If abuse is grounds for divorce, why didn’t God say so plainly in the Bible?
[June 22, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
Why didn’t Jesus say abuse is grounds for divorce?
Why is there no explicit statement in the Bible that abuse is grounds for divorce and a victim of abuse may remarry after divorcing the abuser?
Why didn’t Mosaic Law have an explicit law against wife-beating and other types of spousal abuse?
Why didn’t God make sure that the Ancient Israelites knew that wife-beating was wrong? Other ancient Near East cultures would have assumed that wife-beating was okay. What was to prevent Israel from likewise assuming it was okay?
How can I know for sure that the five books of Moses — the original “Law” — allow divorce for abuse?
The New Testament indirectly condemns wife-beating by telling husbands to love their wives as their own bodies and not be harsh with them. But without the OT Law providing wife-beating as clear grounds for divorce, how can we confirm that the NT says wife-beating is grounds for divorce?
If abuse is grounds for divorce, including emotional cruelty or just even basic treacherous and dishonest dealings that occur repeatedly and thus remarriage is permissible, why did Jesus not just SAY SO?
Surely He who is omniscient would be able to look forward in time and would know what a difficult issue the whole marriage-divorce-remarriage thing would be? Why didn’t He be much more clear about such a sensitive and serious issue? He would have spared many vulnerable people terrible agony of conscience.
Why wasn’t God more clear in His Word? I feel creepy saying this because it’s kind of like taking God to task for not writing the Bible properly….it makes me wonder about the whole inspired word of God thing sometimes.1
Many Christians who have been abused by a marriage partner are in anguish over questions like these.
Quelling the anguish and setting the record straight
Why is there no explicit statement in the Bible that abuse is grounds for divorce? The Bible doesn’t give a law code like the legislation which governments pass today. It gives case studies and general precepts which we are called to interpret with wisdom. The Bible doesn’t use the word ‘abuse’ but it does use words like oppression, injustice, affliction.
The Mosaic Law simply assumes that divorces will occur. It doesn’t set out a list of explicit grounds for divorce. It forbids divorce in only two very unusual situations. I talk about the two Mosaic Laws that forbid divorce in Appendix 5 of my book Not Under Bondage. Here is a quick summary of those two Laws.
- When a man slanders his bride by accusing her of not being a virgin when he married her and his accusation is shown to be a false accusation, Mosaic Law says he is not allowed to divorce her (Deut 22:13-19).
- When a man coerces or compels an un-betrothed virgin to have sex with him, Mosaic Law orders him to marry her and forbids him divorcing her as long as he lives (Deut 22:28-29). This doesn’t mean a woman was compelled to marry the man who raped her. Exodus 22:16-17 says the woman’s father could veto the marriage. The woman’s father could veto the marriage at his daughter’s request. If the marriage was vetoed, the rapist had to pay a hefty amount as compensation to the woman.
Jesus did NOT say adultery is the only ground for divorce. Instone-Brewer has convincingly argued that in Matthew 19 Jesus was only pushing back against male-privileged rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 24. The Jews who heard Jesus talking to the Pharisees would have known that Jesus was only referring to their hairsplitting of Deuteronomy 24:1 in order to justify cavalier divorce for men.
All four times Jesus mentioned divorce, he was pushing back hard against the male-privileged interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 which was common in his day. He admonished Jewish men for twisting Deuteronomy 24 to advantage themselves.
That understanding got lost in the ensuing decades, as more and more Gentiles came into the church, the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and the church became hyper-focused on celibacy. For many hundreds of years Christians have misunderstood the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. Like a limpet that clings to a rock, this misunderstanding is very hard to dislodge from Christendom. We need to cast it out.
Paul did not contradict Jesus, he confirmed what Jesus had said and amplified it. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul made it clear that a Christian is at liberty to end a marriage if the other spouse has abused, deserted or been sexually unfaithful.
For millennia, men2 have interpreted Scripture through their own lens. By twisting small elements of Scripture and then magnifying those twists to advantage themselves, they have made virtually everyone think that their legalistic lens is the only lens to see through.
The Pharisees in Jesus day interpreted the OT through their male-biased lenses. Christian leaders, most of whom have been privileged men, have interpreted the divorce question through their own biased lenses. Nothing new under the sun.
The trick is to stop playing their game. Don’t ask why the Bible doesn’t list grounds for divorce, or doesn’t say abuse is grounds for divorce in so many words. Identify the contradictions in the biased interpretations, and blow them away.
The mistaken view that Jesus said “adultery was the ONLY ground for divorce” fits very nicely with men’s priorities. The belief that men’s sexual needs get priority has been around ever since the Fall. The idea that the husband owns the wife, the double standard about women’s virginity while men can sow their wild oats, polygamy — all are expressions of that belief. The misunderstanding that Jesus said “adultery is the ONLY ground for divorce” has very much suited men.
[Jesus] appears to give the Pharisees one reason for divorce namely sexual unfaithfulness and leaves it at that after telling them that remarriage for any other reason constitutes adultery….
I have always thought to myself something like “Okay, the wrong penis in the wrong vagina makes divorce and remarriage okay but incest, or wife-beating, or just being treated like dirt and dealt with dishonestly, or any other behaviour that constitutes a violation of trust and truth and love and respect in a marriage does not?”
That makes no sense that adultery is somehow considered more evil and more a violation of trust than these other things that are worse. (Kind of Anonymous)
God gave lots of balanced guidance in His Word, but most Christians ignored it
The Ten Commandments condemn false accusation, slander, theft, and sexual immorality. The commandments apply in all sorts of situations. Jesus gave us examples of how to apply the Ten Commandments. He said murder is not just killing someone, it is also hatred and verbal abuse (Matt 5:21-22). Since the Law against murder includes verbal abuse, how much more does it cover wife-beating? Furthermore, “you shall not kill” implies you ought not remain in a position where you might be killed or injured by another.
We can do the same thing with the commandment against theft. It’s wrong to steal someone’s chattels. It is much more wrong to brainwash them to erode their person-hood, so they end up being just a shell, an intimidated puppet under your control.
Adultery, desertion and abuse violate the heart of the marriage covenant. This fits with what Paul said in 1 Cor 7:12-15. Conduct that trashes the marriage covenant — the cleaving, and the one flesh — permits the innocent partner to divorce.
The blind have been leading the blind. Christians for centuries mistook Jesus’ words about divorce. Christian leaders, especially those with a pharisaic mindset, elevated their misinterpretation of Jesus’ words and made it THE RULE by which believers had to interpret everything else that Scripture says about divorce.
The liberty to divorce a covenant-breaking spouse, the liberty that Paul had enunciated, was downplayed and narrowed to extremis.
A small portion of Mosaic Law (Deut 24:1) was misinterpreted by saying it allowed divorce only for sexual immorality. Christians did this, thus replicating one of rabbinic misinterpretations of Deuteronomy 24.
Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 22, passages which gave rights to women, were ignored by most Christians until Instone-Brewer spotlighted how they pertain to divorce. Instone-Brewer has convincingly argued that when Jesus was alive all Jews accepted that Exodus 21 meant abuse was grounds for divorce. It’s fruitless to get hung up on the fact that we do not have first century AD documents which show Jewish courts using Exdous 21 to enable women to divorce for abuse. Don’t get bogged down in the left-brain dominated thinking that says “we must be able to cite ancient documents that Jewish courts used Exodus 21 to allow women to abusive husbands”. That kind of thinking gets tangled in its own shoelaces.
Traditionalist Christian leaders would like us to focus on their mistaken understanding of Jesus’ words about divorce. Their lens favours abusers and oppresses victims of abuse. We have to stop seeing things through their lens.
Malachi 2:16 was mistranslated way back in history. This meant that Christians all believed ‘God hates divorce’. That wrong translation welded the other misunderstandings to each other. The result was a cage from which no victim of abuse could escape without excruciating pangs of conscience. False guilt: pangs of conscience that came from false teaching.
Why did God allow this to happen?
The fault is not God’s. The fault is not Moses or Jesus or Paul’s.
Jesus as a man had to push back against the way men had interpreted Scripture to suit themselves in His day and age. Since the NT was completed, men have twisted the divorce texts in different ways, but still in ways that suit themselves. The fault lies with fallen men who have interpreted Scripture from their own biases. Men who’ve had insufficient insight or empathy with the plight of victims of abuse.
No one can plumb the depths of why God does not stop the powerful oppressing the vulnerable, or why God allows false teaching to be so widespread in the church. But we know God is not the author of all that sin.
And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him. And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full. (Gen 15:12-16)
“The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” — maybe that haunting phrase can help us tentatively guess why God has allowed there to be such distortion of His Word re divorce and remarriage.
The people of Israel would be afflicted for years but would eventually be led to the promised land. The folks who have interpreted Scripture to suit themselves and burdened the vulnerable with anguish and false guilt, are perhaps a bit like the Amorites. Their iniquity will be judged in the end, but maybe it is not yet full.
The Bible talks about “the mystery of iniquity” in 2 Thess 2:7. That iniquity has been going on for a very long time. I dare not try to interpret this with logic. I only offer it as something to ponder and meditate on:
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
1 We beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in that we shall assemble unto him, 2 not to be suddenly moved from your mind. And be not troubled, neither by spirit nor by words, nor yet by letter which seems to come from us, as though the day of Christ were at hand. 3 Let no man deceive you by any means. For the Lord comes not unless there come a departing first and that sinful man be revealed – the son of perdition, 4 who is an adversary, and is exalted above all that is called God or that is worshipped, so that he shall sit as God in the temple of God and show himself as God.
5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you, I told you these things? 6 And now you know what withholds, so that he may be manifest at his time. 7 For the mystery of that iniquity does he already work, which only locks until it is taken out of the way. 8 And then shall that wicked one be exposed, whom the Lord will consume with the Spirit of his mouth, and will destroy with the appearance of his coming – 9 namely him whose coming is by the working of Satan, with all lying power, signs, and wonders, 10 and in all the deceptiveness of unrighteousness among those who are perishing. They perish because they would not receive the love of the truth, so that they might have been saved. 11 And therefore God will send them strong delusion, so that they will believe lies; 12 so that all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
1 I compiled these questions that opened this post from comments by paraphrasing from comments by Clockwork Angel and Kind of Anonymous. Many thanks to them. I beg church leaders & academics —please read their comments to hear their anguish, and please comment here at this blog to say you’ve done so. Don’t leave us victims feeling like we are seldom heard by church leaders! Please come out of the shadows if you genuinely support us.
2 I say ‘men’ because for millennia men have been able to dominate the discourse of Scriptural interpretation.
Men do not menstruate; men do not have wombs. Men have not had to suffer the pain and difficulty of blood coming from their genitals every month. Men have not had to suckle crying babies from their breasts in the middle of the night. Men have not died in childbirth.
Until very recently in human history, men have been the chief bread winners. By the sweat of their brow men have worked to put food on the table for their families. Since the Fall, men have had advantages, and burdens, that women have not had. But no reasonable person could deny that men’s advantages have a led to men’s viewpoints dominating the interpretation of God’s Word for the last few millennia. Men have by and large held the megaphone re what Scripture says about divorce.
[June 22, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to June 22, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to June 22, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to June 22, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (June 22, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
I will be incorporating some of this post into the revised edition of Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion, which I intend to publish this year if I possibly can. I’m working on the revised edition while trying to keep this blog going. It’s a lot of work. Please pray for me.
What Does The Bible Say About Divorce? — One of our FAQ pages.