Wayne Grudem Rethinks Biblical Grounds for Divorce

"At last week’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Grudem gave a talk titled 'Grounds for Divorce: Why I Now Believe There Are More Than Two.' In it, he cited biblical exegesis plus real-life examples for his revised position." - Church Leaders

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Bert Perry's picture

The big thing hanging out there, as far as I can tell, is the simple question of what the church's involvement ought to be.  Matthew 18:15-19 is not even mentioned in this white paper, and that's troubling.  Grudem's point here is to argue that the case of "abuse" ought to be cause for action by believers, but where is the Church in all this?

Now granted, too many churches have made a hash of church discipline, so I can understand why one would want to dodge this process, or quite frankly why Grudem would not address it much, but....

It is also granted that a lot of churches have implicitly honored Grudem's argument simply by refusing to administer church discipline to those who divorce for reasons other than adultery or desertion.  Really, they've gone a lot further.  Again, Matthew 18.

My position; if churches were able to fairly and honorably administer Matthew 18 church discipline and would help victims of spousal abuse to separate for a time with restoration and repentance in mind, they'd (OK, DUH) find some perpetrators repent, and others would move on and abandon their spouses.  So at least in my mind, it's an incredibly important principle to remember and honor.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture


These ETS papers are always tightly focused. The topic of "divorce and church discipline" would be a great topic, though, yes.

It's never been entirely clear to me that Matthew 18 is about the church, though the principle of wise escalation described there certainly makes sense in many contexts. (It's noteworthy that there is no mention of private confrontation in 1 Cor. 5, and that all the "you" pronouns in Matt.18:15-17 are singular, but change to plural in 18-20. Admittedly, interpreting the passages as being about personal offenses makes the "binding" authority that comes up in Matt 18:18-20 an abrupt transition. But abrupt transitions do exist in the gospels.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

Well, you've got Matthew 18, and you've got 1 Corinthians telling the church to try to solve her own problems, too.  For that matter, when we talk about "desertion", we have an implicit question "why did one partner desert the other?"  Sometimes it's as simple as "can't  bear the burden", and at other times, I'd guess it's because one partner doesn't want to deal with the consequences of his (her) sin and runs because it's the easier way out.

Implicitly, what that means is that in practice, there are any number of reasons for divorce that churches are honoring--what is missing, really, is meaningful church participation and counseling in the process.  Grudem's doing a nice bit on why the church ought not tolerate domestic abuse, and that's appreciated, but he's missing the elephant in the room IMO.

Regarding the change in pronoun, that simply seems natural to me; there is a certain point in church discipline where it becomes a public issue.  First He talks to the aggrieved, then He talks to the Church with her responsibility.  The form of "you" ought to follow that and move to "y'all". 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Mark_Smith's picture

only works in the framework where the leadership of the church, and the people that attend it, love one another, disciple one another, and care for one another. They genuinely exist to serve each other. 

That is not most churches.

Most leadership do not have the vision for this, or they are too busy, strapped, or challenged by ridiculous opposition in the church. Most people are not looking to others to help them grow. They are there to feel better. If that ever stops, they are gone.

So, trying to address divorce as church discipline is practically impossible in most churches.

TylerR's picture


You are right. One also has to reckon with the more nuanced (which, in this case, is not code for "revisionist") understandings of the circumstances for valid divorce. Andy Naselli has an outstanding article on this in the latest Detroit Seminary journal.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

....with Mark's point that churches are dropping the ball on church discipline.  The key, though, as far as I can tell--and this has a lot to do with Grudem's claim that he can't strictly see abuse as abandonment and therefore worthy of divorce--is that the permission for divorce with abandonment in 1 Cor. 7 presumes that the leaving spouse be outside of the faith--and then the wife is called to let him (husband, her) go in peace.

Now take a close look at Matthew 18--it notes clearly that the last stage is to treat them as if they were a pagan or tax collector.  In other words, outside of the faith.  So if you get "intolerable sin A", be it adultery, physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial profligacy, or whatever, at the end of the process (if it gets there), you will eventually be deciding that the person is outside the faith.  Hence that person can leave without the further censure of the church, and the person being left is called to let him leave.

Sticking point is that as far as I can tell, the words for "separate" and "divorce" are used somewhat interchangeably in Scripture, so it's a bit harder to argue that separation short of a legal decree is a good option.  The counter-argument is that there are examples (Moses and his mother, the Hebrew midwives, Abigail disobeying her husband to save her household, etc..) where it seems to be permissible and even God-honoring to choose a lesser evil over a greater one.  So choosing separation over, say, murder or even financial ruin does seem to be acceptable--and it's a distinction that's been recognized in the law for centuries.  For example, "married filing separately" on your 1040s. 

That noted--and H/T again to Mark--it requires that if the church wants to have her say, she's got to start interacting with hurting people in a way she doesn't do so often today, not to mention actually providing assistance where that is warranted.

Edit: here's Naselli's article.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert, I don't know that Mark's ".... point [is] that churches are dropping the ball on church discipline."  Of course, he must speak to what he meant.

But I understood his point to mean that churches today are not the tightly-knit community they were in the first century.  IMO, this is why church discipline does not carry the clout it once did.  If you are part of a small church (with no other competing churches in the area) and have been ostracized from the main of society and concerned about persecution -- and, if perhaps your family has ostracized you because of your faith -- and you depend upon the church as your social network, family, and support group. then that church is your life.  In such a context, loving discipline can be quite effective.  But I have known of no churches like that in my neck of the woods.  Thus, discipline becomes token. A disciplined person was not that attached to the church anyhow, and with consumer Christianity the norm, that person can easily find some sort of church -- if it matters to them.

I've heard stories about how discipline is like a magic wand and brought people to repentance, etc. I am not saying this never, ever happens. IMO, very rarely.

I have seen and experienced how sometimes an initial confrontation can have results that way, but not when discipline goes as far as removal.  People have usually removed themselves from church attendance before it gets to that point anyway.

I don't know if this is what Mark was saying, but it is how I understood him.  God may require it, but discipline is not he magic charm I see presented.



"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

....that church discipline, especially as currently practiced, is not  (oops) a "silver bullet" for fixing these things.  Rather, it's more that church discipline as described in Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians, and elsewhere seems to me to be a key to understanding what the bounds to acceptable reasons for divorce would be; more or less, if the church decides "it's a sin we cannot abide", and the sinner says "it's a sin I must have and I'm walking away from my spouse to enjoy it", you have qualifications for divorce.  Really, that's why abandonment is such a sin, no?

Now if churches learned to do training/chastisement well, my guess is that things would be a lot better than currently--Mark again gives a great picture of what it ought to look like--but the notion that it's a cure-all is not my point.  It's that the process of church discipline seems to indicate what kinds of sins ought to be actionable this way.  I agree also that persecution, the centrality of the church, and the like, will affect how effective this is in helping believers resolve their issues.  

(and I'd argue that if people listen to Mark-yes broken record alert on my part--the church would recover at least some of its centrality in peoples' lives)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert, I apparently misread you.  Sorry about that. Your comments are appreciated, and I concur with them.

There are people who think you practice church discipline for ANY sin.  I, along with you, believe that certain sins are singled out.

Interestingly, in I Cor. 7, Paul says, "If she does leave, let her remain unmarried," (I Corinthians 7:11)  and not, "let the church discipline her."   That, in itself, suggests a number of open-ended reasons for divorce, but apparently without the option of remarrying.  Incidentally, this has to be divorce becasue she is to remain "unmarried," thus divorce does break a marriage.

If I read Grudem right, he does not seem to recognize situaitons where divorce is allowed but remarriage is not an option.  Did I read him rightly?

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

I think Grudem simply didn't address the issue of remarriage--I did a quick search (far more reliable than my reading comprehension, ha!) for "remarriage" and it returns bupkus.  Now if you suggested--as I think you might--that the plausibility of remarriage might have an impact in counseling or discipline (training/chastisement) actions, I would agree with you.   Could be Aaron's hypothesis of "narrowly defined topics", or alternatively we might wonder whether it's the peril of doing theology outside the context of ministry, "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" and all that.

Either that, or the last section for "objections" may implicitly assume the propriety of remarriage in a lot of these cases--and my pondering of whether it's simply a narrowly defined topic or peril of doing theology outside the context of ministry would hold, again.

To the topic of remarriage, I guess you could read verses 10-11 as directed to marriages between believers, and then 12 and on would be "mixed" believer/unbeliever marriages, and that would seem to proscribe remarriage except in the case of the death of a spouse for believers.  But then, again, what if in the Matthew 18 process, it's determined that the "believing" spouse is in fact an unbeliever and he hits the road?  

Culturally, I'm guessing wives in the Pauline era put up with a lot that women today generally don't put up with because the alternative was extreme poverty--I'd guess most men wouldn't want stepchildren, and (important to older women) they did want heirs to support them in their old age.  And so that would factor in, too. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert, you mentioned children of divorce.  I have done a bit of work of the Jewish backgrounds for divorce.  But I have yet to come across information that talks about "what happens to the kids?"

Judges were very much involved with divorce.  A woman could not divorce a man in Judaism, technically. But she could go to court and the judge could order the husband to divorce his wife.

But I would like to see some information on how they settled with the kids.  In my mind, they are the most victimized by broken families.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

My parents are divorced, and I would hae to guess that the traditional "wife gets the kids" is about the way it's worked for centuries.  Might be wrong, but that's my hunch.

Regarding the effects, of course everyone processes it differently, but when Mom & Dad can't get along, it leaves a mark on how the kids approach the opposite sex.  For me, I didn't date well for a long time (over a decade) afterwards.  My brother dated better than did I, but fell away from the faith and into promiscuity.  I started dating better (and then got married) after watching how my stepdad treated my mom.  My dad hadn't given me bad advice, but the reasons for my parents' breakup made me not really take it.

Would it have been better if they'd "stayed together for the sake of the kids"?  Sans repentance, no.  Lots of things change when a husband beats his wife, and those who have been around it can often spot the results a mile away.  My guess for myself is that I would have still ignored my dad's advice, but wouldn't have gotten to know my stepdad like I have.

Again, key issue for the church, IMO, is "are you teaching, discipling, and correcting those in your midst to the best of your ability?"  And that, again, has a TON to do with what Mark noted in his first comment.  A lot of churches are effectively run like a factory where "defective parts" (people with problems) are put in the NMR bin and returned to the vendor, if you catch my drift.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.