Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s “Grounds for Divorce”

Introduction

Wayne Grudem presented a paper at the recent conference (November 2019) of the Evangelical Theological Society in which he argued that abuse is a permitted reason for divorce.[1] He had previously believed and taught there were only two biblically sanctioned reasons for divorce: adultery (cf. Matt. 19:9) and desertion by an unbeliever (cf. 1 Cor. 7:15).

In his new paper, Grudem explains why he changed his mind on this issue. Much of it has to do with how he interprets the phrase “in such cases” in 1 Corinthians 7:15.

The CSB translates the entire verse as: “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him leave. A brother or a sister is not bound in such cases. God has called you to live in peace.” (Italics added)

I have doubts about the validity of Grudem’s interpretation of this verse, which includes a broadened understanding of desertion, and I have doubts about the method he used to arrive at his interpretation. I will discuss this in the second half of this article, but I want to begin by pointing out a few statements that I agree with.

Part 1: The Good Stuff

Agreement

There are several statements in the paper that many Christians, myself included, would agree with. For example, Grudem writes, “Abuse is in some ways more harmful than desertion, because abuse includes repeated demonstrations of actual malice, not simply indifference. Abuse is actively and repeatedly malevolent.”

And I am happy that he includes porn addiction in the category of sexual immorality (cf. Matt. 19:9). Porn addiction then, as well as adultery, can be considered as a biblically-sanctioned reason for divorce.

I also agree with Grudem where he anticipates a possible objection that divorce is breaking a solemn covenant. He acknowledges, “The abusive unbeliever has already broken it.” I would add that an abusive believer, assuming such a person exists, has also already broken the marriage covenant.

Here is Grudem’s list of scenarios, in his won words, which he believes allows for divorce. It’s a good list.

  1. Extreme, prolonged, verbal and relational cruelty that is destroying the spouse’s mental and emotional stability . . .
  2. Credible threats of physical harm or murder of spouse or children
  3. Incorrigible (or recalcitrant, or inveterate, or incurable) drug or alcohol addiction accompanied by regular lies, deceptions, thefts, and/or violence
  4. Incorrigible gambling addiction that has led to massive, overwhelming indebtedness
  5. Pornography addiction would also fit here, but it would also be included under meaning of “sexual immorality” (Gk. porneia) in Matthew 19:9.

Compassion

Grudem’s rethinking on divorce, which led to his research into 1 Corinthians 7:15, was motivated by compassion, and he is reported as saying,

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. (Source: Christianity Today)

In his paper, he admits that divorce “will save thousands of sincere Christian believers from suffering horrible abuse for decades.” He is correct. I hate to think how many sincere Christians have put up with all kinds of abuse believing that God would disapprove and be displeased, and perhaps even be angry, if they sought relief and escaped from their suffering.

Compassion and kindness are excellent reasons for looking again at established Christian doctrines and for looking more closely at the biblical text to see if we might have got something wrong. Kindness and common sense should be part of our hermeneutic. However, understanding the backstory and context of any Bible verse is critical to understanding it and should also be part of our hermeneutic. This brings me to my next point.

Even though Grudem and I both agree that abuse is a valid reason for divorce, it’s how he arrives at his conclusion that I have an issue with. I have a problem with his approach and method. In the remainder of this article, I’ll explain why I don’t think 1 Corinthians 7:15 says what Grudem thinks it says and why his approach is problematic.

Part 2: “in such cases”

A small sample from a broad time range

In his paper, much of Grudem’s attention is directed to exploring and explaining the Greek phrase en tois toioutois (“in such cases”).[2] It is important to understand the meaning and scope of Greek words and phrases used in the New Testament, and searches of ancient Greek passages that contain the same words is a useful method to facilitate this. Grudem’s search of texts, and the conclusion he forms on the basis of these texts, is the foundation of his argument.

Apart from 1 Corinthians 7:15, the phrase en tois toioutois does not occur in the New Testament or in the Septuagint.[3] So Grudem has analysed 52 passages from non-biblical sources that do contain this Greek phrase, but he provides a sample of only eight passages in his paper. These eight passages come from a variety of genres and authors,[4] and from a very wide time range: late fifth century BC to early second century AD.

Only one passage, Philo’s On the Life of Moses 1.38, line 1, was written roughly around the time when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians; about fifty years separate the two works. Two examples are taken from Sophocles’ play Electra, written in the late fifth century BC and in Classical (or, Attic) Greek. Does this classical Greek tragedy provide a reasonable comparison with Paul’s letter written in koine Greek in the mid-first century? The genres are entirely different, and language can change considerably during half a millennium. Grudem’s small sample of texts is too eclectic.

“More kinds of situations” or one kind?

Grudem claims there is a pattern of usage of en tois toioutois in the eight Greek texts he provides. He argues that these texts show that en tois toioutois (“in such cases”) often includes “more kinds of situations” than just the given situation. He then applies his pattern to 1 Corinthians 7:15, where the given situation is an unbelieving spouse leaving, and he claims that the phrase “in such cases” includes abuse.[5]

While en tois toioutois (“in such cases”) in some of the texts includes “more kinds of situations” that differ in some ways from the original given situation, sometimes it refers to just one kind of situation.[6] For instance, in example 8 taken from the Discourses of Epictetus (Book 1 chapter 1 section 21 line 1), “in such cases” refers specifically to people on the verge of death. They are experiencing essentially the same situation as the original person, Lateranus, does when he is about to be beheaded, imminent death.

Most of Grudem’s eight texts involve a specific person (or specific people) and/or a specific historical event or a particular crisis. The phrase “in such cases” in these texts refers to a situation that might also be experienced by others but is, in some way, essentially the same as the original situation.  Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:15 may be applied more broadly to any Christian, not just to the Corinthians whose spouses were leaving  (the original example), but I believe these words only apply to Christians experiencing essentially the same situation, desertion. Some Christians today may still find some practical comfort in Paul’s words when an unbelieving spouse leaves.

The Context of 1 Corinthians 7:15

While it is worthwhile to look closely at Greek words and consider the phrase en tois toioutois in other contexts as Grudem has done, it is important to pull back and look overall at what Paul was saying. Verse 15 must be understood within its own context in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16. We mustn’t miss the forest for the trees. Was abuse in Paul’s mind when he wrote verse 15? It’s not an issue that the apostle mentions in 1 Corinthians 7.[7]

Writing about 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, Gordon D. Fee states,

. . . 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.

Grudem’s paper is primarily focused on three Greek words: en tois toioutois. While keeping in mind how these words are used elsewhere, Paul’s own context is more relevant than the context of the eight texts Grudem uses. Unfortunately, Grudem does not discuss or even mention the historical context of Paul’s teaching and recommendations in 1 Corinthians 7.

Grudem’s conclusion: Desertion is equivalent to destruction

Grudem gives this conclusion following his research:

Conclusion on 1 Cor. 7:15: ‘in such cases’ should be understood to include any cases that similarly destroy a marriage. We could paraphrase, ‘But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In this and other similarly destructive cases (ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις) the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.’

I doubt that Paul had the same progression of thought as Grudem, namely, an unbeliever leaving is a valid reason for divorce (as Paul indicates)  ⇒  an unbeliever who leaves destroys a marriage  ⇒  any behaviour from an unbeliever that destroys a marriage is a valid reason for divorce  ⇒  therefore, abuse is a valid reason for divorce. I cannot see this progression of ideas, and that desertion is the same as destruction, in Paul’s actual words in 1 Corinthians 7:15.

Furthermore, in verse 15, it is the unbeliever who leaves, not the Christian. This is something Grudem scarcely mentions in his article. How does Grudem’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:15 work if an abusive spouse does not want to leave the marriage as is often the case? In the previous verses of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul told Christian husbands and wives they were not to divorce their unbelieving spouse if the unbeliever agrees or consents to keep living with them (1 Cor. 7:12-13 CSB).

And I wish Grudem had given more attention to the phrase “he has called you to peace” in 1 Corinthians 7:15 which is the counterpart to a believer not being “bound” (or not being “enslaved” as the ESV puts it.)

Conclusion

I am genuinely thankful for Grudem’s kind efforts, but I’m not convinced that his focussed attention on the phrase “in such cases” provides evidence that 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows for divorce in the case of abuse. Furthermore, I find his approach problematic. It was a too-narrow focus in the first place that brought about the incorrect idea that adultery and desertion are the only two biblically-sanctioned reasons for divorce. Certain phrases within Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15 have been closely scrutinized and highlighted, while other phrases have been downplayed, and the reasons behind these statements from Jesus and from Paul have been overlooked or minimised. The result has been that these verses have been used to say things that neither Jesus or Paul intended.

Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15 do not actually state that sexual immorality and desertion are the only biblically-sanction reasons for divorce as has been claimed by many Christians.

Paul does not mention abuse in 1 Corinthians 7 because it was not the issue at hand, but he does mention and condemn both physical and verbal abuse in previous chapters in 1 Corinthians. (See 1 Cor. 5:11-13 NRSV and 1 Cor. 6:9-11 CSB). Abuse is a valid reason for divorce regardless of how we understand the phrase “in such cases.” I discuss this further here: Paul’s Words on Divorce, and Leaving an Abusive Marriage


Footnotes

[1] Grounds for Divorce: Why I Now Believe There Are More Than Two, An Argument for Including Abuse in the Phrase “In Such Cases” in 1 Corinthians 7:15, presented at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in San Diego, November 21st 2019.
I have not heard Grudem’s presentation but I have read his notes which is available on his website here. (Click on the Grounds for divorce paper.08 link on his site.)
Wayne A. Grudem is a prominent complementarian theologian, professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona, and an author. He co-founded the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and served as the general editor of the ESV Study Bible. I mention Wayne Grudem in other articles on my website here.

[2] Here is a quick rundown of the three words in the phrase:
En (ἐν) is a common preposition that often means “in.” It occurs over 2700 times in the New Testament and always takes nouns, etc, in the dative case.
Tois
(τοῖς) is a dative plural neuter article in 1 Cor. 7:15. The dictionary form of τοῖς is ὁ. This article in its various declensions occurs over 20,000 times in the NT. In English translations of 1 Cor. 7:15, this article is best left untranslated.
Toioutois (τοιούτοις) is a dative plural neuter correlative adjective, sometimes called a demonstrative pronoun, meaning “such.” The sense is “such cases” in 1 Cor. 7:15. The lexical form of this word is τοιοῦτος. This word in its various declensions occurs 58 times in the NT, 10 times in 1 Corinthians!
All three of these Greek words are themselves common and easy to understand, even if they only occur together as “en tois toioutois” in 1 Cor. 7:15 the New Testament.
BDAG gives this definition for the entry “τοιοῦτος, αύτη, οῦτον”: “pertaining to be like some person or thing mentioned in context, of such a kind, such as this, like such” and they translate 1 Corinthians 7:15 as “in such cases, under such circumstances.” Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, (BDAG) revised and edited by F.W Danker, s.v. τοιοῦτος, αύτη, οῦτον, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1009-1010.

[3] The three-word phrase en tois toioutois does not occur in the NT or the LXX, apart from 1 Corinthians 7:15, but tois toioutois (without the en) occurs in 1 Corinthians 16:16 where Paul tells the Corinthians, “I urge you also to submit to such people (τοῖς τοιούτοις) [people like Stephanas and his household], and to everyone who works and labours with them. Paul further states in 1 Corinthians 16:18, “Therefore acknowledge such people (τοὺς τοιούτους: the same words as τοῖς τοιούτοις but they are masculine plural accusative).”

[4] The authors are Philo, Euripides, Diodorus Siculus, Lysias, Sophocles, and Epictetus (via his student Arrian).

[5] Lately, I’ve been looking at arguments from Michael Burer (on Junia in Romans 16:7) and from Andreas Köstenberger (on authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12).  It seems to me that, like Grudem, both Burer and Köstenberger have searched for patterns in Greek texts that aren’t really there, made rules out of the patterns, and then applied these rules to Romans 16:7 and to 1 Timothy 2:12 respectively.
In Burer’s case, the exercise has been to try and prove that Junia was not an apostle, and therefore, presumably, did not have an influential ministry that required leadership. (See here.) In Köstenberger’s case, the exercise has been to try and prove that the Greek word authentein (which I translate as “to domineer“) does not have a negative sense in 1 Tim. 2:12, so that Paul, in effect, is prohibiting ordinary and wholesome leadership ministries from a woman (or women) and not bad behaviour. I argue that Paul is indeed prohibiting bad behaviour from a woman in the Ephesian church and that authentein is a negative behaviour. (See comment here.) All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:12 are here.

[6] In each of the eight examples, Grudem gives a short explanation or interpretation of what “in such cases” refers to or implies, but these interpretations are inadequate. Furthermore, he uses and underlines the word “any” in each interpretation which implies a broad application (e.g., in example 4 the interpretation is “any story about the gods in Greek mythology”; in example 8 it is “any time someone is about to die”). Time constraints for delivering the paper may explain the short and inadequate interpretations and may explain the small sample of eight texts. But I do wonder which of the 52 texts from the 617 available examples from the fifth century BC to the fourth century AD were not chosen by Grudem to make his argument, and why? Especially as the examples given are not compelling . . . at least not to me.

[7] The issues in the Corinthian church include single Christians not getting married, married Christians not having sex, married people leaving their spouses (1 Cor. 7:1-16). At the heart of these issues was the understanding, that since they were already new creatures, sex and marriage didn’t matter. Some Corinthians Christians were trying to change their situation in other ways too (1 Cor. 7:17ff). These are the issues Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 7, not abuse.

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More

Dr Emily Hunter McGowin has written a post entitled, Wayne Grudem: The Right Conclusion for the Wrong Reason, here.
Wayne Grudem is interviewed by Morgan Lee and Mark Galli of Christianity Today here. (I especially liked the part where Grudem gives biblical support for escaping suffering when possible.)
A short article by Rebecca Randall for Christianity Today, here.

13 thoughts on “A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s “Grounds for Divorce”

  1. Thank you for this article and your faithfulness in the integrity of interpretation.

    I’d like to point out that while a spouse who is abusive may not want to leave, when the abused spouse puts boundaries and consequences in place, many times the abuser chooses to leave.

    Understanding that God’s heart would always seek to protect the abused, instead of “2 sanctioned cases for divorce,” is a starting place for all of the abused to find the strength and courage to know their value and set boundaries and consequences.

    1. Thanks, Jen.

      Sadly, some abused people feel so powerless that they are incapable of setting boundaries.

      And yes, God’s heart is always towards the oppressed and abused.

      1. Thank you for making that point. I also highly value the work of Dr. Cloud in boundaries, but as I did the soul work of learning to use boundaries in my life, I found myself consistently succumbing to the psychological manipulation of my spouse and within my marriage it was the one area I did poorly to maintain boundaries .( once I fold for divorce and the children and I were lo longer living in the sand house/under his control , only then I f ok me my ability to think clearly and set boundaries. But had I followed that or dr clouds thinking, I’d feel like I had failed because I hadn’t employed enough “boundaries” to make him choose to leave- despite two separations, 5 counselors and preserving him with an interventions tule list. It can’t be underestimated the emotional toll of abuse

  2. I just want to say thank you for your arguments and the clarity they bring especially in debate/cut-and-thrust with others. I was always a little suspicious of Wallace and Burer when I first read their paper – smelled like an attempt to prove an already held opinion….. I am very interested in the debates about divorce too. Both my wife and I are divorcees but have felt compassion from the denomination we are part of – my wife is an Anglican Priest – but don’t let that put you off! Thanks again Margaret.

    1. I have a few friends who are Anglican priests, and there’s nothing off-putting about them. 🙂

  3. Thanks for this. I wonder: Given Paul ends this discourse with “being called to peace” as a governing principle for marriage, when “the abusive spouse does not want to leave the marriage” these become grounds for divorce.

    Most importantly, Grudem did not need to go beyond Scripture to find support for abuse as grounds for divorce. Seems he did a whole lot of research for not a lot of gain. Scripture is clear that adultery as marital unfaithfulness is grounds for divorce; it may or may not take the form of sexual unfaithfulness. There is sexual and non-sexual adultery. Physical or psychological abuse is a form of non-sexual adultery (see, Ex. 21:10 for minimal and essential responsibilities of the husband). Jer. 3:1-10 is an example of non-sexual adultery where Israel commits adultery against God by worshiping idols, on which God follows by divorcing her. Whenever a spouse threatens the moral bond by repeated abuse, then the covenant has been broken. Without the requisite repentance and forgiveness, divorce is sanctioned.

    1. “Called to peace” really needs to be taken a lot more seriously.

      What bothers me about his research is that tois toioutois occurs 10 times in 1 Corinthians, admittedly only once with the preposition en. But I would have thought these texts would be a good starting point rather than Sophocles, Euripedes or Lysias!

    2. I’d like to point out another awesome grounds for divorce from the Old Testament that has historically been overlooked. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 covers the POW wife. Here’s from verse 14: “If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.” The “treat here as a slave” part is translated from a word that has a few meanings. See Strong’s #H6014. One figurative meaning (according to Strong’s) is “to chastise with blows”. Various lexicons indicate the notion of using force to subdue someone to one’s will (hence treating like a slave). The King James version does an abominable job of translating this word (“make merchandise of”), as does the Septuagint. Given most commentators (including in Rabbinic Judaism) get caught up in the POW aspects of this passage, it’s not surprising that this little gem got overlooked.

      Basically, if a POW wife has this right to not be treated in this manner and be released from the marriage, then so does every other higher status wife. QED.

      I thank God for showing me this through a woman’s YouTube video. It’s given me great relief. Sad that a laywoman can spot this but a zillion commentators trained in seminary or what have you can’t spot this.

      Marg, if you are interested, I can link to you the YouTube video where I saw this. (And I did double check her work, and looked up a few other lexicons. Very fascinating!)

      1. Thanks for highlighting Deuteronomy 21:14. It’s interesting and relevant.

        Here are various English translations for comparison: https://biblehub.com/deuteronomy/21-14.htm

        And here’s some online info about the Hebrew verb amar (עָמַר): https://biblehub.com/hebrew/6014.htm

        I like to compare the Hebrew with the Greek Septuagint because I have a degree of proficiency with Greek but have little experience with Hebrew. The Greek word that translates the Hebrew word amar in Deuteronomy 21:14 is atheteō (ἀθετέω). But this word does not ordinarily mean “sell as a slave” or “chastise with blows.” See here: https://biblehub.com/greek/114.htm

        Brenton translates Deuteronomy 21:14 from the Septuagint as: “And it shall be if thou do not delight in her, thou shalt send her out free; and she shall not by any means be sold for money, thou shalt not treat her contemptuously, because thou hast humbled her.

  4. I agree with your comment indicating that the problem here is that Grudem had too narrow a focus in the first place. It seems to me he is trying to use Scripture to justify his new position without addressing the problems with his original interpretation of other passages. Your analysis is refreshing. Thank you.

  5. II find it very interesting that Grudem is driven by pastoral concerns in making his change. It is certainly the case that Grudem is abandoning any claim to a “plain reading” as he is really stretching to find a way to stop suffering, which is commendable except that his own reading continues to contribute to the suffering. Still, it may be the case that Grudem has figured out something that is correct as far as what Paul meant, but I still think his interpretation is wrong in a fundamental way.

    Paul could have wrote “in such a case …” and everyone would think that it was just this situation he was referring to and no more, but he used the plural form. I think the specific situation is when a unbeliever divorces for a Scripturally-invalid reason, now the believer is faced with a “What am I to do now?” situation. Paul says to accept it (there is no reason to think things will change as the other is not a believer). In this case, the (invalid) divorce results in an abandonment which is a valid reason for divorce. But there can also be other similar cases when married to an unbeliever.

    What is wrong about his interpretation is that he starts with Jesus and then adds to that what Paul wrote, but this gets things backwards as Jesus and Paul were Jews all their lives as far as we can tell from Scripture. So we should start with Torah and then Tanakh as accepted by both of them as Scripture and then see how Jesus’s and Paul’s words interact with that. This avoids the need to jump through hoops like Grudem does, I think. to see that abuse and neglect are valid reasons for divorce.

    1. I think the plural just means that there is more than one case of an unbelieving spouse leaving; there were several cases. They may have been leaving because they didn’t want to be married to someone who had unilaterally decided to stop having sex. Asceticism is the issue behind 1 Corinthians 7:1-16.

      In the second-century Apocryphal Acts there are several stories of “heroic” women who are persecuted by their husbands because they refused to have sex for religious reasons. Virginity and celibacy were prized virtues and connected with salvation and with the resurrection. We see the beginnings of this in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 and also in 1 Timothy 4:3.

      Paul actually uses the plural tois toioutois (without the en) in 1 Corinthians 16:16, something Grudem fails to mention. Tois toioutois also occurs in 2 Thessalonians 3:12 in the NT. (See footnote 2.)

  6. 1Corinthians 7:15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such [cases]: but YHVH has called us to peace.

    I believe any act of departing from the responsibilities of marriage should be scrutinized by the end of this verse. “YHVH has called us to peace.” Addictions, cruelty, and anything that destroys the bond of peace in a marriage also breaks the bond of peace with YHVH. Leaving the marriage bond can be done physically, emotionally, or spiritually. If the two cannot make peace under the love and guidance of YHVH, then divorce should be a considered for the peace of both.

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