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Wayne Grudem on Divorce: The Right Conclusion for the Wrong Reason | Righting America

by Emily Hunter McGowin

Black and white picture of a woman with long hair crying with tear ruining her makeup.

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.