The Bible virtually commands divorce for domestic abuse
While I was wrestling with what Scripture taught about divorce in order to write my book Not Under Bondage [*Affiliate link], I came to the view that divorce is permitted for abuse. And privately, I also ventured to believe that divorce is virtually commanded for abuse.
In Not Under Bondage I didn’t articulate my private view that divorce is pretty much commanded for abuse. I chose not to express it for two reasons:
- All victims of abuse have been ‘should-ed’ on by their abusers and fellow Christians. To lay another ‘should’ on them would be like stabbing another dagger into their super-sensitive and already bleeding consciences. It would be a boulder too hard to swallow for those victims who are just awakening from the fog. And it could lay undue guilt on victims who may choose not to divorce, or who choose not to divorce just yet but might decide to divorce later on.
- I knew that many Christians would be wary of my book and it would be an uphill battle to persuade them to accept that the Bible permits divorce for abuse. I felt it would be counterproductive if I presented arguments for why the Bible pretty much commands divorce for abuse. That would have really put my book beyond the pale!
But now, six years on, I feel I can say openly that I believe that the Bible virtually commands divorce for some cases of abuse.
I would never say that divorce is commanded for ALL cases of abuse; I will always maintain that it is up to the victim herself to assess as best she can the risks of divorce, given the unpredictable minefields generated by abusers and the Family Court system. But I think it is fair to argue from Scripture that divorce is pretty much commanded for abuse.
One of those scriptures is Deuteronomy 13:6-11 — the case for this is well argued in the post Nor Shall Your Eye Pity Him. Another is 1 Corinthians 7:15, the scripture I most relied on in my book:—
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved [not under bondage]. God has called you to peace.
As I explained in Not Under Bondage, that word ‘separate’ (chorizo) has the meaning of a situation where two or more elements have space between them. What is abuse, if not a mindset and behavior by the abuser that creates space — emotional, psychological and ethical distance —between the abuser and the person being abused. It is the perpetrator’s hard heartedness pushing away, extinguishing and twisting all the victim’s attempts to have mutuality, intimacy, honesty and trust in the relationship. It is the perpetrator utilizing the victim’s attempts to have a respectful, loving relationship, and employing them as handles to turn the victim into a slave, an automaton, an object for the abuser’s perversely selfish enjoyment.
And I also explained in my book that unlike us in our legal situation today, Paul and the Corinthians did not see separation and divorce as two different things. In Greco-Roman law, the way a marriage relationship ended had quite a lot of resemblance to the way cohabitation ends today: when one party to the cohabiting relationship decides to end it, it’s ended. The reason for this is that under Greco-Roman law, full and legal divorce took place merely by one party separating with intent to end the marriage.¹ The state didn’t have or require a legal process involving certificates of divorce. Divorce was deemed to have occurred when one spouse separated from the other party with intent to end the marriage. That was it! Finito.²
Therefore, if the unbelieving partner separates [causes separation by malignantly destroying respect and trust] let it be so.
The word ‘let’ in English often means ‘permit’. (Please mum, let me watch ten more minutes of TV!) But ‘let’ can also be used to indicate a command, an imperative, a strong instruction to DO something.³
In English translations of the Bible, the word ‘let’ is frequently used to convey a command. Here are some familiar examples:
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Eph. 5:4)
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. (Eph. 4:28)
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1 Cor. 5:1-2)
when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart (Luke 21:21)
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. (Luke 22:35-36)
Festus replied [to the chief priests and leaders of the Jews] that Paul was being kept at Caesarea and that he himself intended to go there shortly. “So,” said he, “let the men of authority among you go down with me, and if there is anything wrong about the man, let them bring charges against him.” (Acts 25:4-5)
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. (1 Cor. 3:18)
Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. (1 Co4. 7:18)
So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thess. 5:6)
Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. (1 Pet. 3:10-11)
Now l would like us to examine 1 Corinthians 7:15a. Here it is in the original Greek with transliteration, and below it the interlinear Bible edited & translated by Jay P Green Sr., 2nd edn., 1986 (see in Google Books):
εἰ δὲ ὁ ἄπιστος [apistos] χωρίζεται [choritzetai] χωριζέσθω [choritzestho]
if but the unbelieving separates, let be separated
You can see that the second ‘choritz-‘ (Strong’s 5563) — χωριζέσθω — has a different ending than the first ‘choritz-‘. That ending indicates the verb form: it is a present imperative verb.
Here are some other English translations of this passage:
But if the unbelieving spouse separates, let them separate. (Jubilee Bible 2000)
And, if the unbelieving doth separate himself — let him separate himself (Young’s Literal Translation)
But if the unbelieving spouse separates himself, let him be separated. (Complete Jewish Bible)
But if the unbelieving partner decides to separate, then let there be a separation. (Phillips)
If the unbeliever separates, however, let him separate. (New American Bible Revised Edition)
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. (English Standard Version)
The second ‘choriz-‘ — the imperative commandment — is let it be so. The marriage is O.V.E.R. That’s the reality. It was ended by the hard-heartedness of the abuser. Don’t try to keep a corpse alive. It’s dead. Don’t make a person stay in the grave of a putrid dead marriage.
For the victim — just get on and finish the paperwork that the State requires: apply for the divorce certificate (the decree nisi), get a ruling about the division of the marital property and child custody as best you can, and go on with your life with a clear conscience, knowing you have obeyed the Biblical instruction to let it be so.
NB: I advise anyone reading Not Under Bondage to read it in conjunction with my post Church Discipline and Church Permission for Divorce: How My Mind Has Changed.
- See Susan Treggiari, “Marriage and Family in Roman Society”, in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. Ken M. Campbell, pp. 155–7; David Atkinson, To Have and to Hold, p. 109; David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, pp. 73–4, 190; Steven Clark, Putting Asunder, p. 143.
Paul was writing to the church in Corinth and the city of Corinth was a Roman colony. In the Roman Empire, cities that had the status of Roman colonies were more closely under the laws and customs of Rome than other cities in non-Italian parts of the empire were. The congregation in Corinth had both gentile and Jewish members, so it is not feasible to argue that Paul was writing to an audience of solely ethnic Jews who might have differentiated divorce from separation because of the way that Jewish custom and law utilised divorce certificates. This Corinthian congregation, with so its many gentile influences, was most likely to see separation and divorce as one and the same thing. That would have been their default view, and Paul would have known that and felt no need to spell it out because it was a ‘given’.
In Greco-Roman law, when a marriage ended the father would ordinarily get the children, but we have to imagine that sometimes the mother took the children, especially if the father did not want to be bothered with raising them. The division of marital property was not so fraught as it often is today, because under Greco-Roman law, marriage did not by default cause a woman’s property to become joint property of the married couple. A married woman could and usually did retain sole ownership of her property and any assets she had brought into the marriage; she could maintain this sole ownership simply by not sleeping under her husband’s roof for a few nights each year. Women would go back to their parents’ home for a few nights each year, and thus maintain ownership of their own property. Such a woman’s property was considered to be under manus (under the hand) of her father, rather than of her husband. Some marriages specifically transferred manus from the woman’s father to the husband, but most did not. Thus, separation with intent to end the marriage did not usually entail a complex judicial process to separate joint marital property, because joint property usually did not exist. ( I need to provide citations for this footnote, but in the rush of publishing this article, have not yet done so.)
In grammar this is called the imperative mood, and in Biblical Greek “the present imperative means a command to do something in the future which involves continuous or repeated action.” (Spiros Zodhiates, Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, AMG, 1984, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, p. 1571)
The imperative mood is reserved for the indication of commands.
List of all the present imperatives in the New Testament.