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Wayne Grudem has recently made an argument that abuse is permissible basis for divorce in accordance with 1 Corinthians 7:15. The issues of divorce is fraught with peril; and so, my arguments here are quite tentative and based upon a brief consideration. I am merely thinking out loud. But I do believe that Grudem’s argument is plausible and could be strengthened significantly.

Here experience as an attorney helps to understand what is happening with Paul’s legislation.

The argument made by Dr. Grudem is quite similar to the sort of interpretation which is faced routinely in litigation: A particular statute will include both a definite statement of some category and a list of examples. The particular section of his presentation at issue concerns the phrase “in such cases” found in 1 Corinthians 7:15:

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.

(ESV). Grudem’s argument hinges upon the plural use in the original:

1 Corinthians 7:15 (SBLGNT)

15 εἰ δὲ ὁ ἄπιστος χωρίζεται, χωριζέσθω· οὐ δεδούλωται ὁ ἀδελφὸς ἢ ἡ ἀδελφὴ ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις, ἐν δὲ εἰρήνῃ κέκληκεν ἡμᾶς ὁ θεός.

The structure is similar to that faced by the courts. The difficulty here lies with the nature of translation, particular when dealing with a grammatical connective (as opposed to the translation of a noun or verb which have a clearer reference in the physical world). The translation runs to either “in such cases” or “in such circumstances”.

Grudem gives a number of examples from other extra-biblical Greek texts where the phrase is used to introduce an open-ended list (as opposed to giving a restricted list: these items and no more). However, Grudem’s examples from other texts is insufficient to make a solid conclusion.

The interpretative question is whether Paul intends for his example to be read as an exhaustive list: “in this circumstance only”; or is it to be read as an example, “in circumstances like this”.  The plural could mean either any time an unbeliever separates (and thus multiple unbelievers) or it could mean circumstances similar to an unbeliever separating.

The phrase “in such circumstances/cases” is not a common phrase in statutory construction. But there are other quite similar phrases which could inform our analysis.

Perhaps the most common introductory comment is “includes”. For example, a case in Nebraska of an employee seeking benefits sustained by an injury turned upon whether the phrases following “high risk duty includes:” were an exhaustive list or an exemplary list. The court found that use of the word “include” introduces an expansive list:

We recognize that some courts have concluded that the word “include,” standing alone, is ambiguous whether the contracting parties meant for the word to be expansive or restrictive. But we are not persuaded by these cases. Concluding that the parties’ intent regarding a list is ambiguous if a list is preceded only by the verb “include” is contrary to its plain and ordinary meaning. The word “include” means “1. to contain, embrace, or comprise, as a whole does parts or any part or element … 2. to place in an aggregate, class, category, or the like. 3. to contain as a subordinate element; involve as a factor.” Contrary to the county’s argument, these definitions support the conclusion that enumerated items in a list preceded by the word “include” are normally a part of the whole—not that the parts restrict the whole. Particularly in legal contexts, the “participle including typically indicates a partial list,” and this meaning holds true whether or not the drafter(s) added emphatic language such as “ including but not limited to.” Obviously, interpretative aids cannot override the parties’ clear intent when a contract is considered as a whole. But the word “include” preceding a list does not indicate an exclusive list absent other language showing a contrary intent.

Timberlake v. Douglas Cnty., 865 N.W.2d 788, 797 (Neb. 2015). Prodigy Svcs. v. Johnson, 125 S.W.3d 413, 417 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (A related phrase which is much easier to apply is “includes, but is not limited to:” “Following that line of argument the Commissioner finds expansive language in the statute, such as “transmission by or through any media” and “includes but is not limited to, all types of telecommunication transmissions.” See Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-6-102(31)(BC)(Supp. 2002).”)  Thus, if we read Paul’s “in such cases” as “includes”, we have a basis for reading abandonment as one example, not a complete list.

A related phrase connecting a general to a specific reference is “such as” – which is perhaps more similar to Paul’s construction. A Michigan case involving the scope of the phrase “earth movement” provides some useful analysis:

Relying on the doctrine of ejusdem generis, Andriacchi argues that the term “earth movement” is constricted by the words of limitation “such as.” Because the exclusion only identifies natural events—”earthquake, landslide or earth sinking, rising or shifting”—Andriacchi argues that the term “earth movement” is limited to naturally occurring events. Reliance on this doctrine is misplaced. Under the ejusdem generis doctrine, “when a general word or phrase follows a list of specifics, the general word or phrase will be interpreted to include only items of the same class as those listed.” Black’s Law Dictionary(10th ed.). But as the trial court recognized, that doctrine (or, for that matter, any other canon of statutory interpretation) does not apply where the language of the contract is clear, see, e.g., Utica State Savings Bank v. Village of Oak Park279 Mich. 568, 573273 N.W. 271 (1937), as is the case here. Further, the phrase “such as” conveys that the cited examples are not all-inclusive or restrictive in nature, and thus does not serve to narrow the types of earth movement excluded under the policy. Moreover, the cited examples of earth movement are not only caused by natural phenomena. For example, landslides can occur naturally or be caused by man, as can the “sinking, rising or shifting” of the earth.

Home-Owners Ins. Co. v. Andriacchi, 903 N.W.2d 197, 203-4 (Mich. Ct. App. 2017). Here we had a party arguing that “such as” acted as a limitation, and the court responding with the observation that here are examples where “such as” did not limit the general proposition. But something is important here: the canons of construction are not iron clad rules, they are helps to understanding: “But as the trial court recognized, that doctrine (or, for that matter, any other canon of statutory interpretation) does not apply where the language of the contract is clear”.

In a criminal case which hinged upon scope of the word “matter” in a jury instruction concerned the computer hardware or computer disk which held an image or the image itself.

The statute indicates that at a minimum, a “matter” must be capable of containing a visual depiction. See 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B). Although both the disks and the GIF files could be viewed as “containing” the visual depiction, we conclude the “matter” is the physical medium that contains the visual depiction — in this case, the hard drive of Lacy’s computer and the disks found in his apartment. This interpretation is supported by two principles of statutory interpretation, noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis. “The first means that a word is understood by the associated words, the second, that a general term following more specific terms means that the things embraced in the general term are of the same kind as those denoted by the specific terms.” United States v. Baird, 85 F.3d 450, 453 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing 2A Norman J. Singer, Sutherland-Statutory Construction §§ 47.16, 47.17 (5th ed. 1992)). Although canons of construction do not mandate how a phrase is to be read, they “describe what we usually mean by a particular manner of expression.” Longview Fibre Co. v. Rasmussen, 980 F.2d 1307, 1313 (9th Cir. 1992). Here, the word “matter” appears at the end of the list “books, magazines, periodicals, films, [and] video tapes,” all of which are physical media capable of containing images. See Baird, 85 F.3d at 453 (looking to list’s “theme” to determine the meaning of a general term).

United States v. Lacy, 119 F.3d 742, 748 (9th Cir. 1997). There are two elements of this argument which are useful here: the purpose of a list of examples is to help understand a particular term. There is always a bit of ambiguity in language; at times a list of examples can help to diminish the ambiguity. The second observation is that no “rule” can absolutely answer the question; it only helps when it comes to interpretation.

So here with we have additional help. What do not have is a conclusive answer.

As noted above, Grudem makes much of the use of the phrase in other extra-biblical Greek texts. His examples demonstrate that it is possible to read the phrase as introducing one example, rather than a restrictive list. But that is all his argument proves.

I do not believe his argument as it stands is sufficient to make the case. He merely notes that the grammatical structure could permit a broad reading; not that it must permit a broad reading. The answer to that question does not hinge upon the use of the particular, but upon the structure of the argument.

To understand Paul’s argument correctly, we must do more than atomistically look at phrase and then compare that phrase to other not necessarily parallel uses. That is not how language works. It is true that the phrase at least sometimes has the force of  “includes but not limited to”. But does it here?

If one looks at verse 15 alone, it is difficult to see how one could construct such an argument for the use of phrase. The plural could just mean “every time an unbeliever leaves a marriage”: or every unbeliever who leaves: “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.”

To construct an “includes but is not limited to” argument, would have to first define a general category in which abandonment (“separates”) is a common not though exhaustive example.  The trouble is the verse does not provide us with any general category. In fact, looked at alone, the preceding reference for “in such cases” is the sole instance of an unbelieving spouse abandoning the marriage.

However, if we back up to verse 13 (verse 14 is merely explains the principle underlying the rule) we can see the following argument running from verse 13 through 15:

13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  …. 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.

General rule: if an unbeliever “consents to live with”. The clause “consents to live with” is uncertain. What does it mean to “consent to live with”?

Verse 15 introduces an example: “If the unbelieving partner separates”.  Thus, abandoning the marriage would not be the sole instance of not consenting to live with but merely an example of one who does not consent to live with.

The counter argument would be that “pleased to dwell with” has only one opposite term, abandonment. But again, looked at from this angle, Grudem’s argument based upon the Greek seems more plausible: Is the only opposite of “pleased to dwell with” abandonment? Certainly, abandonment is one opposite term, but it does not seem to be the only opposite term.

Conclusion: I think Grudem has presented the beginning of a good argument. His argument would actually be much stronger if it were anchored in the structure of Paul’s argument and not in a narrow reading of the phrase.

Moreover, anchoring the argument in the overall structure of the Paul’s argument has the additional advantage of not trying to contend that abuse is a form of abandonment, but rather that abuse is inconsistent with “pleased to dwell” (1 Cor. 7:13, KJV).

In addition, (I don’t have the cite available), I recall reading (in Baxter’s Christian Directory?) that to stay in a marriage where one’s life was in danger is a violation of the 6th Commandment, because we don’t have a right to let others kill us. I’m surprised that Baxter’s argument has not received more traction: I think it a good argument and far simpler to apply than looking for grounds for divorce. Now, Baxter’s argument may not sufficient to anchor a remarriage (I just don’t know), but it certainly provides for separation for safety.

Physical abuse is a sin and a crime. Congregations have serious obligations to protect the safety of their members, and to utilize both the process of church discipline and the legal protections available. Failure to do these things has resulted in many congregations sinning against those who were most in need of protection.

A final important caution: the introduction of an example, even if only one in a series of other possible example, does form a kind of restriction. Only things which are the opposite of “pleased to dwell with” and similar to “separates” are included within Paul’s list. If we read the scope of permissible divorce as broader than abandonment, we must have some limiting mechanism to distinguish those instances which are plainly outside of Paul’s injunction.