Unscriptural “Christian” Reasons for Divorce
(Part 2 of a Bible study on commitment, God, and divorce)
Doug Britton, MFT
Note: This is part two of a two-part online Bible study on marriage and divorce. Be sure to also read “Commit to Your Marriage.”
The Bible, Christians, and divorce
Although the Bible is clear about divorce, many of us—Christians and others—have been sorely tempted by thoughts of it. It’s easy to understand why, since many of us go through times of intense unhappiness in our marriage. Yet God’s position is unmistakable. He hates divorce.
“I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel. (Malachi 2:16)
What God has joined together, let man not separate . . . I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:6, 9)
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11-12)
If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. (1 Corinthians 7:12-13)
Does God ever allow divorce? There are two possible scriptural exceptions to the Bible’s commands about Christians, marriage and divorce. You can read about them in part one of this two-part online Bible study.
Common unbiblical reasons for divorce
The following are some common, unscriptural justifications people give for divorce. Feel free to substitute “he” or “she” where appropriate. As you read, ask yourself if you ever say or think any of these things. If you do, ask God for forgiveness and strength to stop.
“I married the wrong person.”
Maybe you did marry the “wrong” person. If so, you are not alone. Many of us married someone we should not have, married under poor circumstances, or married at the wrong time. But even if you sinned when you married, you can’t fix it by divorcing, for you would be sinning again.
Read the example of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12). David had sexual relations with Bathsheba, arranged to have her husband killed, and then married her. This was a terrible way to start a marriage, and they suffered because of it.
Although David and Bathsheba’s marriage started in sin, God didn’t tell them to divorce. In fact, read Matthew 1:6 and you will see that their son, Solomon, was one of Joseph’s ancestors. (Joseph was the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus.) Although we suffer terribly because of our choices (Galatians 6:7-8), God can bring unforeseen blessings out of our sins.
Related: Eight keys to a great marriage
“I love someone else.”
I remember one of the first times someone told me he was divorcing because he loved someone else. Jeremy had been active in his church for many years, but he planned to leave his wife and children because he thought he had fallen in love with a woman on the job.
He and his coworker had worked together on a project for several weeks. When it was completed, he took her to a celebration party at a friend’s apartment, leaving his wife at home. They drank wine and danced. As Jeremy held her in his arms, he found himself “falling in love.”
Many other married men and women have told me they fell in love with someone else, someone they thought really listened and cared. You too may have met someone at work, the grocery store, or even church who seems more attentive and respectful than your spouse. The Bible gives clear instructions about how to deal with such situations:
- First, do not think about, fantasize, or plan how to sin (Romans 13:14). Remember, Jesus said that to divorce and then marry someone else is to commit adultery (Mark 10:11-12). Resist the temptation and concentrate your thoughts on what is right and pure (Philippians 4:8).
- Second, avoid tempting situations. Jeremy should have stayed home or taken his wife to the celebration party.
- Third, do not flirt, “innocently” touch others, or make comments that could be interpreted as meaning you are available.
- Fourth, be guided by the true love that comes from God, not the “love” that comes from your flesh. If you really love someone, do not do anything that might cause him or her to sin. If Jeremy really loved his co-worker, he would not have attended the party—for her sake as well as his own.
- Fifth, when opportunities for sin present themselves, flee (Genesis 39:6-23; 2 Timothy 2:22). Cut off the relationship. Do not lay the foundation for tragedy.
- Sixth, unite with (or cleave to) your spouse (Genesis 2:24) and build a good marriage.
“I don’t love my mate” or “I’ve fallen out of love.”
The Bible tells husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25) and wives to love their husbands (Titus 2:4). Biblical love is seen primarily in choices, attitudes and actions, not in emotions. True love is based on our promises to God and to each other, not on how we feel at the moment.
Many marriages have been transformed when people discovered they could choose to love. Study 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, a passage that describes true love. You will see that not one verse describes love in the emotional terms you might expect.
The good news is that once you choose to practice the Bible’s love principles, you also begin to experience emotional love.
Related: Commit to your marriage
“My spouse doesn’t love me.”
It can be crushing to think you are unloved. Yet our love should not depend on being loved. Jesus said:
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45)
Since Jesus said to love your enemy, you can be sure he wants you to love your husband or wife, no matter what. Think about Christ’s example. He loved those who rejected him.
How can you do this? Only with God’s help. Sincerely ask him to help you follow the love instructions in 1 Corinthians 13 and you will see your attitude change. God will bless your obedience to his word, and as time goes on, you will probably see your mate respond to your love.
“I’m so unhappy. This can’t be what God wants.”
Most people divorce because they are desperately unhappy. By disobeying God’s Word and taking things into their own hands, they think they will find happiness. They pay a huge price. When they disobey God, they turn away from the source of joy—Jesus Christ.
If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:11)
If you think God doesn’t want you to be miserable, you’re right. However, he wants you to seek relief his way, not by sinning. The solution is to turn to the Lord and his word—to learn how to experience his joy whatever your situation (Philippians 4:4; James 1:2).
“We’re incompatible” or “We have grown apart.”
You may think that you and your spouse have incompatible personalities. Or you may not share similar beliefs, values, or interests. Perhaps your sex life is unsatisfying. Whatever the frustration, the answer is to learn how to flourish in your situation while working to improve it, not run away.
My wife and I have extremely different personalities, talents, and interests. During decades of marriage, we have had to accommodate hundreds of differences, large and small. As each of us has sought to learn from the other and to value our differences, we have both gained richer lives.
“I want to develop my ministry.”
Harold longingly told me about the ministry he had with single adults before he married. He said that after marrying, he was so distracted by problems with his wife that he didn’t have time for his ministry. He was sure God wanted him to divorce and move back into the ministry.
I hope you can see how foolish this argument was. Harold was telling God he planned to disobey him so he could serve him.
Related: How to set up a marriage ministry
“We were not married in God’s eyes.”
Some rationalize divorce by claiming they are not really married, saying, “All we have is a piece of paper.” Using the same logic, I could disavow any legal contract if I later decided God had not approved of it. My word and the authority of the law would no longer have a hold on me.
This obviously is not the way God looks at things. Look again at the example of David and Bathsheba. There is no question that their marriage was not God’s perfect plan, yet God didn’t have them divorce. Once you marry, you are married.
“He’s not saved” or “She’s not a good Christian.”
Even if your spouse is not a Christian—or is a lukewarm Christian—God says not to divorce. Instead, he calls on you to pray for your mate, be a great example, and win him or her to Christ through your love.
If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him … How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:12-13, 16)
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)
“I don’t have peace.”
Some justify divorce by saying, “I don’t have peace, and God called me to peace.” They’re right when they say God wants them to experience peace. But they are wrong when they think they can get it by disobeying God’s commands and seeking peace in their own fashion.
Imagine a harried parent telling his or her child, “I don’t feel peace, so I’m leaving you and getting some nicer children.” Or imagine someone in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean saying, “I’m getting seasick” and jumping out of the boat. Divorcing your spouse to find peace is just as foolish—and just as serious an error in God’s eyes.
Don’t commit sin to find peace. Instead, seek God’s peace in your circumstances. Jesus said:
In me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
“She would be happier without me.”
Your mate may be unhappy, but don’t use this as an excuse to divorce. You are not being noble or loving if you do. You simply are sinning. The noblest thing you can do is obey God. Stay in your marriage and work at making it the best one possible.
“We serve a forgiving God. He will forgive me.”
The Bible never encourages us to sin while simultaneously claiming God’s forgiveness. You can count on his forgiveness when you genuinely confess your sin, not when you harden your heart and disobey him.
God’s word is full of warnings about professing the name of the Lord while rejecting his commands. Read Malachi 2:13-14. God says that in spite of tears, weeping and wailing, he “no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands” because of divorce.
“We are living under grace, and we serve a God of love. Don’t be legalistic.”
Jude forcefully refuted this when he wrote that if you “change the grace of our God into a license for immorality,” you “deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 1:4). Paul also denounced this argument when he wrote:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2)
When you divorce for non-scriptural reasons, you are actively rebelling against God. Study Hosea 7:13-14, 8:2-3, 9:4 and Amos 5:21 for warnings to those who claim to seek God but choose to sin at the same time.
No one is perfect (1 John 1:8). If we couldn’t ask for God’s forgiveness, we would be without hope. But don’t play games with the Lord by saying you love him while at the same time disobeying him.
“Divorce is no worse than other sins.”
This excuse goes right along with “We serve a forgiving God. He will forgive me.” People who use this argument often have two points: (1) No sin is worse than other sins and (2) everybody sins from time to time, so what’s the big deal?
If you think this way, you open the door to a world of sin, for you excuse sin so easily.
The argument that “divorce is no worse than other sins, so it’s okay to divorce,” is nonsense. We should look for ways to please God, not excuses to disobey him. Read God’s call to holiness in Leviticus 11:44, Romans 12:1, Ephesians 5:4-5, and 1 Thessalonians 4:7. When you choose to sin, you put a distance between God and yourself. That distance grows because you have hardened your heart to his voice.
Further, in some crucial aspects, it’s not true that no sin is worse than other sins. Read Malachi 2:13-16 again to see the forcefulness of God’s condemnation of divorce. Also read 1 Corinthians 6:13-20 in which Paul highlighted sexual sins because “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
“He is physically abusive.”
There are situations in which you should take action to protect yourself. Physical abuse is one of them. A man cannot begin to understand the emotional harm, not to mention the physical damage, which he inflicts when he abuses his wife. The same is equally true with a physically abusive woman.
It is often wise to separate when physical abuse occurs. The purpose of separating usually should not be to lay the foundation for a divorce, but rather to (1) prevent further violence and (2) provide adequate time for the couple to receive biblical counseling to build a solid marriage. (Are there times when divorce is permissible for physical abuse? This is discussed under “Does God ever allow divorce?” in Part 1 of this online Bible study.)
Other appropriate responses to abuse include talking to your pastor, calling the police, or getting a restraining order. It is okay for a Christian to appeal to the civil authorities. Read in Acts 25:11 about the time Saul claimed his rights as a Roman citizen when he was mistreated.
“I committed a sexual sin.”
From time to time, I hear someone say, “Since I had an affair, our marriage is over and I’m free to divorce.” That’s not what the Bible says. If you committed adultery, your spouse is free to divorce you. It doesn’t work the other way around.
“He committed ‘mental adultery.’”
If your spouse longingly stares, or seems to stare, at someone else, don’t say, “He looked at another woman lustfully. According to Matthew 5:27-28, he committed adultery in his heart, so I can divorce him.” This would be a misuse of the Scriptures. To use the same line of reasoning, I could take someone to court as a murderer for getting angry with me (Matthew 5:22 and 1 John 3:15). These passages are written to strengthen us against lust and anger, not to justify legal actions.
There are hundreds of additional “Christian” reasons for divorce.
God loves you and will help you in your situation. Learn to “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Trust him and follow his commands; he will help you through your hard times.
There is hope in the Lord
Many people say divorce brings freedom. That is no more true than the serpent’s promises to Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-5). Living according to God’s word provides true freedom—the freedom of a clean conscience, freedom from the tyranny and consequences of sin, and freedom to enjoy God’s love.
Even if you think you are stuck with a miserable marriage for the rest of your life, take heart. God loves you and wants the best for you. His commands are for your good. As you read the Bible and grow in the Lord, you will discover principles to help you live with satisfaction and joy.
There are many things you can do to improve your marriage. Another free online Bible study, Eight Keys to a Great Marriage, shows practical steps to transform your marriage. If you want to dig deeper, any of the eight books in the “Marriage by the Book” series provides extensive, easy-to-read help.
About Doug Britton, MFT
Doug Britton, Bible-based Marriage and Family Therapist, has helped hundreds of thousands of people as a therapist, clinical director of a treatment center, seminar speaker, radio cohost, and author of over twenty books that show how to apply God's truths in your daily life. (Visit www.dougbrittonbooks.com.)
Copyright © 2020 Doug Britton. Permission granted to print for personal use. (Scripture verses are from the New International Version, copyright © 1984.) See reprint policy.