There is only one reason for divorce explicitly mentioned in Scripture: sexual immorality (Matthew 5:32; 19:9). Most Bible teachers also consider the abandonment of a believing spouse by an unbelieving spouse to be a reason for divorce based on the “not bound” phrase in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Are there any other valid reasons for divorce beyond these two? Perhaps, but we must be careful not to go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 7:15). Once we start presuming on Scripture, we put ourselves in the dangerous position of claiming to know what God meant instead of submitting to what God actually said.
Our hearts truly go out to those in difficult marriages. A bad marriage can be heart-wrenchingly painful, and it is immensely difficult to know how to bring healing and restoration. Even if one spouse has a valid reason for divorce, he or she should never be quick to file. God’s desire for marriage is a one-flesh relationship of a man and a woman in an unbroken union for life (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5–6). Divorce is always a tragedy with many lasting ramifications, even if it occurs for biblical reasons.
The most commonly proposed reason for divorce not found in Scripture is physical abuse. On this point we need to be clear: whether or not a divorce is sought, a spouse who is being physically abused should immediately remove from the situation and seek safety. If there are children involved, they should also be protected. Separating from an abuser is wise, and there is nothing in the Bible to forbid it. Protecting oneself and one’s children is morally right. Most Bible teachers would agree that unrepentant and/or continued physical abuse is a reason for divorce, but it is not an explicitly biblical reason.
Other proposed reasons for divorce, beyond physical abuse, are other forms of abuse: emotional abuse, verbal abuse, mental abuse, and spiritual abuse are examples. None of these forms of abuse are mentioned in Scripture as reasons for divorce. Again, the only explicitly biblical reason for divorce is adultery; less explicit is abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.
All other potential reasons for divorce, as horrible, ungodly, and damaging as they can be, are without a clear biblical rule. Deciding when a threshold is crossed that would make divorce allowable is thus a subjective matter. What qualifies as emotional abuse? How many incidents of verbal abuse must occur before divorce becomes a biblical option? What exactly is the definition of spiritual abuse? Who gets to decide when it has occurred?
There is also the matter of pornography. Some consider a spouse’s use of porn as tantamount to adultery, making divorce allowable. The logic is based on Matthew 5:28, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” While pornography and other expressions of lust are undeniably “heart adultery,” they are not the same thing as actual adultery. Pornography is destructive to a marriage, but to say it is a reason for divorce is going beyond what is written.
Another example of going beyond what is written can be seen in how 1 Corinthians 7:15 is sometimes applied. That verse says, “If the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace” (NLT). But what qualifies as abandonment? Does there have to be a physical departure, or does emotional abandonment also meet the criteria? If one spouse emotionally “checks out” of a marriage, can the other spouse seek a divorce? What about financial abandonment? What about neglect? Or is 1 Corinthians 7:15 simply saying that the believer should not contest a divorce instigated by the unbelieving spouse? Certainly, if an unbelieving spouse physically leaves, the believing spouse “is not bound”—and then we must decide in what way the spouse is not bound: spiritually? legally? morally? Is there a principle here to apply in cases where the unbelieving spouse does not physically leave? Perhaps there is. But we should be cautious about claiming biblical warrant for something that is not actually in the Bible. We must focus instead on what is clearly written to guide our decisions and inform our principles.
It is also important to differentiate between biblical grounds for divorce and biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage. Getting divorced does not automatically give one permission to remarry. Allowances for remarriage after a divorce are extremely limited, biblically speaking. Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 state that remarriage after a divorce not covered by the “exception clause” is adultery.
What about getting a divorce without remarrying? Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard” (Matthew 19:8). God’s heart for a broken marriage is always restoration, and divorce always comes as a result of sin, whether by one spouse or both. For more information on divorce and remarriage, please read these two articles:
What does the Bible say about divorce and remarriage?
I am divorced. Can I remarry according to the Bible?
So, are there valid reasons for divorce beyond what the Bible specifically identifies? The most we can say is “perhaps.” God allows us to make choices and live with the consequences. Without a doubt, issues related to a struggling marriage and divorce are complex and difficult, but we must trust what God says and follow His Word. As we make wise and God-honoring decisions, may we hold uphold the truth of Hebrews 13:4: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” And may we be careful to not go beyond what is written.