What Does the Bible Really Say? — God Hates Divorce

By Danni Moss
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Malachi 2:16 For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away…

This verse is frequently translated “God hates divorce” and this is probably the single most often-quoted snippet in Christianity on the subject of divorce. “Everyone” knows that phrase and will tell you it’s in the Bible. Usually, the phrase is understood to mean, “since God hates divorce it is not, and cannot be, God’s will for any Christian to be divorced.”

First off, let me state the obvious. The Bible doesn’t say, “since God hates divorce it is not, and cannot be, God’s will for any Christian to be divorced.” But could it possibly mean that? Since the Bible does not actually say this, it is a fair question to ask whether that is really what it means.

Again, stating the obvious, it is reasonable to assume that God “hates” divorce, in the sense that He doesn’t like it. He isn’t dumb and any thinking person hates divorce. It is painful and it is not the way God intended marriage to be. So, of course, He doesn’t like it.

But is it also correct to assume that “God hates divorce” means divorce is an abomination to Him and absolutely forbidden?

In Isaiah 50:1 and in Jeremiah 3:8 God specifically states that He divorced Israel. I have discussed this in more detail in What the Bible Says About Divorce, III. It is important to remember that human marriage is symbolic of the spiritual reality, not the other way around. If anything, God’s example in marriage would carry more weight than the reverse.

Also, Ezra 10 tells of a time when God commanded the Israelite men to get divorces. I have discussed this passage in more detail in What the Bible Says About Divorce, IV. How could God possibly command the Israelite men to divorce their wives if, in fact, “God hates divorce” means that divorce is an abomination to God and absolutely forbidden?

Then in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 Jesus gives a very specific exception clause when He answers the Pharisees’ questions regarding the allowance of divorce. Obviously, Jesus did not say that all divorce is an abomination to God and absolutely forbidden.

Let me ask another obvious question. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Jesus to just say, “God hates divorce” when probed by the Pharisees, if God meant that all divorce is an abomination and forbidden? But instead of quoting the definitive “God hates divorce” Jesus went into detail in an entirely different direction. Why did He do that if Malachi 2 establishes the primary precedent for God’s view of divorce?

In the church what we hear most of the time is “God hates divorce” – and yet, that statement is never reiterated in the New Testament – or anywhere else in the Bible for that matter. “God hates divorce” is the most repeated phrase in the church on the subject of divorce but appears only once in the Bible. Why is this true if this one phrase is of such profound significance?

Would it be logical to believe that the words of Jesus are probably the most accurate reflection of God’s heart on the subject of divorce, since He was directly asked for God’s perspective? So why did Jesus speak as He did? I have addressed Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce in response to the Pharisees in the article, What the Bible Really Says – Don’t Put Asunder. For the sake of not straying from the point of this article, I’m not going to go into it here. But what Jesus said was important – and He quite noticeably did not say “since God hates divorce it is not, and cannot be, God’s will for any Christian (or follower of God, since He was talking to the Pharisees) to be divorced.”

It is necessary for us, as believers, to understand this issue, since the phrase “God hates divorce” is commonly being used in the church in an unbiblical manner and the result is a great deal of harm. It may not seem like a big deal for those who have not been faced with divorce or with marriages in violation of the Word, but the inaccurate handling of the Word is being used to keep people in bondage and also to cause added condemnation and rejection to people whom God has neither condemned nor rejected. Additionally, there are many who say they aren’t condemning or rejecting – but the effect is virtually the same since it is putting a burden of “wrong” on the shoulders of people for whom God has not a single shred of approbation – even without condemnation or rejection.

So what is Malachi saying?

Let’s first take a look at how several translations handle Malachi 2:16. This is very revealing.

King James Version

For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.

New King James Version
“For the LORD God of Israel says
That He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence,”
Says the LORD of hosts.

“ Therefore take heed to your spirit,
That you do not deal treacherously.”

New International Version

“I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty.
So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.

American Standard Version

For I hate putting away, saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, and him that covereth his garment with violence, saith Jehovah of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.

Holman Christian Standard Bible

“If he hates and divorces [his wife],” says the LORD God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the LORD of Hosts. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously.

English Standard Version

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her,says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

Now, let’s dig into this.

First of all, let me acknowledge that there are many people who believe the King James Version (1611 version specifically) is the only accurate translation. This version says God hates putting away. Without getting into any debate regarding the veracity of various translations, let me take this statement alone.

If, in fact, the King James Version is completely accurate, it is important to note that it does not say “God hates divorce.” It says God hates putting away. In the context of Malachi 2 it is clear God is directing His statements to men who have been unfaithful to their first wives and put them away in order to take heathen wives. God speaks repeatedly of their treachery. God’s focus is on their treachery – this is what He is condemning – not divorce.

This fact is the key to the entire passage. God’s eyes are not on the legal documents these men obtained. It is on their treacherous hearts. God condemns the treachery that led to the divorces – and this fact is plainly communicated in the context. These men “put away” their wives and divorced them. The putting away of their wives was a fact of their treacherous hearts, and it led to divorce. But the treachery of their hearts was the real problem.

Would God have said it was OK if they had mistreated their wives but had just taken second wives instead of divorcing their first ones? They were allowed to have multiple wives so taking additional wives would not have been a problem. However, the answer is still a resounding NO! In fact, this would still have left these men in the position of the men in Ezra, whom God commanded to divorce their heathen wives, thereby making it obvious His issue is not with divorce but with the heart condition of the people involved. In Malachi, His focus is on their treachery – not on the legal documents that resulted from the treachery.

Another substantive point to note about God’s viewpoint on the treachery of these men in Malachi 2 is that He treats the two treacherous acts as separate offenses. He condemns their treachery in taking heathen wives. Then He condemns their treachery in putting away their first wives. The two are both treacherous acts, separate and distinct from one another. This is an important detail because we need to remember that the second act was not treacherous because of the first, nor vice versa. Each was treacherous independently — two distinct violations.

In Malachi 2, the focus on these men’s treachery is directly reflected in what Jesus said when confronted by the Pharisees. The root problem in both places is the heart of putting asunder – not the legal document of divorce. Putting asunder is a direct violation of God’s original plan and instructions regarding marriage in Genesis. And putting asunder is something that happens in the heart long before a legal document is issued by a court.

With this understanding, we also see the Word is speaking a consistent message. The problem in Malachi 2 is the same as Jesus outlined in the New Testament. And we know God is consistent! He doesn’t change His mind here and there, being double-minded and condoning divorce in one place while condemning it in another.

All that said, there is more to be seen in these translations. Notice specifically the wording in the Holman Christian Standard Version and the English Standard Version.

Holman says, “If he hates and divorces [his wife],” says the LORD God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice…”

ESV says, “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her,says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence…”

Why do these two translations use such significantly different verbiage here? This change makes a serious difference in the meaning of the passage – especially considering the frequency with which “God hates divorce” is quoted in the church.

Before getting into the particulars, I think it would bear noting the pedigree of these two translations. In looking into this issue I corresponded with Barbara Roberts, the author of the book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion. She has an entire chapter (Chapter 8 ) devoted to this phrase in Malachi 2.

In the course of our correspondence, Barbara said, “The ESV is heavily promoted by Crossway, which is a major publisher of complementarian material. The Holman Christian Standard version was produced by the Southern Baptist denomination. So would-be-objectors from the conservative ranks need to sit up and take note.” I found this point interesting, since these translations are supported by conservative Christianity, yet this pivotal passage has not been seriously visited by the church systems which promote the translations.

But, let’s get back to the variance demonstrated here. There is actually a specific reason for such a substantive disagreement. Barbara goes into it in detail in her book, with extensive footnote documentation. Without reprinting the entire chapter here (you really need to read the book; it is exceptional) let me quote one relevant part here:

In Malachi 2:16, the subject of the verb “hates” is not explicit: the Hebrew does not read “God hates” or “the husband hates.” All we know from the verb is that the person who hates is third person masculine singular (“he” or “one”), just like “covers.” It is certainly not the first person “I hate.”

Now we come to our main point. Most Bible translations have taken the subject of the first verb to be God (God hates) and thereby changed he hates to the first person I hate. This is unfaithful to the Hebrew text and it creates an awkward grammatical shift between I hate and he covers

Some translations try to overcome the grammatical disjunction between the different subjects of I hate…he covers by translating the passage as I hate divorce…it covers… We need not resort to such a solution. The subject of “hates” is third person, not first, and we should only depart from the plain sense of a text if compelled by something in the text. Nothing here compels such a departure.

It makes sense to maintain the same subject (the divorcing husband) for both verbs. Since 1868 at least eighteen scholars have said that “he hates…he covers” is the most faithful way to render the Hebrew, with “he” being the divorcing husband.

Just in the past couple days I heard a preacher whom I greatly respect say, “God doesn’t condemn divorcees; He condemns divorce.” This concept is quite common in the church. But in reality it is inaccurate. God got a divorce, He commanded people to get divorces, and Jesus gave a specific circumstance under which divorce was appropriate. So God cannot possibly be condemning divorce.

What God does condemn is treachery that results in divorce. God condemns putting away or putting asunder. There is a huge difference between the statement that “God condemns divorce” and “God condemns the treachery of putting asunder in marriage.”

While I do not have ill feelings toward the person who said this, knowing he is speaking out of a place where his paradigm of truth has never been challenged, this kind of teaching is causing a great deal of hurt in the body of Christ. It is necessary, I would even say vital, for this error to be corrected so that people in the church can be accepted and loved according to truth.

Here is the bottom line. No matter how you look at Malachi 2, it is critical to understand the passage neither states nor implies “since God hates divorce it is not, and cannot be, God’s will for any Christian to be divorced.” This understanding is important because this passage is a lynchpin in church teaching on divorce and it is being persistently misused. And this misuse is causing significant pain and even alienation of believers who are victims of treachery in marriage and who most need the love and support of the church.

[In this article I have not addressed the subject of if/when Christians are allowed to divorce. I have addressed this elsewhere in other articles (see What Does God Really Say? Series What the Bible Says About Divorce, Series, and THE Biblical Grounds for Divorce) and will continue to write on the subject, since I have not yet covered every Scripture about it. The purpose of this piece is not to make any commentary on the parameters of divorce for Christians. My goal here is solely to explore the phrase “God hates divorce” in Malachi 2.]

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What the Bible Says about Divorce, IV

In Ezra 10 there is another interesting story that shows God’s heart about the permanence of marriage.

And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, answered and said unto Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land: yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing.

Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Ezra 10:2,3

When the people of Israel sought God’s heart during a time of repentance and prayer God directed them to put away their “strange” wives and the children they had with these women.

What made these women “strange?” It was certainly not the fact that they were foreign. God had put a process in place whereby a foreigner could become an Israelite. The problem was the fact that these women worshipped false gods.

“Put away” in this text is not a Hebrew word for divorce, but these men were not rightly married to these women in Israelite culture. They may have married them in some recognized civil fashion, and thereby been legally married, but there could not have married them in a legitimate Jewish marriage without the wives going through the process to convert to Judaism. So using one of the Hebrew words for divorce would technically be an inaccuracy.

But God made it completely clear, that even this marriage was intolerable to Him. Though these men had taken these women as wives and borne children by them, God expected them to put these wives away entirely.

There is an interesting principle here. In the New Testament, God makes it very clear why believers are not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. It is because of the issue of idolatry. We become one flesh and one spirit with a sexual partner, and simultaneously we are one spirit with God (I Cor. 6:15-20). How can we do that when we are under the authority of God and they are under the authority of Belial? (II Cor. 6:14-18 )

The Word also makes it clear that a man who does not provide for his family (which would include material provision, protection, etc.) is worse than an unbeliever (I Tim. 5:8 ). It also says that a man who is an idolater, drunkard/addict, verbal abuser, etc. is to be considered an unbeliever and we are to separate from them in every way (I Cor. 5:9-13). This is a very clear statement, and also a clear corollary to the Old Testament reason God mandated divorce for these men with idolatrous wives.

I believe the Word is very clear that a spouse who willfully, wantonly, persistently and deliberately chooses to deny God in these very clearly stated ways is a spiritual danger. In the Old Testament God told these men to put away their idolatrous wives. In the New Testament, God makes equally clear provision for the same, which we will talk about in more detail when I get to these New Testament passages.

Marital Abuse & the Bible

This excellent article is from beenthinking.org. It was originally posted to the site on March 27, 2008. This article was a personal blessing to me when I found it. Every point he makes was an affirmation of what God taught me in my own walk through, and out of, an abusive “Christian” marriage. I am so encouraged to see someone who is respected as a leader in Christianity saying these things openly.

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By Mart DeHaan

I’m on edge today. Here’s what’s happening. I’ve agreed to make a presentation to a group of church leaders on the subject of marital abuse. The invitation came as a result of materials and programs we have done on the subject.

As I prepare for the presentation, I find myself with mixed feelings. I’m not an authority on the subject. Yet, I also know that those of us who have used the Bible over the years to support marital permanence have often inadvertently contributed to a loss of peace and safety in the home. So I feel an obligation to do what I can to speak to a problem that, through so much misunderstanding, is robbing men of their honor, and women of their safety.

I’m convinced that most of us have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes the number of women and children who are living with the terrible knowledge of what is happening behind closed doors.

Since this is on my mind, let me just summarize a few of the biblical ideas that have been twisted out of context to contribute to the problem. This, by the way, will be a longer than normal post. But at this point I don’t know how to break it up. For those who want more information, I’ll include links to other materials and programs we have produced.

The Creation of Woman– I’ve been amazed how much of my life I spent with a wrong assumption about what the Bible meant by the biblical phrase “help meet” (Gen. 2:18,20 KJV). Not until recently did I discover the richness of meaning this term had in the original biblical language. According Old Testament scholar, Dr. Walter C. Kaiser, the Hebrew word helper (in Gen. 2:18,20 as a designation of the woman) is used only 16 more times in the Old Testament. In those cases it is always a designation of God as the One who saves, upholds, and sustains His people (as in Ps. 46:1). There is no sense in which this word connotes a position of inferiority or subordinate status. The word suitable for literally means “in front of,” signifying one who stands face to face with another, qualitatively the same, his essential equal, and therefore his “correspondent” (Hard Sayings Of The Bible, pp.666-67, IVP, Downers Grove, 1996).

The Curse– On the heels of our first parent’s sin, God made it clear that “male dominance” would combine with thorns, thistles, and death to sound the alarm that something had gone wrong with the world. Yet, for too long, so many of us have assumed that when God said that the man would rule over the woman (Genesis 3:16) this is what God wanted. Yet an honest look at this text will show that male dominance is no more of a virtue than weeds, death, or multiplied pain in childbirth.

Headship– The Bible uses the word picture of the human body to illustrate Christ’s relationship to the Church and a husband’s relationship to his wife. From this metaphor, the Bible shows us that, like the head of a body, a man needs to use whatever thoughts or choices he has to protect and care for his wife, just as he uses his own head to protect and care for his own body (Eph 5:23-30). Yet, for too long, so many of us have turned a beautiful word picture of sacrificial love into a self-serving expression of domestic entitlement. Instead of seeing the head as the source of protection and provision for the body, we have seen it as a justification for self-serving direction, control, and authority.

Even if benevolent leadership is implied in the “head”, it will not be authoritarian in style. Jesus made that clear when he said of leadership in general, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors’. But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves” (Luke 22:25-26).

Submission– In context, submission between husbands and wives is to be a two way street. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he uses the principle of “mutual submission” (5:21) to set the context for how husbands and wives are to understand what a Christ-centered relationship looks like. This mutual submission becomes clear, however, only as we understand that the sacrificial love that is needed for a husband to care for his wife as he cares for his own body is an even stronger picture of submission than what is asked of the wife. Yet on countless occasions, women have been told to be more submissive so that their husbands will be less abusive.

Superficial repentance and forgiveness– Healthy repentance and forgiveness enables us to turn away from self-destructive and dangerous behavior– rather than to prolong it. Yet in settings of marital abuse, the words, “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you please forgive me?” are too often used to demand forgiveness without consequences or a lasting change of heart. Once the man admits he is wrong, the pressure is back on the wife to act as if the abuse never occurred. The result is that a return to business as usual allows for the predictable cycle of abuse to continue.

Marital permanence– From the beginning, God made it clear that his ideal was for marriage to be a one-flesh, life-long relationship. What we have too often overlooked, however, is that when hearts became hard, and when the contract and trust of marriage was shattered, God is the one who allowed for divorce (Deut 24:1-4). The Law of Moses treated marriage as a covenant of mutual responsibility, and if a man refused to live up to his marriage commitments, a wife was to be released from the relationship (Exodus 21:7-11; Deut 21:10-14). Too many of us, for far too long, have overlooked the fact that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness” (2Tim 3:16). It is the Word of God that teaches us to allow for the dissolution of marriages that have ceased to exist for the purpose they were formed.

Church authority– The New Testament urges church leaders not to “Lord it over the church” but rather to lead by example (1Peter 5:3). This counsel is consistent with what Jesus taught about the servant role of those who lead in his Name (Luke 22:24-27). But when faced with issues of marital abuse, and a wife’s conclusion that she must leave for the sake of her own safety and sanity, many elders and church leaders have used the leverage of church membership to try and keep a marriage together. The result is that many victims of abuse lose not only their marriage but their church fellowship.

Jesus’ example of suffering– Women who quietly, or even openly, admit to being abused are often told to look at our Lord’s example of suffering, patiently, and unjustly. But when this happens we are overlooking the fact that Jesus was suffering in a redemptive way to show sacrificial love for his bride, the Church. To turn this around and say that a wife is to patiently endure the self-centered, violence of her husband is to unintentionally promote heresy. Encouraging a woman to suffer abuse as Christ did is to inadvertently tell her to misrepresent the good purposes of Christ (Eph 5:22-33).

God hates divorce– God’s strong disapproval of divorce as expressed by the prophet Malachi (2:14-16) is often used as a reason to believe that the termination of a marriage is not an option for the people of God– even in situations of marital abuse. Yet in context, God is talking about those men who willfully put away the wives of their youth to take other wives for themselves. The emphasis of Malachi is very similar to Jesus’ confrontation of the religious leaders of his day. Many of them were also dismissing their wives for self-centered frivolous reasons (i.e. for any reason). In the process they misused the intent of Moses’ allowance of divorce. (Matt 19:3-11). Yet by telling these men that he hates what they are doing, God was not contradicting the wisdom that he gave through Moses to allow divorce rather than to force couples to remain together in hardness of heart. Malachi speaks of the kind of divorce God hates as a kind of unjustified violence that God loathes. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah makes it clear that God himself gave unfaithful Israel a certificate of divorce (Jer 3:8).

In each of these examples, a good principle is taken out of context and used to support the idea that nothing is worse than divorce. When we do this we fail to see what all too many victims realize– that as regrettable as any divorce is, forced subjection to continued abuse can be far worse.

Now let me ask you, do you disagree with my understanding of any of the above ideas? Or, have you seen the damage that misapplied principles of the Bible can do to a marriage?

A True Story – Abuse in a Christian Home

 I have posted another article by Marcia, a Christian counselor in my Articles section, under Abuse in the Christian Home.  I have excerpted only a little bit to give you a flavor of the whole…

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…The first thing I noticed about her was that she was a tiny little thing. The next thing I noticed was that she was very young. Perhaps in her late twenties, but with a look of youthful innocence…

She was silent for a moment. Looking down at an invisible object somewhere on the floor, she tightly gripped her small clutch purse with both hands on its corners, centered it smoothly on her lap, and in a soft, almost breathless voice, exhaled, “I killed my husband…”

You can read the whole post here.

More About Abuse in Christian Marriages

I have added an article to my Articles section, written by Marcia, out of her experience as a Christian counselor. I’ve only excerpted a small “teaser” so follow the link to read the whole piece.

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…The issue that prompted this writing is that once again, I am observing and being asked to pray regarding the divorce proceedings of a couple going to court…once again…today. It is a situation where a lovely and faithful wife of around 20 years is being legally threatened and browbeaten by a husband who has verbally, psychologically and somewhat physically abused her for their whole married life. He is pompous and pious outwardly, and has drug her to several church counselors who admonished HER to be a submissive wife, and in essence, told her she had no legitimate right, in God’s eyes, to separate from him. They have four teenage children, two of which are severely handicapped. He remains in the family home; she and the children were the ones who eventually found another place to live. The children are afraid of being with him. Now he is trying to get her declared an unfit mother, and is placing demands that would rob her of many things that are rightfully hers, including custodial care. Hopefully the court will have wisdom and make right decisions. But the most heartbreaking fact to me, is that she has been counseled to remain in this destructive situation for many years, and felt that God would not approve of her doing otherwise…

The full article is here. Check it out!