The PCA’s Position Paper on Divorce is dangerous for abuse victims
The PCA’s Position Paper on Divorce and Remarriage suggests that only physical violence is grounds for divorce. And it assumes that marriage problems are mutually caused so both parties are partly at fault if the marriage is in difficulties.
What’s more, although the Position Paper — which came out in 1992 — says that an abused spouse can divorce for physical abuse, the Paper’s guidance is not binding on PCA churches in America. Churches do not have to follow the Paper’s guidance if they don’t want to.
- A PCA church can tell abuse victims that they have no grounds to divorce their abusers, even if the abuser uses severe or habitual physical violence.
- A PCA Church can excommunicate abuse victims for divorcing abusers.
- And no-one in the PCA will hold that church accountable for its cruelty to the victim.
We know that PCA churches are often excommunicating abuse victims for divorcing their abusers, because we hear the reports from the victims. Jessica Fore’s story is one example. We’ve heard too many reports of PCA churches mistreating and disciplining victims of domestic abuse to discount this kind of thing a rare aberration in the PCA. A woman who wants to be known as ‘DB’ said recently:
My cousin is in ministry with the PCA. He and his wife are currently getting degrees in counseling. They are currently counseling over a dozen abuse survivors who were further abused by the church. Please pray that they will be able to influence others to come together and change the policies and understanding that govern domestic violence and spiritual abuse.
I am not giving the link to where DB said that, to protect her and her extended family. Another person responded to DB’s comment:
Yeah that doesn’t surprise me a bit. I’ve heard from other counselors that say the PCA keeps them in business.
We don’t want to give them impression that all PCA churches are mistreating abuse victims. We have at least one longtime commenter on this blog who attends a PCA church which disciplines abusive husbands and proactively supports women in their decision to divorce abusive men.
We’ve heard that the Position Paper isn’t followed in many PCA churches. We’ve heard that some PCA pastors are not even aware of the Paper, which suggests PCA seminaries and media are not putting much effort into telling their students and pastors about the Paper. And we know of at least one PCA church which selectively cherry picked sentences from the Position Paper in order to condemn her for separating from her abuser — read a letter from a PCA church which did this.
Why is this PCA Position Paper dangerous for abuse victims?
The problems are in the section of the paper titled ‘Applying Paul’s Instruction About Desertion Today’ (Section II, paragraph E, subsection 4). That section states their position on abuse being grounds for divorce.
It assumes that marriage problems are always mutually caused and both parties are partly at fault
On p. 245 of the Paper, when advising elders who are dealing with a marriage in which divorce is on the cards, it says:
The elders must carefully approach the question of delving beneath the precipitating cause of the divorce to the underlying issues. The elders cannot allow themselves to be used by one spouse seeking the condemnation of the other’s sin, while refusing to acknowledge, in most cases, some responsibility for the crisis.
Elders who follow that teaching will refuse to wholeheartedly condemn the abuser and believe and support the victim. This means they will further oppress and hurt the victim. And in doing that, they will enable the abuser.
It suggests that only physical violence is grounds for divorce
It says ’emotional problems’ are not ground for divorce. It dismisses emotions as merely ‘inward and subjective’ experiences and ignores the fact that abusers emotionally abuse their victims with calculated forethought and intention to intimidate and confuse them. It never discusses how abusers can inflict great harm on their victims by using emotional abuse, verbal abuse, coercive control, financial abuse, sexual abuse, isolation, intimidation, micromanage the daily lives of victims, treat them like servants or slaves, and psychologically manipulate them by gaslighting them.
Here are excepts from the paper in which I have used red font to show how the Position Paper only consider physical violence to count as REAL abuse and only if it’s ‘serious’ or ‘habitual’ violence.
Are there other forms of separation today that may be considered equivalent to this leaving of the marriage of which Paul speaks? Specifically, what about cases of habitual physical abuse? Has that person deserted his spouse to the extent we may label it de facto divorce? We must be careful not to open the floodgate of excuses. On the other hand, we need to recognize the reality of the separation. We should allow Sessions the liberty to discern with much prayer what would be the proper response in particular circumstance. …
What is more, a husband’s violence, particularly to the degree that it endangers his wife’s safety, if unremedied, seems to us, by any application of Biblical norms, to be as much a ruination of the marriage in fact as adultery or actual departure. This is so precisely because his violence separates them, either by her forced withdrawal from the home or by the profound cleavage between them which the violence produces, as surely as would his own departure, and is thus an expression of his unwillingness ―to consent to live with her in marriage (1 Cor. 7:12-13; Eph. 5:28-29). Further, insofar as the passivity of the blameless spouse is an important prerequisite in Paul‘s permission of the dissolution of marriage on account of desertion, it seems right to note that in the case of physical abuse, for example, the blameless spouse is similarly victimized.
Finally, credible alternatives to this point-of-view seem to us to be wholly lacking Scriptural support. It is all very well to recommend separation as a temporal expedient to protect a battered wife, but perpetual separation amounts to a Roman Catholic doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage and could scarcely be justified as a Biblical alternative to divorce.
Indeed, separation of any kind as a means of dealing with marital difficulty and preventing divorce not only is neither recommended nor mentioned in Scripture, but seems to be contrary to a fundamental principle of Biblical spirituality, viz. that what ought not to be done, ought not to be approached.
We are quick to add, however, that the list of sins tantamount to desertion cannot be very long. To qualify, a sin must have the same extreme effect as someone‘s physical abandonment of his spouse. Both porneia and desertion are objective acts by which a marital covenant might be broken. The Bible gives no justification for divorce based on merely inward, emotional, and subjective reasons. Even if we find justification for interpreting porneia and desertion in a broader sense than some have, they must be broadened only within the boundaries of serious objective acts of sexual immorality or desertion. They must not be interpreted in any way that opens the floodgates to divorces based on subjective reasons, such as irreconcilable differences, emotional separation, loss of affection, or the like. There is often great pain involved in marriage, and God intends for His people to work through the pain and learn to love even when we are not loved by the other. Emotional problems in and of themselves are not Biblical grounds for divorce. And the elders of Christ’s Church must not surrender to worldly pressures and allow that which God does not allow.
David Clyde Jones suggested that the divorce paragraph in the Westminster Confession be revised
The PCA in America supposedly adheres 100% to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Every PCA minister and elder has to vow at his ordination that he believes the WCF and will uphold it. The Westminster Confession was written in the seventeenth century. There is no good reason why it could not be revised by the church today and the modified version be used as the benchmark for the PCA and any other Reformed denominations which wanted to use it. In fact, R Scott Clark who is highly respected in Reformed circles suggested recently (here) that we need a new confession, because there are different issues today which the old confessions do not adequately address.
Professor David Clyde Jones who taught Biblical Ethics at Covenant Seminary suggested¹ that paragraph 24.6 of the Confession ought to be be reworded as follows:
Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage, yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful
desertionrepudiation of the marriage covenant as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.
My message to church leaders who are reading this post
If you think only physical violence counts as ‘real’ abuse, please read our definitions in the sidebar of this blog. And because I know most pastors are time poor, I’ll make it easy for you by pasting them here:
The definition of abuse: A pattern of coercive control (ongoing actions or inactions) that proceeds from a mentality of entitlement to power, whereby, through intimidation, manipulation and isolation, the abuser keeps his* target subordinated and under his control. This pattern can be emotional, verbal, psychological, spiritual, sexual, financial, social and physical. Not all these elements need be present, e.g., physical abuse may not be part of it.
The definition of domestic abuser: a family member or dating partner (current or ex) who has a profound mentality of entitlement to the possession of power and control over the one s/he* chooses to mistreat. This mentality of entitlement defines the very essence of the abuser. The abuser believes he is justified in using evil tactics to obtain and maintain that power and control.
* Sometimes the genders are reversed. See ‘male survivors’ in the Tags tab in our top menu.
And for leaders who want to learn how better to respond to domestic abuse, we’ve created a special page on this blog: As a pastor, what are the most important things for me to know about domestic abuse?
¹ “The Westminster Confession on Divorce and Remarriage” by David Clyde Jones, Presbyterion XVI, 1 (Spring 1990), p 28. [ academia.edu/ may have a link to that article but their website was not working when I wrote this post.] Dr Jones submitted his article to the Eighteenth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America as part of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage; see p 214 n. 67 of the PCA’s Position Paper on Divorce & Remarriage. The PCA committee chose to not agree with Dr Jones’s suggestion of a change in the wording of the WCF. And they didn’t even mention his suggestion in their Position Paper.
Abuse in a PCA church: Part 1 of Persistent Widow’s story (part 1 of a 7 part series)
Jessica Fore (Abuse Survivor) Charged by her PCA Church with Contempt – She is Telling the World — the church is Faith Presbyterian Church Watkinsville Georgia, USA.
One of the Worst Letters We Have Seen From a Pastor to an Abuse Victim — this letter came from a PCA church
When Christians only partly get it right about abuse and divorce — this critiques an article about divorce by Dr Michael (Mike) Ross who at that time was the senior pastor of Christ Covenant PCA church, Matthews, North Carolina.
Abuse and Divorce: A Disagreement with the Westminster Confession of Faith by Ps Jeff Crippen