Divorce and the Christian

When a marriage goes wrong the believer is encouraged to trust God for a miracle. But what if no miracle appears and abuse or neglect has become the norm?

Can divorce be justified for the Christian?

There are many views within the Christian community and the matter is still being debated. Hear the sermon preached by Graham in Feb of 2005.

Divorce and the Christian

Malachi 2:13-16; Matt 19:1-9


Discussion question: In which testament is God the most forgiving or loving?

To understand what God says on divorce we go to the Bible. But to the OT or NT?

The testaments are different in style. The OT is mainly laws while the NT has mainly moral guidelines. The reason for that is that the OT was largely and primarily written to a nation and therefore included their new law. The NT is written to churches and individuals, showing them how they can live rightly within a nation with its own laws. Both testaments are from the same God and He does not change. He is no more forgiving in the NT as He was in the OT times.

For our study we will need to look at both testaments.

In 2002 a Muslim man in Dubai sent his wife a text message. She was late, she failed to cook his tea on time so his message read, “You’re late. I divorce you.” Because it was the third time he said it, according to Islamic law she was now legally divorced. She challenged it in the Muslim court but it was upheld. Any Muslim man has the right to divorce without needing to show she has done anything wrong. He need only say, “I divorce you.” three times, even by text message. A Muslim woman is not allowed to divorce her husband at all.

A Jewish man has been able to divorce his wife since ancient times. Instead of saying it three times he must write a certificate. Once she receives the certificate, it is done.

In Islamic law only the man can initiate divorce even if it is groundless. In Jewish law divorce was accepted as part of the life of the community but there had to be reasons. See Deut 24:1 “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house …” More of that later.


Discussion question: “Fred hates arguing” – what are the possible ways of understanding this statement?

Mal 2:16 “I hate divorce, says the LORD God of Israel …”

After the death of King Solomon, King David’s son, the people of God had divided into two countries, the southern one called Judah and the northern one called Israel.

Ezekiel (chapters 16 & 23) described how Jerusalem and Israel were unfaithful to God. Exeliel 16:32 “You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband!” Israel’s sins including adultery with other gods which resulted in God divorcing her. The prophet Jeremiah (chap 3-4) reminded Judah what had happened to her sister nation and that the same fate could be hers. At this time God and Judah were only separated and God wanted a reconciliation. Whereas where God and Israel were concerned, they were divorced.

In Isaiah 50:1 God mentions the detail of a certificate. “This is what the LORD says: Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away?”

God’s divorce is typical of the type we see in the OT.

God’s contract or covenant with Israel involved faithfulness to God (the OT commandments) and the promised care of God for His bride, Israel, proved unfaithful and was divorced. Judah almost went the same way. Jer 3:8 “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.”

We know why God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), it is because He has experienced the pain of it. The story ends well for both Israel and Judah as a New Covenant is offered (Jer 31) which gives the bride a new heart. V31 “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the LORD. 33 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

In the OT divorce was allowed for. In the neighbouring countries, when a man discarded a woman she was abandoned to poverty and lack of support from the society. Among God’s people divorce was provided for so that the divorcee could remarry and find shelter.

See Deut 24:1 “ If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house ..” Her certificate was proof that she was free of him and he did not have any further obligation to her. Deut 24 goes on to say she could remarry. This is the sort of certificate that God gave to Israel.

2 TYPES OF DIVORCE Divorce only on certain grounds compared to groundless divorce.

Discussion question: A conversation in pub, at work, with friends … A is divorcing B. What are the reason you would expect to hear, which would you expect to hear as generally acceptable?

Divorce only on certain grounds.

The OT recognises four grounds for divorce. Neglect to provide (1) food, (2) clothing and (3) conjugal love (married/connected love, includes sex, and many expressions of committed love and tenderness). And (4) committing adultery. The Jewish marriage ceremony contained vows concerning these conditions of the marriage covenant.

Each partner had to keep their obligations. These four conditions would also cover abuse, which is an extreme form of neglect.

The only person who could enact a divorce was the victim. The victim could choose to stay or go, but was not forced to do either.

In the early centuries of the OT a man could not commit adultery as he could take more than one wife, though he had to provide for all. This is what is referred to in Ex 21:10,11 “If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.” (Note, “she is to go free” means free to remarry).

In time one wife was seen as the ideal among God’s people even though other nations would have thought them out of step. More on that later.

Groundless divorce.

By the time of Jesus attitudes to divorce had changed within the State, as they were governed by Rome and by Jewish rabbinical law.

In ancient Rome divorce was much as it is in our country today. Then it was the law that a man must marry and not remain single, but if a marriage failed either party simply walked out of it and remarried. The law then did nothing to discourage this behaviour.

About the time of the birth of Jesus there was new controversial teaching within Judaism on divorce. A few decades earlier the rabbi Hillel came up with the idea that there were two types of divorce, one for adultery and the other for “Any Cause”. Those who belonged to this school of teaching believed that the “Any Cause” divorce was (only) for men who wanted to divorce and could be for any reason, even trivial, hence the name “Any Cause”. The argument was that this protected the woman from scandal, as adultery did not have to mentioned or proved. By the time of Jesus birth this type had almost replaced the traditional one within Judaism. This is seen in Matt 1:19 “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”


Jesus teaches in the context of Roman law and the then current Jewish practice.


Polygamy was outlawed in the Roman world except in Palestine where is was allowed and widely practised in the 1st century except for the Qumram sect and a few progressive Jews who taught against it.

Jesus taught that monogamy was the ideal by reminding them of Gen 2:24 in Matt 19:4-6 “Haven’t you read, he replied, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Jesus was asked about the “Any Cause” divorce. Matt 19:3 “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” Or for “Any Cause”, as a first century reader would have read it. (Note this is Matthew, the Jewish writer, writing firstly to Jewish readers)

Jesus taught that marriage was intended to be life long, Matt 19:6 “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Note, no one “should” separate, not no one “can”.

Forgiving the guilty partner

Some Pharisees believed that the innocent party must divorce the guilty partner and so they asked their question of v 7 “Why then, they asked, did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus corrected them by saying it was allowed but not required or “commanded”, He says so in v8 “Jesus replied, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” He goes on to reject the “Any Cause” divorce in v9 “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Remember He is reminding them of one of the four reasons (the man’s) given by God in Ex 21:10,11.


For those caught up in this subject for sad personal reasons – because you are a victim, I recommend the book Divorce & Remarriage in the Church by David Instone-Brewer to start with. You must live according to your convictions not according to your impressions from one sermon.

For those who are failing in their marriage to provide all that God requires of them, God calls you to repentance.

For all of us, faithfulness in relationships and friendships. A desire for God’s way before our own way.

Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

1 Corinthians 10:12 (New King James Version)

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