When Christians only partly get it right about abuse and divorce
Dr Michael (Mike) Ross, who is the senior pastor of Christ Covenant PCA church, Matthews, North Carolina, is the author of an article titled Biblical Grounds for Divorce and Remarriage (Christian Research Institute, 2010).
Here is the part of the article which touches on the issue of abuse (emphasis added):
THE COVENANT BASIS OF MARRIAGE
Both Christ’s teaching on adultery and divorce and Paul’s instructions on desertion and divorce reflect God’s covenantal design for marriage. The Lord ordained marriage as a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman. In Scripture we can observe four purposes to this covenant:
1. The spiritual partnership and mutual edification of husband and wife in pursuing the will of the Lord (Gen. 2:18–25; Eph. 5:22–33; 1 Pet. 3:1–7).
2. The procreation of children and the nurture of the human family (Gen. 1:26–28).
3. The development of spiritual intimacy and the fulfillment of sexual pleasures through conjugal love (Gen. 1:18–25).
4. Protection against lusts, immorality, and sexual temptations (Prov. 5:15–23; 1 Cor. 7:1–9; 1 Thess. 4:1–12).
When we understand marriage as a covenant it follows that violations of any one of its four covenant purposes could constitute grounds for divorce. Adultery and willful desertion are obvious and potentially irreparable violations of covenant love. It would seem that there are other sins against marriage that could rise to the same level of covenant unfaithfulness as adultery and desertion, including physical abuse, refusal to work and support the family, illicit and illegal activities that threaten the safety of the family, refusal to engage in marital sex, refusal to bear or care for children, unrepentant addiction to pornography, alcoholism or drug abuse, forsaking the home for long periods of time unnecessarily, and engagement in occult activities or other spiritual actions harmful to the family. It could be argued that these violations of the marriage covenant may constitute biblical grounds for divorce, even though they are not specifically named as such in the New Testament.
It is very encouraging to see a pastor mentioning unrepentant addiction to pornography as a covenant violation that would merit divorce. Dr Ross’s mention of occult activities, refusal to engage in marital sex, and refusal to work and support the family are also very positive signs. Clearly, Ross is not entirely lacking in compassion for victims of marital mistreatment.
However, it is disappointing that he specifies physical abuse and does not mention other forms of abuse. In my view, it would have been better if he had simply said ‘abuse’ and not restricted it to ‘physical’. As we know from many stories on this blog, the non-physical abuse is usually the most hurtful, the most difficult to detect, and the hardest to recover from. As we say in our definition of abuse in the side-bar of this blog, if anyone thinks abuse is just physical violence, we suggest they need to learn more about abuse.
But my main focus in this post is this paragraph from Dr Ross’s article, which directly follows what I quoted above:
In such cases, the church, through its ordained officers, must be engaged for advice, assistance, and biblical guidance. In the end, the dissolution of a marriage is never the decision of one aggrieved spouse. Just as it took four parties to contract the marriage—husband, wife, church, and state—so it will necessitate the interaction of the same four parties to dissolve the marriage. The goal, in every instance and situation, is not to make divorce easier, but rather to regulate divorce so as to honor God’s law, seek for the peace of the gospel, work for the grace of reconciliation and forgiveness, protect the innocent party from undue harm, and, when necessary, to dissolve the marriage in an orderly manner.
This makes me uneasy. It would be hard to prove that in Isaac and Jacob’s day, or in the first century AD, it required four parties—husband, wife, church, and state—to contract the marriage. Dr Ross is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America, a denomination which subscribes to the Westminster Confession, but his article actually goes beyond the Westminster Confession. The Westminster Confession doesn’t say the church’s ordained officers (elders and pastor) have to be involved, that’s just the way most Presbyterians have interpreted it. (WC chapter 24: On Marriage and Divorce)
The belief that victims of abuse have to get permission to divorce from their church leaders is not confined to Presbyterian denominations. The Presbies may hark back to the Westminster Confession to justify their controlling of divorce, but many Baptists and other denominations also believe that church leaders can and should control divorce, and they can hold this belief without necessarily relying on the Westminster Confession.
Baptists tend to be really strong on their ecclesiology that each church is an independently governed body and can’t be ordered around by other churches. But that much-vaunted independence doesn’t often apply to the individuals in the pews of Baptist churches. The individuals in Baptist pews are generally as much controlled by their leaders as the individuals in Presbyterian pews, especially if those individuals are victims of abuse.
And wherever church leaders rule people’s lives like that, it’s the Sanhedrin operating.
The church does need to see if there is sin involved and if so, deal with it. But what Dr Ross says also must happen is that even an innocent victim has to come and get church permission to divorce. We believe that is wrong. We say that a victim of abuse does not need permission from the church leaders in order to get divorced. (See our posts tagged Divorce and in particular my post titled Church discipline and church permission for divorce – how my mind has changed.)
It is wise to enjoin believers to seek counsel from other believers in a major decision like divorce. In an abundance of counselors there is safety (Prov. 11:14); a wise man listens to advice (Prov. 12:15). But that does not mean shelving the priesthood of all believers by giving pastors and elders the status of Roman Catholic priests or popes who can rule our consciences and our lives. Yes; it is sensible to seek counsel from other believers. At the same time, we must not submit to a Sanhedrin that is bent on keeping their wooden interpretation of the letter but has forgotten the spirit and has insufficient empathy with the oppressed.
To say that someone must obtain church or presbytery approval in order to divorce, as Dr Ross says in his article, is an extra-biblical tradition. Like many man-made traditions it is derived from biblical principles but it turns the beautiful guidelines of biblical principle into a rigid cage that locks people into a dumbed-down Pharisaic religion of works. It denies victims of abuse the freedom to discern the godliness of the church hierarchy from whom may be receiving counsel. It binds their consciences to the ruling of the church hierarchy and thus it deprives them of freedom of conscience. And it forbids them from heeding the promptings of the Holy Spirit.