Can a woman divorce her alcoholic husband?


I enjoy so many of the items on your web site.  I have been a member of the church of Christ (conservative, non-institutional) for many many years.  Recently I have been asked a question that I just cannot figure out how to answer.  I have a relative that has been married to an alcoholic husband for many years.  They are in their 50's and 60's and have no children.  I have seen the husband both drunk and tipsy (if there's a difference).  It is disgusting and revolting.  He drinks so much that he can't even hold on to his food to eat a meal.  She says she's had about all she can stand of it.

To make a longer story short, she wants to divorce him and move away. Just glancing at one of your articles, I think this is where you and I differ.  I tend to think that divorce is wrong and Paul was teaching in I Corinthians what to do in case it does happen. i.e. not to remarry someone else.  But, I do not see him saying it's OK to divorce even though there is no remarriage to someone else.  Please forgive me if I misread your article.  It is way past bedtime and I just glanced through it.  At any rate, she has asked for my advice and I have told her that I certainly would not divorce him.  I don't know whether it would be scriptural for them to separate and her move away or not, though.  I don't see much mentioned in the New Testament about the subject of separation other than I Corinthians 7:5.  Any help you can offer will be much appreciated!


Understand that in biblical times there was no such thing as a separation. What we would call a separation is still a leaving of the marriage from a biblical viewpoint. To say a separation is acceptable but a divorce is sinful is to play word games.

Divorce is never OK. "For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one's garment with violence," says the LORD of hosts. "Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously"" (Malachi 2:16). Sin is involved, and the goal should always be that the matter of sin should be resolved. Even in the case of adultery effort should be made to end the sin and for the adulterer to gain forgiveness. It is only when the breach cannot be repaired because the adulterer refuses to repent that the innocent party has the option of leaving the marriage. "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery" (Matthew 19:9). When reading this in the Greek I notice that the tense indicates that the sexual immorality is an on going problem.

I believe a wife who divorces her husband after he repented of his sin has not forgiven him and will have to answer to God for her unforgiving actions. "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15). Temporary weakness on a spouse's part does not grant a "get out of jail free card" to the other spouse. The divorce that Jesus grants is an allowance because the sinner refuses to repent of his sin.

In a similar way, divorce is not the way to settle marital problems, but some people choose that route anyway. I cannot make a blanket statement regarding whether the divorce is acceptable or not without knowing circumstances. But clearly Jesus has stated there are cases where a person does divorce that does not allow them to remarry. "Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife" (I Corinthians 7:10-11).

In your friend's case, I note that she has lived with this drunken sinner for many years. Nothing has changed, other than she is tired of the situation. She has no reason for leaving her husband other than she no longer wants to deal with him. It is not even a case where she sincerely believes that her life is in danger. I'm sorry she entered into a covenant with such a poor mate. I hope she can get him into treatment because he needs help.

I don't know if she will listen to you or I. I get notes all the time from men and women whose minds are already made up. They already left or have decided to leave. I warn them that their choice, which I don't encourage, means that they are signing up for a life of living alone. Every once in a while someone responds that if he can't get a new spouse, then it isn't worth leaving -- and that is exactly the point. Covenants are about supporting the other person, especially when he fails to keep his obligations, not looking for an escape clause.

When a divorce takes place, someone has sinned. Whether the sinner is the one initiating the divorce or being divorced or both I cannot say without knowing the circumstances.

Regarding I Corinthians 7:10-11, I've thought about this as being that Paul knew people would make the mistake of divorcing.  This passage very clearly commands that they not remarry someone else.  I certainly do no think a woman must stay with an abusive husband, but I don't think she can divorce him, either.  She must protect herself and her children, if she has any.  But I do not think it's an "out" for divorce.

You understand the situation perfectly.  She knew he was an alcoholic when she married him.  In the past years, he has been to AA, all sorts of counselors, etc.  I don't think he will quit until he has to quit!  He'll be "good" for a while and then "fall off the wagon."  The family has tried the "tough love" approach and the "we'll help you any way we can" approach and nothing works.  The very sad part of this is that he is a member of the church and she is not!  Not many of the congregation know of his alcoholism and I don't quite know how to deal with that either.  There are no elders (small congregation.)

Very well put.  So far, I have stuck to my convictions with her that she cannot scripturally divorce him.  I feel so sorry for her that I just don't know what to say to her any more.  She is in bad health herself, and I'm not sure she could hold a full time job. I am so blessed to have a good marriage and sometimes I think people think, "well you just don't know what it's like."  That is, thankfully, true.

Thank you so very much for taking the time to write back so quickly.  I know that, as a minister of the gospel, you must get tons of letters and people asking your advice.  I certainly do understand that, without knowing the complete situation, it is hard to give an exact answer about it.  This situation only reiterates that alcohol bites like a serpent and stings like a viper!     

What is commonly overlooked in regards to I Corinthians 7:10-11 is that Paul is quoting Jesus. These are Paul's thoughts on the matter only because they are first the Lord's thoughts.

As I mentioned before, from the point of view of the Scriptures, leaving a spouse and divorcing a spouse are treated as the same thing. Abandoning a spouse is no less of an offense than divorcing a spouse.

Regardless that the church is without elders, the man is an unrepentant sinner and is supposed to be withdrawn from. "But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner--not even to eat with such a person" (I Corinthians 5:11). The rejection by the church may bring about the moment of crisis he needs to realize he has to change.