This weekend I taught part of an online Marriage & Family Counseling course and several student questions revolved around the matter of biblical divorce. What are valid reasons biblically for getting divorced? Two are quite clear: sexual immorality (Matt 19:9) and an unbeliever walking out on a believer (1 Cor 7:13-15).
It’s important to note the wording of 1 Cor 7:13-15 (“If the unbeliever leaves, let him leave. A brother or a sister is not bound in such cases. God has called you to live in peace.”) We typically (and appropriately) refer to this as “abandonment”, but I think it’s important for us to remember the actual words of the text lest we forget the exact scenario mentioned by God in his word.
One question that is consistently brought up is whether abuse constitutes grounds for divorce, as the text itself never mentions such a case. Wise pastors and theologians almost unanimously agree that physical abuse stands as grounds for divorce as an individual consistently using their fists to create an unsafe environment is de facto abandonment. Similarly, if an individual were to dump their spouse’s possessions at the curb and change the locks, the scenario wouldn’t be explicitly taught in the text, but it’s a logical extension of what’s written. We are called to live at peace, and if an individual isn’t saying “Get out of here” with their words but is with their fists then God allows such a divorce.
The issue of verbal or emotional abuse, however, is a different matter. Every Marriage & Family course I can remember has brought up this issue – and rightly so. Here is where my above plug for remembering the actual wording of the text becomes important.
The text itself is speaking of a specific form of sin when it comes to divorce – sexual immorality and abandonment (and physical abuse) are observable, verifiable, physical acts. Adultery is adultery, bruising is bruising. There can at times be ambiguity, but on the whole it’s abundantly clear that some physical transgression has taken place.
Emotional and verbal abuse, however, are not of the same category as sexual immorality and physical abuse. To extend “abandonment” out to include emotional/verbal abuse is to move from the category of physical acts of harm into a different realm – one that is inherently subjective. When do harsh words move from garden variety angry words to “verbal abuse”? Is there a universal standard for what constitutes emotional abandonment – the expectations for emotional involvement in marriage vary from couple to couple and culture to culture. In short, there’s no universal, objective, observable standard by which to judge such matters.
We’re not asking the question if harsh words, angry words, manipulative words, lack of speaking words of grace, etc. is evil. They certainly are and such transgressions are consistently condemned by God (Eph 4:29, 31). And they will be dealt with by God. But sin committed against one another in a marriage does not give license for divorce. Indeed, the greatest sin one can commit in a marriage is rebellion against God and his word. 1 Corinthians 7 is speaking to that exact situation – if a husband rebels against the Lord, may you divorce him? The answer is clearly no. Not only that, but the command is to stay married so that the Lord might perhaps work through the faithfulness of the believing spouse to win over the unbeliever.
Our situation today is not harder than that faced by the early church. In fact, it’s easier given that almost every believer alive during the time 1 Corinthians was written was an adult convert. It would have been incredibly common for there to be one believer and one unbeliever in a marriage. Written into this context, the Scriptures are careful to reserve permission for divorce only for situations of clear, physical transgression against the marriage covenant.
I sympathize with those who advocate for emotional abandonment or verbal abuse as being grounds for divorce. They desire to see hurting people be free of hurt. Don’t we all. And yet, the greatest hurt an individual can face is transgressing God’s law – a law which is given for our good and eternal joy. The call Christian discipleship is a hard calling. We are not called to ease, but to gospel warfare. We all must pick up our crosses and follow Christ. Some will be married to boorish spouses for half a century. As hard as it is to say, the truth is that some roads to the Celestial City are harder than others. Such men and women in our churches deserve our praise, our support, and our honor for they serve Christ well in circumstances none of us would envy.