The Biblical Grounds For Divorce

And what about cruelty and verbal abuse?

If great problems arise in marriage and there is misconduct on the part of a spouse such as immorality or ­violence, or some other serious matter, then the practice of marital discretion must be set aside. In normal circumstances it is not fitting that husbands and wives should talk about their everyday grievances and criticisms of each other to third parties, because marriage is a very special and intimate bond between them and before God. But the desire for discretion obviously cannot extend to serious problems that need help and healing. Then it is right to go to a pastor or elder for guidance. To glorify God matters have to be put right, and comfort and support may need to be given to an injured party.

When problems are brought to a pastor we endeavour to respond promptly. Our first hope and aim is the preservation of the marriage bond, and the keeping of husbands and wives and families together. This must be our first objective: to bring about, the Lord enabling, a much better and happier relationship. But sometimes this is not possible.

The conduct of one spouse may be so bad, adultery being a case in point, and clear-cut desertion also, that the feelings of the offended spouse become paramount. Obviously if there is persistent violence from one toward the other, and there is no repentance and change, so that the offended party lives in fear, then safety and relief must be sought in separation. If the offender will not change, despite pastoral remonstration and even professional intervention, so that the separation becomes protracted, then the offender will be regarded as a deserter. This was how the Reformers and the Puritans saw it, and what they sought to write into church law.

In pre-Reformation England the view of the Catholic church prevailed, and divorce was unavailable to the general population. The Reformers brought biblical light to the subject, but their views did not change the law for over three centuries.1

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his circle of divines (including Peter Martyr and influenced by Martin Bucer) produced in 1552 the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, a complete revision of church law which proposed divorce and remarriage for adultery and desertion, the latter including separation caused by mortal enmity or cruelty. Even excessive harshness of word and deed would justify separation, but only if the offender would not respond to admonition and exhortation by the church.2

The Reformatio Legum was presented to Parliament in 1553, rejected by the Lords, and then thwarted by the death of Edward VI (which was followed by the ­hostilities of Mary).

Although divorce continued to be unavailable, the intentions of the Reformers had been made clear.

John Foxe (the martyrologist) with others sought to commend the Reformatio Legum to Elizabeth I, but the queen refused it. Almost a century later, in 1646, the Westminster Assembly divines produced the Westminster Confession which firmly identified adultery/fornication and desertion as the two reasons for divorce allowing remarriage. (Fornication included all perversions of sexual relations.) But frustration struck once again, for when Parliament approved the Confession in 1648, it omitted the paragraphs on divorce.

The Westminster Confession position became the view of most ‘reformed’ pastors and churches in the UK, but it was never the law.3 However, it is not always appreciated today how broadly the Puritans applied ‘desertion’. Not all agreed4 but the mainline view (had divorce been allowed) was probably that expressed by Richard Baxter in his famous Christian Directory (issued a few years before the Westminster Confession). He sets out all the possible applications of desertion, such as cruelty. He states that if a spouse is ‘driven away by great fierceness and cruelty’ then the inflicter is to be reputed the deserter and the inflicted one should be able to proceed to divorce. (This would be after all church censure of the offender had proved to be in vain.) None of this, however, had been made law.

For a very long time divorce was only for the extremely rich (requiring a ‘private’ Act of Parliament) until 1857, when people could petition for divorce in a newly-formed court in London. But this was really only for adultery. It was not until as recently as 1937 that desertion and cruelty (and insanity) were added as separate grounds for divorce. In 1969 the law was changed so divorce could only be given if the marriage had broken down irretrievably, proved by such things as adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, or a period of separation. This year new laws just need the parties to agree to end the marriage, without showing any fault.

Believers in Christ, however, will be loyal to the laws of God. Christ’s words on divorce, along with 1 Corinthians 7, will be their rule, so that the only grounds for divorce will be adultery/fornication and desertion, the latter including separation caused by unrepented of and uncorrected violence.

What about verbal abuse? Or the active hatred of one for the other? Reformers and Puritans who wrote on the subject were sure that these were not in themselves biblical reasons for divorce. They observed that the hater has a duty to love, and that hostile behaviour may be transient. It should be correctable. But they also indicated that if intolerable verbal abuse could not be stopped by church discipline over time, so that separation became essential, then the offender should be seen as the deserter and the offended spouse able to divorce.

Sometimes there is only a hair’s breadth between violence and verbal abuse, the latter inflicting unreasonable and unendurable pain on the offended spouse. This is probably what Cranmer’s proposed marriage laws referred to as ‘excessive harshness of word and deed’.5

For ‘excessive harshness’ to lead to divorce, Cranmer called for a process in which reproof and repentance would be trialled over time, involving even the magistrate and bail conditions. If all failed, separation would be sanctioned, leading to a divorce for desertion, as in the case of violence. But, as we have seen, this did not become church or civil law for centuries.

If we regard serious verbal abuse as a kind of violence, there should be a hope and desire for reform in the mind of the offended person, coupled with serious effort by pastors to secure repentance and change, before divorce is set in motion.

No pastor or church should want to encourage the breakup of a marriage, but should rather strive to bring about repair, love and happiness. Physical violence or child abuse, of course, presents an emergency situation, the need for a place of safety, and the notifying of police and social services.

There are churches that have adopted a position in which a violent husband seems to be able to do what he likes, and his suffering wife is required to tolerate it. We hear of some pastors who have justified violent husbands by suggesting that their wives have failed to ‘satisfy’ them in some respect. Along with the Reformers and Puritans cited we reject such ideas because violence in marriage is always without excuse.

However, we affirm that marriage is a holy relationship, instituted by God, and may only be terminated on biblical authority. We shudder at ‘light’ divorce, ever remembering the words of Christ, ‘What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Matthew 19.6).

Violence and extreme verbal abuse in marriage should be rare in a ­sincere evangelical community, but they can occur. They seem to be more common in nominal Christian circles, and in churches that are ­entertainment-based and proclaim ‘easy-believism’.

We pray always for mutual love and care in our families. We pray for faithfulness, purity, humility, unselfishness, and patience among God’s redeemed people. We pray that in everything, affection and kindness will rule in every home, and that the headship of the husband will always be coupled with the utmost respect, kindness and attention to his wife’s knowledge, perception and intuition. (In Christian marriage, according to the Scriptures, there is both headship and partnership.) We have the power of the Spirit to enable us in all these aims. May the Lord give closeness and happiness.

Taken from a Tabernacle Prayer Meeting Address


[1]   All that is said here refers to the law in England and Wales.

[2]   Bray G (2000), Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, Martlesham, Boydell.

[3]   The Savoy Declaration (Independents) of 1658 and the (so-called) Baptist Confession of 1689 followed the Westminster as approved by Parliament, ie: lacking the divorce paragraphs. The compilers probably felt that if divorce was not available in the law, it was irrelevant in a Confession of Faith.

[4]   An illuminating discussion of this is found in the detailed Divorce and Remarriage position paper of the American Presbyterian Church (20th General Assembly, 1992).

[5]   ‘Deed’ referred to something other than violence, this having been dealt with separately. It was probably harsh, unkind actions of deprivation or exclusion.