Keeping the Spotlight on Prominent Teachers Who Forbid Divorce for Abuse
We have posted R.C. Sproul’s no-divorce-for-abuse position before, but I want to keep the prominent teachers, writers, pastors, theologians who are doing this right up here at the top of the blog. What little heat we can put on them through exposure needs to be applied and I wish I could turn up the temperature of the outcry more. Let me add again: I am loathe to have to criticize R.C. Sproul. I have loved his ministry and many years ago I soaked up his teaching tapes (they were still on cassette, so it has been awhile). He helped me tremendously in my theology. I still say today, if you want to learn about the Cross, about the doctrines of grace, or just about any other foundational doctrine of Scripture, go to Ligonier.org and get his teaching series. Ok? R.C. Sproul fans — I’m one of you in many ways.
Dr. Sproul’s teaching on abuse is totally out to lunch. It is worse than that. It victimizes victims. It enables evil abusers. R.C. doesn’t intend to do all of this. But he does, because – surprise – he doesn’t know everything. He isn’t competent in every area. He doesn’t know. And yet he authoritatively teaches, and that is a very, very bad combination for any of us. Blind to our ignorance, yet we expound because we have our Bible.
Alright then; here it is. These are R.C.’s words right out of his book Now That’s a Good Question! – Tyndale House, 1996. (The subtitle inadvertently emphasizes the problem of how Christians look to a few mega-names for all of their answers: One of Today’s most sought after theologians answers more than 300 frequently asked questions about life and faith).
Why isn’t physical abuse legitimate grounds for divorce?
[R.C. Sproul answers:] – I don’t know why God has not included wife abuse or husband abuse as grounds for divorce. I only know that he hasn’t. I also have to say very candidly that if I were God, I would make that a grounds for divorce because abuse within marriage is a dreadful reality. If anything, it is a violation of human dignity and of the sacred vows of marriage, it is physical abuse of another person. I’ve wondered myself many times why God doesn’t include that under his list of legitimate grounds for divorce.
I do know that we have options short of divorce in these situations. Obviously, if we’re talking about a Christian family (and this is something that does take place in Christian homes), this is a situation in which the discipline of the church needs to be applied fully in order to protect the person who is being abused; the restraint of ecclesiastical authority is to be used in that situation. If that fails or if people don’t even have that available to them because they are outside the church, there are other avenues of safety and protection. Many people use the legal system. I’ve counseled women in the past to call the police. If worse comes to worse, throw the abuser in jail because assault and battery just can’t be tolerated in the home or on the streets, in the school or in the church. We do have provisions in our civil law to protect people from that kind of assault.
There are grounds in a Christian community for at least temporary separation if the abusing partner refuses to mend their ways. Maybe there is no provision for divorce in these cases because God sees that this problem, as serious and severe as it is, can be overcome. In many cases, we have seen marriages redeemed after people have repented and overcome destructive patterns of behavior. But it’s an extremely serious problem in our culture and one that is only beginning to come to light, just as child abuse has come to light in the past few years.
Whew! I don’t know where to begin in my response — these statements are so terribly wrong, wrong, wrong. Some of you right this moment are wrestling with a decision as to whether you should or can leave your abuser. You are a true Christian. You love Christ and you want to obey Him and honor Him in every area of your life – especially in your marriage and family. It seems to you that you need to get away and be free of the terrorism you are enduring. But… you read John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul and Wayne Grudem and John Piper. Surely these men know? Everyone seeks out their counsel. How could they be wrong? So you stay. You are confused and you feel trapped. Well, let us help you — these men and others who hold and teach their no-divorce-for-abuse position are absolutely and completely wrong. They are expounding in an area they are absolutely ignorant of. Listening to them is like going to an auto mechanic when you have a brain tumor (no bad light on auto mechanics. I worry more about a noise in my engine than trouble in my brain!). Sproul may as well be telling you to go get an oil change and all will be well. He doesn’t know. They don’t know. And they need to have admitted their ignorance a long time ago and stop this spiritual mal-practice.
I am going to leave my remarks at this, and let YOU complete this article with your analysis of Sproul’s words as quoted above. There are phrases he uses that are flashing like neon lights to you. Go for it and maybe we will compile all the results into a letter to Dr. Sproul and mail it to him. Now’s your chance. I wrote to him once about something else and he actually gave me a personal reply. Write as if you are writing directly to him, with the goal of trying to get him to see his error here.
J. Ann’s Letter to R.C. –
Dear Dr. Sproul, Please listen to Joe and Ida Mae. As Jeff Crippen says, most of your theology is great, but in this area, you are wrong. Don’t worry, you are in good company. I could say the same thing to Dr. James Dobson, Dr. Kevin Leman, Drs Minirth and Meier, and others. I have the greatest respect for them, but they let a lot of us down in the late 80’s. There was new research on how to better help families of abuse, but it went against what they had been teaching, so they ignored it. If they had been willing to investigate new understandings like those proposed by James and Phyllis Alsdurf in their book Battered into Submission, which was published in 1989, it wouldn’t have taken them so long to provide the information that they now provide on their website (Understanding Emotional Abuse [Internet Archive link]).
When I found that information there less than 2 years ago, it opened up a world of understanding, and gave me the first real help from them. It appeared that their pride kept them from working with people and organizations that were doing the same trail-blazing that they had been doing at the beginning of their ministries. Please don’t you make the same mistake. The God of the Universe does not need you to make excuses for Him. If someone has discovered mistranslations or misinterpretations, you do not need to be embarrassed or fearful to look at what they have to say. Barbara Roberts has written a wonderful book that she calls Not Under Bondage. It is well researched and has been reviewed by several theologians in Australia and the UK, but not in the US. It reveals the true character of our loving Heavenly Father. It does not compromise His integrity, like traditional teachings on this subject do. You have the education and skills to give it a thorough review. If it contains erroneous information, you and your colleagues would recognize that. You need to do a thorough study of what it contains, not ignore it. It is time for another Great Awakening, and you could be one of the leaders.
Joe’s Words to R.C. –
R.C., if only you had stopped at “I don’t know…”
Up to that point, you had an honest and correct answer. When you attempted to continue to answer a question to which you clearly do not have an answer, you took a really bad turn!
Without even getting into all of the areas you are theologically wrong on this topic (and they are numerous), the very fact that you can candidly say, “…if I were God, I would make that a grounds for divorce because abuse within marriage is a dreadful reality,” should tell you that you are in way over your head in this area!
Do you realize that you just admitted that your view of God in this area is one of His having less love and mercy for His children than you do? Of His having less concern for injustice than you do?
And yet, you charged on to give an authoritative response to a question to which you clearly do not know the answer! It is okay not to know. It is dreadfully wrong to give an authoritative answer to a question, knowing full well that you do not know the mind of Christ in this area!
If only you had stopped at “I don’t know…”
Ida Mae says –
Joe summed up my thoughts exactly. It is such a trap for anyone– theologian, minister, counselor– to try and answer every question. Saying I don’t know shows humility. Answering anyway says “I do know” (despite my protests to the contrary), now follow me.
And they will, blindly — right over the cliff. When it says in James 3:1, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly,” there’s good reason.
Certain subjects should be left in the hands of the Lord until He bring light, even at the risk of a few mishandling their freedom. Those who love the Lord will seek His face and follow Him wherever He leads.
New: When a church becomes a man’s world it has strayed from Christ’s model, and from His blessing – by Jeff Crippen, Dec 22, 2017
R.C. Sproul on Biblical Grounds for Divorce – by Jeff Crippen, March 2, 2012
What about divorce? – our FAQ page which has links to our most helpful posts about divorce