I often receive questions and comments from Christian men and women who are agonizing over whether they should leave their abusive spouse. They want to know what the Bible says about leaving. They want to be sure that their actions are not going against God’s will or are displeasing to him. Someone recently asked me specifically about Paul’s teaching on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 and whether it allows for an abused spouse to leave their abuser. Here’s my response.
Sexual Tensions in the Corinthian Church
Paul doesn’t consider marital abuse in 1 Corinthians 7. It wasn’t the situation at hand. Rather, the issue was that some Corinthian men and women were choosing not to marry, and others, who were already married, were renouncing sex and even separating from their spouses. These Corinthians may have believed they were living in the resurrection era where sex is supposedly irrelevant, or they may have chosen celibacy for reasons of piety. (In the second-century Apocryphal Acts, there are several stories of Christian women rejecting sex with their husbands for the sake of piety. Though, some Christian men were also choosing celibacy. More on this here.)
Paul advocated for singleness and celibacy, but he knew it wasn’t for everyone (1 Cor. 7:6-7, 25-40). He knew that pent-up sexual desire might lead to sexual immorality, to improper sexual relations. His advice in 1 Corinthians 7, including “If they can’t handle not having sex, let them marry, because it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor. 7:9), and “The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:3), addressed this conflict of celibacy versus desire among some believers in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 7:6).
The Ideal and Allowances
Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7 must be understood with these tensions between celibacy, marital sex, and immorality in mind. This includes Paul’s advice about separation and divorce:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate (chōrizō) from her husband. But if she does separate (chōrizō), she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce (aphiēmi) his wife (1 Cor. 7:10-11).
Paul explicitly states that the Lord commands that a wife should not separate, but Paul then makes an allowance for the very thing the Lord forbids. It seems Paul understood the difference between the ideal and the concessions that are sometimes made in a less than ideal situation. Moses, likewise, allowed for divorce (Matt. 19:7-8; Mark 10:2ff). (It seems Moses sent away his first wife Zipporah and later married another woman from Kush.)
With the situation in Corinth in mind, Paul allowed for a separation but he did not want to rule out the possibility that a separated couple might mutually resume relations, that they might ‘reconcile,’ which they couldn’t do if a spouse married someone else.
Abuse and Divorce
Paul’s words on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 apply to a spouse or couple who have renounced sex (1 Cor. 7:10-16; cf. 7:39f). It doesn’t make sense to apply his words to the situation of a spouse who wants to leave an abusive marriage.
Abuse is an acceptable reason for leaving a spouse. Physical abuse and neglect were acceptable reasons for divorce in ancient Israelite society (e.g., Exod. 21:10-11). They were practically a given, which is perhaps one reason why the Bible barely mentions abuse as a reason for divorce.
When a couple married in ancient times, as now, there were expectations and promises, either implicit or articulated. When a spouse repeatedly breaks these promises, the terms of the marriage contract or covenant are broken; the marriage is broken.
Paul had a high view of marriage and was trying to prevent both divorce and sexual immorality among the Corinthian Christians. He was not, however, suggesting an abused spouse should stay with their abuser. He simply does not cover this scenario in 1 Corinthians 7.
Relevant Bible Verses
God, Jesus, and Paul all have things to say about divorce. But none of them addresses the idea of divorce in the case of abuse. The biblical principles at play in the scenario of abuse—all kinds of abuse—can be found in other Bible verses, in verses that speak about loving and caring for people, especially the vulnerable and wounded, and verses such as “Do unto others . . .”
Another verse to consider is 1 Corinthians 5:11ff:
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler [loidoros: “verbally abusive”], drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you.
1 Corinthians 5:11-13 NRSV. See also 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.
Paul didn’t necessarily have marriage in mind when he wrote these words, but the principle can be applied to marriage. A Christian can divorce a spouse who claims to be a Christian but is sexually immoral, a drunk, or verbally abusive, etc. How many Christians, especially women, have had to put up with the abuse of revilers and drunks who claim to be Christian?
Furthermore, divorce is never mentioned in lists of sins or vices in any New Testament letter, including in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:9-11; cf. Mark 7:20-23). Adultery is sometimes mentioned in New Testament vice lists. However, a person who divorces an abusive spouse and later meets and marries someone may not necessarily be committing adultery. (More on this here.)
Some Christians think all marriages are sacred. Some marriages, however, are diabolical. Furthermore, people are more sacred than marriages, especially abusive marriages. People need to be cared for, protected, and loved, and not unwillingly sacrificed for an ideal. All biblical regulations and instructions, including those about divorce, must be applied with both wisdom and kindness. But please note that I am not promoting divorce. What I do say is this: if a marriage or a home is unsafe, we must not just allow people to leave, we need to help people to leave.
 Still other Corinthians were having immoral sexual relations.
 Writing about 1 Corinthians 7, Gordon D. Fee cautions,
. . . one must remember that the original intent of the passage was not to establish canon law but to address a specific situation in Corinth—their apparent rejection of marriage on ascetic grounds. The text needs to be heard in its own historical context before it is applied to broader contexts.
Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1987), 291
 I’ve written about the two different Greek terms Paul uses for divorce in the postscript below.
 1 Corinthians 7:39: “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” Paul’s words here in 1 Cor. 7:39 are given in the context of a preference for singleness.
 In the Roman colony of Corinth, divorce was easy for both men and women. Divorce was not uncommon and it was relatively stigma-free. Fee, writes, “Divorce in Greco-Roman culture could be ‘legalized’ by means of documents; but more often it simply happened. In this culture, divorce was divorce, whether established by a document or not. Either the man sent his wife away (= ‘divorce’) in the sense of v. 12, or else either of them ‘left’ the other (= ‘to separate’).” Fee, First Corinthians, 293.
 Paul doesn’t cover the scenario of abuse in Romans 7:1-6 either. In this passage, Paul uses the example of marriage law as an analogy to illustrate that we have died to the law and now belong to Jesus. “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” Paul’s point isn’t a comment on marriage law, however; and he doesn’t mention divorce. The law Paul refers to is not unlike modern marriage laws and the clause “until death do us part.” Yet, marriage laws in both ancient and modern times allow for divorce under certain conditions.
A Note on Divorce Terminology in the New Testament
I’ve written the following to hopefully clear up some common misunderstandings about the meanings of “divorce/separate” words used in the New Testament.
Terminology in the Gospels: Apoluō and “Certificate of Divorce”
The Greek verb apoluō is used in a technical sense to mean “divorce” in the Jewish setting of the Gospels. Apoluō occurs, in various forms, three times in Matthew 5:31-32, five times in Matthew 19:3-9, four times in Mark 10:2-12, twice in Luke 16:18, all with the sense of “divorce.” It also occurs in Matthew 1:19 where Joseph plans to break off his betrothal to Mary.
The term Biblion apostasiou (“certificate of divorce”) occurs in both the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) and in the New Testament. In the New Testament it occurs twice, both times with the verb apoluō (“divorce”): see Mark 10:4 and Matthew 19:7-9. Apostasion, which also refers to a certificate of divorce, is used with apoluō in Matthew 5:31.
Apostasion/apostasiou (“certificate of divorce”) and apoluō are the only Greek words used for “divorce” in the Jewish setting of Gospels. (Chōrízō is used in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 and means “separate.”)
Terminology in 1 Corinthians 7: Chōrizō and Aphiēmi
Paul does not use apoluō when writing to the Christians in the Roman colony of Corinth. He uses the verb chōrizō (“separate”) in 1 Corinthians 7:10 & 11 for a Christian wife who separates from her Christian husband. He also uses chōrizō in 1 Corinthians 7:15 (twice) for an unbeliever who separates from their Christian spouse.
Paul uses a different verb, aphiēmi (“leave” or perhaps “send away”), in 1 Corinthians 7:11 for a Christian husband who must not leave or send away (i.e. divorce) his Christian wife. He uses the same word, aphiēmi, in 1 Corinthians 7:12 for a Christian husband who must not leave or send away his non-Christian wife if she is willing to stay. The word is used again in 1 Corinthians 7:13 for a Christian wife who must not leave or send away her non-Christian husband if he is willing to stay.
Writing about chōrizō and aphiēmi, David Instone-Brewer cautions,
Differences between these words should not be exaggerated. There may be no significance in their use other than stylistic variation. In English one might use both “divorce” and “dissolution” in the same paragraph without intending any difference in meaning. There were more than fifty words used for “divorce” in Greek marriage and divorce contracts, and it was common to use several in a single document. It is certainly not possible to say that aphiēmi is a legal divorce and chōrizō is just a separation. In Greco-Roman society, separation was a legal divorce, and chōrizō is the most common of the words used for divorce.
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: the Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 198-199.
An Old Testament Term
Exapostellō is typically used in the Septuagint for divorce and it literally means “send away” (e.g., Deut 24:1; Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8; Mal 2:16). Exapostellō, however, is not used in the New Testament to mean divorce. Language about divorce may have changed during the 300 odd years between the translation of Deuteronomy in the Septuagint to the writing of the Gospels.
A final caution: When considering what the Bible says about divorce, it helps to differentiate between Israelite customs in Old Testament times and early Jewish customs in Jesus’ day, and not confuse them with later Jewish customs and traditions that didn’t apply in Bible times. It is also important to understand that Jewish divorce customs relevant to Jesus’ teaching are different from Roman divorce customs and laws that are more relevant to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7. We must also understand the different concerns that are addressed in passages about divorce in the Old Testament, in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, and in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7.
God on Divorce (Malachi 2:16)
Jesus on Divorce, Remarriage and Adultery
The wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor 7:4)
Mutuality in Marriage (1 Corinthians 7)
God wants Women to be Happy in Marriage
Power Struggles in Christian Marriage?