Could Certain Kinds of Abuse also be Grounds for Divorce and Remarriage?2
Two years ago, I sat with my good friend Wayne Grudem in his home in Phoenix as we talked about his research into the subject of divorce and remarriage. In his excellent book, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning (Crossway, 2018), for which I wrote an endorsement, he argued for the traditional view that divorce and remarriage were permissible (but never mandatory) on the grounds of adultery and abandonment.
Wayne shared with me that his view was in process of changing. After extensive examination of 1 Corinthians 7:15, he was coming to the conclusion that Paul envisioned possible additional grounds for divorce. At the 2019 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Diego, Wayne presented a paper to a packed room defending his interpretation of that text.
This past week I was sent a booklet by Wayne that articulates his new view in considerably more detail. I strongly encourage you to obtain, What the Bible Says about Divorce and Remarriage (Crossway, 2021). The booklet is only 103 pages (including bibliography and a general index).
In this booklet, Wayne examines the teaching of the OT on divorce (primarily Deut. 24:1-4 and Malachi 2:16) as well as the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 5:32; 19:3-9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18) and Paul (1 Cor. 7:1-16, esp. v. 15).
Wayne now believes that “divorce may be legitimate in circumstances that damage the marriage as seriously as adultery or desertion” (39). He bases this on his research of the phrase, “in such cases” in 1 Corinthians 7:15. This particular Greek phrase appears nowhere else in the NT, but does appear in extra-biblical literature of the day. The latter support Wayne’s conclusion that the phrase points to other circumstances that are similar to but not necessarily the same as desertion. He thus translates the phrase, “in this and other similarly destructive situations.” In other words, it isn’t simply desertion or abandonment that constitutes a ground for divorce but also “other similar cases” that likewise severely damage the marriage relationship. The damage is so serious that divorce is permissible, as well as remarriage.
What might such “similar cases” be? Wayne cites several: (1) “if an abused spouse is forced to flee from the home for self-protection from ongoing, violent abuse” (45); (2) abuse of children; (3) extreme, prolonged verbal and relational cruelty; (4) credible threats of serious physical harm or murder; (5) incorrigible drug or alcohol addiction; (6) incorrigible gambling addiction; and (7) incorrigible addiction to pornography. If you think that this might open the door and encourage people to seek a divorce for virtually any grounds imaginable (what Wayne calls “needless divorces”), you will simply have to read his response to such objections and observe the extremely serious way in which he upholds God’s ultimate design for life-long marriage.
Wayne also examines and responds to other theories about divorce and remarriage, providing careful reasons why he finds them unpersuasive. He also deals with specific situations, such as what should be done when people have been divorced for unbiblical reasons. He examines the question of whether a divorced man can become an Elder or Deacon in the local church, and does a good (but brief) job of responding to more restrictive views on divorce and remarriage, specifically, (1) the view that neither divorce nor remarriage are ever permissible (J. Carl Laney, Gordon Wenham, and (2) the view that whereas divorce may be permissible, remarriage never is (John Piper, and formerly William Heth, who has more recently changed his position).
Let me sum up by citing the primary argument that Wayne proposes, one with which I find myself in agreement. He writes:
“Several examples from extrabiblical literature show that the expression ‘in such cases’ (en tois toioutois) often refers to a variety of situations that are similar to but clearly not identical to the specific situation mentioned. This suggests that Paul considered divorce a legitimate possibility not only in cases of desertion by an unbeliever, but also in situations that similarly brought extensive and severe damage to the marriage” (53).
This short booklet is written in a manner that is accessible to pastors and average Christian lay people. It is not designed to be a scholarly treatise, but scholars will also benefit greatly from it. I encourage you to get it, read it, and search the Scriptures as you pray about whether the conclusion Wayne reaches is persuasive. Wayne would want nothing less.