Religious Tolerance logo



horizontal rule

Sponsored link.

horizontal rule

Variety of Bible-based beliefs:

We are faced with a dilemma:

bullet Various Christian groups -- conservative Protestants, liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics have reached different beliefs about under which conditions the Bible permits divorce, if any.
bullet Even those groups who interpret the Bible as permitting divorce may or may not allow remarriage.
bullet 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 Bible.

The main positions are:

  1. Neither divorce nor remarriage are allowed. (A conservative Protestant view)
  2. Divorce is OK, but remarriage is forbidden. (A second conservative Protestant view)
  3. Divorce is OK; remarriage is OK, in cases of adultery or desertion; (A conservative/mainline Protestant view)
  4. Divorce is OK for many reasons; remarriage is OK. (A mainline/liberal Protestant view)
  5. Divorce is impossible, unless the marriage never existed. (Roman Catholic)
  6. 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.

horizontal rule

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.

horizontal rule

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:

bullet 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. 
bullet 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 Middle-Eastern Pagan 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 personal failure 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 failed.
bullet 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 marriages.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

horizontal rule

Sponsored link:

horizontal rule

Key passages from the Christian Scriptures:

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages relating to divorce and remarriage.

bullet 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:
bullet 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.
bullet 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. 
bullet 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 beliefs.
bullet 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.

bullet 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.
bullet 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.

horizontal rule

The Bible and divorce - conclusions:

The message of the Bible on divorce is inconsistent.

bullet 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 divorce.
bullet 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 option.
bullet 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."
bullet 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.
bullet 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.

horizontal rule

Additional considerations:

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.

horizontal rule

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. Some considerations:

bullet 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.
bullet 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
bullet Many separating parents manipulate their children in order to get back at the other spouse. This can be profoundly distressing to them.
bullet 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.

horizontal rule

A divorce liturgy:

The 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.

horizontal rule


  1. Kathy Boccella, "Book spurs divorce debate," The Philadelphia Inquirer.

  2. E. Mavis Hetherington & John Kelly, "For Better or for Worse: Divorce Reconsidered," W.W. Norton, (2002). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

  3. Judith S. Wallerstein, et al., "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study," Hyperion, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely

  4. "Divorce," The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, at:

  5. Vienna Cobb Anderson, "Liturgy for Divorce," in Elizabeth Geitz, Marjorie Burke & Ann Smith, Eds., "Womenís Uncommon Prayers: Our Lives Revealed, Nurtured, Celebrated." Morehouse, (2000).

  6. "Liturgy for Divorce," Women's Ministries, Episcopal Church, USA, at:

Copyright © 2002 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-19
Latest update: 2004-OCT-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

line.gif (538 bytes)

horizontal rule

Go to the previous page, or return to the Divorce menu, or choose:


Go to home page  We would really appreciate your help

E-mail us about errors, etc.  Purchase a CD of this web site

FreeFind search, lists of new essays...  Having problems printing our essays?

Twitter link

Facebook icon

GooglePage Translator:

This page translator works on Firefox,
Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers only

After translating, click on the "show
original" button at the top of this
page to restore page to English.

Popular Pages

More Info

About this site
About us
Our beliefs
Your first visit?
Contact us
External links
Good books
Visitor essays
Our forum
New essays
Other site features
Buy a CD
Vital notes

World religions
Who is a Christian?
Shared beliefs
Handle change
Bible topics
Bible inerrancy
Bible harmony
Interpret Bible
Beliefs, creeds
Da Vinci code
Revelation, 666
Other religions
Other spirituality
Cults and NRMs
Comparing religions

About all religions
Important topics
Basic information
Gods & Goddesses
Handle change
Confusing terms
World's end
One true religion?
Seasonal topics
Science v. Religion
More info.

Absolute truth

Attaining peace
Religious tolerance
Religious hatred
Religious conflict
Religious violence

"Hot" topics
Very hot topics
Ten commandm'ts
Assisted suicide
Death penalty
Equal rights - gays & bi's
Gay marriage
Origins of the species
Sex & gender
Spanking kids
Stem cells
Other topics

Laws and news
Religious laws
Religious news