When does God allow divorce? That is – when does God grant Christians the right to divorce?
Is it when your spouse is irritating, irresponsible, or annoying? How about neglectful, lazy or dishonest? How about if they are not a Christian, or they seem to be incompatible with you? It is common for people to divorce because they are no longer happy with their spouse, or they find someone else that is more compatible, or more attractive. But is this right in God’s eyes? Most Christians find this easy to answer, but many find it too difficult, and choose to divorce anyway. The Christian answer is that there are two times it is moral.
The first case where divorce is allowed is in the instance where one spouse commits adultery. The other spouse is then free to seek divorce. The second instance is when an unbeliever leaves the marriage. At that point, the believer may seek a divorce. There are no other instances where adultery is permitted by God.
While this seems to be a fairly simple set of criteria, it becomes clear very quickly that there is more here than meets the eye, especially in the case of adultery. The second instance is actually far easier to comprehend, and tends to be less misused.
If a non-believer leaves the marriage
This one is quite clear, and the theological reason is very useful. Christian marriage is used by God as a metaphor for Christ’s relation to His church. The church is often called his Bride. The relationship of husband and wife is a model of the relationship between Christ and those He purchased with his blood. Looking at how Jesus and the church are related teaches us how a husband and wife are related. This is the reason why it is important to marry a fellow believer. Marriages between believer and unbeliever are actually forbidden in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 6:14), and failure to regard this truth causes many problems. Christ is not married to unbelievers! While there may be atheists, or Satan worshippers, or other ungodly types who may be active in churches, they are not part of the family of God. If they wish to leave, they are free to do so! The Christian’s job is to present the unbeliever with the gospel. What the unbeliever does with that news is between that person and God.
It is the same in a marriage to an unbeliever. It is the believer’s job to present the gospel. And, as Paul points out, there can be no binding contract between the believer and the unbeliever. The Bible forbids marriage between Christians and non-Christians.
“…Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?…” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)
In reality, a ‘marriage’ between a believer and an unbeliever is a doppelganger of a real marriage – it is a pretense, an illusion. The morality of such a union is entirely dependent upon the vows made between partners, something that the Bible declares binding (See Deuteronomy 23:23, for example) but is at the mercy of the whims of the unbeliever, who is not constrained to honor God, and is instead at constant war with the Creator. Thus, if such a person leaves the marriage, it is morally acceptable for the believing spouse to end the human contract.
This is the only time in the marriage of a believer and an unbeliever that a divorce is acceptable. You have made a vow to your unbelieving spouse, and it is your duty to uphold and live by that vow. It is quite possible that you can lead your spouse to salvation in Christ. The Scriptures state this in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16:
“…If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?…”
In case of adultery
A marriage between two Christians is not the same. This contract is bound by God. Marriage in God’s eyes is not identical to a State marriage. It is more than the humanistic ‘legally binding’ paper contract dispensed by the State. It is legally binding in God’s eyes, and it takes a very special circumstance to end it. That circumstance is adultery. When adultery is committed, the marriage is destroyed – that is, the terms of the contract have been negated. At that point – and only at that point, is a divorce an acceptable option.
Note – it is an option, it is not required. This is because the Christian marriage reflects Christ’s relationship to His Church. If Christ were to divorce the Church once she deviated from her relationship to Him, there would be no Church. In fact, none would be saved! Christians seek after other gods on a continual basis. Idolatry is one of, if not the most common sin in history. But Jesus forgives, draws His bride to Himself, and is always purifying her (see Ephesians 5:22-33). Thus, while divorce in this instance is permitted, it is not necessary. A Christian marriage can easily and powerfully be rebuilt after an affair.
There is real danger here though! This exception to God’s restriction on divorce is easily misused. In practical terms, it is only valid for a short time, and under very specific circumstances. Once a commitment to rebuilding the marriage has been accepted and stated by both partners, the option NO LONGER STANDS! You cannot use the arguent of adultery to divorce just because rebuilding the marriage is not going at the speed or terms which you have dictated. This is a very common misuse of this exception.
For clarity, let me repeat this: at the moment you and your spouse agree to rebuilding your marriage, the option to divorce is off the table! God tells us: “…But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one…” When you agree to working on your marriage as a Christian, you have said ‘yes’ to the marriage. As pointed out in Deuteronomy 23:23 “…That which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform, for you voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth…” If you say yes, but then turn your back on your word, you are not doing God’s work. You are acting on behalf of the ‘evil one.’
This means that you are back to the original promise you made, and bound by the same criteria that were in place at first: unless your spouse commits adultery, or, as an unbeliever, decides to leave the marriage, divorce is out of the question. It can no longer be considered. It’s amazing how people will try to get around this.
We hear it all the time: “he refuses to come clean” or “he isn’t spending quality time with me!” “She doesn’t treat me with respect” or “I can’t trust her..,” as if these are criteria God has granted for divorce. It is even justified. “She committed adultery a month ago!” What is neglected here is that in between the statement made today and the act of adultery has come the revelation of this sin and the desire (if even a weak one!) to re-establish the marriage. There has come an agreement to work on the marriage. That is – a commitment to the marriage! To repeat: at the moment you and your spouse agree to rebuilding your marriage, the option to divorce is off the table! Anything that happens after that are troubles that you must manage together as partners facing difficult times.
Keep in mind that there is light in all the darkness you see ahead of you. Things may seem overwhelming, the troubles between the two of you may appear to be to difficult, but “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” As Christians, you have the brightest light available at your fingertips. Everything you need to recover is found in the Scriptures, and only your lack of faith is what is stopping any progress. If your spouse is a Christian, even if they committed adultery, there is nothing, no sin so great, that the love and power of God cannot overcome. And that power is the Scriptures themselves:
“…For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart…”
“…All scripture given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…”
“…it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe…”
“…“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened…”
It may feel impossible – your spouse may be acting in ways that seem impossible to overcome! But God has promised to help, and God can not, will not, and does not lie:
But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”