A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

R.C. Sproul on Biblical Grounds for Divorce – Another Aaaaargh!

Let me say that R.C. Sproul has helped me probably more than any other theologian to come to a proper understanding of the gospel.  I still highly recommend his teaching DVD’s, Renewing Your Mind broadcast, and books.  I disagree with him of course on his view of baptism, as he is a Presbyterian and I am a reformed Baptist.  But I can live with that.

However, unless someone can correct me on this conclusion, I do not believe Sproul understands abuse.  His teaching on the reasons for divorce reveal that this is the case.  I have heard him speak of abuse as “physical” abuse, a common indicator that a person does not “get it” when it comes to the nature, mentality, and tactics of abuse.  The following is an example.  You can read it yourself at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/qas/are-there-any-biblical-grounds-divorce-and-if-so-w/

START QUOTE:

To me it seems clear that Jesus does allow divorce in the case of adultery. On the one hand, he said that if a man divorces his wife for any other reason than sexual immorality, then of course he is guilty of sin. So Jesus, at that point, says that there ought not to be divorce for grounds other than sexual impurity or immorality. Then he goes on to say that because of the hardness of our hearts, the law was given to Moses that did make a provision for divorce in the Old Testament. He then quotes the law from Deuteronomy in which the so-called unclean thing is cited as the legitimate grounds for divorce in the Old Testament. But Jesus hastens to add this statement: “But from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). His reference back to Creation reminds us of the sanctity of marriage. It’s certainly true that the provision for divorce is given to us because of the hardness of hearts, because of sin. Because adultery is a sin, when somebody violates marriage through adultery and breaks that trust, then the sacred vow, and the innocent party in the divorce, is so violated that the provision is given to them in that context of fallenness to be engaged lawfully in divorce.

It’s obvious that Jesus is rebuking the liberal view of divorce that was prevalent in his own day. I think that Jesus does remind us that the original intention of marriage did not include divorce. He acknowledges that there is a ground, and he is not criticizing God for making this allowance in the Old Testament. People are fallen, and God does condescend to the fact that people commit sins against marriage that are serious enough to be grounds for dissolving the marriage. That sin is sexual infidelity.

I think one other ground for divorce given by the apostle Paul in the Corinthian correspondence is the case of the willful and irreparable separation of the unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:15). Those are the only two grounds I find in Scripture.

END QUOTE

This last sentence indicates that Sproul does not believe that abuse is a valid ground for divorce.  If he does, he certainly leaves that to our guesswork.  “Willful and irreparable separation of the unbeliever.”  What does that mean?  Does it have to be “I refuse to live under the same roof as this woman.  I’m leaving.”  Or perhaps it is the unbeliever’s decision to file for divorce?  But abuse victims will tell us over and over again that their abuser often, if not most commonly, will not actually file for divorce.  Nor will he leave.  The victim is his property.  He must win.  She will do his bidding.

This next quote from Sproul also comes from the Ligonier website, at http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/sanctity-marriage/   It demonstrates that Sproul does indeed NOT see abuse as a grounds for divorce.  Here, as you can see, he teaches that even if an abuser were to actually separate from the victim, the victim CANNOT divorce him.  She must wait, remain married to him, unless he divorces her.

START OF QUOTE:

Citing Genesis 2:24, Jesus shows God’s plan for marriage did not include divorce (Matt. 19:4–6). When asked then why Moses commanded divorce, Jesus corrects the Pharisees, saying he only allowed it because of sin. God’s people, He teaches, may not end a marriage unless sexual immorality severs the one-flesh bond. In this case, a divorce is permitted but not required (vv. 7–9). The offending spouse must be forgiven, but the offended party does not have to stay married.

Immorality is a broad term and can include things like physical abuse when the abuser is unrepentant and refuses to get help. The only other ground for divorce in Scripture is desertion. When an unbelieving spouse wants to leave a believer, divorce is usually the outcome, but the believer cannot initiate the proceedings (1 Cor. 7:10–16).

END OF QUOTE

Even more clearly, if you will go to page 404ff of Sproul’s book Now That’s a Good Question, you will find Sproul’s answer to the question: Why isn’t physical abuse legitimate grounds for divorce?  His answer?  “I don’t know why God has not included wife abuse or husband abuse as grounds for divorce.  I only know that he hasn’t. I also have to say very candidly that if I were God, I would make that a grounds for divorce because abuse within marriage is a dreadful reality.  If anything, it is a violation of human dignity and of the sacred vows of marriage, it is physical abuse of another person….I do know that we have options short of divorce in these situations.  Obviously, if we’re talking about a Christian family (and this is something that does take place in Christian homes), this is a situation in which the discipline of the church needs to be applied fully in order to protect the person who is being abused…If that fails or if people don’t even have that available to them because they are outside the church, there are other avenues of safety and protection.  Many people use the legal system.  I’ve counseled women in the past to call the police.  If worse comes to worse, throw the abuser in jail because assault and battery just can’t be tolerated in the home or on the streets, in the school or in the church.  There are grounds in a Christian community for at least temporary separation if the abusing partner refuses to mend their ways.  Maybe there is no provision for divorce in these cases because God sees that this problem, as serious and severe as it is, can be overcome.  In many cases, we have seen marriages redeemed after people have repented and overcome destructive patterns of behavior.”

Dr. Sproul, I am grieved to have to say it, but you speak out of serious ignorance on this subject.  You do not know the abuser.  You do not know the nature of this evil.  If you did, you would never write and teach what you do, as quoted above.  You are endangering many and enabling evil men in their evil.

So there it is.  Sproul doesn’t get it.  I wish he would.

11 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    I’m so glad you wrote this. When you mentioned Sproul in your earlier posts, I was squirming because I recall reading his thoughts about divorce. However, I deferred to your judgement of the man and gave the benefit of the doubt, in those issues at least.

    Isn’t sad that this is probably the case with many of the leading pastors, authors, commentators in the evangelical world? They may be great expositors or have valuable insights into many truths, they may be fantastic pastors, incredible teachers, just wonderful role models, but too many don’t get it when it comes to abuse, towing the usual line of physical abuse being out of the question, but still enabling abusers to hide in the pews.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Yes, thank you. I have known this for some time but I didn’t know he was so outspoken on his position until I found his book “Now That’s a Good Question” and I was able to really nail it down. It is very sad, particularly since these kinds of very gifted and well known pastors and writers affect a huge number of people. Many of the great reformers and early reformed writers and theologians DID allow for divorce for abuse. Sproul simply has never been educated in this area and he is blind to his ignorance on the subject. I hate to have to say that, but it needs to be said.

  2. Jeff, welcome to my world! Sorry to sound like it’s old hat to me, but I’ve been into the topic of divorce for years and I can tell you that Sproul is just one of many. I could list others: you already know that John MacArthur doesn’t allow divorce for abuse; neither does John Piper. I could name many others of similar standing in theological circles, but I’d have to go to my bookshelves and folders to find all the names and it’s late at night here!

    I keep coming back to what you wrote some time ago: Domestic Abuse is a test case for your theology. Eminent people may have great theology in many areas, but if they don’t get it about domestic abuse and divorce, they are gravely in error (in my humble opinion) and need to sit down and seriously examine their doctrine. Until they do, victims of abuse will continue to be unbelievably hurt by the church.
    God is not happy about this! I suspect he would like to spit them all out of his mouth for their lukewarmness when it comes to protecting the vulnerable (who are mostly women and children).

    Personally, I find it very hard reading many eminent teachers. I may like some of what they teach, but because they teach diabolical stuff about domestic abuse, I cannot fully respect them, it affects all the way I think about them. It contaminates even my appreciation of what they do well. And none of them seem to read my book or interact with it seriously. I have answers for all of their wrong thinking on divorce and domestic abuse, but I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, no, make that the Antarctic! My words seem to be ripped off by the biting polar winds, scarcely to be heard by any other person who writes on doctrine. Only the survivors and counsellors read my book, by and large. But then, what more should I expect: I’m a woman! .And women don’t write about doctrine!

    Little smile to finish off this comment: Martin Luther said that the question of divorce plagued him incessantly, he wished he knew the answers to it all, and was constantly being confronted by tricky situations in which he was being asked to make a ruling, but was often feeling unsatisfied with what he could say that satisfied both the scripture and the need for justice and humanity with the parties concerned. [I'm paraphrasing here; but that's what I gathered from his words.] At least Luther admitted his perplexity! I wish some of today’s theologians would admit the same! Then we might start to get somewhere…

    • Jeff Crippen

      Barbara – actually I have little hope that the primary benefactors of your book and our book will be pastors, and especially the “eminent” ones. We are just little bugs buzzing around out here – a minor annoyance. But you know who WILL listen? ALL Christian women (a few men) who have been abused. And MANY Christian women. I think that what needs to happen in the evangelical church is that the women need to get educated and then start turning up the heat on their churches and pastors – and the big guys too. The vote was sought by the women’s suffrage movement. What would we call this movement? Hang in there Barbara – you never know when the Lord is going to start a reformation. And it also seems to me that we need to start planting churches where truth is sounded out about this evil – and thus the theology will be right.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Barbara – by the way, I am very GLAD to be part of your world!! Let’s take the fight to the enemy on this.

  3. Cecelia

    Jeff, would you mind listing some of the reformers and theologians that had a differing opinion other than what is commonly known today? It would be of great interest to me to study.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Cecelia – let me get Anna on this. She has some quotes of some of them. I believe Luther was one, and John Owen, and that is by no means all of them. Interesting, isn’t it? Thanks. Keep an eye out for Annas comment.

    • Hi, this is Anna. Jeff asked me to answer you since I have some of the research at hand. Here is what I’ve found:

      Martin Luther:

      In addition to this cause of divorce there is still another: if one of a married couple forsakes the other, as when through sheer petu­lance deserts the other. So, if a heathen woman were married to a Christian, or, as now sometimes happens, that one of the parties is evangelical and the other not (concerning which Paul speaks in I Cor. vii. 13), whether in such a case divorce would be right? There Paul concludes: If the one party is willing to remain, the other should not break the engagement; although they are not of one faith, the faith should not dissolve the marriage tie. But if it happens that the other party absolutely will not remain, then let him or her depart; and thou art not under any obligation to fol­low. But if a fellow deserts his wife without her knowledge or con­sent, forsakes house, home, wife and child, stays away two or three years, or as long as he pleases (as now often happens), and when he has run his riotous course and squandered his substance and wants to come home again and take his old place, that the other party must be under obligation to wait for him as long as he chooses, and then take up with him again: such a fellow ought not only to be forbidden house and home, but should be banished from the country, and the other party, if the renegade has been summoned and long enough waited for, should be heartily pro­nounced free. Commentary on Sermon on the Mount, pp. 169-174

      When Jesus taught on divorce, Luther believed He was not legislating the issue but rather preaching against capricious use of divorce laws.

      “In his own preaching on divorce, Luther was quite flexible as to what constitutes just cause. He cited adultery as the only cause given by Jesus. Through the Mosaic Law, adultery was punishable by death. Therefore, an adulterer “has already been divorced, not by man but by God Himself, and separated not only from his wife but from this very life.”33 In such an instance, the other partner is completely free of any obligation to the former spouse. Adultery for Luther, however, was not the only possible ground. Desertion of spouse and family, he felt, was equally legitimate.” quote–reference Luther’s work on The Sermon on the Mount

      “In his interpretation of the teachings of Paul, Luther believed that if a Christian hinders a believing spouse from following Christ, divorce is in order, with remarriage a viable option. On the other hand, should the Christian divorce the unbeliever for other causes, there must be reconciliation or the maintenance of a celibate state.” quote–reference Luther’s Work on 1 Corinthians

      ” Anger was also a just cause. If a husband and wife could not live together harmoniously, but only in hatred and continual conflict, let them be divorced. Once more, however, reconciliation or celibacy were preferred. Nonetheless, in such cases, if a spouse did not desire reconciliation and the other was unable to remain chaste, the latter should remarry, for “God will not demand the impossible.”” -quote, reference Lutheres work on 1 Corinthians

      John Calvin: if an unbeliever wishes to divorce a spouse on account of religion, the believer is no longer under marital obligation. In such a case, “the unbelieving party makes a divorce with God rather than with her partner.” Reference: Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians

      Calvin’s “Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” allowed three grounds for divorce and remarriage other than adultery: impotence, extreme religious incompatibility, and abandonment. He also provided for annulment where a spouse could not, because of some physical infirmity, perform the conjugal act. “Ordonnances,” Corpus Reformatorum, x.10-14, cited by Olsen, New Testament Logia, 99.

      Origen (185-255) – Jesus did not change OT Law on divorce. Has the same opinion I espouse in this article (which allows divorce and remarriage in certain cases). More as a permissive thing that is allowed or tolerated. In the case of God being married to Israel, he states that God divorced her and had a second marriage to the church. And said, on account of fornication (Israel cheating on God), God is allowed to remarry. So, we can conclude the same is the case for people, if God is allowed to divorce and remarry
      Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) – Held the same views as Thomas More. Criticized church for having a narrow view on Christ’s viewpoint on marriage. And pointed out the hypocritical nature of interpreting the rest of the Sermon on the Mount more freely, while the marriage section was very narrow and restricted. He allowed for divorce in cases of cruelty and hatred (on top of adultery)
      Martin Luther (1483-1546) – Decried the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s methods of luring people into celibacy. Believed that Jesus was not dispising divorce, but speaking against capricious use of divorce laws (divorce for any reason). Luther was flexible on what “just cause” for divorce entailed. Continual conflict, hatred, etc were also grounds for divorce. Yet, remarriage is acceptable, if one’s ex-spouse did not change. articles/divorce.htm

  4. In my book “Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion” I have an appendix quoting what three men from the Reformation and Puritan periods said about abuse as grounds for divorce. Theodore Beza, William Perkins and William Ames each said that abuse was equivalent to desertion in that the abuser (by fierceness, cruelty, or obstinately neglecting their spouse) effectively drove the wounded spouse away. They believed that 1 Corinthians 7:15 allowed divorce not just when an unbeliever simply deserted a believing spouse by walking out on the marriage, but also allowed it when an unbeliever treated his spouse with cruelty or obstinate neglect.
    They are quite long quotes, so I’ll only reproduce the shortest one, by William Ames (1576-1633): “For if one party drive away the other with great fierceness and cruelty, there is cause of desertion, and he is to be reputed the deserter. But if he obstinately neglect, that necessary departure of the other avoiding the eminent danger, he himself in that playeth the deserter.”

    In my book I use the term “constructive desertion” for this kind of desertion. An abuser’s conduct causes his victim to separate from the marriage, but it is the ABUSER who is to be construed as the deserter, not the victim. The word “construed” gives rise to the term “constructive desertion”. Constructive Desertion was a legal term in UK divorce law before no-fault divorce came in; you can find it if you look up any good legal dictionary.

    The understanding of divorce for abuse as a type of the “desertion by an unbeliever” in 1 Corinthians 7:15 gained reasonably wide acceptance in the Puritan era. But it appears to have got lost (or deliberately buried?) as the light of the Puritans faded and the eighteenth century Enlightenment took over.
    [I could go on and posit all sorts of conspiracy theories here, but I imagine the reader can do that without my help...]

  5. Ewin

    Hello, I’m not divorced but I do know of some- (females) who have, in the process of; and one in particular of whose burden I feel – married for some twenty odd years and the husband recently told her that he dose not love her, does not show any affection but is willing to pay her medical expensives . Her profession requires that she travels extensively.
    His ideal is that she stays at home-no young children. One son in university. What are your thoughts, is this grounds for divorce? They have gone to conselling but to no avail.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Well, just from the data you have provided, it does not sound like it involves a truly abusing personality. It is possible that could be the case. It depends upon whether or not one of them has an entitlement mentality for the possession of power and control. If he wants her to stay home, that could be a very reasonable desire. Or it could be the control of an abuser. We just cannot say without knowing more about the case.

      On the other hand, could it be that the wife is guilty of neglecting her husband in her extensive travels for her job? The real criteria here are the covenant vows that promise to love very practically through the provision of food, clothing/shelter, and conjugal love. Is either one of these people failing in respect to conjugal love for their spouse? Are they withholding affection. Ongoing, hard-hearted, unrepentant withholding of affection is indeed grounds for divorce. From the few details you have mentioned here, either one of them could possibly be guilty of that.

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