Part 4: Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s Theses on Divorce and Spousal Abuse

I. In light of the vow to “leave father and mother,” we can understand that desertion of one’s spouse breaks the marriage covenant and is, as such, grounds for divorce.

1. By leaving one’s father and mother to become married, one puts behind one social grouping and forms a new social unit – a new family nucleus. (This may be done, by the way, whether or not one separates from the vacinity or house of his parents. Spatial location is not the point here.)

2. “Leaving father and mother” is thus for the purpose of creating a new bond, now with one’s spouse (cf. the following words in Gen. 2:24, “and cleave to his wife”). The “leaving” is just the other side of the coin of the commitment to live with one’s marriage partner.

3. Abandoning one’s spouse and returning to one’s parents is thus denominated “fornication” in Judges 19:2. Deserting the spouse is a violation of that marriage commitment implied by one’s “leaving father and mother” – whether the deserting partner literally returns to the parents’ home or not.

4. Confirmation of this is found in 1 Corinthians 7:12, 13, where Paul describes the state of marriage in terms of “consenting to dwell with” each other – that is, living together.

5. When an unbelieving spouse refuses to live with his/her marriage partner, the covenant between them is broken. In such a case, when the unbeliever “separates him/herself” (by divorce, cf. v. 10), Paul declares that the believing party is “not bound” any longer (I Cor. 7:15).

6. The fact that the believer is not bound to the marriage commitment any longer – unlike the case of an improper divorce (v. 10), where Paul holds that the deserting party is indeed morally bound to remain unmarried and pursue reconciliation with the divorced spouse (v. 11) – shows that we find here legitimate grounds for the dissolution of the marriage covenant, not merely “consent” to the evil desire of an unbeliever. The wickedness of others does not release Christians from their own moral obligations! Paul’s words show that this particular form of evil violates a contractual obligation, and (only) in that way releases the Christian from former obligations.

J. In light of the vow to “cling (cleave) to” each other, we can understand why attempting to destroy the life of one’s spouse breaks the marriage covenant and is, as such, grounds for divorce.

1. The verb “to cling (cleave)” in Genesis 2:24 (Matt. 19:5; Eph. 5:31) stands between and complements the ideas of [1] leaving father and mother (to cleave to one’s spouse) and [2] becoming one flesh (cf. the verb’s use in I Cor. 6:16-17). Nevertheless it adds something to both notions. It denotes more than living together and going to bed together.

2. This is evident from the use of the verb elsewhere in Scripture. In Hebrew and Greek it can apply to a physical joining of things together (e.g., Job 19:20; Ps. 22:15; 2 Sam. 23:10; Lk. 10:11; Acts 8:29). However, in terms of human relationships, it means “to join with,” “enter into a close relation with,” “associate with on intimate terms,” “make common cause with,” “be committed to in loyalty.” For instance, it denotes clinging to someone in affection and loyalty: e.g., Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:14), the men of Judah to David during Sheba’s rebellion (2 Sam. 20:2), Shechem to Dinah (Gen. 34:3, “speaking to her heart”), Solomon to his foreign wives (I Kings 11:2, “in love”), the prodigal making common cause with his employer by being “joined to” him (Lk. 15:15); it was unlawful to have this kind of relationship – to adhere – to a foreigner (Acts 10:28).

3. Thus we see what is entailed by the word when it is used in the Old Testament for Israel adhering to the Lord in love and submission (e.g., Deut. 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Jos. 22:5; 23:8; Jer. 13:11). When the Psalmist says that he “clings” to God’s testimonies (Ps. 118 [119]:31 LXX), he refers to his support and commitment to them – not somehow to a physical relation with them. Likewise, Paul bids us to “cleave to that which is good” (Rom. 12:9) – the other side of abhoring evil. New converts “cleaved” to Paul (Acts 17:34) by taking up his cause. Believers are described as “joined to” the church (Acts 5:13; 9:26), which obviously speaks of their making common cause, supporting, and being loyal to the perspectives and purposes of God’s people.

4. Likewise, a husband and wife are to “cleave” to each other by being committed to and seeking to do what is in each other’s best interests; they are to be united, not simply in body, but in loyal support of each other’s lives. They are positively to adhere to the genuine needs of each other. This is the diametric opposite of abhorring each other’s life and trying to kill each other.

5. Accordingly, if we examine the husband’s marriage obligations, Scripture teaches us that he is to “dwell together with” his wife “as a weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7). He is obligated to show consideration and protection for his wife in light of her physical vulnerability, treating her as a fragile container. Failure to supply the necessities and protections of life, not to mention physical abuse of this “weaker vessel,” is clearly forbidden.

6. The gravity of a man refusing to supply what is necessary for the physical life and protection of his wife is made evident by the stern words of Paul: “if anyone does not provide especially for his family, he is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). When one remembers the evaluation and destiny of unbelievers according to the theology of Paul, these words have incredible intensity and severity. Someone who exposes his wife and family to physical harm by deprivation of their basic necessities is (somehow!) in a worse moral condition or under greater condemnation than an unbeliever. If this sin of omission brings someone into such a dreadful evaluation, one can imagine how much more positive abuse – or sins of commission against the physical life and well-being of his wife and family – would do so.

7. Rather than taking steps to kill their wives, husbands are morally bound by their marriage covenant to give up their lives for the sake of their wives: “Husbands, love your wives, even as also Christ loved the church gave himself up on behalf of it” (Eph. 5:25).

8. The obligation entailed here has very obvious outward and physical manifestation. Husbands are required by their marriage covenant to love their own wives “as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28). Just as they would not do anything detrimental to their own physical well-being or life, so they have strict moral orders not to do so to their own wives. They are forbidden to “hate their flesh” (Eph. 5:29), which clearly rules out depriving them of sustenance and protection or showing them physical violence. By direct contrast, Paul teaches in the same verse that it is the duty of husbands to “nourish and cherish” their wives’ flesh.

9. Accordingly, when a husband deprives his wife of nourishment, physical covering and protection, or (more) when he actually beats her and threatens her life, he has done far more than fall short of “an ideal mate” – like someone who lies to his wife or sins in other ways. This kind of sin has a special intensity. He has violated an essential obligation of the marriage covenant, refusing to adhere or cleave loyally to his wife’s well-being and life.

10. If in the other two cases of covenanted obligations of marriage (sexual fidelity, living together) violation of the terms of the covenant grants the offended party the moral right to seek dissolution of the legal bond (by divorce), we should reason that it does so also in the case of the covenanted obligation of “cleaving to” each other. To deny that implication without sound and Biblical reasons for doing so would be to indulge special pleading and preconceived notions – a kind of arbitrariness which must not characterize Christian theological thinking. (But doesn’t the Biblical teaching that “only fornication” is grounds for divorce argue against this implication? See again D,E,F above.)
Author: Greg Bahnsen

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About Joe Porter

By the abundant lovingkindness and grace of God I have been in Christ for nearly 40 years. I live to love and serve God in whatever capacity He has in mind. And can do no other but to follow my conscience as scripture and reason guide me threw the shadow lands. I raised 5 children one of whom now sees clearly as he walks on streets of gold. God has blessed me after all these years with a godly, prudent wife. I cannot imagine a greater gift on the earth. I have a Masters of Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. I own a business in Nebraska, but I live to serve God. I have preached in three different churches for a period of 10 years. I love preaching God's word. Because of my divorce I am not currently serving in any official capacity, but I know that the Lord has a ministry for me. My goal is to write a book on the topic of divorce when unequally yoked, and this blog is a step in that direction. No brother or sister in Christ should divorce their spouse solely upon the advice they find here or anywhere else for that matter. Immerse yourself in God's word, and go before the Lord--wait upon Him and He will make it clear when the time comes that you are called to repent of your unequally yoked marriage. Christ's continued blessings, Joe View all posts by Joe Porter

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