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Does the Bible allow Divorce?

In the house the disciples asked [Jesus] again about this matter. And he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

Mark 10:10-12

Given modern no-fault divorce laws and the allowance for divorce in cases of “irreconcilable differences,” both of which reflect a disdain for Christ’s teaching on marriage (Mark 10:1–9), it is unsurprising that many Christians believe divorce is never acceptable. Moreover, passages such as Mark 10:10-12, at least on first reading, seem to lend credence to the idea that divorce is always wrong.

As a rule, however, we want to make sure our views are driven by an accurate interpretation of God’s Word and not our cultural context or personal interpretations. It is possible to overreact to sin in such a way that we make the law more restrictive than the Lord intends.

If Mark 10:10–12 were all that we had from Jesus and the Apostles on when divorce is permissible, we might conclude that divorce is always a sin and never acceptable. Yet we have further revelation on the subject that gives us an important fact—although divorce is always the result of sin, divorce in itself is not always a sin, and not everyone in a divorce situation is guilty of sin. 

It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.

Matthew 5:31-32 (MEV)

But 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.”

Matthew 19:9 (MEV)

Matthew 5:31-32 & 19:9 gives us one case in which divorce is allowable: sexual immorality. This term translates the Greek word porneia G#4202, which can cover a wide variety of sexual sins and not just a physical relationship between a person and another who is not his or her spouse. Repeated, impenitent sexual sin is proper grounds upon which the injured spouse may seek a biblical divorce. Paul gives the other grounds for a biblically permissible divorce—desertion on the part of an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:10–16).

A Christian married to an unbeliever is free to remarry if the unbeliever wants out of the marriage. In both cases, it is imperative that good and godly elders are prepared to deal with the multitude of complexities that can arise when one spouse seeks a divorce. They must be able to discern when actual sexual sin has been committed, when a professing believer has actually proven himself an unbeliever through impenitent spousal abuse, and much more if they are going to accurately discern whether a divorce is biblically acceptable in a particular situation.

Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce gives us a proper framework for lawful sexual activity. Christ reaffirms Genesis’ teaching that the only God-approved sexual relationship is that between a man and a woman in a lawful marriage (Mark 10:1–12). This rules out all homosexual acts as well as all premarital and extramarital sexual relationships between men and women.