Scripture is clear that marriage is part of the creation mandate. The only thing in creation that God pronounced “not good” was man’s aloneness (Genesis 2:18), so woman was created, and the marriage relationship was founded. The woman was made to be in a complementary relationship with the man, as his helper (Genesis 2:21-22). God blessed them and established that the man is responsible for leaving home and setting up a new household with his wife. The two were to become “one flesh” – that is, they were no longer two autonomous, separate individuals, but one home (Genesis 2:24).
Throughout Scripture, we see the idea that marriage represents the relationship God has with His people. Marriage is described as a covenant relationship in Malachi 2:14 and Proverbs 2:17. In Hosea, God says He will betroth His people to Himself in marriage (2:19-20). In the New Testament, Paul describes marriage as a type of Christ’s relationship with His Church (Ephesians 5:22-32).
Because of the importance placed on the marriage relationship, and because of what it pictures, it is not surprising that God would put severe limits on divorce. Deuteronomy 24 outlines some guidelines for divorce (verses 1-4), but these are so general that they were open to significant variation in rabbinic interpretation. Some rabbis essentially taught that divorce could be for any reason whatsoever, while others advocated stricter limits. Jesus showed that the Mosaic Law does not justify divorce, but rather limits it (Matthew 19:3-9). Moses only allowed divorce out of a recognition that our sinful natures would demand it (“because of the hardness of your hearts”). Jesus’ view of the permanence of marriage is made clear in Matthew 5:31-32, where He says that the only possible justification is adultery.
The idea that abandonment is a possible justification for divorce comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:10-16). After establishing that Jesus’ express teaching on the subject is that divorce is not to happen, Paul addresses a situation about which the Lord had no specific words. Paul’s words here, prefaced by “to the rest I, not the Lord, say…,” should not be considered any less inspired by the Holy Spirit. In verse 15, Paul says that, in the case of a believer married to an unbeliever, if the unbeliever chooses to leave the relationship, the believer is not under any obligation to insist that the marriage continue. The final words of that verse explain why – “God has called us to peace.” A marriage that remains intact despite one partner’s desire to leave will certainly not be peaceful.
Traditionally, Reformed doctrine is that divorce should be reserved only for reasons of infidelity. However, the fact that something is lawful does not mean it is the best course of action (see 1 Corinthians 6:12). The marriage relationship is the most intimate of human relationships (hence the “one flesh” declaration of Genesis 2). Correspondingly, the words for “divorce” in both Hebrew and Greek are very strong, indicating a real rending of a relationship. The biblical pattern for marriage has been repeatedly shown to succeed in societies at large. Strong marriages build strong families, and strong families build strong churches and strong communities. Although divorce is permissible in some instances, the truly biblical course of action would be to rebuke, await repentance, offer forgiveness, and be reconciled (see Matthew 18:15-17).