Pastoral Counsel – Is Abuse Grounds for Biblical Divorce?

Godly men and women have differed, and continue to differ, on what constitutes biblical grounds for divorce. For some, divorce is never permissible; others believe the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 (“except in the case of adultery”) to provide the only allowance. Others still view the term translated as “adultery”—porneia (interestingly enough, the Bible doesn’t use the Greek term that generally refers to adultery)—to refer to a litany of sexual immoralities.

The difficulty lies in that nowhere in Scripture does it state explicitly that abuse is grounds for divorce. The only exception (given by Christ!) is porneia, or sexual immorality. And even that, when he was pressed, Jesus explains that Moses (in the Old Testament) permitted divorce only because of Israel’s hardness of heart.

So the way I’ve counseled it in the past, adultery (and I expand that in light of the use of porneia to include unrepentant sexual immorality) is legitimate grounds for divorce. However, I don’t think pastors/ministers should ever counsel believers to make an appeal for a divorce. In that way, I make a distinction between permissibility/grounds and counsel. I think the goal in every case should be the repentance of the offending party and the restoration of the marriage.

Sadly, that’s not always possible, but it should always be the desired outcome.

That having been said, if a woman (or a child for that matter) claim to have been abused, my responsibility as a pastor is to counsel distance and to report the claim to the authorities. My responsibility is to encourage their safety and let the state investigate the alleged abuse. All the while, my responsibility is to press for repentance from the guilty party and to seek, as much as I am able, the restoration of the marriage.

My experience is that by following that pattern, we provide the context for God to do incredible things and to save marriages that would often be lost otherwise; it also tends to drive a wedge between the party seeking restoration and the unrepentant offender—thereby showing their lack of conviction by the Holy Spirit, and ultimately resulting in abandonment. 1 Corinthians 7:15 speaks of the abandonment of an unbelieving spouse, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him leave. A brother or sister is not bound in such cases.” Then, the offended party is free of the guilt and shame that tends to come upon those who end up feeling like they could have done a little more to save their marriage.

Speaking of these things always reminds me that there are no simple answers. As believers in Christ, we must always search Scripture, ask for the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and walk in humble submission to God. Believers will not always agree on how that process plays out, but those who follow this pattern (searching Scripture, etc.) can disagree while respecting each other’s intentions.