The prominent complementarian theologian Wayne Grudem has changed his mind about divorce. Last month, Grudem told evangelical scholars at the Evangelical Theological Society that a closer reading of 1 Corinthians 7:15 had led him to conclude that the Bible permits divorce when there is abuse.
Many pastors have told the theologian that they have found what he shared extremely helpful, says Grudem, a professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary.
“I just had a pastor write to me just recently saying, ‘I had felt uneasy about what I thought was the biblical position for years, but I couldn't see an alternative.’ He said, ‘Thank you. This is so helpful,’” said Grudem. “...They see the value of this alternative understanding of a ground for divorce, and it seems right to them from their reading of Scripture and from their dealing with real-life situations.”
Grudem joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss his process of re-studying 1 Corinthians 7:15 and the role that hearing from victims played in prompting him to return to scripture.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #189
Can you tell us a little bit about how you have developed a theology of marriage and divorce over the years?
Wayne Grudem: The simplest and most important to answer is it comes from reading the Bible over more than 60 years now. Then studying theology at Westminster Seminary, and then in my doctoral work, and then teaching since 1977—so I guess that's about 44 years teaching college students and then seminary students, most of that time.
The traditional view that I took is the major Protestant view since the Reformation, and that is that divorce is justified only in cases of adultery or in cases of desertion by an unbelieving spouse—those are Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15. Not everyone has agreed with that, but that's been the majority view, the dominant view, in conservative Protestant theology, and that's the view I held in my book published last year.
But a couple of things changed. And the change came about because of two things. One was hearing about some very horrible cases of ongoing physical abuse that had persisted over decades, where the wife, who was a graduate of a Christian college and had met her husband at a Christian college, thought it was her Christian duty to remain silent about the abuse and remain in the marriage, and she endured longstanding suffering. That was just the most recent of a number of other cases where based on my theological instinct, I just can't see that this is the way God wants His children to live.
I know someone could object and already I had one person say, "You shouldn't change your view on what the Bible says because of an instant." And I didn't. I changed it because of facts, but I'll talk about that in a minute. I changed my view because the instinct led me to look again at Scripture. When I looked again at Scripture, I found new evidence that had not been discovered by anybody before in history as far as I can tell, and that was what led me to change my mind.
As I mentioned, I've been teaching Bible and theology classes since 1977, so that that's now just about 43 years, and I've been reading the Bible for almost 60 years. And so my theological instincts are not totally untrustworthy or unreliable. They give me some reason for looking into a matter more deeply. But the facts that made me change my mind were discovering new examples of a Greek phrase behind 1 Corinthians 7:15, where Paul talks about when an unbelieving wife or husband can legitimately consider the marriage to be ended and get a divorce.
Would you mind reading the Scriptures you mentioned and unpacking them a little bit?
Wayne Grudem: In Matthew 19:9, Jesus says, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery." And there are arguments about the interpretation of that verse, but I think the most common understanding, and I think the correct one, is that if someone divorces his wife because of adultery and marries someone else, then it is not wrong.
And then over in 1 Corinthians 7:15.,Paul says, "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." So Paul says, "in such cases," and I wondered about the plural expression in Greek. Those three words together, in that phrase, doesn't occur anywhere else in the New Testament, and it doesn't occur anywhere else in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
I did something that I don't think anybody else has done before, I did a search of "in such cases," as it’s used in that phrase, in literature outside the New Testament. I analyzed 52 other examples of that expression and I found it in a number of examples. The phrase "in such cases" referred to more kinds of situations than the original example that was being discussed.
I can give you a couple of examples. There's a Jewish author named Philo, and he is talking about the time when the tenth plague came on Egypt and the Egyptians woke up and found their firstborn sons had all died. And Philo said, "As so often happens in such cases, they thought their present condition was the beginning of greater evils, and they were filled with fear of the destruction of those who still live." Now, the specific example he's talking about is the death of the firstborn sons in the whole nation. But when he says, "as so often happens in such cases," he can't mean "as so often happens when everybody in the nation wakes up and finds their first-born son dead" because that had never happened before. So "in such cases" must refer to any kind of sudden tragic event. It's clearly a broader reference than the specific example named.
I'll mention one other one. A Greek author, who died around 380 BC, talks about a man who had to pay a fine to the Treasury, he wrote, "My father did not bring him his contribution of money. In such cases, we see the best proof of a man's friends." So does he mean you find out who your friends are when you have to pay a fine to the treasury? No, he means you find out who your friends are whenever you have a sudden unexpected need of money.
So, in all the literature, all the commentaries on 1 Corinthians, my teaching assistant and I could not find any commentator who had commented on that plural phrase. We found other examples of this when Paul speaks of a specific example and it's limited to one case. Then he uses the singular "in such a case" or "in such a one," but here, these plurals seem to have much a broader reference.
My conclusion was in 1 Corinthians 7:15 that Paul says, "If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases..." That is desertion by an unbeliever, and I think he has in mind adultery as well, because of Jesus teaching. In cases that damage a marriage as severely as adultery, or desertion by an unbeliever, or other similar damaging situations, then divorce is a lot.
So my decision to change my mind about the legitimacy of divorce in a case or a situation of ongoing, very harmful abuse was based on a new understanding of the meaning of the words of Scripture. My decision was not based on my theological instinct. It was based on what I saw in Scripture that I don't think had been noticed before because people hadn't done the work of doing the research on that phrase in Greek literature until the last couple of decades. There wasn't any ability to do that because the electronic database was not available and was not able to be searched.
They are simple words, but when you put them together, they show a broader meaning.
Prior to you reaching this conclusion, what did you previously believe about how abuse within a marriage ought to be addressed?
Wayne Grudem: That is clearly explained in my textbook, Christian Ethics, where I said, in cases of abuse, the church has to provide protection, church discipline if the abuser is a professing believer, possible separation, police intervention or court orders if necessary. The abuse certainly has to stop, and if it doesn't, then separation would be required.
There was an instance a number of years ago, where my wife and two teenage sons helped a woman move out of her home in the middle of the day to protect her from an abusive situation. Ten years later, we found out that the husband had been severely repentance as a result of being shocked by his wife being gone when he came home. The marriage had been restored and the abuse had stopped. That was a wonderful solution brought about by separation, with the hope that the marriage could be restored. And what I said in a paper I wrote that of course, the first goal must always be the restoration of marriage, but the abuse must stop. But I felt bound by Scripture to not say it was in the reason for divorce.
I understand what domestic violence counselors are saying [about how remorse doesn't necessarily bring about change in behavior for an abuser] and I don't want to disagree with the fact that many cases resulted in ongoing abuse. If that happens, then again, protection must be provided for the abused spouse. Now, of course, I think that divorce may even be permissible.
But I want to allow for the possibility of genuine change. I think the Holy Spirit does progressively sanctify us over time in our Christian lives. And Romans 6 talks about the fact that we should consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. So I want to allow for the fact that even though it may not happen as often as we wish, I do know of a specific case where separation did bring restoration of the marriage, and I would hope that would happen in every case.
When you were thinking specifically of abuse, was this something that was limited to physical abuse or you also saw it as something that would include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and spiritual abuse?
Wayne Grudem: Yes, I realized that those things are a little more difficult to categorize and to get an understanding of how severe the damages to the abused spouse, but I do think that extreme, prolonged verbal and relational cruelty that is destroying a spouse's mental and emotional stability, what we're asking is, "What should pastors and counselors say when someone asks them, Does my situation merit seeking a divorce?'"
I think that the determination of substantial harm is more difficult, more subjective, but it's not impossible to make that determination. And I would say yes, that kind of thing would qualify, as well as credible threats of physical harm or murder. And in my paper at the Evangelical Theological Society, I mentioned other possible causes: incorrigible or recalcitrant or inveterate, incurable drug or alcohol addiction accompanied by regular lies, deception, theft, and/or violence that just actually destroyed the marriage. Or incorrigibly gambling addiction that has led to a massive overwhelming indebtedness. I think pornography addiction would also fit here, but I already in my ethnic Christian Ethics book included that under the meaning of sexual immorality in Matthew 19:9.
Can you share how hearing personal stories affected you? In other words, how did hearing them soften or change your heart?
Wayne Grudem: There was a sense that I had that these were such horrible situations. I just wondered, could this really be the way that God wants one of his daughters or one of his sons to live for the rest of their life? I realized that there are sometimes when we are called to suffer because circumstances come on us and we can't escape from them. We can give a witness to society about our trust in God in the midst of suffering. But if the opportunity arises, there are several places in Scripture where God tells His people to escape from suffering.
So on the one hand, 1 Peter 2:20 says, "If when you do good and suffer for it, you endure. This is a gracious thing in the sight of God." But on the other hand, God rescues His people from suffering and calls them to escape from it when possible. Matthew 6:13, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil ." That's escaping from suffering. Or the Exodus in the Old Testament, Exodus 20:2: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." That's a major event in the whole history of the Bible, God rescuing His people from bondage and slavery and suffering. And then 1 Corinthians 7:21, "Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it, but if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity." So Paul is calling bondservants in the first century to take a chance, if they have the opportunity, to become free. In another case, Jesus said, "If they persecute you in one town, flee to the next." Paul's apostolic ministry, he went from city to city, and when the opposition became violent and intense, he would just leave the city and go to the next one. That happens again and again in the book of Acts.
It seemed to me that there's a pattern. I think that went into my theological instinct on this. There's a pattern where there's a possibility to escape from prolonged suffering, that God's heart and care and love for people sometimes will call them to escape in that way. That affected my understanding of these abusive marriage situations and was an incentive for me to look more closely at Scripture and especially 1 Corinthians 7:15.
There are a number of Christian women who would believe that a very narrow interpretation of divorce has ended up forcing them to stay in abusive marriages. What would you say to Christian women who have grown angry at the church for seemingly not allowing them to seek relief from their circumstances?
Wayne Grudem: I've had some response already from more than one woman in the audience when I read this paper. It was a sense of profound thankfulness. One crying with tears of joy.
My wife also was able to phone another person we know in another state and tell her that I had changed my mind. She had herself gotten a divorce against the council of some others in the church, and she was just rejoicing at it. So having a sense of thanksgiving that there are some voices in the church who say it is legitimate, having some voices in the church that say it is permissible in some cases to seek a divorce in some abusive situations. I would hope that would cause some sense of relief and joy.
What would I say to people currently in the situation? Get my paper at waynegrudem.com and give it to your pastor. I had more than one person after the presentation say, "I came prepared to disagree with you, but you persuaded me." And I'm hoping that it will persuade other pastors and elder boards that there are situations in which divorce is the right option to counsel. I don't claim any special wisdom on how to deal with very difficult situations. That's a question of prayer for wisdom, and in a multitude of counselors, there's wisdom.
Another thing I found in my research was that people earlier in the history of the church had in fact argued for the legitimacy of divorce in some cases of abuse. There is a very well-known Puritan writer named William Ames, who was a highly respected ethics instructor, and he's writing around the time the King James version was first published. And he said, "If one party drive away, the other with great fierceness and cruelty, there is cause of desertion and he has reputed the deserter. But if obstinately neglect, that necessary departure of the other who is avoiding the imminent danger, he himself, in that situation, is the deserter." So William Ames is saying if someone is physically abusing his or her spouse, so that the other person has to flee for self-protection, it's the abuser who is guilty of the desertion or the separation, not the person who has left. A marriage may be dissolved in those cases.
I went back even earlier than the early Puritan period to a church father named Chrysostom, writing in the late 300 AD and early 400s. He says this about marriage in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, "If day by day he punched you, and keep up worse or fightings on this account, it is better to separate" and then he quotes Paul, "that God has called us to peace for it is the other party who furnished the ground of separation, even as he did who committed uncleanness." So he seems to be saying at least separation and perhaps divorce.
Some women have argued that an overemphasis on Paul's teachings on submission lead wives to believe that they must submit to abusive husbands. How might you respond to these arguments when it comes to Paul's teachings on submission?
Wayne Grudem: I don't think that anyone associated with counsel on biblical manhood and womanhood would say, or has ever said, a wife who suffers abuse should do nothing about it but continue to suffer it because of the commands in the Bible to submit to one's husband. The abuse must stop. The church must take steps to see that the abused spouse is protected. And saying just stay in the marriage and suffer is not loving or kind or biblical at all.
When Paul says, the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, that's the model that's held up for us. And husbands, leadership should be reflecting the way that Christ leads us and leads the church. He doesn't abuse us. He's never cruel to us. He loves us. He cares for us. That's the model that is held up for us in Scripture. Husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the church.
Many issues in Scripture required two statements to summarize: God is three persons, God is one; Jesus is fully human and fully divine, etc. And I want to say two things. Husbands and wives are equal in personhood, in value before God, and value to the kingdom, but different in roles. In marriage, there is a leadership role that belongs to husbands that the Bible clearly teaches.
Now I believe now there can be errors on both sides of those two statements. The equality side of the argument can be pushed to an extreme where it obliterates any sense of leadership on the part of the husband, and I don't think that's biblical, but the submission part can be pushed to an abusive situation where abuse is justified or enduring abuse. And that's also wrong.
What type of implications do you hope that this position that you've come to will have on how pastors and church leaders shepherd their congregations?
Wayne Grudem: Well, I would encourage pastors to first read the paper presented at the ETS meeting. First thing is, consider the argument and see whether you think it's persuasive. And if you yourself could see that some situations of abuse would worst is a permissible option.
And the second thing is, there were a number of pastors who said, thank you. I just had a pastor write to me just recently saying, "I had felt uneasy about what I thought was the biblical position for years, but I couldn't see an alternative." He said, "Thank you. This is so helpful." So that's been the general reaction. Pastors who have dealt with people who are abused, or at least they see the value of this alternative understanding of a ground for divorce, and it seems right to them from their reading of Scripture and from their dealing with real-life situations, again and again, year after year, it is a cause for much appreciation and thanksgiving.
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