Divorce for Desertion or Abuse?
Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such [cases] but God has called us to peace (1Corinthians 7.15).
According to this view the phrase ‘not under bondage’ or ‘not bound’ in this verse means the believing partner is no longer obligated to the marriage and free to remarry should they be deserted by an unbelieving spouse. Yet Paul does not say the believer is free to remarry. He simply says the believer is not obligated to remain with the unbeliever if they leave –“let him leave”. To say “not bound” or “not under bondage” means “not bound to the marriage and free to remarry” is an assumption. And an assumption in this case is effectively adding to God’s word. Furthermore, the Greek word Paul uses here for ‘bound’ or ‘bondage’ (douloo) is not the same word he uses for the bond of marriage (deo) in Romans 7.2 and 1 Corinthians 7.39.
There are other problems with the desertion exception view. First, it goes against the one exception Jesus taught and contradicts what Paul had previously stated that a man must not divorce his wife and a wife is not to leave her husband or if she does, remain unmarried (v 10-11). Secondly, it makes a distinction which God has not made: that a marriage to an unbeliever is broken by desertion while a marriage to a believer is not. God says a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives – not just as long as he lives with her (Romans 7.2 and 1 Corinthians 7.39). Paul’s teaching is therefore not an addition to Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce.
Husbands are called by God to love, cherish and honour their wives. A husband who abuses his wife for whatever reason is committing a gross sin. A wife in such situations should not be expected to put up with abuse through misguided counsel to submit and forgive, for she has a God-given responsibility to care for her own body and mind (and that of her children). A wife should not willingly submit to what is clearly sinful.
This is what I believe should be the scriptural course of action (based on Matthew 18:15-17; James 5:19-20):
1. Confront her husband with his sin, speaking the truth in love. Such a man is in danger of hell (Matthew 5:30) and needs to know the fear of God. This will not be easy, but it needs to be done.
2. If she cannot or he fails to acknowledge his sin and repent then get mature men in the church to speak to the husband, calling him without compromise to repent. If he still does not repent the church members should be informed and he be disciplined according to Scripture (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 1 Timothy 5:20). If a church won’t do this and care for the abused wife they are sinning against God too.
3. If there is still no repentance then the wife’s only recourse may be to separate from her husband. Yet she must remain unmarried, that is, in such situations there can be no remarriage (to another man) (1 Corinthians 7:11). Her church members should be prepared to provide such a wife with accommodation and loving support.
In recent times another teaching has appeared which says that abuse is constructive desertion. That is, because the husband is abusing his wife he has negated his responsibility to love and care for her and so, in effect, has deserted her. It is true the husband has negated his responsibility to his wife but it is a distortion of the truth and scripture to equate it with desertion. They are two separate sins and should not be confused. In either case, as explained previously, there may be circumstances where separation is warranted, but not remarriage.
In arguing for a right to divorce and remarry are we neglecting our responsibility to love and be faithful to our spouse before God? (See Part 1 – The Best Way.)