Divorce: When Does the Bible Permit Divorce?  


In an online discussion that a number of us were participating in, the topic of divorce came up and I was asked what I understood from the Scriptures. The question put to me was: “When does the Bible permit divorce?”

I spent some time looking up a few well-known Bible passages and further pondering this topic. This was an opportunity to put into writing some observations about these Bible passages and to formulate some ideas into a reasonable answer. This is not an indepth look at this topic but a suitable response for the context of that discussion. The article below is that earnest endeavor.

I believe that this overview gets at the basics and includes an objective towards raising awareness about the plight of women when it comes to harmful advice given by church leaders–which so often hinders rather than helps serious marriage dysfunction.

To tell someone that spiritual, sexual, physical, and/or mental abuse has to be tolerated because of marriage vows, is not a message from God. Many clergy advise wives to stick with the marriage and avoid divorce at all costs. Under these types of circumstances, this advice is harmful and should be disregarded.

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“The following is an answer to your question: “When does the Bible permit divorce?”

We are familiar with these passages:  Mt. 5:31, 32; 19:1-13; Mk. 10:1-12.

To begin, in the Matt. 5 chapter, it is not hard to notice certain recurring phrases that are used many times by Jesus to make his point distinct among his Jewish countrymen:  “You have heard that it was said . . .” “But I tell you . . .”   Jesus gave clear explanatory teachings on what he felt was important to highlight–based on those Old Testament passages.

For example, Matt. 5:27:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The Context:  Notice that in the Matthew 5 and 19 and Mark 10 passages that the question of divorce was in the context of the Pharisees coming to Jesus to ‘test him’ regarding the words of Moses and the law. They were determined when they probed him: Is it lawful—for a man—to divorce—his wife?

Jesus explained to those Pharisees what the main reason was behind Moses permitting a man to write a certificate of divorce to end his marriage:

“2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied.

4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.”                                      Mark 10:2-5

This is similarly stated in Matt. 19:8, 9: “Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Their pressing question revolved around: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for ‘any and every reason’?” That is where this confrontation centered.

Jesus was directing his words to the Jewish leaders, men, and husbands. He was addressing them, along with the people who Moses spoke to, about their own reasons to divorce their own wives. The “anyone who divorces his wife” refers specifically to ‘any man’ who divorces his wife. Any and every reason–was the pivotal issue. 

Considering Marriage Dysfunction Biblically

So, how should we look at divorce today? What should be our guiding principles for helping to minister to those who come to us with severe marriage dysfunction? Obviously, as Christians, our first priority is to grasp what the Scriptures say and to consider Christ’s words in particular.

My response would be to echo what Jesus taught: When the hardness of the hearts of men disables the marriage covenant by sexual and emotional infidelity and/or by physical, sexual, mental, financial, and emotional abuse, these are biblical grounds for divorce. These grounds for divorce allow for a legal dissolution of the marriage contract.

Such abusive men, many who claim to be ‘Christians,’ have by their words and actions dismantled and destroyed their marriage covenant and have created a horrific place for a wife and their children to survive, let alone live. The woman is no longer bound to such a man and such a marriage.

It would be easier to give a straight cut and traditional answer, encouraging women to stick with their husband and their marriage vows.  But, from being exposed to those who work with domestic violence victims and women who have had atrocities perpetrated against them, by their husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends, begs for these accounts of traumatized homelife to be heard and understood–by those in the church and by those who might minister directly to them.

There is suitable help available through lawyers, police, safe houses, welfare programs, and secular agencies while huge lacks can be found in the church.

Relationships are complex, yet there is a crucial need to avoid re-victimizing women by holding them hostage to an already shattered marriage, broken by their abusive spouse—and using the Bible to do it. We can do so much better.

That is my answer to your question: When does the Bible permit divorce?” 


The topic of marriage dysfunction and divorce is a huge one. There are no quick or easy answers. Using the Bible inappropriately in severe marriage situations is not only insensitive but does not reflect the heart of God who exhibits care and justice for those who are oppressed by unprincipled spouses in harmful situations.

There is a need for listening, care, and support for anyone experiencing marriage distress of any kind. Couples need to be ministered to on a case by case basis in order to help to guide both the husband and the wife in the best possible outcomes–for them as a couple and as individuals.

For women experiencing severe marriage dysfunction, it may be essential to remove her and any children from an unsafe home environment. There is much that church leaders and a supportive church can do to help those enduring ruptured marriages.

There is a need to forgo the insensitive ways of treating those who find that getting a divorce is the only reasonable solution for a couple’s relationship. There is a need to offer the help and support to both partners going through this distressing time in their lives. Suitable support can be part of the aid a nurturing church community can provide during and after a divorce has ended a marriage. It is important to realize that divorce can be the best and only solution for so many marriages and that new life can arise after the dissolution of a severely unhealthy marriage.


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For Further Reflection

The Lord promises wisdom for those who ask him. Marriage distress is one of those times. Men and women can look to the Lord for strength and wisdom at such a period in their lives.

This passage is taken from Proverbs 2:1-9, from The Message:

1-5 Good friend, take to heart what I’m telling you;
collect my counsels and guard them with your life.
Tune your ears to the world of Wisdom;
set your heart on a life of Understanding.
That’s right—if you make Insight your priority,
and won’t take no for an answer,
Searching for it like a prospector panning for gold,
like an adventurer on a treasure hunt,
Believe me, before you know it Fear-of-God will be yours;
you’ll have come upon the Knowledge of God.

6-8 And here’s why: God gives out Wisdom free,
is plainspoken in Knowledge and Understanding.
He’s a rich mine of Common Sense for those who live well,
a personal bodyguard to the candid and sincere.
He keeps his eye on all who live honestly,
and pays special attention to his loyally committed ones.

So now you can pick out what’s true and fair,
find all the good trails!

This same passage, Proverbs 2:1-9, from the New International Version:

My son, if you receive my words,
And treasure my commands within you,
So that you incline your ear to wisdom,
And apply your heart to understanding;
Yes, if you cry out for discernment,
And lift up your voice for understanding,
If you seek her as silver,
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,
And find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;
He stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
He is a shield to those who walk uprightly;
He guards the paths of justice,
And preserves the way of His saints.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice,
Equity and every good path.


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© 2014   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.