What are the legitimate grounds for Christian divorce?

It has been something of a low-lying, but ongoing, discussion in Christian circles about the legitimate grounds for divorce. Some insist there are no grounds, others say there are two – as stated directly by Jesus and Paul – namely, in cases of adultery and in instances of being deserted. Others still would argue there are a wider number of reasons too. Some who take this view reason it theologically while others simply assert it.

But it is always interesting when a scholar who took one view comes to conclude something else. It is even more interesting when that scholar is Wayne Grudem and he camped out – hard – on the two views line.

Here is part of his reasoning for now coming to conclude that there are a wider number of reasons to permit a legitimate divorce:

Here is the key verse where Paul allows for divorce in cases of desertion by an unbeliever:

But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. (1 Cor. 7:15)

The Greek phrase translated “in such cases” is en tois toioutois. The phrase does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, nor does it occur in the Septuagint. This phrase does occur in Greek literature outside the Bible, but, so far as I could tell, no interpreter of 1 Corinthians has ever studied its use in extra-biblical literature.[3] Most commentaries just assume that it means “in cases of desertion by an unbeliever,” which is the specific situation that Paul mentions. But could its meaning be broader?

I found several examples where this phrase clearly referred to more kinds of situations than the specific situation that the author was discussing.

He goes on to state:

When Paul used en tois toioutois to say that “in such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (1 Cor. 7:15), he implied that divorce was a legitimate possibility not only in cases of desertion by unbeliever, but also in other circumstances similar to but not necessarily exactly like desertion. A reasonable possibility is that “in such cases” in 1 Corinthians 7:15 means “in this and other similarly destructive situations” (that is, situations that destroy a marriage as much as adultery or desertion).

A confirming argument comes from Paul’s use of the plural expression “in such cases,” whereas he could have just used the singular expression en touto (“in this case”) if he had wanted to refer only to the case of desertion by an unbeliever (he uses the singular phrase in 1 Cor. 11:22 and 2 Cor. 8:10, for example).

He goes on to outline some other clues that Paul gives, relating to specific scenarios that Paul may have had in mind when he was arguing for what ‘in such cases’ might also refer to.

I find the argument compelling. Particularly the section about ‘in such cases’ and then the reasoning that follows from this. I may disagree with some of the application of the principle that Grudem outlines. But overall, I find the argument cogent, reasonable and credible.

You can read the whole argument here.