It is a sad truth that Christians are sometimes faced with the abandonment of their spouse. While God designed a couple to be married until death (Genesis 2:24) and says divorcing one’s spouse is an ill-treatment akin to violence (Malachi 2:16), He also recognizes that Christians may not have control over what their spouse does. In cases where an unbelieving spouse deserts a believer, God offers grace to the one left behind.
What freedom does an abandoned spouse have?
Paul explains, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15). The text is clear that, if an unbelieving spouse leaves a believer, the believer is free to accept the separation and move on with life. He or she is “not bound,” indicating full liberty. The believing spouse can and should work for reconciliation (1 Corinthians 7:11), but no one can force another to act against his or her will.
What if the leaving spouse is a believer?
Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7 deal specifically with mixed marriages—the union of a believer with an unbeliever. In the situation of two Christians married to each other, 1 Corinthians 7 would not apply. In that case, we turn to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15–17:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
If a believer is living in unrepentant sin—in this case, deserting one’s spouse—even after being confronted by church leadership, he or she is to be considered an unbeliever. In that way, 1 Corinthians 7:15 can be made to apply to believers who abandon their spouses and refuse to respond to church discipline.
What qualifies as abandonment?
In this context, abandonment refers to physical separation or divorce. If one spouse deserts the other, physically leaving the home, the marriage is dissolved, for all practical purposes. The abandoned spouse is free to let him or her go. The spouse left behind is “not bound,” which we take in a moral and spiritual sense. There is nothing binding the spouse to the one who deserted him or her. The abandoned spouse is free to divorce and free to remarry, although not required to do either.
If the desertion comes in the form of one spouse filing for divorce, then the abandoned spouse is free to sign the paperwork, once all attempts at reconciliation have failed. There is no sin or shame for the spouse who has been abandoned. Accepting the dissolution of the marriage is part of following God’s call to live in peace.
Some counselors and clergy, wishing to be gracious, have defined abandonment in overly broad terms. Some say that it can refer to hardships experienced because of addiction, mental illness, prison sentences, or unkindness. That is not the biblical definition of abandonment, however—unless such hardships rise to the level of abuse, but that is a different topic.
If someone is abandoned, can he or she remarry?
The Bible doesn’t say. Adultery and involuntary divorce are the only two exceptions given in the Bible for divorce—the only two situations in which a divorced person can be said not to have sinned. In Matthew 19:9, Jesus allows that someone who divorces because of a spouse’s infidelity can remarry. The interpretation can go one of two ways: 1) since the Bible doesn’t mention remarriage after involuntary divorce, it is not allowed; or 2) since one case allows for the remarriage of the innocent party, the other does, as well.
It is our view that someone who is involuntarily divorced—that is, one who is a victim of desertion—can remarry. The phrase is not bound in 1 Corinthians 7:15 seems to give that type of freedom. Even so, the person seeking remarriage should do so with great caution. There should be time to heal from the trauma of the broken relationship, to analyze all that contributed to the breakup, and to seek God’s will for the future.
Is the abandoned person always innocent?
Absolutely not. Some people, unhappy in a marriage, will do everything they can to push a spouse to leave and then file for divorce, all the while remaining “innocent.” But this is not innocence; it’s the sin of abuse and manipulation. Abuse in a marriage—even in response to abuse—is a sin, and that requires repentance before God and confession to the victim.