Is divorce a sin?


I have been a Christian and a member of the church for ten years. I have been studying and I have some Bible questions:

In Matthew 19:18 Jesus gives direct commands concerning murder, adultery, stealing and giving false testimony. Since Jesus gives us a direct command not to do these things, then failing to follow those commands would be a sin. A person who keeps doing what Jesus forbids would be living in continual sin. The only way to be forgiven of those sins is to repent and turn back to God.

In Matthew 19:6 Jesus gives a direct command concerning divorce. The only exception to separating what God has put together is in Matthew 19:9. Since Jesus gives us a direct command not to separate what God has joined together and your spouse hasn't committed fornication, then failing to follow the command not to separate is a sin. If you keep separating what God has joined together then you are living in continual sin. The only way to be forgiven of this continual sin is to repent, turn back to God, and turn back to your spouse. Failing to do so will cause you to go to hell because God will not forgive you if you keep living in the sin of an unscriptural divorce.

I find people agree with my conclusions on Matthew 19:18, but they don't agree with the same conclusions applied to Matthew 19:6. Why wouldn't God want us to treat all direct commandments from Jesus the same? To me, the Bible is easy to understand concerning divorce. Am I missing something scripturally?


"Now behold, one came and said to Him, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" So He said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments." He said to Him, "Which ones?" Jesus said, "'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions" (Matthew 19:16-22).

I quoted this passage at length to make a small point. The question being addressed is what this particular man needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments and the commandments in effect at this time was the law of Moses. The man wanted to know which ones, and Jesus quotes several from the Ten Commandments as well as their summary commandment found in Leviticus 19:18. The man claimed to have always kept these commands but wanted to know what else he needed to do. In other words, he wanted to go beyond just the requirements to do something extra special. Jesus then went to the heart of his weakness. He was unable to let go of his wealth, even to accept an invitation to be one of Jesus' disciples.

While murder, adultery, stealing, and lying are wrong; this is not the verse to prove it. The discussion was what this man needed to do while still living under the law of Moses. We live under the law of Christ. We can learn from the example given that we must do all that God commands and that we must not let any worldly thing become more important in our lives than serving our God. A better verse would have been Romans 13:9-10. It doesn't change the nature of your point, but it is best to be consistent in keeping things in context.

John tells us, "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (I John 3:4). Sin is the breaking of God's commands, so, yes, breaking a command of God is sinful. However, you distinguish between sinning and continually sinning. The phrase "continual sin" is not found in the Scriptures, and, hence, we cannot consult the Scriptures for a definition of the concept. This can cause difficulties in discussions if two people have different ideas concerning what is being discussed. Sins can be repeatedly committed to the point that a person becomes numb to the guilt of violating God's law. "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron" (I Timothy 4:1-2). A word used for this state is "licentiousness," which has been briefly defined as being deluded to think that you have a license to sin. A related word, "lasciviousness" is defined as the state where a person doesn't care what God or man thinks of his actions. Generally these words are applied to sexual sins, but any sin can develop into licentiousness. "For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (Jude 4).

When a person reaches the state of mind where he no longer cares, it is basically impossible to bring him back. The basis of repentance is sorrow (II Corinthians 7:10), and such a person is not sorry about his sins. Hence, his sins bring him death. "Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (James 1:13-15). Licentiousness is sin full-grown.

We all need to recognize that any sin left unrepented will bring about our spiritual death. "When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies" (Ezekiel 18:26). It is not the number of times that a person commits a sin that leads to death, but the lack of repentance that will spiritually kill a person. ""Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways," says the Lord GOD. "Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies," says the Lord GOD. "Therefore turn and live!"" (Ezekiel 18:30-32). It was true under the Old Law and it remains true today under the New Law.

Having said all of this to put things into proper perspective, the real core of your question is: "Is divorce a sin?" The general rule given by Christ is shown in the first part of Matthew 19. "The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, '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 then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."" (Matthew 19:3-6). Jesus was asked if a man could divorce his wife for any reason. Jesus's response was "no." His proof was that marriage existed from the time of creation and was established by God. In marriage, God makes two people into one unit. What God has put together, man should not seek to separate.

This matches what God had earlier stated through the prophet Malachi. "And this is the second thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and crying; so He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. Yet you say, "For what reason?" Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. "For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one's garment with violence," says the LORD of hosts. Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously." (Malachi 2:13-16). God hates divorce because it generates sin. To "cover one's garment with violence" means to cloak or immerse yourself in sin, putting it on display for others to see (Psalm 73:6; 109:18-19, 29; Isaiah 59:6).

Jesus said the same thing. "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" (Matthew 5:32). It is not a necessary implication that the act of divorce immediately causes adultery, but rather divorcing a spouse leads to adultery. Jesus said, "causes her to commit adultery." The reason is simple. Few people remain unmarried after a divorce. When a woman marries another after a divorce, she is committing adultery against her former spouse. The one who marries such a person is not innocent. He is involved in adultery as well.

There is an exception clause in Matthew 5:32. A man who divorces his wife because she was guilty of fornication (sexual immorality), does not cause her to commit adultery. Again the answer as to why is simple. She is already involved in adultery. Her husband's divorce of her will not cause her to later commit adultery -- she is already involved in that sin.

In Matthew 19:9 Jesus said, "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery." Jesus gives two conditions that cause the sin of adultery to be committed:

  1. a divorce not for the reason of fornication, and
  2. marrying another person.

This statement is not in contradiction to Matthew 5:32, but gives greater detail. [Just as some verses note that faith saves and other verses mention that both faith and baptism save. Both are true, but the latter gives additional details.] In Matthew 19:9 the adultery is not mentioned as a possible future outcome as it was in Matthew 5:32 but as a fact. Hence, divorce can lead to adultery, but marrying someone else is adultery. The one exception is: if the divorce is for fornication, the wording implies that the non-fornicator can marry another without committing adultery.

Divorce is also mentioned in I Corinthians 7. "Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife" (I Corinthians 7:10-11). Paul refers to Christ's statement in Matthew 19:6 that a married couple is to remain married. Paul then explains the implication of this command. Even if a wife chooses to leave her husband, she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. Once again, the reasoning is simple. If she left and married someone else, she would be committing adultery. Hence, she must remain unmarried so that if the problems that caused her to leave are resolved, she is free to return her husband.

This conclusion matches the Old Testament law found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4: "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man's wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance." Moses' law doesn't clearly specify the reason for the divorce, but it clearly forbids a woman from returning to her first husband after she married a second. Paul also does not give a reason for divorce, but he emphasizes the same point. A wife who leaves her husband cannot leave to marry another man. The exception clause is not mentioned because it is not critical to the point Paul is working to get across. Mentioning it would have added complications and left the overall point unclear.

So is Paul allowing divorces for any reason? The answer remains the same as the Lord's in Matthew 19, divorce for any reason is not allowed. Marriage is and always has been intended to be for life. "For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man" (Romans 7:2-3).

Some concepts in the Scriptures are taught against, but also are dealt with when they occur. For example, in general, it is wrong to be angry. "But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth" (Colossians 3:8). Yet we know from other passages that all anger is not ruled out. Anger is bad because it often leads to sin. ""Be angry, and do not sin": do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil" (Ephesians 4:26-27). Holding on to anger gives Satan opportunities to tempt us with sin, hence if we must get angry, it is to be of short duration. "So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (James 1:19-20). Similarly, because of the danger of angry leading to sin, we must only become angry reluctantly.

Divorce appears to be in the same category. It is not good for men. It is something that God does not like. It comes about because one or more people are sinning. Yet, sometimes it happens. Jesus implies that fornication is a just cause for divorce, but his statement also leaves it clear that a person doesn't have to divorce because his spouse has committed fornication. It is a choice that God doesn't like but allows. Paul too speaks of divorce as something that might happen. But the divorce Paul speaks of is different from the one that Jesus covers.

Jesus implies that the one divorcing a spouse because of fornication can marry another without committing adultery. Paul states that one who divorces (with no particular cause mentioned) is not allowed to marry another person; their only option is to reconcile with their spouse. Jesus and Paul do not contradict each other; hence, the causes for a divorce that Paul had in mind are different from the one cause that Jesus gave.

Like anger, divorce is not ideal and should be avoided. But if it happens, despite all the warnings, then it is regulated by the command not to marry another.

Hence, divorce can be clearly a sin. such as leaving because "I just don't love you anymore." It can be clearly permitted when one's spouse is committing fornication. Yet, there appear to be some situations where it is reluctantly tolerated, but regulated with the hopes that it will only be temporary.

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