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Is there biblical grounds for divorcing an abuser?

Domestic abuse is a pattern of power and coercive control exercised by one spouse against the other spouse. Abusers employ covert or overt aggression, lies, manipulation, unjust criticism, insinuation, blame-shifting, threats and micro-management of the target’s everyday life to undermine her dignity, her liberty, her personal confidence and identity. The abuser tries to keep his target living in fear and confusion (and thus under the abuser’s power). The abuser believes he is entitled to treat his spouse that way. The abuser’s pattern of conduct doesn’t have to include physical abuse to qualify as domestic abuse. The genders are occasionally reversed, but I’ll speak about the victim as female. Domestic abusers typically target intimate partners and ex-partners but may target other family members; children are harmed indirectly even if they are not directly targeted.

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Marriage is a bilateral covenant where each spouse promises to love, care for, honour and respect the other. If one spouse engages in a regular pattern of exercising demeaning, contemptuous, deceptive, cold, calculated, manipulative power and control over the other, that spouse violates the covenant vows of marriage over and over again. If a husband treats his wife like an object rather than a person, if he acts like he owns her body, mind, thoughts and feelings and has the right to tell her what she feels and how she thinks, and the right to subtly monopolise her attention by keeping her afraid of him, he is doing the very opposite of loving, cherishing, honoring and respecting his wife. In exercising such power and control, physical violence isn’t necessary: it can be achieved with emotions and attitudes, words, body language, sexual behaviour, economic control, and constricting the social life of the victim. Violence is just the optional icing on the cake.

I’m not talking about slipping into a sin like King David did and then repenting when confronted and convicted with his guilt. I’m talking about continuing to oppress someone by wicked, multifaceted conduct and to hold a self-justifying belief in one’s right to do so, despite being confronted about it by upright people. I’m talking about a person who, when confronted, denies he is doing it, minimises it, shifts the blame unjustly to his victim, and crafts a tangled web of lies to make it look like he is a nice guy and his wife is crazy or making it up. Think about it ¬– to live like this, a person must violate and sear the demands of his own conscience, stiffen his neck against any conviction from the Holy Spirit, and high handedly disregard all the biblical precepts that call him to repentance.

“No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him… Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil… No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. … whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 Jn 3:6,8-10)

Can a person who practices this pattern of coercive control and power over their spouse be a Christian? It seems to me that the Bible tells us they can’t be. To choose to behave this way while professing to be a follower of Christ, is more wicked than to choose to abuse your spouse without any pretense of being a Christian. The “Christian” domestic abuser is systematically taking the Lord’s name in vain and being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you (2 Pet 2:13) … hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear (Jude 12).

I believe 1 Corinthians 5 is the appropriate text to use in disciplining domestic abusers who profess Christianity. Verse 11 lists six heinous sins for which a professing ‘believer’ is to be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Two sins in that verse epitomise domestic abuse. (1) Being a reviler, which means an abuser, someone who insolently and insultingly criticises another person. (2) Being an extortioner/swindler, someone who seizes by force, is aggressively greedy and takes advantage of others. It continues to astonish me how little this verse is heeded by the church.

Regardless of what a “Christian” domestic abuser might profess, the church ought to treat them as unbelievers, and not merely as ignorant unbelievers who simply need to hear the gospel explained. We must wrap our heads around the abuser’s mindset: His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity (Ps 10:7; cf Ps 36:1-4; Mic 2:1; Prov 4:6).

The abuser works to divide his target (his spouse) from her children, her congregation and her support networks. I submit that Christian leaders and counsellors need to heed Titus 3:10-11 — As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. After all, God only gave one counselling session to Cain!

I also believe the Bible teaches that domestic abuse is grounds for divorce. If a married person is not willing to show basic respect for their partner but is doing the very opposite — violating their wedding vows by decidedly and repeatedly mistreating their partner — then they are in effect pushing their partner away and thus causing separation.

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. (1 Corinthians 7:15 ESV)

If the unbelieving partner carries out a pattern of conduct that constitutes domestic abuse, their evil-hearted attitude and conduct creates separation by effectively pushing their victim away. This verse tells the victim of an abusive spouse (and the church!) to let it be so —let the separation be so.

The words “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so” imply that:

  1. We shouldn’t try to pretend the marriage is still intact or probably salvageable, when in fact the covenant has been broken and repeatedly trodden underfoot by the abuser.
  2. We shouldn’t blame the victim for causing the separation. Although she may have been the one to walk out (or flee, or tell her husband to leave, or obtain a court order that requires her husband to leave the home) it’s the abuser’s chosen conduct that caused her to take such steps.
  3. At the time Paul was writing this letter to the Corinthians, separation with intent to end the marriage was identical with divorce in Roman law. The word Paul used for ‘separate’ was often used in legal documents to mean divorce. Unfortunately, this is not brought out in our English translations. The traditional Christian notion that “you may separate but you can’t divorce” is quite unsound.
  4. Therefore, in our modern context, the victim is completely at liberty to apply to the secular court for a divorce. The certificate of divorce will simply be the legal seal on what is already true in reality: that the abuser has egregiously broken the covenant.

God has called us to peace. The only “peace” in domestic abuse is the fear-driven, walking on eggshells, pseudo-peace whereby the victim creatively and discretely tries to ‘avoid trouble’ (maintain safety) within the every present and increasing coercive control of the abuser.

That is not peace: it is living in fear and incrementally giving up your selfhood to become a shell, a slave to the abuser’s selfish moods and desires.

Several Puritan theologians believed that 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows divorce for abuse. In 1992 the Presbyterian Church in America issued a Position Paper stating the same thing. My interpretation of this verse is simply reviving and re-stating an old interpretation that has been swept out of sight by most of the church.

Remarriage?

Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. … But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. (1 Corinthians 7:10-15 NKJ)

Verses 10-11 are clearly speaking about two believers who have been married to each other. In contrast, verses 12-15 are about a believer married to someone who is an unbeliever.

Side note: it’s an oft repeated assumption that verses 12-15 are about two people who entered married as unbelievers but then one spouse got converted. However, there’s nothing in the text to indicate its being limited to that specific scenario.

Verses 10-11 say that a Christian wife who divorces her Christian husband has two options. Her first option is to remain unmarried — the text says she is un-married, the legal marriage no longer existed. Her second option is to be reconciled with her former husband, to remarry him. The only restriction is that woman mustn’t marry a new, different husband.

Many Christians urge victims of abuse to reconcile with their abusers in the belief that marital reconciliation takes priority because we must ‘display God’s covenant-keeping love to the world’. But in doing so, they go beyond what Paul has said here. In verse 11, Paul doesn’t prioritise reconciliation over remaining in the de-married state.

In verse 12 Paul says ‘for the rest …’ and it becomes clear that these words signal that he’s turned to a contrasting case: the case of a believer married to an unbeliever. For this case he gives a new rule, one not touched on by Jesus during His ministry: — If an unbelieving spouse leaves, separates, or behaves so badly that it pushes the believer away, then the believer is not under bondage (the ESV says ‘not enslaved’).

In the context of the passage, ’not being under bondage’ must mean that the Christian who gets divorced from an unbeliever is not under the restriction that the woman in verse 11 was under. That is, the believer in verse 15 is not restricted from marrying a new, different spouse (so long as she marries in the Lord, v. 39).

* For further explanation and references, see Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion. notunderbondage.com and cryingoutforjustice.com

Barbara is a Christian author and victim-advocate in domestic abuse, based in Melbourne. Her book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Domestic Abuse (2008) has sold over 3000 copies. At the blog A Cry For Justice, Barbara and her American colleague, Ps Jeff Crippen, are seeking to awaken the evangelical church to domestic violence and abuse in its midst. (cryingoutforjustice.com)

Eternity has also published other articles on divorce, remarriage and abuse: 

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