This is important to think about critically, not because I want to see women (and occasionally men) continue in situations where they are being abused in their marriages. I don't, and the end result of my understanding of Scripture will lead to change, separation, or divorce in severe cases of abuse, as I'll explain below. But it's the reason why Grudem is changing his mind and the interpretive process behind it that are concerning to me.
Grudem says that he rethought the traditional view of divorce only in the cases of unfaithfulness or desertion because of this: "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. 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.”
As egalitarian Slate writer Ruth Graham pointed out, "This reads a little like Grudem starting with a more humane, compassionate conclusion than the one he’d long held and reverse engineering a biblical interpretation for it." So now we have another trophy example for progressive Christians who believe the Bible needs to be retconned to fit with our enlightened modern world.
Here's the problem, and here's why I'm glad this has come up, because expositions of the "traditional view" have traditionally lacked an important caveat about abuse:
The divorce and remarriage passages themselves are not the only scriptural data that's pertinent to their understanding and application. There are other important principles as well, like the wisdom of removing oneself from dangerous situations (Prov. 22:3, 27:12), the role of the church in addressing sin (Matt. 18:15-17, 1 Cor. 5) and the role of governing authorities in restraining evil (Rom. 13:1-5).
In a sense Grudem (whom I appreciate and respect) is unnecessarily tilting at windmills, because he says that the abused spouses "had kept silent." That's a huge mistake on which the whole problem hinges. You don't need to reverse engineer the text of 1 Corinthians 7:15 to fit abuse into the verse. It simply says that divorce is allowed if the unbeliever doesn't want to live with the believer. But in applying it (with the context of other Scriptures in mind), issues like abuse are covered. Here's how:
When emotional or non-criminal physical abuse takes place, the faithful partner should follow Matthew 18:15-17 and confront it, increasing the circle of knowledge if there is no repentance and change. If the church acts in discipline as it should, or if the church is unwilling to act and faithful parties have to make a determination themselves (see the singular "you" in verse 17), then the unrepentant spouse is to be treated as an unbeliever. If the abusive behavior continues, then it may be concluded (with objective counsel preferably) that he or she does not want to live with the faithful spouse and 1 Corinthians 7:15 comes into play. This is especially true of criminal physical abuse, which should be reported to the police immediately (as well as the church), including an initial separation for safety's sake (Prov. 22:3) and revealing whether the abusive spouse really wants to live with the faithful partner. If such abusive partners don't change significantly, they prove that they don't really want to live with their partners, because they won't be able to. Legal and/or safety considerations would keep the abused partners from returning to the home.
Obviously that's just an overview and there's a lot more to talk about, but for my purposes here I just wanted to summarize those ideas and also say that in over 25 years of dealing with difficult marital situations, I have never seen one where God's Word did not address the problems and provide solutions if at least one of the parties was willing to follow it. Behind the tendency to reverse engineer the Scriptures can be a lack of faith that God's Word and the means provided in it will be sufficient to address even the most difficult situations we face. But they are.
Besides, there's a major problem with reverse engineering the text to say that physical and emotional abuse are scriptural grounds for divorce: Now, instead of there being "a way out" for suffering spouses in only extreme situations that have little hope for improvement (as God intended), pretty much anyone can decide we are abused and opt out of a marriage. For instance, the first or second time a partner expresses their anger in some physical way, we can divorce them. And anyone who has been in a normal marriage or counseled anyone in a normal marriage knows that either partner at any time can claim "emotional abuse" and have some legitimacy for it (at least in our minds). And how about when both parties are "abusive" in some way, as in many cases? Is divorce the answer then?
If you want to hear how I addressed this issue in my teaching many years ago (yes, some who hold the "traditional" view have had an answer for this all along), check out this recording. You can skip to 25:00 for the overall teaching on this issue or 34:30 for the specific mention of physical abuse.
By the way, in case you're wondering if I have some "skin in this game," I have never laid a finger on my wife in almost 30 years of marriage. I have, however, been unfaithful to her in various ways, and I am so grateful to God that she has always chosen to forgive me (and also make sure I was repentant). I also have been graced with the blessing of forgiving her for many things (though never as much as I've needed) and I'm so glad I did. The Word and the means provided in it have always proven able and sufficient in even the most difficult circumstances...all glory to God!
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