Are there any biblical grounds for divorce, and if so, what are they?

A lot of the debate over divorce has to do with the way we interpret and handle Jesus’ teaching on the subject. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, the Pharisees come to Jesus for a decision and they are trying to trick him into speaking against the law of Moses. They ask, “Is it lawful to put away one’s wife in the case of infidelity?”

At that time we know from our own historical research that there was an ongoing debate in Israel between two major rabbinical schools, the school of Shammai, which was a very conservative school, and the school of Hillel, which took a more liberal approach to interpreting the Old Testament law. The liberal view allowed divorce on many grounds, giving a very broad interpretation to the meaning of “unclean thing” in the Old Testament legislation. The more conservative school took a very narrow view of the matter and said that only on the grounds of adultery could divorce be legitimized in Israel.

To me it seems clear that Jesus does allow divorce in the case of adultery. On the one hand, he said that if a man divorces his wife for any other reason than sexual immorality, then of course he is guilty of sin. So Jesus, at that point, says that there ought not to be divorce for grounds other than sexual impurity or immorality. Then he goes on to say that because of the hardness of our hearts, the law was given to Moses that did make a provision for divorce in the Old Testament. He then quotes the law from Deuteronomy in which the so-called unclean thing is cited as the legitimate grounds for divorce in the Old Testament. But Jesus hastens to add this statement: “But from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). His reference back to Creation reminds us of the sanctity of marriage. It’s certainly true that the provision for divorce is given to us because of the hardness of hearts, because of sin. Because adultery is a sin, when somebody violates marriage through adultery and breaks that trust, then the sacred vow, and the innocent party in the divorce, is so violated that the provision is given to them in that context of fallenness to be engaged lawfully in divorce.

It’s obvious that Jesus is rebuking the liberal view of divorce that was prevalent in his own day. I think that Jesus does remind us that the original intention of marriage did not include divorce. He acknowledges that there is a ground, and he is not criticizing God for making this allowance in the Old Testament. People are fallen, and God does condescend to the fact that people commit sins against marriage that are serious enough to be grounds for dissolving the marriage. That sin is sexual infidelity.

I think one other ground for divorce given by the apostle Paul in the Corinthian correspondence is the case of the willful and irreparable separation of the unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:15). Those are the only two grounds I find in Scripture.

© 1996 by R.C. Sproul. Used by permission of Tyndale.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. ©1982 by Thomas Nelson.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.