Grounds for Divorce
With this post, I’m entering into a minefield, albeit with eyes wide open. Relationships are touchy at any rate, but when you talk about the closest relationship God has designed for human beings, the stakes are all that much higher. Marriage and divorce are topics many readers are invested in, if not personally, then certainly by acquaintance. There’s no lack of strong opinions and there are few occasions where people actually change their minds. In what follows, you’ll meet some men who actually have shifted their thinking on divorce.
Marriage and divorce, especially remarriage after divorce, have been hotly debated in my church circles over the years. I remember an intense online discussion on the Ref-net (a discussion group originally for Canadian Reformed university students) in the 90s. A fellow-Ref-netter asked me what I thought about remarriage after divorce. I had to honestly say, “I don’t know.” For the longest time, I could safely stay on the fence. After all, I never encountered any pastoral need to reach a firm conclusion.
However, I was preaching through the Gospel of Mark in 2010 and then I arrived at Mark 10:1-12. That forced my hand. Study of the issue, both in Mark and in the broader context of Scripture, led me to the conclusion that the Westminster Confession of Faith’s position (in 24.5) was essentially correct. If there were legitimate biblical grounds for divorce, then the innocent party would be free to remarry.
As a brief aside here, one of the leading advocates against remarriage after divorce was William Heth. His writing has often been quoted, also by authors from my CanRC/FRCA context. What’s not often mentioned is the fact that Heth changed his mind. In 2002, he published an article in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, “Jesus on Divorce: How My Mind has Changed” – you can find it here.
In my Mark 10:1-12 sermon I also had to go into the issue of legitimate biblical grounds for divorce. I mentioned adultery and abandonment. Adultery is self-explanatory, but for abandonment I envisioned a spouse running away to a distant city or country out of contact. I was aware that some interpreters expanded the definition of desertion or abandonment to include any type of abuse. Personally, I was unsure about that expansion.
However, over the past year my thinking on this matter has been challenged. I’m now open to the possibility that a pattern of any type of abuse in marriage constitutes a biblically valid ground for divorce. Wayne Grudem has really got me thinking more carefully about this.
Grudem presented a paper at the 2019 Evangelical Theological Society meeting, “Grounds for Divorce: Why I Now Believe There are More than Two” – you can find this paper online here. Even as recently as 2018, Grudem’s published view was that there were only two legitimate grounds for divorce: adultery and desertion. However, at the ETS meeting Grudem walked back that claim. He now holds that a pattern of spousal abuse is a biblical ground for divorce.
How did he reach that conclusion? He took another look at 1 Corinthians 7:15, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” On the basis of the Greek, he was uncomfortable with the idea that desertion in itself includes abuse. He writes, “I did not think it right to say that “abuse is another kind of desertion” because I could not see it as something Paul intended to mean when he spoke of the abuser as the subject of the verb χωρίζω (the abuser is the one who leaves) in 1 Corinthians 7:15.”
So Grudem instead examined the Greek phrase translated into English as “in such cases.” This precise phrase doesn’t occur elsewhere in the Greek New Testament. Grudem therefore expanded his scope to look at its use in other Greek literature. He found that “in such cases” usually means “cases like this.” In other words, there does not have to be an exact one-to-one parity. Further, if Paul had meant to refer only to desertion, he had other linguistic options at hand. By “not enslaved,” the apostle meant that the innocent party is not forever chained to someone who has destroyed the marriage relationship. Finally, since God has called us to peace, a marital situation involving a pattern of destructive abuse is not what God desires for us. He concludes that “in such cases” should be understood as referring to “any cases that similarly destroy a marriage.” That includes not only abusive behaviour patterns, but also addictions (alcohol/drugs, gambling, pornography).
I found Grudem’s exegesis initially rather appealing. At an emotional level, if I’m honest, I’d like it to be true. However, there are three points with which I’m still wrestling.
He mentions several interpreters who share his conclusion, including a couple of Puritans (William Ames, William Perkins). Nevertheless, they don’t appear to share his specific reasoning. Idiosyncratic exegesis leaves me cautious – if no one, in 2000 years of post-apostolic biblical interpretation, has seen the same thing you did in the text, you ought to be suspicious of your own work.
Another concern comes from a critique by Dr. Martin Davie. He’s not convinced by Grudem. One of the reasons he finds his reasoning implausible has to do with the Greek grammar. He says that “in such cases” in verse 15 is plural, but it refers back to the two cases mentioned in verses 12 and 13. In other words, you could have a brother abandoned by his unbelieving wife or a sister abandoned by her unbelieving husband. Davie argues that this is a more credible reading of “in such cases.” I’m inclined to agree.
Finally, I’m not convinced that Grudem’s discomfort with expanding desertion to include abuse is justified. I found it difficult to follow his argument on that. It seems to me that the only justifiable way to argue for a pattern of abuse as a valid ground for divorce is to understand it as a type of abandonment. It’s something which sees the abusive spouse abandoning his (and more rarely her) commitment to the other spouse; the abusive spouse’s behaviour creates a separation or de facto divorce. That appears to be the reasoning behind the conclusions reached by men like Ames and Perkins. Grudem quotes Perkins: “…If the husband threatens hurt, the believing wife may fly in this case, and it is all one, as if the unbelieving man should depart. For to depart from one, and drive one away by threats, are equivalent.” According to Perkins, abuse is tantamount to desertion.
Marriage is a sacred institution of God. It should never be broken lightly. But in abusive situations, one could argue that the abusive spouse is the one doing the breaking. A divorce sought by the victim is simply recognizing the broken reality created by her abuser. I find it difficult to believe that such a victim could be blamed for taking that path.