It seems every week brings into the spotlight yet another church that has failed to carefully handle cases of abuse. As we consider the best way to respond to such sin in our ranks, many wonder about the biblical teaching that should inform our care. One question that repeatedly comes up, of course, is whether physical abuse rises to the threshold of permissibility for divorce.
To put my cards on the table, my short answer to this question is Yes.
Of course, I am of the mind that there are biblically allowable grounds for divorce, though I know that many brothers and sisters of good faith see the same biblical data and come to different conclusions (of what the grounds are or even if divorce is ever allowed in any circumstance). Nonetheless, I think the Scriptures limit the permissibility of divorce (while not in every instance demanding the necessity of it) to cases of sexual unfaithfulness, which in my view includes circumstances of abandonment. In my view, physical/sexual abuse falls into the category of sexual unfaithfulness.
Now for the longer answer, and how I’m arriving at these conclusions:
The Biblical Teaching on Divorce
Direct teaching in the Scriptures on the prospect of divorce is limited to just a few texts, but there number should not be misconstrued as a lack of clarity. While the exegetical issues involved in their understanding has resulted in a variety of evangelical opinions over the years, a reasonable case may be made from the major relevant texts that the Bible teaches that divorce is allowed (though not necessarily promoted, and never mandated) in very specific instances involving “sexual immorality” or abandonment.
The first reference to be considered is Deuteronomy 24:1, which reads, “If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house.” Understanding this passage hinges on the meaning of the phrase “something indecent,” which is more literally rendered “the nakedness of a thing.” The import is one directly of fornication—the physically sexual unfaithfulness of one married partner with another person outside the marriage—but the semantic range can include acts like “revealing one’s nakedness,” and even incest, pedophilia, or other sexual immoralities.
Jesus alludes to this passage in Matthew 19:9, where He says in response to the Pharisees’ question about divorce, “I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” The phrase here rendered “sexual immorality” corresponds to the Deuteronomic phrase “a matter of indecency,” and the natural reading of this passage is that Jesus is basically saying, “Whoever divorces his or her spouse, unless on the grounds of sexual immorality, commits adultery.”
Another for consideration comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul, who in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15 addresses an implied question about a believer divorcing an apparent unbeliever:
10 To the married I give this command—not I, but the Lord—a wife is not to leave her husband. 11 But if she does leave, she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband—and a husband is not to divorce his wife. 12 But I (not the Lord) say to the rest: If any brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 Also, if any woman has an unbelieving husband and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce her husband. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy by the husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. 15 But 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.
In this text, Paul is elaborating on what Christ has taught in Matthew 19 and its synoptic parallels (as well in Matthew 5:32), neither amending Jesus’ words nor contradicting them. Rather, Paul inclusion of “abandonment” here, and other “such cases” (v.15) as a form of sexual unfaithfulness. We may reason so due to his previous admonition in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 regarding “conjugal rights.”
In summary, the major biblical texts speaking to the issue of divorce (and remarriage) speak to the permissibility of divorce in the narrow case of “sexual immorality” and that in such cases, the offended party may be “free”
And yet, not everything permissible is profitable (1 Cor. 6:12). In no biblical text is divorce ever promoted, much less mandated. The original design of marriage is intended for permanence this side of eternity, and thus even permissible divorce is not always necessary or wise. The impulse for every Christian in a broken marriage, with the Spirit’s help and the gospel’s vision, should be to seek reconciliation if at all possible.
The Theological Meaning of Marriage
The reason even permissible divorce isn’t always or even frequently advisable is the same reason why divorce is only permissible on very narrow grounds in the first place. The Pharisees prompt Jesus’ treatise on marriage, divorce, and remarriage with a question about the ability to divorce “on any grounds” (Matt. 19:3). Jesus roundly corrects that egregious phraseology misconstrued from the Mosaic tradition. He does so first not by immediately teaching on allowable grounds for divorce but by reaffirming the sanctity of marriage:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that he who created them in the beginning made them male and female, 5 and he also said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
There are at least two Old Testament texts being referenced here. Genesis 1:27 details the origin of male and female, who we learn are made as complements to each other. Genesis 2:24 speaks to the institution of the marriage covenant itself, where man is called to leave his family, cleave to his wife, and pursue a “one flesh” relationship with her. Jesus’s words in Matthew 19:6, while not a direct quote, may correspond to the image of “violence” done to a “garment” (separating?) in relation to divorce.
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 further enjoin married believers to seek to maintain the relationship if at all possible. Even the unequal yoking of a believer to an unbeliever, he reasons, may result in a vital gospel witness. But the overarching concern for Paul is that God’s intention for marriage be upheld. God designed marriage to be a picture of his own relationship to his people, in fact. Paul in Ephesians 5:22-31:
Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. 27 He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 since we are members of his body. 31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband.
The portrait of marital love here, and the overarching biblical picture of the marriage covenant in a multitude of texts, demonstrates the beautiful reflection within marriage of God and his people and of Christ and his Church. Marriage is meant to bear witness to the union Christ enjoys with believers and to the gracious way He has served and sacrificed for them. Further, the reason marriage is intended for permanence this side of heaven is as a picture of Christ’s enduring commitment to His Bride, whom He will never leave nor forsake (Heb. 13:5).
Divorce has been allowed, Jesus says, because of the hardness of hearts, but “it was not like that from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8). No, the original intention for marriage was a beautiful reflection of God’s everlasting lovingkindness.
Of course, we will not enjoy marriage in heaven, Jesus says in Luke 20:34-26, because we will not need marriage in heaven. Marriage is a gift for this age as a signpost to that age, and when He who is signified finally consummates his kingdom, we will not need the sign any longer. But until that day, men and women marry and are given in marriage primarily as a testimony to God’s grace with us. Because of that, marriage is to be upheld in the highest esteem (Heb. 13:4) and all efforts should be made to maintain the covenant.
Because marriage is a sacred gift from God designed to showcase His glory and grace, it is indeed a weighty thing to contemplate the dissolution of the covenant that joins man and woman together in it. It is for this reason that the grounds for permissible divorce in the Scriptures are not boundless.
Biblical Grounds for Divorce
The modern conception of “no fault divorce” or “irreconcilable differences” does not exist in the Bible’s theological vision of marriage. Some Rabbinical traditions may have exploited an interpretation of permissible grounds entailing “any matter,” but this is not even born out by the Old Testament statutes, much less by Jesus’ clarifying of them or Paul’s exposition of them.
Because marriage is to be held in highest esteem, divorce should not be our first impulse, even in allowable cases. As previously stated, divorce is never promoted or mandated. And yet it is allowed in certain instances. From the biblical texts examined before, we may break them down roughly into two major categories: “sexual immorality” and abandonment. (And, as previously asserted, I would argue that abandonment is itself a kind of sexual immorality as it is bodily unfaithfulness. Sexual fidelity, consider, is not simply a matter of physical intercourse but of commitment, cherishing, and edification.)
The issues are more complex than even that, however, as the word Jesus uses for “sexual immorality” in Matthew 19:9 is as semantically indistinct as the “matter of indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1 from which he’s quoting. The Greek word behind Jesus’ phraseology is porneia, which has a notoriously malleable meaning. Porneia is indeed a “junk drawer” kind of word, encompassing all manner of sexual immoralities. Given its range of use both in Scripture and in other ancient texts, it can imply fornication (sex before marriage), adultery (sex outside of marriage), incest (sex with a family member), homosexuality (sex with the same sex or sexual attraction to them), and even pedophilia (sex with children or sexual attraction to them).
Paul’s inclusion of “abandonment” in 1 Corinthians 7 may seem distinct on the surface, but he also includes a curious phrase ensuing—“in such cases”—that may also expand either his understanding of abandonment or indicate he is citing abandonment as a kind of sexual immorality or similar permissible grounds for divorce.
Given the nature of these two major exceptions for divorce in the New Testament, it is reasonable to include physical and sexual abuse and even the habitual, unrepentant use of pornography as permissible grounds for divorce.
Physical abuse constitutes a kind of “sexual immorality” (porneia), in fact, because it is direct and sinful bodily unfaithfulness. It is just as much a violation of Ephesians 5 marital nurture as having sex with someone outside the relationship. It is a destruction of one’s body and dignity, and thus a destruction of the vow to protect, cherish, and nurture.
Similarly, obsessive pornography use can constitute the kind of lust Jesus equates with adultery (Matt. 5:28), and the unrepentant and habitual user is in effect cheating on his or her spouse just the same as if they were engaging in physical intercourse outside the marriage. Indeed, pornography use is sexual immorality committed outside the stated bond of marriage.
For these reasons, it is reasonable to assume that the Bible allows divorce only on the grounds of “sexual immorality” or abandonment and that, by implication, there is a limited range of activity, including abuse and pornography use, that may qualify as either or both of the above. In short, sexual or other physical abuse of one’s spouse is sexual immorality, and thus is biblically permissible grounds for divorce.