Barbara Roberts responds to Wayne Grudem’s paper on divorce for abuse
Wayne Grudem used to say there were only two biblically-sanctioned grounds for divorce: adultery and desertion by an unbeliever (based on Matt. 19:9 and 1 Cor. 7:15). His counsel for abuse was to provide protection, church discipline, possible separation, but not divorce.¹
He has now had changed his mind. Let me quote from his paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Nov 2019:
During 2018-2019, I had an increasing conviction of need for re-examination of divorce for self-protection from abuse.
My awareness of several horrible real-life situations, and thinking, “This cannot be the kind of life that God intends for his children when there is an alternative available.”
In an interview with Christianity Today, he explained a bit more about what led him to change his mind.
“My wife Margaret and I became aware of some heartbreaking examples of such things as severe sexual humiliation and degradation that had continued for decades, and another case of physical battering that had gone on for decades,” he told CT. “In all these situations the abused spouse had kept silent, believing that a Christian’s duty was to preserve the marriage unless there was adultery or desertion, which had not happened.” (archived link to CT article)
Now back to his paper:
examples of horrible real life situations
– arguments, disagreement →repeated rape
– battered – no help when abused spouse went to pastor
– repeated threats of physical harm or even murder
Still, I was never quite persuaded by the “abuse is a kind of desertion” argument.
I did not think it right to say that “abuse is another kind of desertion” because I could not see it as something Paul intended to mean in 1 Corinthians 7:15:
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so [literally, “let him separate”]. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.
Grudem grappled with 1 Corinthians 7:15 by investigating the phrase “in such cases” —
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. (ESV)
He asked himself whether it meant only in this case (only the case of desertion by the unbeliever) or whether it meant any cases that have similarly destroyed a marriage.
He looked at extra-biblical literature and found several examples where the Greek phrase ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις (“in such cases”) includes more kinds of situations than the original example.
He noted that if Paul had meant to refer only to desertion he could have used the singular phrase “in this case”. But Paul chose to use the plural phrase “in such cases”.
Grudem then adduced further reasons why abuse should be included in “such cases” in 1 Cor. 7:15 and considered a legitimate ground for divorce. NB: Grudem is not the first to put forward these reasons. In the next quote I give from Grudem’s paper, he is reiterating arguments that others have put forward. I made these arguments in my book. Grudem did not refer to my book in his paper.
Additional reasons why abuse should be included in “such cases” in 1 Cor. 7:15 and considered a legitimate ground for divorce
1. If abuse by an unbelieving spouse forces the abused spouse to flee the home for self protection, the abuser has caused the separation just as much as if he or she had deserted the marriage
The result would be the same as desertion (no longer living together)
“in such cases” would seem certainly to apply to this situation (very similar!)
2. “is not enslaved” (ou dedoulōtai) = not enslaved to a spouse who has destroyed the marriage relationship
Paul is saying the deserted (or abused) spouse is not under such an “enslavement” requirement. This verb suggests that attempting to maintain the marriage with the unbeliever who wants a divorce (or carries out a divorce) would mean being trapped in a life of hardship, mistreatment, and debasement. Staying in a marriage with ongoing, destructive abuse would similarly be an “enslavement”.
3. God has called you to “peace”: with sense of “harmony in personal relationships”. This “peace” is like OT sense of shālôm, “a state of well-being.” Ongoing, destructive abuse is not this kind of “peace.” Paul contrasts the life God has called us to with the continually unsettled situation of being married to a spouse who has left the marriage. This would also apply to an abusive spouse (continual battleground, not “peace”).
He concludes that “in such cases” should be understood to include any cases that similarly destroy a marriage:
We could paraphrase:
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In this and other similarly destructive cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.
This reasoning also explains why Paul felt freedom to add desertion as another ground for divorce in addition to adultery, which Jesus had specified. In both cases, the marriage has been very substantially, or even fatally, harmed.
Abuse is in some ways more harmful than desertion, because abuse includes repeated demonstrations of actual malice, not simply indifference. Abuse is actively and repeatedly malevolent.
I have to give him credit for listing examples of conduct that destroys a marriage. He does not confine his examples to physical / sexual assault. He seems to recognise that abuse is a pattern of conduct. He might even concur with my definition of abuse. Here are the examples he gives:
Other specific kinds of behavior that in some cases might be so severe that they would belong in the category of “in such cases” (1 Cor. 7:15), because they have similarly destructive effects in the marriage:
a. Extreme, prolonged, verbal and relational cruelty that is destroying the spouse’s mental and emotional stability
in cases of mental / emotional abuse, the determination of “substantial harm” is more difficult and more subjective, but not impossible
b. Credible threats of physical harm or murder of spouse or children
c. Incorrigible (or recalcitrant, or inveterate, or incurable) drug or alcohol addiction accompanied by regular lies, deceptions, thefts, and/or violence
d. Incorrigible gambling addiction that has led to massive, overwhelming indebtedness
e. Pornography addiction would also fit here, but it would also be included under meaning of “sexual immorality” (Gk. porneia) in Matthew 19:9
Grudem’s suggested guideline on grounds for divorce:
Divorce for self-protection is morally permissible in situations where one spouse is repeatedly inflicting substantial harm on the other spouse, such that the abused spouse must leave the home for self protection, and also in other situations that are similarly destructive to a marriage.
This “substantial harm” could be physical or mental/emotional (from verbal and relational cruelty).
Situations that are not legitimate reasons for divorce:
Not: because marriage is hard, or husband and wife are not getting along
Not: because one spouse wants to marry someone else
Grudem articulated why (in the past) he had been unable to see 1 Cor 7:15 as covering abuse. His explanation struck me as rather wooden. For well over a decade it has been self evident to me that abuse is a form of desertion, or, to put that another way, abuse destroys marriage in a similar way to adultery or desertion destroying marriage. And I agree with Grudem that abuse is often worse (more hurtful, more damaging) for the mistreated spouse than adultery or desertion.
Prior to reading Grudem’s paper, I had never heard anyone say that the phrase “in such cases” was a tangle in the knot… or a key to untangling the knot. Nevertheless, it has been the key for Grudem. And now he has untangled that knot to his own satisfaction.
Grudem’s work on the phrase “in such cases” is a new contribution to the debate. A useful contribution. Useful because it will help those who (like Grudem) are using a hermeneutic (an interpretive method) that hyper-focuses on Greek word studies.²
Grudem’s work seems to be bearing good fruit:
The response from the ETS audience was “overwhelmingly positive and appreciative,” Grudem said, and he received few objections. “One woman afterward told me she counsels abused women, and she wept with tears when she read my outline. More than one person said to me afterward, ‘I came prepared to disagree with you, but you persuaded me.’” (CT article)
Where I think Grudem still falls short
1. Grudem says pastors and elders can (and should?) be the ones to decide whether a particular victim of abuse is allowed to divorce
From his paper:
Pastor and elders, if asked for counsel, need wisdom to assess the degree of actual harm in each case. [They] must first hear both sides: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17).
Hearing both sides – Does he mean doing couple counseling? Putting the victim and the abuser in the same room and asking them to each give their side of the story? That is unwise for multiple reasons. Click here to learn why couple counseling is dangerous.
Grudem has failed in his duty of care to victims. He didn’t say that couple counseling is NOT recommended when there are allegations of abuse. His failure to say that indicates how little he seems to yet understand the dynamics of abuse.
2. Grudem says restoration of marriage must always be the first goal
In pastoral counseling, restoration of marriage must always be first goal: 1 Cor. 7:11-14
1. Pastors (or counselors, or friends) should first try to restore the marriage through counseling, temporary separation, and, if the abusing spouse is a professing Christian, church discipline.
2. If the abusing spouse is a professing Christian, then sometimes the abuse will stop as a result of counseling and church discipline. If the abuse does not stop, then the church may treat the abuser as a non-Christian (see Matt. 18:17).
Grudem says “sometimes the abuse will stop as a result of counseling and church discipline”. He gives no evidence to back up his assertion. Permit me to be cynical. Click here to learn more about abusers pretending to reform.
3. For church discipline Grudem cites Matthew 18 but not 1 Corinthians 5
Like the vast majority of church leaders, Grudem points to Matthew 18 but does not point to the church discipline prescribed by 1 Corinthians 5:11-13. This is another shortfall in his position. The commandment in 1 Corinthians 5 is Put the abuser out of the church: hand the abuser over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Click here to read more on the application of 1 Corinthians 5 to cases of domestic abuse.
4. Why did it take Grudem so long to wake up?
I give him credit where it is due. Grudem heard the testimony of victims, their lived experience, saw the contradictions in his doctrine, and grappled with scripture to find answers to the ethical dilemma.
But I am dismayed it took Wayne Grudem this long to become aware of heartbreaking examples of spousal abuse. I am dismayed it took him this long to see the ethical contradictions of his former view.
I suggest that Grudem has been living in the evangelical bubble where the coal-face reality of domestic abuse is often covered up or disbelieved, especially by those in leadership. A bubble where victims of spousal abuse were hesitant to seek help from people like Wayne Grudem.
Was Wayne Grudem filtering their cries for help through his authority / submission ideology?
We know this for a fact: Wayne Grudem believes that within the eternal Godhead (Father / Son / Holy Spirit) there is submission and authority.
In 2005, when being interviewed at the Revive our Hearts podcast, Wayne Grudem said:
The idea of headship and submission never began. It has existed eternally in the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity….
And in this most basic of all relationships, authority is not based on gifts or ability. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in all attributes and perfections, but authority is just there. Authority belongs to the Father, not because He is wiser or a more skillful leader, but just because He is Father. Authority and submission is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity. (link / archived link)
If you want to read my thoughts on what Grudem said in that ^ podcast, click here and scroll down to where I discuss the Revive our Hearts podcast.
Was Wayne Grudem’s hyper-focus on authority / submission making him impervious to the cries of the victims of spousal abuse?
I believe that Wayne Grudem is aware of both the A Cry For Justice blog and my book on the biblical grounds for divorce for abuse. I believe that because:
- In 2010 I had an email conversation with CBMW regarding their Statement on Abuse.
- Wayne Grudem, as co-founder of CBMW, was one of the people I was emailing in 2010.
- About three years later, a fellow who wrote a few guest posts for the ACFJ blog told us that he had heard directly from Wayne Grudem (by email) that Grudem was reading the ACFJ blog.
(click here to read all this documented in more detail)
Abuse sufferers have a sixth sense for the people who would be unlikely to believe them. They develop this ‘sixth sense’ by much painful experience of being misunderstood, patronised, disbelieved, poorly counseled, dismissed, falsely judged, ordered around, and down-right bullied. They are reluctant to seek help from people like Wayne Grudem because they know they will be urged into counseling that prioritises authority / submission and marital restoration.
5. Counseling which prioritises authority / submission and marital restoration puts undue pressure on the victim
When the abuser knows that the counselor prioritises authority / submission and marital restoration, the abuser is happy. The abuser is happy because the counselor’s priorities serve the abuser’s agenda.
- The abuser can claim that the person who is being abused is bad / sinful / not properly submissive.
- The abuser can claim that the person who is being abused is sinfully resisting the counselor’s marital restoration agenda.
6. Grudem needs to apologise to Christian victims of domestic abuse
He needs to apologise and ask forgiveness for the harm he did to many victims by his former doctrine which forbade divorce for abuse.
7. Grudem needs to retract or update all the publications he has written where he forbade divorce for abuse
If he does not do that, if he does not withdraw those things from publication or add crystal clear updates to them, his former doctrine will continue to do much harm.
¹ In Grudem’s book Christian Ethics (2018) he taught that adultery and desertion were the only two grounds for divorce. Prior to 2018 Grudem had stated that view many times: see this article at his website; the article is undated but we know it was on his website in 2012.
² I agree with Glenn Butner who pointed out a problem with Grudem’s correction.
Glenn Butner’s thread at Twitter:
One problem here is that this correction remains based on flawed hermeneutics – biblical ethics cannot be reduced to a single word study, but requires complex hermeneutic discussions about which texts to apply, when, and how.
Surely biblical doctrines like the image of God or the Ephesians 5 conception of marriage as a mystery depicting the love of Christ challenge prohibitions of divorce in circumstances of abuse, too. Surely, the purpose/intent behind the explicit rules would point the same way.
Yet, it’s a single word study that makes the difference. It’s the same as his recent affirmation of eternal generation based on a word study of monogenes – the conclusion is right, but this should have been clear from the larger scope of Scripture well before the word study.
Theology and ethics cannot be reduced to the presentation of word studies, or else theology and ethics are not genuine disciplines; only philology [word study] is. One of the things evangelicalism needs most is a clearer vision for theological method.
If you read closely you’ll see that I agree with his conclusions. However, he had the wrong view for years partly because he had the wrong method, and he still has that method, which means in other areas he’s likely to still hurt people.
Wayne Grudem’s change of mind on divorce for abuse falls short – Barbara Roberts, 28 Nov, 2019