Divorce Is No More A Sin Than Being Angry

“‘In your anger do not sin”” -Ephesians 4:26a & Psalm 4:4a, NIV.

“Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” – Matthew 1:19, NIV.


2014-07-31 20.05.24

Context matters greatly in both divorce and issues of anger. In and of themselves, neither anger nor divorce are sins. God both divorced (Jeremiah 3:8) and was angry (Psalm 18:7, etc). Much more needs to be known about context before either the action out of anger or the divorce can be labelled sin.

That said, we can obviously sin in our anger or the exhortation not to sin would make no sense. Furthermore, we can sin by divorcing or Jesus’ condemnation of the liberal view of divorcing on any cause other than sexual infidelity would make no sense (see Matthew 19). Once again, context matters greatly.

I write this to confound the knee-jerk reaction to treating divorce as an action taken by morally weak or sinful individuals. The fact of the divorce does not convey the morality of the action. It just conveys the reality of situation. The couple is no longer married.

As we can see, though, from the passage in Matthew, divorce can be an action taken by a righteous man. I would add that it can be taken by a righteous woman then by extension. Circumstances matter.

Joseph is betrothed to Mary, which was much closer to a marriage than today’s understanding of engagement. When he found out she was pregnant with Jesus, Joseph was confronted with natural evidence of Mary’s sexual infidelity. We might even call it adultery taking into account the social context. Hence, he decided to divorce her quietly.

And Scripture calls says he makes the decision to divorce Mary quietly because he is a righteous man!

Thankfully, the angel intervenes and Joseph marries Mary. And we know the rest of the story.

However, I wonder how many here have heard a sermon preached about divorce at Christmas time? Has anyone heard a pastor extol the virtue of Joseph for choosing divorce? As an evangelical, it is a shocking thought. However, it is right there in Scripture.

I raise this Biblical example and parallel to challenge the teaching that divorce is sin, full-stop. Such teaching is unbiblical and very hurtful to those of us divorced after surviving the adultery of our former spouses. Faithful spouses have more in common with righteous Joseph than the treacherous, divorced Jewish men of Malichi 2. However, walking into a church today, you would be hard pressed to know that.

Malachi 2:16a where God declares his hatred of divorce is well known. But Joseph’s righteous decision to divorce pregnant Mary quickly gets passed over on our way to the angels, shepherds, and wise men.


If only we listened to God’s word more closely, we may have avoided further wounding our fellow brothers and sisters. As I say, over and over, divorce is not the issue of focus. Sin and specifically adultery is what God consistently denounces in speaking about divorce.

Let’s not confuse righteousness with wickedness and condemn the faithful spouse along with the adulterer/adulteress any more.

2 thoughts on “Divorce Is No More A Sin Than Being Angry”

  1. I think a better interpretation of the text is that the comment about Joseph being a “righteous man” refers to his refusal to expose her and instead to handle the issue quietly, not to his action of divorce.

    That doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have continued to be righteous while divorcing her, but just because someone didn’t commit adultery and the other did doesn’t make a divorce right.

    Jesus talks about divorce being given because of hardness of heart. When divorcing, one breaks vows that were made before God. It is hard to see how breaking a solemnly sworn vow could be seen to be a righteous action.

    I know one can say that the other person broke the covenant first, rendering it all null and void, but one does have other options than divorce, and the marriage covenant doesn’t say, “as long as you keep your part.”

    I’m not saying that divorce is never the appropriate course for action for a Christian (Jesus did allow it in the case of adultery, and Paul adds the “willing to live” condition that would allow it in the case of abandonment, abuse, etc).

    Today’s society does lead to some complications with separation – legal divorce is required to lead separate financial lives, and allowing a spouse to bring you to bankruptcy doesn’t bring glory to God. I’ve even encouraged people to divorce when their spouse was doing stuff like that.

    But to imply divorce can be the most righteous thing to do I think is misleading and could encourage people to divorce far too lightly.

    1. JR,

      Obviously, we disagree. God is righteous, and God is described as divorcing Israel (e.g. Jeremiah 3:8). So, arguably, the attribution of righteousness may be made to this act even if it was done only metaphorically.

      This text in Mt 1:19 about Joseph does NOT attack Joseph’s character or heart for choosing divorce at all. He is praised. It is possible the emphasis may be on the way he resolved to divorce Mary; however, a blanket application of Jesus’ words concerning a hard-heart would still apply here under your interpretation since Joseph was still resolving to divorce. I fail to see how a “hard-hearted” person–i.e. a person choosing divorce per your application–would also be described as righteous. They seem mutually exclusive.

      Finally, I do not think any divorce following adultery as being done “too lightly” as you suggest. To make such a statement strikes me as coming from someone who does not really grasp the spiritual severity of that sin and God’s consistently strong stance against it. It only took one instance of such infidelity in the Old Testament for the partner to be ordered to death BY GOD, after all. Divorce is a merciful change in light of that stance today.

      I am unapologetic about my strong stance against adultery. What I have heard and experienced in cases where adultery is present is how the cautious counsel and incorrect application of Scripture keeps spouses stuck in destructive marriages where the adulterous spouse is causing considerable damage. And I absolutely believe divorce can be a righteous choice in such situations.


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