Divorce or “dissolution of marriage” is a legal process in which a judge or other authority dissolves the bonds of matrimony existing between two persons, thus restoring them to the status of being single and permitting them to marry other individuals (www.wikipedia.org). It is estimated that half of all marriages in the West will end in divorce. In the developing world, the divorce rate is certainly lower. However, the trend is rising globally, and divorce is becoming increasingly common the world over, with great impact on family life and the institution of marriage.
What does the Bible say about divorce?What’s the perception of Scripture on the dissolution of marriage before death of either partner? We shall examine Scripture carefully to find God’s view on divorce and the circumstances, if any, under which divorce can be legitimately procured by Christians.
God designed the institution of marriage to be a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, for the purpose of companionship, sexual interaction and procreation. The plan of God is that, two people will become joined by marriage to become one flesh, and that the union should not be put asunder by any man.
Matthew 19:4 He answered, Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,
Matthew 19:5 and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh?
Matthew 19:6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate (ESV).
God hates divorce and dissolution of the marriage bond. His perfect plan for mankind is that marriages would last a lifetime and only be dissolved by the death of a partner. Only death should ideally dissolve the marriage bond between a man and a woman.
Malachi 2:15 Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard yourself; remain loyal to the wife of your youth.
Malachi 2:16 “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “It is as cruel as putting on a victim’s bloodstained coat,” says the Lord Almighty. “So guard yourself; always remain loyal to your wife.” (NLT).
St. Matthew 19:3 Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for any reason?”
St. Matthew 19:4 ” Haven’t you read the Scriptures? ” Jesus replied. ” They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’
St. Matthew 19:5 And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’
St. Matthew 19:6 Since they are no longer two but one, let no one separate them, for God has joined them together.”
St. Matthew 19:7 “Then why did Moses say a man could merely write an official letter of divorce and send her away?” they asked.
St. Matthew 19:8 Jesus replied, ” Moses permitted divorce as a concession to your hard-hearted wickedness, but it was not what God had originally intended.
St. Matthew 19:9 And I tell you this, a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful.” (NLT).
1 Corinthians 7:10 Now, for those who are married I have a command that comes not from me, but from the Lord. A wife must not leave her husband.
1 Corinthians 7:11 But if she does leave him, let her remain single or else go back to him. And the husband must not leave his wife (NLT).
From the above scriptures, we see that God does not like divorce, as he intended for marriages to last for a lifetime and produce strong families that will create healthy environments for child-bearing and child-rearing, as well as provide lifelong companionship for couples. Spouses are supposed to be friends, companions and mates for life. Only death is supposed to break the bond of marriage.
Romans 7:1 Now, dear brothers and sisters—you who are familiar with the law—don’t you know that the law applies only to a person who is still living?
Romans 7:2 Let me illustrate. When a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her.
Romans 7:3 So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries (NLT).
To presume to dissolve the marriage bond under unlawful conditions not recognised by Scripture is to live in delusion. God does not recognise such dissolutions, and any partner from such unscriptural dissolutions who marries another person is considered by Scripture to be living in adultery. Any sexual relationship with someone who’s divorced on unacceptable scriptural grounds is adulterous!
Matthew 5:32 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 (NKJV).
Matthew 19:9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (NKJV).
As glorious and as desirous as God’s perfect will for mankind on the issue of marriage is, it becomes necessary in certain circumstances to dissolve the bond of marriage before the death of a partner, and render both parties single and free to lawfully and legitimately re-marry to other people. One of such circumstances that Scripture recognises as a legitimate ground for divorce is sexual immorality and unfaithfulness of a spouse. Infidelity violates the marital vow and attracts divine judgement.
Hebrews 13:4 Marriage must be honored in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery (CEB).
The partner cheated upon has a biblical right to seek for dissolution of the marriage bond on the grounds of unfaithfulness, although he or she may choose to forgive and continue with the marriage. This condition is clearly stated in the scriptures quoted by our Lord above. In saying “except for sexual immorality”, the Lord approves sexual immorality of a spouse as a legitimate ground for divorce. That was the ground Joseph wanted to use to put away Mary, when she was found to be pregnant before their union had been consummated.
Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 1:19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
Matthew 1:20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 1:21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
Matthew 1:23 Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).
Matthew 1:24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,
Matthew 1:25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (ESV).
Joseph believed he had a legitimate ground to divorce Mary because he wasn’t responsible for her pregnancy, having never had sexual relations with her. He believed she had been unfaithful to him and therefore deserved to be put away. However, the angel of God appeared to him and explained the special circumstances of Mary’s supernatural pregnancy. That cleared Joseph’s doubt and prevented him from divorcing Mary. Thus, we see that unfaithfulness of a spouse is a legitimate scriptural ground for divorce.
Another legitimate ground in Scripture for the dissolution of the marriage bond is desertion and abandonment by a partner. If a spouse abandons the Christian faith and the marriage and carries on, the abandoned spouse has a scriptural ground to seek for legal dissolution of the marriage. Since the spouse has absconded and abdicated his or her marital duties, the marriage is effectively over. The deserted partner can seek to be loosed from the marriage. The Scripture says such a partner is not under the bond of the marriage anymore. He or she is free to dissolve the marriage and move on in peace.
1 Corinthians 7:12 I (not the Lord) say to the rest of you: If any Christian man is married to a woman who is an unbeliever, and she is willing to live with him, he should not divorce her.
1 Corinthians 7:13 If any Christian woman is married to a man who is an unbeliever, and he is willing to live with her, she should not divorce her husband.
1 Corinthians 7:14 Actually, the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and an unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise, their children would be unacceptable to God, but now they are acceptable to him.
1 Corinthians 7:15 But if the unbelieving partners leave, let them go. Under these circumstances a Christian man or Christian woman is not bound by a marriage vow. God has called you to live in peace (GodsWord).
Deliberate, persistent and prolonged denial of a partner’s conjugal rights is another scriptural ground for divorce. It is almost the same as desertion, just that in this case, the partner is physically present but functionally absent, having absconded from his or her duties. One of the main purposes of marriage is to provide a legitimate outlet for sexual relations. Only in the context of marriage is sexual relations lawful.
Hebrews 13:4 Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge (NKJV).
The Bible admonishes all those who cannot control their sexual desires to get married inorder to have a legitimate outlet to release sexual tension, among other things. Spouses are not to deny each other sexual intercourse, except with mutual agreement.
1 Corinthians 7:1 Now about the questions you asked in your letter. Yes, it is good to live a celibate life.
1 Corinthians 7:2 But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.
1 Corinthians 7:3 The husband should not deprive his wife of sexual intimacy, which is her right as a married woman, nor should the wife deprive her husband.
1 Corinthians 7:4 The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband also gives authority over his body to his wife.
1 Corinthians 7:5 So do not deprive each other of sexual relations. The only exception to this rule would be the agreement of both husband and wife to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time, so they can give themselves more completely to prayer. Afterward they should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt them because of their lack of self-control (NLT).
Once a partner is persistently and consistently denied his or her conjugal rights over a prolonged period of time, the defrauded partner has the scriptural right to seek for dissolution of the marriage bond, because one of the main reasons why he or she got married in the first place is not being fulfilled. The marriage is not providing the outlet for the release of sexual tensions, because of the deprivation of conjugal rights. Rather than remain in such a farce of a marriage and be having unlawful extra-marital sexual relations, the deprived partner should seek for divorce and remarry, in order to find a legitimate outlet for sexual fulfilment. A similar scenario is found in the Old Testament, concerning married female slaves deprived of their conjugal rights by their owner-husbands. In such cases, the women were permitted by God to leave the marriage and find marital fulfilment elsewhere.
Exodus 21:7 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not be freed at the end of six years as the men are.
Exodus 21:8 If she does not please the man who bought her, he may allow her to be bought back again. But he is not allowed to sell her to foreigners, since he is the one who broke the contract with her.
Exodus 21:9 And if the slave girl’s owner arranges for her to marry his son, he may no longer treat her as a slave girl, but he must treat her as his daughter.
Exodus 21:10 If he himself marries her and then takes another wife, he may not reduce her food or clothing or fail to sleep with her as his wife.
Exodus 21:11 If he fails in any of these three ways, she may leave as a free woman without making any payment (NLT).
Another scriptural ground to separate from a spouse is based on personal security and safety. When there is continual threat to one’s life in a marriage characterised by abuse and violence, one of the main purposes of marriage is defeated. Marriage is to provide intimate companionship and friendship, apart from being a legitimate outlet for sexual expression and procreation. A spouse is to be one’s most trusted and reliable partner and friend with whom one should feel most secure and safe. However, if that person you literally trust with your life becomes abusive, violent and a threat to your life, you’ll be a fool to continue to live with such a person under the same roof. He or she is no longer a friend and has become an enemy. Sleeping with an enemy on the same bed is the height of madness! You’ll get killed sooner or later. Flee for your life while you still have a living chance!
David was in a similar situation at one point in time. He had married the daughter of King Saul, a man who hated him with passion and wanted him dead by all means. Although David’s wife sided with him against her father in his bid to kill him and even helped him to escape an assassination attempt masterminded by her father, remaining in that marriage where his life was under constant threat was untenable. David had to abandon his wife and flee for his life! Marriage is for the living, not for the dead!
1 Samuel 19:11 Then Saul sent troops to watch David’s house. They were told to kill David when he came out the next morning. But Michal, David’s wife, warned him, “If you don’t get away tonight, you will be dead by morning.”
1 Samuel 19:12 So she helped him climb out through a window, and he escaped.
1 Samuel 19:13 Then she took an idol and put it in his bed, covered it with blankets, and put a cushion of goat’s hair at its head.
1 Samuel 19:14 When the troops came to arrest David, she told them he was sick and couldn’t get out of bed.
1 Samuel 19:15 “Then bring him to me in his bed,” Saul ordered, “so I can kill him as he lies there!” And he sent them back to David’s house.
1 Samuel 19:16 But when they came to carry David out, they discovered that it was only an idol in the bed with a cushion of goat’s hair at its head.
1 Samuel 19:17 “Why have you tricked me and let my enemy escape?” Saul demanded of Michal. “I had to,” Michal replied. “He threatened to kill me if I didn’t help him.”
1 Samuel 19:18 So David got away and went to Ramah to see Samuel, and he told him all that Saul had done to him. Then Samuel took David with him to live at Naioth.
David separated from Saul’s daughter until after Saul’s death. As long as Saul was alive and was King of Israel, living with his daughter was unsafe for David. Though she loved him and was on his side, her loyalty to her father could make her change her mind one day and sell him out. How much so if one’s spouse is the direct source of the threat to one’s life! It’s unsafe to live with a spouse who is violent, who abuses one physically and who threatens one’s life. One day, such a violent person could kill you! The abused person should separate from the abusive partner and re-evaluate the whole set up, while watching the partner from a distance. There should be serious evidence of change and repentance from the abusive partner before one should reconsider the idea of going back to the marriage. However, if the abuse continues, leave that marriage like yesterday! “Till death do us part” does not mean your spouse should be the agent of your death! You married someone to love you for life, not someone to snuff out your life! Leave while you can! So many people have been killed in violent and abusive relationships, aided and abetted by pastors, relatives and friends, who pressured them to continue to stay in those relationships to work things out, against their better judgement. Don’t sacrifice your life in marriage to please your relatives, pastors or friends! Stay alive and fulfil your God-given destiny and dreams. Don’t become another cold statistic of domestic violence.
Marriage is designed to be a loving, peaceful relationship, not a battleground! Jesus commanded those experiencing persecution to flee from their persecutors. When your spouse becomes a violent persecutor, it’s time to flee from him or her!
Matthew 10:23 When they persecute you in one town [that is, pursue you in a manner that would injure you and cause you to suffer because of your belief], flee to another town; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (AMP).
Even Jesus recognised that the hardness of a person’s heart towards his spouse, which could lead to violence, was a permissible ground for divorce. A partner who has become hardened and violent towards his or her spouse is dangerous, and should be avoided by all means. That hard-hearted wicked person habouring murderous rage is just a step away from becoming a murderer. Don’t assist him or her in executing their murderous mischief. Flee while you can!
St. Matthew 19:8 Jesus replied, ” Moses permitted divorce as a concession to your hard-hearted wickedness, but it was not what God had originally intended (NLT).
Next, I want to talk about the issue of divorce for marriages procured under false pretenses. Being deceived or coerced into marrying someone makes such marriages not valid in law, and that is a legitimate and scriptural ground for dissolution of the marriage. Marriage is a union that should be based on trust, from the moment it’s contracted to the end. People agree to marry someone because of what the person appears to be or projects to be. If they were misled or deliberately deceived into a marriage because certain facts which should have been made known to them (which could have influenced their decisions) were deliberately withheld from them, then such marriages were contracted under false pretenses. The deceived party has a right to seek for the dissolution of the marriage. An example in Scripture was the marriage between Jacob and Leah. Jacob was deceived into marrying Leah. He was in love with Rachel and never loved Leah. He laboured and paid the bride price for Rachel, only for Leah to be smuggled into his bed on the wedding night, under cover of darkness! His anger and fury the next morning when he woke up to see Leah by his side, instead of his beloved Rachel, can only be imagined!
Genesis 29:15 Laban said to him, “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.”
Genesis 29:16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.
Genesis 29:17 Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.
Genesis 29:18 Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Genesis 29:19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.”
Genesis 29:20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.
Genesis 29:21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”
Genesis 29:22 So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast.
Genesis 29:23 But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her.
Genesis 29:25 When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”
Genesis 29:26 Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one.
Genesis 29:27 Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.”
Genesis 29:28 And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.
Genesis 29:30 Jacob made love to Rachel also, and his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years (NIV).
What deception! I’m sure Jacob’s exact scenario can’t be replicated today, because there’s just no way you won’t get to see your bride before sleeping with her! However, it happened to Jacob and he felt bitter about it for the rest of his life. He never loved Leah throughout the farce of a marriage. He was deceived to marry a woman he never loved and that made their union loveless and miserable for both of them. It was a disaster for both of them! Jacob never loved Leah and Leah was never happy all though her marriage. You can’t deceive or trick someone into marrying you and expect love to blossom in that relationship that sprang out of lies, deceit and devious scheming!
Genesis 29:30 Jacob made love to Rachel also, and his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years.
Genesis 29:31 When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless.
Genesis 29:32 Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, “It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.”
Genesis 29:33 She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” So she named him Simeon.
Genesis 29:34 Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” So he was named Levi.
If polygamy was not permitted for the patriarchs (under which Jacob could still marry his preferred woman in addition to the woman who was deceitfully forced on him by his treacherous father-in-law), Jacob would have divorced Leah (as soon as he was out of his father-in-law’s house and it was safe for him to do so!), and he would have been justified! Marriage by deception is unlawful and cannot stand! You can’t be deceived and forced to live with someone you don’t love for the rest of your life! That would be living in bondage for both partners!
Marriage by deceit today will include marriage under such circumstances like not revealing one’s true sexual orientation to your partner before marriage, or failure to disclose certain important issues about your past and identity that could have influenced your partner’s decision to marry you (like a woman who has had her womb removed and failed to tell her partner before marriage, a man who knew he was impotent or sterile but failed to inform his partner before marriage, a woman or a man who has had children in a previous relationship and failed to disclose that before marriage, etc). Marriages contracted under such circumstances amount to marrying under false pretenses, and the deceived partners have a legitimate right to seek for the dissolution of such deceitfully contacted marriages.
Finally, we shall consider another scenario in the Bible- where people are kidnapped and are forced into marriage against their will, what I will describe as marriage by force, rather than by choice. Let us consider a scriptural example of this type of marriage.
Judges 21:15 The people grieved for Benjamin, because the LORD had made a gap in the tribes of Israel.
Judges 21:16 And the elders of the assembly said, “With the women of Benjamin destroyed, how shall we provide wives for the men who are left?
Judges 21:17 The Benjamite survivors must have heirs,” they said, “so that a tribe of Israel will not be wiped out.
Judges 21:18 We can’t give them our daughters as wives, since we Israelites have taken this oath: ’Cursed be anyone who gives a wife to a Benjamite.’
Judges 21:19 But look, there is the annual festival of the LORD in Shiloh, which lies north of Bethel, east of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.”
Judges 21:20 So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, “Go and hide in the vineyards
Judges 21:21 and watch. When the young women of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, rush from the vineyards and each of you seize one of them to be your wife. Then return to the land of Benjamin.
Judges 21:22 When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, ’Do us the favor of helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war. You will not be guilty of breaking your oath because you did not give your daughters to them.’”
Judges 21:23 So that is what the Benjamites did. While the young women were dancing, each man caught one and carried her off to be his wife. Then they returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and settled in them.
Judges 21:24 At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance.
Judges 21:25 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit (NIV).
The passages above described examples of marriage by force, following kidnapping. That’s more like kidnapping and rape, and not marriage! Such a marriage in normal times in Israel would not have stood, but the condition in Israel then was not normal, as lawlessness and anarchy was the order of the day at that time, as shown by the last verse of that chapter:
Judges 21:25 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.
Marriage by abduction and force is unlawful and should be dissolved as soon as possible, and the kidnapper and rapist punished appropriately. Even Scripture is very clear about what should happen to a kidnapper.
Exodus 21:16 “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession (NIV).
1 Timothy 1:10 Laws are intended for people involved in sexual sins, for homosexuals, for kidnappers, for liars, for those who lie when they take an oath, and for whatever else is against accurate teachings (GodsWord).
In conclusion, marriage as designed by God was intended to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman that should only be dissolved by the death of a partner. However, in some circumstances, God permits the dissolution of the marriage bond before the death of a spouse. Legitimate divorce can be obtained on such scriptural grounds as unfaithfulness, desertion, denial of conjugal rights, abuse and threat to life, as well as marriages contracted by deception and by force. To avoid such traumatic experiences, children of God should prayerfully seek the face of God and thoroughly investigate people they intend to marry. More importantly, Christians should be guided by the Word of God, the Holy Spirit and their God-given instincts when choosing a spouse, to minimise the risk of contracting a marriage that will end in divorce. Marriages should be based on love, as love does prevent as well as cover a multitude of sins. Also, forgiveness should be readily available in marriage. A legitimate right to divorce may not be exercised if an individual so chooses. However, exercising such a right is not a sin! One should not be forced to remain in miserable captivity for life, in a marriage that has scriptural grounds for dissolution. God is not a sadist!