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 too were 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, effectively a divorce, 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.
The Bible does not mention every scenario where divorce is acceptable, but it does state that neglect was a valid reason for divorce in ancient Israelite society (Exod. 21:10-11). If neglect was a valid reason, it seems reasonable to assume that other forms of abuse would be also.
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 of “drive out the wicked one” 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?
Many Christians have a holy fear of divorce, and this can be a good thing. Yet 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 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.
© Margaret Mowczko 2018
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“Broken Heart Bleeding” by Vishnu Vijayan (Pixabay)
God on Divorce (Malachi 2:16)
Jesus on Divorce, Remarriage and Adultery
Hyperbole and Divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31-32)
A Note on Divorce Terminology in the Bible
All my articles on divorce are here.
A wife has no authority over her own body? (1 Cor 7:4)
Mutuality in Marriage (1 Corinthians 7)