In looking at the Old Testament law, divorce was allowed and not specifically called a sin. However, God does say He hates divorce and that alone should give us pause and reason to be careful in how we deal with this topic.
With this in mind, we would like to share some thoughts about the marriage covenant, what breaks the marriage covenant, and some thoughts on God’s heart about marriage and divorce. This is not the be-all, end-all article about divorce, just a starting point for consideration and discussion.
First, we need to understand that marriage is a covenant, not a contract. A contract can have loopholes, can be broken by mutual agreement, and usually expires or must be renewed after a specified time. A covenant is very different. It is intended to continue as long as those who have entered into it are alive, it cannot be broken by mutual agreement, and there are no loopholes.
Back in the day, violating the terms of a covenant resulted in death (thankfully we now live under grace). This was the punishment for adultery (for men and women) given to the Jews by God. The death of the one who had broken the covenant left no doubt that the covenant had ended and the person who was still alive was no longer bound by the covenant.
Part of the confusion for those of us in Western societies is that we have a legal marriage contract in addition to a spiritual marriage covenant. God is not bound by our human laws and how the law views a couple may not reflect how God views them. If the covenant has been broken, then a divorce decree is merely a legal representation of a spiritual reality that has already occurred. However, if the covenant has not been broken, then a divorce decree does not change the fact that God sees the couple as married.
Jesus said that sexual sin breaks a covenant. In Matthew 19:9 Jesus says “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.” The Greek word translated as sexual immorality there is porneia. Other versions translate this as “fornication” “immorality” “unfaithfulness” “whoredom” “lewdness” “loss of her virtue” and “unchastity”; but none of these gives the full meaning of the Greek word.
Porneia originally referred to prostitution, but the word was used by Christians of the first century to cover all sexual sin. In Matthew 15:19 Jesus is giving a list of sins which come from the heart, and that list includes both the Greek word for adultery (moicheia) and porneia. The Apostle Paul likewise uses both words in his list of “works of the flesh” found in Galatians 5:19. Porneia can include adultery, but it obviously means much more. In Acts 15:29 when the Jews are giving a list of things that the Gentiles should avoid, porneia is among them. This was not simply a command against fornication or adultery, but a warning against all sexual sin.
In 1 Corinthians 7:15 Paul seems to indicate that abandonment by an unbelieving spouse breaks the covenant.
Beyond sexual sin and abandonment, there are no scriptures which specifically address breaking the marriage covenant, so we have to reason a bit.
When a covenant is made, the terms and promises of the covenant are stated. What is the couple promising when they marry? They promise to care for each other and show each other respect. The husband promises to provide for his wife and for their children – this includes not only providing for physical needs, but also for mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Likewise, the wife promises to meet her husband’s needs. Marriage also includes a promise of sexual fidelity. This is not just a promise to not have sex elsewhere but is also a promise to have sex within the marriage.
It could seem that violating any of those promises in any way could be a case of breaking the covenant. Dr. Laura gives the “4 A’s” of divorce as adultery, abuse, addiction, abandonment. Certainly, each of these can be a serious sin and a very real danger to the spouse and any children. In some situations, such sins would break the covenant.
There is another covenant breaker which is seldom mentioned, and rather controversial. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul tells us that it is a sin to refuse our spouse sexually. In the Old Testament men are specifically commanded to meet their wives’ sexual needs (as well as provide her with clothes and food), and in Jewish civil law sexual refusal was a valid reason for divorce and remarriage even if the couple had children. It seems to us that the word porneia includes sexual refusal and as such forced abstinence could be a valid reason for divorce according to Jesus. What we are talking about here is not a difference of sex drive which results in one spouse saying “no” on occasion, but to an ongoing rejection of sex which results in little or no sex.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul makes it clear that many do not have the ability to resist sexual sin without a spouse to meet their sexual needs. In 1 Timothy 5:11 Paul says that widows under the age of 60 should not make a pledge of celibacy because they will become so sexually desirous that they will set aside their commitment. Based on these things, we begin to understand why divorce for forced sexual abstinence would be allowed.
Of course, there needs to be a real effort to work on sexual issues, and the person who is being refused needs to make sure that s/he is not doing things that make it difficult or impossible for their spouse to be sexual with them. Demanding the inclusion of porn or fetishes in the marriage bed would rightly bring sexual refusal. Emotional rejection, extreme manipulation, and open disrespect will also lead to a situation where it’s impossible to want or enjoy sex.
We have to maintain perspective. None of us are perfect, and we all fail at least in small ways from time to time. This is where the heart issue comes in – is the failure part of a pattern of willingly violating the marriage or is it an occasional sin due to human weakness and selfishness? Is it the result of a hard heart or of being a fallen person? Sin does not necessarily indicate a hard heart. King David committed both adultery and murder but was still said to have a heart after God. He sinned greatly, but his heart was not hard. If a man commits adultery but is truly repentant, he does not have a hard heart. If his wife refuses to forgive him and seeks a divorce then is it actually she who has the hard heart?
Jesus told the Pharisees that Moses allowed divorce “for any reason” because of the hardness of the people’s hearts, but this was not how God wanted it. It seems to us that all divorce is caused by the hard heart of the husband, the wife, or both. Hard-heartedness is certainly a sin and anyone thinking about divorce needs to be sure that it’s not because their heart is hard.
Is divorce ever allowed? Some say it is never allowed, others seem to think it’s allowed for just about any reason. We think both of these extremes are unbiblical. Jesus clearly gave some situations where divorce was allowed and Paul seems to have added to the list.
Does a breaking of the covenant require divorce? Does it make divorce the right or best choice? Each case is different, but God always desires to restore relationships, not end them. Anyone who jumps at the first “technical opportunity” to divorce is showing their heart is not in line with God’s. When the covenant has been broken divorce is allowed, but it is neither required nor necessarily right with God. If the spouse who has sinned is serious about repenting and working on the relationship, then a godly, soft-hearted response would be to give them a chance.
If the spouse who has sinned is unrepentant, openly defiant, or commits the sin over and over, then divorce may be something to consider. It’s still not a requirement, but it may no longer be a violation of God’s will. In this situation, the wronged person must prayerfully seek the Lord’s will. A number of things will play into this, including if the couple has children and the ability of the wronged spouse to continue in the face of ongoing sin.
Is there ever a situation where divorce is required? If the spouse or children are in real danger of physical, sexual, or significant emotional abuse, then getting away from the abuser is required. Because of the laws (more so in some states than others) a divorce may be required to obtain legal protection. It would also seem to us that the Lord is not honored by a marriage where one person is grossly, continually, and openly violating the covenant. In such a situation divorce might actually be required to honor the idea of marriage.
One caveat on all of this – it is unreasonable to use something which was known before marriage as a reason to divorce. If you were saved and your spouse was not, you choose an unequally-yoked relationship. If he was open about his porn use or she about her hatred of sex, and there was no indication that the problem would be worked on, you agreed to live with it.
If there seems to be a situation where divorce would be allowed, then what? Unless there is a very real danger to spouse or children, just moving out and filing for divorce is not the way to go. Some folks put up with something for years, never really clearly communicating how important it is to them, and then divorce seemingly without warning. Confrontation is no fun, but doing it God’s way requires us to clearly inform our spouse of the situation as we see it and communicate what we feel needs to be done to fix it. Say it more than once and say it in front of or through others. If this does not work, then it’s time for an ultimatum – just be sure you are ready to follow through if your spouse makes no move to change or get help. If all of that fails and you feel divorce is not wrong for you, move out and see if that gets your spouse’s attention. More than one marriage has been saved only after a separation and/or filing for divorce.
Even if divorce is allowed, even if it would not be out of a hard heart on the part of the one seeking the divorce, there is a blessing in trying to make the marriage work. If the sinning spouse seems unlikely to ever change, can the wronged spouse cope with this as an ongoing situation? Can the person live with a lack of respect or a lack of emotional intimacy? Can the man or woman who is refused sex control their sex drive and can they live with their spouse without anger?
Finally, what about remarriage? Jesus said that in the case of sexual sin divorce could be followed by remarriage. Paul seems to indicate the same thing for divorce resulting from an unbeliever leaving a believer. These are the situations where remarriage is biblically-approved, but does this mean there are no others? In theory, any breaking of the covenant could allow for remarriage. On the other hand, it is clear from what Jesus said that remarriage is sin if divorce comes without the covenant being broken.
Divorce is a serious problem in today’s church and one which needs to be discussed and studied more than it has been in the past. We need to consider the causes of the behaviors which commonly cause divorce and we need to address these problems from the pulpit. We also need to think in preventive ways: help those who are thinking about marriage understand how serious a decision they are making, and offer more to help ensure that couples are ready for marriage. We also need to be more proactive in helping those with small marital problems before they become major problems.
It is our prayer that this article will help Christians to think through these issues and more importantly to get them to dig into the Word of God and find His truth.
The Marriage Covenant: A Biblical Study on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage by Samuele Bacchiocchi
Down But Not Out by Al Maxey