Is Divorce For Abuse Biblical? Who’s Asking?
“Is divorce for abuse biblical?” In the Evangelical church this is a question that plagues us all. Pastors are reluctant and uncomfortable discussing it, many believing that erring on the side of caution means “no” and trying to “fix” most abuse cases. It’s a question many of us have had to deal with, some as we look at our own situations, others as we’ve counseled and walked through tough situations with those we love.
From the outset, I want to be clear that we on this blog say the answer is “yes”, so I’m not seeking to answer that question for us. What I am interested in is how we answer others, as increasingly we are going to be put into situations of defending our position. I am convinced that as we do this, we absolutely must consider one important question before we open our mouths to answer: “Who’s asking?” Or more precisely: “What need does the person asking have that has sparked this question?” I think the answer to this dramatically affects our response.
Before tackling this head on, I want to address another often asked question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Believers, especially Reformed believers, have a tendency to shrug this question off with a quick, snappy counter of “Why do good things happen to bad people? That’s the REAL question!” Self-satisfied we march on and pretend we’ve really answered the question, but we should pause and realize that, for most people at least, we haven’t. Furthermore this is one of the most difficult questions that face our faith and we should not dismiss it lightly.
It is not my goal to answer the question of the existence of suffering in the world, but I do want to make a very important point: before we EVER attempt to answer this question, we better have a good handle on who is asking and why. If it is a skeptic with an agenda trying to tear down the faith with reasoned arguments, we’d better be prepared with solid, theological answers that give evidence of the truth of God. However, if it is someone who has or is suffering immense tragedy in his or her life, all of the theological answers in the world are going to ring very hollow. Head knowledge may quiet the skeptic, but it will do little to sooth the pain of the suffering.
But God has provided an answer for the sufferer too: he has provided Jesus Christ, on the cross suffering as we have suffered (in fact, Jesus suffered more than we could ever suffer as he bore the wrath of God for all sin). Now this may not answer why, but it certainly drives to the heart of the sufferer and can provide the comfort of knowing that the God of Christianity is not a far removed deity who asks of us what he would or could not do. No, every pain we experience he has experienced. He knows every hit we take, he understands what it feels like to be stripped naked, lose everything of value, and be violated by everyone he should have been able to trust. Now will this answer every question a person suffering has? Maybe not, but I think that discussion is a whole lot more profitable than a theological treatise on the nature of God of man, original sin, and the fallen world. To a person in pain our answer must bring compassion and soothing, to a person with questions, we must provide answers that are logical and adequate.
So what does this have to do with biblical divorce for abuse? I think people ask this question with a variety of different motives and needs, and we need to be prepared to answer them all. I can think of three different types of individuals, and I believe each should have its own answer: the Pharisee, the Inquirer, and the Sufferer. I am not going to claim exclusive knowledge on how best to answer these, but I’ll give my thoughts and hope to hear more from others.
The Pharisees ask this question not to find an answer, but to tear down. They want to demonstrate superiority of position and intimidate their victim into submission. Many times the way of asking the question will be a tipoff: “How do you justify divorce for abuse Biblically?” In my opinion this is where we must be prepared to set a boundary and walk away. Something like “I think the scripture is clear that divorce is permitted for abuse cases; if you would like to hear the fruit of the research I’ve done in this area I’d be glad to share it with you.” If the response points toward an open heart and mind, then I would treat this person as an Inquirer; if the response is along the lines of “I’m sorry, but the scripture is pretty clear on this,” then I think we say “we are going to have to agree to disagree” and refuse to answer any further. We are not going to change the hearts of Pharisees.
I think genuine Inquirers may be the smallest group, though I anticipate and hope it grows with the work of people like Jeff C and Barbara who are bringing this question more to the forefront. Inquirers don’t have skin in the game, but they really want to know God’s heart on the matter. They are looking for Biblical truth and are willing to challenge tradition in order to get it. In these cases I would be prepared to provide the basic arguments David Instone-Brewer makes in his book “Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible” and point them toward that resource. I would even be so brazen to encourage them to read it along side John Piper’s position paper on divorce and remarriage, because I think anyone with an objective reading of both will see that Instone-Brewer’s work is far more compelling and researched. Instone-Brewer is the type of scholar whose work will resonate with the real Inquirer, the one who wants to dig down deep and get to the nuts and bolts of biblical divorce and remarriage theology. There may be other resources that I haven’t read, but as an “I need to get it theologically” guy myself, I can say there are very few books I’ve read on ANY subject that are as thorough as Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible. For other resources, Barbara’s book Not Under Bondage also addresses the factual Biblical arguments for divorce in abuse case, and if an Inquirer seems to basically accept that the Bible teaches divorce in abuse cases, it might be time to move on to Jeff Crippen’s new book which will be educational on how to deal with abuse in the church.
The third type of person, and I think the majority of people who will ask this question, are the Sufferers: those who have a personal stake in the answer. They want to know how God is going to help them or someone they know through an abusive situation. Largely they want to know God’s heart more than His instruction; they want assurance that he loves them, hasn’t left, and wants good things for them. They want to know they are not failures, nor are their sins the cause the situations they are in. A few of these may be people like myself who process even their emotional questions analytically; in those cases perhaps some of the Inquirer approach is most beneficial (it was for me – understanding the thorough teaching of scripture on divorce was incredibly strength giving when I was at my darkest points). Largely, though, I think what these people need is basic assurance that our God is a God who delivers from bondage, knowledge that his character supports leaving abusive situations, and a community to surround them with love and mercy. We must be knowledgeable enough to give them verses to guide them on the issue, but we must remember that raw doctrine is not enough. Pointing them toward this blog, Bancroft’s book Why does he do that?, Jeff and Barbara’s books, and other similar resources will help encourage them that there are answers and they can have hope.
I am far from an expert on this, but as I’ve seen various people ask this question, I think we need to be sensitive enough to the people asking so we can answer them in the best way to meet their needs and not waste our efforts tilting at windmills.