A Biblical View of Divorce (Part 4): The Contemporary Church

In light of all that has been discussed above about the Bible’s teaching on divorce, we must now consider how and when we will apply its principles. We want to do so in a way that is consistent with Scripture. I take the three covenant vows of Scripture to be the biblical grounds of marriage today: (1) provision of material support (food, clothing, shelter, etc.); (2) conjugal rights; (3) and marital fidelity. Using this rubric has been helpful as I have sought to speak into a number of different marital situations. The contemporary church needs help navigating a variety of situations. We see cases of decades-long infidelity and deception. We see cases involving psychological and verbal abuse, along with physical intimidation. We see cases that clearly qualify for Biblical divorce, cases that do not, and cases that require careful clarification. Using the rubric of the three covenant vows can be a help to determining whether a person is the victim of a pattern of unrepentant broken vows that grants them the freedom to Biblically divorce.

The key words here are “unrepentant” and “patterns.” We recognize that no one is perfect and that there are occasions of failure within marriage. When we fail the key is to repent and seek the necessary help to not repeat the sin. Patterns of failure, however, reveal a lack of repentance and a constant betrayal of the marital covenant. Such behaviors are grounds for divorce.

We understand, then, 3 types of cases where a Biblical divorce would be permitted to a victim: (1) Cases of Neglect or Abuse; (2) Cases of Sexual Immorality; (3) Cases of Abandonment. A quick explanation of each is warranted. The last two cases are obvious since they are directly pulled from the New Testament teaching on divorce, and so we will give more attention to the former.

Jesus teaches that one acceptable reason for divorce is sexual immorality (Matt. 5:32). Both those who commit adultery with a physical partner and those who engage in repeated patterns of other forms of sexual sin (i.e. pornography addiction, phone sex, bestiality, etc.) have violated their covenant vows. This includes interactions with real anonymous persons, one-night stands, long-term affairs, pseudo-spouses, and sexual touching without complete intercourse. Sex is designed to be shared between a husband and wife exclusively; the involvement of other people (whether actual or virtual) is a violation of the covenant a husband and wife make. Jesus affords, then, victims of such behavior the freedom to divorce their spouses. They are not required to do so, and where patterns of such behavior are not present we will seek to encourage a spouse to keep working on a marriage. Yet, we recognize that in such cases a marriage has been broken and a spouse may be free to divorce.

Paul also teaches that abandonment is grounds for divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7:15 he tells us that if an “unbelieving spouse” wishes to leave then the believing spouse should let them. The principle can be broadly applied to all cases of abandonment where the vow of provision for needs and conjugal rights are no longer being met. [1] When Paul says that in such cases the believing spouse is “not enslaved” he is speaking to their commitment to the marriage. They are free to remarry if they so choose. In cases of abandonment, then, divorce is an available option as well.

The last of these three categories will require a bit more explanation since it has not previously been addressed in this series. Neglect of the covenant vows is a serious issue to the health of a marriage. Failure of a spouse to provide food, clothing, or conjugal love in a marriage may be grounds for divorce, but we must rightly understand what we mean here. Neglect is willful and intentional, it is not simply failure. There may be seasons where provision for these needs is hindered by health concerns, financial limitations, or dramatic changes in life; in such cases the failure to meet needs is not willful neglect of a spouse. Furthermore, Paul points out that there may be times where abstinence from sexual activity within marriage is appropriate (1 Cor. 7:5), though only for a season. Neglect, then, is more than just failure; it is a willful and intentional refusal to meet the needs of a spouse displayed over a period of time.

Abuse would fall under this heading as well since it is a willful and intentional neglect of the emotional and physical affection that is due a spouse. Abuse comes in many forms: physical, emotional, psychological, verbal, financial, social, and spiritual. It is an effort in using power and position to control another person. It is a direct violation of the commitment to love and cherish your spouse, and to provide the sort of physical and emotional affection required of a spouse. As such it is grounds for Biblical divorce.

Cases of abuse must all be handled on an individual basis. Where physical violence is evident immediate action should be taken to protect the safety of the victim(s) involved. Legal authorities should be engaged and church discipline should begin. In cases of abuse where no violence is used more care must be taken to protect all involved. These cases are not any less important and serious, but navigating them requires more nuance. Long-term psychological, verbal, and/or emotional abuse is seriously toxic for victims and no less destructive than physical violence. The Bible recognizes the seriousness of such emotional trauma (Prov. 12:18; 18:14; 18:21). [2]  We want to treat all cases seriously. In cases where prolonged abuse is happening divorce may be an option to the victim.

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[1] Because abandonment of your family is a sin, any professing believer who willfully chooses to engage in this sin cannot be judged a believer by the church. Such individuals, then, would be judged an unbeliever by the church and removed from the fellowship of the body. The principle at work in 1 Corinthians 7, then, would be extended to the victim of that relationship.

 

[2] Since abuse is about control many abusers will never use physical violence; the risks of being discovered increase greatly when bruises are evident. If we simply wait for physical evidence of harm we may leave the victim in serious jeopardy for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, research reveals that victims of psychological and emotional abuse endure severe trauma equivalent to that of classic PTSD. This means all claims of abuse should be taken with the utmost seriousness.

 

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