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.
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:
In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament): Genesis 2:24, Leviticus
18:6+, and Deuteronomy 24:1+
In the Christian Scriptures (New Testament): Matthew 5:32 and 19:3+;
Mark 10:2, and 1 Corinthians 7:12+.
Others seem to say that divorce can be initiated by the husband only,
and for almost any reason.
Others appear to allow both
husbands and wives to initiate a divorce, but only for specific
Others seem to say that divorce is not permitted under any
The status of remarriage is similarly obscure.
Christians resolve these apparent conflicts in different ways:
Conservative Christians accept the concept of biblical inerrancy.
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
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
Applying biblical messages to today:
It is not easy to interpret ancient
biblical message in terms of today's culture:
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:
Men could have multiple wives and numerous concubines. Solomon,
for example, had hundreds of each.
The status of women was extremely
low; wives were often treated as property.
Young people were expected to marry very shortly after reaching puberty.
Life expectancy was only about 30 years. About one in three
women died in childbirth.
Wives often died before their children were married and left
The average marriage probably lasted about 15 years before being
ended in the death of one spouse.
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.
North American society is very different from that in biblical
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
Women have reached near equality with men in status.
Young people reach puberty about half a decade earlier (closer
to age 10 that to 15)
Most youth marry much later, in their mid 20's. That generates
about a 15 year period between puberty and marriage when most
conservatives expect young people to remain celibate.
The average age at which youth become sexually active is 16;
their first sexual experience is generally not with their eventual
Live expectancy is in excess of 80 years - about a half century longer
than in biblical times.
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
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.
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,
conservative Protestant theologians. All have
written extensively on the topic. All four debate their conflicting beliefs
about what the Bible says about divorce.
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:
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
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:
34% of non-denominational church members -- mostly members of
29% of Baptists,
25% of mainline Protestants (Methodists, Presbyterians, etc),
24% of Mormons,
21% of Catholics,
21% of Lutherans,
17% of Unification Church members, according to an different survey. 6
Among followers of different religions: The following
percentage of adults have been divorced:
30% of Jews.
21% of Atheists & Agnostics.
As a function of "born again" status:
27% of born-again Christians,
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.