What does the Bible teach about separation and divorce? It’s an important question, especially at a time when marriages are under what feels like ever-growing stress. Cultural pressure, economic strain, the pandemic, an atmosphere of anxiety and anger stoked by social media – all have contributed to an increase in marital breakdown and abuse.

Although well-intentioned, the church has not always succeeded in meeting these challenges with biblical wisdom, grace and compassion. Too often, the teaching of Scripture regarding marriage and divorce has been misapplied without nuance or context, the ideal of marriage elevated at the expense of the individuals in it. Worse yet, these Scriptures have at times been weaponized, blaming the victim for their abuse, insisting they remain in the abusive relationship and telling them they’d be sinning if they try to flee from it.

God’s own heart couldn’t be further from these attitudes. Throughout Scripture, he is constantly advocating on behalf of those who are suffering, oppressed or powerless, including and especially victims of harmful marriage relationships. If the church is to follow her Lord in this difficult area, she needs to be guided by his Spirit as she engages more deeply with his Word.

Note: If you or someone you know is struggling in this area, this article looks only at the scriptural understanding of divorce. For practical support on this topic, please contact our counselling team at 1.800.661.9800 Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT or click here for more resources.

Jesus on divorce

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he departed from Galilee and went to the region of Judea across the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees approached him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that he who created them in the beginning made them male and female, and he also said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked him, “did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away?”

He told them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts, but it was not like that from the beginning. I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:1-9)

This is the classic, most detailed text containing Jesus’ teaching about divorce. Yet when discussing the subject, modern Christians often focus only on the final sentence, where Jesus forbids divorce except on the grounds of sexual immorality.

But as always, it’s vital to explore the context of the passage if we’re to understand the full scope of what Jesus is teaching. As at other times, the Pharisees approached Jesus with a rhetorical trap, a way to catch him in his words, no matter what he answered. The issue at hand wasn’t whether divorce per se was legal; the Old Testament made provision for divorce under various circumstances, a fact on which everyone agreed.

The question was a matter of interpretation. In Jesus’ day, there were two competing rabbinic schools of thought on divorce. The stricter Shammai school required legitimate reasons, while the more permissive Hillel school allowed divorce for “any cause.” The Pharisees confronted Jesus with their disingenuous question, assuming he’d stir up controversy and lose followers, no matter which side he picked.

Jesus, as usual, didn’t fall for their either-or trap. He pointed them instead to the fact that God created male and female in his image, to complement one another in the physical and spiritual bond of marriage. Contrary to both rabbinic schools, God didn’t design divorce to be an escape clause from marriage, with or without conditions, but rather permitted it because of hard hearts in a fallen world.

Hard hearts in the ancient world

In the beginning, when God made humanity, male and female, in his image, they were to be his representatives, exercising joint authority over his creation. They were to be equals in this cultural mandate, filling the earth, subduing it and bringing beauty, benefit and order out of chaos, echoing the creative footsteps of their maker.

But then came the Fall, bringing the curse of sin, suffering and death into God’s good creation. The man’s and woman’s relationship with God was broken, as was their relationship with each other. No longer would they live in perfect, loving harmony as equals. As God told the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). Contrary to some interpretations, the woman’s subjection was not a creation ordinance, but a result of the Fall; she would desire the man’s love and respect, but he would subjugate her with forceful cruelty.

This grim tableau played itself out across the ancient world. Instead of the dignity and respect due to women as equal image bearers with men, they were considered property in most ancient cultures, with no rights or prospects outside of marriage, suitable only for childbearing, menial work and sex. Viewed in essence as malfunctioning men, inferior mentally, physically and morally, women were routinely blamed for everything that was wrong with the world. In place of God’s good design of one husband and one wife as equals, women were bought and sold, collected as slaves and trophies in war. The more wives and concubines a man could amass, the greater his status.

Tragically, the sinful attitudes behind these practices, as well as many of the practices themselves, are still prevalent in our time. Slavery, racism and misogyny persist in our broken world, but will eventually be wiped out by God’s redemptive plan – a day for which we wait with bated breath.

Although God allowed such hardness of heart to predominate in the ancient world, he also instituted laws to mitigate its destructive effects, especially on women and children, through the Old Testament divorce codes:

“When a man sells his daughter as a concubine, she is not to leave as the male slaves do. If she is displeasing to her master, who chose her for himself, then he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners because he has acted treacherously toward her. Or if he chooses her for his son, he must deal with her according to the customary treatment of daughters. If he takes an additional wife, he must not reduce the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she may leave free of charge, without any payment.” (Exodus 21:7-11)

“When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take some of them prisoner, and if you see a beautiful woman among the captives, desire her, and want to take her as your wife, you are to bring her into your house. She is to shave her head, trim her nails, remove the clothes she was wearing when she was taken prisoner, live in your house, and mourn for her father and mother a full month. After that, you may have sexual relations with her and be her husband, and she will be your wife. Then if you are not satisfied with her, you are to let her go where she wants, but you must not sell her or treat her as merchandise, because you have humiliated her.” (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

“If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house. If after leaving his house she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the second man hates her, writes her a divorce certificate, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house or if he dies, the first husband who sent her away may not marry her again after she has been defiled, because that would be detestable to the Lord. You must not bring guilt on the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

The particulars of these Old Testament divorce laws may seem shocking or even offensive to modern sensibilities. However, in sharp contrast to other societies of the time, these codes provided women with basic rights to physical and emotional care, as well as protections from abuse and abandonment.

It’s important to note that in all these situations, divorce was a one-way street, initiated by men. While the certificate of divorce and the grounds necessary for it were meant to safeguard women from wanton mistreatment, they could only be pursued by the man. On rare occasion, a woman might request it, but the chances of it being granted were slim.

God’s heart for his image bearers

In contrast to the hard hearts of fallen humans, God’s heart is soft and compassionate, with deep, abiding care for people, especially the poor, powerless or victimized. The Old Testament is rife with expressions of God’s concern for widows, orphans and foreigners. He is constantly reminding his people to comfort the suffering, cheer the lonely, provide for the poor and bring justice to the oppressed.

That divine concern extended to marriage, in which men were expected to provide for the physical and emotional welfare of their wives. In cases of unfaithfulness, abuse or abandonment, the marriage covenant was judged as broken and the woman was free to leave and remarry if she chose, protected by law from financial or physical reprisal.

The most often-quoted Old Testament text about divorce comes from the prophet Malachi, the well-known “God hates divorce” passage. Too often, however, this verse has been misconstrued as a bottom-line ban on all divorce, or even weaponized to guilt victims of abuse into staying with their abusers.

There are several problems with this approach, beginning with the fact that the original Hebrew text is notoriously difficult to translate. Here are two popular Bible versions, representing two markedly different interpretive traditions:

So watch yourselves carefully, so that no one acts treacherously against the wife of his youth. “If he hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the Lord of Armies. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously. (Malachi 2:15-16 CSB, emphasis added)

Be careful then about your spirit, and see that none of you deals treacherously against the wife of your youth. “For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with violence,” says the Lord of armies. “So be careful about your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” (Malachi 2:15-16 NASB, emphasis added)

The first version, and others like it, say nothing about God hating divorce. Instead, they translate the passage as God judging those who hate and divorce their wives. Virtually all major ancient manuscripts and translations support this reading, including the Hebrew Masoretic Text, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Greek Septuagint, the Aramaic Targum and the Latin Vulgate. Likewise, every early English translation, including Wycliffe, Coverdale, the Geneva Bible and the Bishop’s Bible support this reading.

The second version, containing some variation of God hating divorce, apparently began with the King James Version, and because of its popularity, most English translations have followed suit until recently. Although the Masoretic Text can be translated this way, it requires altering the original Hebrew and adding words or syllables that are not in the text and are assumed to have been lost.

 Once again, the text as we have it is obscure and has given Jewish and Christian scholars fits for over 2,400 years. The weight of evidence leans toward the first reading, but it’s impossible to be conclusive. Whichever the case, the context makes it clear that God was condemning those who were unfaithful to the wives of their youth, breaking their marriage covenant and forsaking them without cause, presumably for younger women.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce doesn’t contradict these Old Testament codes, but rather expands on them and clarifies them. The sanctity of marriage is rooted in creation, in a man and a woman, both bearing God’s image, coming together as equals to love, honour and cherish one another. Divorce is not to be entered into lightly but is permissible in cases of marital unfaithfulness.

Properly understood, this includes adultery, abandonment and abuse in all its forms. In all these cases, it is the perpetrator who has broken the marriage covenant and the victim is free to leave a harmful situation. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 confirms this, making it clear that abandonment is included under Jesus’ definition of marital unfaithfulness.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus welcomed and rescued women – and men – from degrading and destructive situations. He came to heal, to comfort and to give life abundantly. In keeping with his Father’s will, his mission was to restore shalom to his creation, to redeem his image-bearing daughters and sons from the effects of the Fall, and to repair their relationships with one another and with himself.

Marriage and divorce in God’s eternal plan

Jesus told them, “The children of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are counted worthy to take part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. For they can no longer die, because they are like angels and are children of God, since they are children of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:34-36)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. (Revelation 21:1-4)

Marriage is part of God’s good creation ordinance, allowing women and men to join as equal partners, pursuing God’s cultural mandate in mutual love, respect and intimacy. God also designed marriage to be a symbol of his relationship to his people, of his Son’s relationship to his Church. It is not to be entered into lightly, nor is it to be dissolved without legitimate grounds.

Nevertheless, marriage is neither universal nor indissoluble. Not all people are married, nor are they called to it. Being single or widowed are not lesser forms of living as image bearers of God and followers of Jesus – nor, necessarily, is being divorced or separated. In a fallen broken world full of hard human hearts, God’s tender heart has provided women and children (and sometimes men) the means of rescue from relationships that are destructive physically, emotionally, sexually or spiritually.

Most of all, Jesus makes it clear that marriage is not eternal, and will not be a feature of human relationships in the New Heaven and New Earth. Instead, his people will be joined to him as his bride in a perfect, eternal union of joy and love. Like all symbols and shadows that point to Jesus, human marriage will disappear when the reality to which it points has come.

For happily married couples, this may be a difficult truth. In his book, Miracles, C.S. Lewis addressed this difficulty with one of his insightful metaphors:

The letter and spirit of Scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternatives either of bodies which are hardly recognizable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure, should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.

In terms of this present world, God designed marriage between a man and woman to be permanent. But within his overarching purposes, marriage is temporal, while people – women and men made in God’s image – are eternal. God created marriage for people, not people for marriage.

As Hope Restored marriage therapist Vicki Hooper elaborates, “As Christians, we have made the institution of marriage more important than the two image bearers in it, who display the value of God. . . . The two people are more important than the marriage. God’s heart is for people.”

God’s heart for people is written boldly across the pages of his Word, displayed with final perfection through his Son Jesus. In a hard-hearted world, he invites his followers, his church, to share his compassionate heart with those who are trapped in abusive marriages and facing the painful prospects of separation or divorce.

Sources and further reading

C. John Collins, “Malachi 2:16 again,” Covenant Theological Seminary, accessed February 26, 2024.

Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsey A. Holcomb, “Does the Bible say women should suffer abuse and violence?author’s blog, September 4, 2014.

David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, Eerdmans, 2002.

Douglas Jacoby, “Instone-Brewer on divorce and remarriage,” author’s blog, accessed February 26, 2024.

Sharon James, “Divorce and remarriage in the Bible: The social and literary context (book review),” Themelios, Volume 29 Issue 1, September 2003.

Russell Moore, “Divorcing an abusive spouse is not a sin: Not only is it morally justified, it also aligns with Christ’s heart for the vulnerable,” Christianity Today, March 24, 2022.

Kyle Pope, “‘He hates’ or God hates (Malachi 2:16),” Focus Online, February 4, 2020.

Daniel R. Watson, “Who hates . . . divorce? A text-critical examination of Malachi 2:16,” Midwestern Journal of Theology, Volume 10 Issue 1, Spring 2011.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2024 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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