What the Bible Says About Divorce
As Interpreted in the Teachings of Christian Churches
Summarized by Paul Katula, Last Updated Aug. 20, 2007

New Testament, Especially Gospels, Is Sparse on Divorce

Jesus is quoted in all three synoptic gospels on the subject of divorce. But given the importance of marriage and divorce in our lives today (the highest court in the Roman Catholic church, the Roman Rota, is backlogged several years because of the exceedingly high number of marriage cases it is asked to hear), it is surprising how little reference there is to the subject in the gospels. What is said, however, tells us a lot.

The first time Jesus speaks on the matter, in the Sermon on the Mount, he is quoted in both Luke and Matthew. The second time, addressing the Pharisees and talking about the old law as handed down by Moses, Matthew and Mark quote him. I will consider each of these citations, looking especially at their differences.

First, let me say that since our Lord's sayings on divorce are recorded in three somewhat independent sources, no one doubts that our Lord had a few things to say about divorce. The question is: What exactly did he say? Or, what did it mean?

A prayerful study of scripture is required in order to make any sense out of the differences between the sayings Jesus made. Then, the official church has interpreted all of these passages, so I will also present those rulings, showing some differences between Roman and Israelite law. And finally, I will consider Jesus' sayings in the light of a world today in which over half of all marriages end in divorce.

Jesus in Luke 16:18 (Sermon on the Mount)

The most straightforward saying Jesus is reported to have made about divorce is in the Gospel According to Luke, at Chapter 16, Verse 18 (NRSV):

Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

Here, Jesus definitively prohibits divorce and remarriage. According to Canon Law, a person who divorces and then remarries is excommunicated. He or she cannot receive the Eucharist and cannot go to confession. The reason is that such a person would be living in a perpetual state of objective sin, according to the church. In other words, they know they are sinning and they stubbornly refuse to change their ways, obstinately continuing in their life of sin.

Thus, in a literal interpretation of Jesus' words, remarriage after a divorce is against the Sixth Commandment, which prohibits adultery. This is in keeping with the Jewish law in the Torah that Jesus would have read. There is no specific language that prohibits divorce, but all the laws in the Torah concern remarriage after divorce. Therefore, Jesus in Luke is consistent with the laws of most Jews at the time he was alive.

Now, Canon Law in the Roman Catholic church and the bishops of the United States provide for divorced people to remain in the church and receive the sacraments, provided they don't remarry, as the letter of the law in the Torah holds. It used to be that divorced people were excommunicated, but that hasn't been the case for a long time. Remarried people, however, who refuse to change their ways, are excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church.

Other Protestant denominations vary in terms of allowing more or less forgiveness of this sin that contravenes this passage in Luke's gospel. If you are unsure about how your church feels about remarriage after divorce, check with your pastor.

Jesus' words in Luke do not address the question, "Is divorce alone against God's law?" — perhaps because divorce was not specifically prohibited and there was no need for him to address this with the communities he was preaching to. In Luke, our Lord simply and uncategorically makes "divorce and remarriage" a sin, given the literal meaning of these words, which the official church has taken.

Now, what if you're in an abusive marital relationship? What if your husband is a diagnosed manic-depressive who occasionally stops taking his medication? Off his medication, he hits you, and you have taken steps, with the authorities, to serve a restraining order of some kind. What the church asks you to remember is that he is your husband forever, in good times and bad, in sickness (including mental illness) and health, etc. That is the promise you made before God. But the church does not expect you to put yourself in harm's way. Yes, in God's eyes, you're married, but Jesus never says divorce is a sin. He hates divorce, but he would hate the injustice done to a battered spouse much more. Some things are more important than living with your spouse. First, protect and honor your body and your life. These also are gifts from God, as is your sexuality. Get professional assistance so the violence doesn't escalate. Then, take care of your marriage.

Jesus in Matthew 5:31-32 (Sermon on the Mount)

In Matthew, Chapter 5, Verses 31-32, the gospel writer puts the following words on the lips of our Lord, Jesus Christ (NKJV):

Furthermore, it has been said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

I think the differences between these two reports of the same event are striking. Matthew's report prohibits divorce in all cases, unless the spouse was unfaithful. This exception, in Matthew but not in Luke, has naturally caused considerable discussion and debate among scholars, who have examined the phrase "for any reason except sexual immorality" very closely. A discussion of sexual immorality and what constitutes it is the topic of another excursus, but basically, if a woman cheats on her husband sexually, Jesus said her husband may divorce her without committing a sin.

Other English translations differ on the exact wording here. The King James Version, for example, translates the exception as "fornication," which seems to be a sloppy translation, since by definition, fornication involves unmarried people. The New International Version translates it as "marital unfaithfulness," and the New Revised Standard Version as "unchastity." In the orginal Greek, the word used here is porneia, which can mean a variety of things, hence the huge debate.

Porneia can mean fornication, as the King James translates it, but context clues about married people rule that out, I believe: it probably doesn't mean that here, also since the word moicheia was used just a few verses earlier (Matthew 5:19) to refer specifically to sexual intercourse between two unmarried people. Porneia can also be applied to marriage between people who are too closely related under the law, such as the marriage of a brother and sister. Some communities allowed different degrees of relatedness, and new converts to the communities Matthew was preaching to may have had to have their marriages dissolved because the husband and wife were too closely related under Jewish law. In fact, Paul uses the word in 1 Corinthians 5:1 to mean incest. Given the word choice, that's a possibility here, but most likely, since the wider context of this statement (Matthew 5:27-32) is about the commandment against adultery, the word porneia means "adultery." In other words, if your wife commits adultery against you, you are not committing adultery by divorcing her.

(Also of lesser note, Jesus here makes reference to "a certificate of divorce." There he is quoting from the old law, found in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 24, Verse 1. Clearly, his words supersede the old law, and it is written in Deuteronomy exactly as Jesus cites it.)

The Innocent Victim of Divorce

The Matthean exception (for any reason except sexual immorality) may have been important in his communities, while such a consideration was not needed in Luke's communities as he went out and evangelized. Whatever the reason for the difference may be, it exists. And whatever Jesus may have actually said about divorce here, we can understand, with Christian love and compassion, that there are circumstances under which a divorced person may have had no moral culpability in that divorce. Our Lord's exception to an absolute prohibition of divorce is present in Matthew's gospel. Understanding this exception requires prayer.

Furthermore, given the needs of our communities today, it also calls for consulting the teaching of the official church, just as the early Christians consulted what the apostles taught them. Scripture alone is rather silent on the questions so many people ask today about divorce. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and members of even the Plymouth Brethren and other Protestant denominations, say that a spouse who is wrongly abandoned, for example, is an innocent victim:

CCC @ 2386: ... [T]his spouse has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.

There is no scripture reference in the footnote (nor could I find any standalone passage), but this statement is derived from Familiaris consortio, at 19. This pontifical document is an apostolic exhortation, considered infallible by the Roman Catholic church, written by His Holiness Pope John Paul II on Nov. 22, 1981. It takes the whole of Christ's teachings into account, rather than isolating the few he gave us about the specifics of divorce.

As outsiders, we have no way of knowing, just because a person is divorced, if he has committed any sin at all. That is in his heart and known only to God. Perhaps he made a valiant effort to save his marriage — he consulted doctors to help with physical problems, psychiatrists for emotional problems, and priests or ministers for spiritual problems — but the situation could not be rescued. Maybe his wife didn't put in such an effort — she missed every appointment with the marriage counselor, didn't go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and so on. All she wanted to do was end a valid marriage by getting a divorce. The husband, in this case, who tried to save the marriage may or may not be guilty of sin, depending on whether he was unfaithful to his wife. However, the outward sign of divorce alone tells us absolutely nothing about any possible sin.

Jesus in Mark 10:1-9 (to the Pharisees)

In the gospel that most biblical scholars think was the first one written, the Gospel According to Mark, the Pharisees ask Jesus, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" First, Jesus asks them a question:

What did Moses command you?

Jesus often turned table like this on his questioners. The Pharisees tried to answer and explained that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and divorce his wife. They were quoting the old law, found in Deuteronomy 24:1, which appears to say that a divorce is legal under God's law as long as the man is permitted to give his wife such a certificate. Religious leaders differed from one Jewish community to the next as to what grounds would allow a man to give such a certificate to his wife.

But Jesus rebukes them sharply, saying that Moses only told them that because they were stubborn and refused to live up to the true law of God:

Because you were obstinate, Moses wrote this commandment for you. But it was not like that originally, from the beginning of creation, because “God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.

Jesus' Old Testament citations are as follows: Genesis 1:27 (made them male and female) and Genesis 2:24 (man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife).

This passage adds significantly to our understanding of marriage and divorce. Here, our Lord related marriage to God's creation of the universe and gave us an understanding that was deeper than just knowing what we're supposed to do or not do, as found in the Sermon on the Mount. By quoting from scripture, our Lord gave us an analogy: God's creation is to marriage as separating ourselves from God (sinning) is to breaking up the matrimonial union. Our Lord speaks more directly a little later with his disciples inside the house:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

Here, Jesus also adds the condition of remarrying, as was reported in Luke's gospel for the Sermon on the Mount. But rather than pick at that point again, let us take this passage in the greater context. I think Jesus here tells us why God really hates divorce. In an ideal world (I know we don't live in one of those, because sin has infiltrated it), there would be no divorce, since nothing would allow man to disrupt God's creation of order in the universe. Divorce is disorderly, such as with children who are traumatized by it, the deserted spouse, and even society at large, because every divorce plants a seed and encourages a separation-tolerant society.

Furthermore, among Christians, to injure one of us in a divorce, such as a child or a deserted spouse, is to injure all of us who share in Christ's body and blood. Ultimately, Jesus is painting a big picture here — actually a huge picture — about the kingdom of God. God's creation is injured by the sin of divorce, simply because we are all part of the same body, the Body of Christ, our Lord.

Jesus in Matthew 19:1-9 (to the Pharisees)

In the parallel passage in Matthew's gospel, our Lord also rebukes the Pharisees, emphasizing their misunderstanding of God's intent in giving Moses the law that allowed divorce. God would never allow divorce at all, he implies, because it has been against his law from the beginning. That part is essentially unchanged from Mark's report.

But then, Matthew reports that Jesus still includes the exception of marital infidelity, as he did in his report of the Sermon on the Mount:

And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.

Adding sexual immorality as an exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce, just as he did in his report of Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew here leaves out the part about a woman divorcing her husband, which was accredited to Jesus in Mark's report of the same incident.

We don't need to make a big deal out of this, because it isn't a big deal for us today. It simply reflects the difference between Israelite law, in which only a man could initiate a divorce proceeding, and Roman law, in which a divorce could go either way. Matthew's exclusion of the woman divorcing the man is probably more an indication of the communities he preached to than any reflection on what Jesus actually said to his disciples. Today, both reports apply to both sexes, as should be obvious.

Church: God Hates Divorce; 'Certificates' Notwithstanding

The Catechism of the Catholic Church leaves no doubt as to the interpretation of Matthew 19:8: Divorce is immoral, as most evangelical Christians also teach. Moses allowed it only because people refused to accept the indissolubility of the matrimonial union.

CCC @ 1614: In his preaching, Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning. ... [P]ermission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts. The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it.

Other Divorce References in Holy Scripture

Jesus positively insisted that a matrimonial union between a man and a woman could not be dissolved by human beings, and what is above is all Jesus himself actually was reported to have said about divorce. There are no divorce sayings in the Gospel According to Thomas or what exists of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, either.

The Old Testament prophets also compared God's kingdom and his covenant with the people of Israel to marriage on several occasions. Malachi 2:14-16 (NRSV), for example, reads as follows:

The Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did not one God make her? Both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire? Godly offspring. So, look to yourselves and don’t let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.

This passage provides us with further evidence that divorce was not part of God's plan for humankind, which helps us accept the church's teaching that the old law was nothing more than a concession given by Moses. Clearly, the Lord tells us he hates divorce and that it is against his wishes.

Difficult as It Is, We Accept This Teaching from Our Lord

For Christians, it is a sharp message indeed that marriage is as significant as God's very creation. In Mark 8:34, Jesus says that whoever wants to follow him (which we all do) must deny themselves and take up their cross. We take up our cross as spouses when we marry someone and follow Christ, living in harmony with God's design for us, with Christ's help, of course.

So however hard this teaching is to accept, we know what the Bible says about divorce and must accept it as it is reported and taught to us by our Lord and by the Holy Catholic Church. Since God joins a husband and wife together, dissolving that union is like God's people breaking their covenant with him. If we are to follow Christ, we must accept his insistence that marriages cannot be dissolved.

The apostle Paul explains it in different terms in his letter to the Ephesians (5:25-33, NAB):

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the Word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind — yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they love their own bodies. Whoever loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body: he nourishes it and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Combining this with the Old Testament lesson and the words of Jesus himself, we see "a spot or blemish" in Paul's letter as the sin of infidelity in a marriage. Divorce is such a sin, if it is the primary sin. That sin breaks our covenant with God, and that ultimately violates the union of the church with Christ.

This union is a mystery. Why would a divine being (Christ) even want a union with his church (sinful humans on earth)? But we make this unexplained will of God even more mysterious today with a high divorce rate. It's hard to understand this teaching, since we have never known a world without a high divorce rate. To take up our cross and follow Christ, though, we have a higher calling, a calling to understand things at a deeper level than others in the world who have not had the benefit of his teachings.

Marriage Brings Faith, Divorce Brings Disorder

The apostle Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 7:14):

For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

Based on this passage, the official church occasionally allows marriages to be dissolved based on what it calls the "Pauline Privelege." Most often, this is done to allow a divorced person to remarry in order to increase the faith of both people. It also may allow the dissolution of a marriage on other grounds, specifically if the spouses cannot devote themselves to Christ without breaking their marital union. These cases are not dealt with lightly, and usually, intervention by an office in the Vatican is necessary.

Annulments are completely different from divorces. Many Catholic people think annulments are like a "Catholic divorce," but that is not even close to the truth. A divorce dissolves a marriage, whereas an annulment is a declaration, by the church or by civil authorities, that no marriage ever existed in the first place. Possible grounds for an annulment are the psychological immaturity of one or both spouses (if they are unable to understand the marriage vows) and failure to follow proper procedures (such as marriage witnessed by a priest, bishop, or deacon of Christ's church).

In conclusion, St. Paul, earlier in his First Letter to the Corinthians (7:10-11), gives some advice to married people, to live according to the Lord's plan. He tells wives not to separate from their husbands, but if they do, to remain unmarried or reconcile with their husbands. He then advises husbands not to divorce their wives. He leaves it there, as I will. That is, I think, sound advice on which to end this excursus on the Christian values surrounding divorce.