“What does the Bible say about divorce?” Wayne Grudem
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Wayne GrudemWayne Grudem (PhD, University of Cambridge; DD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is distinguished research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, having previously taught for 20 years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible, the general editor of the ESV Study Bible, and has published over 20 books.
What does the Bible say about divorce? Does God truly say it’s out of the question? Theologian Wayne Grudem articulates what changed his mind.
“What does the Bible say about divorce?” Wayne Grudem
Shelby: Hi, Shelby Abbot here. Before we get to today’s show, if you have ever been blessed by FamilyLife Today, did you know it is because someone else gave? Yes, FamilyLife Today is listener supported. If you’ve given, let me just say, “Thank you.” Thank you for making gospel-centered conversations like the one we’re about to hear today possible.
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Wayne Grudem: Society today we have on the one hand a secular view which is divorce is whenever you want to get a divorce, you are unhappy in your marriage and no sense of permanence of marriage. On the other hand, we have the historic teaching of the Catholic Church which is divorce is never acceptable. In between those points there are a variety of viewpoints, so it is important for Christians to look closely at what the Bible says about divorce.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: It isn’t every day that you get to have an author of the Bible in the FamilyLife Today studio.
Ann: I think that’s God. What do you mean?
Dave: Well, I’m sort of kidding. Doctor Wayne Grudem is with us today. Some would say he actually wrote the Bible but he didn’t write it. He actually is an editor of the ESV Study Bible. I tell you what, I’ve never been asked to be on the committee to edit anything of the Bible. [Laughter] That means we have somebody very intelligent and smart in the studio with us today and it is not me, and it’s not you. [Laughter]
Ann: It’s not me.
Dave: Dr. Wayne Grudem welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Wayne Grudem: Thank you, Dave.
Ann: I’m honored that you are with us today. Thank you for being with us.
Wayne Grudem: Well, thank you.
Dave: Tell our listeners a little bit about what you are up to these days.
Wayne Grudem: I teach at Phoenix Seminary at Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ve been there for 22 years. I have been married for 53 years.
Dave: And three sons; sort of like we had, three sons.
Wayne Grudem: --three sons, yes. All three married to wonderful daughters-in-law, and all have children. So we have four grandchildren.
Ann: That’s really fun.
Dave: Back in the day, you were actually on the FamilyLife Weekend to Remember® marriage get away speaker team for a few years, so you did conferences like Ann and I do. We’ve been doing it for over 30 years.
Wayne Grudem: Right, Weekend to Remember conferences.
WAYNE GRUDEM: Yes, that’s a wonderful ministry.
Dave: Yes, we still do them. Marriages and legacies are transformed in that weekend. They are, as well, listening to this broadcast so we are really glad you are here.
Now a lot of our listeners will know you. I’m sitting with a book you just handed to us. This might be the biggest, thickest book I’ve ever been handed. [Laughter] It’s thicker than the Bible. Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning.
Talk about why you decided to write on systematic theology.
WAYNE GRUDEM: I have two books, Dave. One is that big but it’s a different topic. It’s systematic theology; which is what we believe about the Bible-about God and His nature, about the Trinity, about creation, about human beings made in the image of God, about sin, about the person of Christ. How He earned our salvation and what different aspects belong to salvation, and then the doctrine of the church and what it is and how it should act and the doctrine of the future, what we should expect until and then after Christ returns. That’s Systematic Theology.
This book that I just gave you this morning is kind of a second attempt at writing a larger textbook, but this time it talks about what we should do, how we should act in life, lying and telling the truth, protecting human life, protecting marriage, use of money. Those are ethical questions.
Systematic Theology, the first book, tells us what we should believe. Christian Ethics, the second book, tells us how we should act.
Ann: It reminds me a little bit of the book of Ephesians. You know the first book is theology—
WAYNE GRUDEM: Exactly.
Ann: —and then the second half is how we live that out.
Dave: I love that break down, doctrine/how you live it out.
WAYNE GRUDEM: Exactly.
Dave: Is that what you are doing with Systematic Theology and Ethics. But today we get to talk because not only do you write big thick doctrinal and ethical books, but you have also written little books that take that theology and say, “Okay, how do we apply that to certain areas today?” We are going to talk about divorce and remarriage. What does the Bible say about divorce and remarriage?
One of the things I like about this little book is you don’t start with divorce. You say, “Let’s talk about the good news about marriage.” Can you talk a little bit about something I think a lot of us don’t understand? We think that the divorce rate in the church is the same as the divorce rate outside the church, in other words 50 percent. That has never been true.
WAYNE GRUDEM: Right.
Dave: Often we think it is but marriage in the church is actually a much better state than we think.
WAYNE GRUDEM: Right. Dave, I would hear this statistic, divorce rate in the church is as high as the divorce rate in the secular society and it’s 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. I thought, “That is not true in my experience.” Margaret and I have known hundreds, maybe thousands, of Christian couples during my lifetime. We’ve lived in several countries/we’ve been in eight, nine, or ten different churches when we lived in different places. The divorce rate is nothing like 50 percent among the people that we were acquainted with.
I thought something was wrong, but then I came across this book by Shaunti Feldhahn, The Good News about Marriage. She says, “First of all, 72 percent of people who have every been married are still in their first marriage in the United States. That leaves 28 percent that are not in their first marriage but some of those are widows or widowers whose spouses died so the percentage of divorces is probably 20-25 percent.
Then she says, among practicing Christian couples who regularly attend church, the divorce rate is probably half that, maybe ten to twelve percent. Now that’s more like what rings true to me from experience. Relatively few among the Christian couples that we know.
Ann: That really is encouraging—you’re right—
WAYNE GRUDEM: That is encouraging—most marriages are successful.
WAYNE GRUDEM: And they are happy marriages. You have been married how many years?
WAYNE GRUDEM: —forty-one and Margaret and I fifty-three, and it just gets better.
Ann: It does get better. I think as I’ve been in a church as a pastor’s wife, as I’ve been a conference speaker, I have so many women come up to me asking about divorce, “What does the Bible say about divorce?” So I think it’s really great that you have incorporated this into this, not only your ethics book, but these little books too, to give us an answer - what does the Bible say?
Dave: Here we are. There’s no one better I can think of in the world to come in and answer that question. As you go to the Word of God—I think even as we go to our FamilyLife website, and we look at the questions that come in, one of the top questions is “Is there ever a legitimate reason for me to get a divorce, as a Christian?”
How would you answer that question?
WAYNE GRUDEM: It’san important question, because in society today we have on the one hand secular view, which is divorce is whenever you want to get a divorce/you are unhappy in your marriage and no sense of permanence of marriage among many people in society.
On the other hand, we have the historic teaching of the Catholic Church, which is divorce is never acceptable. That influences people’s thinking, too. In between those points there are a variety of viewpoints, so it is important for Christians to look closely at what the Bible says about divorce.
The first thing we should start off saying is the words of Jesus, “What God has joined together let not man separate.” Matthew 19:6 where marriage is intended a permanent lifelong union of one man and one woman. They are to stay together for a lifetime. That’s God’s ideal; that’s God’s purpose. We should always seek to maintain that.
Now, are there cases in which a marriage is so seriously damaged that it’s no longer functioning as a marriage? One example is a married couple. A husband goes and leaves his wife and goes and lives with someone else, another woman. If the wife has been abandoned and the husband has committed adultery, she is no longer in a marriage. She doesn’t have a husband with her; they aren’t sharing life together. She may wish to have her husband back but he’s been unfaithful.
Jesus while he upholds God’s ideal of permanence in marriage, He then says, “Whoever divorces his wife except for sexual immorality and marries another commits adultery.” He says, “…except for sexual immorality.” That’s Matthew 19:9.
That means that Jesus is making provision for the situation where a husband or could be a wife as well, has irretrievably damaged the marriage or at least potentially irretrievably. When he says, “…except for sexual immorality,” He implies that if you divorce your wife and marry another because of sexual immorality, it is not committing adultery.
Ann: Yet even that is a little tricky because we have some really good friends and we know people [where] the spouse has cheated so you are saying, “They do have grounds.”
WAYNE GRUDEM: Right.
Ann: Because that spouse has been unfaithful.
WAYNE GRUDEM: Right.
Ann: Yet I’ve seen [in] those marriages if the one that cheated says, “I’m repentant. I’m sorry. Will you stay with me?” I’ve seen so many of those marriages restored. Sometimes they are even better. But you are saying that person, the wife let’s say, if the husband cheated, would have grounds for a divorce, however—
WAYNE GRUDEM: —see if the marriage can be reconciled first. Ann, thank you for pointing that out right at the beginning here because that’s important. God’s original plan is lifelong, permanent marriage. If there can be forgiveness and reconciliation, Margaret and I have some friends where that has been the case. In many cases, the marriage had been damaged significantly. Yet they have come to a place of forgiveness and restored the marriage. That’s wonderful if it can happen.
The wife in that case would have a legitimate reason for divorce. But if she can find it in her heart to forgive and welcome her husband back and he’s repentant then the marriage can be saved.
Dave: Yes, I think, like Ann said and you just said, there’s exception clauses like immorality but you should do—and we want to encourage couples listening—do everything you can to try and save that. That is God’s heart. It’s Jesus’ heart. Do everything you can.
One of our best friends marriage had an affair. The woman had an affair. God saved that marriage. He saved that marriage. He did a miracle.
Ann: And they are better than they have ever been.
Dave: They are in a beautiful place. They have five sons. They actually ended up telling their kids and ended up telling our church. God is using their marriage even to bless others. I would just remind a couple, God can do a miracle. Hold on, but if there isn’t repentance and there is continued immorality, you are saying that Jesus said - the Bible says - that is an exception, that’s one time it is okay to get a divorce. Still not the number one choice but it is okay.
Ann: But even what you said—I think this is interesting of how people ask me this—you are saying, if they remarry, if your spouse has chested, and if now you have grounds for divorce, so if you remarry, that will not be considered adultery.
WAYNE GRUDEM: Correct.
Ann: Now there are other people that do not have those grounds for divorce; they get remarried, are you saying they are committing adultery?
WAYNE GRUDEM: I think, yes. That’s what Jesus says.
Dave: Dr. Grudem is not saying that. [Laughter] That’s what Jesus said.
WAYNE GRUDEM: That’s what Jesus said, yes. I would say Ann, that though the second marriage began with adultery continuing in it is not continuing in adultery, because Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife except for sexual immorality and marries another….” That is a marriage, and it would be further wrong to dissolve that and go back to a different situation.
I would say to any listeners who have been wrongly divorced and then married someone else, God’s purpose for you now is to make your present marriage a good one. Remain in that marriage and make it a good marriage.
Ann: I would say the same thing. We say at the Weekend to Remember marriage conferences “The marriage you are in right now is the one you need to focus on,” because I have had people say, “Should I divorce this person and go back to my original spouse?” We would say, “No, this is the marriage where you put your great effort and hope in.”
Dave: In some ways, it is freedom to say, “Put away the guilt; live free in Christ now and make this marriage the best marriage it can be. Learn from the past and make the present and the future the best.”
WAYNE GRUDEM: Right. When I speak to groups about divorce and remarriage, I start out, “Whatever your background, whatever history you come with, you are married right now to the right person.”
Ann: That’s good.
WAYNE GRUDEM: The person you are married to now is the right person. That’s the person God wants you to stay married to.
Dave: I’m sure some people walk out free because they have carried that for maybe decades.
Now here is another question. I know that there are other cases, and I’m familiar with your writing even as you go to 1 Corinthians 7:15 where Paul says, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so in such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” I’ve read that the phrase “in such cases” has some new meaning to you. What other cases might be legitimate grounds?
WAYNE GRUDEM: Now, Dave, this is original thinking that I don’t think has ever been published anywhere before, because modern computer word search abilities now lets us search, not just individual words that are making up a concordance, but on whole phrases in ancient Greek literature.
I got to thinking about this verse. Paul says, “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so, in such cases the believing brother or sister is not enslaved. 1 Corinthians 7:15. I began looking at that phrase, “In such cases,” and the Greek is en tois toioutois. That’s a three-word phrase. I thought, “I wonder what that means.”
I was able to chase down about 50 examples of it. It doesn’t occur elsewhere in the Greek New Testament or the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. But it does occur in other Greek literature outside the Bible. I found that it can have a broad meaning that we would translate something like, “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so, let him separate. In cases similar to this, the believing brother or sister is not enslaved.”
The question is “In cases like what?” I found a number of examples where the cases don’t have to be the same, they just have to be similar in some ways. I hope I can do this on a broadcast, so it is clear. I’m going to quote Jewish writer Philo from writing around the time of the New Testament. He’s telling the story of the plagues in Egypt when the last plague, the tenth plague, came upon the Egyptians, they woke up in the morning and all their first-born sons were dead and all the first born cattle were dead. Philo says, “As so often happens in such cases, they feared that further trouble was to come.”
“As so often happens in such cases,” well could it mean “As so often happens when a nation wakes up and finds all its firstborn sons are dead?” Well, that doesn’t make sense, because that had never happened before in history.
WAYNE GRUDEM: “As so often happens in such cases,” “In such cases” must mean in cases where sudden tragedy strikes; not just when your firstborn sons have died. But where a hurricane has destroyed your crops, or a raiding party has come and destroyed your village or something like that. It’s a case that is similar, but it is not exactly the same. So Paul says, “If an unbelieving spouse leaves, let him leave. In cases like this, the believing brother or sister is not enslaved.” What do you mean, “In cases like this?”
Well, in cases where the marriage is so damaged, it is no longer functioning as a marriage.
That led me to say, “What other cases are there that Paul would have in mind, that would damage a marriage as much as desertion by a spouse or as much as adultery?” Then I think we could think of some cases which are tragic situations where marriage is horribly damaged and there seems to be no human hope for repair of the marriage. Significant, serious physical abuse. Repeated physical abuse would fall into that category. That was a help to me, Dave and Ann, because for years I had taught the general position of Protestant churches since the reformation. That is there are only two reasons for divorce, adultery, the physical act of adultery, and desertion by an unbeliever from 1 Corinthians 7:15.
Then I said, “In the cases of abuse, the church should do everything it can to stop the abuse; it’s not a ground for divorce.” But now I’m willing to say because of 1 Corinthians 7:15, divorce in the case of physical abuse that has continued over time and is threatening to continue into the future, in some cases anyway, is grounds for divorce - it is legitimate. It is in similar case as the damage of marriage as much as desertion. Does that make any sense?
Dave: Oh yes.
Ann: Totally makes senses, and you are right. I think that’s a relief to certain people. As we think about it, “How could God want me to stay in that marriage when this husband continues to beat me?” And you are saying that kind of circumstance would be “In such cases” - it would fall in line with that.
WAYNE GRUDEM: Exactly.
Dave: I know as a preacher over 30 years, often I would visit the topic of forgiveness. So I would be preaching on forgiveness and a spouse would come up after—I’m sure, Wayne, you have had the same thing—and say, “You are saying I’m commanded by God to forgive. I’m in a marriage where my husband…” and it could go the other way, “I’m getting physically beat. What I heard was stay there and just forgive him.”
I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, wait.” I learned early as a preacher 30 something years ago, every time I talk about forgiveness, I always footnote it, “By the way, I’m not saying ‘If you are in a marriage where you are getting beat, you are supposed to just forgive this man.’ You are called to forgive him, but you are also called to get safe first.”
Hopefully God can restore that marriage, but He might not be able to. You are actually saying “In such cases” means this may not be a marriage that can be sustained, especially if her or she will not repent and stop the abuse, you have grounds for divorce, right?
WAYNE GRUDEM: Right. May I give one more example from ancient Greek literature?
Dave: Do it.
WAYNE GRUDEM: Lysius was a Greek orator; lived 459-380 BC approximately. He tells about a man named Phrynichus. Phrynichus had to pay a fine to the treasury. But the writer here says “When Phrynichus had to pay a fine to the treasury, my father did not bring in his contribution of money. It is in such cases that we see the best proof of a man’s friends.”
I think it means, when you suddenly need money; not just when somebody - when a friend has to pay a sudden fine to the treasury. That’s too narrow. It’s in cases like this where you have a sudden need of money that you find out who your friends really are.
In all the literature we could find, all the commentaries on 1 Corinthians 7, we could find in our seminary library—
Dave: Which is an extensive library. [Laughter]
WAYNE GRUDEM: —we couldn’t find—my research assistant and myself couldn’t find anybody who had ever argued that from 1 Corinthians before. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the ability to search whole phrases in Greek was made possible by a Greek language database of 50 million or 60 million words at the University of California, Irvine. You can get online access to that database now and search for phrases.
That gives me peace that I’m not being unfaithful to Scripture in saying there are other situations that are similarly damaging to marriage that really provide legitimate grounds for divorce.
Shelby: You are listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Wayne Grudem on FamilyLife Today.
Wayne’s book is called, What the Bible Says about Divorce and Remarriage. You can get your copy on FamilyLifeToday.com. Just click on “Today’s Resources” or you can call 800-358-6329. That’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You might have heard this today and thought, “What about me; that doesn’t apply to me. What would Wayne Grudem’s say in your situation. Start packing your bags now?”
Well, wait, because tomorrow on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson will be back in the studio with Wayne Grudem, as he dives into multiple situations and gives insight into what might be best for you. That’s tomorrow. We hope you will join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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