Biblical Ethics of Divorce

By James M. Rochford

Jesus taught that two people become “one flesh” when they get married (Mt. 19:5). If Jesus’ teaching on marriage means anything, then divorce is analogous to being spiritually, relationally, and emotionally ripped in half! It’s no wonder, therefore, that divorce is such a painful experience—a fact to which countless divorcées will attest. This must be why God himself says, “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2:16), because it harms couples, children, and communities at such a deep level.

At the same time, the moral gravity of divorce is matched only by its ethical complexity. When we approach the subject of divorce, we find several questions confronting us:

  • Where should we stand theologically and ethically on the subject of divorce and remarriage?
  • How can we best support couples to rescue their own failing marriages?
  • How do we protect those in dangerous and abusive marriages?

In a sense, how do we balance clarity and charity on this difficult issue? There are no easy answers to these questions, but we hope to offer wisdom to this subject which often garners more heat than light. Like all important subjects, we should begin with what he Bible says about marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

Resources on the Ethics of Divorce and Remariage

A Critical Review of David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible Many evangelicals have been persuaded by Dr. David Instone-Brewer’s central thesis on divorce and remarriage. Instone-Brewer contends that the Bible gives at least four concrete grounds for the permissibility of divorce. These not only include the traditional exceptions of adultery and abandonment, but also (1) emotional neglect and (2) material neglect (p.275). In our estimation, this is the most controversial aspect of Instone-Brewer’s work, and it is the focus of this review. We do our best to faithfully represent Instone-Brewer’s three central arguments that support his thesis before offering a critical evaluation.

An Exegesis (interpretation) of Key Biblical Texts

(Deut. 24:1-4) What does this passage say about divorce?

(Mal. 2:13-16) What does this passage tell us about divorce?

(Mt. 5:31-32) What does this passage tell us about divorce and remarriage?

(Mt. 19:3-12) Is adultery the only reason for divorce? Are other reasons permitted?

(Lk. 16:18) What does this passage tell us about divorce and remarriage?

(1 Cor. 7:10-11, 15, 27-28, 39) Does Paul allow abandonment as permission for divorce and remarriage?