What the Bible really says about Divorce

A picture of a broken heart with the word divorce on it

The Unpardonable Sin in the Church

Let's face it, there is an unpardonable sin in the church today. It is divorce. When a person gets a divorce, he becomes a second-rate Christian in the eyes of the church for the rest of his life. There is nothing he can do to get out of it. All other sins are forgiven, but divorce is not. The stigma of divorce is so great that some have preferred to murder their spouse instead of going through the shame. Is this how God wanted divorce to be? Or is the common Christian stand wrong?

Most churches have traditions that forbid divorce. But which should we hold to: tradition or the Bible? I stand with the Bible. After this article you may not choose to stand with me, because I will warn you now, the Bible does not say what you think it does.

The Hebrew word for divorce, kereethooth H3748, and the Greek word for divorce, apostasion G647, are only found seven times collectively in the Bible (Deuteronomy 24:1, 3; Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 3:8; Matthew 5:31; 19:7; Mark 10:4). This article looks at each of these passages.

The Law is Good

Divorce first shows up in the law. The law set up divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-2.

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. KJV

Divorce is not a bad thing in the law.

Without the law, there would be no divorce.

The law is sacred, right, and good (Romans 7:12, 14; 1 Timothy 1:8 ). The law was written by God. Will anyone dare to say that something established by the law is bad? Did God make a mistake? Was He wrong? No.

Did Jesus Change the Law?

Some imply that Jesus recognized divorce as something that the law should not have established and so Jesus changed it. He struck the establishment and recommendation of divorce from the law and forbid it.

Jesus said that Moses allowed them to put away their wives because of the hardness of their hearts (Matthew 19:8 ).

First of all, the point must be made that Jesus was not talking about divorce in Matthew 19:8, He was talking about putting away a wife (there will be more on this later).

Is Jesus saying that this part of the law was wrong because it was written for the hardness of their heart?

Most of the law was written because of the hardness of people's heart. That is why the law says, "Thou shalt not murder." A person who murders someone has hardened his heart. If no one ever committed murder or even thought about it, the command would not have to be there. But because of people's hardness, the command is there. Do we say the command, "Thou shalt not murder", is bad and throw it out because it was placed there for the hardness of people's heart? No. What about the commands given for sacrifices, feasts, conduct, and the treatment of others? These and many more are all in the law because of the hardness of people's hearts. Do we also make all of these commands bad and throw them out? No, of course not.

I make this point because some have claimed that Jesus is striking divorce out of the law here because it was not supposed to be there in the first place. They go on to say that divorced people should be forbidden from serving God because according to what Jesus said they have hardened their heart to God (even though when the apostles hardened their hearts, Jesus didn't forbid them from serving - Mark 6:52 ). No, these people are inventing doctrine. They invent doctrine to bolster their own pride, self-righteousness, and ignorance. They are the ones who have hardened their hearts to God.

But wasn't it Jesus who suggested that divorce should not be in the law? No, no way. Look at the context of Jesus' first teaching on divorce (Matthew 5:17-48 ). He starts out the section by saying, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven...." (Matthew 5:17-19 KJV)

After saying this, Jesus gives examples from the law. Divorce is one of those examples. What Jesus says about divorce, He says to show that He supports the law (so His teaching is recommending divorce just as the law does). Yet, this is the same passage that many twist to say that divorce is wrong.

Luke 16:17-18 shows this in an even sharper contrast: "And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail. Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery." (KJV) If Jesus is calling divorce adultery (and thus condemning divorce) in the second part of this passage then He is changing the law (remember, the law tells people to get a divorce) right after He says that not one little part of the law will fail. Either Jesus did not condemn divorce or Jesus contradicted Himself.

Those who say that Jesus spoke against divorce, make Jesus a liar and someone who, according to His own teaching, is least in the kingdom of God.

Breaking Up and Divorce

When Jesus spoke about divorce, he used two terms. These same two terms are found when divorce is mentioned in the Old Testament too (Deuteronomy 24:1; Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 3:8 ). The Greek word for the first term is apoluo G630. It is putting away the spouse, breaking up, leaving a spouse, or kicking a spouse out. The second term is apostasion G647. Apostasion is divorce.

Unfortunately, some Bible versions have wrongly translated the first term (apoluo) as divorce (the KJV sometimes translates it as "put away your spouse" but other times as "divorce"). This has caused a lot of confusion and misinformation.

Apoluo (putting away a spouse or breaking up) is not divorce. It is what happens before divorce. Every divorce has a breakup, but not every breakup becomes a divorce.

In the Bible times, it was a common practice to tell a wife to leave and not give her a divorce. This was a wrong practice (according to the law). It was not divorce even though many who practiced it treated it as divorce. It did not give the kicked out spouse a writing of divorcement.

In Matthew 5:31 Jesus quotes the law as saying, "Whosoever shall put away his wife (apoluo), let him give her a writing of divorcement (apostasion)." Notice that the first action in this verse is putting the wife away. The second is divorce. In this verse Jesus is saying that if a man kicks his wife out, he must make it official by going through the divorce procedure. This statement implies that men were kicking their wives out without divorcing them. If that were not happening, there would be no reason for Jesus to say this. It was happening, and it is what Jesus condemns. When Jesus condemns it, He is endorsing divorce and the law.

A World Without Divorce

Since most churches declare divorce to be a sin, when a couple splits up, the church forbids them to divorce. That usually does not stop them from divorcing, but what if it did? What would a world without divorce be like?

In America it is not very often that a couple breaks up for good and does not get a divorce, but it does happen. I know of a couple that split up because the husband fell in love with another woman. The wife wanted a divorce, but the husband did not want to give up half of his pension to her, so he convinced her not to go through with the divorce. He had already moved in with his girlfriend, but he did not stay with her for long. Soon he was sleeping with other women. Sometimes he even showed up at his wife's doorstep. The Bible calls this fornication and adultery. People who think divorce is a sin actually condone this kind of lifestyle because at least they did not get a divorce. In their eyes divorce would be worse.

Some Christians think that America would be better off if it outlawed divorce. Their churches have taken a move in this direction by making divorce a sin. This is actually a slap in the face of the law and of God. The law set up divorce for a reason.

What would a world without divorce be like? The answer to this question is as close as the Philippines. In the Philippines divorce is illegal.

A key problem with making divorce illegal that shows up in the Philippines is that couples still break up. What happens when a couple breaks up but cannot get divorced? They do not stay together and eventually live happily ever after. No. What happens? The husband moves in with his girlfriend and the wife ends up finding a boyfriend and living with him. This is adultery. Since they are not married to their new partners, it is less likely that they will be with them very long. They will find someone else and then someone else. Is increased adultery better than not having divorce? The law and Jesus did not think so. They foresaw this problem. That is why Jesus addressed it in His teaching.

Divorce is a Solution, not a Sin

The truth is whether you outlaw divorce or not, some couples will still break up. Without divorce what will they do? Divorce is a good thing. It officially ends the marriage. It is God's solution to breakups that He put in the law.

Those who say that God hates divorce, that it is a sin, and that God would never approve of it are ignorant of one fact. God Himself is divorced. Yes, I said what you thought I said. It is true. God is divorced. Thousands of years ago He was married to the nation of Israel (the Northern ten tribes of Israel). Israel left God. She broke up with Him and would not come back. He tried to get her back, but she would not. What did God do? He divorced her (Jeremiah 3:8 ).

Will you say that God sinned when He divorced Israel? I don't think so. No, it was not a sin. It was the right thing for Him to do. It was the solution to ending His marriage to Israel.

If a married couple splits up and there is no prospect of them getting back together, the right thing for them to do is get a divorce. The law does not put a stigma on divorce and Jesus didn't either. Divorce is good. It is a solution. It ends the marriage in the law's sight and in God's sight.

Breaking Up is Bad to Do

The law implies that it is wrong to kick your wife out and not give her a divorce. It is this that Jesus elaborates on. "...whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whoever will marry her that is put away commits adultery." (Matthew 5:32 KJV) This verse is talking about putting away a spouse, not divorce.

When a couple has separated but not divorced, they are a separated couple (the wife is put away). When the couple divorces, they are no longer a separated couple. They are single. In this passage when Jesus refers to a wife that has been put away, he is referring to a separated couple and not a divorced couple.

The first thing this passage says is that the person who breaks the relationship up causes his/her spouse to commit adultery (adultery is cheating on the spouse or not being faithful). So if you break up with your wife, she may have had every intention of only being with you forever, but you change that. If you do not give her a divorce, she is forced to cheat on you. If she, on the other hand, has already had sex (fornication) with someone else, then you are not causing her to commit adultery because she has already done that herself.

The second thing this verse says is if you then go and marry someone who has split up with her husband (but not divorced), you are committing adultery (you are cheating on your wife). Jesus said similar things about putting away a wife without ever mentioning divorce in Luke 16:18.

Again, Breaking Up is Bad to Do

The other time Jesus talked about divorce is found in Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:2-12. The Pharisees came to Jesus and asked Him if the law allowed a person to break up with his wife for any reason. They were trying to get Him to say something wrong. The question did not have to do with divorce. The law is clear about divorce. It had to do with breaking up with a spouse. The law did not lay out any rules against breaking up.

Jesus asked them what the law says about breaking up (Mark 10:3). They responded by saying that the law allows for divorce and thus for breaking up too. They used divorce as permission to break up. But just because the law sets up divorce does not mean that it condones breaking up.

To answer their question about breaking up, Jesus said that from the beginning God made them male and female, the two are to become one flesh and never break up. This preceded the law and since the law did not set out any rules against breakups it still applies. Then he went on to explain how breakups without divorce cause adultery. His words concerning that were similar to what he said before in Matthew 5.

Breaking up is bad. Divorce is not. Marriages should never break up, but they do. When breakups happen, divorce is the right and good thing to do. Divorce is not a sin. It is a solution.

Pastors, Elders, and Deacons

Even though the Bible does not mention divorce when talking about pastors, elders, and deacons, I am including it in this article because most people think that it does.

Many churches cite the Bible as proof that a pastor, elder, or deacon cannot be divorced. What the Bible says is simple and clear, they must be the "husband of one wife" (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). It says nothing about divorce. The Greek word for divorce is not used. The Greek word for putting away a wife also is not used. How can the phrase, "husband of one wife", refer to divorce? A divorced and then remarried man IS the husband of one wife. He does not have two wives.

Some respond that God does not recognize divorce and so He sees a divorced person as still married to the previous spouse(s). This is a total lie. How can God not recognize something He established?

Look at the Samaritan woman. She told Jesus that she did not have a husband. What was Jesus' response? Did He say, "You are lying. You have five husbands because even though you divorced them all, in My sight they are all still your husbands"? No, He said, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have HAD five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true." (John 4:17-18 )

If you reword the "husband of one wife" phrase and make it "husband that has only been married once", then it will be against divorce. Of course, changing what the Bible says carries with it a curse. I would not recommend it.

What the "husband of one wife" requirement forbid was a pastor, elder, or deacon from being the husband of no wives or the husband of two or more wives. A divorced man is not the husband of two wives. A polygamist is. Also a man who has kicked out his previous wife without divorcing her and married a second woman is the husband of two wives. Unlike in the United States, polygamy was prevalent in the Bible lands and times. This requirement is against that.

If you insist that this requirement refers to all the wives a man has ever had, then you must use the same logic with a remarried widower. Using your logic he would also be the husband of two wives (and thus not allowed to be a pastor, elder, or deacon). Of course, you will rightly say that death dissolved the first marriage. And I will rightly counter that divorce also dissolved the previous marriage of a divorced person. The law says so. A divorced and then remarried man is the husband of one wife.

Unfortunately, marriages break up. Divorce was not meant to be a scarlet letter that the divorced person must wear around his neck in shame for the rest of his life. It was meant to be God's way and the legal way to dissolve a broken marriage and allow a divorced person to go on with his/her life. It is time Christians and churches accept God's solution to breakups.