The Biblical grounds for divorce are unfaithfulness or desertion by a non-Christian partner. A few questions immediately arise. What if someone claims to be a Christian but isn’t? How are we to determine this? What about separation, and church discipline? What constitutes desertion, and how long must it be before it can legitimately be considered abandonment?
As for desertion, it's impossible to set any arbitrary time limit for determining when desertion is final. But an abandoned spouse should give enough time to allow for the possibility of reconciliation. A plan for separation and church discipline will be given at the end of this paper.
God does not demand that a divorced person remain unmarried as a penalty for his having become divorced. The Biblical interpretations given in some circles almost make divorce the unpardonable sin. In fact, nowhere does the New Testament teach that divorce is legitimate in cases where remarriage is not permitted.
The New Testament gives guiding principles that are permanent and authoritative. But they are not detailed answers for each specific situation. In life situations, more than one Biblical principle may apply and all must be considered together.
This is true in regard to divorce and remarriage. For example, suppose a husband is not guilty of sexual unfaithfulness, but treats his wife and children with such cruelty that their emotions and even their lives may be in danger. The mother's God-given responsibility for herself and her children might dictate, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, separation or even divorce.
Another example is a wife who deserts her husband and refuses to live with him, then deliberately makes all sorts of extravagant purchases and charges them to her husband's account. In this situation he may be forced to divorce her as his only legal protection from financial ruin.
These examples are not to suggest a weakening of God's standard concerning divorce. Rather, they point out that the Bible's teaching on divorce and remarriage must, in actual situations, be considered together with any other of God's laws and principles that apply. In decisions about divorce and remarriage, as in all of life, Christians are called to walk in the light of Biblical principles and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Toward A Correct Understanding
The problem with much of what has been taught regarding separation, divorce, and remarriage, is that it has not taken into account the fact that Jesus and Paul were addressing specific questions given to them. They were not giving out all the answers regarding these matters. They have laid out a foundation, and upon considering the whole of the Biblical record, its precepts and principles, we can make a better qualified decision, rather than just try and “proof text” our particular viewpoint. Rather than a rigid, overly literal understanding of the text without consideration of the target audience, good scholarship has seen a different, and we believe a correct view of what Jesus and Paul taught.
Recent research… interprets the words of Jesus and Paul through the eyes of first century readers who knew about the ‘Any Cause’ divorce, which Jesus was asked about ("Is it lawful to divorce for ‘Any Cause’"). This suggests that Christians in the generations following Jesus forgot about the ‘Any Cause’ divorce and misunderstood Jesus.
The 'Any Cause' divorce was invented by some Pharisees who divided up the phrase "a cause of indecency" (Deuteronomy 24.1) into two grounds for divorce: "indecency" (porneia which they interpreted as ‘Adultery’) and "a cause" (i.e. ‘Any Cause’). Jesus said the phrase could not be split up and that it meant "nothing except porneia". Although almost everyone was using this new type of divorce, Jesus told them that it was invalid, so remarriage was adulterous because they were still married.
The Old Testament allowed divorce for the breaking of marriage vows, including neglect and abuse, based on Exod.21.10f. Jesus was not asked about these Biblical grounds for divorce, though Paul alluded to them in 1 Corinthians 7 as the basis of marriage obligations.
This new research emphasizes that Jesus and Paul never repealed these Biblical grounds based on marriage vows. They were exemplified by Christ (according to Ephesians 5.28f) and they became the basis of Christian marriage vows (love, honour, and keep).
In accordance with this view, Dr. David Instone-Brewer, senior research fellow in rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House (Cambridge), one of the world’s leading scholars on these issues, provides insights into what the first century audience would have understood Jesus and Paul’s teachings on these matters to be. The leading organization for scholars, the Evangelical Theological Society, has reviewed his work, and determined his findings to be credible.
There are two additional biblical grounds for divorce based on Exodus 21:10-11, a text that states a husband must give a wife food, clothing, and "marital love/duty." Rabbinic sources classified these under two headings: material neglect and emotional neglect. Both the rabbis and Paul applied these equally to the wife and the husband (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, 32-34), and the three provisions of Exodus 21:10-11 "became the basis for the vows in Jewish marriage contracts and in Christian marriage services via the reference in Ephesians 5:28-29" .
It is inappropriate merely to do a grammatical-historical exegesis of OT texts and see how exegesis fits hand-in-glove into its NT context. Intertestamental Jewish interpretive traditions and the Greco-Roman environment must be considered when reading the NT. For example, where Deuteronomy 24:1 is concerned, it is impossible to decide what "something indecent" (NIV) referred to originally; all we need to know is how first-century teachers understood it.
Second, just as rabbinic debates were summarized for oral or written transmission, so was Jesus' teaching on divorce. Instone-Brewer illustrates the principles of abbreviation that the rabbis used and how they are paralleled in the longer and shorter reports of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels with a discussion of the various accounts of the Hillelite-Shammaite divorce dispute in the Mishnah (cf. Matthew 19 / Mark 10) (p. 162), Sifre (when we unpack Matthew 19 / Mark 10 exegesis) (pp. 163-64), and Jerusalem Talmud (cf. Matthew 5:31-32 / Luke 16:18) (pp. 164-65). To be specific, the phrases "for any matter" (Matthew 19:3) and "except for (a matter of) indecency" (Matthew 19:9) are omitted from Mark 10:2-12 because they were obvious to the original audience. Matthew added these "phrases that encapsulated the positions of the Hillelites and Shammaites respectively," not because he wanted to soften Jesus' absolute prohibition of divorce (as in the older critical view), but because he could no longer assume his readers would automatically supply what was originally present (p. 134).
Most mentally assume exceptions to sayings of Jesus like those found in Matthew 5:22 ("without cause") and 5:28 ("except for his wife") (p. 153). When it comes to the core form of Jesus' divorce saying, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery," the only assumption first-century readers would bring to make sense of it "is to assume that the divorce was invalid" (p. 149). Matthew's addition of "except for (a matter of) indecency" makes this assumption explicit.
Instone-Brewer provides the most satisfactory explanation to date for the two different forms of Matthew's exception. Exegetes have long recognized that the phrase in Matthew 5:32 is the virtual semantic equivalent of the Shammaites' transposition of the corresponding Hebrew phrase in Deuteronomy 24:1 (m. Git. 9.10). However, the Shammaite position was summarized in the rabbinic literature in two similar forms, the second of which is semantically identical with the phrase in Matthew 19:9 (Sifre Deut. 269; y. Sota 1.2 [16b])! Was adultery the only ground for divorce allowed by Jesus? Probably not, because the focus of the controversy was the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1. However, the Shammaites also allowed other divorces on the grounds of Exodus 21:10-11 (p. 186), and Jesus presumably would, too (emphasis mine).
Dr. Instone-Brewer concludes by giving some pastoral considerations, and outlines his findings based upon his research.
There is a plausible defense of four grounds for permitting divorce when (1) marriage vows have been violated, (2) extensive forgiveness has been extended in view of genuine repentance (Luke 17:3-4), and (3) the vow breaker stubbornly refuses to repent of their actions. Hosea "showed that God did not end the relationship until it was already totally destroyed" .
Considering The Implications Of “Abandonment”
Admittedly, one could take the idea of “abandonment” too far in the hopes of using the Bible as a justification for an illegitimate divorce. Items that would represent desertion or abandonment need to be codified in order to provide a measure of restraint. Here is the view of a typical Reformed Church regarding what constitutes abandonment.
3c. The following constitute adequate grounds for legitimate divorce:
Actions, which are tantamount to desertion, constitute adequate grounds for divorce. Adopted 1990, take note. Examples might include the following (note that these are illustrative of this principle, are not intended to be exhaustive in covering every scenario, and are not part of the recommendation proper):
1) The deliberate and unrepented withholding of food, clothing, and sexual relations (i.e., the purposeful failure of the husband to care for the bodily needs of his wife and defrauding her of her conjugal rights, Exodus. 21:10-11) are examples provided in the Bible of behavior destructive of the marriage covenant.
NOTE that this must be deliberate action. Extreme poverty might preclude a husband from providing adequately for his wife's bodily needs, but that does not constitute grounds for divorce. Likewise, an invalid spouse, because of a debilitating disease or handicap, might be incapable of sexual intercourse. This does not constitute adequate grounds for divorce, even though this situation would work a severe hardship on the other mate. Couples marry "for better or for worse" which implies that they will accept God's providence in their marriage, including the "for worse" aspects.
2) By inference from Exodus 21:10-11, spousal abuse which is life threatening or destructive of the "cleaving" aspect of marriage constitutes grounds. If lesser life-threatening measures such as withholding food and clothing could free a spouse, certainly a greater and more immediate attack upon one's personal safety would constitute legitimate grounds for divorce.
Note that the committee does not consider point 3c as an innovative departure from the Westminster Confession of Faith's position on adequate grounds for divorce. We believe that "desertion" biblically cannot be narrowly construed as being solely confined to the act of packing one's bags and leaving the domicile (emphasis mine).
Abuse In Marriage, Divorce Grounds
Having divorce grounds because of marriage abuse is a serious matter! When there is abuse going on in a relationship, it's time to separate. Abuse in its different manifestations is the most destructive tool that can be used by anyone against another person. It is designed to distort a person’s view of reality and of God, thus keeping that person from having a fruitful life.
A person can be so verbally abused that they don’t know what’s true anymore. This abuse is designed to put a person in a numb state so they are unable to make clear, concise decisions. The path of verbal abuse leads a person from what they know as truth into a confused state. This confused state arises because the abuser consistently interjects lies as truth until the abused no longer knows what to believe. For example, we can see this happen when the abuser uses truths from the Bible to justify a lie, or the abuser twists the Bible’s true intent to satisfy his own selfish motive. The sad part comes when the abused embraces the lies from the abuser as truth, thereby disregarding the real truth. At this point the abused feels like they are in chains of bondage with no way out. A trusted godly person is like a life preserver to the abused at this point. “The mouth of the righteous is a well of life” (Proverbs 10:11a).
Toward A Plan
Covered under abandonment is persistent physical, sexual or emotional abuse of a spouse. God has provided protection for an abused spouse through the church, civil authority, godly counselors, prayer, and other practical measures. Reasonable steps should be taken to provide for protection of the abused spouse while promoting appropriate reconciliation and restoration. A period of separation might be considered to encourage the couple to focus on the issues involved. A separation agreement developed with the assistance of the pastoral staff could assist the couple in defining the purpose for the separation and promoting agreement on the length and conditions agreed upon for the separation and reconciliation. Such separation should not be legally initiated for the purpose of pursuing divorce but for protecting and promoting reconciliation (1 Corinthians 7:5-6, 10-11). Separation should not be entered into without considerable prayer and the seeking of godly counsel.
Should such reconciliation efforts fail, the offender could be subject to church discipline. Church discipline in such case would follow the normal course as outlined in the separation agreement. Thus, it would not be entered into lightly or be completed swiftly. Church discipline would focus on effecting reconciliation through counseling, accountability, and confrontation to restore the abusive spouse to an obedient relationship with God and their mate. The final phase of confrontation would involve the Pastors.
However, if church discipline follows to conclusion against the offending spouse and that spouse is still unrepentant, then he or she may at such time be considered an unbeliever by the church through the decision of the Pastors (Matthew 18:17). Following such action, if the offending spouse is still not willing to repent, to turn from the abusive behavior, and restore the relationship, then that spouse would be considered an unbeliever who has abandoned the marriage relationship and would then fall under the provisions of 1 Corinthians 7:12-15. As provided for in the separation agreement, such action would only be taken following significant prayerful attempts to encourage and enable reconciliation and restoration.
 Instone-Brewer, David: Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p.102.
 Ibid, p.275.
 Instone-Brewer, David: Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p.36.
Divorce, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, on the Internet @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissolution_of_marriage.
Gola, Stephen: Abuse In Marriage, Divorce Grounds, on the Internet @ http://www.divorcehope.com/abuseinmarriage.htm.
Greenlee, J. Harold: Divorce, Remarriage and the Bible, on the Internet @ http://www.goodnewsmag.org/library/articles/greenlee-so83.htm.
Heth, William A: Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, Evangelical Theological Society Dec 2003, on the Internet @ http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3817/is_200312/ai_n9314539/print
Instone-Brewer, David: Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
Vance, D., Haddock, W., et al: Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, Special Committee Report of the Reformed Church in the United States (1991), on the Internet@ http://stjohnsrcus.inetnebr.com/marriage.htm.