Is Abuse An Acceptable Reason For Divorce?

by Jack Wellman · Print Print · Email Email

What does the Bible say is grounds for divorce? Is it only for adultery? Or is physical abuse or a spouse leaving also grounds for divorce?

Unequally Yoked

The Bible warns us to not be joined in close, intimate relationships with those in the world, and especially to marry an unbeliever. This is not a gray area…it is clearly black and white. The Apostle Paul says, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness” (2 Cor 6:14), and “What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever” (2 Cor 6:15)? Bad company will eventually corrupt us (1 Cor 15:33), and even in the Old Testament, it was written that we are to “go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you” (2 Cor 6:17). The Patriarchs made sure that their sons always married within the family because foreign wives would introduce them to idolatrous practices (Gen 24, 27, 34:8-9; Joshua 22:12), so just as it was in the past, so it is in our day; marrying an unbeliever could lead a believer into practices that they know are sinful, and this intermarriage can lead to disastrous consequences (1 Kings 11, 16).

What Does The Bible Say About Adultery?

“Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28).


What does the Bible say is grounds for divorce? Is it only for adultery? Is physical abuse grounds for divorce? What about a spouse leaving? Obviously, adultery, and particularly ongoing, unrepentant adultery is biblical grounds for divorce. The injured person can remarry, as long as it’s another Christian. In the Old Testament, adultery brought the death penalty, so you can see how seriously God takes this. Today it can bring ruin to family relationships, and children often suffer the most. After Jesus quoted the Old Testament commandment about adultery, He took it even further, saying “that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). In other words, if we had the chance, and we were lusting after someone in our hearts, we’d do it…if we could only get away with it, but that is what Jesus sees as adultery. Adultery starts in the heart long before it shows up in the flesh. And remarrying an adulterer is also sin. Jesus said “that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt 5:32). We are not allowed to divorce anyone except for adultery, but we are free to remarry if we’ve been the victim of an adulterous affair and broken marriage, however, the person who committed adultery must not remarry, otherwise, the person they marry has also committed this sin. Many times, the adulterer has lied to their spouse, so it was unknown to them. In such cases, I don’t believe they’ll be held responsible for it, but Jesus is clear on this point: “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt 19:18). Naturally, the death of the spouse frees the living spouse to remarry.


We already know from Scripture that ongoing, repeated, impenitent sexual immorality against an innocent spouse allows that spouse to rightfully seek a divorce. That person is free to remarry, but what happens when violence occurs? What if the spouse abuses their mate? Are they expected to stay married since their abuser didn’t commit adultery? No! They must leave that home, and particularly if there are children involved. The abuser must be reported to the local police so that a police report will already be on file in anything further happens. Abusers must be turned into law enforcement authorities. That is a biblical command (Rom 13:1-5). When professing believers have actually proven themselves an unbeliever through impenitent spousal abuse, many theologians believe a divorce is biblically acceptable in this particular situation.


What Does The Bible Say About Rape and Abortion

Abusers must be turned into law enforcement authorities.

If a person becomes a Christian during their marriage, but their spouse is still an unbeliever, they must continue in that marriage. We are to live in whatever state we were in after conversion (1 Cor 7:17). If we were married, we are to stay married, so “if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him” (1 Cor 7:12-13). There might be incompatibility problems, but that’s not biblical grounds for divorce, but what about abandonment? Doesn’t a person break their marriage vows when they leave their spouse for good? Isn’t that covenantal relationship broken? The Apostle Paul says that “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace” (1 Cor 7: 15). Whether you believe a person is free to remarry if their spouse abandons them or not, but this is a personal decision over which a person should seek good, biblically based Christian counseling on. They should also spend hours and hours in prayer about this, but on the surface, it does appear that Paul gives other grounds for a biblically permissible divorce; that being desertion on the part of an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:10-16), however, that is a decision that only they can make.


What if you’ve been divorced and have remarried? Knowing that this was sin, are you still caught up in guilt? God hates divorce, but God loves and forgives divorced people. My old friend and mentor told me, “You can’t unscramble an egg.” We just need to move on. Divorcing again just to “make things right” is not going to work in most cases. Often it backfires, so it could do more harm than good. The best thing is to have Christ at the center of your marriage. Marriage is good. God is the author of it, so even “though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken,” (Eccl 4:12), especially if that “third cord” is Christ Himself. It is not good for man or woman to be alone; but it’s even worse for a couple to have a marriage without Christ.

Here is some related reading for you: Reasons for Divorce: What Does the Bible Say?

Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Crossway Bibles. (2007). ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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