A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

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.

28 Comments

  1. Barnabasintraining

    That was really good, Jeff!

    I suspect the group I have to deal with are really of the Pharisaical branch, though they see themselves as the inquirer branch. I’ll just say they are convinced of their position.

    That is a great idea to read IB’s scholarly work against Piper. I got the same impression reading IB, especially his Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible. I was very impressed with both his thoroughness and his graciousness toward those who hold different views. I didn’t think to read him against Piper but that would be a worthwhile exercise.

  2. Megan

    Such a great post, Jeff S! It is really helpful for me to be able to categorize the “asker” when the questions come (which they do!). And I love how you and Joe Pote emphasize the importance of focusing on the last group. If we can identify the reasons behind the questions, we are much more able to minister to the sufferers and not waste time on the Pharisees. I, too, am grateful for the Inquirers. I would not be where I am today without them!

  3. joepote01

    Yes, it is very important to know the intended audience. People whose minds are made up are unlikely to be convinced no matter how sound the argument or how well presented. As my father used to say, “Convince a man against his will, he’s of the same opinion still.”

    For myself, I’m more concerned about sharing God’s heart of love and redemption with people who are hurting and in need of assurance. I seek to biblically demonstrate God’s heart of redemption in bringing people out of covenants of bondage.

    Thanks for sharing, Jeff S! A very thought-provoking post!

  4. Martin

    Jeff;

    “In my opinion this is where we must be prepared to set a boundary and walk away.”

    Great advice!

    Great advice for the guy that walked up to my wife in church, just after she had divorced her abusive first husband, and repeated over and over again to a small group of divorced women; “God hates divorce!” There was no reasoning with him. He interrupts any conversation on the issue by blurting out those three words and huffing off.

    Thank goodness that here on A Cry For Justice we have a place to turn where God’s mercy and truth is used to support victims and break down the strong holds of the enemy inside churches today!

    “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” Psalm 107:19

    • Megan

      I have a few responses tucked away for people who terrorize with their audacity. I would love to have some other suggestions for quick and kind ways to end the conversation and set those little boundaries. I love what Jeff wrote up there. I don’t know if I am willing to share my research with Pharisees just yet. I don’t think I have that in my personality. I have no problem sharing it with those who are hurting — I am just still gun-shy when it comes to Pharisees, still. Does anyone have certain statements they make that set up the boundaries quickly without too much damage done?

      • Megan

        These are very helpful, Jeff S. Thank you.

      • Martin

        It would be great to know a few of those quick responses for difficult encounters. I know I am often speechless when it’s in my face.

      • Jeff S

        My responses tend toward “I think it would be wise to stop this conversation” or “I am uncomfortable discussing this with you right now”. Once I believe I said “I appreciate your desire to help, but without understanding the situation what you are telling me is causing me a great deal of pain.”

        “I am not comfortable with [xyz]” is a typical response I use for my ex when setting boundaries.

        However, I’ve not encountered anybody dogmatic who has pushed through my boundaries after I’ve stated something like the above.

        When I’ve felt up to it, sometimes I’ve used “shock and awe” to quiet email “advisers” by sending them really long emails (you know how I can write sometimes!)- that isn’t so much setting boundaries, though 😀

      • Martin

        Thanks, Jeff S. Those are great ideas, including the email 🙂

      • joepote01

        Sometimes, I simply say, “Thank you for your concern,” before turning and walking away. There are times when the less said the better.

    • interrupting a person while they are in the middle of speaking can be a tactic of abuse, can’t it? For that guy to do that, esp to women, shows an entitlement attitude.

      • Martin

        Barbara, that is so right! We are just sure that man abuses his whole family. His wife looks desperate for help all the time. No one can seem to break through to help… at least yet!

    • Jeff S

      Martin, I meant to say this earlier, but I am 100% confident that if this happened at my current church and I brought it to the attention of my pastor, it would get dealt with. Either the man would stop doing it or they would ask him to leave.

      I think being able to trust leadership to do this is an important part of building a healthy church community.

      • Martin

        Jeff C and I were talking about what to look for in a healthy church earlier today. Maybe one thing would be willingness to confront unloving or rude church members.

      • Jeff S

        I think that is important. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know how to judge that until you really get to know people. I know it because at the inquirers class where we get to learn about the church with other newcomers I point blank asked “what kind of sins lead you to use church discipline” and the pastor’s answer was to give an example of a belligerent man they asked to tone it down (he was “Reformed” with a capital “R”- apparently good doctrine with poor execution). The guy ended up leaving the church.

        It was a good answer, but only after I followed up with the pastor and has some real conversations did I come to believe he was actually true to that presentation. He does not think it is OK for strong personalities to harm people in the church (he did not say “abuse”, but he’s got the right idea).

        I think a list of questions to ask when looking for a new church would be good. That one certainly worked out for me.

  5. Just Me

    Great job, Jeff. That’s a really great approach that I’d never thought of before. I’m still in my marriage, but if I choose to leave, I will be sure to remember this. I’m sure lots of Pharisees would be making their way out of the wood work to question me about my “Biblical grounds.”

    Thank you!

  6. Jeff S

    Thanks folks!

    One more thing about walking away from hopeless discussions: I’m bad about that because I do hold passionately to my opinions. There’s a song I cannot quote on this blog (without specific permission you aren’t supposed to quote song lyrics on blogs in any part), but it has been a constant source of encouragement for me in this area: It’s called “Wish Them Well” by the band Rush. If walking away from Pharisees is a struggle, I encourage you to search for and read those lyrics.

  7. Bethany

    As an “I need to get it theologically” girl myself I have found Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible to be the most helpful to me during this time as well. I found great strength in not only getting a strong biblical understanding of the doctrine of divorce and remarriage but also in “debating it” with a really good friend of mine as he worked though this with me. He knew I should leave my husband but do to lack of knowledge encouraged me to seek reconciliation at first. As we read the book together and discussed it once a week over the phone (he lives far away from me) we worked out what we already knew in our heart to be Gods character into a sound theology that we could apply not only to be but to others that he has encountered in the past and didn’t know how to help.

    • Martin

      Bethany;

      Your statement; “worked out what we already knew in our heart to be Gods character into a sound theology” is awesome! In my opinion sound theology needs to meet several tests. Instead of just being “Biblical” it must also clearly be consistent with God’s character which we know in our heart by the Holy Spirit. Too many church leaders fail pass their Biblical “rules” through a filter of God’s character. Mercy is one of my favorite character traits for God. Thanks!

      “I will be glad and rejoice in thy mercy” (Psalm 31:7)

      • Jeff S

        Martin, one of the things I think a lot about when looking at interpretations of scripture is “is this telling me the law is unloving toward my neighbor in some way?” Since both Jesus and Paul were on record as saying the summation of the law is love toward one another (and God when Jesus made this point), it seems to be a pretty big deal.

        Of course, I realize that what is “loving” is not always immediately apparent, so we have to be open to being challenged, but we cannot define “love” in a way that is so close to “hate” that you cannot tell the difference.

      • Martin

        Amen to love in the Law, Jeff S! Leviticus 19:11-18 🙂

      • Bethany

        Thanks Martin 🙂 my daughter’s name is Justice Mercy because I love those two attributes best about God.

  8. Interrupting a person while they are in the middle of speaking can be a tactic of abuse, can’t it? The guy that Martin mentioned was showing an attitude of entitlement.
    Regarding ways to respond to Pharisaic challenges on the doctrine of divorce, I think we can take a leaf out of Jesus’ book and study how he responded to the Pharisaic or way-off-beam questioners. Have you ever noticed how sometime he didn’t actually answer the words put to him, but totally changed the topic, or asked a totally different question back.
    We don’t always have to let the other guy set the agenda of the discussion. If someone says, ““How do you justify divorce for abuse Biblically?” , or if they just assert “God hates divorce!’ we could respond by saying things like:

    “Would you like to know what led up to the divorce?” And if the Pharisee gives a reluctant yes, obtain their agreement to not interrupt you before you go on to explain the history. If they say no, they don’t want to know, then just reply “Well then I don’t want to discuss doctrine with you.”

    ” ‘He has shown you, oh man, what is good….’ surely you can tell me how that verse ends?”

    “You don’t know of which you speak. The injustice being meted out to victims of abuse by people who hold views like that is horrific, but I perceive you are not interested in hearing about it.”

    “Take heed lest you fall, brother.”

    “I have such pain in my heart, verbal battle is not on my agenda right now.”

    There are probably better responses than these, but I like the idea of setting the parameters yourself, rather than being drawn into their rules for the discussion.

    • MeganC

      Brilliant, Barb. What a perfect answer . .. to see how Jesus handled the Pharisees’ audacity. I need to study this more. Thank you.

    • Pippa

      Yes, take a step back, a deep breathe, remember with Whom you stand and hear what point He wants you to make, if any. We don’t have to defend “our” position. The Lord already has. (Now I must practice this.)

    • Still scared

      Perfect answer and heart attitude Barb, thanks!

    • joepote01

      Barbara, I really like this concept. It has taken me a while to get past feeling the need to defend my position, and I haven’t really thought in terms of trying to teach without defending.

      As you pointed out, Jesus sometimes answered questions with questions, or responded by answering something other than the question that was asked.

      In response to the “God hates divorce” mantra, perhaps we could ask, “So, when God, speaking through the prophet, Jeremiah, stated that He had given the kingdom of Israel a certificate of divorce, was He acting outside of His own will?”

      Or, perhaps, “Redemption is divorce – the just dissolution of a covenant of bondage. If God hates all divorce, then why did Jesus give His life for our redemption?”

      Thanks for the ideas!

      • Bethany

        Joe- I like those ideas. Thanks I will be using them 🙂
        Learning to bite our tongue and not defend ourselves from this type of abuse when we are trained to be always on the defensive is very heard. Having tools such as these phrases to use is very important, Thanks again.

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