Divorce, remarriage and domestic abuse: what does the Bible say?

For too long, passages like 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 have kept Christian women in abusive marriages. Eternity asked Dr Matthew Malcolm, a senior lecturer in New Testament at Trinity Theological College, Western Australia, who also has a special interest in the book of 1 Corinthians to take another look at this tricky passage.

One of the most pastorally notorious passages in 1 Corinthians is 7:10-11:

To the married I give this command – not I but the Lord – that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife (NRSV).

How should we understand this passage? Most pressingly, how does it apply to believers who are in situations of domestic violence? Does it demand that suffering spouses should continue to silently endure abuse? How can those of us who wish to take Scripture seriously grapple with these issues?

Let me proceed by asking some questions of the passage. Some of these will issue in answers, while others might need to remain hanging.

What does Paul mean by ‘separate’? Does he mean the same thing that we would mean by separate?

As well as the general meaning ‘to separate’, the word that Paul uses here (chorizein) is commonly used in literature of the time to refer specifically to divorce (see Matthew 19:6). In our context, we sometimes use the word in a slightly different technical sense to mean something less than divorce. I am hesitant to draw any firm conclusions from this – but it is worth being aware that our own culture directs the way we interpret words and concepts, and we should take this into account when reading the Bible.

Why does Paul add the parenthetical ‘but if she does separate…’ – given that he has just said not to separate?

My guess is that Paul must have been aware that there are some instances in which a Christian wife will indeed separate from her husband. I would think this would particularly include situations in which the husband is at fault. Note that Paul doesn’t question the wife’s status as a believer or church member; he simply acknowledges that it is possible that a wife will separate, and tells such a woman that she should remain unmarried or be reconciled.

But what happens in the scenario above if the husband himself remarries?

Paul does not directly comment on this, but in the subsequent section, he advises that if an unbelieving spouse chooses to leave, then the believing spouse is not ‘bound’ (7:15). Given the way that this word is used in 7:39 (‘A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes’), I think the implication is that the opportunity for reconciliation has been closed off, and thus the ‘unbound’ spouse is free to remarry.

I think we can also apply this back to the situation of the wife in 7:11, if her husband from whom she had separated decides to remarry. The opportunity for reconciliation has then passed, and so she is now ‘unbound.’ (Personally, I would think that even if the separated partner has pursued ‘de facto marriage,’ this still ‘unbinds’ the remaining spouse.)

What does all of this mean for situations in which one partner is suffering domestic abuse from the other partner? May they separate? May they divorce? May they remarry?

As I said above, I think that Paul’s parenthetical section (‘but if she separates’) assumes that there will be times when one Christian partner will detach themselves from their spouse. I think it is entirely appropriate for a spouse who is being violently or sexually abused to do this: to separate from their spouse until that spouse has received appropriate accountability, legal penalty, and rehabilitation.

In the mean time, as much as I imagine this to be extraordinarily difficult, I think Paul is calling the victim to stay single or seek reconciliation in due course. There is still hope for the relationship if the abuser is willing to be reformed.

If the offending spouse were to show no interest in being rehabilitated and reconciled, the victim would be wise to remain separated. If the offending spouse then began a new relationship, this would mark the closure of opportunity for reconciliation, and so the victim would be ‘unbound,’ and thus free (though not obliged) to pursue divorce and remarriage.

Personally, I would wish to push even further than this, and reason that the abusing spouse has broken the marriage covenant, and so has effectively ‘left’ their partner, even if they have not physically departed. This opens the way for the abused partner to regard the marriage as over, without being ‘bound’ to stay. I realise that I am wandering from the actual scenario described in the passage here, but it seems to me to be a reasonable extrapolation. But I recognise that others might interpret things differently.

This is, no doubt, a difficult passage and a difficult topic.

It should be remembered, of course, that Paul’s vision of human flourishing is not found in seizing one’s own rights or pursuing self-determination – neither the husband nor the wife is said to belong to themselves (7:4).

Rather, Paul’s vision of human flourishing is found in embracing the Lord Jesus, who self-sacrificially gave up all that he had for us. This is a countercultural vision, yet millions of people across the world continue to find their only true freedom in embracing and imitating him.

Nevertheless, our commitment to model ourselves on the crucified one need not mean accepting abusive relationships. If you are in this situation, I urge you to think over the passage as I’ve wrestled with it, and to separate from your abusive partner – not necessarily with the aim of abandoning them, but perhaps with the hope of reconciling to them when they show themselves to be ready.

If this does not eventuate, then my view is that they have effectively acted to ‘leave’ the marriage, and you are free to either remain single or remarry, ‘only in the Lord’ (7:39).

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