Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from a two-part FamilyLife Today® series with author and theologian Wayne Grudem. You can listen to the podcast here: “What Does the Bible Say about Divorce?”
You’ve heard the story; maybe you’ve lived it: You’re unhappy in your marriage and losing hope for restoration.
In society today, we’re faced with a broad spectrum of viewpoints, from “Divorce is whenever you want to get a divorce” to the historic teaching of the church that divorce is never acceptable.
So how do we know what to believe? Christians need to look closely at what the Bible says about divorce.
What does the Bible say about divorce?
Maybe you’re familiar with biblical teachings on divorce. Or maybe you’re taking a look at these teachings for the first time. Let’s start with what Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 19:6: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Paul reaffirms these teachings in 1 Corinthians 7:10-14.
Marriage is intended to be a permanent, lifelong union of one man and one woman. Since that’s God’s original plan, we should always seek to maintain that. Forgiveness and reconciliation need to be our end goal. While it’s not every story, it’s encouraging to remember those people in our lives whose marriage was damaged significantly, yet they were able to come to a place of forgiveness and restore the marriage.
When is divorce allowed?
Returning to Matthew, Jesus goes on to say: “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). With this exception, Jesus is making provision for situations where a husband or wife has irretrievably damaged the marriage (at least, potentially). He teaches that if you divorce your spouse and marry another because of sexual immorality, you are not committing adultery.
In his teachings in 1 Corinthians, Paul also addresses other circumstances that may warrant a divorce in verse 15: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (emphasis added).
What does “in such cases” mean?
I began looking at the phrase, “in such cases,” and was able to chase down about 50 examples of it. It doesn’t occur elsewhere in the Greek New Testament or the Greek Old Testament. But it does occur in other Greek literature outside the Bible.
It can have a broad meaning that we would translate to something like, “in cases similar to this.” The question is: In cases similar to what?
There are a number of examples where the cases don’t have to be the same—they just have to be similar in some way. Philo, a Jewish writer from around the time of the New Testament, told the story of when the 10th plague came upon the Egyptians. They woke up in the morning and all their firstborn sons and cattle were dead. Philo says, “But, as is usual in such circumstances, men thinking that the present evils were the beginning of greater ones, and being filled with fear lest those who were still living should also be destroyed…”
Could it mean, “As so often happens when a nation wakes up and finds all its firstborn sons are dead”? Well, that doesn’t make sense, because that had never happened before in history. “In such cases” must mean in cases where sudden tragedy strikes. Not just when your firstborn sons have died. But where a hurricane has destroyed your crops, or a raiding party has come and destroyed your village. It’s a case that’s similar, but not exactly the same.
Another example is from the Greek orator Lysius, who lived from 459-380 BC, approximately. He tells about a man named Phrynichus who had to pay a fine to the treasury. He writes, “And when Phrynichus had to pay a fine to the Treasury, my father did not bring him his contribution of money: Yet it is in such cases that we see the best proof of a man’s friends.” It would be too narrow to say it’s only when a friend has to pay a sudden fine to the treasury. It’s in cases like this where you have a sudden need of money that you find out who your friends really are.
So what did Paul mean when he wrote, “In cases like this”? I believe he meant in cases where the marriage is so damaged it is no longer functioning as a marriage.
How should we apply this today?
Since the Reformation, the general position of Protestant churches has been that there are only two reasons for divorce: the physical act of adultery and desertion by an unbeliever from 1 Corinthians 7:15.
For many churches, the teaching has been: “In cases of abuse, the church should do everything it can to stop the abuse, but it’s not a ground for divorce.” But when we take a second look at 1 Corinthians 7:15, it would seem that physical abuse that has continued over time and is threatening to continue into the future is grounds for divorce. The damage it does puts it in a similar category to desertion.
While this is not the historical position of the church, increased access to Greek translations brings us peace in this interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7. We believe we are being faithful to Scripture in saying there are other situations that are similarly damaging to marriage and provide legitimate grounds for divorce.
If you’re considering divorce
If you’re asking, “What does the Bible say about divorce?” then you may also be asking, “Should I get a divorce?” That is undoubtedly a very painful and confusing place to be. We hope these Scriptural truths can guide you and give you hope to keep fighting, or, if needed, leave a deeply damaging situation. You don’t have to face this alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help from your church, community, or a Christian counselor.
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