Over the past two days, I have made some pretty strong statements about marriage and divorce based on Matthew 5.31–32. To recap: The will of God for our sexuality is marriage, the lifelong “one flesh” relationship between a man and a woman (Gen. 1.23–24, Matt. 19.4–6). From a biblical perspective, whatever tears the “one flesh” fabric of marriage is contrary to God’s will for our sexuality and is therefore sinful. This includes lust (Matt. 5.28), sex outside marriage (1 Cor. 6.9–10), adultery (Ex. 20.14), and divorce (Matt. 5.31–32).
We know that lust, extramarital sex, and adultery are always sinful, but is divorce always sinful? No. There are some circumstances in which divorce is a tragic but morally blameless action. We see this clearly if we look at the teachings of both Jesus and Paul on the subject.
Jesus talks about divorce at several points in the Gospels: Matthew 5.31–32, 19.1–9; Mark 10.1–12; and Luke 16.18. In each of these passages, he takes a very strong stand against divorce. But in the two passages from Matthew, he allows divorce for “marital unfaithfulness” (5.32, 19.9). The Greek word that the New International Version translates as “marital unfaithfulness” is porneia, which derives from the Greek word for prostitute and from which we get the word pornography. According to R. V. G. Tasker, porneia is “a comprehensive word, including adultery, fornication, and unnatural vice.” According to John Stott, it describes “some act of physical sexual immorality.” It is difficult to be more specific than these broad definitions.
Paul addresses the issue of divorce in 1 Corinthians 7.10–16. In that chapter, he responds to the Corinthian belief that celibacy is superior to marriage, a position with which he, as a celibate, partially agrees (7.1, 7). However, he disagrees with several conclusions the Corinthians mistakenly drew from that belief.
(1) Unlike the Corinthians, who discouraged marriage, Paul encourages marriage for those who do not have the spiritual gift of celibacy (7.1–7).
(2) Unlike the Corinthians, who discouraged married couples from having sex, Paul encourages married couples to have an active sex life. “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (7.3).
(3) Unlike the Corinthians, who seem to have advised believers to separate, Paul encourages them stay together (7.10–11).
And (4) unlike the Corinthians, who seem to have advised believers to divorce their unbelieving spouses, Paul encourages them to stay married (7.12–16). “How do you know, wife,” he asks, “whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (7.16). If the unbelieving spouse abandons the marriage, however, divorce is acceptable. “A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances” (7.15).
So, by examining the teachings of Jesus and Paul, we can conclude that the Bible allows divorce in two circumstances: adultery (broadly construed as some physical sexual immorality) and abandonment. Although the Bible does not address it specifically, I personally think abuse might serve as a third circumstance. The sexual abuse of a spouse or a child obviously constitutes porneia, after all. And persistent, extreme, and impenitent abuse—whether physically or emotionally—seems to be an abandonment of one’s marriage, in spirit of the vows, if not in fact. But as I said, this is only my personal opinion.
Here are two more personal opinions: (1) Many—perhaps most—divorces in America do not fall into these circumstances. And (2) many—perhaps most—of the marriages that are heading toward divorce can be saved, if biblical principles for marriage are followed and sound psychological counseling sought.