Is All Divorce Sinful? What does the Bible Say About Divorce?

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I suffered in an emotionally abusive relationship for the better part of two decades because I believed that all divorce was sinful. After all, doesn't Malachi 2:16 say, "God hates divorce?”

There’s actually some controversy as to the translation of that phrase. And while that’s a subject for another post, we have observed that at minimum, these words are often removed from their context and applied to implicate a prohibition on all divorce. With so much confusion, how can we discern what the Bible has to say on this subject?

Most often, the truth of one verse of Scripture is evident throughout the whole of the Bible. To really understand God’s heart on a given subject, it’s most appropriate to examine the Bible as a whole and discover what the entire collection of verses on the topic reveals. And while we don’t have the space for that in one little blog post, perhaps one of the most descriptive accounts of divorce in the Bible is God’s own divorce of Israel.

What?!

Yep. In the Book of Jeremiah, God Himself is described as divorcing His bride, the nation of Israel. 

It all started with a broken covenant.

The book of Jeremiah opens with Jeremiah declaring what God has revealed concerning the disobedience of the nation of Israel. Israel has worshipped other gods (2:11). She has lied (2:23), refused to serve God (2:20), oppressed the innocent (2:34) and showed no recognition of or remorse for her sin (2:35). God says Israel has forsaken Him (2:13) and done "all the evil that [she] could" (3:5). (ESV)

While God had made other covenants with His people that did not require their obedience (like the one he made to multiply Abram/Abraham in Genesis 13), God’s marriage covenant with the Israelites was a two party deal: If you will be my people, I will be your God (Exodus 19:5). In this covenant, Israel had a duty to uphold. If the Israelites were obedient, God told them He would be with them and bless them. But if not...(dun, dun, dun).

As we know, Israel had been unfaithful to her marriage covenant with God, pretty much since Day One. But God was patient. Despite Israel’s rejection of her vows, God did not immediately invoke His right to send her away. He sought multiple forms of discipline to bring Israel back into right standing with Him (2:30). But Israel did not respond to the correction, and God declared that "the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant" (11:10).

In Jeremiah 3:8, God dubs Israel the "faithless one." He goes on to say that for “all the adulteries” Israel had committed, He "sent her away with a decree of divorce." 

Not separated from her. Not threatened to divorce her. Divorced her.

God was a betrayed spouse, rejected by the "beloved of [His] soul" (12:7). Only after generations of giving Israel the opportunity to make things right did He finally reject her for breaking her covenant promises (7:16). 

God is just, and he righteously administered the consequences due Israel for her unfaithfulness.

Disciplinary Divorce vs. Treacherous Divorce

When you combine the account of God’s divorce of Israel with other verses on divorce in the Bible, the whole picture becomes much clearer. In the Book of Jeremiah, God demonstrated the concept of disciplinary divorce, which was then codified by the biblical exceptions for divorce found throughout Scripture.

The collection of these passages on divorce also help to dispel the confusion surrounding verses such as Malachi 2:16. If you read all of Malachi chapter 2, you discover the passage references treacherous divorce, whereby men willy-nilly discarded faithful wives in the pursuit of their lust. These men were abusing the allowance of divorce as a means to indulge in fleshly carnality, victimizing innocent women and children in the process.

And regardless of which interpretation of Malachi 2:16 you accept (which boils down to whether God says He hates divorce [KJV/ NASB] or that the one who unjustly divorces hates his wife [ESV/ NIV]), neither necessarily prohibits disciplinary divorce in appropriate situations.

Implications of Divorce

Despite all this, God always desired that Israel would return to Him (see Jeremiah 4). And God didn’t start with divorce as the initial means of correction: He pursued various avenues of discipline before ultimately sending Israel away (as Jesus calls us to in Matthew 18). But Israel was blinded by her sin and would not turn to God. And while that would be reason enough for God to wipe Israel off the map, in His mercy, God chose instead to alter His relationship with her in a meaningful way- to draw her attention to her sin and call her to righteousness.

What we can gather from the whole of Scripture is that divorce, when permitted by biblical exceptions, should not be entered into lightly, and should be conducted with the intention of bringing the offender to repentance and right relationship with God. In terms of the human experience, that does not necessarily mean that the relationship itself will be restored. But in a situation in which an unrepentant spouse is unwilling to confront rampant, unchecked sin, consequences such as disciplinary divorce may be rightly applied to draw that individual back to God.

If you are considering separation or divorce

We are aware there is A LOT of confusing information out there about biblical divorce and under what conditions it is permissible. We at Agape Moms intentionally choose not to add to the confusion by giving an opinion on if and when a biblical divorce is appropriate. What we can say is this:

  • Talk to God about it. Don’t be in a hurry. Pray, fast, worship, wait. Build up your spiritual strength by walking more intentionally with Him to eliminate sin in your own thoughts and actions. Embrace His love for you, even in dark times.

  • Study the Word. Don’t just look at the two or three verses about divorce in the Bible. Read entire chapters or books in which these verses are contained (Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Hosea, Matthew, and 1 Corinthians are great places to start). Note: if you choose to seek commentaries on the subject, examine reputable sources. DO NOT Google it! Anybody with a website can tell you what they think, whether or not they are Spirit led.

  • Seek wise counsel for discernment. You may not find it where you first expect- but don’t give up! Any person who dismisses your claims, or doesn’t seem bothered by them, probably doesn’t understand the level of evil involved in these circumstances (and probably isn’t going to be a great reference for helping your husband eliminate it either).

It's our prayer that all married couples would find hope and healing in Jesus. And we certainly would not want an interpretation such as this one to be abused for sinful gain (like in Malachi 2). But we do hope that this perspective on the Scriptures concerning divorce would open the dialogue among church leadership on the theology of divorce so abused women AND those who abuse them can get the help they truly need.

**Agape Moms posts are anonymous to protect the identities of the contributors. If you would like to contribute an encouraging story of overcoming marital abuse, please visit our Contact Page.