Category: Divorce: What are biblical grounds?


The “exception clause” is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 “except for marital unfaithfulness.” It gives an “exception” for remarriage after a divorce being considered adultery. Matthew 5:32 reads, “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” Similarly, Matthew 19:9 reads, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” So, what precisely is “marital unfaithfulness,” and why is it an exception to Jesus’ statement that remarriage after a divorce is adultery?

The meaning of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is clear. If a person gets a divorce and then remarries, it is considered adultery unless the exception clause is in effect. The phrase “marital unfaithfulness” is a translation of the Greek word porneia, the word from which we get our modern word “pornography.” The essential meaning of porneia is “sexual perversion.” In Greek literature around the same time as the New Testament, porneia was used to refer to adultery, fornication, prostitution, incest, and idolatry. It is used 25 times in the New Testament, most often translated “fornication.”

The meaning of porneia in the New Testament seems to be the general concept of sexual perversion. Other Greek words are used to refer to specific forms of sexual perversion, such as adultery. With this meaning in mind, according to the exception clause, any participation in sexual perversion/misconduct is an exception to Jesus’ statement that remarriage after a divorce is adultery. If one spouse commits adultery, or any act of sexual perversion, and a divorce results, the “innocent” spouse is free to remarry without it being considered adulterous.

Please understand, though, that the exception clause is not a command for divorce and/or remarriage. Jesus is not saying that if marital unfaithfulness occurs a couple should divorce. Jesus is not saying that if a divorce occurs due to marital unfaithfulness, the innocent spouse should remarry. At most, Jesus is giving allowance for divorce and remarriage to occur. In no sense is Jesus declaring divorce and remarriage to be the best or only option. Repentance, forgiveness, counseling, and restoration are God’s desire for marriages damaged by unfaithfulness. God can and will heal any marriage in which both spouses are committed to Him and willing to follow His Word.

When discussing what the Bible says about divorce, it is important to keep in mind the words of Malachi 2:16, “I hate divorce, says the Lord God.” Whatever grounds the Bible possibly gives for divorce, that does not mean God desires a divorce to occur in those instances. Rather than asking “is ______ a grounds for divorce,” often the question should be “is _______ grounds for forgiveness, restoration, and/or counseling?”

The Bible gives two clear grounds for divorce: (1) sexual immorality (Matthew 5:32; 19:9) and (2) abandonment by an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:15). Even in these two instances, though, divorce is not required or even encouraged. The most that can be said is that sexual immorality and abandonment are grounds (an allowance) for divorce. Confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration are always the first steps. Divorce should only be viewed as a last resort.

Are there any grounds for divorce beyond what the Bible explicitly says? Perhaps, but we do not presume upon the Word of God. It is very dangerous to go beyond what the Bible says (1 Corinthians 4:6). The most frequent additional grounds for divorce that people inquire about are spousal abuse (emotional or physical), child abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), addiction to pornography, drug / alcohol use, crime / imprisonment, and mismanagement of finances (such as through a gambling addiction). None of these can be claimed to be explicit biblical grounds for a divorce.

That does not necessarily mean, though, that none of them are grounds for divorce which God would approve of. For example, we cannot imagine that it would be God’s desire for a wife to remain with a husband who physically abuses her and/or their children. In such an instance, the wife should definitely separate herself and the children from the abusive husband. However, even in such a situation, a time of separation with the goal of repentance and restoration should be the ideal, not necessarily immediately beginning divorce proceedings. Please understand, by saying that the above are not biblical grounds for divorce, we are definitely not saying that a man/woman whose spouse is engaging in such activities should remain in the situation. If there is any risk to self or children, separation is a good and appropriate step.

Another way to look at this issue is to differentiate between biblical grounds for divorce and biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage. Some interpret the two biblical grounds for divorce mentioned above as the only grounds for remarriage after a divorce, but allow for divorce with no remarriage in other instances. While this is a plausible interpretation, it seems to come too close to presuming upon the Word of God.

In summary, what are the biblical grounds for divorce? The answer is sexual immorality and abandonment. Are there additional grounds for divorce beyond these two? Possibly. Is divorce ever to be treated lightly or employed as the first recourse? Absolutely not. God is capable of changing and reforming any person. God is capable of healing and renewing any marriage. Divorce should only occur in instances of repeated and unrepentant heinous sin.