R.C. Sproul on Biblical Grounds for Divorce – Another Aaaaargh!
Let me say that R.C. Sproul has helped me probably more than any other theologian to come to a proper understanding of the gospel. I still highly recommend his teaching DVD’s, Renewing Your Mind broadcast, and books. I disagree with him of course on his view of baptism, as he is a Presbyterian and I am a reformed Baptist. But I can live with that.
However, unless someone can correct me on this conclusion, I do not believe Sproul understands abuse. His teaching on the reasons for divorce reveal that this is the case. I have heard him speak of abuse as “physical” abuse, a common indicator that a person does not “get it” when it comes to the nature, mentality, and tactics of abuse. The following is an example which he wrote in 2009. You can read it yourself at Are there any biblical grounds for divorce, and if so, what are they?. Sproul says:
To me it seems clear that Jesus does allow divorce in the case of adultery. On the one hand, he said that if a man divorces his wife for any other reason than sexual immorality, then of course he is guilty of sin. So Jesus, at that point, says that there ought not to be divorce for grounds other than sexual impurity or immorality. Then he goes on to say that because of the hardness of our hearts, the law was given to Moses that did make a provision for divorce in the Old Testament. He then quotes the law from Deuteronomy in which the so-called unclean thing is cited as the legitimate grounds for divorce in the Old Testament. But Jesus hastens to add this statement: “But from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). His reference back to Creation reminds us of the sanctity of marriage. It’s certainly true that the provision for divorce is given to us because of the hardness of hearts, because of sin. Because adultery is a sin, when somebody violates marriage through adultery and breaks that trust, then the sacred vow, and the innocent party in the divorce, is so violated that the provision is given to them in that context of fallenness to be engaged lawfully in divorce.
It’s obvious that Jesus is rebuking the liberal view of divorce that was prevalent in his own day. I think that Jesus does remind us that the original intention of marriage did not include divorce. He acknowledges that there is a ground, and he is not criticizing God for making this allowance in the Old Testament. People are fallen, and God does condescend to the fact that people commit sins against marriage that are serious enough to be grounds for dissolving the marriage. That sin is sexual infidelity.
I think one other ground for divorce given by the apostle Paul in the Corinthian correspondence is the case of the willful and irreparable separation of the unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:15). Those are the only two grounds I find in Scripture.
That last sentence indicates that Sproul does not believe that abuse is a valid ground for divorce. If he does, he certainly leaves that to our guesswork. “Willful and irreparable separation of the unbeliever.” What does that mean? Does it have to be “I refuse to live under the same roof as this woman. I’m leaving.” Or perhaps it is the unbeliever’s decision to file for divorce? But abuse victims will tell us over and over again that their abuser often, if not most commonly, will not actually file for divorce. Nor will he leave. The victim is his property. He must win. She will do his bidding.
This next quote from Sproul also comes from the Ligonier website, at The Sanctity of Marriage (the article has no date). It demonstrates that Sproul does indeed NOT see abuse as a grounds for divorce. Here, as you can see, he teaches that even if an abuser were to actually separate from the victim, the victim CANNOT divorce him. She must wait, remain married to him, unless he divorces her.
Citing Genesis 2:24, Jesus shows God’s plan for marriage did not include divorce (Matt. 19:4–6). When asked then why Moses commanded divorce, Jesus corrects the Pharisees, saying he only allowed it because of sin. God’s people, He teaches, may not end a marriage unless sexual immorality severs the one-flesh bond. In this case, a divorce is permitted but not required (vv. 7–9). The offending spouse must be forgiven, but the offended party does not have to stay married.
Immorality is a broad term and can include things like physical abuse when the abuser is unrepentant and refuses to get help. The only other ground for divorce in Scripture is desertion. When an unbelieving spouse wants to leave a believer, divorce is usually the outcome, but the believer cannot initiate the proceedings (1 Cor. 7:10–16).
Even more clearly, if you will go to page 404ff of Sproul’s book Now That’s a Good Question (1996) he answers the question Why isn’t physical abuse legitimate grounds for divorce? Here is his answer; I have added paragraph breaks for ease of reading.
I don’t know why God has not included wife abuse or husband abuse as grounds for divorce. I only know that he hasn’t. I also have to say very candidly that if I were God, I would make that a grounds for divorce because abuse within marriage is a dreadful reality. If anything, it is a violation of human dignity and of the sacred vows of marriage, it is physical abuse of another person….
I do know that we have options short of divorce in these situations. Obviously, if we’re talking about a Christian family (and this is something that does take place in Christian homes), this is a situation in which the discipline of the church needs to be applied fully in order to protect the person who is being abused…
If that fails or if people don’t even have that available to them because they are outside the church, there are other avenues of safety and protection. Many people use the legal system. I’ve counseled women in the past to call the police. If worse comes to worse, throw the abuser in jail because assault and battery just can’t be tolerated in the home or on the streets, in the school or in the church.
There are grounds in a Christian community for at least temporary separation if the abusing partner refuses to mend their ways. Maybe there is no provision for divorce in these cases because God sees that this problem, as serious and severe as it is, can be overcome. In many cases, we have seen marriages redeemed after people have repented and overcome destructive patterns of behavior.
Dr. Sproul, I am grieved to have to say it, but you speak out of serious ignorance on this subject. You do not know the abuser. You do not know the nature of this evil. If you did, you would never write and teach what you do, as quoted above. You are endangering many and enabling evil men in their evil.
So there it is. Sproul doesn’t get it. I wish he would.
When a church becomes a man’s world it has strayed from Christ’s model, and from His blessing – by Jeff Crippen, Dec 22, 2017
R.C. Sproul on Biblical Grounds for Divorce – by Jeff Crippen, March 2, 2012
Keeping the Spotlight on Prominent Teachers Who Forbid Divorce for Abuse – by Jeff Crippen, March 30, 2012