Is Abuse a Biblical Grounds for Divorce?

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?

Ground Rules

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.


  1. says

    Good discussion, but I think it proceeds from the wrong question. We live in an era of no-fault divorce. The reality is that the permeating influence of society has filled the church with plenty of people divorced & remarried for unscriptural reasons. I don’t think adding or failing to add a “third Biblical ground” for divorce will alter the situation. In other words, I fear that any pronouncements we make on one side of the issue or the other will be irrelevant since it will have no real impact on the incidence of divorce and remarriage.

    And what are we going to do differently based on the conclusion we reach? If we deem it permissible and scriptural, do we think this will encourage women to divorce? If we deem it impermissible and unscriptural, will this consign abused women to remain bound, but separated from abusive husbands? After all, if she cannot re-marry, then she is still constrained by the bonds of the marriage even if separated for her own safety. But my point is, what will we do differently depending on where we come down on the issue? I’m not convinced that either stand will effect a noticeable difference when it comes to the makup of our church population at large.

    When the Pharisees and Lawyers approached Jesus on questions of marriage, it was nearly always to justify divorce and remarriage. Jesus consistently replied with an injunction to strengthen marriage. I agree that it is wrong to seek a third ground for divorce, but keep in mind, both Jesus and the book of Hosea teach that having grounds for divorce does not necessitate follow-through. “From the beginning, it was not so, but because of the hardness of your hearts…” was the answer Jesus gave. The question should not be whether we should approve or disapprove of divorce on the grounds of abuse but rather what are we doing to preserve loving relationships in marriage? And even moreso, what is the condition of our hearts? Will we take a hard-hearted approach or one that is filled with compassion, grace, mercy and love?

  2. Zack says


    I really appreciate both the approach and the content of this series. If we as Christians are to take a public stand regarding the issue of marriage, it’s imperative that we first have a solid biblical understanding of marriage and all its facets. You’ve taken some very sensitive subjects—this one in particular—and handled them in a sincere, non-confrontational, and biblical manner. Kudos.

    • Zack says

      A few people have suggested that spousal abuse could fall under the umbrella of “abandonment.” I would be cautious to make such an argument, for the following reasons:

      1) We use the term abandonment colloquially to refer to Paul’s teaching on the subject in 1 Corinthians 7. But it’s not a very precise word, and it’s not a very useful term when it comes to hermeneutics. When Paul speaks on the subject, the specific word he uses typically translates as departs, separates, or leaves, (depending upon your particular translation). Therefore, if we want to compare a particular act, such as spousal abuse, to the biblical teaching on divorce, it’s best to see if it fits within the particular text itself, rather than our casual term used to refer to the text. Therefore, the proper question is not whether abuse is abandonment but whether abuse is departing, separating, or leaving..

      2) The Greek verb Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 7 is transliterated chorizo. We generally translate this as depart, separate, or leave. The connotation of this translation leads to the interpretation that term is used to denote the act of a husband physically leaving the presence of the wife and of the marital unit and going to a different location. This is not an vague emotional withdrawal, and this is not an abstract abandonment of loving kindness towards the wife. Rather, this is a specific act regarding a husband’s refusal to remain with his wife.

      3) This narrow interpretation of the word chorizo is consistent with other NT use of the word. Best I can find, the word is used about nine other times in the NT, and each and every time the word is used in the context of a physical separation or departure—physically separating two persons from one another, physically departing from one location and moving to another, etc. As used in the NT, chorizo is a specific, rather than an abstract, term. (In fact, the root of the word chorizo is chora, which refers to a physical land between two locations. This further bolsters the narrow interpretation.)

      Therefore, while understand and recognize the complexity of the issue of spousal abuse, I don’t think that it fits biblically within the grounds for divorce.

      (Caveat #1: I am not against the use of the word abandonment as a casual term to refer to Paul’s teachings. I think it is a good and useful term, so long as it is not stretched beyond its common, informal use.)

      (Caveat #2: I am by no means a Greek or biblical scholar. I welcome any correction to my discussion of translations. Speaking of which, does anybody know if this message board accepts Greek symbols? I didn’t want to include them and have a bunch of blank boxes show up instead.)

    • Zack says

      Mr. Harvey:

      Since multiple people have made the same suggestion as you, it was my intention to post my comment at the bottom of the comment stream and not threaded beneath yours. Instead, I accidentally posted it as a reply to your specific comment. (Lesson learned about trying to post quickly while on my lunch break.) I don’t want it to appear that I was trying to single out your comment or that I was trying to attack you individually, and I apologize if it appeared that way.

    • Dave Miller says

      Could you explain that. Abandonment in 1 Corinthians 7 is the act of leaving a marriage. An abuser dominates his wife but generally does not abandon her.

      Seems a stretch to me.

      Unless you are making the argument that failing to fulfill the duties of a marriage is abandonment, which essentially leads to a no-fault, divorce for any reason ethic.

      • Greg Harvey says

        First, let’s realize what my argumentation is: from a pragmatic viewpoint, counseling a woman to return to a man who has a history–I’ll argue that an egregious physical injury or repeated and perhaps increasingly aggressive smaller occasions of physical or verbal abuse–borders on lunacy. The closest analogy I can think of is to expect that a serial pedophile is going to get the pedophilia “counseled” out of him and can be trusted around children. The sadism of controlling another person is a for of eroticism. He gets pleasure from it.

        For me, the reason I argue abuse is akin to abandonment has to do with the spiritual reality of the marriage. If the husband cares so little about his “one flesh” that he would beat his wife or consistently, harshly demean her, he’s not just playing at the edges in not fulfilling the duties of his marriage. He’s unfaithful to her at the center of the marriage. You can call that a slippery slope leading to “no fault” divorce if you wish, but I think it downplays the seriousness of the issue as noted in my first paragraph. Can you honestly say that Jesus intended people to stay together KNOWING what he does about our psyche that he created and the potentially, deeply depraved behavior that sin leads to? As Rick noted in his comment, just because someone is permitted divorce by the behavior of the other doesn’t REQUIRE it and we all have heard stories of couples that have stayed together in spite of deep unfaithfulness and made it work. But I personally feel that abuse might be a worse thing than sexual infidelity. After all, sexual infidelity is only betrayal. Physical abuse is betrayal with a beating added on for fun.

        What should the counsel be for a woman that is physically abused? She should immediately seek safety. Everyone around her should support her in this and tell her it is the correct thing to do. We should preach it from our pulpits. We ought to have “well woman” sessions at every women’s event that address this and take it seriously. Her first concern for her and for her children is safety.

        The second concern is counseling for her to seek to collect a history and to determine how “whole” her personality is. If one of you pastors wants to take that on, feel free, but it’s ripe for malpractice if you do. So you probably should refer her to competent, professional, knowledgeable counseling. If there is physical evidence of abuse, the police should be given the opportunity to collect evidence as well. Yes, this might lead to the man being arrested and the family being embarrassed. It’s better to be embarrassed than to proceed to something worse.

        A couple of years back one of my co-workers went through exactly this situation with her husband, though from what I could tell it was limited to verbal demeaning. I was NOT a primary supporter for her, but she occasionally would ask specific questions of me regarding the spiritual aspect of the situation. Now I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, so I didn’t take what she said as being the whole truth in the situation, but as she took actions to protect herself and her kids, she described his behavior getting worse in the things he would do to get back at her.

        These included strange behavior, coming around the house at night, phone calls, overspending accounts, and withdrawing cash from shared accounts in large amounts in an effort to wipe out those accounts. Honestly, under the law in most states, the most effective way to deal with that behavior is divorce as it separates assets and under the behavior he evidenced, she would likely receive judicial support in retaining important assets (like the house.)

        I realize we’re idealistic when we read the Bible and think we can deal with the worst in people by following its prescriptions. But I have yet to see a solid framework for how we modernize the fact that Jesus threw out demons. Until we construct one that makes sense (and I’ll offer the movie The Exorcist isn’t a workable model), we must treat mental disorders as potentially organic dysfunction and get medical and psychological/psychiatric professionals involved. Nothing wrong with attempting to address spiritual concerns, too, but we need more seriousness when we attempt to address these kinds of situations.

        Recommending a couple get counseling and then send the woman back to an abuser isn’t serious. And denying her access to other companionship relationships isn’t either. So you either relegate all of those people to loneliness in the interest of piety, or you frame the situation so that their situation fits into Biblical prescriptions for divorce. And, no, I don’t think this is roughly equivalent to what the religious leaders were asking for from Jesus. In fact, in MANY abuse situations Stockholm Syndrome is well established and the woman has to be counseled away from the man from what I’ve read (though not so much experienced.)

        Or we need to take the part about demons a little more responsibly and embarrass ourselves in our secular society by attempting exorcisms that might or might not work. I guess it’s up to us how we proceed?

        • bill says

          When a man is abusing a woman, he is abandoning all that he vowed to her on their wedding day. You know, the love, honor, cherish, etc. parts…

          The moment he strikes her physically, attacks her verbally, or God forbid he assaults her sexually, then he has abandoned all that he vowed he would do in their marriage.

          I vowed to love, honor, protect, and cherish my wife. The moment I were to backhand her, then I break these four vows and many others.

          I would have abandoned my vows and therefore my wife…

          • Stephanie L. Jones says

            Sir, in my gut I want to agree with you that “abandon my vows and therefore my wife” are equivalent, but do you have a biblical basis for equating these two things? Did married people in New Testament times take vows making them into husband and wife? In other words, was it then (and is it now) the ceremony that makes the marriage?

          • Dave Miller says

            It seems to me, Bill, that you are elevating human constructs – the vows – to a biblical standing. Whatever constitutes the biblical crux of marriage, it is not likely the human vows we say.

        • Dave Miller says

          OK, Greg, I understand where you are coming from. Can you give any biblical/exegetical rationale for that view?

          That is what I spoke of above. I think it is dangerous when we assume that we know better than the scriptures. If you could support that viewpoint from a biblical perspective, I’d love to see it.

          • Greg Harvey says

            I highly recommend Les Prouty’s link as it gives a very thorough, inerrancy-based discussion of the whole thing, I’ll borrow their conclusion for one bite at the apple:

            “The fact remains that Scripture does not address the circumstance of an abusive husband. As is the case in any other area of Biblical ethics, one cannot extract from Scripture a comprehensive statement of all possible applications of a divine law. Rather, it is left to the church to apply Biblical norms, with the direction provided by the casuistry Scripture does supply, to the untold number of situations which must be faced. It is important to acknowledge that the view that “desertion” in 1 Corinthians 7 cannot be made to refer to anything but actual departure from house and home and the view we have stated above are both extrapolations from the Scriptural statements. No one can appeal to a Biblical statement concerning the duty or the liberty of a battered spouse.” (emphasis mine)

            My second bite at the apple is the kind of direction we’re headed in the SBC. It has a very rabbinical flavor to it based on the Sermon on the Mount. If a single act of calling someone a fool makes one guilty of murder, then repeated battery or repeated demeaning are much, much worse. Since they are guilty of murder, that implies the other spouse is dead to them. Since one spouse has died, the marriage by Jesus’s comments on the extension of the Sadducee’s question regarding repeated levirate marriages–is no longer is binding.

            I think the first statement is sufficiently detailed to indicate that we don’t have the full counsel on how God intends us to administer all potential situations. We don’t want to err on the side of minutiae like treating nails in a shoe as “work” or a roped off neighborhood as a “home” to avoid breaking the Sabbath.

            There is also no biblical basis for separation and at the time of the Bible separation was de facto divorce (that link has a section on this and argues it in more detail than I’m offering here). So your recommendation of separation could be argued to be equally unsupported by Scripture. Just sayin’.

            When you start administering the Bible as Law, you’re stuck back in the rabbinical system of legal interpretation. I don’t see how you escape that in this situation and I know for a fact that we don’t want our denomination to behave that way.

            That turns us into lawyers and judges. We already have seen the SBC go through that in the past with morality movements of various kinds with perhaps some social value, but no enduring success. In retrospect, rules against playing cards as a hedge against gambling are simply unreasonable and receive zero support from Scripture (notice how I carefully avoided other legalistic discussions that we tend to bring up. 😉

            I’m not sure you can get there without expanding on what the Bible says to some extent. That is NOT license to write whatever we want, but requires the dependence on wisdom to interpret how to apply what it actually says. But I do not think Jesus intended for us to administer the Bible as a legal document under the New Covenant. It is guidance, but the Greatest and Second Commandment reign supreme in understanding the Law, the Prophets, and what we are commanded to do in the New Testament.

          • says

            Greg Harvey: An excellent presentation of insights on a tough issue. I had the experience of going among some Baptists that absolutely did not accept anyone who had a second marriage. In fact, I was sitting in the midst of them, when I happened to make mention of my having a second marriage. It was like the Red Sea parting. People actually got up and moved away from me. I have often wished I could have asked them what they would do about God joining their church, seeing how He had two wives (Bigamy) and divorced one of them (Israel). However, I never got the opportunity. You, Greg, have provided some insight into the problem of interpreting Scripture. After all, it is not only a Book of Law; it is also a Book of Grace, and of Counseling, and of History, and of many other areas of life. I would add that the Bible is also a Book of Intellectualism, that is, a book of ideas designed to improve and uplift the mental life of the believer as well as the spiritual life. A great deal of the problem that we have with Holy Scripture is a lack of adequate perspective for interpreting it. Think of counseling and the simple technique of reframing an event. Joseph reframed his being sold into slavery: “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good to save much people alive.”(Gen.50:20). Consider the Bible as Philosophy and what it has to say about the questions of that field of study. For example, the issue of epistemology or how do we know? and etc.

          • Greg Harvey says

            Thanks, Dr. Willingham. I want folks who read what I wrote to realize that my thought process isn’t one of disagreement with Dave by the way. It just provoked the thought “but how should this be handled?” I actually appreciated the thoroughness of the link Les Prouty provided in exploring side issues because…so to speak…it scratched the itch I felt very well in my opinion. But it also illustrated the rabbinical thought comment that I distilled down to something unrelated and–yes I admit it–a bit silly as a reply to Dave.

            His question of me lead me to take a source I wasn’t previously familiar with, read it thoroughly, and construct a rather limited response in the limited time I had. I thought it was a good response to his question, but I do not in any way think it is a complete nor a thorough response to Dave. Based only on Scripture, his exposition is stronger.

            And if we devolve into rabbinical methods to construct a history of teachings we risk losing something extremely valuable that is exquisitely Baptist: the ability for any believer to go to the Bible and with the Holy Spirit’s guidance extract understanding.

            My somewhat wry method of providing a note of caution could easily infuriate someone who is working seriously and I hope I didn’t cause that response from Dave. If so, I apologize for not responding with the same seriousness he brought to this post. But I do believe there is a spectrum of methodologies for coming to an understanding of specific passages and it includes an effort to translate the original languages (or study existing translations), to consult with previous teachers, to discuss with others so that we CAN gain perspective of our own proclivities, and last–but by know means least and arguably the FIRST thing we should do–to pray for understanding.

            I think perspective in many cases generates humility within us and decreases both certitude and hubris. Decreasing certitude isn’t precisely the same as creating doubt as much as it is entertaining the thought that perhaps someone else got it right and perhaps we just need to reconsider. Hubris of course is akin to what I believe is the central sin among the saved: pride. We need to constantly look at our behavior through the eyes of others in order to have even the scantest chance of seeing pride in ourselves.

            I appreciate Dave’s series on divorce very much. I don’t recall whether I commented in the past saying so, and I certainly regret the thought that my only comments has a “questioning” slant to them. So let me close with commending Dave on his workmanship and scholarship and willingness to address the topic.

          • says

            Greg: I don’t think you distracted from what David said He was doing a rather straight forward presentation of a more narrow perspective…at least that is my understanding. If I had not read his comments elsewhere, I might think he was tending to legalism. But we all do at certain times in our exposition and exegesis. It is perhaps the fault of our analytical methodology. A synthetical methodology is a more difficult matter. One of the things we almost have built in is the desire to be consistent. Someone has said, however, that he who is consistent with himself is consistent with a fool. Trying to be consistent with God makes one appear rather inconsistent and foolish, but I would rather be consistent with Him and let Him answer for what we think are inconsistencies.

          • Dave Miller says

            Actually, Greg, my statement on separation is based on the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7.

            And the Bible is full of statements on enduring abuse, even if it does not specifically address the topic of abuse in marriage.

  3. John Fariss says

    Off hand, I’d say that the key to the question is the meaning of the Greek word porneia, and (1) whether its meaning is restricted to sexual infidelity, or whether the term could apply to abuse other than that of a strictly sexual nature, and/or (2) whether physical or emotional abuse has a component of sexual abuse even if it is not manifested as infidelity, such that it can be included as an act of porneyo, but I have not researched it formally. My experience and reading suggests to me that much of the abuse, whether physical or emotional, directed toward wives by their husbands has a sexual component, even if it does not result in an extra-marital affair. If so then, does that allow Biblical grounds for divorce, even if the ancient Greeks did not recognize it as part of porneia? Right now, I do not have the time to research either the possible meanings of porneia or the psychological research into the causes of abuse, but maybe someone does.

    On the other hand, Rick has a well thought out comment, one which perhaps “takes the blinders off” and is worth considering.


  4. Bruce H. says


    There would need to be a trained team within the church that dealt with abuse within the home of church members and the pastor would need to head that up in order to protect everyone involved. Obviously, reconciliation and restoration would be the goal. Assuming that the man and woman are Christians and it persisted, I would recommend the woman separate from him and the church support her (and her children) until such time the man chooses on his own to seek help. He could be Bi-Polar or have an anger problem or other disorders or he could even have demon oppression (not possession, unless he is not a Christian) . Counseling is not a good place to start. I would start at the psychological level first. If he refused to do that I would seek a “legal separation” until he chose to seek help or file for divorce. That would protect her from the sin of divorce in a case like this.

    Once again, good post. It made me examine myself, too.

    • Stephanie L. Jones says

      “That would protect her from the sin of divorce in a case like this.”

      This particular sentence raises a question in my mind. If a spouse is not the person who filed for divorce, is that spouse less complicit, according to scripture? And if so, does scriputre then allow for that freeing that spouse to re-marry?

      • Dave Miller says

        Stephanie, as this series of discussions has demonstrated, opinions vary. My view is that when one partner in the marriage breaks the covenant, the other is no longer bound to that covenant.

        So, if a spouse is cheated on or is abandoned, he or she is free from that broken marriage covenant and is free to remarry.

        That is my view based on my studies.

      • Bruce H. says

        Good question, Stephanie.

        I found this scripture from the words of Christ:

        “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Matthew 5:32

        I don’t think we can get around the adultery issue here. The sin needs to be put on the man for God to discipline, not the woman.

  5. says

    You could also make the argument that, when the abusing husband has been thrown in jail, he’s abandoned his wife. That’d solve that. And I think that should happen to every husband who physically abuses his wife.

    Without exception. First time. Every time.

  6. David Tuten says

    A cautionary tale, regarding the need for discernment and extreme care when it comes to rehabilitated abusers (part of the abuse cycle is known as the “honeymoon” phase, when the abuser becomes contrite and well-behaved for a time before entering again into the spiraling cycle of abuse):

    In a church I was associated with many years ago (actually, the sponsoring church of a church plant attempt I was making), a woman and her children attended who had broken free from an abusive husband (gotten divorced and relocate). The ex-husband showed up and began attending the church. He seemed to be a changed man, and before long the pastor encouraged the couple to re-marry, and performed the ceremony. Not long after, the cycle of abuse began: the man began isolating his family from others and began emotional and physical abuse of his spouse, eventually stretching toward abuse of the children. Within a year of the re-marriage, the situation ended up with the man dead at the hands of his desperate, abused wife (she was not indicted by a grand jury; otherwise she would have been the first test case of a new battered-woman’s syndrome defense law in the state).

    Yes, God can and does transform people. But there must be discernment and accountability in some circumstances.

    • Dave Miller says

      I certainly understand your point, David. Most men who are abusers do not reform, or sometimes they only reform until they get what they want. None of that precludes the basic truth, though, that God changes lives.

  7. says

    I’m on vacation and don’t have much time, but want to point out one resource that speaks to this issue. The PCA (ok, don’t shoot me) some years ago formed a study committee to deal with divorce and remarriage and may be found at (scroll down. position papers are arranged alpha). In that paper many aspects were dealt with, including this issue of abuse. I commend it as additional background research material which may be useful. One section dealing with physical abuse is at

    Dave, excellent work here. This is definitely an issue the church must face. We all see it almost every day (sadly).


  8. says

    • says

      Not sure why you would think that Exodus 21 is the underpinning for Jesus’ teaching. Much more likely that it is Deuteronomy 24. And I am familiar with, but not overly impressed with Instone-Brewer’s teachings.

  9. Carter says

    The zone that the church reall struggles with is what to do with people who have divorced for non scritural reasons now that the social mores against such behavior have relaxed? This is where the rubber will meet the road in the life of most churches. Does the reality of a divorce for unbiblical reasons affect how that person may participate in, serve or lead a congregation?
    This is the hard part for me and the set of questions that makes me glad for my spiritual leadership who must wrestle with them in my stead.

  10. says

    Forty years ago this year and this summer, my wife and I listened to a pastor tell about how a woman had left her abusive husband and how the pastor and his church got the woman to return to her husband. Then he told how the man murdered his wife, and how he, the pastor, said to his people, “We are never going to do that again.” Abuse is a betrayal of the original commitment to love. If a wife or, in some cases, a husband, decides to return to or stick with an abusive spouse, that should be his or her decision. It should not be the minister and the church advising a believer to adhere to such a relationship, especially in view of the fact that abusers can and frequently do become murderers. As a counselor, for the sake of the safety of the partner in the marriage being abused, I advise separation. Only the Lord can ask a partner in a marriage to stick it out…even to the point of being married, if that ‘sticking it out’ is the means to be used in winning the abuser to Christ. Paul says that one does not know whether he or she will win the other person.

    • Bruce H. says

      I agree with you. A very similar thing happened to a couple in a previous church I attended and murder occurred.

      The best thing that can happen is to have the abuser go through a complete psychological evaluation. This will identify so much about him or her so the proper actions can be taken and medication can be prescribed if necessary.

  11. Dustin says

    Feel free to check out Malachi 2:16. On one hand it affirms God’s hate of divorce. On the other hand it also denounces a husband’s “faithlessness” and “covering one’s cloak with violence”. Do you believe this verse refers to abuse? I know the Hebrew there is quite difficult, just wondering.

  12. Kevin Peacock says

    A few thoughts:

    1. In no way do I doubt the two “biblical grounds” for divorce given in Matt 19 and 1 Cor 7. However, I do doubt if any of the biblical writers (or the Holy Spirit for that matter) ever intended to give “the list for biblical grounds for divorce.” Matthew gives one (from the lips of Jesus) and Paul gives one, but the NT nowhere ties those together. Jesus was giving his reasoning (to a hostile audience) for God’s purpose for the permanence of marriage, and Paul was giving some pastoral advice for a believer whose unbelieving spouse deserted them. In Matt 19, the flow of Jesus’ argument against divorce-remarriage was divorce for the purpose of remarriage — the same reasoning that got John the Baptist killed by Herod Antipas and Herodias (Matt 14:1-12).

    2. I’m not convinced that “God has joined together” everyone that happens to be married. That is God’s desire, but not everyone follows God’s intent. Especially in the case when a believer marries a non-believer, God’s grace can always be a factor, but God does not always overrule the sinful actions of people. Some marriages were never supposed to happen. God can bring saving grace into the midst of an awful situation, but for various reasons, he does not always.

    3. Not everyone who calls themselves a believer indeed acts like one. In fact, they may not have been a believer in the first place. It is difficult when a believer or a non-believer refuses to even try to live out the manner in which God wants spouses to treat each other. There is very little difference in a non-believer and a non-repentant believer. Both are acting like non-believers, and the effects on a marriage can be the same.

    4. Can “hardness of heart” only be expressed in terms of porneia and abandonment? What about physical abuse, emotional abuse, child abuse, drug-alcohol addiction and its resulting effects? Divorce may not be commanded, but neither is it always prohibited.

    5. “Hardness of heart” (i.e. repentant sin) is not always on both parties when a divorce happens. Divorce always takes place because of “hardness of heart,” but could it not be because of the one causing the abuse rather than the one seeking to get out of the bad marriage?

    6. In the biblical scale of values, some things are more important than the preservation of a marriage that does not exemplify godliness (Ezra 9-10). Remember, in this case, God commanded divorce. When godliness is married to ungodliness, separation and divorce may be absolutely necessary.

    For what it’s worth,


  13. Russ says

    What about when a man is physically and verbally abused by his? We are seeing more and more of that.