The Divine Permission

While God desires that a husband and wife stay together until death, He permits divorce in some circumstances. Three Bible passages give us His guidelines on this matter. They are: Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Matthew 19:1-10, and 1 Corinthians 7:10-16. We will study each passage, taking into consideration the historical situation, the permission given, and the restriction imposed.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4

When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

In this passage, Moses declared that after a man had divorced his wife because he had found “some uncleanness” in her and both had entered new marriages, they could not dissolve the new marriages and marry each other a second time. Men apparently were already divorcing their wives for “some uncleanness.” We don’t know when Moses began allowing such divorce, but that he had done so previous to the writing of Deuteronomy 24 is clear. Jesus, some 1,500 years later, told a group of Jewish leaders, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives” (Mt. 19:8).

The Historical Situation. At the time of Moses and throughout the Old Testament era, a man became the master of the woman he married. This was true in all the cultures of the time, even among the Israelites. A wife was a husband’s possession in a manner similar to his property, his animals, and his slaves (Ex. 20:17). Jewish law did not permit a woman to initiate a divorce. She could remarry only if given a certificate of divorce. Any promise she made could be overruled by her husband (Num. 30:4-16). The husband could have his bride stoned if on the wedding night he discovered that she was not a virgin (Dt. 22:13-21). The society in Israel was definitely patriarchal like that of neighboring nations.

God, however, did not permit men unlimited power over their wives. They could not sell a wife into slavery, like neighboring nations could— not even if she were a war prisoner who had been made a secondary wife (Dt. 21:10-14). The children were commanded to honor the mother as well as the father (Ex. 20:12). A man could not humiliate his wife by marrying a sister as a rival (Lev. 18:18). The Lord gave these laws as a merciful provision for women in a maledominated society. Through these regulations, God showed the men in Israel that their wives were to be viewed as people, not merely as property.

The Permission Given. Because of the hardness of men’s hearts, Moses allowed divorce (Mt. 19:8). In the process, however, God provided guidelines. A man had to obtain a certificate of divorce and give it to the unwanted wife. When he did take such action, the divorce certificate would show that the woman had been legally released from marriage and that she was now free to marry another.

Moses permitted such action if a man found some uncleanness in his wife. The exact meaning of the expression “uncleanness” is not clear. It is a word that was almost always translated “nakedness” by the King James translators. An exception is when the word was used to describe an “unclean camp” in which human excrement had not been properly buried (Dt. 23:14). In some cases, as in Leviticus 18 and 20, the word was linked to specific instances of family sexual abuse. Given this usage, it’s possible that if a man suspected his wife had been sexually molested by a family member prior to marriage, he could give her a certificate of divorce. Such an allowance might seem unmerciful. But keep in mind that this stipulation was granted because of “hardness of heart” circumstances. If a man could not deal with something that caused his wife to be despised in his eyes, the law allowed for her to be freed rather than to be subject to his contempt.

We know that Moses was not allowing divorce just in instances of adultery, because adultery was an offense punishable by death (Dt. 22:22). The “uncleanness,” therefore, must have referred originally to conduct on the part of the wife that the husband deemed shameful or offensive, but not limited to physical adultery. We have no knowledge of how this was interpreted during Israel’s early history.

At the time of Christ, Jewish rabbis disagreed about what Moses meant by the expression “some uncleanness.” The followers of Rabbi Shammai limited this term to some kind of sexual impropriety (not necessarily adultery). The followers of Rabbi Hillel (the vast majority) gave it almost unlimited latitude— even making minor offenses like burning food a legitimate basis for divorce.

The Restriction Imposed. The focus of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is the following restriction: Once the divorced pair had married new mates, they could never marry each other again. The reason for this restriction is difficult to determine. One widely accepted explanation is that it would make a husband think carefully before divorcing his wife and marrying another woman.

In summary, while we have no record of the occasion when God led Moses to make it possible for the men in Israel to divorce their wives, Jesus made it clear that it happened. He declared that God did this “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Mt. 19:8). Callous-hearted men would perpetrate greater evils against wives who were despised in their eyes if divorce were not an option. As noted earlier, God had already forbidden the sale of a wife into slavery. But a hard-hearted man in a male-dominated society could find many other ways to make life difficult for a wife he no longer wanted to support. He could vex her by marrying and lavishing all his attention on a second wife. He could burden her with too much work while openly resenting her continued presence.

I believe it was God’s tender concern for women that led Him to permit divorce in Israel.

Matthew 19:1-10

Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there. The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

This is the second key passage on the divorce issue. It expresses our Lord’s teaching on this subject more fully than any other Gospel passage.

The Historical Situation. As noted earlier, the religious leaders among the Jews disagreed sharply on the divorce issue. The followers of Rabbi Shammai were far more strict than the followers of Rabbi Hillel. The enemies of Jesus asked Him, “Can a man divorce his wife for any reason?” hoping they could force Him into giving an answer that would put Him at odds with one group or the other. Jesus didn’t fall into their trap. He corrected their statement that Moses commanded men to divorce their wives by reminding them that Moses permitted divorce because of the hard hearts of the men. He also called them back to God’s ideal before making a pronouncement that agreed with the teaching of neither of the prominent rabbinical schools.

The Permission Given. Jesus said that divorce is wrong “except for sexual immorality.” The Greek word He used was porneia, a term covering a wide range of sexual sins. When used in a sentence alongside moicheia (adultery), it denoted a sexual sin involving at least one unmarried person or a perverted form of sexual behavior. The feminine form of this word porne means “prostitute.” The masculine pornos denoted either a man who was promiscuous or who engaged in perverted sexual behavior. On rare occasions, when specified by the context, it referred to a marriage of close relatives. Therefore, all the modern versions render the word porneia here as either “unchastity,” “unfaithfulness,” or “sexual immorality.”

In sanctioning divorce for sexual immorality, Jesus also permitted remarriage for people thus divorced. A careful study of the Bible passages dealing with divorce makes clear a principle that we can apply: Whenever a divorce occurs on grounds God has declared valid, that divorce carries with it the right of remarriage.

We can express this principle with confidence on the basis of the historical situation into which Jesus spoke these words and on the grammar of the words themselves.

First, let’s place ourselves in the shoes of those to whom Jesus spoke. The Jews in His audience, whether followers of Hillel or Shammai, agreed that legally divorced people had the right to marry new mates. As far as we know, no Jewish teachers of that time differed on this point. We can therefore assume that the people Jesus addressed had never heard of a divorce that did not carry with it the right to remarry. The divorce regulations mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 completely dissolved prior marital commitments. The only prohibition was that a divorced couple not remarry each other after marrying and divorcing new mates.

The second basis for our conviction that a Godpermitted divorce carries with it the right to remarry is found in the very words recorded in Matthew 19:9, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The phrase “except for sexual immorality” appears in the middle of the sentence. But the meaning would be the same if it appeared at the beginning of the sentence. “Except for sexual immorality, whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” It would be the same if it read, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, except for sexual immorality.” An exceptive clause grammatically applies to the whole sentence, whether it appears at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end.

The idea that God permitted divorce for sexual immorality but forbade remarriage arose in the post-apostolic era when some of the Church Fathers began to view human sexuality as a necessary evil and exalted celibacy as the most God-honoring lifestyle. Not only did they discourage marriage, they forbade remarriage either after a divorce or the death of a spouse.

We conclude, therefore, that Jesus permitted divorce on grounds of sexual immorality, and that this divorce assumed the right of remarriage.

The Restriction Imposed. The words of Jesus, “except for sexual immorality,” express a restriction as well as a permission. If a person obtains a divorce on grounds other than sexual immorality and remarries, he commits adultery. The Lord’s use of the word moicheia rather than porneia is significant. Moicheia focuses on the broken marriage covenant. When two people whose divorces were not valid in God’s sight come together in the sexual union of marriage, they break their former marriage covenant. But this is not a continuing state. From this point on they are husband and wife.

God considers two people as married when they have met the civil requirements. This is true even when their divorces were not valid in God’s sight. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that she had five husbands before her present live-in arrangement (Jn. 4:17-18). It is unlikely that she was widowed five times. We can therefore assume that at least a couple of her marriages followed a divorce. Jesus still recognized each man she married as a husband.

In 1 Corinthians 7:20 Paul urged first-century believers to do their best to remain in the marriage they had when they were converted. The people he addressed must have included some who had married new mates after divorces obtained on trivial grounds. If these people were living in perpetual adultery, we can assume that Paul would have told them to separate immediately.

This leads us to the conclusion that when two people marry after a divorce on grounds less than specified by Jesus and Paul, they sin against the covenant they made in the previous marriage. But this occurs only once. Their first sexual union breaks the former bond. The new marriage covenant is now in effect. This fact, however, should not be taken as weakening the force of Christ’s restriction. Deliberate disobedience is always a serious matter. Believers who truly love the Lord will not lightly ignore or disobey Him.

1 Corinthians 7:10-16

Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: 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?

Apart from a passing comment in Romans 7, these few verses contain everything Paul wrote about divorce. Some critics say that in the process he contradicted Jesus’ stipulation that the only basis for divorce was sexual immorality. But a careful consideration of the historical circumstances makes it clear that Paul was faithful to Jesus’ words on this matter.

The Historical Situation. When Jesus made His statements about divorce, He addressed Jewish people living under the Mosaic law. But Paul addressed believers, both Jews and Gentiles, on this side of Calvary and the empty tomb. Many of these Gentile believers undoubtedly came out of a paganism that was morally decadent. Its worship involved temple prostitution and sexual orgies. The city of Corinth itself was known far and wide as a center of sexual indulgence and other forms of immorality.

The pagans who became Christians often needed to be reminded of God’s moral standards. Then too, some of those who had become believers were living with a mate who had not become a Christian. Apparently, a number of the non-Christian spouses were content to allow the marriage to remain intact. Other nonbelievers, however, wanted the mate either to renounce Christ or to end the marriage.

Paul was concerned that fellow believers be as unencumbered as possible from the normal cares of life so they could serve Christ freely in the difficult days that were ahead. Therefore, in chapter 7 of his first epistle to the Corinthians he gave inspired advice and instruction about singleness, marriage, divorce, and remarriage. We will consider only the verses that deal directly with the divorce and remarriage problems.

The Permission Given. Paul advised single people to remain single, and married people to remain with their present mate. However, he declared that the unmarried would not sin by marrying a believer. He also said that a Christian married to a non-Christian who wanted out of the marriage would not sin by allowing the unbeliever to obtain a divorce.

But if the unbeliever departs [the word Paul used here was an official term for divorce on the certificate of that day], let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases (1 Cor. 7:15).

The fact that Paul made the desertion of a believer by an unbeliever grounds for divorce, while Jesus gave the only valid reason as “sexual immorality,” does not put him into conflict with his Master. He was addressing a different situation—a mixed marriage. Jesus, addressing Jews under the law, had in mind marriages between Jews—marriages within the covenant community. Paul confronted a different problem—marriages between believers and nonbelievers.

God through the apostle Paul mandated that a believer does not sin by allowing a divorce when the unbeliever wants out. A divorce in such circumstances is therefore valid. God sees the marriage as ended. Therefore, the believer thus divorced has the right to remarry.

From the words of Jesus in Matthew 19 and from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:15, we have found only two grounds upon which God sanctions divorce: sexual immorality and the desertion of a believer by an unbeliever. This raises the question, “Is divorce wrong under all other circumstances? What about abuse? Must a woman continue to live with a man who is beating her and sexually abusing her?

There is no verse in the Bible specifically stating that a woman in an abusive marriage has a right to obtain a divorce. Nor is there any mention of a legal separation. Many pastors and other Christian leaders have gone through great emotional and mental turmoil when confronted with extreme cruelty situations. I know I have. And in my searching of the Scriptures, I have found a principle that I believe we can apply in such situations. It has permitted me to advise some women to seek a divorce even when the husband was a professing Christian and free from sexual immorality. Let me explain.

God in His compassion sometimes allows His people to set aside strict conformity to certain rules He has given. He did this on one occasion when David and his men were hungry. He allowed them to eat consecrated bread in the tabernacle—bread which He had declared holy (1 Sam. 21:1-6).

God also did this with His Sabbath rules. He had commanded the Israelites to keep the seventh day as a day of absolute rest— even for domestic animals (Ex. 20:8-11). He forbade the kindling of a fire to cook food (Ex. 35:1-3). The importance of these rules was seen when He ordered that a man be stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36). It was to be a day of absolute rest!

Yet Jesus healed on the Sabbath. When rebuked by His adversaries, He reminded them that even a legalistic Jew worked to free an animal that had fallen into a pit (Mt. 12:9-13). The strong “no work” regulation could be set aside when an animal needed help or a person needed healing. The Bible doesn’t say this explicitly, but the Jews knew it to be true. The Lord Jesus expressed this fact when He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27).

Let’s apply this principle to God’s regulations about divorce. Why did God give men permission to divorce their wives? Jesus answered this question when He told His critics, “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Mt. 19:8). God had declared that a man should cleave to his wife in a one-flesh relationship (Gen. 2:24). He never rescinded this rule. Yet He permitted men to divorce their wives. Why? The only logical reason I can think of is that He did so to protect the wives of hard-hearted men. If a man didn’t want a woman as a wife any longer, he couldn’t just discard her, he had to give her a certificate of divorce. This would give her the freedom to marry another man.

The Old Testament divorce laws were a merciful provision. God hated divorce then just as He does now. But He preferred divorce to the abuse of wives and mothers.

Divorce is often a terrible evil, but in some situations it represents a wise and loving course of action. Ezra insisted that Israelite men put away their pagan wives and children (Ezra 10:10- 19). God Himself divorced the northern tribes of Israel (Jer. 3:8). He took such action only after enduring their prolonged spiritual unfaithfulness which He compared to sexual unfaithfulness.

Since divorce is not always wrong, it is not like lying, stealing, coveting, or sexual immorality. These other actions are always wrong. God can never approve of them. But divorce is not always a sin. It is always caused by sin, but is not an act of disobedience when permitted by God.

Believers are not necessarily sinning when they divorce a spouse who through sexual sin has shattered the exclusive commitment of the marriage covenant. In fact, a woman who is married to a physically abusive husband may not be sinning when, with the encouragement of her spiritual counselors, she seeks divorce action—even if her husband is not guilty of sexual immorality. If such a wife has given careful consideration to the name and reputation of Christ, if she has sought to fulfill the requirements of love, and if she has followed the biblical procedures for confronting a sinning brother (Mt. 18:15- 17), then she may have reason to seek divorce action against someone who is no longer being treated by the church as a brother.

As noted earlier, Jesus taught that sometimes the spirit of the law allows specific legal requirements to be overridden (Mt. 12:1-13). By His own example, Jesus allowed His hungry disciples to pick and eat grain on the Sabbath, just as He also took the opportunity to heal a man with a crippled hand on a day when no work was to be done.

I believe the apostle Paul could have had this same spirit of the law in mind when he wrote:

Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

Notice that after commanding the Christian wife not to divorce her husband, the apostle inserted, “But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.” Why didn’t he just tell both husbands and wives to refrain from divorcing one another without inserting “but even if she does”? I believe that Paul may have been making a compassionate provision for an abused woman.

I have encountered situations in which I could not in good conscience tell a woman to remain with her husband. One man quit beating his wife after she called the civil authorities and had him arrested for assault. But he would push her, put a knife to her throat, or point a gun at her in front of their terrified children. After much effort at getting him to change was unsuccessful, and after the psychological damage to the children became obvious, I encouraged her to obtain a divorce. The man, to avoid child support, left for places unknown. To this day she doesn’t know where he is. Paul could have had such situations in mind.

The Restriction Imposed. Paul told the woman who obtained a divorce on grounds other than sexual immorality that she was to “remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.” Such a divorce is not as complete a severing of the marriage bond as one where a mate has been guilty of sexual immorality or where an unbeliever refuses to continue living with a believer. To enter a new marriage while the possibility of reconciliation is still open is to commit adultery, as specified in Matthew 19:9. It seems logical to assume that once one of the parties makes remarriage impossible by entering a new union, the other party is released from this requirement just as if the former mate had died.

I realize that there is an element of subjectivity in determining when principles of wisdom and love call for a divorce under such conditions. But we make such decisions all the time in all areas of life.

What’s important is that our personal judgment be guided by the right principles. Any exception to the “law” should be considered only in light of the most basic principles of Scripture. We cannot be justified in a divorce action if we have not first considered what effect our actions will have on the name and reputation of the One whose name we bear. Is this action being taken to please the Lord? (1 Cor. 7:29-35). Is the motive for the action godly? Is the action being considered only for a person’s own self-protection, or also for the good of the sinning mate? (1 Cor. 13:1- 3). Has the sinned-against spouse sought safety in the advice of wise counselors? (Prov. 11:14). Has the one considering divorce carefully weighed the implications of two Christians pleading their dispute before a civil judge or jury? (1 Cor. 6:1-7). Is divorce a last-resort action taken with the support of wise counsel, when the other party can no longer be treated as a follower of Christ? All of this and more is necessary to assure that persons who are taking exception to their marriage vows, and to the binding law of marriage, are doing so according to the proper biblical procedure.