Divorce

Preaching and Worship Resources about Divorce

Divorce is never a good thing. It marks the breakup of a committed relationship and causes emotional pain, lasting regret, and often bitterness. Children of divorced parents, as well as extended family and friends, often suffer lasting scars from a divorce. Yet it happens — too often, it seems. Nearly all people and societies regard marriage as a lifelong commitment and the foundation of the family, which is so crucial for human society. What does the Bible say about divorce? The Old Testament certainly proclaims the sanctity of marriage. Genesis 2:24 can be understood as the foundational text for marriage: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." Perhaps surprisingly, Israel's God-given law rather freely provided for divorce. According to Deuteronomy 24:1 - 4, a man could divorce his wife with a "bill of divorce" if he finds "something objectionable" about her — though this was only true for men. Despite this relative freedom, the prophet Malachi speaks for the Lord: "I hate divorce" (Mal. 2:16). In the New Testament, the attitude toward divorce seems less tolerant. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (Matt. 5:31 - 32) In Mark 10:11 - 12, Jesus puts the same limits on wives wishing to divorce their husbands. The key element in the New Testament is the so-called "exception clause" of adultery. This has been interpreted by some to mean that one cannot divorce his wife unless she has been unfaithful, and that whoever remarries commits adultery. This interpretation misunderstands what Jesus is saying. It is not that anyone who is divorced is not permitted to remarry, but that anyone who pursues an illegitimate divorce (apart from unfaithfulness) is not permitted to remarry. If the divorce is "valid" due to a partner's unfaithfulness, then remarriage is also valid. Paul also addresses the issue of divorce and adds another possible exception to Jesus's words against divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul comments on what must have been a problem for Christian converts whose spouses remained unbelievers, causing a serious breach in their relationships. Paul's counsel, which he affirms is his own and not the Lord's, is that the couple should remain in the marriage and try to work things out. Nevertheless, "if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound." (1 Cor. 7:15) In verses 26 - 28, Paul also makes clear that, while remaining single is preferred, the divorced husband or wife is free to remarry. Various denominations have interpreted the Bible's commands regarding divorce differently. Roman Catholics hold that marriage is a sacrament and is therefore inviolable. Anyone who divorces and remarries (except with an annulment, which voids the original marriage) cannot be admitted to the sacraments. Some Protestants hold strictly to the exceptions for adultery and abandonment by the spouse as the only grounds for remarriage. Most Protestants tend to see divorce through the lens of grace and forgiveness. Divorce is always wrong in the sense that it is not God's good will. However, as Christians we need to see it as a sin alongside other sins: It can be forgiven, and the divorced couple should be allowed to make a fresh start with due self-examination and repentance. The danger in this understanding is that Christians might begin to take a "sin so that grace may abound" approach, thereby undermining the deep importance of the marriage covenant. It is the often difficult and delicate balance of law and grace.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.