Church discipline and church permission for divorce – how my mind has changed
When I wrote Not Under Bondage, I emphasized the application of Matthew 18 for cases of domestic abuse.
Here in a nutshell is what I said about this in the first edition of Not Under Bondage.
If an abuser is a professing Christian, the victim of abuse should try to follow the steps of Matthew 18:15-17. Those steps entail asking the church to try to bring the abuser to repentance and if he does not repent, the church should treat him an unbeliever. If the abuser is deemed an unbeliever by that process, that would free the victim of abuse to divorce under 1 Corinthians 7:15.
I am revoking my previous teaching that a victim whose abuser is a professing believer must pursue Matthew 18 as far as it is within her power, and that a victim should always seek to have her decision to divorce verified by her church.
I now see that teaching as extra-biblical tradition. Like all man-made traditions, it is derived from biblical principles, but it turns the beautiful conception of biblical guidelines into a rigid cage that locks people into bondage, just like the religion of the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. It denies victims of abuse the freedom to discern the godliness and wisdom (or lack thereof) of the church hierarchy from whom they are receiving counsel. And since it binds the conscience of the victim to the ruling of the church hierarchy, it deprives the victim of freedom of conscience. And it dissuades the victim from heeding the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
I would like to explain why I put such emphasis on the “take it to the church” principle of Matthew 18. Then I’d like to apologize and explain how my mind has changed.
Why I put such emphasis on Matthew 18 in the first edition of Not Under Bondage
Having spent years in the Presbyterian Church of Australia which is similar to the Presbyterian Church of America, I was familiar with the Westminster Confession and knew it to be highly esteemed in conservative evangelical circles. Regarding divorce, the Confession says that
a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.
The Confession’s claim that the divorcing parties should “not be left to their own wills and discretion” seems on the surface to align with Matthew 18:16-17. But curiously, the Confession doesn’t cite Matthew 18 in support of that paragraph; it only cites Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the passage where Moses mentions the husband issuing a divorce certificate to the wife. Deuteronomy 24 supports the idea of a public and orderly course proceeding in divorce, but doesn’t mention, let alone prescribe, taking the matter to the congregation (or the leaders) in order to obtain permission to divorce.
In the text of my book I chose not to mention the Westminster Confession when discussing Matthew 18 because I didn’t want to seem to be wielding a cudgel of tradition over victims’ heads. Many Christian victims of abuse are not familiar with the Westminster Confession; had I cited it in support for my treatment of Matthew 18, victims who don’t know the Confession might have perceived me as a someone who was untrustworthy because I inexplicably relied on the traditions of a bunch of faceless men, rather than Scripture. (No offense to the men who wrote the Confession, but they are unknown to some modern Christians.)
However, I was also mindful that pastors and theologians might be scrutinizing my book to see whether I diverged from the specifics of Matthew 18, and more particularly, to see whether I followed the principles of the Westminster Confession.
We don’t know why the writers of the Westminster Confession incorporated that paragraph about divorce. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I think it’s possible that they were wisely wanting to set a hedge against divorces that might be taken out for ostensibly biblical reasons but in actuality are undertaken for reasons as trivial as “we have grown apart” or “my spouse is getting old and has lost her sex appeal.” Christian leaders would have been accustomed to being sought out for counsel on questions of divorce — it was a much debated topic in the countries where Protestantism held sway. It’s possible that some of the writers of the Confession believed that leaders should have the power to decide all cases of divorce. But it’s also possible that many were simply concerned to guard the sheep from error and mishap in divorce decision-making.
Be that as it may, the wording that “the persons concerned [be] not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case” can easily be morphed from a guideline or suggestion into a law that oppress victims of abuse.
It is my guess that, like many Christian leaders today, the writers of the Westminster Confession had insufficient empathy with the spiritual dilemmas of victims of domestic abuse and the way abuse flourishes in the dark long before victims disclose and seek help, let alone the effects of this ongoing trauma on the victims. In other words, they were not sufficiently mindful of the way their precept would be used by Christian leaders who are blind to domestic abuse. Their precept has been turned into a binding rule that persons considering divorce must not be allowed to make up their own mind at their own discretion.
I deliberately stayed implicitly in line with the Confession’s teaching because I imagined that some influential Christians would have used any disregard of the Westminster precept as a convenient reason to reject my work. I didn’t want to give them that ready excuse. I knew it would be an uphill battle to get my work noticed, let alone accepted, and I did not want to lessen the chance of victims being freed from bondage. So I chose to err on the side of cautious conservatism in how I applied Matthew 18 to cases where the abuser is a professing Christian.
At that stage I was not aware of the London Confession of 1689 (the confession of reformed baptists) let alone the intriguing fact that although the London Confession replicated a great deal of the Westminster Confession, it omitted the paragraph about divorce.* Had I been aware of the London Confession and its significant silence on divorce, I might have not emphasized Matthew 18 as much in my advice to victims of abuse.
The part of my book where I discuss Matthew 18 — taking your matter to the church with a view to them disciplining your abuser — has been a sticking point with some of my readers. I’ve had comments from readers saying:
I can’t take my case to the elders and ask them to excommunicate my spouse! The very thought of it terrifies me because they are saying that the problem is mutual and they’re judging me for not being submissive or loving enough, not praying enough, not wanting to reconcile. They are siding with my abuser because he’s wrapped them round his little finger. If I try to pursue Matthew 18 it will only make things worse, and I’m already near breaking point. Do I really have to do a full Matthew 18?
I am sorry to say that my discussion about the victim appealing to the church to assess her abuser’s standing as a believer was unhelpful to victims whose churches are siding with the abuser or mutualizing the problem.
In my effort not to get leaders offside, I had pussy footed around. My advice put too much onus on the victim, and not nearly enough on the church.
As this survivor pointed out at Cindy Burrell’s blog (used with permission):
Confrontation is usually not safe to do in an abusive marriage. Sometimes it happens inappropriately in moments of anger and verbal self-defense, but most of the time, an abused woman knows it is not safe to confront her abuser about his behavior. . . . In a reasonable, regular relationship, where there is general goodwill one can safely go to another, and/or then bring a second person and confront, in love, for the purposes of reconciliation. But the scripture also says ‘…as far as it depends on me’ I am to live at peace with others. There is an endpoint to how far one is expected to go – the other party bears responsibility too.
The story of Abigail and Nabal brings this point home well. Abigail was informed by the servants of the household – they did not go to Nabal and confront him about his inhospitable behavior to David – they knew based on their experience with him that this would not be a wise or safe move. Abigail, in return, made her plans, in order to save the household (protective mother) from the consequences of his actions, and left the estate without telling him.
Almost always, by the time someone in an abusive relationship is prepared to leave, the confrontation stage is long past. A woman … will have confronted the abuser many times very early on – to no avail – and often with costly consequences. It is only when she finally is ready to end the relationship and leave the marriage that this concept [of pushing through with the formal part of Matthew 18] will rear its head and create a sense of false guilt.
In addition, I was too optimistic about the likelihood that churches would be able to handle the abuser correctly. For instance I said (p.43) that the abuser should be prepared to make himself accountable to the pastor and other married men in the fellowship, which I now know to be a naïve and potentially dangerous suggestion. As we know from countless accounts at this blog, many married men in churches are easily taken in by an abuser’s pretense of reformation. Or they may be abusers themselves, whose hidden sins have not yet been brought to light. And what if the abuser IS the pastor? My words were useless for those women.
For victims who have felt left out in the cold by my words, I ask your forgiveness.
I am particularly sorry for what I wrote on page 49 —
If your abuser is a professing Christian, the biblical precept is that you should not decide the matter for yourself without reference to a church court. Knowing your own heart is not enough: we are all capable of deceiving ourselves and justifying things to suit ourselves (Jer. 17:9).
And on page 103 —
“[People living in a state which only offers ‘no-fault’ divorce] should verify the godliness of their divorce by submitting it to a church court.”
Did you notice? I ‘should-ed’ on the victim. Terrible.
And I didn’t help victims by referring to church courts, a formal term that was intimidating and bewildering to some readers. For those who wonder what I meant, I was thinking of the Presbyterian concept of a church court which is a body of church officials who have authority over members and can conduct a formal hearing into religious or spiritual matters.
Here is what one reader (Brenda) wrote to me:
If I ask my church, they are just going to say what my pastor said when I went to him three years ago: “Go home; your husband just needs to get saved. ” I went home and suffered more years of abuse. Now I’ve finally left, my husband is claiming to have ‘found God’, has taken the required class for membership, has not been baptized, and has not been accepted for membership. The church really doesn’t have authority over him at this point. . . . If you could untangle the web in my brain over this one, I’d appreciate it.
This pastor failed the victim. In my opinion, a good pastor would have told the victim that she was free to make her own decision regarding divorce. A good pastor would have assured the victim that he did not consider her husband a believer. A good pastor would have followed through on his words by making it crystal clear to the abuser – and the congregation – that this man was not to be treated as a believer (even if he claimed to have ‘found God’) because he was not showing fruits of repentance. A good pastor would have reassured the wife that when it comes to domestic abuse there is a high bar for the fruits of repentance and those fruits need to be demonstrated and tested over time: it’s not just a few simple hoops that her abuser might be able to figure out and jump through.
Brenda’s words illustrate how victims of abuse who take the trouble to read my book have ultra-sensitive consciences. I surmise that victims who are going to divorce without teasing out the scriptures will probably not read my book. But a conscientious victim who reads my book is most likely suffering from lacerating self doubt and second guessing already; the last thing she needs is yet another person casting doubt on her judgements.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
In my book I used that ^ verse to encourage victims to scrutinize their own motives, because we are all capable of deceiving ourselves. It is still good advice…but when it comes to abuse it’s even more vital to realise this:
- As victims or church leaders interacting with abusers, we are all capable of being deceived by the abuser’s manipulative impression-management tactics.
- In situations of interpersonal abuse, the chief cause of deception is the abuser and his nefarious tactics. (I’m using the pronoun ‘he’ generically)
How my mind has changed — what I now believe
I have now come to believe that rather than Matthew 18, the instructions in 1 Corinthians 5 are more appropriate for dealing with domestic abusers who profess faith in Christ. I don’t want to be over-prescriptive about this, but there is clearly a difference in the two passages, and that difference should surely guide us as to their application.
For transgressions at the less severe end of the spectrum where there is a reasonable likelihood that the offender will repent, the process of Matthew 18 seems appropriate because it gradually intensifies the confrontation and progressively includes more people to assess the matter, until a final outcome or decision is reached.
However, for heinous sins, 1 Corinthians 5 is specifically applicable:
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:11-13)
1 Corinthians 5 tells us there are six sins for which professing believers should be promptly and resolutely disciplined:
- fornication — sexual sin
- covetousness — greed
- idolatry —elevating something other than God to the place that only God can occupy
- reviling — assailing with abusive and scornful language, verbal abuse, slander
- drunkenness, and
- extortion — snatching, taking by force, predation, rape, plundering, subsisting on live prey.
We know the church discipline must be total dis-fellowshipping of the hypocrite, because Paul taught this explicitly:
When you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. … put away from yourselves that wicked person (1 Cor. 5:4–5, 13b).
Most importantly, we know this to be a commandment to the church, not just to the individual who has been the victim of the heinous sinner’s conduct.
And we know that in the case which precipitated the commandment (the man who slept with his father’s wife) Paul had been appraised of the facts (presumably by Chloe’s people 1:11; 5:1). Paul was prepared to credit that report without ascertaining the facts for himself.
Paul listened to a report from a third party. So let’s ask ourselves – did Paul listen to gossip? Gossip about a man? From the household of a woman? No; it wasn’t gossip. It’s certainly not gossip if you’re a part of the problem or a part of the solution to the problem, and Paul knew that his informants wanted the problem solved – they wanted the sin to be rightly addressed.
The six sins named in 1 Corinthians 5:11 are heinous – they do grievous harm to the victim and will do much damage in the church if they are allowed to continue, leavening the whole lump with the narcotic of deception and the pride of self-righteousness and apathy. I believe it is for this reason that 1 Corinthians 5 prescribes a much quicker excommunication than the one which might take place under Matthew 18. The decisive act which Paul prescribed was to be carried out in his physical absence, without hesitation: Purge the evil person from among you! In contrast, Matthew 18 describes a gradual escalation of discussion and confrontation and inclusion of more witnesses until a final decision is reached.
Paul in his own mind had already handed the man over to satan. I imagine Paul making this kind of prayer: “Dear God, let satan deal with this man so that his spirit may perhaps be saved in the day of the Lord. He is no longer the church’s responsibility. Oh, and dear Father, please let the Corinthian church obey my instructions swiftly, so that their arrogance and apathy will be brought to a halt.”
Another passage about dealing promptly with certain kinds of sinners is 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.
A divisive person can have various agendas, but in domestic abuse the most common goal of the abuser is to recruit allies to his side, thus preventing them from being potential supporters for the victim.
Not infrequently, the victim is dreadfully perplexed about how to treat her abusive spouse, especially if he professes the Christian faith. “Can I treat my spouse as an unbeliever? Should I be patient with him as a fellow believer who just slips up occasionally? Should I trust and hope that he will see the error of his ways because he is a Christian and has the Holy Spirit?” And all too often, the victim is trying to make that decision while being given the run around by a church which is abysmally ignorant about abuse. The abuser, sensing he’s losing control of his victim, is escalating his abuse. And then the church (and book authors!) start insisting that she participate in a Matthew 18 process! With all the cards stacked against her and her self-doubt spinnaker catching every blast from the enemy’s lungs, it’s a fierce storm for the victim. Often victims are so exhausted they can barely stand. In that valley of decision there are many bones.
Now, five years after publishing Not Under Bondage, I’m less intimidated by influential conservative Christians. I no longer feel like a stranger crying to the wind in the wilderness, afraid of the wild animals who might attack me. I am more confident in calling the church to be accountable.
It is not fair to put the victims through the wringer by telling them they ought to follow Matthew 18 when churches are dominated by people who don’t get it about domestic abuse — and often don’t want to get it…because they think they already do.
Rather than urging a victim to risk throwing herself under the bus by trying to get her church to do a Matthew 18 process, I am now urging churches to discipline abusers promptly and firmly in the style of 1 Corinthians 5.
All too often church leaders have ended up excommunicating the victim being because the abuser and his many allies have snowed the church leaders. Snowed by manipulation. And the prevalence of false doctrine about divorce.
Take the blowtorch off the victim and direct it at the abuser. When you put the abuser out of the church you vindicate the victim and endorse the victim’s liberty to divorce under 1 Corinthians 7:15:
But 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.
(click HERE to see why this verse allows divorce for abuse)
Now that my mind has changed, here are my suggestions for a victim whose abuser professes to be a Christian. Each victim knows his or her own situation best, and should use her own sanctified common sense, with s.a.f.e.t.y. being the first priority at all times. So, is it ever a good idea for a victim to ask the church to use a disciplinary process against her abuser — whether it be modeled on Matthew 18 or 1 Cor. 5 or Titus 2, or some combination thereof? I believe the answer is yes, so long as the church
- understands the dynamics of domestic abuse for both victim and perpetrator
- is astute to the impression-management and responsibility-resistance tactics of abusers, and
- knows how to apply scriptural principles to domestic abuse.
That’s a very tall order, given that the majority of churches seem to be ignorant of the mentality and tactics of abusive people, and unwilling to exercise full biblical discipline.
It’s vital that the church stop making wrong judgements in these cases. Reform is essential so that churches can
- rightly discern the sin of domestic abuse
- resist the abuser’s attempts to recruit them as allies
- label the abuser as the sole cause of the marriage breakdown
- not mutualize the problem or blame the victim
- put out the abuser and hand him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:5)
But does the church need to be involved in a victim’s decision to divorce?
Christians don’t agree what the biblical basis for divorce is. There are multiple views, but here are the main ones:
- Permanence – no divorce ever.
- Divorce for adultery.
- Divorce for adultery or desertion.
- Divorce for adultery, desertion or abuse with the abuser construed as a deserter (this is the thesis of my book).
- Divorce for hard hearted violation or severe neglect of the marriage vows which includes but is not limited to adultery and desertion, and is very similar to the preceding view (this is Instone-Brewer’s approach).
On top of that, there are various views on remarriage:
- Separation from bed and board only, because divorce is never allowed.
- Divorce, but no liberty to remarry – only liberty to not fight the divorce that the other party instigates. Along with this goes the obligation to remain unmarried and live like a eunuch while praying for the errant partner to repent.
- Remarriage is permitted if divorce was on biblical grounds (which depends on the view you have on divorce).
- Remarriage is a sin and must be undone by divorce and the original couple remarried.
- Remarriage is a sin but once done should not be undone.
- Remarriage is sin and it’s forgivable; however, you can’t be in leadership if you’re remarried after divorce, or if your spouse is a divorcee.
All this disagreement on divorce and remarriage has bubbled away like a sulphuric mud pool for centuries – actually for millennia, because the Jews were arguing about it in Jesus day.
And despite all this disagreement, we have churches and denominations saying, “This is our position and we are going to force it on you upon threat of ex-communication.” Or, “We insist that you comply with a Matthew 18 process to address the conflict between you and your spouse.”
(Hint: when domestic abuse is defined as a ‘conflict’ it suggests that the definers don’t understand domestic abuse, because ‘conflict’ implies that the problem is mutual.)
When a church or its leaders do this, it is spiritual abuse: the misuse of power and authority and control, the exercise of something that the church does not truly possess.
In light of the fact that Christians don’t agree what the biblical basis of divorce is, decisions about divorce should be left to individual conscience.
People who are struggling with whether or not to divorce often come to the church for help — as they should be able to do. But then the personal beliefs of that leadership team come into play and the victims either get the help they need, or they get put through the wringer, or they get cast aside like yesterday’s garbage. And to top it off, the leadership may think it their duty to pontificate upon it from the pulpit, setting the whole tone and tenor (terror?) for the entire church.
I believe victims of abuse may judiciously ignore the Pharisaic directives of church leaders who are less than competent on domestic abuse and who use language that even hints at victim-blaming.
If church leaders refuse to discipline a ‘c’hristian abuser, or only give him a slap on the wrist while putting expectations on the victim to reconcile, then we don’t have to respect their rulings, because they have shown themselves to be like the false prophets who called evil good, and good evil.
If church leaders demand that the victim present herself for a Matthew 18 process and it’s clear (from how they have already been mis-handing the situation) that this process is just going to oppress the victim more and give extra power to the abuser, I believe a victim is not only permitted to disregard the counsel of the blind-guide leaders, but would be wise to disregard it for her own health and safety.
If a Christian victim is unsure about her own judgement, she may consult with those who understand the dynamics of domestic and spiritual abuse well. But it’s patently obvious that few Christians understand the dynamics of domestic abuse, and even fewer can recognize and resist abusers’ invitations to collude with them.
I often encourage survivors of domestic abuse to give more weight to their gut feelings, intuition, and common sense. I do this not because I promote reliance on the flesh, but because I know that there has been so much mis-teaching on marriage, divorce and domestic abuse that very often a survivor’s common sense and intuition (a.k.a. guidance from the Holy Spirit) give more biblical direction than the bad counsel which she has absorbed from ‘c’hristian tradition.
Let there be no blame on victims who make the decision to divorce solely between themselves and God, without being able to locate wise Christians who have sufficient understanding of the dynamics of abuse to give them an outside opinion.
If victims are having difficulty finding Christians who properly understand abuse, then the onus clearly falls on the church to take off it’s blinders, learn a whole lot more about abuse, cast off erroneous ideas about how to deal with it, and be brave enough to act on the Bible’s teaching wholeheartedly so as to discipline abusers and vindicate victims.
In accordance with the priesthood of all believers and the liberty of the individual Christian’s conscience, we may make our own Bible- and Holy Spirit-influenced choices about who is (and who is not) a wise counselor with whom we might want to consult when making a big decision like divorce. By seeking guidance from Christians (and non-Christians) who understand the entitlement, manipulation and deceitfulness of abusers, and the risks of staying versus the risks of leaving an abusive relationship, the victim of abuse can make godly choices while not doing so in a vacuum.
The victim may be unable to influence the fact that her abuser might still be passing himself off as an eminent Christian. She may have to divorce him even though his church has not declared that he should be treated as an unbeliever.
In summary – the take home message
I revoke my previous teaching that a victim whose abuser is a professing believer must pursue Matthew 18 as far as it is within her power, and that a victim should always seek to have her decision to divorce verified by her church.
I now see that teaching as extra-biblical tradition. Like all man-made traditions, it is derived from biblical principles, but it turns the beautiful conception of biblical guidelines into a rigid cage that locks people into bondage, just like the religion of the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day. It denies victims of abuse the freedom to discern the godliness of the church hierarchy from whom they are receiving counsel. And because it binds their consciences to the ruling of the church hierarchy, it deprives them of freedom of conscience and dissuades them from heeding the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
*The London Baptist Confession of 1689 did not include the paragraph about divorce which the Westminster Confession had contained. For more info on this listen to The Puritan Confessions on Divorce & Remarriage by Ps David Dykstra. NOTE: David Dykstra may be correct in his discussion of the Puritan Confessions on Divorce and Remarriage, but he is not correct on many other things. He has staunchly defended Tom Chantry who is a convicted child molester and child beater.
For Further Reading
Divorce for Domestic Abuse — Guest post by Barbara Roberts, at restoredrelationships.org