“Should I get a divorce?” Wayne Grudem
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Wayne GrudemWayne Grudem (PhD, University of Cambridge; DD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is distinguished research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, having previously taught for 20 years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, a member of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible, the general editor of the ESV Study Bible, and has published over 20 books.
“Should I get a divorce?” You’re in an unspeakably painful place. Theologian Wayne Grudem weighs in on dying marriages, separation, and calling it quits.
“Should I get a divorce?” Wayne Grudem
Shelby: Hey, Shelby Abbott here. Before we get to today’s show, if you’ve ever been blessed by FamilyLife Today, did you know it’s because someone else gave? Yes, FamilyLife Today is listener supported, and if you’ve given, let me just say, “Thank You.” Thank you for making gospel-centered conversations like the one we’re about to hear today possible.
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Wayne: God’s intention—we come back to the beginning—is permanent, life-long union between one man and one woman, and that’s it. That’s what we should work for is the ideal. But in some cases, it’s just not happening, and this incorrigible, gambling addiction, alcohol addiction, drug addiction, pornography addiction—incorrigible means you’ve tried again and again to fix it, and it can’t be fixed.
And then it takes wisdom to know, and certainly prayer for our understanding and discernment to know when that is the case.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: So, believe it or not, there are over 50,000 Google searches in the US every month—
Dave: --on these seven phrases:
Ann: Oh, I’m interested.
Dave: Do you know what they are?
Ann: No, I have no idea.
Dave: What are the signs of divorce? Should I be getting a divorce? What are the signs your marriage is over? Is my marriage over? What about Christian divorce? Can Christians get divorced? What does the Bible say about divorce? And does the Bible talk about divorce? Are there divorces in the Bible?
Ann: How many? Say that again.
Ann: 50,000 word searches.
Dave: Yes. This is a topic a lot of people want answers to, and this is a topic we’re going to give some answers to today. We have I think the person in the studio that, of all people I know, can answer this question. Dr. Wayne Grudem is back with us at FamilyLife Today. Welcome back, Wayne.
Wayne: Thank you. Good to be with you.
Dave: Back in the day you were actually on the FamilyLife Weekend to Remember®marriage getaway speaker team.
Dave: For a few years, right? So you did conferences like Ann and I do. We’ve been doing it for over 30 years.
Wayne: Right. Weekend to Remember conferences.
Dave: We still do them, and marriages and legacies are transformed in that weekend.
Dave: They are as well listening to this broadcast, so we’re really glad you’re here. Now, a lot of our listeners will know you. I’m sitting with a book you just handed to us.
Wayne: Right. I have two books, Dave. One is Systematic Theology, which is what we really believe about the Bible, about God and His nature, about the Trinity, about creation, about human beings made in the image of God, about sin, about the person of Christ, how He earned our salvation and what different aspects belong in salvation. And then the doctrine of the church and what it is and how it should act, and the doctrine of the future, what we should expect.
Now this book that I just gave you this morning is kind of a second attempt at writing a larger textbook, but this time it talks about what we should do, how we should act in life: lying and telling the truth, protecting human life, protecting marriage, the use of money. Those are ethical questions, and so Systematic Theology, the first book, tells us what we should believe. Christian Ethics, the second book, tells us how we should act.
Dave: Right. Today we’re going to talk about divorce and remarriage. What does the Bible have to say about divorce and remarriage?
Ann: We’ve talked about abuse.
Ann: We’ve talked about infidelity. You have in here, too, and when we talk about “in such cases,” abuse of children.
Wayne: Yes. After I published this material in this little book called What the Bible Says About Divorce and Remarriage, a longtime friend of mine who was a professor at another seminary wrote to me and said he was subject to physical abuse from his father, along with several of his siblings. I had never known that about him. He said through Christ’s help and the help of friends he’s overcome most of the resulting brokenness that came from that physical abuse, but his other siblings have not.
Wayne: And they’re well into adulthood now. So yes, abuse of children certainly could be a similar case damaging the marriage, and for the protection of the children, the other spouse should leave.
Dave: Which is comforting to hear, because if you’re in a marriage and you’re feeling like “Well, I’m not being abused by him or her, my spouse,” but you’re watching or you have knowledge that your kids, especially little kids—we often have thought the Bible says, “Well, I’ve just got to stay here and my kids have to take it.” You’re saying, “No, God wants to protect your kids.”
Wayne: Right, because otherwise they will internalize a deep sense of injustice, thinking the world is not fair.
Ann: And I’m thinking of abuse of children, physical and sexual abuse, and it goes along with God’s character, Who says to us as the Church to “take care of orphans.
Ann: To take care of widows, those who have no voice.” Of course it would make sense that this would be another reason “in those cases,” that God would say, “This would be a case where I would approve.”
Wayne: Right. It’s not God’s way with His people to command them to stay in a situation of suffering, where there is a way to escape it.
Wayne: There is suffering in all of the Christian life that we can’t escape, but where we can escape it, as the Israelites were able to escape from slavery in Egypt, so God wants us to escape from it.
Ann: Well, the next one is extreme, prolonged verbal and relational cruelty. This is tricky, because how do you define that? But I feel like some people have said, “This feels like I cannot stay in this. My husband or wife is cruel.” So let’s talk about that one a little bit.
Wayne: Yes. I should say in all of these examples are cases where I’m not saying in every case the person should get a divorce. I’m saying these are situations that might have the degree of seriousness that would justify a divorce.
Ann: That’s a good note.
Wayne: It’s up to pastors and other church leaders and friends to give advice according to their understanding of Scripture and give wise advice. But I am saying there are cases where—I guess I could say imagine living every day of your life with someone who is continually criticizing you, being angry with you, and playing mind games on you.
Ann: Verbally assaulting you.
Wayne: Verbally assaulting you, yes. This can be an exceptionally damaging situation to a person’s own mental well-being, and that would be a possible case where divorce would be legitimate.
Dave: Yes, and again, like Ann said, it’s the balance of trying to understand “Is this cruel? Is this over-the-line cruelty?”
Wayne: Can it be fixed?
Ann and Dave: Yes.
Dave: Yes, that’s a good qualifier.
Ann: But I also like that you noted if you’re going through that, you need people alongside you, godly wisdom, godly counsel, that will walk through—and someone else that can say “Yes, I see what’s happening and I believe—” And even talking to a pastor or a counselor that could help you make that decision if it’s at a point of no return, and it is not getting any better, and it feels like this person is not repentant, not sorry, remorseful. So I could see that that could be a time.
Wayne: Yes. I think part of the reason I wanted to get this out in a published form in this little booklet, What the Bible Says About Divorce and Remarriage, is that pastors and counselors should be prepared to think in terms of these categories.
Dave: Yes, it’s a great resource. I would literally have it in my hand if I was sitting with a person or a couple.
Dave: When you talk about relational cruelty, answer this. What if I’m married to a controlling narcissist? Again, how do you define that, but I feel like—
Wayne: You’re not.
Dave: I’m not.
Dave: You already know. But I’m thinking of somebody that may be listening, saying, “Wow. They control me. They control everything.”
Ann: And they turn it back on you.
Dave: “And everything is about them, and it always sits like this abuse is spiritual and emotional,” and they would be almost defined as a narcissist. Would that fit in there?
Wayne: I think I would come to you as an experienced pastor and say, “What is your best judgment?”
Wayne: That’s a judgment call that people have to make in the individual situation. Can it be improved? Is it so damaging to the marriage that the marriage is not functioning as a genuine marriage?
Dave: And so much of this, when you sit down to figure out, “Can this marriage be saved?” in some ways, comes back—am I right? —to humility, to repentance.
Dave: Is one or two or both of you willing to own their mistakes and their sin and repent?
Dave: That marriage has hope. When there’s no repentance and nothing but pride, boy oh boy, you’re in trouble.
Wayne: Yes, and that’s the thing that wise pastors, wise counselors, are able to discern, just over years of experience at getting to know various people and various situations, and then getting the Lord’s insight or wisdom or discernment into what is the real situation, and is it possible with God’s help that it will be changed? From a human standpoint, is there any expectation that there’s the possibility of repentance and change?
Ann: I think, too, for our listeners, if you’re in a situation that’s so difficult, my first thing would be to—and maybe you’ve already done this, but surrender. Go before Jesus every day, asking Him for wisdom, laying your life down before Him, your marriage before Him, asking Him to heal. I would go about all those things first.
You’ve probably done that, but for your walk, for you to be so close, so intimate with Jesus, that you are surrendered fully and totally to Him. I think before we make any decisions, that would be the greatest part that we could play is that repentance and need and surrender to Jesus.
Wayne: Yes. Thank you, Ann. I agree completely.
Dave: You kept going in the book of things that a lot of people have never written about. One of the rampant sins going on in our culture today is pornography.
Dave: You mention that as possibly under such cases.
Ann: And you even have addictions—alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, pornography addiction.
Dave: Yes. Let’s talk about those a little bit. How does a couple decide if this is grounds for divorce, in terms of pornography or maybe even alcohol addiction?
Wayne: Well, these are situations, I say, that require wise consideration: abuse, abuse of children, prolonged verbal and relational cruelty, credible threats of serious physical harm or murder, and then incorrigible drug or alcohol addiction. I used this word “incorrigible” the other day in a classroom setting, and some student said, “What’s incorrigible?”
It’s “can’t be fixed.”
Ann: Recently I was with a wife. She has two kids. She’s pregnant, and she said, “My husband is constantly drinking, and he’s doing drugs in front of the kids. He cheats and he looks at pornography all the time.” She said, “I’ve kind of turned my eye from that, but the fact that he’s doing drugs in front of my kids,” and that’s where I was like, “Oh, honey. This is not good.”
Ann: I said, “Does he have any sort of repentance, any sort of remorse?” Maybe somebody struggled with pornography, and they’re struggling in it, and they’re wanting to break free. This is a situation where he’s like, “This is who I am, and this is what you get.”
Wayne: I think the Apostle Paul would say, “In such cases--”
Ann: Me too.
Wayne: “--the believing brother or sister is not enslaved.” That’s the only place in the Bible that marriage is talked about in terms of slavery. So Paul is saying to stay in those situations is like slavery, and God doesn’t want to leave you in that slave situation.
Ann: I’ve never thought of it like that. I told her, first step is really pray. I said that. “Go before God. Ask God what does He long for you. He loves you.” Because sometimes I think people feel like God has abandoned them.
Wayne: Yes, yes.
Ann: “And He hasn’t. He’s there. He’s with you.” I said, “It might be that you need to separate yourself. Separate. See what happens when you separate.”
Ann: “Will that shake him into, ‘What am I doing?’ or maybe getting help, or a therapist, or a pastor that’s stepping in, and see where it goes from there.”
Wayne: But Ann, that situation is a triply wrong situation. It is drug abuse, there’s alcohol abuse, and there’s pornography.
Ann: And cheating. Infidelity as well.
Wayne: There is certainly grounds for divorce, massive grounds for divorce—
Wayne: —for four different reasons.
Ann: But I give her credit. She’s thinking about her kids, like, “Ahhhh, I don’t want my kids to carry that, being a child from a divorced family,” because she had carried that. But she was in a situation—
Wayne: Right. But her children are going to carry some other wounds from the sinful conduct of the father.
Dave: And yet, as you look at these different qualifications that come under “in such cases,” someone could say, “Well, it just seems like you’re opening the door to divorce,” like there are so many options. How do you respond to that? I don’t think you are, but I’m just playing the devil’s advocate a little bit.
Wayne: Well, if you don’t hold this position, you’re opening the door to slavery. That is, you’re leaving the abused spouse in a situation of enslavement. And Paul says, “In such cases, the believing brother or sister is not enslaved.” I’m not arguing for divorce for all kinds of reasons.
Wayne: The husband and wife are arguing, or they can’t agree on something about the children or activities, or what they’re going to do with this amount of money or something like that.
Wayne: God’s intention—we come back to the beginning—is permanent, lifelong union between one man and one woman, and that’s it. That’s what we should work for, is the ideal. But in some cases, it is just not happening. This incorrigible gambling addiction, alcohol addiction, drug addiction, pornography addiction—incorrigible means that you’ve tried again and again to fix it, and it can’t be fixed. Then it takes wisdom to know, and certainly prayer for understanding and discernment, to know when that is the case.
Dave: Let’s discuss this. If I feel like after even reading your book and studying the Bible that I’ve gotten divorced in an unbiblical way; I shouldn’t have gotten divorced. I’m not remarried.
Dave: My former husband or wife is not remarried. How would you counsel that person?
Wayne: Let’s see if the marriage can get back together.
Wayne: Preserve the marriage. The husband and wife still have the opportunity to make their marriage work, so let’s try to do that first. Now if one or the other spouse refuses to even talk, then the marriage has been abandoned and the divorce would be legitimate.
Dave: It’s interesting, as you look at some of the questions from our website. I’ll throw a couple to you, because we have an expert sitting right across the table.
Ann: I know. This is kind of like amazing.
Dave: Here’s one of the top questions: “When is remarriage allowed by the Bible?”
Wayne: I think whenever there’s been a legitimate divorce that remarriage is always allowed. There’s a minority viewpoint in the Christian church that says sometimes divorce is allowed, but never remarriage. But my response is, “If divorce is allowed, then the previous husband and wife are single; they’re not married to anybody, so why is remarriage not allowed?”
Dave: Here’s another one. “How long should I wait before I decide to get a divorce? How long should I fight for this marriage?”
Wayne: It depends on the situation.
Dave: It really does, doesn’t it?
Wayne: There’s no one answer to that. I think there can be situations where the abuse was so violent and so extreme that it would be foolish to put a wife or husband back in that situation where the abuse has occurred. It would be legitimate immediately. Other cases, there may be hope yet for restoration.
Ann: I thought that this was a good question that came in, too. “What should I tell my kids about the divorce? How much detail do I give them about the circumstances surrounding it?”
Wayne: Oh boy. One guideline, Ann, is give them enough detail so that if they later found out more details, they wouldn’t think you were lying to them, or deceiving them.
Ann: That’s wise. Yes.
Wayne: They don’t need to know all the details, but to say, “Sadly, daddy didn’t want to be married anymore.” Or “Mommy didn’t want to be married anymore.” Children at their level, whatever their age, will understand in age-appropriate ways.
Ann: That’s wise, I think.
Wayne: They need to have some explanation and reassurance that it’s not because of them.
Ann: I talked to one woman whose husband had continually cheated on her, and she didn’t know what to do. She had three kids. She said, “Is it wise for me to stay here? It feels like he’s going to a place that’s dark. There’s drugs.” I said, “I think the thing that would be wise to do is to tell him, and you can tell your kids, ‘I’m choosing us and our family. I’m choosing us, and God in the midst of that.’” And to her husband, “It feels like you are no longer choosing us.”
Ann: “You’re choosing other things. Until you can choose us, I will be gone. I’m taking our kids. We’re going to be in a position of ‘We’re trusting God. We’re walking with Him.’” And then to wait that out a little bit to see what he does.
Dave: They weren’t divorcing.
Ann: They weren’t divorcing; they were separating. But because she separated, his lifestyle was showing that there was no change. He was still kind of going down that same route of unfaithfulness, drug addiction. So she started pursuing a divorce, and then he had this total flip, where he gave his life to Jesus.
Ann: He repented; he came back, and so their marriage was restored. He said to her, “I don’t want to live my life without you and without the kids.”
Ann: “I see that the best part of my life was our marriage.”
Ann: So it did have this great—
Wayne: Separation for a time did have a good result.
Ann: And now it doesn’t always.
Ann: But there are some circumstances where it can.
Wayne: Probably 25 or 30 years ago, we became aware of a situation in our church, where the husband was being physically abusive toward his wife. One day when I was teaching and my wife, Margaret, was at home, she and two of my sons who were in high school went to the woman’s home and helped her move to an undisclosed location.
Wayne: And put the husband on warning that this was threatening the marriage. That resulted in a good result. It turned out for a good result. The marriage was restored, and ten years later we inquired about it—we had moved to another church—and their marriage was fine.
Wayne: So it was a separation that shocked the husband into saying, “Things have to change.”
Dave: Yes. Sometimes that’s what happens. I know many wives, many husbands are afraid of that step, separation.
Dave: Because they think it’s almost like divorce, but it’s really separation with the hopes of reconciliation.
Dave: And just as you both said, there are times when that’s exactly what God does. It brings out humility, it brings out repentance. Other times it doesn’t do that, but when it does, God uses it.
Wayne: It’s saying to the other spouse, “This is what you’re heading for.”
Dave: Let them feel it a little bit.
Dave: What is the best way for a church or even a Christian community to respond to people in our church or in our community that are walking toward divorce? Maybe it’s just what we said, but when you think of that question, what is a healthy way to help people that are really, really struggling with any one of these cases that could lead to divorce?
I’m just thinking of us as married friends. How can we best be friends to other people? Do we come in there, read them the Bible, and tell them that they should divorce or not divorce? Do we come in there and love them? Do we come in there and speak the truth, or is it all the above?
Wayne: I think I’d just have to say it depends, because we don’t know the specific situation. I’d pray for guidance, and for the Lord to show us and give us wisdom, what we should say, if we should say anything, and if we should say something, when we should say it.
Dave: Obviously, in that case with your sons and you and your wife, you saw signs that said “We have to—”
Dave: “—be radical.”
Dave: “We have to come in and do something radical right now.”
Ann: You’re protecting her.
Wayne: Right, and the wife in that case wanted to get out. She wanted the marriage to be saved, but she needed to get away for a time first, to show the husband that it was a very serious problem.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Wayne Grudem on FamilyLife Today. Dave and Ann are going to honor Dr. Grudem with their appreciation for how God has used him and continues to use him in just a minute. But first, his book is called What the Bible Says About Divorce and Remarriage. You can get your copy at FamilyLifeToday.com. Just click on “Today’s Resources.” Or you can call 800-358-6329; that’s 800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.”
Alright, here’s Dave with some words of gratitude for Dr. Grudem.
Dave: Ann and I just want to say thank you for our listeners. On behalf of our listeners, you’ve brought a lot of wisdom. You are a man of the Word of God, so everything you teach and say is based on this. It’s not your idea.
Ann: You’re holding your Bible.
Dave: It’s the Word of God. Yes. You can’t see it if you’re listening to audio, but I’m holding my leather-bound Bible right here. Thank you. This is going to bring freedom and hope and help to a lot of people.
Wayne: Good to be with you, Dave and Ann. Thank you.
Ann: Thank you.
Shelby: Join us tomorrow on FamilyLife Today with Dave and Ann Wilson, as they talk to Roland C. Warren about being raised by a single mother and the impact she could have had by helping process struggles and heartbreak he faced with his father. That’s tomorrow.
On behalfof Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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