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Abandonment

This article is a sequel on divorce and remarriage as it relates to adultery. The goal of addressing these matters is not to promote divorce and remarriage — in a few moments we’ll talk about how God intends recovery and reconciliation to be a priority — but to note that in some extreme situations that may impact a marriage God does extend His mercy to offer peace. We’ll also dig into the careful process of discernment that must be part of working through a situation involving abandonment.

Reaffirming the Sanctity of Marriage

In short, my belief from Scripture is that the believer is eventually free to remarry following the death of their spouse, the sexual unfaithfulness of their spouse (assuming divorce has followed) and also following abandonment by their spouse. Obviously remarriage is not to be rushed and I go into more detail about discerning remarriage towards the end of this article.

I do not believe in no-fault divorce and remarriage: that would be adultery. I also believe that vigorous effort should be made to recover the marriage following infidelity and even following abandonment — if at all possible, and if it is safe to do so. In acknowledging the possibility of remarriage I do not intend to convey the impression that a marriage can be ended lightly or easily.

Despite these cautionary notes, there is the risk of being accused of not honouring marriage when one makes these claims (even when supporting them with Scripture).

So let me reiterate something of my own heart for marriage. You may or may not know that I am a marriage counsellor: I have invested years of my life in the study and work of helping marriages recover from conflict, infidelity and other forms of betrayal, even from sex and pornography addiction. I co-host The Marriage Podcast for Smart Couples with my wife Verlynda: since 2014 we have published weekly episodes on an extensive variety of topics and we post that content freely for marriages around the world. That podcast has been downloaded in every country in the world and has over 1.2 million downloads, potentially impacting tens of thousands of marriages.

So if you don’t agree with my position on divorce and remarriage — that’s fine!   However please do not accuse me of undermining the sanctity of marriage or seeing it as something disposable. I can confidently say that by the grace of God I have gone to great lengths to help marriages grow, heal, and thrive. Therefore, when I talk about the termination of a marriage in divorce, it is with deep sadness and regret.

The Priority of Marriage

The Apostle Paul also asserted the priority of saving marriages in the face of possible breakdown. Note the instruction of 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” (ESV)

Put simply, the Apostle Paul charges couples to stay together. This ought to be our first priority: to resolve any problems that arise within a marriage so that it may be preserved.

However, this passage is also a tacit acknowledgment that marriages do run into trouble and break down. He acknowledges the possibility of a separation (“the wife should not separate from her husband [but if she does…]”) but even then asserts that she should remain unmarried or give priority to reconciliation. Note that this is a ’should’ and not an explicit commandment. Again, he reasserts that the couple should not divorce.

Even though sexual unfaithfulness and abandonment break the marriage bond, the believer’s first priority is towards reconciliation if at all possible, even when the situation is so severe that separation is required. In these more extreme situations reconciliation will likely be a more long-term prospect rather than an immediate and rushed prospect.

The Unequal Yoke

In the next paragraph, Paul moves on to talk about the situation where a believer is married to an unbeliever. This is not an endorsement to enter into an unequal yoke but it does clarify how to handle the situation where one spouse gets saved through gospel work and the other does not.

Paul says, “…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 Cor 7:12-13, ESV).

The instruction is straightforward: as long as the unsaved spouse remains with the saved spouse there is no need to divorce just because an unequal yoke has been created. The exhortation to not be unequally yoked to an unbeliever (2 Corinthians 6:14) is not so severe that it would demand divorce if one spouse got saved during the course of the marriage.

Verse 14 and 16 give motivation towards staying married to an unsaved spouse:

“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…For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (ESV).

When one spouse is saved, the other is sanctified. The exact nature of this sanctification is difficult to determine: it is not automatic salvation. But by the same token, the lack of salvation in one does not cancel salvation in the other. Rather, the unsaved spouse is sanctified by the presence of the believer in the marriage. Not only that, but the children in the home are also sanctified by the presence of a born again parent. All in all it is clear that to remain married is ideal for all the family members even though an unequal yoke has been created. Indeed, the possibility of the unsaved spouse entering into salvation is asserted in verse 16 and it is not unusual to observe God reaching other family members after just one has been saved.

Abandonment Breaks the Marriage Bond

In the midst of advocating for marriages to remain intact or to reconcile wherever possible, Paul allows for the possibility of a marriage ending in verse 15. Verse 15 is a parenthetical clause in the flow of his discussion regarding the unequal yoke: “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” (ESV).

The separation here is not spoken of in the sense of a period of living apart but in the sense of leaving the relationship — in other words, abandoning the marriage. In this case, the believing spouse is “not enslaved”. The word “enslaved” has to do with the idea of the bondage of slavery —  the believing spouse is not held captive to the consequence of the choice of the departed spouse. Rather, she or he is freed from the bond of marriage.

Again, we return to a nuanced and oft overlooked point: it is not the divorce that is seen to break the bond, but the act of abandonment that does. We saw the same with sexual unfaithfulness: it is not the divorce following infidelity that breaks the bond. Rather, the act of unfaithfulness breaks the marriage bond. The divorce is the legal ratification before the world. The flip side is that this is why a no-fault divorce followed by remarriage constitutes adultery: the original marriage bond was never broken.

People Matter More Than Institutions

We will look at what constitutes abandonment shortly, but the phrase “God has called you to peace” in verse 15 should not be overlooked.

The Apostle did not expect an abandoned believer to live in a state of ongoing distress by simultaneously being legally married but functionally alone. In other words, he did not put the value of the institution of marriage over and above the value of the people in the marriage. A Christian in this situation was loosed from the bond of marriage so that s/he could pursue a life of peace. It is more important that a believer can live freely for God and with God than that a believer remain within the shell of an abandoned marriage.

The underlying principle here is that an institution is not more important than the essential needs of the persons within it.

This principle is taught consistently through Scripture. Another example is found in Mark 2:27 “And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (ESV). Again, the people are more valuable than the institution. Also, in Mark you find the Lord Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath day, reaffirming the importance of persons over institutions.

As overseers, we can potentially cause someone a great deal of grief when we get this backward and value institutions over people. An abusive marriage is one of the more common situations where this can happen unwittingly. When we ask a wife in an abusive marriage to return to the home in order that the institution may appear to be restored “for the sake of the testimony,” this indicates we are more concerned with the image of marriage than with her safety and wellbeing (or even her own calling to peace, v.15). This response would not be in keeping with the teaching of Christ with regards to the Sabbath. It also fails to recognize the way in which the abusive spouse has abandoned the fundamental principles of marriage.

What Constitutes Abandonment?

If abandonment breaks the marriage bond then it is necessary to define what constitutes abandonment.

I am the first to admit that I extend the definition beyond what most people do but I ask you to hear me out.

I also want to affirm that every case of marital breakdown is so unique that my assertions about what constitutes abandonment should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of every similar circumstance. This is really where the wisdom of local overseers is required as they consider the principles of marriage and the needs of the saints in their care.

The typical case of abandonment involves one spouse just walking away from the marriage. In other words, desertion. This does happen occasionally when salvation comes into a home. It also happens in some Christian marriages: one spouse disappears or at least walks away from the marriage with no apparent intent to return. Often there is little or no ability to contact the departed spouse or else the person makes themselves unavailable and unapproachable. Generally speaking, it seems that in these kinds of situations the abandoned spouse is eventually freed from the bonds of that marriage. I would caution that this process of confirming the abandonment should not be rushed and that wherever possible every effort should be made to reconcile.

I also believe that abandonment may extend to abandonment of the fundamental principles of marriage. I’m going to leave that for you to consider in a broader sense — that there are times when people willfully abandon some of the core principles or assumptions of marriage typically at profound emotional and spiritual cost to their spouse.

The only example that I’m going to put forward to consider at the moment is a situation of ongoing domestic violence (which could be in the form of severe ongoing emotional abuse). In this case the fundamental principle of marriage that is being denied is safety and honour. An abused spouse in this situation lives in constant fear and under constant threat of harm or drastic mental and emotional distortion. In this case the abusive spouse, typically male but occasionally female, is completely and consistently violating the principles of love, respect, nurture and cherishing of Ephesians 5.

While you may be concerned that making allowance for this opens the door to more divorce and remarriage I believe that a grace-based position such as this — allowing the possibility of the abandoned spouse to remarry — adds a layer of accountability to the abusive spouse that is completely absent should you insist they remain married. It is interesting how grace leads to holiness and law leads to more suffering…and this is further evidence of the need for careful discernment in such cases.

Of course, every effort should be made to help a marriage in this situation recover: a batterers program for the abusive spouse and counselling support for the abused spouse. Separation is highly recommended for a period of time and reconciliation is only recommended if and when the abused spouse feels it is safe to reconcile and the abusive spouse is showing sustained commitment to uphold the fundamental principles of marriage that he or she formerly ignored. Keep in mind that the recovery rate for abusive men is very, very low so a real work of God is needed in the renewing of his mind.

A great deal of wisdom and care for the abused spouse is necessary in this situation and I would encourage shepherds to pay particular attention to uphold the abused spouse’s wellbeing over and above the pressure you may feel towards getting the couple back together. The underlying abuse issue must be confronted and resolved before she will be able to live in peace. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if you buy into the abusive spouse’s point of view and you force the abused spouse to move back into the abusive environment you actually then become a part of the abusive system yourselves. Often this happens unwittingly due to the subtle manipulative tactics of an abuser that make this type of situation so challenging to navigate.

Remember: the abuser’s abandonment of the fundamental principles of marriage is the real problem. Not the fact they are separated. The abandonment is what is breaking the marriage bond, not the wife’s need to separate in order to feel safe and have peace. The abuser will do what he can to distort your perspective and to paint her as the culprit — that is further evidence that he really is not ready or safe to be in relationship with his wife again. Much more could be said about abuse but I will likely address the topic of abuse in its own episode some time in the future.

Remarriage Following Abandonment

So just to summarize to this point: we have noted so far that abandonment breaks the marriage bond. To the end of verse 16 Paul has stated nothing about remarriage. In fact, he has exhorted that wherever possible the believer’s marriage should be maintained or reconciled.

The question we must now answer is whether the abandoned spouse is ever eligible for remarriage. Let’s follow Paul’s flow of thought carefully.

In verses 17-24 he teaches that a person should “remain in the condition in which he was called” (1 Cor 7:20, ESV) and asserts this in the case of circumcision and slavery. In other words, whatever your social condition when saved — try to remain there. It is not a rigid requirement: he does state that if an enslaved believer has the opportunity to become free, s/he should pursue that.

Following that section, he returns in verse 25 to the subject of singleness and marriage and states regarding the betrothed, “I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (v.25, ESV). Note that what follows is recommended, not mandated (in contrast to the command from the Lord in v.10). To underscore what seems to be best for the Corinthians to whom he is writing, he says “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” Again: he is asking them to try to remain in their current social condition. This is the goal he gives them.

Next comes verse 27 where we return to the subject of divorce and remarriage: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free”. I take this to mean that if you are married, you ought to remain married if at all possible. Remember: Paul has stated these are his recommendations and not commandments from the Lord. He goes on to ask, “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” In other words, if you are separated or divorced and now single again then do not seek out another spouse. Note the preference (not command) towards remaining in the same condition. This should be honoured whenever possible.

But then, in verse 28, “But if you do marry, you have not sinned.”

To me, this is an explicit approval of remarriage following the ending of a previous marriage due to abandonment. There is no way that this phrase can refer to a single person getting married — it only makes sense to craft a statement like this if a divorced person is in view and, specifically to the context, divorced due to abandonment.

Having given his permission to remarry, Paul wraps up his comments with a final note of caution: “Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that” (v.28b). This statement should not be passed over quickly. In the world, second marriages have higher divorce rates than first marriages. There are a number of potential complications that fall under “worldly troubles” involving remarriage:

  • Creating and managing a blended family (children from two households) if the second marriage brings children with it. This is a more complex and challenging parenting scenario than having and raising your own children.
  • Co-parenting, visitation and alimony are complex issues.
  • Divorce itself — while often seen as an end to a difficulty — is a heart-rending experience in its own right.
  • One develops a template for their first spouse: when remarrying, the second spouse will not fit the template and that takes a lot of grace and understanding to adjust to.
  • Second marriages can be prone to comparison with regards to everything from personality to grooming to household responsibilities to sexual intimacy.
  • Significant life events often have an added layer of discomfort associated with remarriage. For example, the awkwardness of having divorced parents at a child’s wedding.
  • And so on.

Thus Paul is justified to offer this final word of caution with regards to a major change in social status.

Paul Is Modelling Discernment

It is easy to get lost in the details of an argument like this so let us take a step back for a moment. Recall that at the beginning of this final section Paul said, “I have no command form the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (v.25, ESV).

This alone should speak to overseers that we do not have clear black and white commands for the more complex and difficult marital situations that will confront us in our service for the Lord. Consequently, the Lord leaves it with us to judge or discern the situation with all the wisdom and trustworthiness that He has mercifully endowed.

This statement by Paul underscores the need to consider situations on a case by case basis and, as much as possible, without partiality.

Not only that, but Paul’s process of discerning what is right also speaks to those who may feel entitled to end their marriages without first investing a great deal of effort to preserve them. There is no obligation on the part of overseers to endorse or encourage remarriage. Rather, what is demonstrated here is a careful process of discernment with the abandoned spouse working in full cooperation and disclosure with overseers and with all parties giving priority to recovering the marriage and pursuing reconciliation. And then, only if necessary, moving towards separation or possible divorce and remaining in that condition. And finally, when it is clear that every effort has been made and reconciliation is no longer possible, to consider (with the blessing of overseers) the possibility of remarrying.

In this way, the sanctity of marriage is preserved and upheld before God, the assembly and the world. At the same time, those in our gatherings who find themselves in these rare but incredibly distressing situations are not burdened with forced singleness. It is not fair for one spouse to choose abandonment and the other to live locked in the remainder of their life as the result of another’s destructive choices. This is grace at work allowing for redemption in the life of a believer: but it is a cautious, discerning and collaborative grace. The process should never be a rash, abrupt and trivial attempt to end one marriage and enter into another.

Items To Consider Before Remarriage

Here are some questions that overseers may wish to consider as they review a case where abandonment has occurred, or where the fundamental principles of marriage have been abandoned:

  • Has there been exhaustive attempts at reconciliation? What is the likelihood of reconciliation occurring?
  • Have you had a chance to have a conversation with the departed spouse? There may be a legitimate reason they bailed which has not been disclosed by the person you have the most access to.
  • The abandoned spouse may have a predisposition towards abusive men…may choose another unless she examines why this is and learns how to pursue healthy romantic interests.
  • Can the abandoned spouse live contentedly as a single person? What are the implications of asking this spouse to remain single: financially, socially, spiritually?
  • Is there a consensus of peace regarding any decision to separate, remain single or remarry between the overseers and the affected spouse?

Conclusion

This is a very difficult and complex process to navigate — the emotional pain of abandonment for a spouse in this situation is profound. It represents a grief that feels like death. Not only is great soul-care required from overseers who would shepherd a person in this circumstance, but also a great deal of discernment as the abandoned spouse learns to live independently and begins to grieve the loss of the hope of reconciliation as well.

A prayerful, thoughtful and Spirit-led work of shepherding is required as God works to unfold His greater story of redemption even in such adverse circumstances.

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.