It has been a while since I wrote anything in my series on “Divorce, Remarriage, and Ministry.” You can follow the link to the last article which also has a link to all the articles in the series. Today, I want to take up a topic that has been raised in previous discussions of the subject, one that has aroused emotion, passion, even anger. The question is whether abuse – physical or verbal – is grounds for divorce. Am I overly optimistic that we can discuss this issue biblically and rationally?
Let me state something very clearly, before the debate here even gets started. Abuse of a woman by a man is despicable and inexcusable. When God gives someone authority, they are to use that authority as a servant, as Christ did. He is Lord of all, yet he came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. When we use the authority that God has given us in our homes to oppress, belittle, or hurt in any way, we offend God. Husband are to love their wives and seek to be a blessing to them.
Too often, men have asserted their authority in the home in an ungodly way, throwing their weight around, demanding their wives serve their needs, and controlling them in every way. That is not the godly design.
We are not going to waste time discussing whether the abuse of a woman is ever justified. Nor need we engage in a contest to demonstrate who is most passionate in their opposition to abuse. It’s wrong. It’s disgusting. It angers God and is contrary to his intent for marriage.
And it angers us in such a way that when we hear of a woman being abused our instinct is to say, “Leave the jerk and go be happy!” (Many of you may want to substitute a stronger word than jerk, but that is a harsh as I go.) We want to tell someone who is abused that they are free to leave the abuser and find someone who will treat them in a better way.
But that is not the way we do biblical exegesis. We do not interpret the Bible on the basis of our emotions. The force or fervor of my feelings cannot be the rubric by which the Bible is interpreted. We have to study the Word and let sound hermeneutical principles govern, not our emotion.
Nor can our personal experiences (which are usually the source of the emotions mentioned above) be the guide to interpretation. There is not a form of abuse that you can mention that has not happened to someone among my family and friends. I have had to handle some horrific situations in counseling. I am not without experience or emotion on the topic. But we must exegete the scriptures and interpret our experience by its teachings. We cannot establish our experiences as authoritative and force the Bible into their mold.
Of course, all of us agree with this in theory, but when it comes to this topic, emotions and experiences are often pushed to the forefront.
What I would like to suggest to you is a biblical pattern which I believe teaches how a woman should handle an abusive marriage. We can discuss the scriptures as our standard.
The Biblical Principles
In one of my previous posts on the topic, I summarized the survey of biblical evidence on the topic. I will not argue the facts of that post again. I have demonstrated that the scripture consistently teaches the following:
Marriage is designed by God and is meant to be a permanent covenant between a man and a woman. ‘Till death do us part.”
There are only two grounds given in the scripture by which a divorce is permissible. These two actions break the marriage covenant in such a way that the innocent party is freed from the covenant. Christ established adultery as a grounds for divorce. Paul added to that, in 1 Corinthians 7, the act of abandonment. Both acts end the marriage.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul establishes a third situation in which a marriage might end. In verses 10-11, Paul makes an offer to women who cannot live with their husbands – one he does not give to men.
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.
Husbands are not permitted to divorce their wives, but wives are permitted to separate from their husbands on grounds beyond that of either adultery or abandonment. If she separates on these grounds, she must either live single, or seek to reconcile with her husband. Questions arise from these verses.
First, why would Paul give an option to women that he does not give to men? Paul establishes in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 (and other places) that men and women have different roles in marriage. Women must submit to their husbands as to the Lord, while men are called to lead their wives and family in the ways of the Lord. Since a man has that authority within the home, he must stay at it. But since the woman is called to submit to her husband, she is also given the way of escape from the marriage if that authority is unbearable.
So, that leads to the second question. In what circumstances may a woman invoke this passage’s permission to leave? The answer would seem to flow naturally from the answer to the first question. If a man uses his authority in the home to oppress or abuse a woman in such a way that she finds living with him unbearable, she is given the right to leave the home.
Finally, then, what are her options if she leaves the home on this basis? That is clearly defined in verse 11. She may either live as a single woman or she may seek to reconcile to her husband. Her marriage here is not recognized as ended and she is not permitted to divorce.
So, What about Abuse?
1) We ought not add a third grounds for divorce if the Bible does not.
The Bible gives two reasons for divorce; adultery and abandonment. Many have essentially added a third ground for divorce, abuse. We are always on shaky ground if we assume that our wisdom is greater than that of the writers of the scriptures. There is, among some, a sense of ethical superiority towards the biblical days – as if we simply know more and have better insight today than those benighted folks did 2000 or 3000 years ago. That is arrogant.
We must not permit that which the scripture does not, or go beyond the Bible. We have no biblical authority to tell a woman that her husband’s abuse frees her from that marriage. It does not.
2) We ought not abuse the biblical teaching on authority to demand that women stay in abusive homes.
Far too often, that has happened! Pastors have told women that God wants them to submit to their abusive husbands and have sent them back into situations in which great harm was done to them and their children. But 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 gives women options here, one which we should make known to them.
A woman is permitted to leave an abusive home and live separately. I have suggested this very thing to women when their husbands are abusive of their authority. God calls women to submit to their husbands’ authority, but does not call them to submit to physical abuse or extreme cruelty.
3) A woman who separates from her abusive husband has two biblical options.
She may decide that living single is better than living with her husband. Or, perhaps, if her husband goes through genuine repentance and spiritual transformation, she will return to him. She has those options. The option she does not have is to find another man.
4) If an abused woman separates from her husband on these grounds, the church should support, encourage and help her, not judge her.
Too often, women have experienced judgment from the church when they have made known accusations of abuse. The church ought to help abused women in every way they can. They ought to surround them with acceptance and support. They should, if needed, come to their aid financially. They should confront the abusive husband and call him to repentance.
5) The same principles apply when a child is the one being abused.
No woman should stay in a home in which her child is endangered by an abusive man. It is fundamental to a woman’s nature to protect her children. It would be despicable to suggest she should leave her children in danger. The principles of 1 Corinthians 7:1o-11 would apply here.
6) The idea that abusive men cannot change is a denial of Christ’s power.
The idea that is commonly held in the world, “once an abuser, always an abuser,” is even advocated by some in the church. Obviously, when someone abuses a woman or child, they are contemptible and deserve to be held to account by the law and the church. But we believe that Jesus changes lives, and that has to mean that he can change the heart of an abuser, even one who abuses children.
I am not saying that a woman who has been abused (or especially one whose children have been abused) should return to her husband because he says he’s sorry and promises to change. But neither should she assume he can never change. God changes lives. He changes hearts. He transforms behavior.
It is right for a woman to demand that an abusive man give every evidence that his change is genuine before she believe him. There should be pastoral oversight and counseling as appropriate. But if we say that an abuser can never change, we are limiting the power of the Cross.
The church has too often given more support to the abuser than to the abused. That should not be. When a woman is abused, she should receive sound biblical advice and support from the church as she goes through the horrible challenge. But we must apply the teachings of the Bible even to difficult situations such as abuse. We cannot simple give permission the Bible doesn’t or substitute our feelings for its teachings. The Bible gives a path for abused women to follow, and we should encourage them to follow it.