Divorce & Remarriage VIII: 4 Biblical Grounds for Divorce

Last week I took a hiatus from reviewing Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Church  (IVP). This week we explore chapter 8. I-B starts with a story about a woman whose husband attempted to murder her. Her church leaders decided that it would be okay for her to separate due to the threat to her life but that she could not divorce because the Bible didn’t allow it. He suggests that this is a common response to abuse in marriages: Separation for safety but no possibility of divorce unless adultery.

I-B makes this very clear response: “…[this] solution is not biblical. A couple should not separate without getting divorced, because Paul specifically says that married couples may not separate (1 Cor. 7:10-11).” (p. 94-5)

But we have already witnessed I-B argue that the OT allowed the victim to decide to divorce in the case of abuse, neglect, and adultery. Did the NT abandon these grounds? I-B reminds the reader,

He [Jesus] spoke about the ideal of lifelong marriage, the facts that divorce was never compulsory and that marriage was not compulsory, about monogamy and, of course, about his interpretation of “a cause of sexual immorality’–that it means only sexual immorality and not also “Any Cause.” So if Jesus believed that neglect and abuse were valid grounds for divorce, why didn’t he say something about them? (p. 95)

I-B infers that Jesus didn’t say anything because it was so obvious a reason. It was not considered controversial as was the “any cause” debate that was raging at the time of his ministry. He argues that Jesus didn’t teach about rape, manslaughter, the oneness of God either. Does this mean he didn’t believe those things either? Bolstering his argument is the fact that he reports that no other ancient Jewish literature debates the validity of divorce for abuse/neglect. Therefore, it wasn’t an issue needing attention. He goes on to tell us that what was debated was how one defined neglect (i.e., minimum quantities of clothing and food and conjugal love needed in order to avoid being considered in neglect of one’s spouse).

So, to underline this, the Matthew 19:9 passage is in regard to the question of Deut. 24:1 and the debate about whether any cause divorces were valid and not to say that no other grounds were possible.

So, I-B suggests that Paul teaches 3 grounds for divorce (implicitly) in 1 Cor. 7: neglect of food, clothes and sex. The reason why he talks about the obligations to care for the spouse and not to withhold is because of the known (at that time) grounds for divorce existing in Ex 21:10-11. Further it is assumed that Paul accepted the cause of unfaithfulness as grounds but that he doesn’t speak to this issue.

So how do we apply these grounds for today? While it is easier to assess unfaithfulness, I-B says that we too frequently neglect the matter of neglect that may have helped cause the rift that resulted in adultery (p. 101). Neglect doesn’t excuse adultery but, “it is important to realize that the fault is often not just one sided.” (ibid).

What about frequency of sex a reason for divorce? The rabbis thought men should provide sexual love at least 2 times per week, less if you were an “ass driver” (HIS words not mine), and nightly if you were out of work! Of note were NO rules for women as to how frequently they would need to offer conjugal love. Despite these pieces of advice, I-B reports that, “rabbis were reluctant to allow a divorce on the ground of refusing conjugal activity…” Further, notice that while Paul encourages both parties to see sex as something they owe each other, I-B points out that nowhere does he give permission for one party to demand sex from the other. “…Love is something that we give and not something that we take.” (p. 102). Still further, I-B suggests that we should not define conjugal love as narrowly as intercourse, “because this can become impractical or inappropriate in cases of illness or frailty.” (ibid)

I-B wants us to look at the principles. The husband that never allows his wife to buy make-up, occasional leisure items and the husband that provides weekly sex but no other kind of affection may not violate the technical side of things but certainly has missed the spirit of the biblical mandate to protect and care for her.  

What about the couple who no longer finds themselves in love? Can they divorce? I-B says it would be improper to read back the idea of being in love into the biblical passage. Love is an act, not a feeling.

I-B ends with the question about what can be said to the abused party. Here’s what he would say to an abused wife,

First, we can tell her that God’s law has taken such sin into account. God’s ideal for marriage is for a husband and wife to be faithful to each other and, as we saw in the [OT], for them to support each other with food, clothing and conjugal love. If these vows are broken, then there are grounds for divorce.

Since there is no question that the abusing husband is “neglecting” to support his wife, she should be aware that she does have the option to divorce him…

We should not forget, though, that Jesus emphasized forgiveness…so we should not advise this woman to divorce her husband the first time he breaks his vows. However, if he continues to sin hardheartedly (stubbornly or without repentance), Jesus says she may divorce him. In practice we have to depend on the individual concerned to decide when enough is enough, because we cannot know what goes on inside a marriage. We cannot know how much emotional abuse is happening, and even physical abuse is largely unseen or unreported. (p. 103-4)

I-B speaks of the false facade that we erect or allow to be erected about “happy” marriages that in fact are not. This is sad and not the way it should be. God does, however, know our secret sufferings and so he says this to the abused,

“God is not a ruler who sits on a high throne in isolation, ignorant of the suffering of his people. He aches with us, even in divorce, which he too has suffered. God loves you and knows your secret sufferings. he wants to help you and has given us practical laws to help deal with your hurt.” That is what we say to a person in a neglectful or abusive marriage. p. 106


So, do you agree? Where does your mind go when considering these as grounds for divorce that the victim uses to decide if she or he has had enough? I have found that while some concede these, they are very afraid that some will cry “victim” when they are not. That these grounds will be used for all manner of excuses and that “victims” will assert that only they can know that they have been abused.

While it is true that some and even many will abuse the divorce rules in the bible, it doesn’t make them any less true.


Filed under Abuse, biblical counseling, Biblical Reflection, book reviews, christian counseling, divorce, Doctrine/Theology, Relationships

27 responses to “Divorce & Remarriage VIII: 4 Biblical Grounds for Divorce

  1. I wouldn’t like to read too much into the old testament. It was written for a different time – a lot has changed since then. Longer lifespans, government support, the invention of reliable contraception. I note that the OT includes a number of regulations covering the exact circumstances of when slavery is and isn’t permitted. Circumstances change.

    Even by the NT, it’s still very different from today. Totally ignoring morality, divorce would have to be heavily restricted at the time due to purely practical reasons – without contraception, just about every marriage is going to have children very soon, and without any form of social security or enforced child support payments it would take two parents to keep a child safe.

    I just don’t think biblical instructions on marriage can be directly extended to marriage today. You shouldn’t be quote-mining verses, but going backwards: Find the biblical marriage ideal, then work *backwards* from there to determine the motivation behind God imposing them – are they immutable moral directives, or merely practical rules appropriate for a specific society? Once you have done that, *then* you can extend it forwards again to see what the ideal is today.

    Or, if you want to skip all that and just hear my personal oppinion: If a couple or one member thereof wants a divorce, that’s a sufficient ground to justify it :>

    • Solar J. Ingram

      My Lord, what a study to show myself…I am dealing with the matter if the big D right now and for the most part I understand all the biblical principals, and they make so much since. Yet, I look at the neglect portion and the fact of not being able to provide and say, each of us were made in the likeness of God, yet,we were made to be in pairs, therefore, what I gathered from this experience is to wait, seek, and ask God for clear Directives prior to saying I do. I heard God say, “Don’t my child, this is not what I have for you.” yet I didn’t want to wait, and now I have a partner who uses the word against me and he is the weaker believer (no punt intended), he converted chasing me, and then once I fell in, he fell out. and I know that if I truly follow my “Husband” I would fall out of Gods will more than I would by persuing my divorce. I see, the emotional distance, the neglect, and even the fact that we should compliment in how we dress. No not material reasons, I knew he had work to do in many departments, yet, at that time I believed that God himself would over look my disobedience, and bless our union, and that he did, because he honors marraige. But what he could not honor is the fact of us leaving him out, when he clearly had other plans for both of us. Now because of pride he wants to stay, and because I know God will not let my integrity be degraded, esp. when I still serve him in and out of season. I applogize in advance to the Lord and I often have asked my spouse for forgiveness, yet, the only one that I feel I owe more too is Jesus, I mean he died, all that abuse for me, and I am sso for real about asking for forgiveness of those affected by my decision to live in the fullness of kingdom thinking…not just off of grace alone!

  2. Scott Knapp, MS

    OK, I’m still snickering about the “ass driver” thingy, so I can’t think seriously enough to offer anything anyone could benefit from at the moment! I’ll get back in touch when I’ve grown up a bit. 🙂

  3. David

    I’ve been wrestling with this issue for a while, the best I could come up with is something I wrote here: http://david.thedesignhut.net/subhosts/div/Discussion.pdf

    I’d appreciate any input you might have.


  4. Suricou,

    Your reasoning raises the question as to whether one could ever read the bible for today. What value does it have if it cannot give guidance for what we do and don’t do. On the other hand, you are right that we must be careful in reading today’s issues into the human writers of the bible. That is what I like about this book. Instone-Brewer is attempting to look at the issues from the context of the text (using rabbinical lit from the same period) and questioning some of our modern re-reads. While a sentence may seem so clear to us, it may have been addressing a different scenario.

  5. Bob

    I agree with Phil’s comments. There is definitely a balance to be struck between tradition and modern application.

  6. Abby

    These comments all sound so scholarly and clinical. As a woman who has had a gun pointed at her in the midst of a threatened murder/suicide by her abusive husband, you’re arguments seem to lack any sense of compassion or genuine understanding of what it is like to be a woman in a physically overpowering/abusive situation.
    However, I appreciate the fact that you are even addressing this issue and taking time to consider it carefully. Every week I encounter women who have been in damaging/dangerous marriages and remain there because of well-intentioned but clueless pastoral counseling.

  7. Cariann

    Hi there. I’ve got to say that for those who don’t go through these difficult situations it must be nice to take a look at the status quo through your own sheltered corneas. Realistically…there are many, many women putting up with abuse from husbands who don’t care, and never did, but managed to con her into believing a lie. Here’s a story for you: young, beautiful woman is raped in March by a guy from work who figures that taking her out for supper means that she owes him something. She deals with the pain by herself until she meets another guy and finally tells him a couple of months later. Only days after she tells him about her previous trauma, new boyfriend rapes her in October (for four hours). Messed up, she believes that he just couldn’t wait until a more appropriate time. He does it again a few months later (in her parents home). End of the story…she marries the guy because she feels that because she’s had sex with him (eventhough it was against her will), she can only morally redeem herself by marrying the guy.

    That story happened not just to me, but also to one of my high-school friends. She divorced the creep she married and is now remarried to another, much nicer man. I, however, am still married to a guy who is abusive, selfish, self-centered and very, very angry. I now know that he has ADHD and has very real issues. I hope and pray that one day I will be free of him, but he has threatened me and it is scarey to think of leaving.

    Just talking about things on a very abstract level doesn’t help. Much in the bible is the way it is (simplified) because such issues as what I am talking about weren’t exactly at the top of people’s conciousness. I don’t believe that God would condemn me for leaving a man who violated me, even if I was stupid enough to marry him (civil ceremony…not in a church).

    I will leave my husband probably in the next few months. The next man in my life, if there is another one, will be a Christian, 100% decent person, and lack any signs of ADHD.

  8. fedup69

    yeh..I get the scriptures..but you have to look at totality…the suffering and persecutions are for the sake of the gospel…not to be a doormat ….one needs to look at the context of every situation on an individual basis…I get very upset when I get people throwing scripture at another person in pain…it makes me think of that piece where it is said…the religious put weights on the shoulders of others in the law, that they themselves are not able to carry….If your partner breaks you down and does nothing but concider themselves….they have broken their marriage vows…there are two fondementals here..the gospel and the suffering for the gospel..vs the foundation of marriage and the clear instruction how God expects a man to love his wife as Christ loves the church….no if that is not happening..the marriage will fall apart…..end of story…..To expect a woman to have sexual relations with her husband, when she is being emotionally or physically abused by this same person is just totally absured…and I would love to meet the Christian that is so holy that they are able to love so unconditionally…The covenent that is made between us and God is conditional……His love for us is not, but the covenant is…you do this, you are blessed…..you sin, you open yourself up to the consequences thereof….it is not so much the divorce that is sin, but the sinful nature being displayed within the bond of marriage that causes it to decay and potentially end in divorce. I really believe also it is an attitude of the heart. If you just want to leave your partner because someone else looks more handsome or rich…that would be a selfish desire…but if it becomes a matter of self preservation and the dying of your spirit as person….and yes…we can spiritualise this….quoting all sorts of scriptures saying Greater is He that is in me..and His strenght is made perfect in our weakness etc…but the reality is…..if a dog gets kicked a zillion times, they will not trust you……God is very clear on how a husband should love his wife…..and many men don’t do this….and yet they think because you are married to them, you promised till death do you part (which is not even scriptural I must add)…..and actually you are slaves of man…..I have a major problem with this whole concept…..and I cannot for once believe that my God would want me to stay in a situation that is harmful to me spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically…What good could you possibly be for the kingdom of God…and what kind of testimony would you be to the world when you are miserable and cast down…people will look at your situation and think…ooh, I don’t want to be a Christian, because God has a no nonsense approach. I am not constituting divorce , but I am also not saying people should suffer…God is more interested in the people than the constitution of marriage. The constitution is made up out of people to begin with..and we are fallen, sin ful..therefore we have His grace..not an excuse to abuse …no….but we are not under the law anymore…and God sees the heart of man..He sees our intentions……People that have not walked in the shoes of being abused…….should not tell others what to do..that would be hypocrasy…another thing God hates….There is so much judgement on people divorcing..but it is ok to harber ill thoughts about other things, to lie, to steal…to have coveteousness in our hearts, even idolatry….see, those things are unseen sins…but divorce is out there in the open for everyone to see and judge…..let us each watch our tongue and those that are without sin, cast the first stone….just my 5 cents worth.

    • Tammie

      Amen FedUp!! Excellent post!! Divorce seems to be the “cardinal” or
      unpardonable sin in many of our churches and christian circles. It is
      deplorable the advise sometimes that is given to those of us who have suffered abuse over and over. They say, “just forgive and let GOD work a miracle for you….HE can heal your marriage and your heart.” While all of that is true, I did all of that and more and things didn’t change, in fact, over time they just got worse. Another thing is that most will agree to separate and or consider divorce for an habitually , physically abusive marriage but not even recognize the insidious sin of emotional and or
      verbal abuse that is happening in so many of our homes, christian and
      nonchristian, alike. It must be addressed honestly. Far too many are hurting and suffering in silence because they feel they have no way out or no voice. They feel the Bible doesn’t address abuse directly so it must not be a valid reason in GOD’s eyes to divorce. So sad!!! I would like those who have such a position to live one month in the hell we did and then see what they have say about it then. They have no idea what it does to a person on all levels. LORD, help us to wake up and see YOUR truth!!

      • Amen..lived through this hell for almost 15 yrs. Unless you have lived it you should not judge the choices we make. It is so hurtful when people who have good marriages tell you that you are going to be punished by God because you want to get out of an abusive marriage.

    • alana clutterbuck

      Well said! I too was in an abusive marriage for years. My children also suffered abuse and are scarred as adults now. The scoundrel is remarried now. I divorced him and cannot go into details too much as the memories of what he did to my children even after the divorce are very painful and not appropriate for public sharing. I will say my oldest son turned to drugs and alcohol, tried to take his life a few times and actually died from an overdose but praise God was brought back to life! Yes I hope my divorce was on biblical grounds. I’ve been on my own for 15 years am very lonely andwould love to meet a genuine Christian man and start over again without feeling condemned!

  9. mark

    i feel horrible for you, Abby. no one should have to live like that. But I think the gist of the article has you covered. Get out of that relationship! for a vast number of couples, husbands work very hard at being the loving picture perfect man, yet for the wife sex is seen as abusive. For these people, the article is also very helpful. it must not be too specific,or else someone in a good marriage will start seeing sex as abuse, or someone in a bad marriage would see abuse as something that should be forgiven. The article walks a line.

    I for one am tired of feeling bad for wanting to make love with my wife twice a week. I am not abusive by any stretch of the imagination. I am a good man with her and our kids, and I do more than my share of work.

    I sometimes think she likes conflict, because conflict means ‘no sex’. Her happiest times are when she is on her period. I feel alone in my desire when she refuses, and i feel like a bad guy when she says yes. She also is becoming addicted to illness. She lpves being sick. ‘no sex’.

    I once kept track, and for 3 months, she was conctantly complaining about her back, head,stomach, toothache, feet, throat…the list goes on… but never during her period. Always 100% during that week. No avoidance required.

    I wish, I wish. Every month is a new hope for consistency. Always dashed. she gives me a look like ‘surprise and bewilderment’ when she ‘realizes’ that I am trying to initiate. Like, “are you serious!?”

    currently, we have sex 2 per month. But even those nights are like, avoid avoid, avoid, then at 12:00 (which is way too late to get started), She’ll blow my mind. Then it is back to the status quo.

    Sometimes I think she is a robot, so I may as well be more forward, less “permission askie”. But I really don’t think it is a good idea for the health of our relationship.

    • Tammie

      I’m sorry to hear your pain, Mark! She has something going on that
      needs to be addressed in counseling. Her avoidance is common but
      not normal. I understand avoidance when there is real conflict that is unresolved and issues ongoing but this doesn’t sound like that so may
      be something done in the past by someone else or there are things in
      your relationship that she isn’t telling you, for some reason. Seek
      some good counseling and ask questions without any hint of animosity
      towards her or the subject and listen closely to what she says and
      how she expresses herself. Praying for understanding and resolution for you guys! Love making is a wonderful thing in the right context and climate. HE sees your heart and needs!!

      • the11

        Tammie, I am so sorry for your pain. We each have our own stories, and our own pain.

        I have lived (more or less) the life Mark articulated above. And now, we are approaching the 3.5 year mark of no sex at all. And before that there were no sex periods spanning months, and once for 1.5 years. For my wife, sex FEELS abusive, no matter how loving and gentle I have been. And there have been occasions where I have been painted as abusive, simply for trying to kiss her!

        I am pretty sure we will get divorced soon. I cannot take any more. And frankly speaking, I deserve better. I feel as though I have been abused. Though no one would classify what I have gone through as abusive. Emotional neglect is seen as abusive. But not sexual neglect.

        The easy answer always given in a case such as mine is “Seek counseling”, as though that has never entered my mind. But counseling is useless unless SHE wants to change! And I cannot change her. Only myself.

        She was never sexually attracted to me. Or to anyone. Yet she married me. The only time she seemed eager for us to have sex was when we were trying for kids. And while I am eternally grateful for the kids we had together, I feel used. I feel as though I was deceived. And that the best years of my life were taken from me. But she will never divorce me. Why should she? She is getting what she wants. House, and family, and no sex.

    • Robert

      Mark. I know its been three years since your post, but I am hoping you read this. My wife suffers from many of the symptoms that yours does. I would caution you, however, in holding this against your wife. My wife had been through abuse to the point that she suffers from Depression. Those symptoms you describe may be caused by heightened anxiety or agitation. I would consider each and every possible cause and meet with someone who can walk you through what she is feeling. My wife also has trouble and seems to avoid sexual relations with me. Turns out, it has nothing to do with me at all!

      • Robert, I have personal experience of what you are describing, from the point of view of the wife. I suffered sexual abuse as a child and had sexual issues all through my adulthood until my second marriage when I was healed of all that fear. My nerve endings were literally rewired. That’s what it felt like. It took time, and lots of uncomplaining and non–pressured hugging and gentle holding from my husband when I got triggered during sex. He found it hard to cope with at first, but when he eventually took on board that my trigger reactions (fear, frozenness, numbing, ghastly memories of the childhood abuse) were NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM — that he was not at fault and not to blame — then he learned to just hold me and comfort me while I went into the trigger and allowed Jesus to heal me. bit by bit. It took quite a few months for Jesus to do all the healing. But it really truly worked, praise God!
        Sadly, that husband later became abusive to me emotionally verbally and eventually physically also. So the marriage has ended. But I thank God for allowing me that window of opportunity to heal.

        I do not feel equipped to comment on Mark’s case (sorry Mark), but I really appreciate you sharing your experience Robert.

  10. I believe that abuse IS grounds for divorce in the Bible, and have explained the scriptural arguments for this view in my book “Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion”. At my website notunderbondage.com you can read many reviews of the book by theologians, pastors, counselors and survivors of domestic abuse. To all victims of domestic abuse, take heart, you are not alone, do check out my website and also the blog cryingoutforjustice.wordpress.com where I blog with Ps Jeff Crippen.

    Domestic abuse is in epidemic proportions and Christians find it much harder to deal with than non-believers do, because there is this extra layer of scriptural stuff (and the scriptures are so misunderstood). Believe me, the Bible DOES let you divorce an abuser.

  11. johanna

    Thank you for writing this. It’s this understanding of the bible as well as God’s support, that has freed me from my emotionally abusive marriage. God does care about the abused and does not expect people to suffer under the abuse of others. Unfortunately many churches and Christians do not recognize this.

  12. Will Martin

    Abby left the most insightful comment in this entire train. Like Christ, she spoke directly and simply, while most were bogged down in their “biblical” exposition. To understand the Scriptures and teaching of Christ, we need to know the heart of Christ. His commandments were not meant to enslave or oppress, but to strengthen and protect his followers, and to correct harmful error. I think this applies to his teaching on divorce and remarriage, as well. Any other approach smacks of phariseeical legalism and hardheartedness.

  13. Ken

    I am a man that was in a terribel relationship- the likes of which still have me in shock. I am seeking a divorce however it doesn’t fit neatly into what my pastor claims to be grounds: infidelity or abandonmet”…. As I’ve shared with the few I’ve confided in, I’d welcome infidelity over what my family has endured. I follow the bible and I am doing my best daily to honor God’s word but ultimately when it comes to weighty matters, God expects us all to “put on our big boy and big girl pants” and make decisions independent of others even when, or should I say especially when, those whom we look up to are afraid to deviate from their scripts.

    • Andrew

      In reading this I notice that everyone overlooks Hebrews 11:6. Everyone seems to think we need to treat the Bible as a rule book in order to justify a decision. I am divorced and remarried myself. To be honest I did contribute to my marriage failure, primarily by marrying her in the first place without getting to know her well. She left once reality of marriage set in and there really was no convincing her to try to work things out. It was a very depressing time. But God is a god of second chances. Yes it usually means that I won’t get to be a deacon/elder but then I never wanted be one on the first place.

    • Ken, I don’t know the details of your story, but you might like to check out cryingoutforjustice.wordpress.com It deals with domestic abuse in a Christian context.

  14. Keith

    I used to attend a nondenominational church but had to divorce my wife for reasons that didn’t “square” with the church leaders strict grounds for diverse. The ostracizing was very painful. Suffice to say the whole experience caused me to question all of the underpinnings and teachings and I’ve gone back to my catholic roots where I can worship with grown ups again

  15. Questions to ask ourselves. If Jesus walked the streets in our time, how would he deal with marriage today. I would think since their are things that happen in the former days that man today cannot contain, how would God handle certain issues in marriage today. A word of thought. All I have to say if it is going to cause you to go to hell, its better to cut if off to save your soul.

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