Is Divorce a Sin?

Kings have created churches out of it, families have split over it, countries have gone to war over it, and religious leaders have debated it for centuries. Is divorce a sin? Or, is divorce permissible in some cases?

Divorce is an unfortunate reality for couples (we hope at least) whose marriage has become irretrievably broken. It is not necessarily a sin and, in some cases, it’s justified.

More importantly, the divorce, or the marriage, is less important than the two people involved.

The following discusses divorce, its logistics, and how the three major religions that view sin in a biblical context treat it.

What Is Sin?

To determine if divorce is a sin, one must first determine what, exactly, sin encompasses. At the most basic level, sin is anything that forsakes God and God's will. There is, however, more to it.

In-depth, the following is a breakdown of sin:

  • An action might be a sin (such as murder)
  • An action might not be a sin, but the motivation behind it might be a sin
  • The motivation might not be a sin, but what is done in its name might be a sin
  • The same applies to thoughts that are sins

What is Marriage?

At its most basic, marriage is the point at which two become one. In this case, marriage is when a couple enjoins legally and spiritually in the eyes of God. Marriage, in God's eyes, is sacred, which is kind of scary to be honest.

However, the major religions do not clearly define when a marriage has started or if a marriage has taken place. Traditionally, the following three instances are viewed by some to indicate a marriage:

  • God only recognizes a couple married when it is a legal marriage (Romans 13: 1-7; 1 Peter 2:17)
  • God recognizes a marriage when a formal exchange of vows occurs to create a union between committed partners (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31)
  • God considers a couple married when they have sexual intercourse

God Recognizes Legal Marriage

The first interpretation is almost certainly wrong.

Marriage existed before the government, meaning God recognized marriages that were not technically “legal” because no law but God's law existed.

Second, to get government permission the official sanction of marriage is to remove God's will from that sequence and put in place statutes, which may change over time.

Third, God commands obedience to civil government (render unto Caesar) when obedience does not violate God's law. That would indicate that a couple should make a marriage legally official, but not that it is required to be recognized by God.

Formal Exchange of Vows

The basis of this is the story of Adam and Eve, where God gave Adam his companion, Eve, making them the first married couple. Jesus also attended a wedding, which indicates God is fine with weddings but does not indicate they are required to make a marriage official. He’s just a party lover like most of us, maybe.

The problem with that line of thought is that ceremonies enjoining couples would be left solely to the Church. That definition has also fluctuated. Some denominations, for example, forbid marriage between gay individuals, and some sanction it.

It is unlikely, with such confusion, that God would make a formal religious ceremony the point where marriage is legitimate.

Sex Equals Marriage

Sex being described as the same as marriage is based on the “one flesh” principle of man and woman becoming one. The flaw here is that not all couples can engage in sexual intercourse.

Additionally, if sexual intercourse creates a marriage, premarital sex creates a marriage. 1 Corinthians 7:2 indicates that premarital sex or any sex outside of marriage is not moral.

It is impossible for a sacred union to originate from an immoral act in God's eyes.

What is Divorce?

A divorce civilly is the dissolution of a marriage agreement (as evidenced by a marriage certificate) that relieves both parties from the rights and responsibilities associated with marriage. It does not absolve anyone, and it is subject to civil law.

Religiously, a divorce is when a spiritual union is broken.

Is Divorce Ever Authorized?

In all major religions, there are at least general permissions for divorce under very specific circumstances.

Even religions that have strict definitions of marriage, sin, and divorce provide for at least relief from an abusive spouse, for instance.

It should also be noted that there is debate among denominations and even religions regarding whether divorce is sinful. What a bum! Imagine having to wait settling for divorce only to find out in the end it wasn’t sinful.

Here is a rundown of the major religions or religious branches and what each says about divorce.

Judaism

Divorce is not looked at in the context of whether it is a sin. It is not looked favorably upon, but in some cases, it views divorce as justified and necessary, and in rare cases, it is encouraged.

Marriage is considered a “holy contract,” and the dissolution of that contract would be considered “unholy.” Unholy, however, does not translate into “sin.”

In biblical law, the husband must initiate a divorce. Over the course of time, the strict rendition of that rule was modified to require that a wife must consent to a husband's demand for a divorce.

In addition, a Jewish religious court can compel a husband to grant a divorce for a good reason.

Good reasons include:

  • The husband refuses to have relations with the wife
  • When the husband fails to provide for the wife
  • When the husband is unfaithful
  • When the husband abuses the wife mentally or physically
  • If the husband has a “loathsome disease” (leprosy, AIDS, etc.)

Basically if the husband is about to die you can leave him, sheesh.

Justifications for a man to divorce his wife in Jewish law are broad and have been subject to much interpretation. A husband with his wife's consent can get a divorce when “she fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her.” (Deuteronomy 24: 1 – 4)

Interpretation of when divorce is permissible has varied widely:

  • The wife is unfaithful
  • The wife is abusive
  • Immodest or indecent behavior short of adultery
  • A husband can divorce a wife for no reason at all
  • A husband can divorce a wife for failing to engage with him sexually

Whether it is a sin to get a divorce does not come into play. There are times when the unholy dissolution of a marriage is justified. It is reasonable to conclude that divorce is not a sin but is only permitted if certain criteria are met.

Christianity

Christianity has a rigid interpretation of divorce, although it is not universal. In most cases, Christians are not supposed to get divorced unless certain stipulations are met. Those stipulations are precise but also subject to some interpretation.

In the Old Testament, divorce is permitted in circumstances of

  • Adultery
  • Sexual immorality
  • Physical neglect
  • Physical and emotional abuse
  • Abandonment by an unbeliever

The verses that back up these exceptions are Exodus 21: 10-11 and 11-14, Genesis 2: 24, and Malachi 2: 13 – 16.

In the New Testament, divorce is sanctioned when:

  • One of the other partners is sexually immoral
  • Either partner commits adultery
  • Abandonment by an unbeliever

These exceptions are found in the verses above, plus Matthew 5: 31 – 32, Matthew 19: 8, Mark 10, and 1 Corinthians 7:15.

There is no justification for divorce outside of those parameters. Christians also view marriage as a covenant or agreement before God of two committed people joining in a union.

Breaking that without cause is considered a sin in most major Protestant denominations. There are some denominations where divorce is justified or needed.

The Catholic Church does not recognize divorce and considers a couple that gets divorced civilly still married in the eyes of the Lord. Thus, taking up with another partner, even if the relationship results in the couple joining in marital union, would be considered adultery.

Because of this, divorced couples cannot participate in certain aspects of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church went all Eminem with their “You only get one shot, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime”.

That would indicate that in Catholicism, a divorce is not a sin in the strictest sense because it is not recognized from a religious perspective. That also means any subsequent relationship between parties would be invalid and a sin.

Catholic Annulment

An annulment is one exception that allows a marriage to be dissolved legally and lets both parties remain in good standing in the Church. An annulment is not a dissolution of a marriage.

It is a statement that the couple was never married, to begin with, because something was missing to make the marriage valid.

There are specific reasons an annulment would apply:

  • One partner does not freely consent
  • One or both partners were not mature enough to understand what marriage entailed
  • One or both partners had no intent to be faithful
  • One or both partners were not open to having children

Annulment feels a lot like bad excuses compared to the other reasons for divorce resolutions, honestly. Although, considering people married at 12 in the old ages, they were obviously not mature enough to know nothing.

An annulment is different from dissolving a marriage legally. When an annulment is granted, the partners and any children are presumed to have been assuming incorrectly that the marriage existed. In the eyes of the Church, it did not.

Annulments have become very controversial worldwide because of the lax way some parts of the Church apply them. The USA, for example, is always criticized for its more relaxed stance on divorce and granting annulments.

Regardless, if a marriage never exists, there can be no divorce, and thus, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, no sacred vows were broken.

Islam

Divorce is permitted in Islam, but only when all other means of saving the marriage have been exhausted. The process of divorce includes verifying that everything that could be done has been done. If that process finds there is no other recourse, a divorce can be made official.

The process includes:

Personal Evaluation

A Muslim is strongly encouraged to look within and consider their role in the marriage dissolving. If that is correctable, they are to do so. They also are encouraged to analyze if they have done all they can to save the marriage. If the answer is “no,” they are pushed to do so.

Reconciliation Attempts

The second step is to attempt to reconcile, using what was learned during the evaluation period. This attempt must be sincere, and both parties must try to make things work. They are to avail themselves of all the Muslim faith offers regarding instruction, counseling, and training.

Arbitration

If, after evaluation and reconciliation, a Muslim couple wants to divorce, familial counseling is enlisted. If a couple does not want to involve family members, they can go to an independent counselor.

If arbitration does not work, the couple can file for divorce. Both the man and woman can file for divorce, and there are different processes for either.

So, in Islam, as long as you follow the process and do so with good intent, divorce is permitted and is not considered wrong or a sin.

So, you’re telling me Islam is the most open and regulated religion for divorce? That's nice for a change.

Is Divorce A Sin?

Every major religion views marriage as sacred. In two of the three here, divorce is viewed as a direct breach of a contract that God views as sacred. Both, however, have exceptions that pertain to the circumstances that would justify a divorce.

From that, it is reasonable to conclude that while a divorce is to be an absolute last resort, and perhaps even a wrong decision, it is not a sin. A sin either is or is not. You cannot half commit adultery, for example. You either committed adultery, or you did not.

However, that does not mean that the decisions that got the divorce are not sins. If your spouse wants a divorce because you cheated, the cheating is sinful for several different reasons. In that case, a divorce is a result of sin.

Islam is the only major religion that permits divorce outright. It is to be avoided, and the prophet Mohammad said Allah hates divorce, but in some cases, it is inevitable and just.

Final Thoughts

Divorce is painful for all involved. There are times, however, when a divorce is not only preferred but necessary. All three religions that deal with sin recognize that and have exceptions that allow a marriage to be dissolved.

Thus, it is not a sin but should not be implemented until every other opportunity to reconcile has been pursued and has failed.