Is Emotional or Spiritual Abandonment Grounds For Divorce?
In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul writes that abandonment provides biblical grounds for divorce. But what exactly constitutes abandonment in Paul's context? Is it solely physical desertion, or could it also refer to things like emotional, spiritual, or mental abandonment?
As we did with our most recent blog, we want to acknowledge that we’re stepping right into the middle of a tense debate dividing churches and denominations. We do not wish to simply add more noise to this debate; rather, this question deserves a careful and considered response from Scripture. With this in mind, our aim is to provide a concise examination of Paul’s charge in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, to determine what abandonment is and is not—so that, ultimately, we can understand what is and is not grounds for divorce.
Let’s begin with a look at the text in question:
10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 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. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:10–16)
Paul says that if an unbelieving partner separates from (abandons) his/her spouse, the believing husband/wife is not bound to that partner. But, what is Paul talking about specifically? And how should this text be applied today? Traditionally, abandonment has been understood to refer to the actual, physical leaving or separation of a spouse or an actual appeal for divorce from the unbelieving spouse.
That said, there is a growing chorus of those who would claim that abandonment in this context might also refer to an emotional, psychological, financial, sexual, or spiritual “abandonment” where the unbeliever remains physically and legally unseparated from their spouse but has abandoned the marriage in one or more of these spousal roles or responsibilities.
So, which is it?
Let us first be clear: emotional or spiritual abandonment is awful. We grieve with the brother or sister experiencing any of the aforementioned circumstances and desire for them to experience hope and healing in the midst of their suffering. Emotional, psychological, financial, sexual, and spiritual abandonment are sinful and sorrowful. But, our question is not whether or not they are sinful. Everyone agrees that they are. Rather, does such abandonment constitute biblical grounds for divorce?
We believe they do not—for several reasons.
But before we can dive into those reasons, one more clarification is necessary.
“I, not the Lord”
What does Paul mean by the parenthetical remark "I, not the Lord" in this passage? Some argue that this is just Paul giving his opinion—which is helpful—but not authoritative, as when he is speaking apostolically and authoritatively. In other words, they think that Paul's advice and admonitions can be broken into two categories:
1. Non-binding opinion—which is helpful—but not ultimately authoritative.
2. Binding apostolic teaching which is authoritative.
If we hold the first view, we might then dismiss whatever Paul writes here about abandonment as non-binding and non-authoritative; it’s just the word of a man and not the word of God.
But, if we maintain that all Scripture is the inspired and authoritative word of God, then such a distinction cannot be held. So then, what is Paul intending with his parenthetical remark? Rather than discounting his authority, Paul is simply distinguishing between two types of teaching:
1. Situations which were spoken to explicitly by Jesus in His earthly ministry ("not I, but the Lord" – 1 Corinthians 7:10).
2. Situations which were not explicitly addressed by Jesus in His earthly ministry ("I, not the Lord" – 1 Corinthians 7:12).
In other words, both contexts are apostolic, both are authoritative, both are inspired; but, in one Paul is merely repeating what Jesus had already said (regarding marriage in general) and in the other he is addressing a context that Jesus never explicitly addressed (believers married to unbelievers—especially when those unbelievers abandon the marriage).
When Paul says, "not I, but the Lord," he is basically just repeating what Jesus had taught as recorded in the gospels. But when he writes, "I, not the Lord," he is now dealing with a situation that Jesus did not explicitly address. So, by saying “I, not the Lord,” all Paul is saying is that you can’t flip over to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John to see what you should do regarding marriage to a non-believing spouse; he is not saying “this is just my opinion.” Therefore, this passage is not only relevant, but also binding upon our lives and consciences.
With that in mind, let's consider the reasons for rejecting the claim that emotional or spiritual abandonment provide biblical grounds for divorce.
Language and Literary Context
We must begin by considering Paul’s specific language and literary context. The question is not, "What can abandonment mean?" but, "What does Paul mean?" The idea that Paul is referencing or meaning to allow for divorce in cases of emotional or spiritual abandonment is improbable at best.
First, the meaning of the word "separate" doesn't square with a metaphorical or spiritual interpretation of the text. Paul specifically describes abandonment as when one “separates” from their spouse (v.15). The Greek word for “separates,” χωρίζεται, (chorizetai) carries two primary nuances as used in Scripture. In some contexts, it refers specifically to divorce, as in "what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9). But most often, it refers to an actual, physical departure. Other translations use words such as “leaving” (NASB) and “departing” (KJV) to capture this nuance. In all the definitions that the standard Greek lexicons (BDAG, ANLEX, DBL) give for this word, the literal/physical definition is preferred over a metaphorical, emotional, or non-physical understanding of abandonment in marriage. Consider some of the other contexts in which the same Greek word is used:
- And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me…" (Acts 1:4)
- After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them… (Acts 18:1–2)
Just as it would be strange to think that the Emperor Claudius had commanded all Jews to emotionally or spiritually leave Rome while physically remaining in the city, so it is strange to think that Paul is speaking of an unbeliever merely emotionally or spiritually abandoning his or her spouse while physically remaining.
Thus, it is clear that Paul is saying one of two things (which actually overlap). Either he is speaking of an unbelieving spouse divorcing a believer, or he is speaking of an unbelieving spouse physically leaving. From a first-century context, those wouldn't be much different. Divorce implied leaving and leaving implied divorce. But emotional or spiritual abandonment is nowhere present in Pauline thought.
Second, the meaning of the phrase "live with" suggests a physical desertion rather than an emotional, spiritual, or otherwise metaphorical desertion. The phrase “live with” in verse 13 is the Greek verb οἰκεῖν (oikein). This word is related to the word for “house” (gk: οἰκια), and carries the nuance of dwelling together, inhabiting, or residing with. The idea seems to be that if the unbeliever is willing to live under the same roof (or in the same house), then the believing spouse should remain within the marriage. Again, there seems to be no compelling exegetical reason to interpret this word metaphorically.
Third, the relationship between desertion and divorce suggests that a physical view rather than mere metaphor is in view. In verse 15, the term “separates” is contrasted with being “enslaved,” (i.e. remaining in the marriage "bonds"). Paul’s point is that physical abandonment is equated with divorce. In other words, you are not bound to a marriage when your spouse has already deserted and divorced you by physically abandoning you. Notice that it is the departing spouse who initiates the divorce by his or her leaving.
Most powerfully, 1 Corinthians 7:12-13 says that "…if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him" (1 Corinthians 7:12–13). Basically, if your spouse is still willing to “live with” you, then it means they have not abandoned you. Thus, to divorce someone who desires to remain married and living together on the basis of “emotional abandonment” is a direct violation of this command.
So, to summarize what we’ve seen thus far: the context Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians 7 is a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. His command is that they should stay married (vss. 12-13). If the unbeliever actually decides to take steps of separation, then the believer is not guilty for this act by the unbeliever.
Therefore, even if we were to interpret the context as referring to some sort of metaphorical abandonment (emotional, spiritual, financial, etc.), notice that Paul doesn’t command or even permit the offended party to pursue divorce. His point is that if an unbelieving spouse has already deserted you (and thus divorced you in Paul’s context), you are not bound to the marriage any longer. In such a case, you do not pursue divorce, because it was already pursued by your spouse. When they deserted you, with no intention of ever returning to you, they were initiating the divorce. Only in a case where the unbeliever has physically departed, but not legally filed, could the believer potentially be the one to initiate the legal aspect of the divorce (given that the unbeliever has already theologically initiated the divorce by virtue of leaving).
In addition to these linguistic and literary reasons for rejecting the idea that Paul would allow for divorce in cases of emotional or spiritual abandonment, we must consider Paul’s historical context.
Before we can ask what “abandonment” means to us today, we must ask, “How would a 1st century Jewish Christian (like Paul) understand the ideas of abandonment, separation, and divorce?”
Where the Old Testament allowed for divorce it uses the phrase “send her away,” which included physical separation. We know this was an actual physical separation because, in the Ancient Near East, a husband often had to provide money for his divorced wife (so she could have the means to survive apart from her husband) and had to write her an official certificate of divorce (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4). It did not mean that they stayed in the same house and were emotionally or spiritually distant. It meant that there was an actual removal of one person from or by another. Divorce and actual physical separation are equated. Thus, the idea that Paul is thinking that a spouse is living in the same house but just emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically abandoning their spouse is built upon modern presuppositions and is almost certainly not what Paul is addressing in this context.
Additionally, though the Church has not always gotten everything right, it’s wise to consider what the majority of Christians have believed throughout our history on this issue. With this in mind, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of believers throughout the history of the church (Protestant, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox) have not considered emotional, financial, or spiritual abandonment grounds for divorce—although surely these are not modern phenomena.
The majority of early church fathers held that divorce was acceptable in cases of adultery, but—even then—remarriage was not allowed. Then, starting around the 15th century, the majority position of the Protestant Church was that divorce and remarriage are acceptable in cases of physical adultery and physical desertion. Though there have been a few dissenting voices, the majority of pastors and theologians have held that these (and only these) provide grounds for biblical divorce. In general, it wasn't really until the 20th century rise of a culture of "no fault" divorce and "irreconcilable differences" that we begin to see an increase of arguments to expand the grounds for divorce—and even then, it was not primarily on the basis of exegetical appeal.
When you find that almost no Christians in all of church history have ever held a view that many now find appealing, you should probably exercise caution and doubt until an overwhelming exegetical case can be made for appropriating such a revision.
Lastly, logic itself demands that we restrict our interpretation of abandonment to a physical desertion.
First, the general biblical usage of “separation” or “abandonment” implies physical desertion. Therefore, it is important to note that the burden of proof rests on the person that believes that the word refers to some other form of abandonment. The fact that the English word “abandonment” can carry a spiritual or emotional nuance does not imply that the original Greek can do the same; the context makes it clear that this is most likely not Paul’s point. In fact, even in passages where some spiritual nuance is possible, it is still linked to a physical separation. For example, when the author of Hebrews describes Jesus as "separated from sinners," he then follows that up with "exalted above the heavens" (Hebrews 7:26). In other words, it seems like the word can refer to more than physical separation, but never less. As we cannot remove words from Scripture, neither can we add them. Adding the words emotional, psychological, mental, spiritual, or any other word to extend (or limit) the range of the separation, desertion, or abandonment that Paul envisions would be an unfaithful and incorrect exegesis of the text.
Second, by virtue of the fact that one person in the marriage is a non-believer, they have certainly already “abandoned” several of their God-given responsibilities! For example, a non-believer cannot be spiritual in the way that a believer can (resulting in “spiritual abandonment”), probably won't be as emotionally connected to their believing spouse (resulting in “emotional abandonment”), and has no ultimately authoritative reason to fight for the marriage. A husband who doesn't love like Christ loved the church has forsaken the underlying image and meaning of marriage. A wife who doesn't submit like the church or doesn't respect her husband's divinely ordered headship, has forsaken her biblical role as a wife. In fact, it is fundamentally impossible for an unbeliever to be faithful to a believer in regards to all of the theological implications of marriage. This means that allowing a believer to divorce their spouse due to emotional, spiritual, or mental abandonment would give just about any believer married to an unbeliever grounds for divorce (which is the exact opposite of what Paul is arguing).
Furthermore, adopting the metaphorical meaning of separation in this passage gives grounds for divorce for almost any reason. If one were to change the definition of abandonment to mean something less physical and spatial, then that would necessarily imply that many if not most couples could get divorced for a host of reasons. Most have emotionally or mentally abandoned a spouse at least for a time. By what authority would we therefore distinguish between somewhat normal emotional abandonment and that which would grant grounds for divorce? It seems that abandonment, in 1 Corinthians, is not merely failing to live like one is supposed to live, but actually leaving and quitting the marriage entirely. We see this also in 1 Peter 3:1 “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” If we allow or encourage someone to pursue divorce because their spouse fails to adhere to their emotional and spiritual responsibilities, then we counsel in direct contradiction to Scripture. The Bible speaks in both 1 Corinthians 7:12-13 and 1 Peter 3:1 to Christian spouses who have been abandoned in many emotional, spiritual, psychological, and other metaphorical ways; the Bible’s consistent command is to remain married in these tragic cases for the glory of God and the ultimate joy of obedience.
Old Testament Precedent
Before concluding, we must consider a specific argument sometimes given to defend the emotional or spiritual interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7. Some will say that Old Testament texts like Exodus 21:10-11 seem to suggest that if a man deprives his wife of food, clothing, or marital rights, then he should allow her to freely leave.
Without going into all the various reasons that this passage would not provide a compelling precedent, the most important reason for rejecting this argument is that it fails to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New. Jesus is well aware of Exodus 21. He is aware of Deuteronomy 24. He is well aware of the Jewish interpretation of these passages and the debates between Hillel and Shammai (early Jewish rabbis whose differing perspectives on divorce and remarriage formed the general positions on the subject in first-century Jewish thought). And yet, when He speaks of grounds for divorce, Jesus mentions one and excludes all others. That one ground is not emotional, mental, or sexual abandonment. In fact it isn't even physical abandonment. It is "πορνεία" (porneia)—physical sexual immorality involving someone other than your spouse.
That is the only ground for pursuing divorce that we find in the entire New Testament. There is an important distinction here, so read carefully: Paul is not giving a separate ground for pursuing divorce, but is instead dealing with a unique case in which a believer has been physically abandoned and divorced by his or her spouse. In this case, the innocent party is no longer bound to the marriage.
Appealing to Exodus 21 to allow someone to divorce their spouse for emotional or spiritual abandonment is not only foreign to 1 Corinthians 7, but would also explicitly contradict what Jesus says in Matthew 5 and 19 (and Mark 10 and Luke 16).
With all of this in mind, it seems that Paul is speaking only of the case in which an unbeliever has divorced his or her spouse and/or physically deserted them. The idea that Paul is providing grounds for divorce for emotional, sexual, financial, spiritual, or psychological abandonment is unlikely. To say otherwise, one must demonstrate that the collective weight of all the arguments above is not compelling, and provide a more convincing argument from Scripture.
That being said, nothing in this post should be taken to imply that emotional or spiritual abandonment is good, right, or godly. God is not okay with nor does He encourage such behavior. These circumstances deserve and demand a listening ear and sympathetic heart. Though applying these interpretations with love and grace will be difficult in a broken world with broken people, practical concerns must be secondary to biblical interpretation.
In the end, the ESV captures the gist of Paul’s thought well by saying that one should not pursue divorce as long as their spouse “consents to live with [them].” Paul’s command is, thus, quite clear: if a spouse is willing to share a home, then abandonment has not occurred and divorce is not an option.
Far from complicating issues, this understanding actually frees us to lean in to the good commands of God—and find hope and healing therein. Ultimately, true hope and healing is found not first and foremost in immediate gratification, but in faithful submission to the authority and sufficiency of God’s good and gracious word.