How Does Loving Others as Yourself Apply to Divorce?

Living by religious rules is a poor substitute for living the principle of loving others as ourselves. Let’s consider the example of divorce.

Divorce is looked upon as a despised condition among some Christians. The pastor I grew up under refused to marry couples if one was divorced. However, my next denomination had an ‘innocent party’ clause. If a person was the innocent party in an adultery that resulted in divorce they could remain members and remarry; but that implied, too simplistically, a guilty party who took all the blame, the shame, and the consequences.

So when a divorce happened there was an attempt on both sides to prove that the other was the guilty party; it added pain to an already painful process.


Why Does God Hate Divorce?

I grew up to the thundering refrain, “God hates divorce!” The source of this thought is Malachi 2. There are difficulties in the Hebrew text; some translations, including the KJV, follow the alternate reading, foot-noted in the NIV as:

“I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence.” [NIV footnote]

But other translations follow the reading:

“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect.”

Why would God hate divorce? I suggest it is because of the harm it creates, particularly to women, as indicated by the second reading. This is why I hate divorce too! It destroys relationships and causes great suffering for individuals.

In most societies women are very dependent on men; in some they are little more than property. And in many societies it is rather easy for men to divorce a wife they no longer like. This can be financially and socially devastating to divorced wives who are suddenly on their own.

Even in today’s world, divorced women find it difficult to support themselves, and often their children, as single mothers. On the other had, divorced men face handicaps as well.

Divorce destroys relationships and creates suffering.

What Jesus Says about Divorce

In Matthew 19 people asked Jesus’ opinion:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Jesus rejects casual divorces, but I don’t think he means for us to never divorce. At times divorce is the most loving option.

Sometimes Divorce Prevents Harm

Divorce destroys relationships and causes harm, but remaining married can cause greater harm. In these situations, the couple must consider carefully the harm of divorce to all parties. But at the same time, the harm of staying together is an important consideration.

For example, an abused wife should consider divorce; there is no way we can require a wife to tolerate a husband’s abuses. A sad, and frequent, result of legalistic insistence against divorce is that it condemns women to remain in abusive relationships. Church leaders demand that the wife forgive her husband repeatedly, even though he continues to abuse her. The abused can never escape, and it isn’t right.

This situation is not isolated; it happens all the time in some circles. It is legalism gone rotten, and it is certainly not living by the ethic of love.

‘Never divorce!’ is a woefully inadequate guideline. One cannot determine a legalistic rule about divorce that applies to all situations. Couples must evaluate the harmful effects in their particular case, and authorities have no standing to dictate what they should do. Thinking about divorce is certainly a case of considering the best for all involved instead of following a rule.

Preparing to Live the Principle of Loving Others

Potential divorce is only one difficult issue that requires careful choices based on the good of everyone involved, but we have to understand ahead of time what it means to love others. We can’t just wait, unprepared, until we are faced with a moral decision.

Fortunately, there are ways we can prepare, so that we can make good decisions and continue to grow in showing love to others. We will talk about those things next time.

Image credit: By Original (Anillos.jpg): Musaromana; this one: Tangopaso (Adaptation of File:Anillos.jpg on Commons) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
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11 Responses to How Does Loving Others as Yourself Apply to Divorce?

  1. Chas says:

    Tim, this is a very complex subject, because there are different kinds of suffering in marriages that are going sour. In the case of violence, whether that be physical, or emotional, suffering is likely to be reduced by separation, even when the couple have children, since the children will be affected by the violence, even if it is has not been inflicted directly on them. Then there is the consideration of whether just to separate, or to go on to the full separation of divorce. That is the parallel of just living together, or going into the commitment of marriage. I leave it to others to comment on these additional factors.


    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      You are right Chas. Marriage and family can be complicated and full of suffering that impacts lives for decades to come. I think it is foolish for legalistic believers to tell people that divorce is never an option or to reject, or look down upon, those who are divorced.


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  3. michaeleeast says:

    Thank you for a comprehensive review of divorce. We were talking about this yesterday at a church discussion of marriage. It was revealed that divorced women in Jesus’ society had no means of support and it was for this reason that Jesus banned divorce. He was acting out of compassion not setting a hard and fast rule. So if we judge by compassion that a woman is better off leaving her husband she is able to support herself in today’s society.


  4. fiddlrts says:

    One thing my pastor has repeatedly emphasized in his teachings on marriage is that “don’t divorce” is the wrong focus. The church tends to hammer away at “you must be committed” and “divorce isn’t an option,” while spending little time teaching on how to build a good marriage. (Other than the token “submit” for the woman and “be a leader” for the man.) Divorce is a symptom of an underlying dysfunction in the marriage, rather than a cause in and of itself, and that tends to be missed.

    On the other hand, if one follows your recommendation of focusing on being loving, good things tend to happen. A couple committed – not to avoiding divorce – but on being loving toward each other will tend to build a strong marriage that is actually fun to be in. They won’t have to knuckle down and “commit,” because they will actually want to be around each other. If we as a church could do a better job of helping couples build love into their marriages, then divorce will cease to be as big of an issue.


    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Fiddlrts, many of the same leaders who insist that people never divorce are the same ones who insist that women submit and men be in authority. These two religious rules, together, are a recipe for disaster.

      I really like what you say about commitment: “A couple committed to being loving toward each other will tend to build a strong marriage that is actually fun to be in.” Ain’t this the truth!

      Commitment to each other instead of legalistic rules–what a great idea!


    • Chas says:

      Fiddlrts, I am in agreement with you in regard to commitment. It is what marriage ought to be about, because marriage should be all about love. Love should come first, and lead to marriage. The increasing trend toward cohabitation without the expression of commitment that marriage displays is disturbing, because it reveals that one, or both partners has not really made a deep and lasting commitment to the other and in their heart wishes to keep an escape route open. Actually that shows that they do not truly love their partner.

      The traditional fundamentalist view of marriage that you mentioned (for the wife to submit and the husband to be a leader) runs counter to what we are shown in the words that are attributed to Jesus, that the one who wants to be leader should serve the others. If a man wishes to be the leader in his marriage, he should be committed to loving and serving his wife in any way that she needs.


  5. sheila0405 says:

    Tim, no one but the two people within the marriage really know what is going on in the relationship. We make assumptions based on legalism that can often add hurt to an already painful situation. Your points are well taken.


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