Various Christian groups -- conservative Protestants, liberal
Protestants and Roman Catholics have reached different beliefs about under
which conditions the Bible permits divorce, if any.
Even those groups who interpret the Bible as permitting divorce may or may not allow remarriage.
Each of the authors and webmasters who has written on these topics
seem to conclude that their belief alone is the correct interpretation of
The main positions are:
Neither divorce nor remarriage are allowed. (A
conservative Protestant view)
Divorce is OK, but remarriage is forbidden. (A second conservative Protestant
Divorce is OK; remarriage is OK, in cases of adultery or desertion; (A conservative/mainline Protestant view)
Divorce is OK for many reasons; remarriage is OK. (A mainline/liberal
Divorce is impossible, unless the marriage never existed. (Roman
Divorce is OK in cases of marriage breakdown; remarriage is OK
. This is the liberal religious view, shared by most secularists.
This essay describes the sixth position: that in the event that a marriage has become toxic to the spouses and
cannot be salvaged, that a divorce may be the least worse option. Remarriage is allowed,
because the divorce severs the original marriage bond. This belief is held
by some mainline Christian denominations, most liberal Christian groups.
Most Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, and others who are not normally
affiliated with faith groups would probably agree.
The differences between religious conservatives and liberals
There is a wide range of belief systems among the tens of thousands of
Christian denominations worldwide.
Many of the conservative Christian denominations tend to interpret the
Bible literally. They view it as inerrant and internally consistent. They
see it as presenting an unchanging view about each topic. Most have decided
that the Bible -- particularly the Gospels in the Christian Scriptures (New
Testament) consider marriage to be a permanent state. They thus forbid both
divorce and remarriage. They often restrict the roles open to members of
their congregations who are divorced.
However, many mainline and liberal denominations interpret the Bible
differently. They generally reject biblical inerrancy. They view the Bible as the
product of many authors, each promoting his or her own beliefs. Liberals see the
theology and spirituality of the Bible evolving over the ten centuries or so
during which it was written down or finally edited. They view major sections of the Bible, such as the
creation story, the fall of humanity, tower of
Babel, Noah's flood, the
virgin birth, etc. as myth. They interpret major sections of the Bible
as being human creations that oppose the
will of God. For example: genocides based on religion, the oppression of
women, slavery, burning some prostitutes alive, executing homosexuals. They
estimate that the Gospels
include very few direct quotes from Jesus' ministry. After all, Jesus
talked in Aramaic, whereas the Gospels were written in Greek. Thus they are,
at best, translations and not the original words of Jesus. The gospels also
contained phrases that the authors placed in the mouth of Jesus which were
not stated by him, but which reflect and promote the author's developing theology. A
final difference is that religious liberals also tend to supplement Bible
teaching by examining social
problems from a civil and human rights point of view. In this case, their
natural assumption is that if a marriage has broken down and become toxic to
all members of the family, that the couple has the right to terminate it.
Because of conservative and liberal Christians approach the Bible with
such different assumptions, they reach totally different conclusions about
what it says.
Agnostics, Atheists, Ethical Culturalists, Humanists, etc. generally care
little for what the Bible says about divorce. They tend to approach the
question of divorce from a human standpoint: whether it is less damaging for
the people concerned to divorce or to remain together.
Key passages from the Hebrew Scriptures:
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages
about divorce and remarriage. The explanations of these passages is almost
identical to those found in our essay on
divorce/remarriage for adultery and desertion:
Genesis 2:24: Leaving and cleaving: "Therefore shall a man leave
his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they
shall be one flesh." The key words in this verse are "leave,"
"cleave," and "one flesh." This
describes the typical sequence of events leading to a normal heterosexual
marriage. The term "one flesh" has sometimes been used to imply
that marriage is forever. However, Paul uses the same phrase in
Corinthians 6:6 to describe a man engaging in sexual activity with a
prostitute -- hardly an indissoluble relationship. We can conclude that
Genesis 2 is silent on the matter of divorce and subsequent remarriage.
Deuteronomy 24:1-2 Divorce and remarriage: "When a man hath taken a wife, and
married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes,
because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a
bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his
house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be
another man's wife." Divorce was a
practice that had been imported by the ancient Hebrews from adjacent
cultures, where it was a universal custom, along with slavery and polygyny. This passage allowed a man to divorce his wife
(or wives). She was then free to remarry another man. However, it did not allow a woman to divorce her husband.
It is unclear what the term "uncleanness" means. Presumably it does not
mean that she had committed adultery, because then she would have been
executed by stoning.
The passage does not approve of divorce. It remains an unfortunate
for the couple involved. God's ideal pattern for marriage is that it be
permanent. If God approves of an individual divorce, it is
only because it is the least-worse option to a couple whose marriage has
Ezra 9:1-2: Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in
mixed-marriages to divorce: "...The people of Israel, and the
priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of
the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites,
the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites,
the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their
sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of
those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in
this trespass." Ezra was a scribe who had led a small group of Jews
from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. He found that many Jews had
entered into inter-faith marriages with women from nearby Pagan countries.
He felt that if these marriages continued, the Jewish people would quickly lose their national identity and start
to worship other Gods. He ordered the marriages terminated. It is probable
that the Hebrew men remarried within their religion and remarried. Otherwise, they would
have no additional children to help restore the Jewish national identity.
Ezra's position was basically one of religious intolerance: the religious
purity of the country was more important that the continuing mixed
Malachi 2:10: Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in
mixed-marriages to separate: "Judah hath dealt treacherously, and
an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath
profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the
daughter of a strange god." Malachi is faced with the same problem as
Ezra, described above. Jewish males were marrying foreign women who
followed different religions. "Daughter of a strange god" refers to
a foreign woman who worshiped a Pagan deity or deities rather than Yahweh.
In Verse 12, he predicted that God would "cut off" (that is,
murder) any man who remained in a mixed marriage. Again, it was probable
that the Hebrew men remarried women within their faith. Malachi's position
was also basically one of religious intolerance: to maintain the religious
purity of the country, he felt that hundreds of mixed marriages had to be terminated,
at tremendous personal cost to the couples and their children.
Malachi 2:14-16: Divorce is treacherous behavior: "... the LORD hath been witness between thee
and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet
is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant....let none deal
treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of
Israel, saith that he hateth putting away..." Malachi is
condemning Hebrew men for abandoning their wives after many years of
loyal marriage, presumably so that he could marry a young, more attractive woman. Malaci quotes God as saying that he hates
putting away one's wife (i.e. divorce). Divorce under these circumstances
would be seen as immoral by essentially all religions and ethical systems.
This is the only place in the Hebrew
Scriptures where God condemns divorce. God "was speaking of divorces
motivated by lust, divorces that involved abandonment of women who had
been faithful, loving partners though years of married life."
4 He was not referring to divorce generally.
Key passages from the Christian Scriptures:
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages
relating to divorce and remarriage.
By the 1st century CE, grounds for
divorce were a hotly debated topic. The liberal school of Hillel, a leading 1st century
BCE rabbi, said
that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. The conservative school
of Shammai, a conservative contemporary of Hillel, taught that divorce was only allowed
on grounds of adultery. In other matters in his ministry, Jesus had
adopted the liberal teachings of Hillel. But in this case, the Gospel writers
record conflicting versions of a speech by Jesus in response to a question
by some Pharisees:
Matthew 5:31-32: Jesus is reported as supporting a position
close to Shammai: that a man can divorce his wife if she committed "porneia"
-- a Greek word that generally means fornication. The text reads: "It
hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a
writing of divorcement. But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away
his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit
adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth
adultery." This passage implies that if a man divorces his wife, that
she and her next husband will commit adultery. Her original husband will
be partly responsible for the adultery.
Matthew 19:3-9: Again, Jesus is recorded as taking a position
close to that of Shammai. The text reads: "The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and
saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every
cause? And he answered...Have ye not read, that he which made
them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause
shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and
they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one
flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of
divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the
hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the
beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his
wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth
adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."
The sentence: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man
put asunder," describes God's ideal. However, not every couple is
able to live up to that standard.
Mark 10:2-12: The Gospel writer records Jesus as taking
a position on divorce which is considerably more rigid that Shammai's.
He also records Jesus statement that God's ideal is that all
marriages be permanent. "And the
Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away
his wife? tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses
command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement,
and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the
hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning
of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man
leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall
be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What
therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the
house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto
them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth
adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be
married to another, she committeth adultery." This passage refers
to the same incident as was described in Matthew 19. However, this time,
Jesus states that remarriage always involves adultery on the part of the
ex-wife and her new husband. The reasons why the couple wants a divorce are immaterial. The
final statement about a woman divorcing her husband could not have come
from Jesus. He was an observant Jew, talking to Pharisaic Jews, in the
company of his Jewish followers. Wives divorcing husbands was unknown to
Jewish culture at the time, although it was common in surrounding Pagan
cultures. The statement must have been created by the author of the
Gospel of Mark, to satisfy his Gentile readers, and promote his own
Luke 16:18: The author of the Gospel of Luke records a
statement by Jesus that is in agreement with the speech in Mark: a
position that is much more rigid that that of Shammai."Whosoever putteth
away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever
marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery."
This appears to be a third version of the same incident with the
Pharisees. Here, divorce is not condemned. Jesus again links adultery to the
act of remarriage.
Thus, the various Gospel writers record conflicting versions of Jesus'
speech on divorce. The authors of Luke and Mark have Jesus condemning all
divorce; the author of Matthew has Jesus permitting divorce in case of "porneia."
This difference probably reflects the positions of the various Christian
groups to which the authors belonged.
1 Corinthians 7:10-12: Ideal for separated couples: "And unto
the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart
from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be
reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.
Paul wrote this passage in response to questions raised by the church at
Corinth about divorce and remarriage. He is describing God's ideal concept
for marriage: that it is life-long. But since humans are not perfect, some
will not be able to attain this standard.
1 Corinthians 7:10-15: Special case where an unbeliever wants a
divorce: "But to the rest speak I, not the
Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to
dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an
husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let
her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife,
and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your
children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart,
let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases:
but God hath called us to peace." This is a continuation of the above
passage. It covers the situation where a believer is married to a
non-Christian, and the non-Christian insists on a divorce. Paul
writes that if a Christian
is deserted, that they are no longer bound by the marriage vows. They are
unmarried and free to remarry in the future.
The Bible and divorce - conclusions:
The message of the Bible on divorce is inconsistent.
The Hebrew Scriptures contain a number of passages that allow
men to divorce their wives. Divorcing an older wife in order to marry a young
woman is frowned upon. Inter-faith marriages were not permitted in ancient
Israel; in some cases, they were forcibly broken up by prophets. In certain
unusual cases where a husband has mistreated his wife, he was not allowed to
divorce his wife. In those days, women had few rights, and could not initiate a
Jesus said that God's ideal is that marriages be permanent. However some cannot attain it. For them, divorce and subsequent
remarriage -- though regrettable -- is permissible and is often the least-worse
The authors of Mark and Luke record that Jesus forbade all
divorce. The author of Matthew recorded two statements in which Jesus allowed
divorce in the case of "porneia."
Paul instructed the members of the church at Corinth that the
ideal goal for a separated or divorced couple are to seek
reconciliation or to remain celibate. However, a divorce is permissible in the
case of desertion by a non-Christian spouse.
The Bible discussed men divorcing their wives, but did not
permit wives to divorce their husbands. This must be rejected as opposed to the
will of God that men and women have equal rights.
The Bible does not speak with a single, homogeneous position on
divorce, and thus on remarriage. Part of the problem is that the words of Jesus have been
adulterated by being overlaid with the
Gospel authors' own beliefs.
Since the Bible does not give a clear direction on divorce,
it is ultimately up to the individual couple to determine what is their best
-- or least worse -- course of action.
Many conservative faith groups determine the acceptability
of divorce on the basis of acts by one of the spouses: fornication,
adultery, desertion, etc. The more liberal faith groups tend to pay more
attention to the health of the marital relationship. An act of adultery,
although severely damaging to the relationship, may well be merely a symptom of
pre-existing marital breakdown, and not a fatal blow to the marriage.
Liberal faith groups tend to view their church's main responsibility
as helping the couple in a failing marriage to decide whether to separate or
not, and supporting the them in their decision.
To divorce or not divorce:
Because marital separation and subsequent divorce is a
gut-wrenching experience for the couple and their children -- and to a
lesser degree for their friends and relatives, it is not a decision to be
made lightly. The couple must thoughtfully weigh the benefits and
disadvantages of the two options: to continue their marriage or to separate.
Marital separation (and usually to a lesser degree,
divorce) is a profoundly distressing experience. Both parties usually
experience strong feelings of shame, failure, and loneliness, which
sometimes take years to overcome.
Children, if any, will also be adversely affected by the
failure of the marriage -- at least for a time. There is a growing support among sociologists and
other researchers for the findings of E. Mavis Hetherington. She is
a professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. She
examined 1,400 families and more than 2,500 children in a longitudinal
study which extended over three decades. She and John Kelly -- a New York
author -- discuss the study in their book. 1,2 According
to her studies, 75 to 80% of children from divorced homes are "coping
reasonably well and functioning in the normal range." She also found
that 70% of their parents are leading lives that are "good enough"
or better than before. 2 However, many supporters of the "marriage movement" support
the findings of Judith S. Wallerstein, Sandra Blakeslee, and Julia M.
Lewis who have conducted a similar longitudinal study and reached
conflicting conclusions. More details
Many separating parents manipulate their children in order to get back at
the other spouse. This can be profoundly distressing to them.
Couples in abusive and/or loveless marriages need to
balance the emotional distress of a separation that they and their
children would experience against the damage that would be done to all
concerned if the marriage continued.
A divorce liturgy:
Reverend Dr. Vienna Cobb Anderson has written a "liturgy for
divorce" -- a religious ritual that is intended to be performed after a
couple have separated and obtained a civil divorce. It helps the couple, their
family, friends, and congregation recognize that the
marriage has ended, and that both spouses have forgiven each other
for any transgressions that they have committed towards each other. Portions of
the liturgy contains text copied from the Episcopal Church, USA's wedding
service. 5 The liturgy has been published by Women's Ministries of
the Episcopal Church, USA on their web site.
6 It says, in part:
"In creation, God made the cycle of life to be birth,
life, and death; and God has given us the hope of new life through the
Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior. The Church recognizes that
relationships follow this pattern. While the couple have promised in
good faith to love until parted by death, in some marriages the love
between a wife and a husband comes to an end sooner. Love dies, and when
that happens we recognize that the bonds of marriage, based on love,
also may be ended."
"God calls us to right relationships based on love, compassion,
mutuality, and justice. Whenever any of these elements is absent from a
marital relationship, then that partnership no longer reflects the
intentionality of God...."
"Thus we gather this day to support and bless N. and
N. as they confess their brokenness, forgive each other for their
transgressions, receive Godís blessing, celebrate the new growth that
has occurred in each of them, and make commitments for a new life."
The couple formally give their consent to set each other free of the
relationship. They formally release each other from their marriage vows. Their
ring(s) are placed on the altar. A prayer and benediction conclude the liturgy.
Kathy Boccella, "Book spurs divorce debate," The