Since the Bible was written in a very different time and culture than that of today, it is difficult to draw a straight line between the few biblical injunctions about marriage and divorce on the one hand, and marriage and divorce as they exist in today’s society on the other.
For example, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 speaks of a man who is displeased with his wife writing her a certificate of divorce. According to Matthew 19:7-8; Mark 10:2-5, this was interpreted as a commandment of Moses that allowed a man to divorce his wife. However, there was no similar commandment allowing a woman to divorce her husband. For all practical purposes, in Old Testament times only men, and not women, had the right to divorce their spouse.
However, by the time 1 Corinthians 7:8-16 was written in New Testament times, women had apparently acquired the right to divorce their husbands as well.
The New Testament on divorce and adultery
Jesus specifically repudiated the Mosaic law of divorce in Matthew 19:7-9; Mark 10:5-9; Luke 16:18, establishing the principle historically adhered to by various Christian denominations that divorce is allowed to husbands and to wives only in the case of adultery.
And yet, even this is not always understood as a hard and fast rule.
In New Testament times as in Old Testament times, a divorced woman was in a difficult and dangerous position. It was common for divorced women to be forced into prostitution because they would be disowned by society and family alike, and would have no means of supporting themselves.
Therefore Jesus’ strong stance against divorce can be read as protecting women from that fate at the hands of “hard-hearted” men, rather than as a blanket prohibition of divorce except in the case of adultery that was intended to stand for all time. In Western cultures today, divorce, while still a difficult experience, has nowhere near the devastating consequences for women that it did in Bible times. If Jesus’ intent was to protect women from social ruin and physical starvation due to the actions of heartless and arbitrary husbands, the specific protection he laid down by prohibiting a man from divorcing his wife unless she was unfaithful to him is no longer necessary in societies in which women, like men, are able to support themselves through their own skill and labor.
And indeed, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 strongly suggests that the acceptable reasons for divorce are broader than adultery defined exclusively as sexual unfaithfulness. Here it is, with the sources of its quotes from the Old Testament added in brackets:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. [Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 32:38; Ezekiel 37:27]
Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you. [Isaiah 52:11; Ezekiel 20:34, 41]
I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty. [2 Samuel 7:14; 7:8]
The quotation of, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord,” can be read as supporting divorce in the case of believers being married to unbelievers—which does not necessarily involve sexual infidelity.
However, even this is a difficult reading, since 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 indicates that believers (Christians) are not to divorce unbelievers if the unbeliever is content to live with them, but that believers are freed from the bonds of marriage if the unbeliever leaves the marriage.
One way to reconcile the two is to point out that the 2 Corinthians passage is clearly speaking of unbelievers who are engaging in wicked practices, whereas the 1 Corinthians passage is talking about staying married to unbelievers who are good-hearted people.
It all depends on how you read the Bible
As you can see, if you are looking for clear and direct statements in the Bible allowing for divorce in the case of spousal abuse, that is going to be difficult, if not impossible.
The Bible was written in cultures that accepted a husband’s right to discipline (read: “beat”) his wife as he saw fit. Spousal abuse as we define it today was not seen as cause for divorce in the cultures of the Bible. And for those Christians who read the Bible very literally, it is difficult to put together a convincing case, based on the Bible alone, for a right of wives to divorce their physically abusive husbands.
However, for those who are willing to read the Bible more broadly, a case can be made based on a broader definition of the words “fornication” and “adultery.”
What is adultery?
In present-day culture, “fornication” and “adultery” are used almost exclusively of sexual impropriety and unfaithfulness—”fornication” if no one involved is married, and “adultery” if one or more of the people involved is married to someone else.
However, in Bible times, “fornication” and “adultery” were also used more broadly to mean unfaithfulness to God and to God’s commandments. For example:
Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. (Judges 2:17)
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.” (Hosea 1:2 – and see the rest of the book of Hosea)
If we use the broader scriptural definition of fornication, adultery, and unfaithfulness, then there is a path to a broader definition of the allowable causes of divorce. That definition would allow for divorce in the case of errant unfaithfulness to God and to the laws of God, among which is the commandment not to commit adultery.
If “adultery” means “being unfaithful” in the broader scriptural sense, then any major ongoing violation of the marriage vows, and of God’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves (which certainly includes our spouse!), is adultery in the biblical sense of the word.
Malachi on marriage, divorce, and violence
The clearest indication of this broader meaning of adultery in relation to marriage, and specifically in relation to violence associated with marriage, is in the difficult-to-translate passage Malachi 2:10-16:
Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors? Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob anyone who does this—any to witness or answer, or to bring an offering to the Lord of hosts.
And this you do as well: You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did not one God make her? Both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire? Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.
Here divorce is associated with faithlessness, profaning the covenant and the sanctuary, marrying those who adhere to other gods, violence, and generally doing evil in the sight of the Lord.
Superficially, Malachi 2:10-16 can be (and commonly has been) read as a diatribe against divorce. But a more careful reading suggests that it is a diatribe against all sorts of evil, unfaithfulness, profanation, and violence that lead to the destruction of marriage, both in the collective sense of the church’s marriage to Christ and in the individual sense of marriage to a wife or husband.
The basis based on a broader view of the Bible
In short, if we read the injunctions of the Bible against fornication and adultery more broadly, as speaking not only of sexual infidelity, but any kind of major ongoing unfaithfulness to God and to our spouse, this can provide a biblical basis for divorce in the case of spousal abuse, and in the case of other major violations of the vows of marriage and the commandments of God.
(Note: This post is an edited version of an answer I recently wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)
For further reading:
- “God Hates Divorce” vs. “Do Not Be Unfaithful to the Wife of Your Youth.”
- The Spiritual Anatomy of Physically Abusive Men
- It’s Not All In Your Head (And It’s Not All Your Fault)
- Strip Search Prank Calls, Domestic Violence: Evil Loves Deception
- How Can I Help a Loved One who is In an Abusive Relationship?