For people who suffer marital abuse, divorce is a significant and important way for them to escape harm (or at least reduce it) and rebuild their lives.
Despite this, the church has long held that divorce is moral only when a spouse has committed adultery or desertion. Remarriage after divorce has also been widely prohibited. These teachings have been largely based on the gospel passages where Jesus discusses divorce, as well as one of Paul’s letters.
Views have certainly diversified amongst Christians, but even today, I read statements like ‘the marriage bond cannot be dissolved.’ Or that while divorce is ‘sometimes necessary due to abuse, it is neither required nor encouraged.’ (Which seems a bit contradictory.) Or, ‘in pastoral counseling, restoration of marriage must always be first [sic] goal.’
My personal view would largely align with Sheila Gregoire (emphasis mine):
I’m having to delete a lot of comments on the blog today from people saying that divorce is never a biblical option. I find that sad. I know God hates divorce–but He hates people being wounded and abused and betrayed, too. And Jesus gave us some reasons for divorce. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I am very pro-marriage and anti-divorce, but more importantly I’m pro-truth and pro-healing.
In that post, which she wrote in 2015, Sheila observed that the Bible appears to be silent about whether abuse is a reason for divorce—because it’s not explicitly mentioned in Jesus’s teachings or 1 Corinthians 7:12–15. However, she argued that we can still deduce that spousal abuse is a legitimate reason, given what the rest of the Bible reveals about God.
Fast-forward to March 2020, Sheila wrote another post commenting on conservative theological heavyweight Wayne Grudem. In late 2019, Grudem made a public u-turn, saying that the 1 Corinthians 7 verses were applicable to more than just adultery and desertion.
Grudem now believes that the biblical text supports the idea that abuse, even in its non-physical forms, is legitimate grounds for divorce. He bases his argument on an analysis of how other ancient Greek sources used the phrase ‘in such cases’. He found that the phrase ‘referred to more kinds of situations than the original example that was being discussed.’
Then we get to today and why I’m writing this post.
Like Sheila, I am fed up of hearing people say that ‘divorce is never a biblical option.’
When people say this, what they really mean is that ‘divorce is never consistent with what I interpret the Bible to teach.’
In itself, this isn’t a problem—I’d apply it to myself. When I say ‘divorce is a biblical option’ I mean, ‘divorce can be consistent with what I interpret the Bible to teach.’
The problem is that when people say ‘divorce is never a biblical option’ they don’t say it in a vacuum. They say it to justify keeping couples together, even in contexts of abuse.
In other words, this kind of statement prioritises an interpretation of a small selection of Bible verses over all contradictory evidence from experience as well over other indirectly relevant parts of the Bible.
And this is being done with no regard for the fact that humanity can only learn about God through our lived experience of him working in our lives.
The Bible isn’t a magic book of knowledge that tells us what we need to know about God. It is a witness statement from a collection of different people, across generations, to say what God did in their lives and, therefore, what they learned about him. It’s given to us as a gift so that if, for example, we didn’t live face-to-face with Jesus, we can still know about God’s presence and work through him.
Yes, the Bible is important and unique, but to ignore how God reveals himself to us in our lived experience is to undermine the Bible altogether. Because the Bible was only written out of people’s lived experience.
Of course Christians want our everyday lives to align with the truths we find in the Bible. But we don’t always have the luxury of mapping that out with certainty. We should therefore be very wary of leveraging select parts of the Bible to override the documented evidence of people’s lives.
I get that the Bible is a (very) complicated book, but being ‘biblical’ isn’t a free pass for our choices.
When we get called to account for our lives, I don’t think God’s going to tut at Sheila saying, ‘Hey, how could you miss that Paul was talking about multiple scenarios, including abuse, in 1 Corinthians 7?’ But I honestly wonder whether God will ask Grudem why it took 60 years of reading the Bible before he reformed his pastoral views about marital abuse.
I am tired of Jesus’ words being skewed by modern assumptions
In 2020, Sheila asked why Christians seem to assume that adultery is worse than abuse in a marriage. To her, this assumption ignores both the realities of coercive control and the negative impact of high-conflict marriages on children.
I think Christians tend to think this way partly because Jesus’ teachings about divorce revolve around the ancient world’s understanding of adultery. This makes adultery our primary reference point for the discussion. Problem is, churches take his statements assuming that husbands and wives are equally capable of both divorce and adultery.
But in first century Judaism, that wasn’t true at all.
In the UK and US (and many other countries, but not all) either spouse can initiate a divorce. In Jesus’ time though, divorce was very much a male prerogative and a well-known way for husbands to treat their wives unfairly.
It’s not that wives could never divorce their husbands. Jewish women who were also Roman citizens could do so; other wives might have had the means to force their husbands’ hands and obtain a divorce.
But, by and large, divorce was something husbands did to wives, not the other way around. They might have done it on grounds of divorce. Or they might have done it for an arbitrary reason. Or they might have done it to marry other women.
As modern readers, we should therefore be extremely hesitant before picking up Jesus’ words and applying them to a context of abuse. We shouldn’t suggest that an abused wife commits adultery if she divorces her husband on the grounds of his abuse. Such an idea not only goes against pastoral experience, but it also ignores the cultural context of Jesus’ day.
It makes much more sense to interpret Jesus’ words as a condemnation of capricious divorce.
And in that context, when he says divorce is permissible on the grounds of adultery, he’s only really saying that it’s not capricious to divorce an adulterous wife. Because, well, she (freely) committed adultery.
Speaking of which…
We face another interpretation issue if we assume that Jesus used ‘adultery’ to mean what we think of as ‘cheating.’ He didn’t.
For example, if a married man has sex with a prostitute, we would usually think of this as cheating. But in ancient Jewish culture, it wasn’t adultery.
Instead, adultery was about a man (the adulterer) having sex with another man’s wife (the adulteress). The wronged party was the adulteress’ husband but not the adulterer’s wife.
Bear with me here. I appreciate that this framework doesn’t align with the destructive emotional impact of being cheated on. And… that’s kind of the point Jesus was making!
You see, legally speaking, a husband could commit adultery against his neighbour, but not against his wife. Only wives were capable of wronging their spouse through an act of adultery. We don’t have to agree with the ancient world’s understanding of adultery. But to understand the full force of Jesus’ words, it helps to appreciate the asymmetric definition of his time.
This was a world where only wives could commit adultery against their husbands. A world where adultery was considered far more grievous than divorce. (Because divorce was legal but adultery was a capital offence.)
This meant that it was legally impossible for a husband to wrong his wife as badly as she could wrong him if she committed adultery.
With that as the context, now imagine what it would have meant when Jesus said men could commit adultery by looking at a woman lustfully? (Matthew 5:28)
Or that—get this—if a husband divorces his wife capriciously, then he commits adultery against her? (Mark 10:11)
Jesus was levelling the playing field.
When we appreciate how Jesus was attacking the ancient world’s asymmetric understanding of marital unfaithfulness, our interpretation shifts radically.
He never sought to condemn abused spouses who sought to escape their abusive marriages via divorce. No, he was indicting men for the abuses they had casually been getting away with.
Concluding thoughts: so, if God hates abuse, why didn’t Jesus say that abuse was legitimate grounds for divorce?
It’s possible that he did, but it just didn’t make its way into the gospel accounts. But assuming he didn’t say anything, then I can think of several reasons.
First, because people didn’t directly ask him about abuse; they asked him about Deuteronomy 24:1–4, which is about remarriage after divorce.
Second, because he wanted to tell men in no uncertain terms that capricious divorce was abuse. He was trying to prevent abuse from happening in the first place.
Third, because coercive control by wives against their husbands wasn’t exactly common. It wasn’t a pervasive problem that needed calling out. (Even today, the majority of spousal abuse is by men against women.)
And fourthly, because he knew that the disciples and early church would be capable of building on his teaching for more complex scenarios.
Which, in case you missed it, is what Paul did in 1 Corinthians 7.
And it’s what we’re expected to do today.
Want to read more?
For a more detailed analysis of Matthew 5:31–32 and Mark 10:10–12, where Jesus talks about divorce, I wrote another (much longer post): Does the Bible speak against marital rape? Yes… I think it’s hidden in Jesus’s teachings on divorce. In that essay, I draw on the work of Ron Jones’ paper “Support for the NIV Translation “Victim of Adultery” in Matthew 5:32” on Academia.edu. It’s free to access here.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also appreciate Why Love & Respect’s CHAIRS acronym isn’t about genuine respect. Or if you’re into a more granular look at the biblical text, What was the Hebrew word when David had sex with Bathsheba and does it imply anything about her consent?
 If you want to dig through the historical detail, this Theological Studies article traces the development of teachings from the early church up until Wesley. I’m not an unqualified fan of either Luther or Calvin, but I found it interesting to learn that both allowed divorce for grounds other than adultery and desertion.
 I appreciate that a u-turn after 60 years is better than no u-turn at all. I also get that it can be very hard to break away from the established thought of the Christian tradition you were brought up in. Plus, it’s worth noting from his interview with Christianity Today that, even before he changed his mind, he would still have advocated taking steps for the abuse to stop, including separation if necessary. However, even with all that, for someone with the extensive theological training that Grudem has had, who had been teaching the Bible for 44 years, it feels like a long time. Also, his interview offered no apology to the people who had been adversely impacted by his teaching.
 For example, one of the Old Testament penalties for men was to prevent them from ever being able to divorce their wives (Dt 22:13-19,28-29). I would argue the evidence available from marriage contracts, and their detailed discussion of what the wife would receive in the event of divorce, also point to the realities of divorce. Whilst there are no surviving contracts from the Second Temple period, there is documentation from the 5th century BCE, and plenty of rabbinic discussion in the Tannaitic period (i.e. the first two centuries CE). For a fascinating discussion of marriage contracts in ancient Judaism, see Deborah Greniman, “The Origins of the Ketubah: Deferred Payment or Cash up Front?” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues, 2001:4.
 Greniman makes this point, quoting A.M Rabello, “Divorce of Jews in the Roman Empire,” Jewish Law Annual, IV (1981), pp. 79-83, 93.
 I don’t want to get distracted by the complexities of affairs here, but I think it worth acknowledging that some people are coerced into adultery. I don’t think those situations were being contemplated in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees. Rather, they were talking about wives who were willingly being unfaithful to their husbands.
 This is also the intended meaning behind the brain-bending Greek of Matthew 5:32. Hence the NIV translates it as ‘makes her the victim of adultery.’ Ron Jones talks about this in “Support for the NIV Translation “Victim of Adultery” in Matthew 5:32” on Academia.edu. I found it very helpful and it’s free to access here.