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Overview; Divorce data

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With considerable justification, many people feel that the current high rates of marital breakdown, separation and divorce are the most serious social problem in North American today. Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas, has declared a "marital emergency" in his state, where the divorce rate is 6.1 per 1000 marriages per year. Frank Keating, governor of Oklahoma has similarly initiated a campaign to reduce his state's divorce rate below 6.0. 1,2

Many Christians have a keen interest to know what the Bible says about divorce. For some, the significance is intensely personal. They feel trapped in a toxic relationship, and are wondering what their biblically acceptable options are.

Divorce in the Bible:

The Bible has relatively few verses which deal with divorce. Among the most important passages are:

bullet In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament): Genesis 2:24, Leviticus 18:6+, and Deuteronomy 24:1+
bullet In the Christian Scriptures (New Testament): Matthew 5:32 and 19:3+; Mark 10:2, and 1 Corinthians 7:12+.

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Apparent conflicts in the biblical message on divorce:

At first reading, the key biblical passages on divorce do not appear to be in agreement:

bullet Some passages actually required inter-faith couples to divorce.
bullet Others seem to say that divorce can be initiated by the husband only, and for almost any reason.
bullet Others appear to allow both husbands and wives to initiate a divorce, but only for specific reasons. 
bullet Others seem to say that divorce is not permitted under any circumstances. 

The status of remarriage is similarly obscure.

Christians resolve these apparent conflicts in different ways:
bullet Conservative Christians accept the concept of biblical inerrancy. Thus, they believe that these passages can be harmonized. They believe that the Bible delivers a single, consistent message concerning divorce to present-day couples. Sometimes, a consensus exists within a given Fundamentalist or other Evangelical Christian denomination as to the content of that message. However there is little agreement among denominations.
bullet Liberal Christians expect the beliefs on divorce by the authors of the Bible to have evolved over the 1,000 years during which it was created. They assume that that the Bible will deliver conflicting views on divorce and remarriage in accordance with changes in theology, spirituality and social customs from about 900 BCE to 150 CE. They tend to study each couple's case separately, in the light of general biblical principles. For example, they might consider that an physically abusive spouse has violated his or her marriage vows, and that the violence releases the non-abusive spouse from her or his obligation to remain in the marriage.

Applying biblical messages to today:

It is not easy to interpret ancient biblical message in terms of today's culture:

bullet The main divorce passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are in Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Conservative Christians generally believe that these books were written by Moses, circa 1450 BCE. Liberals generally believe that they were written between about 920 and 587 BCE, by a variety of authors and redacted (edited) even later. The ancient Israelite culture then was very different from North American today:
bullet Men could have multiple wives and numerous concubines. Solomon, for example, had hundreds of each.
bullet The status of women was extremely low; wives were often treated as property. 
bullet Young people were expected to marry very shortly after reaching puberty.
bullet Life expectancy was only about 30 years. About one in three women died in childbirth.
bullet Wives often died before their children were married and left home.
bullet The average marriage probably lasted about 15 years before being ended in the death of one spouse.
bullet The main divorce passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) are in Mark, Matthew, and 1 Corinthians. Theologians believe that they were written sometime between 45 and 85 CE. Conservative Christians tend to date them much earlier than liberal Christians. In first century CE Galilee and Judea, a couple went through a form of betrothal ritual in which they exchanged their vows. However, they lived separately and were expected to remain celibate until they were later married. Otherwise, many of the factors affecting marriage (multiple wives, status of women, age of betrothal, life expectancy, average duration of marriage) were similar to that of the ancient Israelites in the Hebrew Scriptures.
bullet North American society is very different from that in biblical times:
bullet With the exception of some members of Mormon splinter groups in British Columbia, Canada, (and others whose religious beliefs promote polygyny) a man is not permitted to have multiple wives.
bullet Women have reached near equality with men in status.
bullet Young people reach puberty about half a decade earlier (closer to age 10 that to 15)
bullet Most youth marry much later, in their mid 20's. That generates about a 15 year period between puberty and marriage when most religious conservatives expect young people to remain celibate.
bullet The average age at which youth become sexually active is 16; their first sexual experience is generally not with their eventual spouse.
bullet Live expectancy is in excess of 80 years - about a half century longer than in biblical times.
bullet If divorce is avoided, an average marriage will last over 50 years -- more than three times longer than in Biblical times.

There is no consensus on how to apply passages in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in today's society. Some say that divorce regulations are absolute truths which apply to all cultures and eras. Others feel that the regulations are relative to the society that existed when the books of the Bible were written. No consensus will be probably be reached in the near future on divorce and remarriage.:
bullet Some Christians feel that biblical divorce laws are fixed for all time and all cultures; they are equally applicable today in North America as they were in biblical times. 
bullet Others feel that the status of ancient divorce laws and customs is similar to the Bible's dietary laws. Just as Christians are now free to eat cheeseburgers and shellfish, to wear cotton-polyester blends, and to get tattoos, they should not be required to follow the ancient rules governing divorce.

Quite often, a theologian will come to a decision about the exact meaning of a Biblical passage based on deep analysis of a single word. An impressive resource on the topics of divorce and remarriage is the 1990 book "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian views." It was edited by H.W. House, and published by InterVarsity Press. It describes the beliefs of four prominent, intelligent, devout, conservative Protestant theologians. All have written extensively on the topic. All four debate their conflicting beliefs about what the Bible says about divorce. 

Divorce rates:

It is a surprise to many that divorce rates are highest in the "Bible Belt", and among conservative Christians and Jews. They are lowest in the Northeast, and among mainline/liberal Christians, Atheists and Agnostics: 

bullet By location: Reno, NV has had a long-lasting reputation as being the divorce capital of the U.S. Among the remaining states, the divorce rate is highest in the Bible belt, and lowest in the Northeastern states. 1
bullet Among members of Christian denominations: According to a Barna Research Group survey on 1999-DEC-21, 25% of all American adults have been divorced. When data for specific Christian denominations are isolated, the following percentages of adults have been divorced at sometime during their lifetime: 
bullet 34% of non-denominational church members -- mostly members of Fundamentalist churches,
bullet 29% of Baptists,
bullet 25% of mainline Protestants (Methodists, Presbyterians, etc), 
bullet 24% of Mormons, 
bullet 21% of Catholics, 
bullet 21% of Lutherans, 
bullet 17% of Unification Church members, according to an different survey. 6
bullet Among followers of different religions: The following percentage of adults have been divorced:
bullet 30% of Jews. 
bullet 21% of Atheists & Agnostics.
bullet As a function of "born again" status:
bullet 27% of born-again Christians,
bullet 24% of non-born-again 7

We have seen literally dozens of references to this survey by religious conservatives. Almost all have misinterpreted the data by stating that there is no difference among religious denominations and no difference between Christian believers and others.

More details


  1. "Bible belt has nation's worse divorce rate,", 1999-NOV-12. Online at: ( had a cache copy as of 2000-FEB-11. The page is not directly accessible)
  2. David Crary, "Deep in the Bible Belt, a counterattack on the nation's worst divorce rate," Detroit News, 1999-NOV-11, at: 
  3. Anke Tiedt, "Grounds for Divorce in the United States" at:
  4. R.F. Wilson, "The spirit of marriage: Jesus teaching on divorce," at:
  5. Harry Bethel, "Divorce and Remarriage --- What Does The Bible Really Say?" at:
  6. Michael Inglis, "Survey of the Unification Church 1982 marriages," at:
  7. "Christians are more likely to experience divorce than are non-Christians," Barna Research Group, 1999-DEC-21, at:
  8. H.W. House, Ed., "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian views," InterVarsity Press, (1990). Read reviews or order this book safely from online bookstore

Copyright ? 2000 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-APR-27
Latest update: 2005-DEC-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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