I’ve been asked to comment on Doug Wilson’s recent piece on a wife deciding to leave her husband.
While I agree with Doug that there comes a time when a wife is justified in leaving her husband, I don’t believe he describes that time in this article. In fact, this piece straightforwardly reverses what God actually says. Doug’s counsel here is false teaching, because the very scriptures he appeals to say precisely the opposite of what he claims. This is brazen enough that it really gobsmacks me.
I say this forthrightly for the exact reason that I don’t consider Doug a false teacher, and I hope we can sharpen some iron. I won’t fisk the article, but I’ll quote a couple of his remarks to illustrate the central problem:
Your only options at such a point are to remain unmarried or to be reconciled to your husband. It is interesting here that Paul advises a woman not to leave if she can help it – “the wife should not separate from her husband.” That is his apostolic counsel, but it is clear from the context that it is merely advice. If she sees that his generally good advice is not pertinent to her situation, she is left free to leave without being hassled about it by the apostle.
This is really flagrant eisegesis, because note the words that come directly before his quoted words:
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. 1 Corinthians 7:10–11
The verse literally starts with an explicit statement that this is not Paul’s opinion, but the Lord’s. That is the immediate context of the words Doug quotes—words whose context, he says, make it clear this is “merely advice.”
Given the extreme import that bad counsel will have in the situation Doug is addressing, this kind of mistake is not innocent.
Now, it’s important to note that there are two parts to Paul’s statement in vv. 10–11:
- Don’t separate;
- If you separate, don’t remarry.
This is the entire basis of what he goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 7:12–16. He is, first, establishing this principle of marital fidelity, of how marriage should work; verse 10 is absolutely unambiguous that it is the Lord’s own moral ideal for marriage. Then, second, separation is regulated not because it is right, but because it will happen anyway, a la Old Testament law (cf., e.g., Matt. 19:8).
Thus, when Paul goes on to talk about unbelieving spouses in vv 12–16, the initial principle of vv. 10–11 is the explicit context of those attenuating remarks. And the attenuating remarks are: you must observe the principle of marital fidelity in obedience to the Lord (vv. 12–13), but if your unbelieving spouse will not—as is possible because he is disobedient to the Lord in general—then let him separate, and you are free from the marriage (v. 15).
In other words, Paul restates part 1 of our marriage obligations, but gives his view that part 2 does not apply when separation is forced on you by an unbeliever.
But is separation being forced on the woman in Doug’s example? No, absolutely not. This is about her wanting to separate from him, not vice versa. And the command there is explicitly the precise opposite of Doug’s council: she should not do it.
The word used in Corinthians for an unbelieving husband being willing to remain with his wife, or an unbelieving wife being willing to remain with her husband is suneudokeo – “pleased to be together with.” The semantic range of that word does not include your reports of what your husband does – constant anger, outbursts of wrath, sexually degrading behavior, ongoing manipulation and gaslighting, treating you like a slave, total control of all things physical and financial, and so on. You have no biblical obligation to put up with things like that.
This is extremely slippery reasoning. I like and respect Doug, but the serpent himself would be proud of this kind of thing. Sure, the semantic range of suneudokeo doesn’t include these kinds of behaviors, but that’s just a bait and switch. It has nothing to do with whether the husband is still pleased to be together with his wife. Notice that Doug even recognizes the believing spouse does not get to decide whether she is pleased to be with her unbelieving husband; she is to remain with him if he will have it. Which, in the situation he is describing, clearly he will.
What is especially puzzling is that Doug goes only to 1 Corinthians 7, but studiously avoids 1 Peter 3, which explicitly covers this kind of situation, down to the bad behavior of the husband. Indeed, it even deals with examples of sexually degrading behavior, and of treating the wife like a slave; surely these apply to Sarah also, yet Scripture commends her for trusting God and remaining with Abraham through such trials.
Doug’s failure to even mention this more relevant passage makes me think he is not dealing forthrightly and boldly with a difficult situation for which Scripture has hard advice. He is trying to straddle two horses: the word of God, and the feelings of women. And when that gets too hard, he seems to prefer leading the former from the saddle of the latter.
Overall, this is an article that seems very reasonable and balanced until you actually compare it to the Scriptures. A lot like much of modern Christian teaching that has incorporated feminist ideas.
Doug has responded, and the discussion continues…