While husbands and wives both sin against each other on a regular basis God only allows for divorce for certain serious sins that break the marriage covenant. He also allows different reasons for divorce based on one’s gender as husbands and wives have different rights, responsibilities and roles in marriage.
God allows divorce just as he allows capital punishment because sin exists in the world. If people did not murder other people there would be no need for capital punishment. In the same way if husbands and wives did not commit grave sins which break the marriage covenant they made between their spouse and God divorce would not be needed.
God hates divorce
“For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away…” – Malachi 2:16a
It is clear in Scripture that God hates divorce in the same way that he hates murder and many other sins. But because of the presence of sin in marriages God regulated and allowed divorce.
Moses tells men when they can divorce their wives
“1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.
3 And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife;
4 Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (KJV)
God allowed men to put away (divorce) their wives if they “found some uncleanness in her”. What Moses meant by “uncleanness” was hotly debated by the Jews for centuries and was not settled until Christ clarified what Moses meant by “uncleanness” in the Gospels.
Some Jewish teachers interpreted “uncleanness” as “any reason” even if only for the reason of a wife being a bad cook. Others maintained that marriage was for life and could only be dissolved for grave sins.
Regardless of the reasons for his sending his wife away in divorce, once a man had given his wife a bill of divorce she was freed from him and he was no longer considered her husband and she was longer considered his wife in the eyes of God or their countrymen. She was thus free to remarry.
If however she did remarry – her first husband was forbidden from taking her back again as a wife.
Moses tells women when they can divorce their husbands
“10 If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
11 And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.” – Exodus 21:10-11 (KJV)
Moses speaking under the inspiration of God tells women that if their husbands do provide them with food, clothing and duty of marriage (sex) then she has the right to be freed from the marriage. Notice the language that men “put away” their wives and women are to “go out free” from their husbands. The reason is because a wife whether she was free born or born a slave was considered the property of her husband. The main difference between slave wives (usually referred to as concubines) and free wives was that only the children of free wives had inheritance rights.
In the case of a woman being freed during the time of Israel’s theocracy – she would have to seek out male relatives or town elders to force her husband to give her a bill of divorce for his violation of their marriage covenant.
A few clarifications on food, clothing and sex that are required from husbands. This does not mean that a husband had to give his wives some lavish lifestyle. Only that he had to care for the basic necessities of food and clothing for each of his wives. In fact he might give some wives better food, better clothing and more sex based on their performance as a wife.
On the issue of duty of marriage or the duty to have sex with one’s wife this did not mean any one of his wives could control when he had sex with them. We must remember the context of this passage is a man being allowed by God to take a second wife but only that he cannot neglect his first wife in doing so.
What this means practically speaking is that he cannot stop having sex with his first wife and only have sex with his second wife. He must continue to regularly have sex with all of his wives at his discretion.
Also even though this passage was speaking about a man taking a second wife it was regularly applied to all marriages(even first marriages) and the Jews would use the phrase “food, clothing and bed” in their marriage vows in reference to Exodus 21:10-11.
Moses indirectly tells us that a spouse is to be freed if physical abuse occurs
“And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.” – Exodus 21:27 (KJV)
While in this passage above Moses was referring to the relationship between a slave and his master the principle that physical abuse ends a relationship would also apply to marriage. If a man or woman are physically abused by their spouse or if a spouse attempts to kill their spouse this is cause for the marriage to be ended. Also notice the gender neutral phrase “his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth” indicating that God does not expect a man or a woman to have to tolerate and live under physically abusive conditions.
Christ settles the argument on what Moses meant by “uncleanliness”
“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” – Matthew 19:9 (KJV)
After centuries of debate amongst Jewish scholars Christ comes on the scene and finally settles the debate about what Moses meant by “uncleanliness” that a man found in his wife that would allow him to divorce her.
Christ says the “uncleanliness” Moses referred to was “fornication”. “Fornication” is a translation of the Greek work “porneia” which means sexual immorality. It refers to any violation of God’s law regarding sex. Premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, incest, group sex, prostitution, Beastiality, rape and sexual defraudment are all types of fornication.
So what Christ was telling men – if your wife commits adultery (has sex with any man but you) or sexually defrauds you (refuses to have sex with you as her covenant of marriage demands) then you as a man can rightly divorce your wife. Also during the betrothal period if a woman was found to have sex with another man other than her betrothed husband he could divorce her as Joseph sought to quietly put away Mary when he thought she had sex with another man before they were married(Matthew 1:19).
Paul expands on Christ’s exemption for divorce
“But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.” – I Corinthians 7:15 (KJV)
Paul tells us that a husband or wife are no longer bound to their life long duties to their spouse if their spouse departs. They are free from these obligations and thus free to divorce and remarry.
Some have tried to limit Paul’s abandonment clause to only a specific situation of an unbeliever leaving a believer over their faith. But there is absolutely no reason why this would not apply to ALL cases of abandonment even in marriages where both the husband and wife are professed believers.
We must also understand that if a husband departs from his wife he is neglecting his duties to provide food, clothing and sex to his wife which is also a violation of Exodus 21:10-11. If a wife departs from her husband then she would be neglecting her duty to have sex with her husband (sexual defraudment) and a husband would have grounds to divorce his wife based on Matthew 19:9 for fornication which includes sexual defraudment.
Summary of Biblical Reasons for Divorce
The Bible is not gender neutral on all the reasons that a man or woman may divorce their spouse. In some cases it is gender specific.
God allows a man to divorce his wife for these reasons
- If she claims to be a virgin before marriage and he finds out she has in fact had sex with other men before marriage (she has engaged in pre-marital sex with other men).
- If she has sex with other men after they are married (adultery)
- If she refuses to have regular sexual relations with her husband (sexual defraudment).
- If she physically abuses him or makes attempts on his life.
- If she abandons him.
God allows a woman to divorce her husband for these reasons
- If he fails to provide her with food and clothing (shelter is implied with clothing).
- If he refuses to have regular sexual relations with her (sexual defraudment).
- If he physically abuses her or makes attempts on her life.
- If he abandons her.
Key differences between reasons for men and women to divorce their spouses
As you can see from the list above which is directly derived from the Scriptures there are some differences as to the reasons a man can divorce his wife and the reasons a wife can divorce her husband. It is common today for most Christian theologians to apply gender neutral standards to many things in the Bible but divorce and marriage are areas where God is anything but gender neutral.
We may think God’s regulations for both marriage and divorce are unfair but he is God and he had made men and women with different rights, responsibilities and roles.
The first glaring difference between men and women is that a woman does not have the right to divorce her husband for not being a virgin.
Another difference is that women do not have the right to divorce their husbands for adultery. It is true that Christ defined two new types of adultery. One is “mental adultery” or “sexual covetousness” when a man thinks about how he can unlawfully sexually possess another man’s wife (Matthew 5:27-28). The second new type of adultery Christ speaks of is when a man commits adultery against his wife by divorcing her for unlawful reasons.
But let us be clear on what adultery is not.
Adultery is not when a man sleeps with another woman when he is married.
Biblically speaking that it is called “whoremongering” when a man sleeps with a woman to whom is he is not married. Whether he is married or single makes no difference – in this situation is a whoremonger.
Biblically speaking the sexual act of adultery only occurs when a married woman has sex with a man other than her husband. It is a property crime against her husband by both her and the man who has defiled her.
So from the male perspective the only way a man goes from being a whoremonger to also being any adulterer is if the woman he sleeps with is married. Then his sin is against both God and the husband of the woman he has had sex with.
Here is the hard and uncomfortable truth that smacks right against our gender neutral and gender equality society. Christ in both Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 gives the fornication reason to divorce only to men in regard to their wives. He does not tell women they can divorce their husbands for all types of fornication. He only gives them one type of fornication for which they may divorce their husbands and that is sexual defraudment (sexual denial).
This idea that women can divorce their husbands for “cheating on them with other women” is not found in the Bible.
Really the entire idea of a man “cheating on his wife” is founded in the false ideology that God meant for men to only have only one wife and all their love, sexual energy and devotion is to be directed toward her.
The truth is if a man has sex with a woman he is not married to his sin is against God David said when he sinned with Bathsheba.
“Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.” – Psalm 51:4 (KJV)
While it is true that David had also sinned against Uriah the husband of Bathsheba by sleeping with his wife and then having him murdered – since Uriah was not gone David’s sin was with God and God alone.
Notice that David did not go apologizing to each of his wives for cheating on them with Bathsheba.
This is something that hits home for me since I have a teenage daughter as I write this that will one day be married. If her husband were to go out whoring around I would so badly want her to be free from him. But God does not allow women to divorce their husbands for such reasons. Again this is a hard truth to accept even for me as I write on these subjects.
But we have to be so careful to not apply gender neutrality to subjects where God is gender specific.
But if she did(my daughter or any other woman) separate from him because of this she would have to follow Paul’s command to remain celibate or be reconciled to her husband (I Corinthians 7:10-11).
A final difference is on provision. A husband cannot divorce his wife for failure to provide him with food, clothing and shelter. This is his God given role, not hers (Ephesians 5:29).