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Domestic abuse and divorce: What does the Bible have to say?

You may have heard church teaching that divorce is completely unacceptable, no matter what the circumstances. But for those who live in fear of danger, this teaching can add to the terror. Here we take a look at some of the key passages from the Bible about divorce, and what theologians have to say about them.

What is abuse?

Experiencing abuse is not your fault, you are not to blame. Abuse is not a breakdown in communication, it is the intentional act of one person deliberately harming another. You can read more about how to recognise the signs of abuse on our site.

Can I leave an abuser?

If you are someone who has or is experiencing domestic abuse, the good news is that God’s heart is for you. He is always for you. As we look at what the Bible has to say about divorce, we see God’s care for those who have struggled, suffered and felt unworthy or downtrodden. Know that you can find freedom because God does not want you to stay. Human flourishing can never look like being forced to stay with an abuser. We see in the Bible that Jesus avoids danger many times before He finally, for a very specific purpose, submits to the violence of the cross. David runs away from his position serving King Saul when Saul's abuse becomes too much. The Bible clearly shows that removing yourself from an abuser is not just OK but wise.

But what about divorce? What about trying to restore a marriage?

'While God's heart is for healing and reconciliation of marriages, the restoration of a biblical marriage is impossible when the abusive spouse does not repent or change.'

— Ally Kern, Survivor’s Handbook (p.185) —

What does the Bible have to say?

Where an abuser does not see the pain they have caused, and will not change their behaviour, there can be no reconciliation. But does the Bible agree?

We recently spoke to Helen Paynter about her new book, ‘The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So, Why You Don’t Have to Submit to Domestic Abuse and Coercive Control’. You can watch the interview or read our Q&A. In her book, Helen goes into some detail about what the Bible has to say about divorce. It’s worth reading the whole chapter in her book to get a thorough understanding of what we’re touching on here. She begins with a verse from Malachi, which is commonly misused.

‘For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and him who covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts.’

— Malachi 2:16 —

Helen asks us to consider the social context around some verses mentioning divorce. This wasn’t something women could initiate. One of the reasons God may appear to hate divorce is ‘because he cares about the protection of vulnerable women and children’. In a time when women relied on their husbands for an income and refuges or local support didn’t exist, staying in a relationship may just have helped a woman who would’ve been otherwise cast out from her community, with little choice but to become a sex worker. Malachi was speaking a specific message for a specific time, and we can’t assume that the same applies to 21st-century people.

Helen dips into the Hebrew, arguing that this verse is actually condemning violence against women. She suggests that the 'covering of garments in violence' refers to the marriage custom of the day, where a man seems to take a woman under his cloak as a sign of her entering his protection (for example in Ruth 3:9). Therefore, Helen suggests that:

‘Malachi is referring to the bringing of violence into the marital home. This constitutes a breach of the marriage covenant. Divorce, and abuse. God hates them both. If God hates the ‘sending away’ of a wife, God hates violence against her, too.’

This verse is about protecting women, not harming them.

Breaking the marriage covenant

Abuse, in whatever form it takes, breaks the marriage covenant. When we get married, we vow to sacrifice for someone else, to love them, to stand with them in sickness and in health. Marriage relationships, whilst imperfect, are meant to be relationships of love and commitment to one another.

An increasing number of highly-respected theologians agree that there are a number of forms of mistreatment which stand alongside adultery as grounds for divorce as adultery.

The New Testament allows for divorce where the marriage covenant is broken. Jesus says that divorce is permitted in the case of adultery (Matthew 19:3-6). There are plenty of interpreters who take Jesus allowing for divorce when there is adultery (porneia) as including abuse.

'If we put porneia into the larger biblical context, we see that it is any violation of God's intentions for lasting, faithful ‘one flesh’ union. Porneia certainly includes adultery, because adultery violates the one flesh union. But porneia can also include violence or abuse against one's spouse because to abuse one's spouse is also to violate that one flesh union.'

— Beth Felker Jones —

Jesus is not saying that the only reason to get divorced is adultery. Furthermore, in his letters, Paul says that separation is not ideal, but is permissible (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Complementarian scholar Wayne Grudem picks this question up, looking at 1 Corinthians 7:15. Grudem understands the translation of ‘in such cases’ as including ‘any cases that similarly destroy a marriage’. Abuse really does stray from God's intention for marriage.

This topic is worthy of more than a blog, but we’d encourage you to have a read of Helen’s book, or to get in touch with us if you’d like more resources on this topic. For more on this topic, listen to this talk on divorce from our Training Manager, Carolina.