Christian views on divorce

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Henry VIII of England is known for breaking with the Roman Catholic Church partly in order to obtain an annulment.

Christian views on divorce find their basis both in biblical sources dating to the giving of the law to Moses (Deut 24:1-4) and political developments in the Christian world long after standardization of the Bible. According to the synoptic Gospels, Jesus emphasized the permanence of marriage, but also its integrity. In the book of Matthew Jesus says "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery".[1] Paul the Apostle concurred but added an exception, known as the Pauline privilege. The Catholic Church prohibits divorce, and permits annulment (a finding that the marriage was never valid) under a narrow set of circumstances.[citation needed] The Eastern Orthodox Church permits divorce and remarriage in church in certain circumstances,[2] though its rules are generally more restrictive than the civil divorce rules of most countries. Most Protestant churches discourage divorce except as a last resort, but do not actually prohibit it through church doctrine.

The Christian emperors Constantine and Theodosius restricted the grounds for divorce to grave cause, but this was relaxed by Justinian in the sixth century. After the fall of the empire, familial life was regulated more by ecclesiastical authority than civil authority.

Roman Catholic Church[edit]

Although marriage was not yet a declared, defined sacrament, by the ninth or tenth century, the divorce rate had been greatly reduced under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church,[3] which considered marriage to be instituted by God and Christ indissoluble by mere human action.[4] Marriage is later defined as a sacrament, beginning in 1208, when Pope Innocent III required members of another religious movement to recognize that marriage is a sacrament as a condition for being received back into the Catholic Church.[5] In 1254, Catholics accused Waldensians of condemning the sacrament of marriage, "saying that married persons sin mortally if they come together without the hope of offspring".[6] In 1439 the Council of Florence defines marriage as a sacrament, solidifying the development of doctrine from the past twelve centuries and describing marriage as 'indisoluble' "since it signifies the indivisible union of Christ and the church." The passage follows, "Although the separation of bed is lawful on account of fornication, it is not lawful to contract another marriage since the bond of a legitimately contracted marriage is perpetual."[7]

Although divorce, as known today, was generally allowed in Western Europe after the tenth century, separation of husband and wife and the annulment of marriage were well-known. What is today referred to as “separate maintenance” (or "legal separation") was termed "divorce a mensa et thoro" ("divorce from bed-and-board"). The husband and wife physically separated and were forbidden to live or cohabit together; but their marital relationship did not fully terminate.[8] Civil courts had no power over marriage or divorce.

The Catholic church historically fought against the legalization of civil divorce in Catholic countries. For example, when Republican Spain legalized divorce in Spain for the first time, Pope Pius XI wrote: 'the new Spanish legislation, with the deleterious introduction of divorce, dares to profane the sanctuary of the family, thus implanting, with the attempted dissolution of domestic society, the germs of saddest ruin for civil well-being.' [9]

Canon law makes no provision for divorce, but a declaration of nullity may be granted when proof is produced that essential conditions for contracting a valid marriage were absent— in other words, that the sacrament did not take place due to some impediment. The grounds for annulment are determined by Church authority and applied in ecclesiastical courts. Annulment was known as “divorce a vinculo matrimonii,” or “divorce from all the bonds of marriage,” for canonical causes of impediment existing at the time of the marriage. “For in cases of total divorce, the marriage is declared null, as having been absolutely unlawful ab initio.”[10][11][12] The Church holds that the sacrament of marriage produces one person from two, inseparable from each other: “By marriage the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being of legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.”[13] Since husband and wife became one person upon marriage, that oneness can only be seen as null if the parties improperly entered into the marriage initially, in which the marriage does not validly exist.

Eastern Orthodox Church[edit]

The Eastern Orthodox Church does recognize that there are occasions when it is better that couples do separate, and permits remarriage in Church,[2] though its divorce rules are stricter than civil divorce in most countries. For the Eastern Orthodox, the marriage is "indissoluble" as in it should not be broken, the violation of such a union, perceived as holy, being an offence resulted from either adultery or the prolonged absence of one of the partners. Thus, permitting remarriage is an act of compassion of the Church towards sinful man.[14] A very low rate of divorce among Orthodox Christians in Greece may suggest that the same may be said for Orthodox Christians in the U.S. However, U.S. rates are inconclusive. The actual divorce rate is probably somewhat higher due to civil divorces obtained without an accompanying ecclesiastical divorce.[15] Divorced individuals are usually allowed to remarry though there is usually imposed on them a penance by their bishop and the services for a second marriage in this case are more penitential than joyful. The Orthodox Church traditionally states that "it blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth". Widowed spouses are permitted to remarry without repercussion and their second marriage is considered just as blessed as the first. One exception to this rule is the clergy and their wives. Should a married priest die, it is expected that his widow will not remarry. Widowed priests are not allowed to remarry and frequently end up in monasteries.

Oriental Orthodox Churches[edit]

The Oriental Orthodox Churches are more severe than the Eastern Orthodox Church in terms of divorce and adopt an intermediate position between Rome and Constantinople, allowing it only in the case of adultery. This position is true for both Copts and Armenians [16][17]

Conservative Protestant churches[edit]

Many conservative evangelical and Protestant churches, such as some Baptists, strongly oppose divorce, viewing it as a sin, pointing out Malachi 2:16 – "'For I hate divorce,' says Yahweh, the God of Israel, 'and him who covers his garment with violence!' says Yahweh of Armies. 'Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you don't deal treacherously'" (WEB). However interfaith marriages are handled differently in Ezra 9–10 and 1 Corinthians 7 (the Pauline privilege). Protestant scholar Bill Heth states that this is the majority view.[18]

The Westminster Confession of Faith[edit]

The Westminster Confession of Faith[19] (WCF), which is a secondary standard of the Presbyterian Church, allows for divorce under certain circumstances. In chapter 24, section 5, it states that the contract of marriage may be dissolved in the case of adultery or abandonment, citing Matthew 5.31 as proof.[20]

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints[edit]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) officially discourages divorce. The LDS Church encourages its members to work around marital problems before they lead to annulment or divorce, yet allows both practices in circumstances of infidelity or other serious cases.[21] Divorce is regarded with heavy social stigma, and Church authorities maintain that “Latter-day Saints need not divorce—there are solutions to marriage problems.”[22] LDS Church policy allows members to seek civil divorce independent of ecclesiastical authority, but cancellation of a temple sealing may only be performed with special permission from the First Presidency of the Church.

The LDS Church discourages divorce largely on account of its theology of the family. Early church leaders taught that God himself lives in a family and with a wife.[23] Tim B. Heaton, a sociologist from Brigham Young University, explains, “The key tenet in the Mormon Theology of the family is that, given the proper circumstances, family relationships will be perpetuated in heaven.”[21]

Latter-day Saint culture places an extreme emphasis on success in family life, leading to high expectations for marital success. David O. McKay, former President of the Church, stated that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home.”[24] Church publications often publish articles instructing members on means to improve married life,[21] and, on rare occasions, will become involved politically when it feels the institution of marriage is threatened by proposed public policy.[25] General Authority of the Church have repeatedly warned against an impermanent view of marriage. "[The view of marriage] as a mere contract that may be entered into at pleasure … and severed at the first difficulty … is an evil meriting severe condemnation, especially where children are made to suffer."[26] In 2007 Dallin H. Oaks, a senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and a former judge on the Utah Supreme Court, has counseled church members that "the weakening of the concept that marriages are permanent and precious has far-reaching consequences."[27]

Latter-day Saint couples (both with and without temple sealings) are found to have slightly lower rates of divorce when compared with Protestants and Catholics, and significantly lower rates when compared with those who state no religious preference.[28] The following is a chart showing the rate of divorce among various religions with data copied from the study “Religion and Family Formation,” conducted by Tim B. Heaton and Kristen L. Goodman.[21]

Sex Catholics Liberal Protestants Conservative Protestants Latter-day Saints No Religion
Male 19.8% 24.4% 27.7% 14.3% 39.2%
Female 23.1% 30.8% 30.9% 18.8% 44.7%

A lower divorce rate among Latter-day Saints may be due to a strong family culture, the difficulty of securing a cancellation of sealing, and other religious influences.[21] Al Thornton, from the University of Michigan, comments that, "With its unique theology and heritage concerning marriage, family, and children, it should not be surprising to find that Mormon behavior differs from that of the larger society."[29] Certain doctrines which are unique to Latter-Day Saint theology may help account for the lower divorce rate among active members. These doctrines include the literal parenthood of God the Father, the eternal nature of families, and the requirement of a successful temple marriage in order to gain salvation.[30] For Latter-day Saints, divorce is "a very serious undertaking", both socially and religiously.[30]

Various factors have been shown to lower incidence of divorce among church members, including church activity. Heaton says that, “Overall, church attendance is associated with lower rates of nonmarriage and divorce, [and] higher probabilities of remarriage after divorce.”[21] Studies suggest that the most important statistical variable affecting marital dissolution rates of Latter-day Saints is marriage in the temple, with some studies finding that non-temple marriages entered into by Latter-day Saints are almost five times more likely to result in divorce than are temple marriages.[31]

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states that “[t]he Church distinguishes between (1) civil marriages, which are valid for "time" (until divorce or the death of one spouse), and (2) temple marriages, or sealings, solemnized by proper ecclesiastical authority, which are binding for "time and all eternity."[32] In order for a marriage to be considered eternally binding, it must be performed in a Latter-Day Saint temple by properly authorized temple workers.[30] Marriage in the temple is strongly encouraged by church leaders, as Latter-day Saint marriages performed in the temple have less than a 7% chance of dissolution.[33]


Latter-day Saints Women Men
Married in Temple 7% 6%
Not married in Temple 33% 28%

There is some debate over the validity of these figures.[35] The LDS Church itself notes that "In reporting their findings, the two researchers noted that if there were some measure of religious commitment comparable to temple marriage among other religions, statistics for those groups might also be more favorable."[36] The accuracy of this statistic is also disputed on the grounds that the process required to obtain a temple recommend artificially limits the test group to those who are already less likely to divorce.[37] For example, the temple recommend requires Church members to abstain from pre-marital sex, a behavior associated with a higher divorce rate.[38] This statistic also fails to take into account couples who enter into a temple marriage and subsequently obtain a civil divorce, yet fail to apply for a cancellation of temple sealings. Nevertheless, numerous studies show a strong link in the Latter-day Saint culture between marriage in the temple and a lower divorce rate, and that among members "the temple marriage [is] the most resistant to divorce."[39]

In order to obtain a cancellation of temple sealings, permission from the First Presidency is required. Applicants for divorce are required to submit a request for a cancellation of sealings through their local ecclesiastical authorities, including information about the couple, and a personal appeal. The resulting cultural impact of a divorce upon an LDS couple is significant. Church leaders have stated that “every divorce is the result of selfishness on the part of one or both,”[27] and that selfishness is a leading cause of marital stress and divorce. Divorced Latter-day Saints may report feelings of alienation from fellow church-members and some Latter-day Saints may see divorce as “a sign of failure”.[40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ e.g., Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18, see also Expounding of the Law#Divorce
  2. ^ a b See Timothy (now Archbishop Kalistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church
  3. ^ Kent's Commentaries on American Law, p. 96 (14th ed. 1896))
  4. ^ Cf. Mark 10:9; Canons of the Council of Trent, Twenty-fourth Session. "Session the Twenty-Fourth". London: Dolman. 1848. pp. 192–232 Retrieved 2006-09-18.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. ^ Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, John P. Galvin (editors), Systematic Theology (Fortress Press 1991 ISBN 978-1-45140795-2), vol. 2, p. 320
  6. ^ Michael Thomsett, Heresy in the Roman Catholic church: A history, McFarland 2011 ISBN 978-0-78648539-0), p. 105
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ Kent's Commentaries on American Law, p. 125, n. 1 (14th ed. 1896).
  9. ^ Pius XI, Dilectissima Nobis, 1933
  10. ^ W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 428 (Legal Classics Library spec. ed. 1984).
  11. ^ Kent's Commentaries on American Law, p. 1225, n. 1.
  12. ^ E.Coke, Institutes of the Laws of England, 235 (Legal Classics Library spec. ed. 1985).
  13. ^ Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, p. 435 (Legal Classics Library spec. ed. 1984.
  14. ^ Mgr. Athenagoras Peckstadt, Bishop of Sinope (2005-05-18). "Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Orthodox Church: Economia and Pastoral Guidance". The Orthodox research Institute. Retrieved 2008-11-19. 
  15. ^ "A Perspective on Divorce Among Greek Orthodox Couples.". Retrieved 2008-02-12. 
  16. ^ Marriage, politics and Jerusalem
  17. ^ Catholicos Karekin I : Statement on Women Archived June 14, 2001, at
  18. ^ William, Heth, Jesus on Divorce: How My Mind Has Changed (PDF) 
  19. ^ Westminster Confession of Faith
  20. ^ Nash, D., Christian Ideals in British Culture: Stories of Belief in the Twentieth Century, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p. 139.[2]
  21. ^ a b c d e f Heaton, Tim B. and Kristen L. Goodman “Religion and Family Formation.” Review of Religious Research, Vol 26, No. 4 (June, 1985) Print
  22. ^ Haight, David B. “Marriage and Divorce”. Ensign (May 1984)
  23. ^ Thornton, Arland, "Religion and Fertility: The Case of Mormonism" Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Feb., 1979), pp. 131-142
  24. ^ (Quoted from J. E. McCullough, Home: The Savior of Civilization [1924], 42; Conference Report, Apr. 1935, p. 116
  25. ^ "LDS Donate Millions to Fight Gay Marriage" Archived September 18, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 2011-11-28
  26. ^ David O. McKay, in Conference Report, Apr. 1969, 8–9; or “Structure of the Home Threatened by Irresponsibility and Divorce,” Improvement Era, June 1969, 5.
  27. ^ a b Oaks, Dallin H. (May 2007), "Divorce", Ensign, LDS Church 
  28. ^ Goodman, Kristen L. “Divorce” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Ed. Daniel H. Ludlow. New York: Macmillan, 1992 391-93. Print
  29. ^ Thornton, Arland, "Religion and Fertility: The Case of Mormonism" Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Feb., 1979), pp. 132
  30. ^ a b c Kunz, Phillip R. "Mormon and non-Mormon Divorce Patterns," Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol 26, No. 2 (May, 1964) pp. 211
  31. ^ Duke, James T. “Latter-Day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members." Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, C. 1998 pp. 277
  32. ^ Goodman, Kristen L. “Divorce” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Ed. Daniel H. Ludlow. New York: Macmillan, 1992 391-93. Print
  33. ^ Christensen, T. Harold, Kenneth L. Cannon. “Temple Versus Non-temple Marriage in Utah: Some Demographic Considerations,” Social Science, 39 (January, 1964) 26-33. Figures from Table 5, page 31
  34. ^ Duke, James T. “Latter-Day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members." Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, C. 1998 pp. 488
  35. ^ "More Than 6% of Temple-Married Mormons Divorce" Retrieved 11/28/2011
  36. ^ "News of the Church", Ensign, July 1984  |contribution= ignored (help)
  37. ^ Christensen, Harold T. “Stress Points in Mormon Family Culture,” Dialogue 7 No. 4 (Winter 1972) page 22
  38. ^ Kahn, Joan R., Kathryn A. London. “Pre-Marital Sex and the Risk of Divorce.” Journal of Marriage and Family 53.4 (1991) Web, Retrieved 9/29/2011
  39. ^ Kunz, Phillip R. "Mormon and non-Mormon Divorce Patterns," Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol 26, No. 2 (May, 1964) pp. 212
  40. ^ Hoopes, Margaret H. (November 1972), "Alone through Divorce", Ensign, LDS Church 

Further reading[edit]

  • Gallagher, Maggie. "The Abolition of Marriage." Regnery Publishing, 1996. ISBN 0-89526-464-1.
  • Haltzman, Scott. Secrets of Happily Married Men: Eight Ways to Win Your Wife's Heart Forever. John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2005 ISBN 0-7879-7959-7.
  • Lester, David. "Time-Series Versus Regional Correlates of Rates of Personal Violence." Death Studies 1993: 529-534.
  • McLanahan, Sara and Gary Sandefur. Growing Up with a Single Parent; What Hurts, What Helps. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994: 82.
  • Mercer, Diana and Marsha Kline Pruett. Your Divorce Advisor: A Lawyer and Psychologist Guide You Through the Legal and Emotional Landscape of Divorce. Fireside, 2001. ISBN 0-684-87068-1 and ISBN 978-0-684-87068-7.
  • Morowitz, Harold J. "Hiding in the Hammond Report." Hospital Practice August 1975; 39.
  • Office for National Statistics (UK). Mortality Statistics: Childhood, Infant and Perinatal, Review of the Registrar General on Deaths in England and Wales, 2000, Series DH3 33, 2002.
  • U.S. Bureau of the Census. Marriage and Divorce. General US survey information. [3]