, births of children, etc., bring up the loss created by divorce as well as the family relationship conflicts that result from the ‘extended family’ celebrating any event.” Earll interview, August 2001.” (“How Could Divorce Affect My Kids?” Amy Desai, J.D. 2007)

I listened to Judith Wallerstein’s audiobook, “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.” Listening to it was difficult and emotionally draining. It brought up so many poor memories. But it was completely spot on and explained so many things in my own life. If you are a parent considering divorce, or have divorced, or are a child of divorce, I highly recommend checking it out. It is available for free at libraries and on Hoopla.

My Personal Story

I am a child of divorce. My brothers and I were 12, 10, and 9 when our parents separated. We have experienced it first hand and have a lifetime of knowledge of its effects. We have experienced the abandonment, the neglect, and a myriad of other trauma and abuses. We know first hand what it is like to go years without joy or happiness because our family life was so terrible. To always be an afterthought and never a priority. By the grace of God we did all graduate high school, and have avoided substance abuse and prison. But this is not true of so many of my family and friends who are kids of divorce.

My brothers and I all struggled to flourish. I have struggled my entire adult life to move on from the divorce and its impact. This became especially true after I became a parent. I spent so many years stuck. It impacts everything. Birthdays, holidays, funerals; every family gathering and so much more. If I hadn’t given my life to the Lord, my marriage would have likely ended in divorce; I may have never had my current children. Only with God at the center of my life and marriage have I been able to avoid some of the statistics. Read my post, “How Do We Make a Marriage Last?” for what God says about marriage and how He removed divorce from my story.

God made marriage. He created it to be a life long union between a man and a woman. Marriage is never easy. When it starts to get difficult, seek God! He loves you and wants to see your marriage thrive. With God’s help, a marriage can survive the worst sins! Several resources for those seeking divorce is the book, The Love Dare by the Kendrick Brothers, and the Hope Restored Ministry by Focus on the Family. Focus on the Family licensed and pastoral counseling specialists can also be reached at call 1-855-771-HELP (4357) weekdays from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Mountain Time). You owe it to yourselves and your children to save your marriage! There is hope! The truth is, your life and marriage can be better and stronger than it was before.

Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

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