I’ve often heard that the rate of divorce in the US is about 50%, but I’ve discovered that statistics are hard to pin down. Some say the rate of divorce has dropped in the last decade and that as high as 70% of marriages make it to their 15th year. While that’s good, what about the 30% who don’t? And is it possible that the divorce rate is going down because many couples simply live together without marrying?
What does the Bible say about divorce? Is it allowable to divorce because we’re not happy or no longer in love? Is it OK if we’re unequally yoked? Are there, actually, any biblical grounds for divorce?
Ezra 9 & 10
Biblical Grounds for Divorce
Ezra 9 & 10:
Marriage and Divorce when Unequally Yoked
59 years had passed since the completion of the temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel. In these passages, the second group of former captives had returned led by Ezra. He had learned that the Jews who were already there, including many of the leaders, had taken pagan wives. This was strictly forbidden by the Law, had repeatedly led the people into idolatry, and had caused the nation to be taken into captivity. Yet, they went back to the same practices!
John MacArthur points out in his Daily Bible notes that even though there was a decision made that these wives as a group were to be “put away”—that is divorced—each marriage was examined individually, probably to learn whether the wives had become believers. He also notes that other gentile women like Ruth and Rahab who had embraced faith in God were accepted and even included in the lineage of Christ.
So what about today? Can we divorce an unbelieving spouse? Matthew Henry in his commentary says, “As to being unequally yoked with unbelievers, such marriages, it is certain, are sinful, and ought not to be made; but now they are not null, as they were before the gospel did away the separation between Jews and Gentiles.”
2 Corinthians 6.14 says:
14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?
So while it is wrong for a Christian to marry a non-Christian, if a believer is already married to a non-believer, divorce is not an option in most circumstances.
Biblical Grounds for Divorce
So what does the Bible say about divorce? Is it ever allowable? Jay Adams, in his book Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible, says, “Contrary to some opinions, the concept of divorce is biblical. The Bible recognizes and regulates divorce.”
When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, “being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly (Matt. 1.19). He was going to divorce her until an angel convinced him that she had not committed adultery.
Jesus said in 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.”
1 Corinthians 7.12-16 lays out some additional guidelines:
10 Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. 11 But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.
12 But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. 13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
As a counselor, I often meet with women (although the same principle applies to men) who are planning to get married. My first question, if I don’t know the other person is, “Is He a believer?” If not, I warn them of the seriousness of ignoring God’s command. I often say, “Right now you have the choice to obey God and save yourself from the consequences of being unequally yoked, but once you’re married, the command will be to stay.”
And the consequences are many, among them: conflicts about how to spend time and money, how to raise children, and what kinds of entertainment are appropriate. But perhaps the saddest is the loss of someone with whom you can share the most important things in life, spiritual things.
And, too often, the man who was willing to come to church with his fiancée is not willing to give up his week-ends to come to church with his wife. The boyfriend, who said he’s fine with her religion, starts accusing her of being a Bible thumper or belittling her for not wanting to watch certain movies and TV shows. The man she believed was close to becoming a Christian is often no closer 20 or 30 years later.
But as we just read in 1 Corinthians 7, unless the unbelieving spouse insists on leaving the marriage, the believing spouse must not seek a divorce. Instead, he or she should live in a way that brings glory to God and, hopefully, draws the unbelieving spouse to Him.
So there are really only two biblical grounds for divorce: sexual immorality and when an unbeliever has left or wants to end the marriage.
A Couple of Notes:
This does not mean that the Bible doesn’t make provision for a wife’s (or husband’s) protection in the case of abuse or some other lifestyle sin, but that’s the subject for another commentary. If you’re being abused in any way, please seek help or leave me a comment (I won’t publish it) and I will be glad to direct you to biblical help.
We live in a fallen world and sometimes divorces take place. It may happen because a spouse simple refuses to stay in a marriage. It may happen because of adultery or other betrayals. When it does, there is often great pain and disappointment.
If you or someone you know is suffering from the pain of divorce or separation I would encourage you to look for a DivorceCare support group. If you live in El Paso, a new session will begin on August 13 at 10:45 am at Cielo Vista Church, 3585 N. Lee Trevino. The group is open to anyone, whether you attend church or not. Even if you were divorced in the past if you’re still struggling, it could benefit you greatly. Or maybe you’re separated and unsure how things will work out, DivorceCare can help you sort through the issues biblically. You can call 915-594-4651 for more information.
Today’s Other Readings:
Crying Out to God
6 You have laid me in the lowest pit,
In darkness, in the depths.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah
8 You have put away my acquaintances far from me;
You have made me an abomination to them;
I am shut up, and I cannot get out;
9 My eye wastes away because of affliction.
LORD, I have called daily upon You;
I have stretched out my hands to You.
10 Will You work wonders for the dead?
Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah
The psalmist continued to pour out his heart to the Lord and God saw fit to include his lament in the canon of Scripture, perhaps to encourage us in our times of grief and sadness.
If you’re struggling in some way, try writing out your own psalm following the pattern of Psalm 88, Psalm 73 or one of the other Psalms. If you find yourself wondering why you’re in the midst of a trial while unbelievers “get away with murder,” read more about the psalmist’s conclusion in Psalm 73.
Verse 23, “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.”
How much trouble the tongue can get us into! And the reverse of that is, if we will exercise the fruit of the Spirit, especially self-control, we can avoid all kinds of heartache! For more about the wisdom of controlling our words, you might want to read “Are you a wise woman or a foolish one?”
Putting God on Hold
Paul is still in protective custody, accused, but not charged with any crime. He and his accusers are to appear before Felix the Governor of Judea. The Jews have sent a great orator to present their side and bring their accusations against Paul. Paul speaks in his own defense and though he speaks of his innocence concerning the law, he readily admits to what he believes. He spends the bulk of his time sharing the truth with Felix. When faced with the truth, Felix does what so many do today. He doesn’t totally reject it, he just ignores it, saying he’ll deal with it later when it’s more convenient!
We’ve probably all met people who know they need to get their lives right before God, but decide they can do it later—a risky proposition. In the first place none of us is guaranteed tomorrow. And even if God in His mercy allows them to live long enough to come to faith in Christ, the consequences accumulated from their sin and rebellion often affect the rest of their lives.
We understand the foolishness of that, but often do the same thing in areas of our own lives. We come under conviction, but push it away thinking we’ll deal with it later? And, even though our salvation may not hang in the balance, as it did with Felix, our obedience does. Instead of pushing God’s conviction to the back of our minds, we ought to be quick to obey God out of a desire to please Him (2 Cor. 5.9).
Lord, help us to willingly allow you to shine the light of Scripture into our hearts and show us where we need to grow and change. Give us the grace to accept responsibility for our sins and to be quick to seek forgiveness from You and others against whom we have sinned. Grant us genuine repentance so that we not only experience sorrow over our sin, but we turn and go Your way in obedience to Your Word. In Jesus name and for His glory … amen.
In the next few days, we’ll look at how an entitlement attitude affects our contentment, the worthlessness of religion, how flattery can result in great temptation, how we can go from grief to joy, and then we’ll look at the great exchange, how we get to exchange our sin for His righteousness. Be sure to sign up so you won’t miss any of these upcoming posts.
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If the church is going to use the Bible to decide whether divorce is legitimate in certain cases and whether divorced couples have the right to remarry with the approval and blessing of God’s people, then the Bible must be studied without prejudice toward a particular answer. The author examines the relevant passages in both the Old and New Testaments so that his readers can consider the many issues and interpretations that arise in trying to establish a consistently biblical position. As a result, readers can see more clearly and accept more firmly the truth of Scripture. The book succeeds at being exactly what the author wanted it to be: “a comprehensive, lucid, accurate study presented in a readable and practical style. . . .” It is a valuable resource for the pastor, counselor, church leader, or anyone struggling to understand and apply scriptural principles to the problems of divorce and remarriage.