With the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis also came the first marriage. There may not have been a long and elegant white dress or outlandish floral arrangements, but there was more to this event than outward appearances. Marriage goes far beyond the main wedding day event; it is something much deeper. In fact, Eve wasn’t even wearing a dress—she and Adam stood before God, naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:25).
What isn’t seen as the bride walks down the aisle or as the love-struck couple exchanges rings and vows is much grander than the special displays we see in todays weddings. This couple is standing before the Almighty God and making a very sacred and holy covenant to be united together until death parts them. There is nothing on this earth that can fully display the magnitude and depth of this covenant—not even the most elaborate wedding.
Shortly after that first wedding came sin, and with sin, eventually marital divorce entered into the world. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:14-16) but he does have allowance for it in some specific circumstances, which are laid out for us within scripture (Matthew 19:8). Though there are some allowances to divorce, it is important to also understand that both people involved are not always equally guilty, such as when one spouse commits adultery. We need to help protect our own marriage by not being the one who causes the separation. Regardless of the reason for divorce, even biblically permitted, divorce always brings anguish and consequences that all involved, including children, must journey through.
Divorce isn’t something to take lightly and pursue on a whim simply because you have grown weary of your spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Mark 10:11-12). Biblically permitted divorce is reserved only for those limited cases such as adultery, abuse, and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.
The veins of adultery spread wide and deep and are a severe violation of the marriage covenant. God speaks of his divorce of Israel and Judah on the basis of their unfaithfulness in Jeremiah 3:8, Isaiah 50:1, and Hosea 1:9. While adultery seems cut and dry, it is not limited to mere intimate relations of intercourse outside of the marriage covenant, but also includes when a spouse participates in an emotional affair but not intercourse. Adultery is within the broad spectrum of behaviors characterized as sexual immorality, including atrocious sexual sins, homosexual acts, and fornication. These sexual acts are not limited to intercourse and all fall within the parameter of adultery, such as when a spouse participates in pornography and is unrepentant. It is imperative to understand that a sin that has been fully forgiven (a truly repentant spouse), can no longer be used as a foundation for adultery (Ephesians 4:32, Jeremiah 31:34, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).
When an unbelieving spouse abandons their partner, a divorce is then permitted (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). However, divorce is not allowed if the unbelieving spouse would like to remain in the marriage; you cannot divorce your spouse simply for being an unbeliever. Also, it is forbidden for a believer to marry an unbeliever, (1 Corinthians 7:39) so in the instance of abandonment by an unbeliever, it is assumed that the spouse thought their partner was a believer at the time of their marriage. This also applies when two unbelievers are married and one is saved during the marriage. It is not okay for the believing spouse to try to drive the unbelieving spouse away. When an unbeliever abandons their spouse, the believing spouse is then free to remarry. Abandonment is not restricted to only physically leaving, but broadening the meaning of abandonment can lead down a path of justifying an unbiblical divorce. A spouse that functions more as a roommate than an intimately (emotionally and sexually) engaged spouse with an unrepentant and hard heart would fall under the abandonment classification.
While there is not a designated section or verses within scripture for allowing divorce for those who are abused, I believe it is important to address this specifically as so many choose to stay in an abusive marriage on this basis. To disregard abuse as a biblical reason to divorce on the basis that the word “abuse” isn’t used is a misunderstanding of scripture. Too often it is incorrectly taught that a spouse should endure an abusive marriage and are not permitted to divorce. Abuse absolutely does fall within the permitted reasons to divorce when the abuse is from an unrepentant spouse as Matthew 19:8-9 indicates by addressing the hardness of heart and 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 which discusses the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. There is a broad spectrum of ways in which a spouse can be abused and is certainly not limited to physical (hitting, punching, beating) abuse alone, but also includes emotional, spiritual, verbal, and sexual abuse. Like abandonment, it’s imperative that great care be taken when attaching the abuse label to a spouse so as to not allow an unjust divorce to occur.
While there are reasons permissible in scripture to divorce, God does not require a divorce. In fact, when the spouse is repentant, restoration of the marriage relationship should be the goal. While restoration certainly isn’t painless and can take time, we are free to forgive and restore (Ephesians 4:31-32). We see examples of this in scripture when we look at the story of Hosea and Gomer (Hosea 1:2-3, 3:1-3).
Further Recommended Reading: John Frame, Divorce