Abuse as Grounds for Divorce

Anyone who as undergone any degree of theological study, personal or formal, has likely encountered the works of Wayne Grudem. If you are less studied in the theological arena, please don’t run away from this post, rather just know that Wayne Grudem is a well respected and dedicated servant of the Lord who has undoubtedly shepherded many, including myself, into deep theological understanding of the Word.

Likely one of his more well known works is “Systematic Theology”, which is definitely worth a read for anyone remotely interested in theological training. However, the intent of this post is not to discuss this work of his, rather a relatively more recent work that has caused quite a bit of controversy, and for quite a good-natured reason.

To jump right to the point, it is no doubt easy to understand and relate to the heart wrenching, grievous emotions felt when we learn of, or know of, physical abuse of a spouse within marriage. For many reasons that I won’t be discussing here, it is without a question that this type of abuse is almost ALWAYS directed from the male to a female within marriage.

While it is so obvious to our heart, mind, and soul that such abuse is detestable, abhorrent, and seems to necessitate the separation of the two partners, it has long been a struggle within the Christian Church as to knowing if we can designate such behavior of spousal abuse as biblical grounds for divorce; to most, it has seemed that scripture is largely silent on this matter. Even though it goes against every fiber of our being (from a natural, sensed, “gut feeling” perspective, to turmoil in the Spirit), most of everyone in the faith has grappled and wrestled with how to address this issue with scripture. This is because from a literal scripture perspective, the Bible SEEMS to be quiet on this issue.

It is for this very reason that Mr. Grudem, after his many years of ministry and seminary experience, had to go to such great length and stretches to designate this egregious sin as grounds for divorce. Seeking to examine Mr. Grudem’s statements and conclusions through a biblical nature of love (1 Corinthians 13), it is my hope and belief that, because of such an obvious revulsion in our heart and the Spirit to such abuse, Mr. Grudem knew by the Spirit that this must be biblically addressed somehow, and went to the depths of the Word to see how it could be so; in doing so, I simply believe he may have stretched beyond the biblical context in his search and came up with reasons for his conclusion that are unfortunately and obviously not in alignment with scripture. I am not the only one to be writing such a response.

I’ll leave it up to the reader of this post to do diligence and research the full nature of his statements, but for the sake of our examination, we will simply examine the core conclusion he had to make in order to consider abuse as grounds for divorce. Before we examine his statements though, let me first say that I DO believe repeated abuse within a marriage is grounds for divorce, and I will endeavor to show you how it is so with biblical reasoning through my current understanding. Let’s first have a look at Mr. Grudem’s rationale before we examine alternate support for his conclusion, namely that repeated abuse is grounds for divorce.

This article from “christianitytoday.com” summarizes the conclusions of Mr. Grudem well, though it wasn’t the first article that I came to knowledge of his assertions through. In it you’ll find the following statement:

“These examples led me to conclude that in 1 Cor. 7:15, the phrase “in such cases” should be understood to include any cases that similarly destroy a marriage,” said Grudem. Therefore, he concluded that abuse is such a case.”

For the sake of understanding this quote, let’s also examine the content of 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.”

So, to clarify, Mr, Grudem is referencing a verse that, when read literally, seems to be qualified as speaking to the context of living with an unbelieving spouse. This verse seems to be saying, and I would submit a correct understanding of this verse says, that if a spouse who, by our biblical discernment, is not a believer in the Lord seeks to leave a marriage and divorce, the believing partner should let it be so.

Based on the quote of Mr. Grudem, we see that he does not disagree with the understanding that I have just submitted to you is correct, rather, he seeks to EXTEND it by saying that the phrase “in such cases” is used nowhere else in the Bible as it is used in this verse. He then uses that submission of his, along with examination of other non-biblical texts, to conclude that a proper understanding of the phrase means that “in such cases” means “in any case like that of an unbeliever seeking to separate from marriage”. He’s saying that “in such cases” let’s us determine if a scenario causes such turmoil to a marriage as would be caused by fighting to keep an unbeliever in marriage with a believer. As I intend to show, Mr. Grudem’s conclusions, if taken as correct, have now just opened up 1 Corinthians 7:15 to an infinite degree of subjectivity by removing the qualifier of “unbelieving”.

I personally have not researched this exact point of his in terms of that exact phrase being used only once in the Bible, so I can not speak to its validity; however, what we can do is deconstruct his conclusion based on this submission of his. That is, he concludes:

“… in such cases” should be understood to include any cases that similarly destroy a marriage, …”

So my question in return would be, where is the line in the sand on this?

What situations do we consider to be ones that “similarly destroy a marriage” like spousal abuse does? Does long term neglect of sexual relations between a husband and wife count for similar destruction? Matthew Henry raises the importance and centrality of conjugal rights in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:12, and 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 discusses the right of authority to one another’s bodies in marriage and the sexual temptation that results if it is denied. Is a repeated and long term denial of conjugal rights grounds for divorce because in may drive one of the partners to the sin of sexual immorality (adultery)?

Proverbs twice mentions the trauma caused to a male by a quarrelsome wife within a house, saying it is better to live in the attic of the house (Proverbs 21:9) or on the doorstep than in the house with her (Proverbs 25:24). Can a wife that is maliciously set against her husband and his place of spiritual authority over the family cause such destruction the the marriage and life of the family that it would warrant divorce under Mr. Grudem’s terms?

Does carelessness with finances from one of the spouses that results in great financial debt on the family count for such similar destruction? Could a wife that has an addiction to online shopping, repeatedly signing up for and maxing out credit cards that cause a crushing debt burden on the family, give warrant to the husband in divorcing her so as not to be the one responsible and burdened with his wife’s destructive evil that she is bringing on the entire family?

Hopefully the aforementioned questions highlight my point well; if we take Mr. Grudem at his conclusions, to what end can we go under his supposed “new discovery” of the meaning of this verse? He claims it is no longer within the context of an “unbelieving spouse” that this directive is given, rather, any that seems to be similarly destructive from the perspective of the pastor of their local church I guess?

Without trying to dig any further into or understand this conclusion of Mr. Grudem’s, I submit we examine another passage of scripture for a quick moment. 1 Timothy 5, a passage entitled “Instructions for the Church” reads:

“5 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. 3 Honor widows who are truly widows. 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. 5 She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, 6 but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. 7 Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

In laymen’s terms, this verse is saying that if a spouse repeatedly and un-repentantly doesn’t provide for the well-being of their family as they are called according to their role, the Lord says THEY ARE A GARBAGE HUMAN BEING. They are literally “worse than an unbeliever” and have “denied the faith” if they do not seek to encourage purity amongst their family, if they do not show godliness to one another within their own household, and if they don’t provide for their relatives or their own household. So not only is a spouse who does not do this for their family instantly qualified as an unbeliever in this verse, they are actually qualified as worse than one! It literally says they have “denied the faith”, meaning they cannot be of God if they are doing this. If they are “self-indulgent” within their own home, they are “dead even while” they live it says. This means spiritually, they are dead. They do not have the Spirit, they are not of God if fitting the description of this verse.

This OBVIOUSLY is not speaking of struggles with sin within life and a marriage. Let me repeat that; this does NOT apply to a couple if they have simply ever had a struggle with any of the above, or worse, within marriage. If they have repented and walked away from such behavior, or have even struggled against it more than once but have progressively found the narrow road away through forgiveness and repentance, they are not qualified with such strict description. We are NOT talking about accidental or repentant sin here; we are talking about a spouse or parent who repeatedly fails to repent and turn from egregious behavior that defiles the entire household in God’s eyes. If you fit this category, the Lord has literally told you that you are worse than an unbeliever; you are an animal.

Does the Bible condemn all physical discipline? No, certainly not. The bible tells us in wisdom that if you don’t physically discipline children then you actually hate them and show no concern from them (Psalm 13:24). Which means, that if you truly love your children as God loves us, you discipline them with diligence to correct their behavior. IF, however, your discipling of your children turns into physical abuse of them, or progresses from them to your wife, you have taken the path of voluntarily throwing yourself in a divine trash can in God’s eyes if you do not repent and turn from it, and do so PROMPTLY and with diligence.

Ephesians 5:25 says:

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

You know what Christ never did to the Church? Abuse Her. Not once; not ever. You know what He did do? He literally gave Himself up to death in attempt to compassionately and honestly (filled with truth (John 4:23-24)) appeal to Her in order that She might have a change of heart towards Him, and adore Him, and worship Him, and obey Him. In order to get Her obedience to Him, He sacrificially, patiently, gently, gave up His life to Her as He spoke truth to Her and let Her RAIL on Him in return while She rebelled against Him.

So, Christ’s way of love to the Church as it reflects a husband to the wife could not be more starkly contrasted to physical abuse of the wife. Rather, the male, in standing for what is right, true, and best for the family, may in fact have to lovingly endure a physical lashing out from his wife as he seeks to love her in a way that sanctifies her. This is NOT a pardon for actual spousal abuse from a wife to a male. Rather it is a noble charge to the the male that, within reason, you stand there and take it like a man while the Spirit wrestles your wife into submissiveness to the truth you are standing for in the family and it causes her to bang on your chest or push against you. AGAIN, this is no excuse for abuse of the husband by the wife. I hope we all have in mind the same image when we imagine this; that of a wonderful wife as often depicted in the old westerns who, upon discovery of something grieving such as the loss of a child while he was out with the father, causes her to run in and beat against the husbands chest and cry while he seeks to embrace and console her. Beyond that, repeated physical offense by a wife towards a husband, especially with an object, lands us in the same territory as a husband’s abuse of his wife.

So, without needing to stretch the meaning of the phrase “In such cases”, without needing to stretch beyond the biblical grounds for divorce of adultery (Matthew 5:31-32) or the flight of an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:1-15), I hope it can be quite clearly seen from our examination of scripture that anyone who repeatedly and un-repentantly abuses a spouse, or ANY family member, is in fact a GARBAGE human being, worse than an unbeliever. Now, we still have a problem though, in that the verses in 1 Corinthians 7 seems to clarify that if the unbelieving spouse consents to live with the believing spouse, than they should remain married:

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 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. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

There are two angles from which I’d like us to examine this passage: the first being the original greek word used for what we read as “consent”, and the second being verse 15 which says “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.” As we will see, both angles converge together quite quickly as we gain proper understanding of the word “consent”.

The original greek word for what we read as “consent” is syneuduokeo, which means “to be pleased together with, to approve together (with others)”, or “to be pleased at the same time with, consent, agree to.” I am pulling these definitions from the “Interlinear” section of the Blue Letter Bible app on my mobile device. So, in looking at the original meaning and intention of the greek word with which this verse was written, we see it qualified that “consent” means “being pleased at the same time with”.

You know what someone has lost the right to claim when they are repeatedly abusing their spouse? They’ve lost the right to say that they “are pleased at the same time with” their spouse in marriage. If a husband repeatedly, physically beats his wife, no matter what his attempt at justification may be, he has lost all and any right to say that he is “being please at the same time with” his spouse. Though he may utter the words with his mouth “I consent to live with her and want to continue in marriage”, his actions have communicated the exact opposite of those words.

This is exactly the same line of thinking as with our salvation. If someone “confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9), but then their is no evidence in their heart that Jesus is their savior (the rest of Romans 10:9) as displayed by the lack of works in their faith, then their faith is DEAD ( James 2:17, also think back to 1 Timothy 5). They indeed have no faith if they do not have works of it. If a parent tells a child to obey them and the child says “yes I will obey you”, and then proceeds to break the parents rules, they have in fact lied about their commitment to obedience because their actions displayed otherwise. So, any unbelieving spouse or husband who says “yes I am pleased to be together with you” and repeatedly beats and assaults his wife in in fact a liar, proven by his actions. He has not in fact consented within the bounds of a marriage that is “holy”, “pure”, fee of “enslavement”, and brining of “peace” to both spouses. On the contrary, as 1 Timothy 5 told us, he has in fact regressed to being even worse than an unbeliever, rather an animal.

Having now arrived at this conclusion regarding the meaning of consent and how the actions of a spouse must align with their words of consent, we can also comment on verse 15 which still seems to bind the believing spouse if the unbelieving spouse has not formally separated. Through what I would submit is now a proper understanding of the meaning of “consent”, when examining the case of an unbelieving spouse who physically abuses the believing spouse, it is now biblical to conclude that they have in fact separated themselves from the marriage in God’s eyes.

Marriage is first and foremost an institution given by God; just because the government may not have formally recognized the separation, and the unbelieving spouse may begrudgingly not want to file for formal separation legally, it no less means that the unbelieving spouse’s actions have resulted in what would biblically be qualified as “separated” from his marriage by beating it apart … thereby giving grounds for divorce to the abused spouse whom can now be at PEACE with the Lord and in life (*everyone exhales in a sigh of relief*). If anyone is beating and abusing their spouse regularly, in the Lord’s eyes they are: one, an unbeliever, two, worse than an unbeliever, three, not biblically showing consent to live with their partner, and four, showing themselves separated from their spouse by such actions. Though the believing spouse may be the one to issue the paperwork for the divorce, it is a mere temporal formality to be carried out to reflect that which has already been voided spiritually.

This next statement is obviously my own stretch of scripture (and I am not advocating it true, but I do find the comparison interesting), but Leviticus 20:16-17 discusses God’s law against bestiality and having physical relations with an animal. Maybe we should examine this law and our new found understanding of 1 Timothy 5, because from it we could conclude that it is in fact unlawful in God’s eyes to remain in a marriage in which a spouse has regressed to being an animal through their actions. In doing so they would then be putting the other spouse in sin if they do not divorce them and escape from laying with an animal … But alas, this is indeed a stretch beyond what scripture would have us conclude, so we should ourselves not conclude it. We can liken this example of a desire to stretch scripture to what Mr. Grudem has done. Though his conclusion may in fact be correct, as I have hopefully shown biblically, I hope we can all see now how his premise for it is a dangerous, liberal stretch beyond the bounds of scripture, and therefore false.

Mr. Grudem clearly spent much time and devotion to inspecting scripture in service to the Lord to arrive at his conclusions; it is without a doubt that his efforts were not in vain, and have resulted in a healthy and necessary modern discussion on this topic. It has motivated many, such as myself, to examine the topic, to be edified in our search of the scriptures, to understand the Lord’s will on the matter, and to hopefully encourage and shepherd others on these matters. He has undoubtedly down many more great works for the Kingdom than I; we should all have a great deal of respect and honor for him still as a teacher of the Word. However, when necessary, we must also rebuke such falsehood, especially given the dangerous implications it can have on such a holy institution as marriage.

Now, of course this discussion leaves open much to be considered, such as how we show grace, mercy, and forgiveness when someone does sin, and what constitutes “abuse” over “discipline”, and so on. It is not the subject of this post (especially for the sake of length) for me to dive into these implications and considerations; that said, I will quickly say the following.

Scripture LITERALLY tells us that any spouse who un-repentantly continues on not providing for the well being of his family in a manner consistent with all of scripture is WORSE than an unbeliever (hence my use of the words “garbage” and animal”, maybe “swine” would have been appropriate as well (Matthew 7:6)). So in terms of “speak loudly where scripture speaks loudly, and softly where scripture speaks softly” ( a common phrase within the evangelical Church ), this verse in Ephesians is quite LOUD and CLEAR. Unbelievers are condemned to hell for their sins, and those who un-repentantly abuse anyone in your family are WORSE THAN SOMEONE WHO IS ALREADY DESERVING OF HELL!

So, in terms how this should be handled in the Church in regards to grace, mercy and forgiveness, the answer is “very quickly and succinctly”, with “diligence”. In terms of seeing this type of “leaven” within the loaf of the Church as a leader, if you see even a speck of it arrive, you STAB it with the double edge sword of the Spirit as quickly as possible, of course seeking to restore the offender to right relation with God, but in a way that paints the gravity of their situation in sin so clearly that they either KNOCK IT OFF or are cast out from amongst you.

No doubt many Church leaders have tried to approach such a situation with a “grace may abound” attitude, resulting in the continued abuse of the wife out of some fear that they may overstep scripture in regards to marriage instead of neutralizing quickly an abhorrent and detestable violation of the marriage covenant. Instead, they should act swiftly to put the offender on a NARROW road of repentance and reconciliation, or to formalize their separation from the marriage and the church. Some may raise the concern that by not dancing on eggshells around the scenario and moving to quickly, you allow for even more harm to the wife by potentially instigating more abuse on of the spouse. On the contrary, as with God who is a roaring Lion for his children, by NOT storming the gates and rescuing quickly the abused spouse from their household you in fact pervert the very nature of God and have sinned for your lack of Christian Duty. Such a scenario is one where you pounce and rescue the believer from the snares of Satan, and then once they are safe from the abuser, you address the abuser and determine what the road forward will look like for them, if at all.

As far as the line of “abuse” goes, my quick assertion would be that if enduring marks (bruises, cuts, etc.) are left on your children after you seek to biblically discipline, or if you draw blood when doing so, you have stepped into the “sands” of abuse. My mother spanked the fear of God into me as a child, and never once did any of the aforementioned occur. A time or two it may have hurt so bad that I didn’t feel like I could sit down for little while, but never once did I sense that my mother was out of control or enjoyed the spanking that rendered that feeling. Rather, it was clear to me that what I had done apparently deserved such great consideration that I ought to take a walk and ponder my actions instead of turning to sit and drift away into the mindlessness of the TV or a video game.

As far as biblical right to physical discipline of a spouse, there is no right, you will not find it in scripture. In fact on the contrary, as we have already discussed with Christ’s love for the Church, there is negative percentage room for the male in a relationship to enact physical discipline on a wife. I do believe that the wife should follow the model of proper Church discipline if it happens (Matthew 18:15-20) (in so much as it does not cross the line of being life threatening, in which case self preservation and other passages of scripture should be invoked, aka the assailing husbanded resisted and stopped through whatever means necessary). By Church discipline, I mean that on the first offense I believe she should stand against her husband one-on-one and confront the sin; if he repents and turns then she has won her husband back. If not, the rest is prescribed clearly in scripture. If the local church does not jump immediately on this as we have discussed herein, this women unfortunately should consider the hard road of leaving not only her husband but her church. Obviously we are straying into the weeds here; for the sake of brevity we will leave the depths of these matters to be explored for another time.

Obviously I speak quite strongly and directly on the matter, and I believe very strongly it is very biblically warranted, but we do know that transforming grace is a road of stumbling and falling forward, so we cannot discount the struggle that may ensue for a man honestly seeking repentance from such sin. However, if such a man exists among you, while you should shower him with love and grace if he choses the narrow road, ENSURE that the boundaries on said narrow road are STRAIGHT and TIGHT, lest he stumble and be considered worse than an unbeliever in the eyes of the Lord … no better than an animal, and potentially even worse. What animal do we even know of that abuses it’s own ? … … …

Addendum: As an aside, now having this knowledge and understanding of 1 Timothy 5 and the meaning of consent, it is probably worth re-examining one of my counter points to Mr. Grudem’s conclusion, that is the case of the wife and debt burden on a family. Given 1 Timothy 5, at a minimum she who would un-repentantly do such a thing (thereby also deserving church discipline mind you) would rightfully be classified by this verse as “self-indulgent” and “dead even while she lives”, having denied the faith and being an unbeliever. Ultimately this would be true of anyone who had to be removed from the Church community because of un-repentant sin.

This still leaves open the issue and matter of consent, which given my understanding can not be applied the same we are able with physical abuse. An unbeliever that continues in a sin that does not immediately void the meaning of consent like physical abuse does, or adultery of course (it is worth noting that it shows lack of consent like physical abuse does), is one that we are not able to qualify biblically. However, in either such scenario, if a church properly carried out church discipline and removed the un-repentant/unbelieving spouse from their community, then the believing spouse should do all and anything within their power and ability to seek to continue to challenge and confront the sin at home (that is, if the unbeliever still consents to live with them after being removed from the community, which is probably unlikely, but let’s go with it).

In such a case, the believing spouse should put such pressure on the sin and situation that either the unbelieving spouse is graced with repentance by the Lord, or is driven out into desiring a separation, because as 1 Timothy 5 also qualifies: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy”. So, either the unbelieving spouse needs to be made holy, meaning the sin against the family is ended (obviously heart transformation may not result, but the family will at least be freed and at peace from the besetting sin), or they will be driven away. by the pressure from the believing spouse to end the sin. “Made holy” is another way of saying “made obedient”; The only way one is made obedient is through discipline and chastening (not physical discipline, but penalty and hardship), even for adults with the Spirit. If disciplining and chastening by the believing spouse at home works and the sin is ended, let them remain together. If the sin continues, let the fires of discipline and chastening be turned up to the point of driving the unbeliever away.

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