Does God Permit Divorce?

In the Bible we see that God does permit divorce under certain circumstances. God’s law given to the Israelites through Moses permitted divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).  When asked about divorce, Jesus referred to this Old Testament law, and said there were two valid causes for divorce:  adultery and hardness of heart.

“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.  But it was not this way from the beginning.  I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”  (Matthew 19:8-9 NIV)  

Mark 10:12 adds that this also applies to a wife who initiates divorces against her husband:

They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.  “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.  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."  When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.  He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.

And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."  (Mark 10:4-12, NIV)  

But doesn’t the Bible say in Malachi 2:16 that God hates divorce?  Let’s look at Malachi 2:16:  

..the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.  “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel , “and I hate a man’s covering himself [alternate translation: his wife] with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty.    (Malachi 2:14b,15b,16, NIV)

This passage shows that like divorce, God also hates violence in marriage.  Is it divorce or violence that violates the marriage covenant?  This scripture implies that both do. Certainly domestic violence and abuse are “hardness of heart” that violate marriage vows to honor and protect.  Though God does not want divorce, this may not mean that it isn’t necessary in some cases. God, Himself, divorced the northern tribes of Israel (Jeremiah 3:8), and the priest Ezra insisted that Israelite men put away their pagan wives and children (Ezra 10:11 ).  God tells us to choose life, not death (Deuteronomy 30:19 and 2 Kings 18:32 ), and sometimes it is necessary to end a relationship in order to preserve life and prevent harm. He has allowed divorce in cases where a spouse has so hardened his or her heart against God and their marriage that they will not turn from their destructive and harmful ways.

The Bible also validates divorce in the case of a believing spouse married to an unbeliever who wishes to leave the relationship.  In Paul's view, if an unbelieving spouse does not wish to stay in a marriage with a believer, the believing spouse is released from his/her marriage vows:  

To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.  And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.  But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances. 

(1 Corinthians 7:12-13 NIV)   

It may be difficult as at times to fully understand how to apply the scriptures concerning divorce.  Seeking godly counsel and the guidance of the Holy Spirit can help.  We have the comfort of knowing that God understands us and knows our heart.  If we truly try to follow Him, our hearts need not condemn us (Romans 8:1,2)

Discussion Questions:

  1. In Matthew 19:8, Jesus said that "in the beginning," divorce was not needed for hardness of heart. What is the "beginning" that is referred to here? What changed since then?



Duty, Guy.  Divorce and Remarriage, 1967.  Bethany Fellowship, Inc., Minnesota .

Vander Lugt, Herb. Divorce And Remarriage In Cases Of Abuse, 2005.  RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids, Michigan .  

Vander Lugt, Herb. Divorce And Remarriage: What Does The Bible Teach?, 1994. Radio Bible Class, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Copyright 2005   Judy Kennedy