A Response to Wayne Grudem’s Shifting Doctrinal Stance on Marriage and Divorce

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In the wake of the #metoo/#churchtoo movement and subsequent conference put on by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, well-known conservative evangelical scholar Wayne Grudem has changed his position on divorce.

In his voluminous project, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, published just one year ago, Grudem argues, rightly I believe, that there are only two legitimate grounds for divorce: sexual immorality and unbeliever divorce. Even regarding those who want to argue for physical abuse as grounds for divorce, Grudem writes, “My reluctance in this matter stems in large measure from the strong wording in Jesus’ teaching, in which he seems so clearly to be excluding other grounds for divorce.” I think Grudem was right in his views on divorce last year. Unfortunately, the story does not end there.

Grudem now argues that a tiny Greek expression, a prepositional phrase found only one time in the NT, should serve as the basis for completely turning the traditional Christian view of divorce upside down on its head.

The expression, ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις located in 1 Cor. 7:15, and translated “in such cases,” says Grudem, seems to imply that Paul was saying that divorce is permitted by other actions that similarly destroy the marriage and hence serve as legitimate grounds for divorce. Is this really what Paul was saying?

Grudem’s investigation apparently reveals that this expression is used 52 times in ancient Greek authors. Grudem’s study concludes that it refers to many more types of situations than the original case under discussion. This indicates that Grudem knows that Paul is referring to a particular case, what he calls the original case, the case that was inspired by the Holy Spirit. And this is not an insignificant point.

What should NOT be overlooked in this case is that the divorce is being initiated by an unbeliever. Not by a believer. Unbelievers are going to engage in illicit divorce and in many cases such as this, there is nothing believers can do about it. The believer in this scenario is NOT divorcing an unbeliever because they left. The unbeliever enacted divorce in their leaving. In other words, the Corinthian church would have understood the idea of leaving or separating as actual divorce in their way of thinking.

In his analysis on the use of this expression in Ancient Greek, Grudem points to authors like Philo, Euripides, Diodorus Siculus, Lysias, and Sophocles as men who used this expression, ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις, in a similar fashion to Paul, but with a more nuanced meaning.

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For example, Philo used it to refer to the mindset of the Egyptians who had discovered their firstborn sons and cattle had been killed: “in such cases” they thought their present condition was but the beginning of something worse. Grudem argues “in such cases” refers to all “kinds” of tragic events, not just this specific kind. Well, that seems pretty easy to conclude given that contextually, that is clearly what Philo meant to communicate.

Moving on to Euripides, Grudem points to “The Trojan Woman” where the free (people) are about to be taken captive and carried away to Argos. Rather than lose their freedom, they set themselves on fire longing for death. “Truly the free bear their troubles “in cases like this,” with a stiff neck. Grudem points out that this refers to all types of cases where freedom is threatened. Again, the context clearly tells us that the point is losing one’s freedom and how that happens exactly, does not matter.

The rest of the cases Grudem references are similar. You can read his article here:

When it comes to interpreting any writing, context is king. Anyone who has read a basic text on interpretation knows this. And there is no doubt that anyone who has been seminary trained knows this. And for sure, Wayne Grudem knows it.

Why do I believe Grudem is wrong in his understanding of Paul in 1 Cor. 7:15? To restate Grudem’s conclusion: there are now more than two biblical grounds for divorce in the New Testament. And this conclusion is reached because of three Greek words that form a prepositional phrase that was used in a particular way outside the biblical text.

For starters, if one reads Grudem’s paper, what he is actually after is making abuse grounds for divorce. Since he thinks this expression means “any case that destroys the marriage” now serves as grounds for divorce, he is looking at abandonment as only one example or scenario among many as destructive of the marriage. Abuse is also destructive of the marriage and therefore Paul would permit it. This seems to be the thrust of Grudem’s argument. From my point of view, the argument seems quite weak for a few reasons.

First, Paul is addressing believers who are married to unbelievers. In this case, the unbeliever divorces the believer. They don’t just engage in behavior or actions that is destructive of the marriage. And the “in such cases” refers to all cases where an unbeliever divorces a believer. We must ask the tough question, where does this principle of “actions that are destructive” to the marriage come from? Grudem was very critical of the concept of others known as breaking the marriage covenant:

The argument that physical abuse breaks the marriage covenant introduces a new category into the discussion, the category of breaking a covenant. But neither Jesus nor Paul used that category in teaching about divorce, so I don’t think it is legitimate to affirm that “breaking the marriage covenant” is a biblical standard to use in deciding when divorce is legitimate, and then begin to list various kinds of sin that might fall in this broad category. [Grudem, Christian Ethics, pg. 817]

Now, Grudem is using different words to describe a principle that is essentially identical to “breaking the marriage covenant.” If Jesus and Paul would have been unfamiliar with the covenant-breaking language, they would have similarly been unacquainted with the principle of “actions that are destructive” of the marriage. This is a distinction without a difference. Not only does such a principle never appear in the text, giving it the appearance of a rescue device, but it also introduces an unavoidable arbitrary standard. Who will define for us what meets the definition of actions that are destructive of the marriage versus actions that are not? This is no small problem.

Paul is not giving believers permission to obtain a divorce if they think their spouse is abusive. That is not what is going on in vv. 12-16. Paul is addressing Christians who have unbelieving spouses. The broader context of this chapter indicates that there is much more going on in Corinth than just divorce. There is an apparent attitude among some if the believers at this ancient church that since they are new creatures in Christ, they must change everything about themselves. Change what you can change. If you are a slave, rebel, run away, stop being a slave. If you are a Jew, stop being a Jew. If you are married, stop being married. This reflects a very ascetic mindset and it is creating a serious problem for sound Christian thinking. Paul is correcting this issue. And divorce is only one among several problems it is creating in Corinth.

Even if we take Grudem’s argument as valid, and I do not, it still leaves us with unsolvable arbitrary criteria as what is now grounds for divorce. For starters, we have to fine abuse? What standard shall we employ? Do we dare embrace contemporary culture’s definition of it? Does feminism have the inherent right to define abuse? If so, the idea of male-only leadership, also known as biblical patriarchy is ipso facto abusive. Forgetting a birthday or anniversary is neglect and therefore, abuse. Never sending flowers turns out to be abusive. Watching too much football is also abusive. Working too many hours is abusive. This opens up a number of issues that are far beyond the scope of this response to solve. Grudem doesn’t tackle them either.

Second, even if Grudem’s analysis of this prepositional phrase were correct, one still would not have to arrive at the same conclusion. For instance, I could read Grudem’s work on this prepositional phrase and conclude that “in such cases” means that it applies to all cases of unbelievers leaving believers, to include men who leave as well as women who leave and I could conclude that it applies to every reason an unbeliever might give for leaving. In other words, just as the Egyptian example applied to the broad category of “disaster” with the 10th plague being the specific example, I can conclude that unbeliever divorce is the broad category with the finite number of reasons given being analogous to the 10th plague. I could even say, in such cases (divorce), with unbeliever abandonment being the more specific example. If we understood the preposition phrase in this last way, we would say that natural disaster is to the Egyptians what divorce is to Paul while the 10th plague would be analogous to unbelievers divorcing believers.

Third, the point Paul seems to be making is that a Christian is free to re-marry in such cases because they are no longer under bondage to that covenant. It has been discarded by the unbeliever. We see this parallel freedom mentioned down in vv. 39-40. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if he dies, she is free to marry, but only in the Lord. The bondage mentioned in v. 15 is not bondage to the marriage. There is no marriage since the unbeliever has divorced the believer. The bondage then must be related to the idea of being bound to a life of singleness. When that gift is not present in the person’s life and through no fault of their own, they find themselves single without the ability to live the single life. That would not be considered being called to peace.

Fourth, another reason Grudem is wrong is that Paul’s instructions to the married could not be any clearer. He restates Jesus’ view on marriage in vv. 10-11. The wife must not divorce her husband and the husband must not divorce the wife. If the wife leaves, she must remain unmarried. These instructions would be perceived as outrageous for the women, placing her in a position where she would likely not be able to support herself. It would be a death sentence or at best, a sentence to prostitution or daily begging which would likely be met with shock and dismay by those living in this culture. Paul was saying to Christian women who were apparently thinking they should abandon their marriage because of this new life in Christ to stop this practice immediately. They can’t remarry and they won’t get support from the church.

Fifth, another reason I disagree with Grudem is that Paul clearly tells Christian husbands and wives that they must not divorce their unbelieving spouses if that spouse is content to dwell with him/her. This could not be clearer. The word consent is suneudokeo. It means to join in approval, agree with, approve of, consent to, sympathize with. Do not put the unbelieving spouse away if, after speaking with him or her, they agree that they want you to remain in the marriage.

1 Cor. 7:15, in context, is saying that in all circumstances where an unbelieving spouse leaves his or her believing spouse, be it male or female, and be it for any number of possible reasons, the believer is not bound in such circumstances and is free to remarry, the marriage having been terminated by the unbeliever.

Grudem writes the following, “This reasoning also explains why Paul felt the freedom to add desertion as another ground for divorce in addition to adultery, which Jesus had specified. In both cases, the marriage has been very substantially, or even fatally, harmed.” This seems to be the crux of the problem. Paul would not have seen abandonment as an intermediate step between the spouse leaving and the other spouse enacting a divorce. Paul would have seen abandonment and divorce as one and the same act. The couple have divorced and are no longer married. The freedom from bondage cannot mean they are free to divorce. It means they are free to marry since they are divorced already and that such divorce is legitimate in God’s eyes.

Sixth, Grudem argues that the use of the plural means that Paul intended to open up additional grounds for divorce. But is this actually the case? The antecedent of ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις is τὶς up in v.12. Paul says if any brother or sister has an unbelieving spouse who is content to dwell with them, they must NOT put that person away. This indefinite pronoun is inherently plural. It refers to a category of people: believers with unbelieving spouses. The indefinite pronoun is clearly implied in 7:15 where the category is now believing spouses who are being divorced by unbelieving spouses. This category is also plural: there is more than one case where a believing spouse is being divorced by an unbelieving spouse. This is the best explanation for why Paul employs ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις rather than ἐν τούτῳ.

It is more than a little interesting that the thrust of Grudem’s new position aligns perfectly with the backlash the church experienced not so long ago from the evangelical #MeToo movement. Women in the churches today contend that it is outrageous that they should have to remain in marriages that are abusive in any way whatsoever. Grudem expands the grounds for divorce not just to physical abuse which would garner a lot of sympathy from me even though I disagree with this position. But that isn’t enough. Grudem pushes his new grounds for divorce to all forms of abuse, to include emotional and verbal abuse and even relational cruelty that destroys the spouse’s mental and emotional stability. He also adds drug or alcohol addiction accompanied by regular lies, deceptions, thefts, or violence, gambling addiction, pornography, etc.

If one were to carefully examine Grudem’s new grounds for divorce, a believing spouse would be free to divorce an unbelieving spouse for a host of actions that most or at least many unbelieving spouses engage in as a matter of just being an unbeliever. For example, unbelieving men are routinely engaged in pornography. If a Christian woman has the right to divorce her spouse for this, it would mean that the overwhelming majority of Christian women could leave the marriage. Psychology Today recently released a report that claims that 73% of women and 98% of men viewed porn in the last six months. If Grudem’s position is adopted by the church, it basically renders Paul’s commands in 1 Cor. 7:12-14 meaningless. And that is not an exaggeration.

There is nothing in 1 Cor. 7:15 that grants the Christian a right to divorce the unbeliever apart from Jesus’ teaching on sexual immorality. There are two categories: believers married to believers and believers married to unbelievers. Χωρίζω, chorizo is the word translated leave in the NASB. It is used in Jesus’ divorce teachings in Matt. 19:6 and Mark 10:9.

It seems to me that Grudem is employing personal experience to inform his exegeses on this text and perhaps to unduly influence his research. Grudem writes,

B. But during 2018-2019, I had an increasing conviction of the need for re-examination of divorce for self-protection from abuse

1. My awareness of several horrible real-life situations, and thinking, “This cannot be the kind of life that God intends for his children when there is an alternative available.”

Examples:

  • arguments, disagreement repeated rape
  • battered – no help when abused spouse went to the pastor
  • repeated threats of physical harm or even murder

One has to wonder where this “increasing conviction” about the source of this conviction. I am reminded of the infamous proverb, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” This increase in conviction parallels the evangelical and especially the SBC adoption and acceleration of #MeToo and the push for female leadership and a rise in vitriolic language against biblical patriarchy. Of course, this is speculation on my part, but I do not think it is without merit. I highly respect Wayne Grudem and will forever be grateful for his numerous contributions to Christian scholarship. That said, none of us are immune to cultural influences. We must always ask the hard questions about issues like. Have I changed my view because it has become increasingly unpopular in the culture to hold to biblical patriarchy? Or, have I changed my view because of some evidence in the text that I had previously overlooked?

It seems to me that Grudem went looking to find a way to justify his new view rather than allowing the evidence and the context of Paul’s instructions in this passage to speak for itself. Did someone convince Grudem that, for the sake of credibility, the church must create a position that is in keeping with the values of our pagan culture and its feminist interpretations of Scripture? Only he can answer that question. But the little prepositional phrase that no one else thought to examine seems to be a rescuing device without a line attached. As it turns out, no one else has made much of this prepositional phrase because when context guides one’s interpretation, there isn’t anything there worthy of making much of, to begin with.

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