by Emily Hunter McGowin
Today’s post is from Emily Hunter McGowin, who is Associate Lecturer of Theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family. She holds a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her research is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. She is also a priest and Canon Theologian in the Anglican diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO).
According to Christianity Today, Relevant, and a number of other online publications, evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem no longer thinks women married to abusive husbands are required by the Bible to stay married to them.
For those who do not know Wayne Grudem, he is Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary (Phoenix, AZ). He is a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and a co-founder and past president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). He has published over twenty books, including Systematic Theology and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (co-edited with John Piper). The last time he was in the news was in 2016, when he offered vocal support for the newly nominated presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
Grudem announced his change of position during a presentation at ETS, which met in San Diego the week before Thanksgiving. You can read the outline of his presentation in full at his website.
Some reacted to this news with joy: “Finally, a leading evangelical theologian offers support for women to leave abusive marriages! This is great news for evangelical women!” Some reacted with a shrug: “Who cares? Are people really still listening to conservatives like Wayne Grudem?” (Yes, in fact, they are.) Some reacted with anger: “Why wasn’t his change of mind accompanied by repentance? Doesn’t he know how much harm his teaching has done? A simple announcement isn’t good enough!”
I can identify somewhat with each of these reactions. But, as a theologian in an evangelical institution, I can’t help but be troubled by something else. Certainly, it’s good that Grudem has changed his mind and abandoned a harmful interpretation and application of scripture. Yet, his change of mind still reflects deeply flawed hermeneutics.
For the past few decades, Grudem has taught that the Bible only permits divorce in two instances: adultery and desertion by an unbeliever. This perspective was based upon his interpretation of Matt. 19:9 and 1 Cor. 7:15, and spelled out in his 2018 Christian Ethics. So, as long as an abusive spouse falls into neither of these categories, Grudem said the church should provide protection, enact church discipline, potentially support temporary separation, but never condone divorce.
During 2018-2019, though, Grudem says he had “increasing conviction of need for re-examination of divorces for self-protection from abuse.” The reason? He credits “awareness of several horrible real-life situations” of abuse, which led him to think, “This cannot be the kind of life that God intends for his children when there is an alternative available.” Thus, Grudem returned to 1 Cor. 7:15 and found within it what he believes to be biblical justification for divorce in instances of abuse.
In 1 Cor. 7, the Apostle Paul condones divorce among believers in the case of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. Verse 15 says, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such cases; God has called us to live in peace.” Based upon a word study of the phrase “in such cases” in extra-biblical literature, and comparisons to similar phrases in the New Testament, Grudem has concluded that “in such cases” should be understood to mean “any cases that similarly destroy a marriage”. His new paraphrase of 1 Cor. 7:15 is as follows: “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.”
I agree with Grudem that instances of abuse “destroy a marriage” and spouses undergoing such treatment are not required to remain there for the sake of the union. So, what’s my problem then?
Put simply, the question of divorce cannot—indeed, should not—be answered with a word study. Yes, Grudem has changed his mind. But it’s for the wrong reasons.
A careful reading of Jesus’ teaching on divorce reveals that the welfare of women (and, by extension, their children) was of central concern. When the Pharisees asked Jesus in Matt. 19:3, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”, they were asking him to weigh in on a longstanding debate among Jewish teachers. And they posed their question precisely as men seeking to preserve male prerogative in a patriarchal society. In essence, they were asking, “Do we have the right to put aside our wives whenever we want, for any reason?”
One need not think very long about this to realize the serious problem with men thinking they are free to abandon their dependent wives for any reason. Such a scenario puts already vulnerable women and children in an even worse situation—literally one of life and death.
As usual, Jesus knows the motivations of his interlocutors, which is why his response to them is so firm: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (vv. 8-9). No, Jesus says. You cannot set aside your wife any time, for any reason. Adultery is the only reason for which you are excused in abandoning your God-given obligations to your wife.
We see here that the protection of the vulnerable party in the relationship—in this case, the wife—is Jesus’ primary focus. And that focus drives his instructions to the Pharisees regarding divorce.
Of course, the protection of the vulnerable is not a principle isolated to the teachings of Jesus. The biblical canon as a whole testifies to God’s partiality for the weak and defenseless. The Mosaic Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the apostolic epistles—all testify to the centrality of protecting the vulnerable in the reign of God. The Law required husbands to provide food, clothing, and marital rights to their wives, even if they take another wife. The Mosaic requirement of giving wives divorce certificates was itself a form of protection, enabling divorced women to prove their legal status and, therefore, freeing them to marry again.
Even the (in)famous quote from Mal. 2:16, “For I hate divorce, says the Lord,” is in reference to men of Israel “dealing treacherously” with their wives. “The man who does not love his wife but divorces her,” says the prophet, “covers his garment with violence” (Mal. 2:14-16). This passage is directly aimed at preventing violence against women. Again, the protection of wives is central. And the instances of New Testament writers advocating for the care of widows and orphans are too numerous to detail here.
What’s my point? The case for divorce in the instance of an abusive spouse did not need to be made by a word study and reinterpretation of 1 Cor. 7:15. A reading of the whole canon should have led Grudem (and others) to the same conclusion long ago. Even though specific, word-for-word instruction about what to do in the case of abusive spouses is not found in the Bible, the relevant principles are there for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.
And that leads to the final problem with Grudem’s change of mind. He says he came to reconsider his position because of recent “awareness of several horrible real-life situations.” For many of us, the idea that Grudem has just now become aware of such stories seems truly incredible.
What this tells me, among other things, is that Grudem has been thoroughly insulated from the experiences of women. The truth is that intimate partner violence is so common among women that it is simply impossible to have genuine relationships with women, either as friends or colleagues, and not know at least one who has either survived abuse or is dealing with abuse right now.
Based upon the most recent statistics, one in four women and one in nine men experience severe physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner. One in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. (This includes a range of behaviors, including slapping, shoving, pushing, etc.) And one in ten women have been raped by an intimate partner.
For a teacher of his stature and influence to be ignorant of these realities is truly staggering. It should not be extraordinary for pastors, teachers, and theologians to be interacting with situations of abuse. Just in the short time that I’ve been serving in churches and Christian organizations, I have encountered these “real-life situations” over and over again.
I have photographed a friend’s bruises after her drunken husband beat her up yet again, and then watched her return to him because she’d been told so many times “God hates divorce.”
I have listened to another friend detail the psychological abuse she endured at the hands of her mentally disturbed husband, resulting in repeated hospitalization for traumatic stress. And yet she kept returning because she felt she had no other option.
I have listened in disbelief as another friend told me that when she finally got up the nerve to tell her pastor, “I think my husband is abusing me,” his response was to say, “Are you sure? I mean, isn’t everyone a little abusive?”
I have watched another friend struggle for years with shame over her divorce—a divorce that saved her life—because family members remind her regularly that she’s the one who filed for divorce; therefore, the “sin” is hers, and hers alone.
And, just recently, I have listened to another friend as she told me through tears that her family refuses to speak to her because she divorced a husband who regularly assaulted and raped her.
I have only been serving in Christian churches and institutions for 16 years. But somehow, Wayne Grudem, after almost 40 years as a leading evangelical theologian, whose works are read in countless college and seminary classrooms, whose words are repeated in pulpits all over the country, has just now, in 2019, finally realized there are “real-life situations” where divorce might be the most loving, life-giving course of action. It would be impossible to believe if he hadn’t admitted it himself.
Now, none of the above addresses the problematic qualifications Grudem places on his new teaching regarding divorce for abused spouses. Grudem seems to give significant authority to pastors and elders in these situations, saying pastors and elders “need wisdom to assess the degree of actual harm in each case” and “must first hear both sides.” Also, Grudem says, “Pastors…should first try to restore the marriage through counseling, temporary separation, and, if the abusing spouse is a professing Christian, church discipline.”
I don’t have time to go into all of the potential problems with this approach. For now, I’ll simply ask: How well are these pastors and elders trained in recognizing abuse and assessing harm? Holding the position of pastor or elder does not immediately qualify someone to evaluate and advise in these situations. Indeed, the fact that this subject is already known to be a major blind-spot among most evangelical pastors makes me very suspicious about their involvement in adjudicating such matters. And this is one reason why it is so troubling that nowhere in Grudem’s paper does he mention the involvement of law enforcement, or the fact that physical abuse is a criminal offense.
In closing, I want to be clear: Grudem’s change of mind is most welcome. I am glad he is no longer teaching that women (or men) in abusive marriages must remain married to their abusers. But the fact that he couldn’t see the problem with his position before now testifies to serious weaknesses in his theological method: a lack of attention to the social and cultural context of biblical teaching on divorce, a lack of engagement with canonical interpretation on the subject, a lack of attention to the detrimental effects of his teaching, and a lack of interaction with women’s experience.
All of these are glaring oversights within any theologian, let alone one so prominent and well-respected in evangelical circles. And it raises serious concerns about the state of evangelical theology and ethics as a whole. We can, and must, do better.
Had Wayne Grudem dug more deeply in his Bible, in particular dug into Exodus 21:10-11, he would have seen that it was a husband’s duty to provide food, clothing, shelter and all things connected to “marital rights.” Surely one thing this means is safety from abuse. One doesn’t need to finesse his passage in 1 Cor when the facts are already obvious in Exodus.
Thank you Dr. McKnight. You took the words out of my mouth concerning the stipulations of the marriage covenant and how abuse dissolves covenantal bonds.
Or just read Instone-Brewer’s Work.
Is the wife also obligated to provide the “marital rights” to her husband? Is her steadfast refusal to do so grounds for a divorce?
Don’t you think, though, that at some point word studies will always need to be done this side of the new heaven and the new earth? For example, in 2017, we needed clarity on what “identify” means. And, according to your argument, “abuse” will likely need to be clarified by qualified professional Christian counselors, as well as what kind or level of abuse justifies doing something God apparently “hates” (next word study after that?).
What Emily has done in this article (among other great things), is to give us a word study of ‘divorce’ and demonstrate that divorce in the Bible means something drastically different than in our modern, western context. In the Bible, divorce means ‘the abandonment of a dependent spouse’. Consequently, a woman filing for divorce will rarely fall into the biblical category of ‘divorce’ (unless her husband is her dependent). So we can stop wondering what kind or level of abuse would justify doing something that God hates. The Bible simply does not teach that God hates divorce per se. Can we start translating Mal 2:16 as “For I hate it when men abandon their dependent wives, says the Lord”?
The point is not that word-studies are bad, but that they should not be solely determinative of doctrine. The whole of Scripture pushes in the direction of abuse being a grounds for separation and possibly for divorce.
Anyway, re: counselors clarifying “abuse,” see Strickland’s definition of abuse in the biblical category of oppression: https://www.ccef.org/shop/product/identifying-oppression-marriages/ .
Dr. McGowin – Thank you for boldly articulating this truth! As a domestic violence survivor, and a Christian, leaving my first husband was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made. I loved him, but I also knew if I stayed, he would eventually kill me and maybe himself too. However, because of the very conservative church upbringing that I had, I have often questioned if my decision to leave was sin. To God be the glory, he has redeemed the pain of my past. I remarried and my husband and I have four children and we have been married now for 21 years. Jesus always stands with the vulnerable and he calls us to do the same! The church needs your voice!! So grateful for you!
Heather, I’m sorry for what you’ve gone through. But I’m grateful for your testimony of God’s redemption in your life. Thank you for sharing.
Well said. Thank you.
Thank you Emily!
My life was exactly as you described and I was told I could not separate!
I got a small book: Keeping the Faith and 6 women’s testimonies! I passed the book Nd video to my pastor and then I was allowed to separate!
I would love to connect with you: Claudia firstname.lastname@example.org
Claudia, thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry for what you went through, but I’m very glad to hear you found a way to leave an abusive situation. Please feel free to contact me by email or through my website.
This is an amazing discussion that you have posted. I was part of a discussion committee for our denomination on rethinking the issue of “divorce and abuse” and we came to the conclusion of protecting the abused spouse well-before the discussion of divorce is even entertained. Immediate separation and congregational support would be a priority, providing housing and anything else that is necessary. We also discussed the danger of jumping right to divorce. Does it leave off the opportunity for the church to confront the abuser and allow him to be changed? If divorce is the immediate response does it undermine marriage and the Spirit’s possible transformation of the separated abuser? Jesus does have helpful guidance for reconciliation as well. Shouldn’t we abide by that in this instance and let the elders work to resolve a very difficult relationship? Obviously the protection of the victim should always be on the forefront.
Aaron, thanks for your comment. I am not advocating “jumping right to divorce.” I think this must be handled on a case by case basis, taking into consideration many complex factors. Personally, I know of one story where an abusive was able to undergo a transformation through a combination of multiple interventions. These stories are rare, in my experience, but still possible. Still, I do think, as you said, the protection of abuse victims (and their children) must be the top priority and their agency should be respected. Always.
Thank your for voicing in detail my own reaction. Even the narrative of his conversion suggests hermeneutical hypocrisy: he realized that there was a lot of pain attendant to his position, but then, Lo and behold! It turns out that there is a bit of hitherto neglected minutia that just so happens to support his growing subjective qualms. Really?! It’s a patently obvious motivated reading of the text. I have not personally looked at the language details myself, but I’m a bit skeptical of the exegesis, to be honest. Seems like a classic case of using background material to make something general overly-specific. The woman is not bound if the husband leaves. End of story (because then it will turn into a silly weighing of reasons why the husband left). Now, to the next step in Grudem’s conversion to compassionate theology: what about remarriage?
Thanks for your comment, Rob. I agree that the question of re-marriage is a very obvious follow up question. I have no doubt Dr. Grudem has something to say about that, too.
A long-overdue correction on the part of Grudem, and a helpful corrective by McGowen. But there are two additional angles that are not considered by either author when it comes to abuse in marriage. First, not all abuse is perpetuated by the husband against the wife. There are many instances of wives abusing their husbands – probably more than even the statistics indicate because of the shame factor. Secondly, not all debilitating abuse is physical. Verbal abuse can be just as destructive, and when it is driven by other personality dysfunctions such as in the spectrum of Narcissistic personality disorders, it can be devestating to the victim caught in a never ending cycle of verbal brutality that nobody believes because the offender is so nice/gifted/important etc. This sort of violence is just as destructive to a marriage as the physical kind. Obviously by drawing attention to verbal abuse, I in no way mean to lesson the opprobrium rightly leveled at all forms of physical abuse. This is a both/and situation. Both destroy what Christian marriage vows intend to create – a safe place for love.
Bill, thank you for your comment. You have expanded the discussion here in an important way. While the majority of intimate partner violence is perpetrated by men against women, you are absolutely right that women abuse men in some cases, too. And those cases should be addressed with the same seriousness. As for cases of verbal and psychological abuse, I agree that it can be horribly devastating, too. And it makes a mockery of the marriage vows. I think what I’ve said above applies to those cases, as well, provided there is proper wisdom and discernment applied on a case by case basis.
I was married to a narcissistic sociopath for 10 years and it was fraught with mental/verbal/emotional abuse from the beginning. I grew up in a home that mirrored similar patterns of abuse (so the shoe fit). Like you said Bill, not all debilitating abuse is physical. My marriage left me debilitated day after day, but I never had a black eye or a mistress to bear proof. I eventually developed the courage to do the most loving (& most terrifying) thing for all of us, divorce. But that wasn’t until I dug deep and examined scripture more completely. I also got my hands on text that unpacked the anatomy of an abusive marriage (as well as various other texts that examined the anatomy of an abusive heart). But all in all, the most pivotal thing for me was finally receiving comprehensive care from a healthy church (after two other churches had told me that my marriage/my spouse was my cross to bear). One of the hardest parts for me was developing a plan to provide for myself and my children longterm. I had stayed home with our two small children (1 yo & 4 yo at the time) and had a Bachelors degree, but no viable means of providing for us (& my spouse hadn’t provided for two full years). In opposition to what my spouse wanted me to do, the church encouraged me to continue developing a plan to obtain my teaching certificate & secure full-time employment. Now three full years post-divorce, me and my children have stabilized. I have a full-time job that enables me to be with my children a lot; I finish my Masters degree next semester; I help lead a small women’s group at church (developing a curriculum centered around unpacking the nature of abuse etc and moving towards health and healing); And most importantly, I have internalized God’s deep love for the oppressed and marginalized. I am able to pray with a newfound earnestness that he WILL rescue and deliver from oppression.
Thank you, Emily McGowin, for this thoughtful analysis. As a Christian lawyer who is dedicated to helping women out of abusive relationships, as well as a volunteer who facilitates support groups at a local domestic abuse shelter, I am always amazed at the ignorance of the church when it comes to domestic abuse. Having gone through my own domestic abuse and divorce, I was forced to leave my church because my church, Christ Church Lake Forest, supported the abuser, and has allowed him to continue to be an active member, even remarrying him in the church. It is utterly mind-boggling that my experience is the same of millions of women in the Church across the world.
There are numerous places in the Bible where God tells us to flee from evil and to have nothing to do with evil people. That is for our protection. 2 Timothy 3 is one such place. It gives a great description of a Narcissistic Sociopath, and then warns us to have nothing to do with them. It doesn’t say “Have nothing to do with them, except for the poor wife, who must endure abuse at his hands for the rest of her life. But everyone else, you should lead an abundant life and flee from evil because it will cause irreparable damage. ”
Judges 19 and 20 gives us a good example of what happens when a wife returns to an abuser who has not repented (and that is 99.9% of them). The abuse escalates, and she suffers either a physical death (as in the story of the Bible) or a spiritual and emotional death at the hands of her abuser.
Like many of God’s laws, he allowed for divorce, not because he likes it, but because it was the most grace-filled way to deal with sin in a marriage.
God’s heart is always with the oppressed. He has not made his beloved daughters to live in abuse with a person overcome by Satan. He has made them to live abundant lives. God’s purposes for marriage are to reflect His love for us, to raise children in the love of the Lord, to provide companionship, to provide protection and support to a wife and children, and to serve God, others, our family, and each other, There is not a single godly purpose that can be accomplished in an abusive marriage. Indeed, an abusive marriage is not a “marriage” at all. It is completely beyond my comprehension that the church has not recognized this. Charlene Quint
Charlene, I affirm everything you’ve said here. I completely agree.
“[God] allowed for divorce, not because he likes it, but because it was the most grace-filled way to deal with sin in a marriage.” — Yes!
“There is not a single godly purpose that can be accomplished in an abusive marriage. Indeed, an abusive marriage is not a “marriage” at all.” — Yes!
Thank you for taking the time to comment and share of your own experience, too.
Emily or any of the others following these comments – can you point me to some more resources that are similar to this post. I would like to read more thoughts along these lines. Thanks!
Christians for Biblical Equality (cbeinternational.org) has a very good bookstore. I recommend “Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse” by Steven R. Tracy, or “Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion” by Barbara Roberts. There are many, many other good books on the topic though. Christian Feminism Today (eewc.com) publishes book reviews, but I don’t think they sell books on their website though.
Gordon Bals, in October 2020, Redemption Press, a Christian publisher, will be publishing my book “Overcoming the Narcissist, Sociopath, Psychopath and Other Domestic Abusers: The Comprehensive Handbook to Recognize, Remove, and Recover from Abuse.” It gives an in depth look at abuse, divorce, and healing from a Biblical perspective.
Hi @Gordon, I was remarried to a guy who loves me so much. I have divorced my ex-husband 2 years ago. At first, I have no idea what should I do, then I go to search for some advice through the internet then I pick up an idea on what to do with my husband. Here are some links where you can have an idea about remarrying after a divorce.
I’m late to the party, but I’d like to add Deuteronomy 21:10-14 to the list of Bible verses permitting divorce for abuse. One that’s been in front of everyone’s faces for centuries, but is ignored because the POW aspects of it are focused on more than the part where the POW is a wife and is not to be abused.
Verse 14 says: “And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her [your POW wife], then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.”
The word translated “not make merchandise of” is amar. See Strong’s #H6014. According to Strong’s, it means “figuratively, to chastise (as if piling blows)”. Various lexicons I’ve consulted show that it has a meaning of being tyrannical, enslaving someone, or using force to subdue someone. A husband is not to do this even to his POW wife. She is to go free wherever she wants rather than be treated that way. If a POW wife has these protections, how much more so a free wife?
And it isn’t just this one verse. As the article points out, there are verses and principles to be applied to our lives all over the Bible. Wayne Grudem needs to study the WHOLE Bible, not just his favorite pet verses.