God created the institution of marriage to be a permanent union. The promise “until death do us part” that couples traditionally vow to each other at the altar on their wedding day reflects the Bible’s teaching about the life-long commitment of the relationship. But when does marriage end?
Marriages end when one spouse dies or when a couple gets divorced. Romans 7:2 describes a person as “released” from marriage if their spouse dies. The Bible doesn’t use the term “released” to describe a divorced person, yet some argue that the same concept applies if there are appropriate grounds for divorce.
What are the grounds for release or divorce in Christianity? What do Christians generally agree about and sometimes disagree about regarding divorce? What does the Bible say about separation for married couples? What do Christians sometimes disagree about when it comes to remarriage after divorce? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also see Is Adultery An Unforgivable Sin? to learn more.
What are the grounds for release or divorce in Christianity?
Being released from marriage because a spouse dies isn’t considered “divorce” even though the marriage has ended. Regarding divorce, not all Christian traditions agree about what constitutes biblical grounds for it. There have been differing opinions on what exactly the Bible teaches on the matter since the early church. Some traditions have strict rules about divorce. Others are more lenient.
What do Christians generally agree on when it comes to marriage and divorce? Historically, Christians agree that the Bible teaches that God created the institution of marriage. The relationship is the foundation for the family in that it encourages monogamous intimacy and provides a healthy environment for raising children. Christians also agree that divorce falls short of God’s vision for marriage.
What do Christians sometimes disagree about regarding divorce?
Christian traditions don’t agree on what the appropriate grounds for divorce are.
Adultery: Some believe that adultery is the only appropriate grounds for divorce (e.g. Matt. 5:31-32, 19:9). In this sense, adultery is defined as intercourse as opposed to “emotional adultery” or other non-physical expressions. The prohibition against adultery is one of the 10 Commandments (Ex. 20:14). It breaks the vows of marriage, and divorce makes the rupture permanent.
- Matthew 19:9 reads, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (ESV)
It’s important to note that confession, repentance, and forgiveness are viable and laudable biblical options for marriages in which one spouse has committed adultery. Many Christian marriages survive adultery to become strong and holy relationships.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “Adultery is not the unforgivable sin… if you truly repent and realize the enormity of your sin and cast yourself upon the boundless love and mercy and grace of God, you can be forgiven and I assure you of pardon. But hear the words of our blessed Lord: ‘Go and sin no more.'”
Abandonment by an unbeliever: Others believe that in addition to adultery, divorce is allowed when a non-Christian spouse decides to leave the marriage (1 Cor. 7:15). While it’s possible that this situation is the result of one person abandoning the faith that they had when they got married, it’s more likely that this occurs when two non-Christians marry, then one later converts to Christianity, and the other decides to leave.
- 1 Corinthians 7:15 reads, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” (ESV)
Other grounds for divorce: A third viewpoint is that there are grounds for divorce besides adultery and the abandonment of an unbelieving spouse that Scripture doesn’t mention. People who hold this view argue that such grounds are based on the principles of Scripture, rather than on direct statements found in it. Poor money management and difficulty keeping a job are two examples of such grounds.
Also see Is There Anything Too Hard for God? to learn more.
What does the Bible say about separation?
The Bible doesn’t directly address the modern concept of separation, in which two people are legally married but live apart. Often, separation is the result of problems in a marriage and mimics divorce or is the first step toward it. Bible scholars and pastors don’t agree on whether or not a separation is an option for a Christian couple.
An example of a scholar who opposes the concept of separation: “The Word of God (does not) provide for (or) sanction separation apart from the dissolution of the marriage bond… But there is no such provision for mere separation. The divine institution is that those united in the bond of marriage are bound to the mutual discharge of all marital debts until the bond is severed by death or by dissolution on a proper ground.” (Divorce by John Murray, P&R Publishing, 1974, p. 104)
An example of a pastor who allows for a separation: “In general, separations should occur only as a last resort. But there are times when one’s life, children, or sanity are involved, and the seemingly prudent thing to do is to allow for a temporary separation with the hope expressed that the guilty party will repent of his/her actions and the marriage will be saved.” (Practical Wisdom for Pastors by Curtis Thomas, Crossway, 2001, p. 162.)
Also see Why Does God Allow Pain? to learn more.
What do Christians sometimes disagree about when it comes to remarriage after divorce?
Like not all Christian traditions agree about the grounds for divorce, they also don’t agree about remarriage after divorce. The debate revolves around whether or not a person (or both people) were previously divorced on biblically appropriate grounds and repentance. There are three common views:
- No remarriage is permitted: The strictest of the three views is that remarriage is never permitted after divorce. If Christians remarry after divorce it constitutes adultery (Matt. 5:32, see below).
- Remarriage is only permitted if a divorce occurred on biblical grounds: Depending on one’s view about the grounds for divorce (see above), if the marriage ending was the result of adultery or because of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse, them marrying a devoted Christian is permissible.
- Remarriage is allowed for any repentant person: The most lenient of the three views is that no matter what the reason was for getting divorced, confession, repentance, and forgiveness cleanses a person from all wrongdoing and frees them to remarry another person.
Also see Does God Bless Second Marriages? to learn more.
7 Bible verses about divorce
- Luke 16:18, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
- Matthew 5:31-32, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”
- Malachi 2:16, “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
- Romans 7:2, “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.”
- Matthew 19:6, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
- Genesis 2:4, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
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