The Bible DOES allow divorce for domestic abuse
I believe the Bible allows divorce for domestic abuse and the key text for this is 1 Corinthians 7:15. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. For God has called us to peace.
This verse has been generally assumed to relate to simple desertion: that is, when an unbelieving spouse walks out, abandoning a marriage with a Christian spouse without taking out a divorce that would bring legal finality to the arrangement However, in the Greek text the word “depart” (chorizo) means “to place space between, to separate” and it was one of the standard terms for legal divorce in the first century.
Typically, perpetrators of abuse do not walk out of their marriages – they want to stay in the relationship because they enjoy the power, privilege and control they obtain therein. Because the abuser rarely walks out, the victim of abuse thinks 1 Corinthians 7:15 does not apply to her. She thinks, “He hasn’t deserted me so I have to stay with him!” However, when correctly understood, it is the verse which gives her freedom.1
In my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion I defined domestic abuse as a pattern of conduct by one spouse which is designed to obtain and maintain power and control over the other spouse. And here at A Cry For Justice, we define domestic abuse (see our sidebar to the right) in this way:
What is Abuse?
Very few people know what abuse really is, though everyone seems quite ready to give advice to its victims. If you believe that abuse is physical battering, you have some learning to do.
Abuse is fundamentally a mentality. It is a mindset of entitlement. The abuser sees himself* as entitled. He is the center of the world, and he demands that his victim make him the center of her world. His goal is power and control over others. For him, power and control are his natural right, and he feels quite justified in using whatever means are necessary to obtain that power and control. The abuser is not hampered in these efforts by the pangs of a healthy conscience and indeed often lacks a conscience.
While this mentality of power and control often expresses itself in various forms of physical abuse, it just as frequently employs tactics of verbal, emotional, financial, social, sexual and spiritual abuse. Thus, an abuser may never actually lay a hand on his wife and yet be very actively terrorizing her in incredibly damaging ways.
Abuse in any of its forms destroys the victim’s person. Abuse, in the end, is murder.
Domestic abuse always includes emotional and verbal abuse and may also include financial abuse, social abuse (restricting the victim’s contact with family and friends), sexual abuse, physical violence, and spiritual abuse — twisting scriptures to justify the abuse. Abusers who never use physical violence (and there are many) are still very frightening and controlling to their victims. They exercise a pattern of deceit and coercive control that may be composed of many ‘little’ things but the total effect is soul destroying and very confusing to the victim, which is how it is designed to be. Confused people are easier to control. Post-separation, many of these abuses may continue, with the added element of legal abuse which can lead to protective mothers sometimes losing custody of their children to the abuser.
The perpetration of domestic abuse effectively pushes away the other spouse and divides the marriage. The fact that many victims eventually leave abusive relationships testifies to this pushing away. Perpetrators usually protest that they want the marriage to continue, but their evil conduct conveys the exact opposite – it effectually pushes the other spouse away.
When applying 1 Corinthians 7:15, the key question is not “Who walked out?” but “Who caused the separation?” Would it be sensible to say that David was the sinful rebellious one when he left Saul’s court? No, he left because of Saul’s abuse. David left, but Saul was the cause of his leaving. If we translate the word chorizo as “separate” we see this more clearly: if the unbeliever separates, let him separate. The unbeliever is doing the separating; the believer is commanded to let it be done. This tells the believing spouse (and the church) to allow the marriage to be over, because the unbeliever has destroyed the covenant. It permits the victim of abuse to take out a legal divorce.
Let there be chorizo = let there be separation = let there be legal divorce, because the word chorizo means both separation and divorce.
In Not Under Bondage I also show that since the brother or sister is not under bondage, the victim of abuse is free to remarry a new partner (unlike the instance in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 where marriage to a new partner was forbidden).
This idea isn’t new
Before no-fault divorce came into vogue, there was a ground for divorce under English law called “constructive desertion.” Constructive desertion was deemed to have occurred if one spouse so ill-treated the other that the victim was justified in leaving the abusing spouse, having been driven to do so. The act of desertion was understood as having been caused by the abuser. The concept of constructive desertion was recognized by Puritan theologians who saw it in 1 Corinthians 7:15. My interpretation of that verse is not new, it’s just been lost (buried under male-privilege?) for several hundred years.
What if the abuser is a professing Christian?
In all abuse, efforts may be made to bring an abuser to repentance. However, it is important to be aware that most victims of abuse have already made many efforts in this direction before they seek help from a pastor or other professional. Indeed, the victim has usually borne too much for too long and the pattern of abuse has become deeply entrenched, the victim’s health may have been badly affected and continuing traumatic stress disorder is common.
1 Corinthians 7:15 applies to marriages where the opposite spouse is a nonbeliever. If an abuser is a professing Christian, efforts may be made to bring the abuser to repentance but pastors need to be aware that a victim will have made many such efforts privately with her abuser already before she discloses her situation to church leaders or counselors.
It is naive and dangerous for pastors to recommend couple counseling for cases where they even suspect domestic abuse. Couple counseling is not appropriate in domestic abuse (also see here and here. It is far better to err on the side of caution and not advise couple counseling if domestic abuse is suspected, because couple counseling is likely to expose the victim of abuse to more danger. In domestic abuse, the victim’s safety and well being must be the first priority of anyone who is seeking to bring help (see here). And pastors need to be aware that there are many counselors who say they understand domestic abuse but they don’t really get it and they give harmful counsel to victims and/or get enlisted by perpetrators.
It may also be dangerous for pastors to confront suspected abusers without having permission from the victim first, and even then, they should get advice from expert domestic abuse practitioners before confronting a perpetrator, as many victims who are just waking up to the fact that they are being abused underestimate their level of risk from the abuser, and can be starry eyed about the abuser changing if only he is told by the pastor to shape up.
Most pastors do not have sufficient training and understanding of the dynamics and safety issues in domestic abuse to wisely confront a suspected perpetrator of abuse, to recognize and resist the abuser’s invitations to collude with his abuse-supporting narratives, and to see through his lies and half truths. This is an indictment on the church as a whole and seminaries in particular. And even those Christian organizations and authors that purport to be offering such training, are, in my opinion, often falling very far short of what it required. We wish they would hear feedback from the survivors of abuse, but they seem in many cases to be ignoring us. Let’s hope that changes!
It is best for pastors to consult with trained domestic violence practitioners before they confront the perpetrator and perhaps put the victim in more danger. But pastors can be very valuable in helping hold abusers accountable when they do so in conjunction with the secular justice system (police, courts, parole officers) and any other specialist agencies that may be trying to hold the perpetrator accountable. And pastors can help victims by referring them to the expertise of domestic abuse practitioners (women’s centers, shelters, police). See our Safety Planning and Hotlines pages for links.
An abuser who doesn’t demonstrate genuine repentance should be treated as an unbeliever. For a digest of articles on why an abuser can’t be a Christian, see here. Rather than apply the step by step process of Matthew 18:15-17, it is more appropriate to carry out church discipline along the lines of 1 Corinthians 5 (see here). The believing spouse who has suffered domestic abuse will then be at liberty to take out a divorce under 1 Corinthians 7:15.
When it comes to domestic abuse, biblical discipline has been appallingly neglected or inappropriately employed by church leaders. But there is a line in the sand and churches must draw it when it comes to the perpetrator of domestic abuse.
It’s not okay for pastors to take a neutral stance vis a vis perpetrator and victim. Neutrality is not neutral. Neutrality effectively means you become an ally of the abuser because if you take the view that both parties are contributing to the marriage problem, then you’re effectively saying “It’s not abuse” — which serves the agenda of the abuser. When responding to domestic abuse, the proper feeling is outrage, and the only righteous stance is to fully support the victim, while holding the perpetrator accountable.
Because abusers are great at feigning repentance and enlisting allies among clergy, an abuser’s supposed repentance should be cautiously evaluated and stress-tested over time, just as Joseph tested his brothers’ repentance before reconciling with them. Repentance is not mere words, it should be demonstrated in changed attitudes and behavior — and even behavior and attitudes can be faked (for a time) without having a real heart change. See this Checklist for Repentance which can help evaluate an abuser’s repentance.
Church leaders should always check with the victim to know how she sees her abuser’s demonstrations of reformation, and whether she thinks he is really reforming or just feigning it. This principle of checking with the survivor’s perspective has been followed for years by best-practice secular programs which run behavior change groups for abusers. Clergy who are assessing an abuser’s repentance need to follow the same protocol: they should respectfully seek to check in with the survivor of the abuse (the partner or former partner of the perpetrator) at all stages, including and especially post-separation, because the abuse often escalates post-separation and the abuser may use new tactics that are even more secretive and intimidating to his partner, while masquerading as a “reformed new man” in the church.
Liberty, but not license
The principles outlined here don’t open the floodgates to all divorce. Allowing divorce for abuse, on the principle of constructive desertion under 1 Corinthians 7:15 is not the same as allowing divorce for any disaffection. Because abuse is defined as a pattern of conduct designed to obtain and maintain power and control over the other, my teaching cannot be misconstrued to allow divorce for the catch-all excuse of “incompatibility”, or for the occasional instances in non-abusive marriages where one spouse shows a lack of consideration for the other spouse.
1 Occasionally the genders are reversed and the man is the victim; but for wisdom in assessing the claims of a man who says he is a victim of domestic abuse, please read Assessing men who present as victims of family violence but who may actually be the primary aggressor, the PDF of the Powerpoint presentation that went with a professional training session by Nathan DeGuara, Victims Support Agency, Department of Justice at the conference put on by No To Violence in 2012. Also see my post Marks of a pretend victim versus a true victim.
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For Further Reading
A post by Barbara Roberts having the same title as this one was first published at restoredrelationships.org [restoredrelationships.org is now restored-uk.org Editors.]
In January 2016 that post at Restored Relationships was updated by Barb.
The link is The Bible does allow divorce for domestic abuse [This link has been updated to reflect the new website for restoredrelationships.org, restored-uk.org Editors.]
The text in that link is somewhat different from the text above, but the overall message is the same.