Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Biblical Grounds For Divorce

Whether understood literally or metaphorically, most Christians would agree that the account of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis indicates that the intention of the writer was that marriage would be a permanent arrangement. Divorce was not contemplated, although presumably god, since the Bible says he knows the end from the beginning, also knew that they would sin and that divorce would rear its ugly head. Nevertheless, lets assume that permanence in marriage was intended.

In that same account there is the confirmation that mankind is able to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. It is the central theme of the seduction of Eve by the serpent into eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As it says, in Genesis chapter 3, verse 22:–

“And the LORD god said, ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil:’“

Over time provisions were made so that marriages could end for various reasons, including those among ancient Israelites. Jesus himself commented on this in Matthew chapter 19, verse 8 and 9:–

“He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 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.”

What is interesting in this account is that Jesus said that the Mosaic Law permitted divorce despite it not being god’s intent, perhaps recognising the ability of mankind to determine right from wrong. However, he did specify that sexual misconduct, i.e. adultery, was a valid ground for divorce despite the fact that it was also not god’s original intent. here we have Jesus now permitting divorce when god had not originally intended it to be so. This, of course, represented an advance in social attitude since the penalty for adultery in the Mosaic Law was death by stoning and burning of the body. In this passage Jesus was recommending divorce for adultery rather than the death sentence imposed by the Law. This must be the conclusion since application of the penalty for adultery under the Mosaic Law would have freed the aggrieved party from the marriage because of the death of the guilty party and divorce would not have been necessary.

Matthew, when translating his Gospel into Greek from the original Aramaic used the word “porneia”, which is translated as “adultery”. However, this word encompasses more than the English word adultery, which specifically describes sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than their spouse. Porneia encompasses much more than that and includes the following,

Usually, adultery is seen as the only basis for permissible divorce among Christians, except in those churches which do not allow it for any reason, making no exception for what is meant by porneia as Jesus did. As you can see, however, Jesus used a more wide ranging term than the Greek word for adultery. The Greek word for that is “moicheia”, found in Matthew, chapter 15, verse 19, where Jesus says:–

“For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:”

Jesus used both words in this verse, moicheia, where it is translated adulteries, and porneia for fornications. The use of both indicates that there is a difference in meaning between the two words. It is porneia, which Jesus gave as the grounds for divorce, although it is as well to remember that porneia includes adultery so divorce for that reason is still permissible. In this bible context, fornication could be defined as any sexual misconduct involving another person or an animal, rather than its limited meaning in English as sexual intercourse between unmarried people.

Porneia also includes the worship of idols and the deliberate eating of meat from an animal sacrificed to an idol, presumably as that would constitute a communion meal with the god represented by the idol. The question must be asked as to whether this is also grounds for divorce. I believe the answer is that it is not and that Jesus’ comments relate to sexual misconduct rather than idolatry, even though idolatry was a capital offence in ancient Israel. The Apostle Paul specified the proper relationship for Christians to unbelieving, and perhaps idolatrous, spouses in First Corinthians, chapter 7, verses 12 to 14:–

“But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.”

Obviously, since idolatry was the norm in the days that Paul wrote, many unbelieving spouses would have worshipped idols, yet Paul advises that the Christian spouse not divorce them but continue living with them in the hope they may become Christian at a later date. However, Paul makes the pointed comment that this is his advice and that it does not come from the Lord and is therefore not a Christian requirement originating from god. It may be, therefore, that divorcing one’s spouse for idolatry is permissible, but strongly discouraged. Although not clear, I suspect that Paul wanted Christians to stay with unbelieving and idolatrous spouses and that he was saying that neither disbelief nor idolatry justify a divorce.

However, porneia is not the only grounds permitted for divorce. There is another. Later in the same chapter Paul says what Christians should do in response to an unbelieving spouse’s desertion. Continuing on from the previous quotation, in verse 15 he says:–

“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.”

Paul says that the Christian is “not under bondage” if deserted by their spouse. They are no longer bonded to the departing spouse, that is, they are no longer married to them. In effect, by leaving the marriage the unbelieving partner has divorced the Christian who is now free to remarry or not, as they choose. Paul obviously did not contemplate that a Christian couple would want to end their marriage this way and still expect to remain within the church, and if they did it would be incompatible with remaining truly Christian, so desertion could only happen if the spouse who left was a professed unbeliever or an unbeliever pretending to be Christian. In either case, this passage constitutes permission for divorce on the ground of desertion.

In the Bible divorce is therefore permitted for Christians on the grounds of:

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