A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Remarriage after divorcing an abuser — in a nutshell 

Am I allowed to remarry after having divorced an abusive spouse?

The reasoning summarized below is fully explained, with scholarly citations, in my book Not Under Bondage.

1 Corinthians 7:10-16 (ESV)

[10] To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband [11] (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

[12] To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. [13] If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. [14] For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. [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. [16] For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

a)  Verses 10-11 are clearly speaking about two believers who have been married to each other.

b)   In contrast, verses 12-15 (and 16) are speaking about a believer married to someone who at this point in time is an unbeliever.

c)   It’s a hackneyed assumption that verses 12-15 are about a couple who married when they were both unbelievers, but then one spouse (typically the wife) got converted. However, there’s nothing in the text to indicate its being limited to that specific scenario. This assumption has been passed down for centuries, unthinkingly.

d)   Verses 10-11 discuss a believing wife who “separates” from her husband. In that culture and in the original Greek language, separation with intent to end the marriage was identical with divorce. Divorce usually took place simply by one partner separating with intent to end the marriage.

e)   Verses 10-11 say that a Christian wife who divorces her Christian husband has two options:

  • remain unmarried (notice she is unmarried so she must be divorced; there was no such thing in those days as a legal or informal state of ‘separation’ as distinct from ‘divorce’); or
  • be reconciled with her former husband.

The only prohibition is she must not marry a new, different husband. If she is to marry again, she can only take the husband she had before.

f)   Verses 12-15 deal with the case of a believer married to an unbeliever.

g)   If an unbelieving spouse leaves, separates, or behaves so badly that it pushes the believer away (this is called constructive desertion because the separation is construed as having been caused by the wicked spouse) then the believer is NOT UNDER BONDAGE IN SUCH CASES.

h)   Not being under bondage must mean that this kind of believer (one who’d been married to an unbeliever) is not under the prohibition that the other believer was under in verse 11.  That is, the believer in verse 15 is not prohibited from marrying a new, different spouse.

i)   In summary, Paul contrasts the two cases.  In the first case, the believer is under a prohibition not to marry a new spouse; in the second case, the believer is not under that same prohibition, so is free to marry someone new. Paul only makes one stipulation: that they marry ‘in the Lord’ (v 39).

j)   Paul makes perfectly clear that he is contrasting these two cases (vv. 10-11, & vv. 12-15) by using the words “for the rest” at the beginning of verse 12. This is a flag phrase which signals that he is giving a new rule. Obviously he is contrasting this rule with the one he gave in verse 11.

k)   For many victims of abuse, the key question is: “Is my abusive spouse a believer, or an unbeliever?” Originally in Not Under Bondage I taught that the step-by-step process of Matthew 18:15-17 was the way to work out whether an abusive spouse is a believer or an unbeliever. However, I have since changed my mind on the applicability of Matthew 18 to domestic abuse. I now believe that 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 is the appropriate text to use in disciplining domestic abusers. See my post Church discipline and church permission for domestic abuse: how my mind has changed.

l)   If they try implementing church discipline (especially the Matthew 18 formula) for domestic abusers, many churches currently fail because they get manipulated and hoodwinked by the abuser’s phoney repentance — so they do not identify that abuse is happening. Churches very often lack understanding, discernment or backbone to firmly discipline abusers and put them out of the church.

m)   In regard to abusers who profess to be Christians, the abuser should be treated as an unbeliever, regardless of what he might profess to the contrary to his friends and allies. Since the abuser is in fact an unbliever, you are in a situation where verses 12-15 of 1 Corinthians 7 applies, rather than verses 10-11.

n)   The reason my argument needs complex explanation is because Christians have deeply misunderstood and misconstrued these passages for centuries. There’s been a lot of dead wood to clear away.

o)   My conclusions about 1 Corinthians 7:10-15 were argued by some eminent Puritan theologians, so I’m not on new ground. I believe their interpretation got lost in the church and state conflicts of later centuries, and of course, it was easy to ignore the pro-victim interpretation because, after all, the only people who benefited much from it were victims of spouse abuse, and that means they were mostly women.  (It’s no exaggeration to say that domestic abuse is the Cinderella of all causes in the Church.)

p)   If you (the victim-survivor) are trying to defend your actions to members of your congregation, you could tell them “My spouse’s conduct eventually pushed me away, and that is the same as if he deserted me, so verse 15 of 1 Corinthians 7 applies in my case.”

q)   Even in the case of the woman in verses 10-11 (“let the wife not separate from her husband, but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled with her husband,”) the word separate is a word that in 1st century Greek usage meant divorce just as much as it could mean separation. In fact, it was often used in legal documents to mean ‘divorce’. This is not brought out in our English translations, but it’s true. So the argument “You may separate, but you can’t divorce” is unsound, having arisen from translations that didn’t take into account the usage of words in the first century (and from a bias against women on the part of the translators?).

Final tip for victims: It’s a good idea to brace yourself for the reaction from your church .
Sometimes, you only get a chance to say a few words to fellow Christians who judge or raise their eyebrows at you. Here is an example of a few words you can say: “My husband had been abusing me for the last 8 years. I hadn’t told you before because I was afraid and ashamed.”

***
For Further Reading:
Biblical Divorce for Abuse explained in a nutshell
God Hates Divorce? Not Always
Does God Hate Divorce? — Youtube
The Bible does Allow Divorce for Domestic Abuse — guest article by Barbara Roberts at restoredrelationships.org
Church Discipline and Church permission for Divorce — How my Mind has Changed

22 Comments

  1. joepote01

    Barbara –

    I appreciate your discussing this oft-misused text. I agree with your assertion that this passage has often been misunderstood and misinterpretted, and I agree with your analysis of verses 12-16 as applied to situations of abuse.

    I have come to have a different view of verses 10-11 based on contextual reading of the entire passage. I do not believe Paul intended this as a prohibition against ever marrying again, but rather as a prohibition against divorcing for the specific purpose of marrying someone else.

    I realize that my view on this topic is more liberal (less legalistic) than most, and have no issues with you and I holding different perspectives on this topic. Overall, we have much more in common in our perspectives than most Christians.

    If you would like to read a fuller explanation of my perspective, I have two posts on my blog titled “Unmarried or Divorced” and “Divorce & Remarriage” in which I discuss this specific passage. “Divorce & Remarriage” specifically discusses verses 10-11, while “Unmarried or Divorced” looks more at the use of the greek word ‘agamos’ as used throughout this passage.

    Again, thank you for discussing this topic, here.

    Have a blessed day!

  2. LH

    Thankfully my new church (denomination) has ruled that abuse is desertion on the part of the abuser (their policy, not just for my case), and therefore, I, as the victim, have the right to remarry.

    My ex-church said he wasn’t abusive enough (!!!) and I was not to remarry. They also told him that, but when he remarried anyway they ignored it and he is still a member in good standing with them.

    IF questioned, I simply say, “My church ruled that he deserted the marriage with his abuse, and I am free to remarry.” Whether or not I discuss it farther depends, esp on the attitude of the questioner. I have learner to pick my battles.

    • Still Reforming

      LH, you raise a really good point. Just what exactly is “abusive enough”? Isn’t any abuse already enough (presuming here it’s a pattern and not an aberration)?

      In my understanding, it’s the definition of abuse (as given here in the sidebar of this blog) that is not widely enough understood, accepted, or even really cared about.

      I confess that I too really didn’t give it much thought until I finally understood that that’s what was really happening in my own home. And… I daresay, it’s likely that most if not all of us here contributors and readers alike – are here by experience.

      So I don’t particularly expect others who don’t know it from having lived it to understand, but… there are signs of hope – at least in the secular media. It’s very sad that the church is dragging its feet on this issue (or perhaps leading the charge, but for the wrong team).

      • Not Too Late

        What is “abusive enough”? Hmm, let me think…when you’re taking your last breath?!

        The next thing you know there’ll be pastors saying to abused wives, “You’re not submissive enough” then turning to the husbands and saying, “You’re not abusive enough”!

        In all seriousness, I think Christians have normalized abusive behavior so much that their ability to detect abuse and reject abusive behavior is very weak, compared to those outside the church. This distortion of what is normal or acceptable may be the reason why many victims don’t recognize that they are in an abusive marriage (not until the abuse escalates to intolerable levels and they read about it somewhere) and may not mention abuse when seeking help from pastors.

  3. Brenda R

    I hope to find someone one day. I know that I would not be allowed to marry in the church I attend, but I don’t care. If I were to find someone who truly loves me, and not the fake kind that only lasts until the I do’s are over, I would marry with or without the churches blessing. I would not ever be able to repent as I do not believe it would be a sin.

  4. Seeing Clearly

    It isn’t that I have any interest in remarriage for myself. But I now won’t allow any religious person to oppress me with lies about remarriage as they did about the option of divorce. Also, a clarification on the matter of separation is helpful.

  5. Thinking back on two of the Christian counselors who tried to save our marriage, they were genuine. They really believed in us. One of them knew us as teenagers. My point is, they were so ignorant about abuse! And narcissism! How did they earn degrees and licenses and be so mistaken about what I was living in? How did they sleep at night and never hear God tell them to look more closely at my credibility?

    Yes, I now know that I never should have walked into a counselor’s office with my ex, but that is not the issue in this comment.

  6. Vicki

    I believe another way to approach this is that the abuser has broken the covenant he promised in the wedding vows before god. He promised to love and cherish. Clearly an abuser is not doing that or following the covenant of Moses or the teaching of our Lord to the second greatest commandment to love our neighbor as ourself. I do not believe you are in bondage if the covenant is broken.

  7. evelyn not my real name

    When I attended Dallas Theological Seminary a number of years ago, hoping to get a master’s in counseling, the head of the program told us at orientation that secular psychology was a sham, and they would teach us to regurgitate enough of it to pass the state exams, but otherwise we were to be 100% reliant on the Bible for counseling. That’s why so many pastors and Christian counselors don’t have a clue about narcissism and abuse.

  8. HisBannerOverMeIsLove

    verse 14. This was preached recently. I was told to “Just think on that when….” and the children and your husband is covered. I came across as arrogant with my “I know” comment. But it didn’t comfort me.

    The situation is seen as a lack of communication, needing of a heart change, this didn’t just happen over night so it will take a long time to change, anger management issue, and at times there has been abuse but that’s the past. He is saying he wants to try to change but doesn’t see it happening. He cant do it. Ok, repent. You are right, you can’t.

    Now that’s all past again and I’m talking with him so he’s on top the world and peachy again. So we wait again for hope of something like a heart change to come. I’m very skeptical since he mentioned how he had wanted to talk to the pastor. I took it as for direction and counsel about salvation and taking those steps of obedience and doing what we should be doing. It’s all dashed away by his telling me he only wants to know “How do you argue and not try to win. I mean if I have to beat somebody to win that isn’t working. When I feel wrongly accused I fight so hard against it I end up like an animal and more wrong than them”. I’m not capturing it here. But also he was concentrating way too much on how to endure when feeling wrongly accused. That just revealed his heart I think. He feels all of us are wrongly accusing him. Several children don’t want to sit by him or be around him. Yet they discuss things with him at some point so he believes they have a great relationship and they are exaggerating or just feeling bad when they shouldn’t etc. How can they feel like not being around him. He doesn’t see it. Not one bit.

    I’m praying for the grace to do the very hardest next thing without confusion or second guessing myself. I know my church won’t see separation as the worst thing but how long it will drag out? Seems like 10 years isn’t a long shot.

    • Hi HBOMIL, I published your comment but there were parts of it I didn’t really understand. If you want to submit another comment, either a re-write or a clarification of your comment, feel free.

  9. Wendell E. F. Williams

    Barbara, your explanation for the Bible Allowing Divorce For Domestic Abuse is compelling, but how do you reconcile Matthew 5:32, exception clause which Jesus stipulates as the one condition under which a believer can divorce their spouse, with DOMESTIC ABUSE being added to that too?

    • Hello Wendell EF Williams, it would take me too long to explain in a blog comment. I explain it in my book “Not Under Bondage”.

  10. Laura

    What about emotional abuse?

    • Hi Laura, emotional abuse is grounds for divorce. Most people don’t understand domestic abuse very well and they assume it is really only abuse if it’s physical violence — but those people are wrong.

      Welcome to the blog 🙂 🙂

      I encourage you to look at our definition of domestic abuse which you will find here. We also show it in the sidebar of the blog as it is so important to have a robust definition of domestic abuse.

      We like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      And after reading the New Users’ Info page, you might like to look at our FAQ page.

  11. penny

    Growing up I was taught you can only divorce if there is sex outside of marriage or your husband abandons you. I also watched my father abuse my mother. If dinner was too hot he would slam his hands and silverware down, cursing, and walk out. Of course dinner had to be ready by 5 as well. So I thought my first abusive husband was normal. He raped me, held a pillow over my face, went to strip clubs, threw furniture around, hit me only once (accidentally of course) when I had the giggles. I cried myself to sleep every night because I didn’t have a biblical reason for divorce. Finally I decided I would either kill myself or leave him. so I divorced him.

    I have been happily married to a wonderful man for 25 years. But I still carry guilt over my divorce. I once had a man tell me that I am living in adultery and living in sin because I am divorced and remarried. And that I needed to leave my husband and go back to my first husband. I can’t tell you how angry that made me. A MAN, telling me this, and the fact that a part of me thought he may be right, this mindset is bondage and I still struggle to get free.

    I get so angry reading about “Christian” men thinking they can get away with abuse. anyway I really don’t even understand this article, and I’m actually scared to slowly read it, afraid, I really will be living in sin.

  12. Kind of Anonymous

    I am reading through the blog and came across the comments asking how abusive is enough, re: LH’s former church telling her that her marriage wasn’t abusive “enough”. I’ve asked that question myself many times and here on the blog as well. I wouldn’t immediately conclude I needed to divorce a guy if occasionally during the heat of an argument he got loud or used a swear word in exasperation. It would really depend on whether or not he was doing those things deliberately as a means of frightening me into submission or gaining some kind of control over me. If it was his ” go to” tactic to shift the balance of control into his hands, that’s probably different.

    The man I am now divorced from used yelling and accusations almost from the very early stages of our relationship. At first I was patient and understanding, as according to him his ex wife had taken him for all he was worth and I figured he had some triggers. He confessed to me that he had transferred his issues with her to me and apologized, promising it would not happen again. Of course it did happen and he asked me for grace, saying that it takes time to change. He would yell and flip out over silly things. Attack me verbally and accuse me of various motives I hadn’t really thought of.

    At first I thought ,well, he’s been hurt, he has some trigger issues of his own. But eventually all my understanding and compassion did was pave the way for him to move from knowing he was being a jerk and apologizing, to deciding that I was the cause of his anger and yelling and that I deserved it and he was entitled to do it, and was sick of having to apologize for it.

    His apologies were typically pretty lame, too. They were never to my recollection, followed by any real attempt to make amends. He had to be confronted and almost shamed into admitting he was acting badly. It would be something like “Okay I’m sorry for how that went” or “I’m sorry for my part in that” . For a long time I was the typical gracious Christian and just accepted his apology without being exacting about it or demanding that the apology follow any specific format to prove repentance. But eventually I began to ask ” What specifically are you sorry for”? And he’d waffle sometimes and say ” Well, I don’t know”. Seldom could he articulate what was wrong and why it was wrong although he did have his moments of honesty sometimes.

    In the end, the yelling to gain power only slowed down when I told him that if the bullying behaviours didn’t stop and he didn’t start dealing with things more honestly I would leave. Most Christian marriage counselors counsel people that we should never threaten divorce. But what do you do when the only power you have in the situation is to take yourself out of it and confront your partner that their bad behaviour will not be tolerated as a lifestyle?

    I am pretty sure that most churches, pastors and counselors would characterize my relationship with this man as merely a difficult marriage. They would not think that vicious fits of anger and yelling in response to anything the guy doesn’t want to hear about, face or deal with, or doesn’t like, as reasonable grounds for divorce.

    I have wondered a few times if the problem with why churches don’t react to accounts of abuse unless a woman presents with black eyes, broken bones and multiple hospital stays, is because they have ceased to believe that sin is serious and that it is a real threat to life. They are willing to tolerate great gobs of it in many forms.

    If they don’t believe that sin threatens life and destroys it, it seems that then grace gets flipped around backwards so that it becomes a means of tolerating even MORE sin and that is what is expected, rather than a means of rescuing one from sin. Just wondering aloud if this is why when you show up and tell your pastor that your husband erupted in a fit of rage because :
    You put butter on your potatoes and he sees that as an act of criticizing him because he already put some butter in them
    He thinks you should put certain household items ONLY where his mother would have put them, and says that anyone who is anyone does it that way so what’s wrong with you that you think you are so much smarter?

    He yells and screams at you and calls you an unbiblical woman or a feminist if you won’t agree with him that being a man means he has unconditional authority over you and you have to submit and are not allowed to disagree. The reason he calls you a feminist is because he knows that you actually care about being a feminine godly woman and it’s something he can use against you. It isn’t so much that he cares about obeying God or the bible for his own sake.

    When you try to argue that you are a person and have some basic human rights, he tries to argue with you from scripture that women are not actually people and are not made in the image of God to justify his argument…said pastor doesn’t think this is a big deal and sees him just as someone who is misguided and has been wounded by women and so you should be understanding and just live with it.

    Jesus said hatred is murder. I wonder what He would describe the repeated use of yelling to intimidate and shame someone for the purpose of gaining control? How many times do you have to be treated like this before its okay to divorce for abuse? Really I ought to have dumped him the first time he went off on me before we married. Why? Because it wasn’t legitimate anger that arose between us over a disagreement. It was an out of the blue bizarre attack that was uncalled for and unjust that showed that his thinking and attitude were unhealthy and that he was trying to exercise influence or control over something he had no right to .

  13. Kind of Anonymous

    Thought I would further add this. What makes it all so confusing is the positives. For instance, he would give me a massage when I would say I had pain and he always seemed to know where the sore spot was and even do this for me when I hadn’t asked him to. Buying me flowers I admired one day. Making something for me. Driving me places in areas I was not comfortable driving like big cities or often doing all the driving for the most part. At night there was often a time of cuddling. He would carry heavy things for me from the car. Not lots of positives but definitely some.

    The question of my being a rather insecure and dependent person who needed to be taken care of at least to some degree – although I certainly cared for the home and made meals, did laundry, manage the bills etc. Wondering if by virtue of my dependency and neediness I caused him to become frustrated with what might be bondage to him. Arrrggh.

    • (I’m using your words, though not not necessarily endorsing those descriptors as correct).
      If your former ‘dependency and neediness’ did frustrate him, my question is: Did he articulate his frustration – express his grievances – to you with an attitude of negotiation? Did he ask you to stop relying on him so much for those things (him doing the driving, him massaging you, etc). If he asked that respectfully, I imagine that would have been fine, and you and he could have had a mutual problem solving conversation from there.

      But I get the impression from the many things you’ve told us that he did not express his ‘grievances’ respectfully. So it sounds to me like he did those nice things for you for other reasons. Maybe he liked driving. Maybe he liked giving massages to ease the sore spot — he might have had some natural skill at massage and didn’t mind using it. Or maybe he did those things to confuse you into thinking he truly cared for you, so you would give him umpteenth second chances after he had abused you.

      Those might not be the only reasons he did those nice things, but they are the ones that come to mind right now.

  14. Kind of Anonymous

    No it was not usual for him to express displeasure in a reasoned manner. Usually he was rude and accusatory, so that he basically sabotaged my willingness to listen because he was so ignorant about it. The few times he was reasonable, I was so defensive from being attacked and accused so many times that I was hardly receptive which of course “proved” that he “couldn’t talk” to me.

    I have wondered if the nice behaviours are because they are functional or normal in some areas of their lives and so can act normally in that particular aspect. And of course sometimes I think doing nice things is a way of buying back good will and face and being able to say “See, I am not as bad as other guys who treat their wives badly, I do this and this and this for her, doesn’t that prove I am a good guy and she is really the problem?”

    Of course, my ex husband was getting some affection and nurture too if he’s holding me which I think was part of it also. He was very angry at his mother, pitied her but despised and resented her too, especially for a failure to nurture, protect and affirm him. He did do some kind things for me but they weren’t enough to make up for being an unreasonable jerk who was willing to make my life absolutely miserable for the pettiest reasons.

    Thanks for responding Barb and thinking this through with me. I still have lots of questions and fog and it’s taking me a while.

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