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Divorce

A marriage based on equality, mutuality, and love is a gift from God and something to be celebrated.

Read time: 3 minutes, 25 seconds

Christian teaching on divorce has largely revolved around the interpretation of a saying from Jesus in the sermon on the mount:

‘It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’ (Matthew 5.31-32; cf. Matthew 19.3-9; Mark 10.2-12; Luke 16.18)

there are a variety of perspectives on divorce and remarriage reflected in the Bible

This passage could be read as a blanket condemnation of divorce except on the grounds of adultery; but this would contravene Paul’s advice that a further ground for dissolving a marriage exists if one party is a Christian and the other is not (1 Corinthians 7.10-16).

A more nuanced approach recognises that there are a variety of perspectives on divorce and remarriage reflected in the Bible, and that the responses offered by Jesus, Paul, and others derive from the interplay of context and pastoral need. For example, Jesus’ comments on divorce form part of his ongoing conflict with the Pharisees (some of the Jewish religious leaders):

‘Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." 5 But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."’ (Mark 10.2-9)

Christianity Divorce

The Pharisees had based their argument on the ‘Law of Moses’, but Jesus’ reply took the argument back beyond Moses to the idealised story of creation itself. This served to highlight the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were on the one hand offering a legal solution to an ethical problem, whilst on the other hand continuing to perpetuate injustices by disempowering women and excusing marital violence.

a marriage based on equality, mutuality, and love is a gift from God and something to be celebrated within society

It is likely that the ‘hardness of heart’ Jesus was referring to was that which is sometimes demonstrated by men towards women, where a couple are so trapped in a mind-set of male superiority that divorce is the only way out. Against such a mind-set Jesus taught an understanding of marriage with gender equality as its God-intended basis. By this understanding Jesus was not saying that legal divorce should never happen, but was rather moving the discussion away from the question of legality, and instead was addressing the deeper issues in the marriage. What Jesus condemned were the patriarchal systems which used divorce to benefit men at the expense of women by making them dispensable, and what he held up as an ideal was a mutuality and equality of relationship expressed in marriage. Jesus did not deny the reality of divorce, but rather pointed to issues of justice and equality as paramount in the inevitable pain of a marriage ending.

Some Christians (including Roman Catholics) still prohibit divorce, and countries which have legal systems shaped by the influence of Catholicism often have inherited laws which mirror this conviction (for example, divorce was only legalised in Ireland in 1995). Orthodox and Protestant Christians typically allow divorce, with varying degrees of permission depending on circumstance, and many churches permit remarriage in church. The experience of abuse within marriages remains a reality for many people, and most Christians would not seek to discourage divorce when there is abuse in the relationship. This said, the Christian conviction remains that a marriage based on equality, mutuality, and love is a gift from God and something to be celebrated within society.