Does Physical Abuse Constitute Grounds for Divorce?
Over the past several months, domestic abuse has been on the front burner of evangelical thought. Specifically, evangelicals have been forced to deal with the heartbreaking reality that domestic abuse is not simply a problem limited to marriages outside the walls of the church. Among those working through this conversation, it’s clear that all seem to truly care about abuse and the abused. All condemn abuse as sinful and wicked. All desire to help. But beyond a shared sense of sympathy and compassion, it seems that pastors and churches cannot agree on how exactly to help and what exactly to say. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to answering this question:
Does the physically abused spouse have biblical grounds for divorce?
Let’s be clear. The question is not if abuse is wicked (it certainly is). The question is not if the abused must submit to the abuse (they certainly don't). We’re not trying to figure out whether the abused has the right to find refuge and help (they certainly do and certainly should). Rather, we want to know if this grievous sin provides biblical grounds for divorce.
But, in order to begin our discussion, we need to give a few disclaimers:
1. Scripture is ultimately authoritative; how we feel and what we think are of little consequence except insofar as our feelings and thoughts reflect God's revelation. When our feelings lead us in a direction contrary to Scripture, we must submit our feelings to the authority of Scripture—not the other way around.
2. No one is saying that abuse is good. Abuse of any kind is a gross perversion of the purpose and underlying meaning of marriage. Abuse is wicked and evil, and anyone who abuses their spouse is not strong or loving, but cowardly, and cruel, and immature.
3. Though we will give some practical tips at the end, this blog is not primarily meant to detail all of the various ways to respond to domestic abuse. That is an important and essential pastoral issue, but goes beyond the purview of this particular post. This blog is also not primarily aimed at detailing what to do if you or someone you know is being abused. Anyone who is being abused or knows of someone being abused should bring such cruelty into the light and seek immediate help. For this blog, we are primarily trying to discover whether or not, according to Scripture, divorce is a potential option for the spouse who has experienced physical abuse.
With this in mind, let's begin with the biblical view of divorce.
The Prohibition of Divorce and Potential Exceptions
Because marriage is intended to portray the gospel, God passionately proclaims its sanctity and thus generally prohibits divorce. This general prohibition against divorce is clear within the Scriptures (Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:1-3). That said, there has been and continues to be debate as to whether or not Scripture itself provides certain “exceptions”—and, if so, what those exceptions might entail.
Historically, the Protestant Church has recognized two and only two exceptions to the general prohibition against divorce: physical adultery and physical abandonment. Together, these constitute the Church’s traditional understanding of "biblical grounds for divorce." So, in order to conclude that abuse constitutes a biblical ground for divorce, one would need to demonstrate, at least, one of the following arguments:
1. Abuse is a form of adultery or "sexual immorality" as referenced in Matthew 5 and 19.
2. Abuse is a form of abandonment as referenced in 1 Corinthians 7.
3. The Church has failed to consider other exceptions, besides physical adultery and physical abandonment, which are permissible according to Scripture.
If one of these arguments can be proven true by the testimony of Scripture, then abuse is sufficient grounds for divorce. But, if none of these are true, then there is no logical or theological case for abuse as grounds for divorce. Thus, each of these arguments must be carefully considered. With that in mind, let’s begin with the argument that abuse might be a form of “sexual immorality” as discussed in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19.
A Biblical Exception: Matthew 5 and 19
Domestic abuse is no mere modern phenomenon. The biblical authors would certainly have been familiar with the concept. Beyond a basic awareness, they also would condemn the practice as out of step with the call to love and respect your spouse and hold marriage as good and sacred (Ephesians 5:22-33). But, while the apostles would have been familiar with and condemned abuse, nowhere in Scripture is it viewed as an exception to the prohibition of divorce.
Now, some might think this is an argument from silence. “The fact that abuse is not explicitly mentioned as a grounds for divorce doesn't necessarily mean that it is not a grounds for divorce,” they would say. In the same way, for example, if you tell your child that she can have a cookie, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she cannot have a brownie.
But this is not what the Scriptures have given us. This is not an argument from silence in the slightest; Jesus is explicitly clear! In Matthew 19 (and 5 as well), Jesus says that "whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." He doesn’t say, “You can get a divorce for sexual immorality.” He says that you cannot get a divorce, ever, except under one particular circumstance: sexual immorality. By limiting his exception to one and only one circumstance, Jesus thereby comments on and condemns any and all other circumstances.
Yes, He doesn't explicitly say that abuse is an invalid grounds for divorce. He also doesn't say that irreconcilable differences is an invalid ground for divorce. He doesn’t say that falling out of love, or whatever, is an invalid ground for divorce. He doesn't have to say any of that.
Suppose you tell your child that she cannot eat anything except what you have made for dinner. Is it clear what food she cannot eat? Yes—everything that you have not made for dinner. Do you have to list out every single food that is prohibited? No. Because, logically, everything else is forbidden whether it’s fruit, or candy, or dessert, or whatever. Likewise, by giving one and only one exception to a universal prohibition, Jesus logically invalidates any and all other potential exceptions.
So then, if sexual immorality is the only exception given to pursue divorce, can abuse be considered sexual immorality? After all, it is immoral behavior that occurs between the sexes. In short, no; this doesn’t do justice to the meaning of the underlying Greek word, porneia, which we translate as “sexual immorality.” In the same way that the word “butterfly” cannot be broken up and misdefined as “butter” and “fly,” the idea of sexual immorality cannot be broken up and misdefined as “something involving sex” and “something involving immorality.” As Andreas Kostenberger notes, “the exact meaning of porneia is always informed by the context in which the word occurs; yet the term porneia always refers to specific sexual sin.”
Physical abuse is sinful, but it is not considered porneia anymore than hitting a child would be considered pedophilia, or kicking a dog would be bestiality. Each of these are sinful, and thus similar, but they are definitely not the same. Though there are instances where abuse and sexual immorality might overlap (in cases of rape for example), the Greek word we translate as “sexual immorality,” in context, has to do with adultery and not abuse. Thus, it is confusing at best to conflate the two and would be exegetically unfaithful to use the porneia exception to grant grounds for divorce in the case of abuse.
In addition, porneia in the New Testament always refers to sexual activity with someone who is not your spouse. Thus, depending on the context, it could refer to premarital fornication, adultery, or homosexuality; but it never refers to sexual activity within the confines of marriage. Therefore, any activity within the context of a marriage (including abuse or even sexual abuse) could not fall under the umbrella of porneia as used in Matthew 5 and 19. Please understand, that doesn't mean that abuse is good or right. Again, it is not. But it is also not adultery, and thus doesn't fit under Christ's exception in Matthew 5 and 19.
Another Exception? - 1 Corinthians 7
But some would argue that abuse doesn’t need to fit under Christ’s exception; they point to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 as an additional exception. Let’s take a closer look:
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:12–16)
This passage serves as the foundation for the Church’s traditional view that divorce is allowed in cases where an individual is “abandoned” (another way of translating “separates”) by their spouse. With this in mind, many will argue that abuse is a form of marital abandonment, and therefore, gives the abused the grounds to pursue divorce.
Is this true?
In short, no; the sacredness of the marriage covenant is, indeed, sinfully violated by the abusive spouse, but the abusive spouse has not abandoned the marriage in the way that this passage is addressing.
Though, with our 21st century English vocabulary, we might find overlap between abuse and abandonment, there is no such overlap in Greek. Paul is dealing with the context of an unbeliever who refuses to "live with" (which is just the verbal form of the Greek word for "house") his or her spouse, and thus "separates" from them. The word separates is the same as is used in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 for when Jesus says "what God has joined together, let no man separate." The command is clear: as long as the unbelieving spouse "consents to live with" the believing spouse, he or she "should not divorce" (1 Corinthians 7:12-13).
Paul is not giving another exception at all. He is not saying, "in this case you may pursue divorce in addition to what Jesus has mentioned." Remember: Jesus rejected all reasons for divorce other than the one exception he gave. If Paul is giving an additional exception, then Paul is directly refuting Jesus’ view of divorce. Instead, Paul is simply giving instructions for what to do if your unbelieving spouse divorces (separates from) you. In such instances, you are free and are not bound to the marriage. So, in the context, 1 Corinthians 7 has nothing to do with abuse—nor does it give you another grounds to pursue divorce.
An Old Testament Exception? - Exodus 21
Some will agree that abuse is not sexual immorality. And they will also agree that abuse is not abandonment in the 1 Corinthians 7 sense. But what about passages like Exodus 21, which speaks of a woman's right to go out from her husband if he denies her food, clothing, and marital rights? Wouldn’t abuse fit under this category?
But this is a misleading question for us today. Regardless of whether Moses intended to allow for divorce in the case of abuse or not (and that itself would be debatable), it is clear that the New Testament intends to give us a more restrictive view of marriage than what was provided in the Mosaic Law. The entire context of Christ's prohibition in Matthew 5 is to give a higher and more restraining ethic than that found in tradition or even the Law itself. Furthermore, in Matthew 19, when speaking of marriage, Jesus is specifically dealing with the Old Testament parameters for divorce. Thus, by referencing what was allowed under the Mosaic Law, He contrasts what was previously allowed with what is now expected. So, even if Moses would have allowed divorce in the case of abuse, it is clear that Jesus does not, and we are now under the latter rather than the former.
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31–32)
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so." (Matthew 19:8)
Thus, to grant grounds for divorce on the basis of a potential interpretation of the Old Testament that would explicitly contradict the New Testament is unfair and unfaithful exegesis.
Biblical Divorce and Remarriage
Before we conclude, there is one final aspect of 1 Corinthians 7 that we need to consider. We have no doubt that many have been advised by pastors, counselors, friends, and family members, with 1 Corinthians 7 in view, to pursue divorce for reasons that were not, as we have demonstrated, abandonment. With this possibility in mind, Paul gives this “charge”:
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. (1 Corinthians 7:10–11)
Paul says that those who are married should not get a divorce. Of course, as we have already seen, divorce is permitted in the case of sexual immorality; but, apart from this exception, Paul charges married people to “not divorce.”
But, as is the case in our day, there were probably some that would receive Paul’s words having already divorced their spouse for reasons other than sexual immorality. So, Paul parenthetically addresses this potential by commanding that those who have already separated either remain unmarried or be reconciled with their spouse. Basically, unless one’s spouse has cheated on them or physically abandoned them, they should not remarry.
Thus, based on Matthew 5 and 19, and Paul’s admonition here, we can conclude that whatever constitutes biblical grounds for divorce, constitutes biblical grounds which provide freedom to remarry. To say it another way, in cases where divorce is acceptable, remarriage is acceptable. In cases where divorce is not permissible, then remarriage is also not permissible. But this is certainly not the norm in our Evangelical culture.
Most who would encourage an abused spouse to pursue divorce would also give the abused spouse the freedom to remarry. But Paul explicitly says that they should remain unmarried. You can’t uphold one portion of Paul’s words while neglecting the other. If someone divorces their spouse, even though their spouse has neither committed porneia nor abandoned them, then this person should not remarry. One shouldn’t compound the sin of unbiblical divorce with the subsequent sin of unbiblical remarriage.
Therefore, based upon the testimony of the Scriptures, we can conclude:
1. Jesus forbids divorce in general by appealing to original creation and God's divine design for marriage (Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18).
2. Jesus allows divorce in only one situation (porneia) and explicitly prohibits any and all other grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:1-12).
3. Abuse is sinful and egregious, but it is not porneia; there is no exegetical warrant for assuming that abuse falls under the term porneia. Thus, abuse is not a valid ground for initiating divorce.
4. Paul does not give another exception whereby believers might pursue or initiate divorce, but rather is speaking of a situation in which a believer is physically abandoned and, thus, has a divorce initiated against them by an unbelieving spouse. Again, abuse is sinful and wicked, but it is not the type of "abandonment" that Paul is dealing with in 1 Corinthians 7.
5. Given all of this, there seems to be no biblical ground for divorce in the case of abuse. Now, this does not mean that an abused spouse simply has to accept the abuse or has no biblical rights or recourse. But, it does mean that divorce is not a legitimate option.
6. Should someone decide to pursue divorce even when such is not biblically permitted, that person must remain unmarried or must reconcile with his or her spouse; where there are no biblical grounds for divorce, there are no biblical grounds for remarriage.
7. All of the above also applies to cases of emotional abuse or other forms of abuse. It stands to reason that if physical abuse is not a valid grounds for divorce, then neither is emotional, mental, or spiritual abuse. Again, this doesn't mean that abuse is good or right, or that God doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but rather that divorce is not the biblical solution.
What Can We Do?
If abuse doesn't grant grounds for divorce, what hope is there for the abused?
We first recognize that God cares for the afflicted and abused (Psalm 10:17-18; Psalm 34:15-18; Psalm 147:3; 1 Peter 5:6-7; Revelation 21:4). So should the Church. Yet part of the way in which the Church is to display care is by speaking the truth in love. Churches which attempt love apart from truth or vice versa provide no safe refuge for those who are oppressed.
Victims of abuse need grace and love. They need to hear that they do not deserve to be abused and that abuse is not good, or right, or loving. They need to be listened to and cared for and given help and refuge. They don't need platitudes, feelings, and opinions; they need the truth of God's good word and the glory of the gospel. They need to hear the hope that God has not forgotten them in their suffering, He delivers the brokenhearted, and that His grace can sustain.
Abuse does not constitute biblical grounds for divorce. We know this can be difficult to hear. This is very counter-cultural, but the solution to the sin of abuse is not the sin of divorce—and especially not the further sin of unbiblical remarriage.
But the abused do have other rights and recourses at their disposal besides divorce. While not exhaustive, here are a few in no certain order:
+ Pray: If God cares for His people and for those who are afflicted, then any who are experiencing abuse should pour out her or his heart before God, believing that He is good and does good, even in our suffering (Romans 5:1-5; Romans 8:18-39; 2 Corinthians 4:7-18). Pray for help, protection, faith, and even pray for your abusive spouse (Luke 6:28 "bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you").
+ Talk to legal authorities. It is neither unwise nor unfaithful to report domestic abuse to the proper authorities. In fact, where children might be involved, it would be irresponsible to not do so.
+ Seek shelter. The fact that Scripture doesn't allow divorce and remarriage in the case of abuse doesn't necessarily imply that you can't or shouldn't seek immediate physical refuge. Depending on the laws in your area, you might even need to file for some sort of legal separation, but only with the expressed intent and goal of eventual reconciliation.
+ Talk to the church: If you are in a church which does not take abuse seriously, then find a new church. A church that protects an abuser not only condones the guilty, but also condemns the innocent by subjecting the abused to further abuse. Any shepherd who refuses to help protect his sheep has forsaken his calling and is hardly better than the wolves themselves.
+ Listen to godly counsel. Allow wise doctors to apply the healing balm of Scripture to help soothe the deep emotional wounds that result from betrayal and abuse. Recognize that you need more than a sympathetic ear, you need a biblical voice reminding you of truth.
So, what does this look like practically in the context of a local church? How would we, for example, at Parkway attempt to walk through this tragic circumstance?
1. If we were to hear of physical abuse, we would encourage the abused to call the police (sometimes we would be required to contact the police on their behalf) and to remove themselves from the physical presence of the abuser. We would also give whatever help was necessary to accomplish this.
2. We would then minister to each person in the marriage separately, often with godly men ministering to the husband, godly women ministering to the wife, and involving pastors and counselors as appropriate. This allows us to work toward healing in the marriage without having the abused around the abuser.
3. This will lead to one of three developments:
+ The marriage will be healed and there will be reconciliation as the abuser experiences faith and repentance and the abused extends forgiveness. This is obviously the ideal scenario and does not always happen, but it is well within the power of the Spirit working through the gospel to accomplish.
+ While physically separated, one of the members in the marriage will cheat on the other. This then gives clearer grounds for divorce.
+ One of the members in the marriage will physically abandon the other during the process, again giving clearer grounds for divorce.
By physically separating the abused from the abuser for a time, it will either lead to a scenario that the Bible does actually address (in adultery or abandonment) or it will lead to reconciliation. This process has the advantage of both trying to keep the marriage together, while also protecting the victim from being further abused.
To be clear, this is certainly not an exhaustive or comprehensive means of shepherding someone who has suffered the profound indignity and horror of abuse; but nothing in a blog post could ever adequately respond to all of the complexities of this situation. That happens over time, and in person, as the gospel and all of its implications are brought to bear on a circumstance of profound suffering, and the utter beauty and sufficiency of Jesus Christ are allowed to shine through the darkness.