Updated: Aug 31, 2022
Divorce is a heavy word that brings a lot of disappointment, questions, and pain. While it's not difficult to find solid, biblical guidance for those facing the dissolution of their marriage, we've found it is harder within the context of religious abuse. We've been asked:
"Is religious abuse grounds for divorce? She didn't have an affair."
"I can handle it, but what about our children? I'm raising them to sin."
"Even though my marriage is abusive, am I supposed to stay in hopes that he converts?"
In order to shine more light on this sensitive topic, Naomi sat down with Dr. Craig Blomberg, a distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, author and co-author of dozens of books, and a member of the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version (NIV). Together with their joint expertise on this matter, they provided Biblical wisdom for those in spiritually abusive unions who want to honor the Lord in their next steps.
Naomi: What are the Biblical Grounds for Divorce?
Dr. Blomberg: To err on the side of caution, it's important to preface these remarks by saying God’s desire is always that a marriage be salvaged if there is any way possible.
But, both Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 have in them what has come to be called the exceptional clause. This says that in the case of adultery, (which is marital unfaithfulness in the form of sexual relations, not an emotional affair), divorce is permitted. It’s interesting language that Jesus used here, because in ancient Judaism, divorce was required in the case of the one flesh uniqueness of marriage having been broken. However, Jesus never requires divorce in any situation, but rather gives it as a permission.
The second key passage is in 1 Corinthians 7, which discusses the case of an unbeliever in a marriage. Paul taught on this because at the time of his writing, people who were already married were coming to the Lord. Within that, there was no guarantee that the spouse would also come to the Lord. This scripture says if the unbeliever wants to leave, then divorce is permitted (verse 15); there is no guarantee that the believing partner could stop them anyway. Paul says God is a God of peace, and does not want the endless conflict that that kind of mixed marriage could cause. But, he goes on to say that if the unbeliever wants to stay in the marriage, then that remains the ideal situation.
Those are the texts that one has to wrestle with and decide how to understand and apply them.
Naomi: Breaking it apart a little bit, starting with 2 Corinthians 6:14, I’ve seen people apply this passage in situations where it doesn’t apply. My question for you, Dr. Blomberg, is does this verse in any way apply to an already married couple?
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? - 2 Corinthians 6:14
Dr. Blomberg: I agree when I say I don’t believe this verse applies to an already married couple. The Greek wording there is future-tense, not present-tense. In other words, it’s talking about not entering into a situation of an unyoked relationship. It is also interesting because the passage itself doesn’t say anything about marriage at all– it’s talking about a Christian being linked with that which is idolatrous, in the context of temple worship. Over the history of the Church, we have come to use that expression “unequally yoked” almost as a synonym for a marriage between a Christian and non-believer. And there is no doubt some application there, but it is interesting to study it in its original context and word meaning: two oxen with different strengths working together.
This verse is a much more general statement of being aware of overly close association that requires two individuals doing something jointly to be on the same spiritual page.
Naomi: Reading 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, I think it is important to look at what is being said about the word “sanctified” here, and how one may sanctify the other. In the world of spiritual abuse, these verses can be used as ammunition. Can you clarify its actual meaning in this passage?
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? - 1 Corinthians 7:12-16
Dr. Blomberg: Yes, it is important to know that throughout the Bible, the root meaning of both the Hebrew and Greek words most commonly used for sanctify, or to make holy, or make righteous, basically mean "to set apart." That can be all kinds of different "setting apart." In the temple in ancient Israel, you sanctified the altar and the vessels that were put upon it. That does not mean they were somehow spiritually saved, but rather being set apart for some kind of holy purpose.
Paul does very frequently use the word “sanctified” in the stronger and more spiritual sense of what happens when a person is saved: they are treated as holy from that moment onward, but they also have a responsibility to grow in holiness. But that’s not how the term is being used in this passage in 1 Corinthians.
Here, it’s simply that broader meaning of if there is a Christian spouse, that person has the Spirit of God, and thus can have a good effect on their parter. If the marriage is dissolved, then certainly that positive effect is no longer there for the spouse. But, as you continue to read, the passage ends by saying that we can’t make this an absolute if the unbelieving spouse wants to leave and you can’t stop them. God wants to create peace.
Additionally, how do you know you would be able (with God’s help), to lead them to the Lord? I have known marriages where that has happened— particularly where an individual has just been a wonderfully positive and faithful witness over a long period of time to an unsaved spouse. But, more often than not, it seems that’s not what happens. So Paul is saying here that, yes, that’s ideal, but you can’t count on it. If someone wants to leave because they don’t want anything to do with Christ, then you probably need to let them go.
Naomi: Do you think there is anything we have missed in what you just shared when we put this in the context of a religious abuse situation? For example, what if Christian doctrine is being taken out of context and used in a way that is harmful? And within that, the children are being raised in that environment as well?
Dr. Blomberg: Let's look at 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, or more specifically, verses 10 and 11, which read:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. - 1 Corinthians 7:10-11
So that’s where the conversation on the topic of divorce actually begins in 1 Corinthians 7, and then you move into the special case of the unbeliever who wants to leave.
The first thing that’s probably important to say is that while there are two Greek words being used, (separate and divorce), as far as we can tell, they are simply synonyms. It’s not the idea of a temporary separation like we sometimes talk about.
I would love to be able to turn to a verse that says if your husband hit you on the arm more than three times, you can divorce him. That would make things so simple, and it would play exactly to the legalism that we all like to find since we don’t like to think for ourselves. Why? It’s scary to have to be responsible for ourselves and to navigate these tough moral decisions.
Let me back-up and make the comment that I think there are additional circumstances besides physical adultery and an unbelieving partner wishing to permanently leave that are grounds for legitimate divorce. But here is how I get there: Jesus only gives one exception to His command to stay married. How does Paul get away with coming along and adding another? Unless he realized that Jesus was not giving a universal list for all times and all circumstances in a list of one. How is it that Jesus could get by without saying what Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, would say later unless Paul knew too that Jesus was addressing a very situation-specific question?
We can discern that from Matthew 19 because pharisees came together to try and trap Jesus. They aren’t out asking for advice, they’re just trying to find any reason to be able to arrest and convict our Lord Jesus Christ. In that context, there were two groups of pharisees: one who followed a rabbi by the name of Hillel and those who followed one by the name of Shammai. Shammai was more conservative and said that divorce was only possible (and required) under the case of adultery. Hillel agreed with that, but said there are other serious situations as well. That is the context in which Jesus is being asked to speak into in Matthew 19. But, there are no unbelieving partners wanting to leave because Jesus is in an entirely exclusive Jewish context. Paul, on the other hand, is addressing a brand new situation that has come about because the Gospel was now going out into the Gentile world.
Once we understand this, we have to ask what else may be as permanently damaging beyond repair to a marriage. It’s fascinating that in Genesis 2:24 when God sets up the very first marriage, he creates the tightest bond of interpersonal allegiance at the human level that is transferred from parents to spouse.
What both Jesus and Paul in essence have done is say that if one those two very constituent elements of marriage is broken, then divorce is acknowledging and finalizing what has already happened. (Which is the breaking of two becoming one under God). Therefore, for any other such similar situations in a fallen world, I think the answer is yes– divorce is an option in the eyes of God.
In essence, what I think God is saying is preserving the marriage should always be the priority. It should be the priority when you think you’ve tried everything; try something more. Involve genuine, mature Christians if at all possible. Don’t make any hasty decisions.
Do many people believe that they have reached that point before they actually have? Sadly, I believe that is also true. That is a decision people have to make before God, and not man.
With all of that being said, and going back to your original question about the case of divorce for someone who is in a cult— If there are no ways to avoid the spiritual damage from continuing (especially for kids), then yes. The very constituent elements of marriage are broken, especially if it’s impacting the spiritual health of children.
It is also important to note that physical separations don’t have to end in divorce. By getting one’s self out of harm's way (even maybe accompanied by a restraining order if the situation calls for it), but without yet initiating divorce, may in fact shock their husbands [or wives] into realizing how serious this is, so that they get the help they need.
But again, there are no guarantees, and even before divorce I would say try separation.
Furthermore, looking at the verses in 2 Corinthians 6:14 as our guide… Make a commitment to someone very thoughtfully, carefully, and seriously, and then do everything with His help possible to stay in the relationship.
Naomi: Absolutely, we don’t want to minimize the covenant we make with our spouse before God. It is a big deal, and divorce is often used as a cop-out from doing the really hard thing of fighting for our marriage. All of this is very true. However, a few people I’ve talked to come to mind. I know that their desire is to stay married, but they are required by their spouse to engage in activities that actually are sinful.
So they are required to continue sinning against who they now know is the true Jesus Christ, in order for them to stay in the household. They are in this position of “Do I stay with my spouse and maintain that covenant? But this is blasphemy and I have to be a part of it. Or, I have to leave…” And it’s a heartbreaking position to be in, which (more often than not) involves children.
What do they do with that?
Dr. Blomberg: I think the only possible caveat is that we’d have to talk about specifics of a particular situation, but let’s use an extreme example. Say a husband tells their wife that they’re going to pray to the evil one before every meal, and the wife says she won’t do it. As a response, the husband says that if they are going to stay in that marriage then she has to. What happens then?
Doing something that is against God in a marriage is still something that is against God—regardless of the marriage covenant. It is first and foremost against God, and is far from okay. It’s not the wife