Why Are Pastors Afraid to Permit Divorce for Abuse?
(Joh 9:21-23 ESV) 21 But how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 (His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.) 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
It is refreshing to come across a pastor who understands that abuse is indeed biblical grounds for divorce. Recently I met two such pastors, both of them Reformed Baptists. One of them pointed out that from his study of the Puritans, this was not an uncommon position among them.
Unfortunately it seems that we meet far more pastors and church leaders who insist that abuse — even severe abuse — is not a case for divorce. Separation, yes. Calling the police, yes. But not divorce. I have found that if I press these people with real-life illustrations of abuse, they eventually fall silent. Their own conscience and common sense begins to whisper to them — “uh, this is a difficult question indeed. I’d better say nothing.” They have swallowed the company line position on divorce and remarriage and have not seriously thought at all about abuse nor how the reality of abuse in the lives of victims inevitably makes their no-divorce-for-abuse position ridiculous.
Here in this article I want to propose another very common reason pastors reject abuse as grounds for divorce. Pharisaical religion uses fear to keep people in bondage. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to Jesus by night. He was afraid. The parents of the blind man healed by Jesus in John 9 feared being put out of the synagogue if they confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. The company line, you see. It is abusive. It is power and control and it reigns through fear. Therefore, I propose:
Many pastors and church leaders and even individual Christians are fearful of opposing the dominating position of the reigning Pharisaical religion of our day. If sexual abuse occurs in the church, or if a victim of even horrific domestic violence asks for help and seeks a divorce, the thing is hushed up. Why? Fear. Fear of loss of reputation. Fear of loss of power. And fear that such a scenario will demand that a victim be told “you can be free. File for divorce.” And that would mean opposing the powers that rule and the possibility that a pastor giving that advice will be put out of the synagogue, career over.
I have never fit into power structures. I didn’t in high school. I didn’t run with the in crowd. And if I had remained in the police department, I doubt that I would have worked my way up through the ranks. I was too outspoken when I saw injustice within. (I wasn’t very wise or tactful about how I went about talking about it either, so I share some of that blame). And I have never fit in with denominational structure in the church. I will never be on the head committee. My office phone (hey, I don’t even really have an office phone!) doesn’t ring off the hook with calls from the “happening” folk who are on those committees. Part of it is my fault. But another part, hopefully the major part, is because I simply don’t like environments in which you must hold to a “company line” or else be ostracized, like the New York Fireman who is currently an outcast by his fellow firefighters because he is a vegetarian. Apparently if you are going to succeed in the NYFD, you have to eat meat.
I propose then that we have constructed an atmosphere in and among our Bible-believing churches and their denominations and organizations that instills fear and opposes freedom of conscience and thought. It is Pharisaical. It says, without words, “if you step out of the way and start teaching that victims of abuse can divorce their abuser, then we will put you out. Your career will be over.” And thus these structures, dominated by powerful people, have joined the Athenian philosophers who mocked Paul:
(Act 17:16-20 ESV) 16 ¶ Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”– because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”
No, I must modify that. The powers that rule today are not as noble as these pagan Athenians. At least the Athenians gathered together and gave him a chance to speak. And some of them believed.