What Are Biblical Reasons for Divorce?

Marriage is a sacred and serious union. But God loves the individual more than he loves the institution; the individual who was “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) by the Lord Himself, in His image.

Broken wedding rings on divorce papers

“Christians and members of other religions have lower divorce rates, about 42% than do the religiously unaffiliated, about 50%.” Moreover, according to a study by sociologist Bradley R.E. Wright, “For evangelicals, regular attendance at religious services makes a big impact on the divorce rate.”

Marriages between Christians are statistically more likely to survive than other marriages, but divorce still affects Christians. There are also times when distortions of Scripture cause people to endure in biblically unsound unions out of a desire to be obedient to the Lord.

At the same time, certain individuals will use Scripture to justify unrighteous behavior towards a spouse who could, on biblical grounds, seek divorce.

The Three Main Reasons

A general search on the topic of biblically grounded divorce yields a trifecta of “As:” abuse, adultery, abandonment. If one’s spouse has been violent, has been fooling around sexually, or has simply left the marriage, and is unrepentant/unwilling to see a counselor, the other party has a good reason to file for divorce.

Society generally thinks of hitting, punching, burning with cigarettes, etc. as “abuse,” but there are other forms, which include emotional manipulation, control, even emotional violence.

These methods are sometimes subtle — yelling and name-calling are obvious ways to hurt someone emotionally, but one can also control food and money, isolate a spouse from friends and family, give his or her spouse the silent treatment, or undermine her authority with the children. He can call her pet names or refuse to name her at all.

She can leave the room when her husband disagrees or “jokingly” insult him in front of others. There are many unexpected methods of chipping away at a sense of worth and security in the marriage. Adultery takes multiple forms also. There is the obvious “sleeping around” with multiple partners or prostitutes. One might engage in a long-term affair or outright bigamy.

Emotional adultery involves engagement in a profound friendship, which does not become physical, but in which the spouse is more emotionally invested with a friend than with his or her spouse. Adultery can also involve the use of pornography or “sexting.”

Finally, abandonment is not straightforward either. There is a physical abandonment in which one party literally leaves the other. With emotional abandonment, one spouse stops communicating with the other. They could live in the same house and yet feel completely separate. Clearly, there is overlap between some categories.

A husband engaging in an emotional affair with a co-worker; who is grumpy whenever his wife is around but lights up when he talks to other people on the phone; a man who unrepentantly neglects his wife and leaves the room when she tries to raise their issues: he has abandoned her, abused her and committed adultery simultaneously.

Biblical Sources for Reasoning

Pastors and Christian counselors derive grounds to justify divorce under some circumstances directly from Scripture itself. Matthew 19:9 mentions sexual sin as grounds for divorce. Also, “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (1 Corinthians 7:15).

Being unequally yoked is not grounds for the Christian to seek divorce, but if tension grows because of this disparity, a Christian does not need to be ashamed if the unbeliever walks out. And while Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek against our enemies, he did not suggest that we seek out harm gratuitously.

Dr. Craigh Keener asserts we should not be too keen to talk about divorce. Yet, “some people are too ready to grasp for that point; others wait much longer than they should. Jesus told those persecuted for his name to flee from one city to another to escape persecution (Matthew 10:23), and sometimes the apostles did so (Acts 14:5–6). It is heartless to make someone remain in an abusive situation” (Ibid.).

When a person’s mental state is battered by abandonment or emotional abuse to the point of mental or physical health complications, the same principle applies. “It is heartless to make someone remain in an abusive situation” whether the issue is physical battering or emotional battering; starving a spouse of food and medication or starving that person of affection.

Indirect consequences are as serious as the direct ones, perhaps more so because it’s so much harder to recognize than a bruise or a burn mark. Simon M. Scully explains, “It can be subtle, covert, and manipulative. It chips away at the victim’s self-esteem, and they begin to doubt their perceptions and reality.”

Biblical provisions for divorce have been interpreted by multiple scholars, including Dr. Beth Felker Jones, as addressing “any violation of God’s intentions for lasting, faithful ‘one flesh’ union,” which includes adultery, but also “violence or abuse against one’s spouse because to abuse one’s spouse is also to violate that one flesh union” (Ibid.).

Leslie Vernick cites 1 Corinthians 5:9–12, James 5:19–20, and Galatians 6:7 when she says, “A serious sin issue, a serious breach of the marital bond, a serious trust breakdown” might reasonably lead to divorce if “there is no repentance or willingness to look at that and how that’s affected the marital bond and the bond of trust.”

She calls this “chronic hardness of heart,” which can be any of the sin issues mentioned so far, but also others such as addiction (to food, drink, drugs, exercise, work), frequent overspending, or refusing to face a mental health issue, which is clearly hurting others.

The Hope of Reconciliation

All of the experts above note that the Bible promotes forgiveness and working to restore a marriage, even the union in which one partner has been violent. If he or she repents, receives counseling, and stops harming the other person, forgiveness could lead to a reunion if the assaulted spouse feels safe.

The ideal is separation first, with counseling and perhaps mentorship involving a more mature Christian couple. Sabrina Beasley McDonald writes, “Mentoring isn’t about having a perfect marriage. No one’s marriage is perfect because none of us is perfect. But there is a difference in a marriage that is growing and one that is not.”

Marriage mentoring programs have helped couples nearing divorce to rebuild their unions by demonstrating how to live out the biblical ideals of marriage in imperfect but grace-filled ways. Reconciliation requires the commitment of two parties, just as marriage requires two people to invest in each other.

Each person is a sinner who will make mistakes, and each one needs to be willing to face up to deliberate (sinful) mistakes or unintentional mistakes or quirks, which bother the other one. If one person will work at this union and the other will not, then the marriage might come to an end.

Should a Christian Stay in an Unhealthy Marriage?

Personal stories about staying in a marriage despite adultery, abandonment, or abuse sometimes suggest that the long-suffering partner is better, more faithful, and obedient to God than someone who chooses divorce. They doggedly argue that women should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22).

Husbands persevere, like Hosea, with unfaithful wives. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). Christians should definitely take marriage seriously as a union in which man and woman make “one flesh” (Mark 10:8).

But personal sin hurts the offender too. It separates the sinner from God and can lead to the ultimate, unforgivable sin of apostasy. Even if this individual is not parted from God for eternity, he or she experiences chaos while also creating chaos in the heart, mind, and body of at least one other person.

If this individual was addicted to cocaine, intervention would be an act of kindness. In such a case, a spouse would present an ultimatum for the good of the other person: enter rehab or leave the home. Failing to confront an abuser would be like ignoring an addict’s substance abuse for fear of being unloving, or of being accused of merciless legalism.

In reality, when someone has been given many opportunities to see the sin and get help, an ultimatum sends an appropriate and loving message: there are manifold consequences for sin. In fact, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

Intervention is best undertaken with godly support, preferably from an experienced, compassionate, and discerning biblical counselor and many wise friends. This is for one’s own safety, but also to measure the potential efficacy of such a plan and possibly to readjust with help and expertise.

Enabling abuse, staying with an abuser, is not more godly. In fact, it is possibly a prideful choice, which does not honor marriage or God, especially if he flings the doors wide open only for the abused party to ignore them.

God Hates Divorce — But He Loves You

Laura Petherbridge insightfully explained, “God knows that divorce deeply wounds and attempts to destroy his precious Beloved. Divorce endeavors to steal, kill, and destroy God’s creation. Divorce tried to assassinate me. That’s why God hates divorce.”

Marriage represents the union between Christ and his bride, the Church. But abuse distorts and sullies this picture. God does not like a hasty, thoughtless, selfish divorce for superficial and selfish reasons.

Marriage is a sacred and serious union. But God loves the individual more than he loves the institution; the individual who was “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) by the Lord Himself, in His image.

The most important relationship in the life of a Christian is his or her relationship with the Father. No spouse is perfect, but the Lord does not condone one person denying or demeaning the Imago Dei each person was made with.

For further reading:

What Is the Biblical Definition of Marriage?

Is it True ‘What God Has Joined Let No One Separate’?

What Does it Mean to Be Unequally Yoked in Marriage?

How Can I Pray for My Marriage?

What Is Adultery?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/djedzura


Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.