Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)

After the fall in Genesis 3, the issue of a sundered relationship between not only God and man but between the man and woman brought about unrest and animosity in the marriage covenant. Throughout the rest of scripture, we read about additional marriages added to the original “one flesh” intention, there is neglect, abuse, contempt, abandonment, adultery; the list goes on. The fallen nature of man caused the messy problem of divorce and there have been many discussions surrounding it for years within the church. Out of these discussions have come a few different positions regarding when and if divorce is permitted.

The three primary stances are as follows:

  • Permanence
  • Semi-Permanence
  • Permissive

Further divisions could be made inside of these three stances, however, the goal is to provide at least a broad overview as well as common objections to each stance. While I understand the divorce is an emotional and touchy subject that affects many, I desire to deal primarily with what scripture teaches before applying my thoughts or feelings to what I think it says.

Permanence

Starting with the strongest view, the permanence view does not give any allowance for divorce in any circumstance. Marriage is meant to last until death. Then, and only then, would remarriage be allowed. A strong defense of this is found in Matthew 19 as Jesus responds and answers the questions of the Pharisees.

“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6 ESV)

Jesus goes on to answer a follow-up question about Moses’ “command” to give a wife a certificate of divorce. However, no elicit “command” was ever given by Moses as the Pharisees claimed. Deut. 24:1-4 reveals that these divorce certificates were already happening among the Israelites; they were never commanded to be given anywhere in scripture, and Moses was directly dealing with regulating remarriage in these verses, not divorce. Jesus revealed that it was because of their hardness of hearts that Moses “allowed” divorce.[1] And yet “from the beginning, it was not so” (Matthew 19:7-8).

Other supporting scriptures: Mal. 2:14-16; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:10-11, 39

Objections/Counters:

As the most controversial stance, it is no surprise that the permanence view gets some of the heaviest objections.

  1. Often, the Matthean exception verses are brought up (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) as an argument that Jesus allows an exception for divorce in the case of an adulterous spouse. The response to this is often found in the context of the book. Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience who would have understood the case laws of divorce given in the OT and they would have noticed the word choice of Matthew in using the word for “sexual immorality” [porneia], not “adultery” [moichao]. This word for sexual immorality would link back to the Jewish betrothal period before they would be officially married. To get out of this betrothal, one would need to provide adequate proof that the intended spouse had been unfaithful or sexually impure in some way. Matthew is also the only gospel writer who makes mention of Joseph’s plans to put Mary away and break off the engagement because of her supposed sexual immorality due to her pregnancy; after all, they were not yet married.
  1. Another common objection is found in Paul’s address to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 7:15; “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases, the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” It is often objected that if the unbelieving spouse abandons the believer, they are free from that marriage. It is strange however that Paul does not use the word divorce in this verse even though he used it three times in the previous four verses; all of which were commands not to divorce. The understanding here is that the unbelieving spouse is not going to submit to God’s design for marriage, but this is not an excuse for the believing spouse to actively pursue a divorce, rather for the sake of peace, they let the unbeliever go as they decided to do on their own. The real debate here often is what did Paul mean by “enslaved.” Did he mean enslaved in a marriage where unrest and animosity was always present, or enslaved from the inability to pursue a marriage where one could potentially be with a spouse who was also a believer?[2] Verses 10-11 share that the goal is to either remain unmarried or be reconciled to the original spouse; no clarification or exception seems to be made here regarding unbeliever or believer.
  1. But what about when God “divorced” Israel in Jeremiah 3:8? God indeed uses the language of Deut. 24 to illustrate Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s sending her away. Had this been an actual divorce, God would have been breaking His own law when He calls them to return to Him in 3:12. According to Deut. 24, to take back a spouse who married another would be an act of adultery, but God cannot sin, so his “sending away” could not have been a divorce, rather it was an illustration of the punishment of Israel’s unfaithfulness in contrast to God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness.[3]
  1. In a general sense, this view takes the most flak for its black and white stance that often feels like it does not take into account the specific circumstances of people. How could one make such a strong stance when we all know that mankind is fallen and sinful. The question is often asked, where is the grace for the victim of abuse, adultery, neglect, and abandonment? Much hurt has come out of this view and often it comes through pastors who take the abuser’s side, victim blame, or provide no assistance or guidance other than saying, “no divorce!” and pushing the hurting spouse off to someone else. The goal in this view is not to just say divorce is not condoned but is rather meant to encourage redemption and reconciliation just as the gospel did for us. Proponents of this view could always do better at supporting and advocating for marriages that are worth fighting for; after all, they are a picture of Christ and the church.

The joining of two into one flesh is taken very seriously. If Jesus treated his bride, the church, in the same way that Israel treated their wives as revealed in the realities of the Jewish case laws, It would be hard to believe Jesus would remain with, let alone die for, such an idolatrous and unrighteous bride. Fortunately, God does not deal with His people in the same sinful way that mankind often does. This view can be a hard pill to swallow as also recognized by the disciples in Matthew 19:10-11. It was modeled by Hosea and has deep roots in scripture, as well as proponents such as John Piper and Voddie Baucham.

Semi-Permanence

There is always that one person who wants the middle ground. The semi-permanence view is the view that allows for divorce, but not remarriage. In the case of a marriage, the couple has become one flesh, and that marriage is to last until death. While divorce was permitted in the case of adultery, abandonment, or other reasons (this largely depends on what the individual decides scripture considers an acceptable reason for divorce), reconciliation is the only option while your spouse is still living.

Not much is written specifically about this view today. While some hold to it, many people find themselves in one of the far camps on either the permanence or permissive side. Much of this foundation pulls from either side, but it finds its main sources of support from what Paul shares in Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Cor. 7:10-11;

“For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.”

Romans 7:2-3 ESV

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

1 Corinthians 7:10-11 ESV

This would also mean that if a couple divorced and eventually one of the spouses dies, the other would then be free to marry, regardless of whether or not reconciliation happened before their spouse’s death because the lifelong covenant of marriage was released at death.

Objections/Counters:

Many of the objections could be similar to the permanence view.

  1. Why is the abandoned spouse not free to remarry since they were innocent of the act of the unbeliever? Are they not no longer enslaved? This all comes down to how one interprets “enslaved” as was mentioned in the permanence view.
  1. Why is the marriage covenant not considered broken by the act of the other spouse in their adulterous affair? After all, to be reconciled to them would mean going against the case law of Deut. 24. This would be a predicament only if a divorce was carried out. Of course, many would ask, do the case laws of Deut. 24 even apply to us today?
  1. In the case of an abusive spouse, why would one seek reconciliation with someone who was actively attempting to bring about harm to them or even children of the marriage? In this case, many have argued for restraining orders and a time of separation bathed in prayer for the abusive spouse. Many pastors have walked through these types of situations with the victimized spouse and by God’s grace have seen reconciliation occur.
  1. Is a woman expected to be a single mom or unsupported by a husband who does not desire reconciliation possibly for the rest of her life?

None of these objections come with easy answers and none of them are ever promised to be quick fixes. Sin is a nasty, evil monster that seeks to devour what God originally designed to be good. Scripture is saturated in the theme of reconciliation, which makes this view close to the heart of the gospel. Many middle-grounders may find themselves here especially if they have a love for seeing gospel transformation and broken things being mended (not to say that other view holders do not have this same desire too).

Permissive

The permissive view is most likely where you will find the largest majority of Christians setting up their tents. While this view allows for divorce and remarriage, it is also the one view among all three which contains the most variations of exceptions and clauses. To say you hold to the permissive view of marriage would elicit the question of, “Which one?”

  • Are you a “one clause permissive” which allows divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery only? (see Matthew 5:32 & 19:9)
  • Are you a “two clause permissive” which allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery and abandonment of an unbelieving spouse? (see also 1 Cor. 7:15)
  • Are you a “three/four clause permissive” which allows divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery, abandonment of an unbelieving spouse, and abuse/neglect? (see also Mal 2:16[4], Ex. 21:10-11; Deut. 21:11-14)
  • Or are you in the liberal permissive camp which allows for a divorce for any reason such as your spouse’s cooking is just downright awful?

Many would fall into the two clause view since they are the most commonly referred to by scripture. Ironically enough, the passages used to support these are the same passages used by the permanence view holders, but the outcome is different.

To illustrate again that faithful men who hold scripture in the highest regard are found in each of these different views, I’ve included John MacArthur’s take on divorce and remarriage;

“The first is found in Jesus’ use of the Greek word porneia (Matt. 5:3219:9). This is a general term that encompasses sexual sin such as adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest. When one partner violates the unity and intimacy of a marriage by sexual sin—and forsakes his or her covenant obligation—the faithful partner is placed in an extremely difficult situation. After all means are exhausted to bring the sinning partner to repentance, the Bible permits release for the faithful partner through divorce (Matt. 5:321 Cor. 7:15).

The second reason for permitting a divorce is in cases where an unbelieving mate does not desire to live with his or her believing spouse (1 Cor. 7:12-15). Because “God has called us to peace” (v. 15), divorce is allowed and may be preferable in such situations. When an unbeliever desires to leave, trying to keep him or her in the marriage may only create greater tension and conflict. Also, if the unbeliever leaves the marital relationship permanently but is not willing to file for divorce, perhaps because of lifestyle, irresponsibility, or to avoid monetary obligations, then the believer is in an impossible situation of having legal and moral obligations that he or she cannot fulfill. Because “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Cor. 7:15) and is therefore no longer obligated to remain married, the believer may file for divorce without fearing the displeasure of God.[5]

Other well-known proponents of this view include individuals like Todd Friel and Mike Winger, among other men of God who know scripture and hold it in high regard. In addition, Christ is the Cure’s own Nick Campbell holds to this view.

Objections/Counters:

Most of these objections would naturally be for those that hold to the one or two clause permissive views because while the liberal view would allow for anything, the others still hold a high, strict view of marriage by comparison.

  1. What does one do if their spouse is sentenced to prison for life with no parole and they are offering a way out of the marriage so the other spouse can be free to live the rest of their life in some semblance of happiness?
  1. What does one do if their spouse is a drunk or abuser of illegal substances with no desire to repent?
  1. How about the financially irresponsible gambler who is causing fiscal hardships on their family with their addiction?
  1. What about the spouse that openly admits that they are not emotionally or physically attracted to their spouse and has no desire for intimacy?
  1. What about the husband who denies his wife her desire to birth and raise children?
  1. What about the abandonment of a believing spouse? Paul mentions the unbelieving spouse’s abandonment, but the believer leaving is never mentioned. Would one be comfortable weighing the salvation of another on their ability to commit to a marriage relationship by claiming that one who abandons their spouse is a false convert? Paul does mention that one who fails to provide for their relatives “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8 ESV).

Biblically, there is no mention of these specific cases in scripture, so there can be no allowance for divorce unless you hold to the liberal permissive view or if you attempt to make a case from surrounding scriptures.

Conclusion:

As stated before, divorce is a difficult subject to navigate, further, it is not one to be so easily ignored. It is important to have a stance and know why you hold to it. While opinions may differ, I feel confident in saying that divorce is not something to be taken lightly, and if you do conclude that it is permissible, it should not be something approached as an easy out, but rather a final resort. God has called His people to holiness, to look different from the culture around us, and this is especially true in marriage. I implore the Christian to fight for marriage, no matter the circumstances, and find a God-fearing church with elders and pastors who will do the same in coming alongside you to support and foster reconciliation and healing first and foremost.

Leave your thoughts, questions, and suggested followups in the comments below.

Note: The views of CITC articles do not necessarily reflect the views of all CITC contributors. 


[1] Moses “commanded” them to not remarry the wife if she found another spouse after being sent away and was again sent away from the second husband. The command was not regarding the certificate of divorce, but of the allowance of remarriage. See Deut. 24:1-4 and Mark 10:2-12

[2]  Wayne Gruden goes into more of a detailed explanation of this in his position paper included in the additional resources at the end of this article.

[3] https://www.gotquestions.org/did-God-divorce-Israel.html

[4]  This verse can rightly be translated as either “God hates divorce” or that the man who divorces his wife “covers his garment with violence.”

[5] https://www.gty.org/library/articles/DD04/divorce-and-remarriage


Additional Resources:

While I may not endorse every teaching of every individual, these extensive works have been helpful 

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/divorce-and-remarriage-a-position-paper

The Permanence View Of Marriage, Voddie Baucham

https://www.gty.org/library/articles/DD04/divorce-and-remarriage

Divorce and Remarriage: EVERYTHING the Bible Says about It, Mike Winger

http://www.waynegrudem.com/grounds-for-divorce-why-i-now-believe-there-are-more-than-two

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