The Bible and Divorce: My Understanding

Linda M. Kurth

When I was going through a divorce after twenty-five years of marriage, I experienced a dichotomy of responses from the church and other Christians. Typically, conservative churches focus on the law, particularly on Matthew 19 verse 9: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” 

     Based on this passage, I was told I did not have God’s permission to divorce, and I needed to stay in my unhealthy marriage. I had difficulty believing God wanted this for me, even though the bible is clear that God hates divorce. Other passages indicate that divorce is a covenant relationship. Preachers and theologians  have also used this passage to insist that divorce is a sin.
     Eventually, I came to believe that my husband had irretrievably broken our marriage, and I discerned God’s permission to divorce.

     Wrestling with  the decision to divorce opened my mind to how controversial this subject is, and I continue to read scholarly studies, wanting to understand God’s heart. David Instone-Brewer’s book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities, makes sense to me. He writes, “My hope is that the church will rediscover the biblical principles that divorce should occur only when marriage vows are broken and that only the wronged partner may decide whether this will happen.” He writes:

​There were no debates about the validity of neglect and abuse as grounds for divorce in any ancient Jewish literature, for the same reason that there are none about the oneness of God: these principles were unanimously agreed on. Rather than indicating that Jesus did not accept the validity of divorce for neglect and abuse, his silence about it highlights the fact that he did accept it, like all other Jews at that time.

    This acceptance of abuse and neglect as grounds for divorce indicates that those actions fall under the heading of marital unfaithfulness, as mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 5:32. A husband who neglects or abuses his wife is being unfaithful to her every bit as much as through sexual infidelity. The same applies to the wife. I also found Instone-Brewer’s look at the concept of “covenant”  to be enlightening. You may want to get a copy of Instone-Brewer’s book to read more.
I don’t believe that, if a marriage gets tough, the only answer is to leave. I’ve heard Christian people declare “God just wants us to be happy,” using that as permission to divorce. This idea cannot be found in the Bible. The following passage, written by the apostle Paul, is the bedrock of my understanding that we have a choice and how we are to make it.

  You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14 (NIV)

     I believe God calls us to do our best to love our spouse and make our marriage work. I also believe this passage means we are free to make the choice to divorce if the marriage is irretrievably broken.  We should not leave out of hate but rather seek to maintain agape love — love that is merciful, full of grace and unselfish, seeking the best for the other while maintaining respect for ourselves.


Republished with permission from Linda M. Kurth from her blog at

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