There is an increased awareness of abuse and how women are often the victims. Recent movements like #MeToo and #ChurchToo have tried to raise awareness. It is shocking that some of the accused or their enablers are Christian leaders. These scandals have caused the debate over divorce to erupt once again in churches, especially among conservative evangelical Christians. What are the biblical grounds for divorce? Christians have debated this issue for centuries. Is abuse such grounds?
Sincere Christians who have a high view of both Scripture and marriage disagree on this issue. I humbly, with no dogmatic attitude, share my convictions on this sensitive topic. I hope to demonstrate from Scripture that abuse is a ground for divorce in a particular application of 1 Corinthians 7:15-16.
Different Views on Divorce
We will now briefly examine the historical views of the Church. A brief outline of contemporary views will follow.
Before the Reformation
Michael Gorman traces the history of Christian perspectives on divorce and remarriage. He says:
In the early church, many voices addressed the subjects of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, but their message, on the whole, was quite unified. Christian marriage, they said, is an indissoluble bond. Divorce, with the implicit right of remarriage, was not an option for Christian couples (though Origen admits some toleration existed), but permanent separation was. Remarriage after separation was considered punishable adultery or bigamy—sometimes more so for women than men. Even remarriage after the death of one’s spouse was viewed by the church fathers and councils with suspicion, as “disguised adultery,” in the words of Athenagoras.
In the case of religiously “mixed” marriages, church councils sometimes took a more lenient view, invoking the so-called Pauline privilege of permissible separation (1 Cor. 7) as legitimate grounds for allowing a convert to divorce a pagan spouse and then marry a Christian. “Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli.” Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/augustweb-only/46.0c.html, paragraphs 1-2.
Gorman says that Augustine was the first to consider marriage a sacrament. Augustine’s view became predominant among Western churches. Augustine, in other Gorman says that Augustine was the first to consider marriage a sacrament. Augustine’s view became predominant among Western churches. Augustine, in other words, viewed marriage as a means of receiving God’s grace. He opposed remarriage even after cases of adultery. If marriage is a sacrament, then divorce is akin to rejecting the Lord’s Supper or renouncing one’s baptism. Eastern Christianity, however, was more lenient about divorce and remarriage than in the West. Eastern Christians allowed divorce after adultery and other serious offenses. Remarriage often occurred after a lengthy separation.
During the Reformation
Western Christianity split into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Protestant Reformers reacted against the sacramental view of marriage after finding no scriptural basis for it being a means of receiving God’s grace. Gorman explains the Reformers’ views:
According to the Bible, . . . marriage is certainly holy and is in principle indissoluble, but there are certain acts that break the marriage bond and hence permit divorce and remarriage. The Reformers could not agree, however, on the legitimate grounds—scriptural or otherwise—for divorce.“Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli” in Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/augustweb-only/46.0c.html, “The Reformers” section, paragraph 1.
Gorman elaborates on each of the major reformers’ views. Martin Luther believed that divorce is an acceptable last resort in cases of infidelity, impotence, refusal of marital relations, and desertion. Luther strongly supported remarriage for the offended party. John Calvin permitted divorce as a last resort due to adultery or desertion. The radical reformers, such as the Anabaptists and Hutterites, agreed that adultery is a legitimate ground for divorce, but they divided over desertion. Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Bucer were the liberals of their day. Roman Catholics banned all divorce and remarriage in their response to the reformers’ views during the Council of Trent, but they permitted separations.
Protestants could not find a consensus on the grounds for divorce, so their debate continues into the present day. According to Daniel Akin, there are four major views today: the unlawful marriage view, the betrothal view, the patristic view, and the Protestant-Evangelical view.
The unlawful marriage view permits divorce in cases of incestuous marriages (Lev. 18:6-18). Its advocates believe these are the cases Jesus speaks about in Matthew 5:31- 32; 19:1-12, but they divide over whether remarriage is permissible.
The betrothal view believes that the Bible permits divorce only in the case of fornication while a couple is engaged (Matthew 5:31- 32; 19:1-12). The Bible never permits divorce once the couple marries.
The patristic view is named after the predominant view among the Church Fathers. According to this view, the Bible only permits divorce in the case of adultery (Matt. 5:31- 32; 19:1-12). Remarriage is not permitted.
The Protestant-Evangelical view believes spouses should reconcile and have their marriage restored, but it permits divorce in the cases of adultery (Matt. 5:31- 32; 19:1-12) or abandonment by an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:15). Most believe the innocent party may remarry if the failed marriage is deemed irreconcilable. Per 2 Corinthians 5:12, some believe a divorcee may remarry without fault if the divorce occurred before converting to Christianity.
Akin believes the unlawful marriage view and betrothal view have weak arguments because they do not seem to fit the Scriptures’ total context. The patristic view has its strengths, especially since it was the prominent view among those relatively closer to the Apostles’ time. The Protestant-Evangelical view is the most common among conservative evangelicals, but this view is not unanimous. There is disagreement within the Protestant-Evangelical view over whether abuse is a form of separation and whether lust is a form of adultery.
The debate centers around the meaning of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:31- 32; 19:3-12 (Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18 are more concise) and Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7. The controversies usually center around Jesus’ intended usage of the Greek word porneia (“sexual immorality”) in Matthew 5:31- 32; 19:1-12. Is porneia fornication, adultery, or sexual immorality in general? Does porneia include persistent, unrepentant lust such as viewing pornography? Second, what is Paul’s intended usage of the Greek word chorizo (“to separate, abandon, or desert”) in 1 Corinthians 7:15? Is “separation” only a request to leave a marriage, physical abandonment, or does it include other rifts in a relationship such as abuse? The proper interpretations of other passages in the Old Testament on marriage have been debated because it is the background of these passages.
Becoming One Flesh
Genesis 2:18-25 tells us that a man leaves his family to cleave to his wife, and the two become one flesh. The marriage permeance view teaches that since spouses become one when they are married, their beings are somehow fused together. In other words, it teaches that spouses lose their individuality and can never be separated.
William Luck, however, observes that cleave in Hebrew (dabag) means to be glued firmly together. Cementing bricks together illustrates the Hebrew meaning. The bricks lose their independence, but they do not lose their individuality. Stress from the elements could cause fractures that loosen the bricks from each other. The fractures must be repaired if the two are to remain united. If one brick is severely damaged, it could be replaced. Likewise, Luck explains, spouses cleave to one another and lose their independence, but they do not lose their individuality. Luck, in conclusion, says:
I would regard cleave, in the Old Testament, as implying a bonding of two individuals that emphasizes intended, but not ontological, permanency. Implying intention, the term is really closer to the idea of covenant than it is to a bonding of being.Divorce and remarriage: Recovering the Biblical View, p. 10.
Luck observes that becoming one flesh is the start of a new closely intertwined family relationship:
But their relationship is not for that reason permanent in fact, though their marriage ought to remain intact until death parts them. The marriage relation is not best typified by mere sexuality, by terms of mystery or an ontological union of spirits. It is a bond based upon intention. It is the establishment of a kinship relationship between two people that, in spite of death or divorce, has ongoing ramifications for them and/or their near kin.Divorce and remarriage: Recovering the Biblical View, p. 22.
The Old Testament Certificate of Divorce
Moses permitted the Israelite men to divorce their wives and remarry with regulations with a certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). The Bible, therefore, recognizes the reality of broken marriages in a sinful, fallen world. Jesus would later comment in Matthew 19:3-12 that the reason for the certificate is the hardness of hearts (see Genesis 2:18-25). We can infer that the divorce certificate is certainly not part of God’s design. Still, it is a “concession for the protection and welfare of an innocent victim” according to Akin (2012, p. 6). Commenting on the historical context of this passage, Akin says that “a woman’s ‘put away’ status left her in a precarious situation, perhaps leading to either starvation or prostitution” (2012, p. 6). Permission to remarry to protect a woman who was ‘put away’ is perhaps why God conceded to the divorce certificates.
Malachi 2:13-16 is often cited as another passage that universally prohibits divorce. “God hates divorce,” the passage is often paraphrased. Still, it is not certain if that paraphrase is a faithful translation of the passage in question. It is unclear what the direct object is in Hebrew, so there are different possible translations. Does Malachi say that God hates divorce, as many translations have rendered it? Is the object of God’s hatred a man who divorces his wife (e.g., Contemporary English Bible)? Then again, is Malachi referring to a man who hates his wife by divorcing her (e.g., New International Version)?
Regardless of which translation is correct, we can infer that God looks unfavorably upon divorce in general, but should this passage be understood as a prohibition against all divorces? The historical context of the passage may indicate not. Malachi is a contemporary of Ezra. God may be responding to the unwarranted divorce of foreign wives (who worshiped other gods), as recorded in Ezra 10:2-12. Although they should not have married foreign wives per the covenant, it was equally wrong to divorce them. Despite the people’s wrongdoing, a careful examination of the passage from Ezra shows that God did not command them to divorce their wives, nor was it really Ezra’s idea. Malachi’s passage should not be applied as a universal prohibition on all divorces but a prohibition on divorces that are not allowed by the concessions provided in God’s law.
The story of Hosea is often used to teach that divorce is never possible. In this narrative, God tells the prophet Hosea to marry an unfaithful wife and be faithful to her. Indeed, that is true. However, Hosea’s marriage is not typical because it is supposed to illustrate Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant God made with them (Hosea 1:2). Using Hosea’s marriage as an example for all marriages is not appropriate. The misuse of this passage is an example of taking an illustration meant for one situation and applying it to something entirely different: That is a dangerous approach to biblical interpretation. Hosea does not illustrate a healthy, restored relationship between spouses: It illustrates the strained relationship between God and Israel.
With the Old Testament background examined, what are we to make of Jesus’ teachings on divorce in the New Testament? Jesus says in Matthew 5:31-32 (and in 19:3-12), “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for a matter of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Lexham English Bible).
Like the previously examined passages, we need to understand the audience of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus addresses Jews, God’s people, in these passages. The audience should be aware of God’s law. God’s people should not divorce except for sexual immorality. With sexual morality being the exception mentioned by Jesus, innocent believers are free to divorce and remarry in that case. Divorcing or remarrying for any other reason is not permitted.
Paul addresses Christians in 1 Corinthians, many of them former pagans, who still lived in a pagan society. It was common for one spouse to come to faith in Christ while the other remained pagan. Considering this, we should consider the context of the recipients in this passage.
Paul affirms all that Jesus teaches (see Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 39). However, we see it is also permissible to remarry “only in the Lord” after a spouse’s death. Also, Paul affirms that both believing spouses should never divorce. Even if a separated, believing couple cannot be reconciled, this does not give either the freedom to divorce or remarry. The one who remarries another is guilty of adultery.
Paul introduces additional teachings in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 that pertain to mixed-faith marriages, where one spouse is a believing Christian, but the other is not. He says there is no reason for Christians to divorce or leave their unbelieving spouse if there is peaceful consent to live with one another (7:12-14). However, there is a justification for divorce if an unbelieving spouse desires one, and there is an irreconcilable division between them that disrupts the household’s peace (7:15). Paul says that the innocent Christian “is not bound” (or literally not enslaved) to this situation. Hans Conzelmann comments, “the Christian is not subjected to any constraint because of the pagan’s behavior” (1975, p. 123). “Not enslaved” means the innocent party is free from the marriage’s obligations. David Garland (2003) summarizes Paul’s intentions in 1 Corinthians 7:15. He says:
Paul’s primary goal in this passage is to argue against a Christian dissolving his or her marriage to an unbelieving spouse for spurious reasons. He disallows remarriage in the case of Christian’s divorcing Christians in 7:11 and argues against changing one’s status in 7:17-24. But in 7:17-24, he also allows for an exception in the case of the slave obtaining freedom. In the same way, the one who has been divorced would be permitted to move from being married to being set free by divorce to being married again.1 Corinthians, p. 296.
Garland cautions, though, that the “answer to the question of divorce and remarriage need not be settled from this text alone. Other texts and other factors must weigh in,” including principles that Paul discusses in chapter seven (2003, p. 296). The factors that may encourage remarriage might include continuing sexual urges that could lead to lust and fornication, not having the gift of celibacy, a life of destitution, etc.
Is Abuse Grounds for Divorce?
My conclusion is much like that of the Westminster divines as they wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith (24:6). Though they believed adultery is the primary grounds for divorce, they:
also saw that under certain circumstances desertion could be a grounds for divorce, and physical abuse could be the basis of a desertion, the spouse guilty of the abuse being reputed as the deserter even though the other one may have departed. Before such a situation could be the grounds for a divorce, however, a sufficient time would have to expire for the efforts of both church and civil magistrate to seek to achieve a reconciliation . Ad Hoc Committee of the Philadelphia Presbytery. (1992). “The Westminster Divines on Divorce for Physical Abuse.” PCA Historical Center. https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/digest/studies/2-267.pdf, pages 279-280.
I am convinced that the abused may seek a divorce if the abusive party creates an environment where the abused spouse and children must flee for safety (or would flee if free to do so). However, divorce can only be an option provided that the abuser is either an unbeliever or excommunicated through church discipline for his blasphemous actions. The abuser does not necessarily have to physically depart from the home because he has already torn the one-flesh relationship and broken the marriage convent with his actions. Furthermore, the abuse must be reported to the authorities to bring the abuser to justice as part of his restoration.
Suppose the abuser demonstrates that he is not sincerely repentant by continuing with more abuse and control. In that case, he does not have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and he is an unbeliever. How can we know that he will be saved through the marriage (1 Corinthians 7:16)? He is not willing to live peacefully and clearly does not understand Christian marriage. The couple is not married in that case. Otherwise, separation is the only option for two believers unless adultery is involved. If two believing Christians divorce each other, they deny that the Holy Spirit indwelling them can restore their broken relationship.
Not long ago, as of this writing, Wayne Grudem changed his position on abuse and divorce. A staunch defender of biblical marriage, he took the position for many years that abuse cannot be grounds for divorce. His research in the Greek phrase for “in such cases” might suggest that Paul would have abuse in mind as he wrote 1 Corinthians 7:15. Grudem says in an interview with Morgan Lee:
“I did something that I don’t think anybody else has done before, I did a search of ‘in such cases,’ as it’s used in that phrase, in literature outside the New Testament. I analyzed 52 other examples of that expression and I found it in a number of examples. The phrase ‘in such cases’ referred to more kinds of situations than the original example that was being discussed.” “Wayne Grudem Tells Us Why He Changed His Divorce Position.” Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/wayne-grudem-divorce-abuse-complementarianism.html, “Would you mind reading the Scriptures you mentioned and unpacking them a little bit?” section, paragraph 3.
If Grudem is correct, then abuse may be grounds for divorce because of what Paul teaches and not despite it.
Ad Hoc Committee of the Philadelphia Presbytery. (1992). The westminster divines on divorce for physical abuse. PCA Historical Center. https://www.pcahistory.org/pca/digest/studies/2-267.pdf
Akin, D. (2012). Jesus, the bible, divorce and remarriage. http://www.danielakin.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Mark-10.1-12-Jesus-The-Bible-Divorce-and-Remarriage-Manuscript-kh.pdf.
Conzelmann, H. (1975). 1 Corinthians: A commentary on the first epistle to the Corinthians. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Garland, D. E. (2003). 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
Gorman, M. (2000). Divorce and remarriage from augustine to zwingli. Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/augustweb-only/46.0c.html
Lee, M. (2019). Wayne grudem tells us why he changed his divorce position. Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/wayne-grudem-divorce-abuse-complementarianism.html
Luck, W. F. (2009). Divorce and remarriage: Recovering the biblical view. Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press.