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):


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.

34 thoughts on “When Christians only partly get it right about abuse and divorce”

  1. I totally agree with Pastor Crippen’s post this morning. As a pastors’ wife, we have never told a husband or a wife to stay married or to get a divorce. We feel strongly that this is NOT what God is asking us to do as a pastoral advisor. We are there to give moral support through listening, through prayer, and just being there for the one who has come to us for comfort, encouragement, and most often for someone to just listen to them. I truly believe and we tell this to those coming for counsel: if your heart is truly where it needs to be in your relationship with the Lord, you are in the Word and listening to God speak to you and in prayer — God will tell you and direct you with what actions you need to take or not to take. And we agree to pray along with them that God will make His will known beyond a shadow of a doubt. Who do we think we are to tell someone to stay married or to get a divorce? Believers have graciously been given the Holy Spirit to do that, God doesn’t need our help. In 45 years of ministry and over 80 weddings, we have never been asked to approve the person someone in our church has decided to marry – nor have we given an opinion. So to say that there are 4 parties involved, I disagree. Yes, they can be married in the church, but that does not in anyway include a pastor or the ‘state’ in what happens within the four walls of that couple’s home and marriage. Only two people really know the truth. Dr. Ross has a few encouraging things to say but not much. Pastor Crippen and Barbara – keep on – keeping on…May I encourage you to continue to take the lead in this ever increasing problem of abuse within marriages. It seems there are more and more individuals hurt by all avenues of abuse these days. It’s not going to be less of a problem, but more, as these next generations appear to be more self-centered, inconsiderate, immature and insecure..
    I pray daily for your ministry with ‘A Cry for Justice”. Signed, “An Anonymous Pastors’ Wife”

    1. Thanks anonymous PW – very good insights. Also, just to clarify, Barbara Roberts is the author of this post, not me.

    2. As an abuse survivor and someone intimately involved in this ministry, I say a hearty “thank you,” for your balanced, compassionate and biblical perspective.

      If only there were more like you.


    3. “Who do we think we are to tell someone to stay married or to get a divorce? Believers have graciously been given the Holy Spirit to do that, God doesn’t need our help.”


      We need to trust the Holy Spirit to speak to believers, and trust believers to listen to the Holy Spirit.

    4. Many thanks, Anonymous Pastor’s Wife! Your voice and your support are so helpful in this cause. People who are ignoring or disparaging our work here at ACFJ may justify themselves by thinking that most of the people here are just survivors of abuse, so they must have an axe to grind and can not be objective. The more voices we have like yours, the more that kind of excuse-making becomes unviable.

  2. Yes, I agree that the article was both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. WAAAY too much legalism, but seeing beyond the 2 valid reasons for divorce of the so-called “evangelical consensus” that are much too limiting.

  3. It’s hard knowing how to respond, sometimes, isn’t it?

    A few weeks ago, I read a blog written by a pastor. The topic of the blog was divorce, and the admonition was “don’t.”

    To his credit, the author included a qualifying sentence stating that the blog post did not apply to situations of extreme physical abuse.

    On the one hand, he did exactly what I’ve said I wished people would do…if they’re writing a book or article that doesn’t apply to people in an abusive relationship, then they should at least include a statement to that effect.

    On the other hand, it was almost more offensive, to me, to see that he recognized the limitatons of his post, yet relegated people in an abusive relationship to a footnote…then minimized any abuse other than “extreme physical abuse” by specifically limiting the qualifying statement.

    Sometimes, all I know to do is leave a brief comment to potentially shed more light, and ask God to help them to see.

  4. I should add that, in reference to the article you’ve discussed, by Dr. Michael Ross, by explicitly listing unrepentant addiction to pornography, occult practices, refusal to work to support the family, etc., he has included many forms of abuse besides physical violence. In other words, one could say that rather than limiting his perspective to physical abuse, Dr. Ross specifically included multiple forms of abuse, including physical violence as well as several others.

    I know that doesn’t help with the issue of requiring church involvement with the decision to divorce, and you know I agree with your position…which means I disagree with Dr. Ross’s position.

    I just wanted to point out the area that he does seem to have right…


  5. I am in agreement with you Barb, Dr Ross doesn’t have it right. I have to give him credit though, he is much further ahead of others out there. Maybe with a little more education he will be updating his views. The Lord can change his heart.

  6. “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.”

    This also makes me wary, Barb. This statement is the sole statement they need to make, to make certain that marriages don’t end in any divorce – ever. They have the power to decide it, and unless you have approval from all four parties in the contract, you cannot divorce. This is also where the ignorance of uninformed and uneducated people, pours forth bad counsel. Anyone who understands abuse, understands that the abuser is never going to want the victims go.

    I give Dr. Ross credit, where credit is due, but I fear that his writing is just another of the “make us look good” writings that creep up from time to time.

  7. An abuse victim never knows what to expect when the marital abuse is brought to a PCA pastor. The pastor might be a John Piper fan and pleas for help will fall on deaf ears. He might be like Dr. Ross, who gets it halfway. Or the pastor may be a tremendous blessing and act as an ambassador of Christ, bringing justice and mercy to the victim.
    An abuse victim is at the whims of a pastor’s opinion and their life may be at stake.

    The PCA needs to plainly state their policy so that victims will know beforehand if it is worth going through what they call “the process”. Had I known what I was getting into when I approached the pastor, I would have gone to another church. Victims are already in a vulnerable situation at the time that they make that call for help, how much worse it becomes when the church has no plan or procedure and is just “winging it.” I think that in my case the pastor really did not know what to do or what process to follow so he reverted back to Piper. And if the pastor is hemming and hawing, they are buying the abuser more time to potentially harm someone. The situation is really ridiculous.

    If the PCA wants to do right, first they need across the board stated policy and procedure. They need to have brochures with their stated policy available as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod does. That way the victim will know what to expect and be able to gauge if the pastor is following accepted practice. This would be for the pastor’s protection as well because he would have procedure to follow. Abusers would know that abuse will not be tolerated in the church and that the church is aware of abuser tactics.

    Even if the PCA will not accept other forms of abuse as grounds for divorce, they need to state their position plainly so that abuse victims will know when it is time to leave. Why is it so hard for a denomination to come to a consensus on abuse?

  8. Slightly off topic, but only a little. Aside from what’s been pointed out above, what makes me nervous in the above is that Ross lists “refusal to bear children” in the grounds for divorce, without an explanation. I’m sure he didn’t mean to suggest that husbands can order their wives to have children, but after reading enough about Quiverfull / militant fecundity, it becomes obvious that some people really do believe that decisions about children are completely in the husband’s hands – i.e., if the husband wants a big family, the woman is obligated to give him as many children as he wants, even though she’s the one who has to do (almost) all the work to get them here. This often holds true even if the woman has pre-existing health problems, develops health problems during pregnancy, or is getting health problems because of repeated pregnancies. So when I read “refusal to bear children” in the above list, what popped into my mind was a husband passing himself off as a victim because his wife, who has recognized her physical limitations, refuses to deliberately destroy her own body by letting him impregnate her as many times as HE wants. Maybe this is just my personal issue, after overexposure to Vision Forum?

    1. I don’t think that’s just your personal issue, Hester.
      I think you are hyper-alert to it because of your studies of Vision Forum, Quiverful and Militant Fecundity (ugh I dislike that term!) — but there are many who are trapped in those movements who might write what you’ve written above IF they had the courage and the mental space and clarity. AND if they felt safe enough to do so. So your words are probably representing the views of many other silent/voiceless ones. Please keep speaking up for them. Moreover, your words are probably helping some of them come out of the fog bit by bit.

      Dr Ross may think that your point is a little unfair to him because he never intended that Quiverful interpretation to be put on his words. But I would say to him and to all Christian teachers: As teachers it is really your responsibility to be abreast of the major kinds of whacko doctrines that are out there, and to make sure that when you articulate a teaching point you do not phrase it in such a way that it can be grabbed and used by those who wield whacky doctrines to exercise control over others. It’s not hard for teachers to do this. All you need to do, usually, is add a short qualifying statement to your main teaching point, making it clear that you don’t mean such and such.

      1. Let me add a qualifier, to my comment above 🙂
        In spoken word teaching, teachers sometimes utter unqualified statements that might be misconstrued by some hearers, and we give teachers a bit of latitude for such errors. But in the written word, teachers have more responsibility for getting it right by qualifying their statements carefully where necessary.

      2. All you need to do, usually, is add a short qualifying statement to your main teaching point, making it clear that you don’t mean such and such.

        Yes. Which is I think what I’m still desiring after reading Ross’ words. I’m absolutely sure he didn’t mean it the Quiverfull way, but then what did he mean? In a healthy situation, I expect the discussion of whether to have kids, or how many to have, would happen before marriage so you knew you were on the same page as your spouse. But then again we’re already talking about divorce, so we probably shouldn’t assume the situation is healthy.

        I’d also like to add that the way Ross phrased it, using the more female-specific phrase “bear children” instead of the gender-neutral “have children,” makes it sound like an exclusively female problem (i.e., the wife refuses to get pregnant). You could just as easily have the problem of the husband refusing to get the wife pregnant when she wanted to have children. I’ve actually known a man who did this – though in his case it wasn’t pregnancy per se, he didn’t want to sleep with his wife at all because now that they were married and it was “legitimate,” it was no longer exciting (he was an NPD). Also, interestingly enough, of the two scenarios (woman refusing to get pregnant vs. man refusing to get her pregnant), only the latter is actually in the Bible to my knowledge (Onan, Genesis 38:8-10).

        Like I said and you said, I’m sure Ross didn’t intend either of these things. I just still feel he could have clarified that particular part of his list a lot.

      3. My take on this was a little different, probably because of a recent issue in my own family. A very sweet niece is currently divorcing her abusive husband. One of the last straws leading to her decision to divorce, was his sudden ‘change of heart’ on the topic of having children.

        Going into the marriage, they were both in agreement that they wanted children and that this was a high priority for both of them. However, as one of his manipulative tools to maintain power and control, he recently decided that he no longer wants to have children. My niece was, of course, devastated.

        The good news is that her devastation over this issue led to opening up with trusted counselors, which exposed deeper levels of abuse that had been occuring from the start of the marriage…which led to the realization that it is time to end the marriage.

        Thank God for His redemption from covenants of abusive bondage!

      4. Thank you, Barbara! I’ve thought for awhile, from listening to sermons and reading on theological issues, that there is a dire lack of qualification of teachings–especially when it comes to “obedience”: children/parents, adult/state, lay/clergy, wives and husbands. I’ve said exactly what you have said above, in and about a different context, to my sister and to her, instead of being reasonable, it sounds like work the pastor just shouldn’t have to do. If a pastor is supposed to preach the truth, but talks in generalities without limiting the application of what is spoken, how is that preaching the truth?

      5. Wayne, your sister may feel that way because her life is fairly ‘normal’ and so she has never been stung because her case fell outside the generalities that preachers are preaching. More work for the pastor? It doesn’t take much effort. Often only an extra sentence or clause is enough to do the trick. But that requires thinking and many people are lazy thinkers in the video/sound bite age where you can get through life without having to bother much with reading.

        Here’s a joke from some actress whose name I forget. “Normal? What’s normal? Normal’s a setting on the clothes dryer!”

      6. I have to say, though, that I too would automatically assign the responsibility for this to the woman, based on the phrasing. Especially since it’s connected to “care for.” Those are perceived as distinctly feminine roles among most Christians. Others that he states I would be more likely to assign to men, like “refusal to work and support the family.” I would assume there that he was speaking to men. So I do think Hester has a good point here and that some of his reasons are gender distinguished, at least by reasonable implication.

        One other thing that grabbed me is the relationship comes off sounding kind of sterile, in a sense. Like there’s duty regarding the body and duty regarding the spirit and Christian duty of mutual edification and keeping one another from sin. But there’s not much that I can gather about the personhood of each person: just loving each other because that’s what God made us to do with one another, just because. He uses terms like “nurture” and “spiritual intimacy,” but yet it doesn’t quite have the feel to me of companionship and friendship and, well, love. It feels more like comrades with benefits or something.

        Still, I don’t want to take away from the good that is there. Thankfully, he does recognize these other things as valid reasons for divorce because they are clear violations of the covenant. That is extremely valuable and I am glad to see him affirm it.

    2. Hmm, Hestor, you may feel your comment is slightly “off topic” but not really. We are attempting to come to terms with what our loving Lord would consider abuse? You’ve made an interesting contribution concerning the “bearing of children”. There is the Quiverfull mindset and then there is the expectation of some men where they only want a certain number of children, however, the onus is totally on the wife to not become pregnant, again! For years, these women live in fear less they become impregnated and have to answer to “how did that happen?” Where is the love and pleasure in such marriages?

      1. Isn’t it funny how friends and acquaintances are quick to pounce on the victim for having kids with the abusive husband, but it never occurs to them that he may be the one forcing himself on her. I once had a hard time convincing a good friend that sex is not always consensual, not even in marriage! Of course it becomes doubly hard when you can’t tell an adult child attacking you for having kids with an abusive man that he or she may be the product of marital rape.

      2. This conversation is very good and making very good points. I will only add this comment. Much like the addage these people hold to, that says if the victim of abuse stays with her abuser and he ends up killing her and the children, it was just what God wanted anyway, the same is stated in child bearing. If the woman has health issues and dies during a pregnancy, it was just what God wanted to have happen anyway.

  9. Dr Ross states that the first purpose of marriage is “the spiritual partnership and mutual edification of husband and wife in pursuing the will of the Lord”. That being the case, domestic violence, which includes spiritual tyranny, clearly violates the marriage covenant. Is it ever possible to have spiritual partnership and mutual edification where abuse exists? In fact, an abusive marriage is hardly a partnership, much less a covenantal marriage.

  10. I want to weigh in as a divorced man who is a GOD fearing believer. After my divorce, I was miserable in the belief that I could never remarry. Having been raised in a strict construction of the bible church, I had no biblical grounds for the divorce and even wandered if I had the right to date, could I ever be happy again. Then, seven years after the divorce I met a minister who had an answer for me. He simply asked this: Does GOD forgive? (Yes) When GOD forgives, what does he do? (This took a moment to sink in and a little prodding but the answer the minister wanted was that GOD forgets the act of sin.) Then the minister asked me, if GOD has forgiven you and let it go, why won’t you?

    Ironically, I now run a law practice engaged in family law (Adoption, Child Custody, Divorce and Support issues). I am not about to profess that GOD put me here in this position to minister – I think bing a divorce lawyer would be a very strange ministry indeed, but I do believe GOD put that minister in my life with that answer when I needed it knowing where I would be years later.

    Is it the end-all of the question? Absolutely not. Would our society be better off if divorce required parties to have reasonable grounds and someone prove they need the divorce rather than simply walk in and say the marriage is irreconcilable? Absolutely yes, and I for one support that change in the law. But, what I want to point out for anyone going through the process (divorce is a process, both legal and emotional) there is forgiveness. I do not have the power to absolve sins, nor do I suggest wholesale slaughter of marriages. For Christians who have made the choice or had the choice forced on them, all believers everywhere need to let them know, when they are ready to let go of the guilt, GOD has already done so.

    1. odreeves – Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I would add one thing. Not all divorces are sinful. But the ongoing, habitual breaking of the marriage covenant, such as abusers do, is indeed always sin. Filing the paperwork to take the legal means of acknowledging that a marriage has been destroyed is not, in its essence, the divorce. And again, in cases of abuse (in addition to adultery, desertion), if what people mean by “divorce” is the filing of the legal paperwork, then such action is not sin. It is righteous in fact. Thus, people who have done this (abuse victims for instance) do not need to ask for God’s forgiveness. They need to realize that they are not guilty.

    2. Odreeves – Thank you, for sharing your story, here.

      Personally, I see potential for divorce lawyer to be a wonderful ministry! You are in an excellent position to help ensure divorces are carried out in a manner that is just. Looking at the biblical handling of divorce (especially in the Old Testament law) I see a lot of focus on the need for divorce to be handled in a manner that is just and that leaves both parties free to marry somone else if they so choose.

      Frankly, I see the justice aspect as being more important than the “reasonable grounds” aspect. Who would want to be married to someone who was continually looking for an excuse to divorce? I sure wouldn’t! If one party wants out, better to let them leave…but to also ensure justice in the process. If they’re leaving for no good reason, then they should not be able to retain all the funds while the other party is left destitute.

      Blessings to you!

  11. “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.”

    And for those of us who went to our church fellowships and were told “just be nicer,” guess where we will never go again? At least, when I moved to Colorado, the law here states that if one person in the marriage wants out, the other party has no say in the matter…marriage dissolved.

    Furthermore, where was the involvement of church and state when ex-ie decided hatred and covenant breaking were to be preferred? Did ex-ie ask permission first? Doubtful. And this is really where the dissolution of the marriage begins. We all know, the final paper work with the judge’s signature is not the beginning of divorce, but the ending. It starts in the heart with an unloving attitude long before ink is ever put to paper…and sometimes even before the ink is put on the marriage certificate.

    1. I know a few couples in Colorado who divorced and left their church because divorce was not acceptable in their church. Obviously the law was not breached. In such a case, there is no alignment between the individuals, the church and the state. The state was OK about it, the church wasn’t, one party was and the other wasn’t. How on earth does Dr Ross expect to realistically involve all four in the dissolution of the marriage? Surely it HAS to be the decision of an aggrieved spouse. The state recognizes it, but the church won’t.

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