31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’[f] 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5, NIV)

It's common to see people say "obviously, this applies if the roles are reversed" but in a conservative/literal reading of the bible, we're on shaky ground to ever say "obviously it means X" if it doesn't explicitly say X.

From other commonly quoted verses on divorce, I do not find any situation where a woman is explicitly said to be able to divorce her husband. We have sections which say remarriage is adultery in any circumstances (no mention of infidelity):

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10, NIV)

I know Christians who adhere very strictly to the letter of what's written, and they would argue that while a man may divorce a cheating wife, she cannot divorce a cheating husband.

Are there verses I have missed? Is it valid to say we can interchange husband/wife here and if so why/why not?

  • Paternity was established by requiring that married women engage in relations exclusively with their respective husbands. Reliable establishment of maternity, by contrast, did not require any such social construct, since any child a woman bears was essentially guaranteed to be her biological offspring. Thus, the crime of adultery was limited to relations between a married woman and a man other than her husband.
    – supercat
    Mar 12 at 20:31
  • When the Israelites had the power to impose the death penalty (i.e., were not under foreign rule), divorce in the case of adultery was less of an issue, because adulterers were to be put to death; the betrayed spouse became a widow or widower and divorce was moot.
    – EvilSnack
    Mar 12 at 20:47

4 Answers 4


If men are permitted to have more than one wife, then why would a wife need to have the right to divorce a man if he took another wife ?

Men are not permitted (by Jesus) to put away a wife. Which relates to however many wives they may have.

Paul allows of a woman separating from a husband (for whatever reason) but encourages reconciliation if possible. If not, she is to remain 'unmarried' after separation, 1 Corinthians 7:11.

Divorce ('putting away') is discouraged and one reason for this is that it almost always involves enforced eviction from the marital home.

Voluntary separation is another matter.


Dt. 24:1

When a man, after marrying a woman, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, and he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house.

In first century Judaism, women did not have the right to divorce their husbands at all. Although Jesus was quite "progressive" in terms of uplifting women generally, on this particular issue, there is no record of his reforming the Law on this particular issue.

Moreover, we should be aware that, while Matthew's account makes an exception if the wife commits adultery, Mark and Luke do not. (Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18) Thus, in Catholic tradition, both men and women are not allowed to divorce, even on grounds of adultery. This article provides a historical summary on Christian doctrine regarding divorce, from the church fathers through the Reformation and beyond.

Conclusion: You have not missed any verses except for those which imply that neither the man nor the woman may divorce a cheating spouse. However the Sermon on the Mount does not directly address the issue of a woman's right to divorce.


This is a subject of considerable debate and discussion among scholars and theologians.

Matthew 5:31-32 (Sermon on the Mount):

31 “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

This discusses the topic of divorce and shows the significance of marriage commitment. The phrase "except for sexual immorality" allows for a possible interpretation that divorce may be permissible in instances of marital infidelity. Notice that, as you said, the directive is explicitly focused on the scenario of men divorcing their wives, with no direct reference to women initiating divorce due to adultery.

In Mark 10:11-12:

11 So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. 12 And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

This text addresses the topic of divorce from the perspective of both husbands and wives. The passage specifies that if a woman divorces her husband and marries another man, she is considered to have committed adultery. The scripture does not explicitly cover the case where a wife divorces her husband due to his adultery. Furthermore, the text does not specifically state that a husband commits adultery if he remarries after a divorce, as it focuses on the scenario involving a wife's actions.


Some interpreters contend that the principles elucidated in these excerpts are equally applicable to husbands and wives, despite the fact that the language employed specifically addresses one gender. They assert that the overarching principles of marital fidelity, dedication, and the gravity of divorce pertain to both partners, irrespective of their gender.

On the other hand, there are those who may interpret these excerpts in a more literal manner, concentrating on the particular situations described and the language employed.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

The words of the precept were vague—“If she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her,” and the two school of casuists took opposite views of its meaning. The stricter party of Shammai held that the “uncleanness” meant simply unchastity before or after marriage. The followers of Hillel held, on the other hand (as Milton among Christian teachers), that anything that made the company of the wife distasteful was a sufficient ground for repudiation. Even a moralist generally so pure and noble as the son of Sirach, took in this matter the laxer view—“If she go not as thou wouldest have her, cut her off from thy flesh, and give her a bill of divorce, and let her go” (Ecclesiasticus 25:26). It is noteworthy that our Lord, whose teaching, especially as regards the Sabbath question, might have been, for the most part, claimed by the school of Hillel, on this matter of divorce stamps the impress of His approval on the teaching of his rival.


Knowledge of the historical and cultural background is useful in interpreting biblical passages. During ancient Jewish society, men held the power to initiate divorce while women faced restrictions in terms of rights and legal options. So, Jesus' teachings on divorce may have aligned with the prevailing standards of the times.


We should recall that the subject of divorce is controversial and complex, not because of the theology but because of the passions involved. That is, humans have made marriage and divorce more complicated that it should be.

Now, Jesus' answer in Matt 5:31, 32 is very specific and does not address the question of divorce generally; ie, they do not cover the entire subject of divorce. Thus, we should not try to make Jesus' comments say more than they do.

Now, Roman and Jewish law is quite different from modern law. Roman and Jewish law was highly misogynistic and heavily slanted in favor of husbands. For example, it was quite common and accepted under Roman law that men could have a wife and one or more mistresses and even a "boy" (ie, catamite) who may have even been a servant in the house. Such behavior was quite forbidden for women. Further only men could divorce their wives; wives could not divorce their husbands. Jesus does not address Himself to this question.

Further, the excuse/pretext for husbands divorcing wives could be (and often were) very flimsy.

Under Jesus' and Paul's teaching the playing field was leveled. Let us examine this teaching:

  • divorce is highly discouraged, Matt 19:6, 1 Cor 7:10-14, 16
  • the only ground for divorce is sexual immorality, Matt 5:31, 32, 19:9
  • people who divorce, on other grounds and remarry commit adultery, Matt 5:32, 9:9
  • in some cases, separation without divorce (and without remarriage) is desirable, 1 Cor 7:11. This might be particularly appropriate where domestic violence is involved.

Note that in Paul's more general treatment of divorce, wives and husbands are treated equally in 1 Cor 7:1-16.

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