One of the church’s most respected theologians, Dr. Wayne Grudem, has re-thought the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, and has helpful insight for pastors, counselors and those who have been touched by divorce. Join Scott for this stimulating discussion of the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage.
More About Our Guest
Dr. Wayne Grudem is Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of more than 20 books on a variety of subjects related to theology and the application of theology to politics, economics and ethics.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology, at Biola University. Here today with a special guest, Dr. Wayne Grudem, who is distinguished Research Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at Phoenix Seminary. He's been there for a long time after having...
Wayne Grudem: 18 years.
Scott Rae: 18 years, after having quite a career at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School...
Wayne Grudem: 20 years.
Scott Rae: 20 years there. He has also been a past President of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Wayne Grudem: 20 years ago.
Scott Rae: 20 years ago, and I suspect that most Seminary students who have been to Seminary in the last decade have read his Systematic Theology textbook. Wayne is well known in theological circles for being biblically faithful, erudite theologically, and willing to speak to the issues of the day too, as your writings have shown. Wayne, thank you so much for being with us on this very controversial subject of divorce and remarriage.
Wayne Grudem: Thank you Scott, good to be with you.
Scott Rae: Thank you. You've indicated that you've been rethinking your own understanding of the Bible's teaching on divorce and remarriage over the last few years. What's changed in your views?
Wayne Grudem: Well Scott last year, 2018, I published a book called Christian Ethics, a textbook which you're familiar with, that's your field, you're actually the dominant author in the field. In that book I took what was the most common Protestant view of divorce and remarriage since the reformation, and that is that there are two legitimate grounds for divorce and only two, adultery, physical act of adultery, or desertion by an unbeliever. That's in the Westminster Confession of Faith and it's in many ethics textbooks.
But honestly Scott, I was troubled by knowledge of several really horrendous situations of abuse. The ones that I was aware of were a wife being abused by a husband. I know sometimes, not as often, but sometimes the husband is abused by the wife.
Scott Rae: It can be reversed.
Wayne Grudem: And these were mostly physical abuse, one was not it was mental and emotional and cruel vocabulary. I began to be more and more troubled thinking, when I heard about these cases that had gone on for 20, 30, 40 years of abuse, thinking this cannot be the kind of life that God wants his children to live. And I thought, I wonder if I looked again at the biblical texts on divorce, if there is more insight that could be gained. So I looked at First Corinthians 7, 15, where Paul says, "If the unbeliever departs, let him depart, in such cases the believing brother or sister is not enslaved." I looked at that phrase, "In such cases". In Greek it's, "En tois toioutois", and what I found was that phrase doesn't occur any place else in the New Testament and it doesn't occur in the Septuagint.
Scott Rae: The Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Wayne Grudem: Right, yes.
Scott Rae: So only one place in all of the biblical literature that's either written in Greek or translated into Greek?
Wayne Grudem: Yes. I'll repeat the verse, "If the unbeliever departs, let him depart, in such cases the believing brother or sister is not enslaved." We've traditionally historically taken that as a legitimate ground for divorce, in the case of desertion by an unbeliever, but I wondered about the plural, "In such cases". It doesn't occur elsewhere in the Greek Bible, but it occurs over 600 times in extra biblical literature outside the Bible.
There's this Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG) database at the University of California, Irvine, where you can log on and search for this phrase elsewhere in Greek literature. I found over 600 cases where that phrase occurs and what I found was very interesting. Many times it refers to a broader range of examples than the specific antecedent. I'll give you one example, the Jewish writer Philo, in writing about the biblical history, would explain it and he said, after the 10th plague had occurred in Egypt, "When the Egyptians woke up and found out that their firstborn sons had died, as often happens in such cases, they feared that more evil was to come."
As often happens whenever your firstborn children are all killed, well that can't be a frequent occurrence, it was a onetime occurrence. So when Philo says, "As often happens in such cases," it means in cases where a sudden disaster comes. It's broader than the firstborn son being killed. Another case, a man named Phrenicus owed money to the treasury and this Greek author says, "My father failed to lend him some money at that time, in such cases you find out who your friends really are." Now that can't be just when you have to pay a fine to the treasury, it means when you have a sudden need of money. These are in extra biblical literature, like a Diadorus Siculus, Euripides, Sophocles, Epictetus.
Another example, I'm just paraphrasing off the top of my head here, "Suddenly a man had visitors come, strangers show up at his door and he said, surely a woman in the house can find enough food to feed you. In such cases, we find out how wealth is an advantage, both for feeding strangers and for curing the ills of the body." Well, it doesn't mean just when you have strangers show up, it means in a lot of unexpected emergencies wealth is an asset and helps you solve problems. There are numerous examples like that.
I thought when I went back to First Corinthians 7, 15, Paul is really saying, "If the unbeliever departs, let them depart, in cases like this or other cases that similarly damage a marriage, the unbeliever is not enslaved to that situation, but God has called us to peace."
Scott Rae: Okay, so you're suggesting that the, "In such cases", doesn't necessarily, or maybe even primarily refer to that specific reference point, but in cases like this, speaking more broadly.
Wayne Grudem: Where the marriage is damaged this badly.
Scott Rae: Beyond repair.
Wayne Grudem: Yeah, adultery, desertion, and then Scott, I thought surely abuse must be included there because in some ways abuse is worse than desertion. Desertion can be as a result of indifference or...
Scott Rae: Desertion could be a relief.
Wayne Grudem: Yes, or desertion could be the husband or the wife finds someone else more attractive and just leaves. But abuse involves actual malice being expressed again and again. Abuse is more malevolent than desertion in many ways and so, "In such cases", I think surely must include cases of abuse as well. When the marriage is so damaged that it's beyond human hope of repair.
Scott Rae: The presumption you're making when Paul's speaking about these kinds of marriages that go off the rails in First Corinthians 7, 15, is that any other thing analogous to desertion that...
Wayne Grudem: That similarly damages the marriage.
Scott Rae: Would also be acceptable ground for divorce.
Wayne Grudem: What that does is it puts a responsibility on pastors and elders who are asked for counsel in a difficult situation. Then it's back on their shoulders to give wise advice in the specific situation because some people will say, "My husband or my wife was angry with me and that's abuse and I get to have a divorce." Well you can't do that. It requires Godly wisdom to discern in each situation what the amount of damage to the marriage has been.
Scott Rae: Are there other things besides abuse that might be included under that broader heading of, "In such cases", that you're describing? What about addictions, would that also fit?
Wayne Grudem: I would suggest Scott that it would be worthy of consideration in cases of severe gambling addiction that has driven the family into hopeless bankruptcy, severe drug addiction that's accompanied by lying and theft and perhaps violence. Pornography addiction I think would be a legitimate ground for divorce, but I would include that both in this verse, "In such cases", but also I think it would fit under the biblical definition of pornea or sexual immorality, or what used to be called fornication in older translations. So yes, those kinds of situations, and I think ongoing prolonged situation of verbal relational cruelty, that is destroying the emotional and mental stability of the spouse or children. So there are some other examples of things that would be included in the phrase, "In such cases", in cases like this.
Scott Rae: So it sounds like it might also refer to some of those things that might cause desertion, as opposed to just the desertion itself.
Wayne Grudem: Yes. In fact, what I found in researching this was the Presbyterian church in America did a study on divorce and remarriage and had a report that was accepted in 1992. They found in some of the Puritan writings in the 1600s in England that some of the Puritan authors were saying, "If the abuser drives the spouse away for self protection, then he is just as guilty", or she is just as guilty, let's say he, "He is just as guilty as if he had separated himself." He caused the separation and he bears the responsibility for it and in such cases when the spouse needs to flee for self protection, then divorce is allowed and in all cases where divorce is legitimate, then remarriage would also allowed.
Scott Rae: Okay. So it sounds like what you're suggesting here is that the desertion or the abandonment could be just the tip of the iceberg that's so bad, but we're also saying that the big iceberg underneath that would drive that would also be allowed in some cases. It's not hard to see how this could open the door to a whole host of things that people would consider as valid grounds for divorce, but that actually might not be. It seems to open the door pretty widely to a...
Wayne Grudem: Needless divorce.
Scott Rae: A whole host of things that people could claim, "My marriage has been destroyed," but in reality are just some of the bumps in the road and just issues that you have to deal with.
Wayne Grudem: You've been married a long time Scott.
Scott Rae: I have.
Wayne Grudem: Margaret and I just celebrated our 50th anniversary.
Scott Rae: Congratulations.
Wayne Grudem: I want to assure everyone this has nothing to do with our own marriage.
Scott Rae: Good, we probably should have included that disclaimer at the very beginning.
Wayne Grudem: Yes, the concern is that we don't want to open the door to abrogating or canceling marriages that should be protected and preserved. I'm certainly not trying to open the door to needless divorces. The first step in marriage counseling should always be to try to save the marriage. In fact Scott, my wife Margaret and I are aware of a situation many years ago where Margaret and some of my teenage sons helped a woman move out of her house, because of abuse, in the middle of the day when her husband was at work and he wouldn't know where she was. That marriage was reconciled and we came back 10 years later in a visit and found out their marriage was strong and it was doing well. So that should be the hope and the goal, first to make the marriage work and make it a good marriage.
Scott Rae: Okay, but in lots of cases that's not going to happen, and it puts pretty significant risks to the abuse victim.
Wayne Grudem: To the health or even life of the....
Scott Rae: Even to hold out that hope. I take it you have lots of folks who disagree with you about this?
Wayne Grudem: Not very many.
Scott Rae: Is that right? I'm actually glad to hear that.
Wayne Grudem: As I read the paper yesterday, here at the Evangelical Theological Society, I had brought 250 copies of my handout and we ran out. When I tried out this argument on a couple of theology classes at Phoenix Seminary last spring, the people who liked the argument and were most excited about it and thought it was most helpful and useful were pastors, because pastors are the people who deal with this kind of thing and are troubled by it all the time.
Scott Rae: So have you gotten some pushback?
Wayne Grudem: A little bit, but the pushback is mainly, "If we're unsure, shouldn't we err on the side of preserving the marriage?" My answer is, "Well if we're unsure, shouldn't we err on the side of protecting the abused person?" You could make the argument both ways.
Scott Rae: You certainly can.
Wayne Grudem: The thing that made me hesitate, Scott, was Jesus appears to give only one legitimate ground for divorce, and that is except in the case of adultery in Matthew 19, 9. But then Paul gives a second case, and I think that what Paul is doing is he's in his mind reasoning that in some cases the marriage is so damaged that it's beyond repair and it's not what God wants a marriage to be by any stretch of the imagination, and he's saying, "In such cases the believing brother or sister is not enslaved."
Douloó, the Greek verb enslave, it's never used of marriage elsewhere in the Bible. It is sometimes in extra biblical literature, but the Bible doesn't ever refer to marriage as slavery, but Paul seems to think in some cases the marriage is so damaged that to remain in that marriage would be to be enslaved. At least that's the ESV translation and douloó, the verb, is well translated as to enslave. The contrast is, Paul says, "But God has called you to peace." Peace is the idea of shalom, the Old Testament concept of wellbeing in relation to God and others, and an abusive situation that is ongoing is certainly not that kind of peace.
Scott Rae: Right, yeah. It's pretty easy, I think, to make the connection between that idea of enslavement with a woman who feels like she's enslaved to an abusive husband.
Wayne Grudem: Yes. We are aware in our own acquaintances of a situation that finally resulted in divorce, but it was after like 40 years of just suffering and hardship by the wife where she thought it was her Christian duty to remain with her husband she had met at a Christian college. She wasn't telling anybody what was happening, but it was horrendous.
Scott Rae: You'd indicated already that Jesus seemed to make one exception. Paul makes another, and it actually would seem that Paul's making perhaps several of those with the, "In such cases", as you've described it. So what makes us think that those are the only exceptions that the Bible might allow?
Wayne Grudem: Well, I've listed a few now, haven't we. We Talked about gambling addiction, drug addiction, that's not just occasional, or alcohol addiction that is severe. I use the words incorrigible, recalcitrant, inveterate, incurable and that's a judgment call for when pastors or elders or proficient counselors are asked for advice. It's up to them to seek Godly wisdom and discernment to understand the situation, understand both the husband and wife, listen to both of them, gain discernment into the situation and give wise counsel. So in a way it's opening a door to consider difficult situations, not to legitimize everyone that claims that.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I think what you're describing there is there's a really helpful guardrail to keep it from being a husband and wife just sort of by themselves, or even one party or the other just by himself or herself deciding just on their own without seeking some counseling.
Wayne Grudem: That's a good way to put it.
Scott Rae: Let me go a little bit beyond what you've described here as being the legitimate grounds for divorce, because we all know within the church there are a lot of divorces that happen for reasons beside what you've described.
Wayne Grudem: Yeah, infatuation with somebody else outside of the marriage, frustration without getting...
Scott Rae: Whatever, or just we've fallen out of love or we're no longer compatible, whatever it might be.
Wayne Grudem: Well yeah Scott, Margaret and I have been married 50 years and we've had arguments.
Scott Rae: Well that just means you have two normal, self-centered sinners living together.
Wayne Grudem: Yes, but we never considered divorce, not for a minute.
Scott Rae: So what happens if someone divorces for reasons we would consider unbiblical and then remarries? What should they do?
Wayne Grudem: Well what I've thought for years Scott is, even if someone divorces for illegitimate reasons, once a subsequent marriage has occurred, it was wrong to begin the marriage but it is a marriage. Jesus said, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another commits adultery." But, "And marries another", implies that it is a marriage and once it is a marriage then the obligation of the husband and wife is to make that a good marriage, and pray that it continue. It would be further sin to break up that marriage then.
Scott Rae: Okay, yeah, that'd be quite counterproductive.
Wayne Grudem: Right. When I teach classes, I teach adult classes or seminary classes on divorce, I start out by saying, "I don't know what your background is, but if you're married right now, you are married to the right person, make that a good marriage."
Scott Rae: Yeah, whether you believe that's true or not, you're married to the right person, your obligation is to make it the best marriage you can.
Wayne Grudem: Right, so it is the right person. Of course if it was wrongfully entered into it requires repentance and asking God's forgiveness, but then go on, go forward. I don't know if you would agree with that.
Scott Rae: I would actually. Let me extend that one step further, let's say that somebody divorces again for reasons other than what the Bible allows, and that divorce is done in the past and let's say one of the spouses has remarried, but the other one is still single. Is remarriage prohibited for that person that has remained single?
Wayne Grudem: The person who has remained single is single, he or she is not married to the previous spouse because the previous spouse is married to someone else.
Scott Rae: That's correct.
Wayne Grudem: So if the previous spouse is married to someone else, then the first spouse is not married to that person, we don't believe in bigamy.
Scott Rae: Okay, so they would be free to remarry?
Wayne Grudem: They would be free to remarry, yes. But there's a word of caution that I have to insert here Scott, I don't want anybody thinking, "I'll just sin and ask God's forgiveness later." No, directly disobeying God is not going to bring blessing to your life. We should never think that willful sin will result in a better situation or relationship with God or fruitfulness in our life. We may fall under God's severe discipline. We don't know when he'll remove his favor from us, when he'll remove his protection from our physical health or mental stability or good judgment. Never should someone think, "I'll just sin and get away with it and ask for forgiveness later", that's treacherous.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I certainly wouldn't want a couple to think that, "Well we can go ahead and divorce, do whatever we feel like, and then once that's done it's water under the bridge, and then we're free to move on."
Wayne Grudem: Right, there will be less lasting consequences. You're probably aware of this Judith Wallerstein study of divorce and the longterm consequences. 10, 15, 20, 25 years later there's still deep grief and anger and sorrow on the part of one or both spouses, on the part of the children. Divorce is a very serious matter and must not be undertaken lightly.
Scott Rae: So Wayne, one last question for you. Given that divorce is so prevalent in the culture today, what advice would you have for Christian couples who are either just starting out in marriage, or maybe have been at it for a few years, not grizzled veterans like you and your wife are, or my wife and I are, but what advice would you have for them about keeping their marriage strong and avoiding having to even go down this road at all?
Wayne Grudem: Well, number one, keep your personal relationship with the Lord strong. Keep your own prayer life and Bible reading a regular habit in your life and keep your own heart, proverbs 4, 23, "Keep your heart soft toward God in your relationship with him." That's foundational to everything in life.
Second, just decide from the beginning that your marriage vows mean something, till death do us part. Marriage should always be undertaken with a commitment to live together as man and wife so long as you both shall live. That's a serious promise before God and God is witness to that covenant as Malachi says, "Between you and the wife of your youth." So we never want to treat that lightly or abandon it.
It's so helpful to be able to read the Bible together, pray together, and just talk together. Just keep lines of communication open, just the ordinary wise habits of spending time together regularly, not over committing in life to too many things.
Scott Rae: Well I commend you and Margaret for the 50 plus years that you are still enjoying and still flourishing.
Wayne Grudem: Yes, very much.
Scott Rae: Wayne, this has been super helpful. We have a lot of pastors who listen to this, I suspect that this will be incredibly helpful for them in the counseling that they do with couples from all kinds of troubled marriages.
Wayne Grudem: I hope so. I could say, if it's not posted already it will be posted on my website, waynegrudem.com. Next year I think Crossway plans to publish a little booklet called What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage.
Scott Rae: Terrific. I'm glad. That'll be a really helpful contribution. This is so helpful and I really appreciate the research you've done on this. Like most things you do, it's obvious that you've done your homework on this and I think our listeners can count on the same kind of good, thorough, biblically grounded work that you've been known for throughout your life.
Wayne Grudem: Thank you Scott. I could say that someone might ask me, "If there were over 600 examples of this Greek phrase in extra biblical Greek literature, why didn't you look at all of them." My answer is, I'm 71 years old.
Scott Rae: I think you looked at enough.
Wayne Grudem: That's a young man's game.
Scott Rae: Well, this has been very helpful. Thanks so much for being with us.
Wayne Grudem: Thank you, Scott.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Wayne Grudem, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/think-biblically. That's biola.edu/think-biblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation give us a rating on your podcast app and be sure to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.