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Is Divorce Ever Biblical?

Dear Roger,
My wife and I are helping some dear friends through problems in their marriage. But after finding out about some of the issues they’re facing, I’m not sure their marriage can be repaired. Please help me understand what the Bible says about divorce.
Thank you, Charlie

Dear Charlie,

In order to lend some credibility to my comments, you may need to know that I've counseled married, remarried, cohabitating, and divorced couples and individuals for over fifty years. Of the hundreds of emails and letters that I receive to Ask Roger, more than half of them deal with marriage issues.

I’ve found that the most common issues people share about marriage, adultery, and cohabitation are much the same. However, God’s Word treats each of these choices very differently. So do I, especially as my understanding of relationships and Scripture have developed over the years.

When I first began pastoring (at age 20), the biblical rules for divorce and remarriage seemed very black and white.

People Are More Important Than Rules

First, adultery was always grounds for divorce. Jesus said in Matthew 19:9, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Second, the Bible teaches that a Christian who is married to an unbeliever and wants out of a marriage may do so, as long as the unbeliever also wants out. However, if the unbeliever wants to remain in the marriage, then the married Christian must remain married (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

In those days, it was easy for me to apply the rules. People either obeyed them, or they didn’t. If they didn't follow the rules, they were basically unwelcome in our church fellowship.

I look back with sadness. A lot of people in broken marriages turned to the church for help and comfort, and all we had to offer were two rules.

The more contact I’ve had with those who are divorced or divorcing because they needed to get out of miserable, dangerous, abusive, and broken marriages, the more my heart aches. Too many situations simply don’t fit those black-and-white rules.

One holiday, I was sitting in the audience of a well-known pastor whose daughter was being mercilessly abused by his son-in-law. He was emotionally trying to deal with his daughter’s situation, but the only advice he had for his daughter was to stay married. I watched and listened to him struggle publicly. He was close to tears when he said, “There’s got to be a better way to handle this.”

There is! There are times when people are more important than rules.

Let me give you an example of a letter that I recently received from a woman with two daughters. She is tragically trapped in a marriage sham but feels obligated to stay married because she believes that God will punish her if she gets a divorce:

Dear Roger,
I’m 23 years old, and I got married when I was 19. I have two kids. Right now, my husband is passed out drunk. He came home from a bar and picked a fight. When I told him that I just wanted to sleep and talk in the morning, he punched me and grabbed my hair. I really don’t know what to do. Doesn’t the Bible say divorce is wrong? Will God punish me if I leave my husband? I don’t want my daughters to grow up in a broken home, but I don’t want them to be in danger from my husband. Please pray for us. Today is Sunday, and I want to go to church, but my eyes are swollen from crying all night.

God provides for situations like this one. I’d like to share some guidelines with you that I hope will be helpful as you navigate the rough waters of divorce.

Divorce papers

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Rawf8 

11 Guidelines for Navigating Divorce

1. Adultery is always grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:31-32).

2. A Christian may divorce a non-Christian if the non-Christian wants to divorce (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

3. Physical abuse, and in many cases, emotional and verbal abuse may mean that it is time to consider leaving the marriage.

Malachi 2:16 says, “God hates divorce; but, He also hates a man covering himself with violence.” The term used here comes from a Hebrew word that can also mean, “covering his wife with violence.”

I advise any woman who has been hit by her husband to consider getting as far away from him as soon as possible and to never look back. Belittling, badgering, manipulation, and other forms of verbal and emotional abuse fit under the “violence” umbrella. Notice that this principle holds true if the roles are reversed and the wife is the one instigating the violence.

By the way, can you imagine that the quickest way to ruin your marriage is to hit the one that you promised to love, honor, and respect?

4. The husband who consistently refuses to live up to his responsibility to love his wife as Jesus loved the church may, in some cases, have violated his marriage vows and made the marriage contract null and void (Ephesians 5:25-33).

According to his marriage vows, the husband is to love his wife and care for her needs even before he cares for his own. He is responsible for his wife’s spiritual development so that one day she may be pure and holy as she comes into the presence of Christ.

5. The wife who undermines and/or disrespects her loving husband may, in some cases, have violated her marriage vows and made the marriage contract null and void (Ephesians 5:22-24).

As we read the Ephesians 5 passage, notice that while the husband is commanded to love his wife, his wife is never asked to love him. She is to obey and respect him, but she’s never told to love him. Many have trouble with a wife being told to obey and respect her husband. It doesn't seem right or fair.

Let me tell you what I see going on here. Women whose husbands are fulfilling their roles of loving and sacrificing their lives for them don’t have to be told to love their husbands. Loving a man like that comes naturally. It is easy to love and respect someone who has her best interests at heart.

6. The husband who refuses to get a job in order to meet the needs of his family is worse than an unbelieving non-Christian (1 Timothy 5:8). He has forfeited his role as a husband and violated his marriage vows.

Of course, there are times when few or no jobs are available. This is different from the husband who refuses to work. In this case, the wedding vows are not broken by the failure to make a living.

7. God never intended for people who are divorced without biblical grounds to remain single forever (Genesis 2:18 and Matthew 5:32; 19:8-9).

Jesus said that it is wrong to marry someone who does not have the proper grounds for divorce. In the same way, it is not right for a person who is divorced without biblical grounds to remarry.

However, the overriding principle here comes from before the Fall when God says to Adam, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). It is my opinion that after an appropriate amount of time, and after seasons of brokenness, humility, confession, and repentance, God still intends for marriage to be the first defense against loneliness.

8. If you have proper grounds for a divorce, then you have proper grounds to remarry (1 Corinthians 7:15, 39).

9. If your previous partner has remarried, reconciliation is impossible. There is freedom to remarry.

10. In certain cases, it is God's will to remain unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

11. When a marriage is irrevocably marred and broken, it may well be time for both parties to consider picking up the pieces and starting over again (John 8:1-12).

Remember how Jesus gave a second chance to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-12)? He helped her to pick up the pieces of her broken life and start over again.

Charlie, a failed marriage is an awful thing. The ripples of pain flow outward in ever-widening circles just as a stone tossed into the middle of a quiet pond sends ripples out in all directions.

So, I believe God calls us to prioritize having a successful marriage. You want to be in your rocking chair, rocking on the front porch someday in retirement with your very best friend—the love of your life.

Again, my heart aches for your friends and for their grief. Remember that there is a God in heaven who specializes in bringing hope to the hopeless and healing to the hurting.

Sincerely, Roger

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Daniel Tadevosyan 

Ask RogerDr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his 35-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.

Editor's Note: This Ask Roger article features insights from Roger's daughter, Brie Barrier Wetherbee, a sought-after Bible teacher and conference speaker, author, analyst, and Christian theologian. 

Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at [email protected].

 

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