Unfortunately (in my mind), there has not been consensus in the Christian world on whether or not a person is biblically justified to divorce in cases of abuse.
It’s long been held that you can divorce for adultery, but not for abuse (I explained why I think divorce is okay for abuse here).
In fact, Focus on the Family says there are two grounds for divorce–abandonment or adultery, but that’s it. Other than that, you can separate for abuse, but hopefully only for a time, with the aim to work towards reconciliation, if it’s safe.
Here is Focus on the Family’s position on divorce and remarriage, from their brochure “should I get a divorce”, listed on page 12.
But are there any cases in which the Bible allows divorce? Many Christians disagree about whether the Bible allows divorce and/or remarriage. If you are concerned about whether you have biblical grounds for divorce, you will need to commit the matter to prayer and study. You should also seek out counsel from your own pastor and, ideally, a licensed Christian counselor. The question of sin cannot be taken lightly. But biblical grounds may exist:
1. When one’s mate is guilty of sexual immorality and is unwilling to repent and live faithfully with the marriage partner. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:7-9 indicate that divorce (and remarriage) in this circumstance is acceptable. That passage reads: “‘Why then,’ [the Pharisees] asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries [or, in order to marry] another woman commits adultery.’” (Emphasis added) However, divorce is not required. If your spouse has committed adultery, divorce is morally allowed, but not required. Many couples have been able to rebuild their marriages even after such a devastating blow.
2. When one spouse is not a Christian, and that spouse willfully and permanently deserts the Christian spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15). Focus on the Family’s position is that divorce and remarriage appear to be justified in Scripture only in a few instances.
John Piper would say the same thing. In fact, he’s on record as saying that women should endure abuse for a season.
I could go on and on.
But really, the most influential person in this sphere was Wayne Grudem, a theologian who has spent much of his career writing about gender roles and God’s design for biblical manhood and womanhood. And one of those big tenets that he has pushed is that abuse is not grounds for divorce. Adultery, yes. Abuse, no.
Late last year, just before Christmas, Wayne Grudem changed his mind about divorce in the case of abuse.
Compassion for two women’s cases that he heard about drew him back to the Scriptures, where he studied for a long time and decided now that abuse is actually a form of abandonment, and thus a woman can now divorce. He explained his reasoning on a Christianity Today podcast this way,
My conclusion was in 1 Corinthians 7:15 that Paul says, “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases…” That is desertion by an unbeliever, and I think he has in mind adultery as well, because of Jesus teaching. In cases that damage a marriage as severely as adultery, or desertion by an unbeliever, or other similar damaging situations, then divorce is a lot.
So my decision to change my mind about the legitimacy of divorce in a case or a situation of ongoing, very harmful abuse was based on a new understanding of the meaning of the words of Scripture. My decision was not based on my theological instinct. It was based on what I saw in Scripture that I don’t think had been noticed before because people hadn’t done the work of doing the research on that phrase in Greek literature until the last couple of decades. There wasn’t any ability to do that because the electronic database was not available and was not able to be searched.
–provided, of course, she has the approval of her pastors and elders. (Forget the absurdity of requiring an abused woman to convince an elders’ board, which is likely made up of her husband’s friends, that she is abused before she can get to safety, but let’s let that go for a moment. He also doesn’t seem to specify if it’s only physical abuse that can be abandonment, or whether emotional abuse also qualifies, but let’s leave that one as well for a moment.)
UPDATE: Gretchen Baskerville reports that he actually does allow divorce for verbal and emotional abuse, or addictions! See the screen shot of relevant parts of his statement here.
A Christianity Today news article described his position on reconciliation,
However, he clarified that restoration is still the first goal when the question of divorce comes up. If the abusing spouse is a Christian, then counseling and church discipline should be pursued, but if abuse doesn’t stop then a church leader should consider that this may be a case where the victim is free to seek a divorce.
I wasn’t sure I was going to write on this, but I just have two things to say on this–one specific to Wayne Grudem, and then a broader one about the issue of adultery vs. abuse and which is worse.
Wayne Grudem has not apologized to the women who died, were beaten, or endured abuse because they thought that to do otherwise was sin.
He has changed his mind, which is wonderful. He is a thought leader and very conservative, and if someone that conservative is signalling that we should take abuse seriously, that is good news.
However, Grudem’s systematic theology books and works on gender roles were required reading in seminaries for decades. It was Grudem’s thinking that has influenced pastors for the past few decades about abuse. It is largely due to Grudem’s influence on others that so many women endured abuse. And I have yet to see any humility on Grudem’s part, apologizing to those that he hurt. I find that disturbing.
This is the problem with writing theology, and yet having it be mostly a theoretical exercise. Grudem could make his pronouncements on divorce that were harsh, but they didn’t affect him. When theology is mostly theoretical and intellectual, we need to be very careful, because it’s easy to miss the effect that we’re having on those on the ground. I think if those writing theology had talked to abused women earlier, they may have seen things differently (Grudem even said that coming face to face with two divorced women is what made him rethink it. What if he had just sat down with a group of abused women thirty years ago? Think of the suffering that could have been averted!).
One woman who completed our “Bare Marriage” survey (which will be turned into the book The Great Sex Rescue next year!) reports being emotionally abused, but believes she does not have the ability to get herself to safety. My heart breaks for women who do not believe God sees them and their suffering and wants to bring them out of it.
I live with emotional abuse in my marriage. Divorce is not an option. When you marry, you marry for life.
But let’s take a step back for a minute.
Why are we so quick to accept that adultery is worse than abuse?
I agree that the case that you can divorce for adultery is clearer in the Bible than that you can divorce for abuse. However, I think that when you read all of Scripture, you see God’s concern for the oppressed. You see God’s passion for justice and concern for the downtrodden. I don’t see how you can read all of Scripture and still believe that God wants women–or men–to endure abuse. That’s just not the heart of God.
But let’s take it from another angle. What we’re really saying is that it’s okay to divorce if a guy has a few one-night stands (or even one one-night stand), but it’s not okay to divorce if he beats you to a pulp every weekend. Does that even logically make sense?
And by framing the divorce debate solely about the morality of the offended party, we leave out the children.
Studies have repeatedly shown that children do better if parents stay together and don’t divorce–UNLESS those parents are in a high-conflict, abusive marriage. In that case, children do better if parents DO divorce. Judith Wallerstein has been championing this for years, and Focus on the Family has quoted her ad nauseum. But they keep leaving out that part in her research, where she is so clear, that in cases of abuse, children do better if parents split up. Here are the numbers taken from her study. The white bars show how children fare before divorce, and the striped bars show how they fare after divorce:
(graph courtesy of Amato, 2003, “Reconciling Divergent Perspectives: Judith Wallerstein, Quantitative Family Research, and Children of Divorce”)
In low-conflict marriages, children do better if parents stay married. In high conflict marriages, children do better if parents divorce.
And here’s the thing: You can have adultery in a low-conflict marriage. Sure, that’s a huge conflict between the spouses. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re toxic to each other, or that you treat each other badly in other ways. It just may mean that you’re heartbroken.
One of the first readers of my blog was a woman with the first initial K. She commented for years (and she still reads; I actually met her in real life on one of my speaking trips. Hi, K!). And one day she discovered that her husband had had an affair with her best friend, and she now faced a big choice. Did she leave him, or did she try to rebuild? She read my post “Between Two Worlds“, and decided to try to make it work for her son, and they have. I’ve met her in real life, and they’re all doing very well.
I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T divorce for adultery, by the way. I believe you have grounds, and I also think that sometimes the other spouse refuses to give up their lover, and it’s okay to demand faithfulness. Sometimes you really don’t have a choice.
But the bigger issue I want to raise here is that, for the children in the marriage, abuse–whether emotional or physical–is far worse than adultery. And yet for years, the church has been treating it as the other way around. And I would add that a child witnessing a mother being abused is as harmful to that child as being abused him or herself. After all, really want to torture someone? Make them watch someone else being hurt. And this applies whether it’s emotional abuse or physical abuse.
I am glad that we are realizing that abuse is not something to be tolerated. I’m just sorry that it’s taken so long.
And I also want to say: if you are being abused, you do not need your pastor’s permission to leave. Please do not see a biblical counselor.–unless you know that counselor is safe and has walked other people out of abusive marriages. Do not go for marriage counseling with the abusive spouse (this often allows the abuser another chance to abuse. It’s shouldn’t be used in cases of abuse). Get yourself to safety, if need be. And then see a licensed, trained counselor by yourself to help you figure out what to do.
Jesus sees you and your children. Jesus cares about you. And Jesus wants all of you safe.
Has your church supported abused spouses in getting out of a toxic marriage? Have you ever been stuck like that? Let’s talk in the comments!