Around twenty percent of women have experienced physical abuse from a romantic partner in their lives. A sad fact that we seem to be confronted with constantly is that abuse is much more common than we believe.
Because of the depraved nature of humanity, both men and women are power-hungry. We prefer to be in control, not to be controlled. We prefer to make decisions, not to be told what to do. When some people feel that they are not in control, they use many immoral, dehumanizing means to attain power. This is the reality we live in. It forces us to have to deal with the consequences of the actions of abusers, especially for those who are working in ministry or counseling.
How do we counsel spouses who are being abused by their partners? What do we recommend they do? When, if ever, is it appropriate to counsel someone to divorce?
God has made it clear that he opposes oppression and abuse. There are times, however, in this fallen world where we are called to endure for the sake of the gospel. Suffering is a normal experience. There are other times when we are called to action. Though suffering is normal, it should not be dealt with passively.
Since we believe that God knows what is best for every human being, including those being abused, it is imperative that the foundation of our answer is the truth of the Bible. The most explicit passages on the grounds for divorce are Jesus’ teaching in the gospels (Mat. 19:1-12, Mrk. 10:1-12, Luk. 16:18) and Paul’s teaching in his first epistle to the Corinthians (vv. 7:10-40).
It will also be necessary to develop a good, biblical understanding of a covenant. We will see that, though divorce is always a tragic circumstance, it is sometimes biblically permissible and advisable in cases of domestic abuse.
Jesus and Divorce
The topic of domestic abuse and divorce is not explicitly answered in the Bible. In Matthew 19, Jesus answers a question about when it is permissible to pursue a divorce. The Pharisees pointed out that the Mosaic law seemingly permitted divorce on any grounds (Deu. 24:1). This law permitted any man to present his wife with a certificate of divorce and send her away given that they were not pleasing to him.
Jesus responds by explaining God’s creative order as well as the reason for that Mosaic law. He explains that God’s original design was for man and woman to be together forever, but Moses permitted divorce “because of the hardness of [their] hearts.”
The accounts in Matthew and Mark both show Jesus giving an exception to the command. Jesus said that ‘sexual immorality’ is a ground for divorce. The word in the original language is porneia. This word likely refers to any type of sexual misconduct. The bigger question is this: did Jesus intend to exhaust every exception?
Jesus was known to speak in figurative language. The gospels especially are permeated with metaphor, simile, and hyperbole. As a rule, we interpret the Bible literarily. This means that we interpret each text according to its literary nature. It is reasonable to ask the question: Could Jesus have been employing a hyperbole?
The majority of scholars believe so. William Heth, a respected theologian with ties to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary published a journal article on the subject of Jesus and divorce. In it, he goes through the majority and minority interpretations of each of the applicable biblical passages. He gives two possible majority interpretations of the divorce passages: either Jesus was employing hyperbole to make his point to the Pharisees or he was making a general statement and never intended to name every possible exception. Either way, we have good cause to believe that porneia is not the only exception to Jesus’ commands regarding divorce.
What is Domestic Abuse?
If we would make the case that abuse is sometimes a reasonable qualification for divorce, we must define abuse well. For the sake of our argument, we will define marital/domestic abuse as the exploitation of power to the detriment of your spouse. Abuse, then, could be physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional. This definition will allow us to more accurately examine the scriptures to see God’s heart and commands specifically regarding domestic abuse.
Similarly, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that the biblical words for abuse can mean “to do harm” or “to defile”. This somewhat shows us the Bible’s predisposition against and antipathy toward abuse.
It might be helpful to give further explanation as to how domestic abuse can take on many different forms. Physical abuse is likely the easiest to understand. When one spouse intentionally hurts the other, it is always a leverage of power against the one being hurt. When one spouse forces sexual or intimate acts onto their partner when the partner is not willing, the former is exploiting their own power. A common type of abuse is to continually demean or say disparaging things to your spouse in order to force them into an emotional state of despair. Because of one’s own pride, they want their spouse to believe that they are of less value or worth. Though this list is not exhaustive, all of these examples would qualify under our definition of abuse due to the fact that one spouse is exploiting their power to control the other.
At this point, you may wonder why we are focusing on power dynamics in our definition. In God’s created order, men and women are created with complementary roles. Without extensively going into the fullness therein, it is necessary for you to know that God has placed men as the leaders within their marriages. They are responsible for the spiritual, physical, and emotional welfare of their wives and families (Eph. 5:22-24). In order to do this well, God has also commonly given men greater physical strength to women. Moreover, God commonly gives women greater empathetic, intuition, and other abilities.
For this reason, there are always power dynamics within the marriage relationship. There is a good use of power that lovingly cares for one’s family, and there is a bad use of power that seeks one’s personal gain. There is a great deal of responsibility placed on those with power to utilize it well.
Though domestic abuse is more commonly toward women, it is also possible and frequent among men as well. At times, women have more power in the relationship or in certain aspects of it. Both men and women always have some amount of power in the relationship, and it is therefore always possible for abuse to come from either party. One thing must be clear: the abuse of power is against God’s design and commands.
God Hates Abuse
For this reason, we must conclude that God is opposed to abuse. Oppression is against the laws of God, against the nature of God, and against the created order of God.
God clearly says that he hates oppression (Psa. 146:7-9, 9:9, Zec. 7:10, Mal. 3:5). He hates wrongdoing, and what is very clear is that he hates pride. Pride and control are at the heart of the abuser. Moreover, God’s nature is love. By nature, he is benevolent, patient, kind, generous, and good. Domestic abuse abandons any type of Christlikeness and is the very epitome of godlessness. It exemplifies an absence of imitation of the nature of God.
Abuse is also against God’s creative order. We mentioned this earlier, but recall the creation account in Genesis 1-3. Possibly the first sign of abuse that we see is after the fall when the curse causes Eve, and therefore women to desire to usurp their husband, but he will rule over them. God’s order calls for godly leadership and submission. Oppression and injustice are, however, realities in our world. Due to sin, there are injustices, abuse, and exploitation of power in every aspect of human society and culture. We don’t have to try hard to find these cases. For that reason, this topic is very relevant and needs to be handled carefully.
Our Responsibility to Seek Justice
Some may ask if it is right for us to try to address and correct oppression and abuse. After all, if God is sovereign, shouldn’t we entrust him with every situation? Since this injustice is an obvious reality in our lives, we have to figure out how we should deal with it.
The Bible is clear that we have a responsibility to not be passive in our pursuit of justice now, even though it will never fully be gone until Christ returns (Isa. 1:17). The prophet Michah asks us, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8 ESV). We labor in bringing about justice within the biblical parameters of our own power while looking forward with hope to the consummation of history when Christ will finally do away with injustice completely and eternally.
Regarding abuse, we have a responsibility to lift up the oppressed, to help them seek safety, and to protect the vulnerable. We know, however, that the greatest and final justice will be done on judgment day when God will deal with the unrighteous once and for all.
The Covenantal Nature of Marriage
To develop a biblical understanding of divorce, we need to understand the covenantal nature of marriage. Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman to love and care for one another. This was first established by God (Gen. 2:21-25). A covenant is a binding, mutual agreement between those two parties. It is more than a promise, and each party is responsible to fulfill their obligations. This understanding of a covenant is developed in the scriptures, and many theologians believe that covenants are central to God’s interaction with humanity.
Any type of abuse is a grievous violation of the covenant that the wedded couple has entered into. When one does harm or seeks to domineeringly control their spouse, they are breaking their end of the covenant. They have promised to care for and to love their spouse. Physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse are all antithetical to any appropriate understanding of love. Love is gentle, kind, and puts the needs of others above one’s own needs and ambitions (c.f. 1 Cor. 13). Abuse is always abrupt, unkind, and selfish. It is therefore incompatible with the vows that one has made in their marriage.
What does that mean for the marriage? Once abuse happens, is the marriage then annulled? Absolutely not. To understand the way a violation works in the covenant, we need a better understanding of a covenant.
Without going over every detail that the scripture paints regarding them, it is important to note that covenants can be violated and dissolved. It is not necessary that a covenant be dissolved when violated, but it is possible. This violation seems to necessarily be an abdication of all of the vows that you made in the covenant.
One example of this given is in Hosea 1. In this chapter, God makes it clear that he has the right to break the covenant with Israel because they have turned away from their end of it (v. 9). Because of God’s infinite grace, he upheld his end of the covenant anyway, but we understand here that this covenant can be forensically dissolved. Since this is the case, we understand that in a grievous violation of the covenant of marriage, divorce may at times be recommendable.
Should We Recommend Divorce?
Does this mean that we should always recommend divorce in these difficult cases? No. The Bible always views divorce as completely devastating. It is never something to be sought after lackadaisically or capriciously.
There are many biblical cases in which divorce is not prohibited. For example, if the sole reason for getting a divorce is because one’s spouse is an unbeliever, Paul forbids that such a divorce happen (1 Cor. 7:13). Moreover, there are many cases of abuse in which divorce should not be the first action taken.
Divorce is a last resort option and is only recommended in cases of habitual, unrepentant abuse.
Because of God’s clear hatred of abuse and oppression, we know that it should be a priority for us to protect the vulnerable. We know that in some cases, dissolving the covenant made in marriage due to one party wielding their power against the other is acceptable.
Biblically, we have reason to counsel victims of repeated abuse to prayerfully and carefully consider divorce as an option. It is important to follow through with the counseling and to not make that recommendation unless absolutely necessary. We should mourn not only any time someone is experiencing abuse but also any time the flesh-bond of a marriage covenant is broken.