Is Abuse Grounds for Divorce According to the Bible?

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In Matthew 19 we read about a time when some Pharisees came to Jesus to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3)

The Pharisees, as usual, were attempting to trap Jesus with a no-win question, so that no matter what answer he gave, it would cause him to lose some of his followers. In the Law of Moses, Moses had allowed divorce for the reason of “uncleanness.” Human nature being what it is, people took advantage of the fact that the term “uncleanness” was open to interpretation, and they used it as a loophole, which afforded them the opportunity to “technically” keep the letter of the Law, while ignoring the heart of the Law. By the time of Jesus, people were in the practice of saying that basically anything could constitute “uncleanness,” for example: if a man saw a woman who was more beautiful than his wife, he could say that his wife was “unclean” in comparison to the other woman, and use that as grounds for divorce. If a man got angry at his wife, he could accuse her of being “unclean,” because her actions had caused him to sin by being angry.

The Big Two

Jesus combatted this flippant attitude towards marriage and divorce by taking people back to the design for marriage shown in creation, adding that divorce is permissible in cases of adultery.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:15, gave another justification for divorce: abandonment.

Historically, Christians have recognized these two reasons as the two biblical grounds for divorce. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 24, Paragraph 6 states that “nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.”

What About Abuse?

Certainly God hates abuse. Throughout the Old Testament, God shows himself to be a God who is on the side of the abused and opposes abusers. In the prophetic books, such as Amos, when his own people become abusers, God makes it clear to them that because of what they are doing, He is opposed to them, and He calls them to repent and actively work for the welfare of the weak, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.

However, since abuse is not specifically mentioned in the Bible as a grounds for divorce, some Christians have wondered what the protocol should be for those in abusive marriages.

What’s important to note, is that even amongst those who do not believe that abuse is a biblical justification for divorce, almost no one would ever recommend a spouse to stay in an abusive relationship. According to a LifeWay Reseach survey, 96% of pastors recommend at minimum: separation, protection (such as restraining orders), and church discipline (for the abuser) in cases of abuse.

While it is quite alarming that 4% of the pastors polled said that a spouse should stay in an abusive relationship even when violence is present, it is important to note that even amongst those who do not believe that abuse is biblical grounds for divorce, the majority do advocate for separation. Assumedly, those who advocate for separation but not divorce are hopeful that repentance and restoration are possible and are committed to a high view of the authority of Scripture, believing that the Bible only gives the two justifications for divorce listed above.

Wayne Grudem and “in such cases”

Amongst those who have sought to identify a biblical justification for divorce in cases of abuse, most point to 1 Corinthians 7:15, which speaks about one spouse abandoning the marriage. The argument goes that abuse constitutes a form of abandonment. Many people, even those who hate abuse, find this line of thinking to be contrived and unconvincing.

Recently prominent theologian Wayne Grudem, Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary, announced at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) that he had changed his position on divorce in cases of abuse based on his study of 1 Corinthians 7:15.

While he is still not persuaded by the “abuse is a kind of desertion” argument, he believes that another phrase in 1 Corinthians 7:15 presents a compelling argument for divorce in cases of abuse, namely the phrase, “in such cases” (ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις).

But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not bound. (1 Corinthians 7:15)

The question is, does this phrase refer to: 1) only cases of desertion by an unbeliever, or 2) cases in which a spouse has done something that has similarly destroyed a marriage?

Interestingly, this Greek phrase does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament or the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), but there are several uses of it in Ancient Greek literature, including 52 from the same time period as the New Testament. There are also several uses of the singular version of the word τοιοῦτος (“in this case”) in the New Testament.

Grudem’s analysis of the uses of these words in the Bible and in other Greek writings from the same time period has led him to the conclusion that “in such cases” refers to the cases in which a spouse has done something which, similar to abandonment, has destroyed a marriage, and that in such cases the latter part of 1 Corinthians 7:15 applies: the abused spouse is no longer bound, i.e. may divorce.

Grudem’s analysis has been met with very little criticism. You can read the outline of the presentation here, which includes a look at the different texts which use this phrase “in such cases” and what it means in those contexts, and why these led Grudem to change his position.

Looking for Loopholes or for the Heart of God

At worst, this could be used in the same way people used the idea of “uncleanness” in Jesus’ day: as carte blanche or a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. The same could be said though of the teachings of grace and forgiveness in the Bible, yet we must not reject nor downplay them just because they might be hijacked or misused – and I believe the same applies here.

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