IS DIVORCE REALLY A SIN?
By Clarence L. Haynes Jr.
Divorce is a real and prevalent issue both inside and outside the church. When it comes to the topic of divorce, this can be a little bit like The Scarlet Letter. If you are not familiar with the story, a woman who had committed adultery was forced to walk around with a scarlet letter A sewn into her clothes. This identified to everyone the sin she had committed.
When it comes to divorce, sometimes in Christian circles it gets treated the same way. There are several reasons people get divorced: adultery, abuse, finances, or simply falling out of love. But the question that many wonder about is this: Is divorce a sin? Obviously, divorce is not something that God wants or pleases Him, but is it actually a sin? Divorce is a complicated and controversial issue, yet it cannot be ignored.
What makes something, such as divorce, sinful?
The nature of this topic should require us to approach it with a lot of grace. For people not facing these challenging situations, it could be very easy to come to the conclusion that divorce is a sin. The short answer is yes, Paul and Jesus both spoke of factors that can allow divorce to be justified and not sinful. However, the truth of the matter is that whether divorce is a sin is a little more complicated than that.
As I write this, I am writing from the perspective of a child whose parents went through a divorce, so I have seen firsthand how devastating and damaging this can be. My intention today is to not bring down the heavy hand, which is easy to do, but to bring the hand of grace, which is not always easy to do. Whether the actual act of divorce is a sin, every divorce is a product of sin. If there was no sin in the marriage relationship, divorce would not be needed. Surely Jesus knows our weaknesses and understands our needs. Let’s take a look at what the Bible teaches us as grounds for divorce and reconciliation.
Do the Bible and Jesus Talk About Divorce?
In the gospels, Jesus does talk about divorce. When you read what he says it helps to start shaping the answer to the question Is divorce a sin?
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery’” (Matthew 5:31-32).
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:10).
“When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery’” (Mark 10:10-12).
When God created marriage, the plan was that it would be for life. Yet we know this does not always happen. In these three portions of Scripture, Jesus is defining legitimate grounds for divorce. In this case, it is marital unfaithfulness or adultery. During the time of Jesus, there were two schools of thought in Jewish culture regarding reasons for divorce. One, which was very liberal, said you can divorce for whatever reason you wanted. The other was more conservative, limiting divorce to if a woman committed sexual immorality. It is important to note that in the Jewish culture, only men could initiate divorce. However, in Roman culture, women had the right to initiate divorce.
Clearly what we see is that adultery is a legitimate and acceptable reason in God’s eyes for divorce. In this case, divorce is not a sin but it is caused because of sin. Once you get past adultery, which is a pretty easy standard to judge by, it leads to another question. Is adultery the only grounds for divorce? In the church today when people divorce, many times it is not for reasons of adultery. What are some other grounds where divorce would be acceptable?
Are There Appropriate Times for Divorce?
Scripturally I believe there are two other grounds where divorce would be acceptable in God’s eyes. Those other two grounds are abandonment and abuse.
I would like to point your attention to a portion of Scripture.
“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
What Paul is clearly stating here is that marriages are designed to be for life. This does not mean there won’t be rough patches in the marriage, but to simplify what Paul is saying, he says to do your best to work it out. Even if there is a period of separation, this does not free you from the responsibility of marriage. Hopefully, the goal of the separation is to help lead to reconciliation. But what happens if the spouse leaves and has no desire to come back? Let’s continue in this same chapter.
“But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:15-16).
Here Paul is saying that if the unbelieving spouse abandons or leaves the marriage then the spouse who stays is not obligated to stay bound to their commitment to the marriage. They are free.
However, this causes me to ask a question. What if a believing spouse leaves the marriage, Is the remaining spouse still bound by the obligation of marriage? I would say in this instance that the remaining spouse is also no longer bound because it is not their fault that their spouse left the marriage. God does not hold us accountable for the actions of other people that are beyond our control. In this case for the spouse who leaves, I believe divorce is a sin, but for the spouse who stays it is not.
Abuse as Grounds for Biblical Divorce
The other grounds I believe where divorce is not a sin is when there is abuse of the other party. I am not a psychologist, but I know that abuse can be both physical and emotional. Neither one of these types of situations is healthy for the person on the receiving end of the abuse. I want to highlight a Scripture that is not often seen in the light of a marital relationship, but I think it makes the point.
“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
Please notice the type of person Paul is describing here. Imagine for a moment being married to a person who is boastful, proud, abusive, ungrateful, without love, unforgiving, without self-control, brutal, treacherous, who looks like a Christian on the outside but behind the scenes is a totally different person. This type of person would be impossible to live with. Notice what Paul says. “Have nothing to do with such people.”
The question to consider is would God tell you to not have anything to do with this type of person who is outside of your house but endure this type of person inside your house? I don’t believe God would require anyone to endure this. In this case, if this is the reality, then I don’t think divorce is a sin.
Can a Divorced Person Remarry?
Like the initial question we are answering, of whether divorce is a sin, with remarriage it depends. When considering this, you should ask what were the circumstances that led to the divorce. I think another question that is appropriate is not just can a divorced person remarry, but should a divorced person remarry? I believe that a person who has divorced, even for biblical reasons, should not rush into marriage again. They should allow some time for the scars to heal. This is just my opinion, there is not a rule or law that says this.
What happens though if you decide to divorce and you know it was not for biblical reasons? What should a person do in this situation?
1 – Reconcile
If this is still an option, meaning both parties are open to it and neither party has remarried, then this is something to explore. This may or may not be the best option and I would caution that those who decide to do this really examine the issues that led to the divorce in the first place.
2 – Repent
If your divorce was not for biblical reasons, then you can say that divorce is a sin. However, this is not an unpardonable sin, God does forgive. If you have repented and reconciliation is not a viable option, then I believe in this instance remarriage is possible.
As you can see, this is not a simple topic to discuss. There are lots of people who are wrestling with this question “Is divorce a sin?” Many have been scarred or bruised because of divorce, and some because of how they have been treated after the divorce.
I want to encourage you with one final thought. If you are divorced, your life is not over. God has neither forgotten nor forsaken you. Wherever you are, it’s time to pick up the pieces and know that you have a God who specializes in making beautiful things out of broken pieces. God still loves you. God still has a plan for you. It’s time to turn the page and start writing the next chapter.
Tips for Healing a Struggling Marriage
What do you do then if you are in a struggling marriage? To be clear I am not talking about an abusive marriage – that is an entirely different category which we spoke about earlier. There are no magic formulas in marriage, it takes 100 percent commitment from both parties. Here are some tips to consider if you are struggling.
1 – Remember why you fell in love in the first place.
If possible, either have a conversation or write down the things that caused you to fall in love with your spouse in the first place. Sometimes looking backwards helps us to remember the things that really matter.
2 – Grow together spiritually.
Many times, discord comes when people are in different places. This is especially true if one of you wants to get closer to God and the other is lukewarm or not interested in the idea. As best as you can, try to encourage growth together. But if the other spouse is reluctant, you keep growing. I would add this: sometimes in the zeal to get the other spouse moving towards the things of God, you begin to remind them of how much they need God. If Jesus is making the difference in your life, make sure it is shown in your behavior not just your words. This has a way of allowing the other spouse to see the change in you and that can be the thing that draws them.
3 – Do the things you did at first.
I am going to make this point very simple. Whatever you did to win the heart of your spouse, continue doing those things. Don’t take them for granted.
4 – Pray and commit.
You cannot survive a struggling relationship unless both parties are willing to work on it. Marriage is a two-way commitment, as all successful relationships are. If you are both committed then pray your way through these tough moments, but remember the commitment you have made to each other.
5 – Get help.
The last thing I would say is to get help. There is no shame in getting counseling from someone who is a professional. If you care about your spouse and you care about the marriage then the commitment must be to do everything you can to make it work. Sometimes that will require outside help.