Evangelicals have never been monolithic in their views about divorce. Some believe that the Bible disallows divorce altogether. Others believe that the Bible allows for divorce in certain situations (see Matt. 19 and 1 Cor. 7). There is no one view on divorce that has commanded the consensus of evangelicals. My view is the latter, and I suspect that it is the view held by the majority of evangelicals (though certainly not all).
The reason that so many of us hold the latter view is because of what Jesus and the apostle Paul say about the matter. Obviously, the accent in both Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching is that divorce is generally prohibited because of the nature of the marital covenant: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6). Yet in the very same passage, Jesus also says this:
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt. 19:9).
Some readers believe that Jesus addresses the breaking up of an engagement, not the breaking up of a marriage. I think this view is mistaken. The context is a discussion about Moses’ divorce law from Deuteronomy 24:1, and there is no question that Moses’ provision dealt with the severing of a marriage union. Jesus therefore instructs us that divorce is prohibited except in cases in which one spouse has committed sexual immorality against another.
The apostle Paul affirms Jesus’ general prohibition on divorce but then adds one other exception:
10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away… 15 Yet if the unbelieving [spouse] leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace (1 Cor. 7:10-15).
If the unbelieving spouse deserts the marriage, then the believing spouse is no longer bound to the marriage. And this is where Paul makes a substantive addition to our understanding of permissible divorce. Jesus says it is permissible in cases of sexual immorality. Now Paul is adding that it is permissible in cases where one spouse deserts the other.
Taken together, Jesus and Paul teach that divorce is generally not an option for believers. The only exceptions that they allow are in cases of immorality or desertion. Neither Jesus nor Paul say that a person must be divorced if there is infidelity or desertion. They are simply saying that it can be permissible in those two situations.
But that leaves us with the question of physical abuse. What does the Bible say about divorce when one spouse is being physically abusive to the other? This is a common question that people have because abuse appears not to be listed as one of the exceptions when divorce is allowed. But I think this is a misreading of the biblical material.
In my 2013 book on sexual ethics, I argue that “abused spouses should separate from abusive situations in order to protect themselves and their children” (What Is the Meaning of Sex, p. 135). That separation is a necessity for the safety and welfare of the family. An abusive spouse has made choices that force a separation, and the abuse therefore can become tantamount to desertion. That is why I conclude that when the abuser “leaves” the marriage in this way, the “exception for desertion comes into play (1 Cor. 7:15). In any case, the victim must be protected and the abuser sanctioned” (What Is the Meaning of Sex, p. 135).
When it comes to abuse, one’s view of divorce is not the immediate issue. Those who hold the 2-exceptions view and those who hold the “no divorce ever” view must agree on this: No matter what one’s view on divorce is, all faithful Christians must be absolutely clear that physical abuse is a sin and a crime. Faithfulness to Christ means confronting abusers and protecting the abused—which will include removing the abused from the presence of the abuser and reporting the abuse to civil authorities.
*For more on the subject of abuse, see CBMW’s “Statement on Abuse.” For more on divorce and remarriage, see my discussion in What Is the Meaning of Sex, pp. 122-36. Several weeks ago, I delivered a sermon on the divorce question, which you can download here or listen to below.