Guest blog by Barbara Roberts
One of the problems when dealing with domestic abuse in a Christian context is, “What does the Bible says about 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 desertion: when an unbelieving spouse walks out, abandoning a marriage with a Christian spouse, but not legally divorcing them. 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. So the victim of abuse thinks this verse does not apply to her. However, when correctly understood, it is the verse which gives her freedom.
In my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion I define domestic abuse as a pattern of conduct by one spouse which is designed to obtain and maintain power and control over the other spouse. It 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 such as 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. Post-separation, many of these abuses may continue, with the added element of legal abuse leading 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 opposite 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 Cor. 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?
1 Corinthians 7:15 only applies to marriages where the opposite spouse is a nonbeliever. An abuser who professes to be a Christian typically resists the call to repentance, either by overtly fighting against having to take responsibility for his abusive behaviour, or by counterfeiting repentance to get the admonishers off his back and make them think he is really changing. With counterfeit repentance, the change is only superficial: the abuser has not relinquished his belief that he is entitled to exert power and control over those he chooses to oppress. No-one could be a true Christian and engage in months/years/decades of coercive control and cruelty towards their spouse. Such conduct is anathema to Christ.
If someone were a true Christian they would have a tender heart not a stony heart; they would be in dwelt by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit would long since have effectively pricked their conscience about such wicked behaviour so they would have willingly repented and ceased to behave so wickedly. They might slip into the flesh at times, like we all do; but when they did, they would not fight against admonishment. And they would not the shift the blame to another person, especially not to the person they had hurt!
The Bible is clear what we should do with heinously hypocritical ‘christians — we should put them out of the church (1 Cor 5:9-13). The believing spouse of a so-called “Christian” abuser has in fact been married to a spouse who is NOT a Christian. The victim of domestic abuse from such a spouse is at liberty to take out a divorce under 1 Corinthians 7:15 because their spouse is in fact an unbeliever. See my post Church Discipline and Church Permission for Divorce: How my Mind has Changed for further information.
When it comes to domestic abuse, churches have woefully failed when it comes to applying biblical discipline to the abusers. The concept of biblical discipline has been appallingly neglected and/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 making the perpetrator accountable and putting the counterfeit christian out of the church according to 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.
Repentance is not mere words, it should be demonstrated in thoroughly changed attitudes and behaviour. See my article Checklist For Repentance.
Church leaders should always check with the victim to know how she perceives any of her abuser's demonstrations of reformation, and whether she thinks he is really reforming, or just feigning it for manipulative reasons. This principle has been followed for years by best-practice secular programs which run behavior change groups for abusers. Clergy who want to assess an abuser's repentance need to follow the same protocol: they ought to consult the victim for her perspective at all stages; they must not impart to the abuser anything the victim has told them, unless she gives express permission (it could compromise her safety if they do it without her permission); and they must not coerce or pressure victims into reconciliation. My colleague Ps Jeff Crippen has written an excellent book to help pastors (and victim/survivors of abuse) understand the mindset and tactics of the so-called christian abuser: Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser 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. In all abuse, efforts should 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.
About the author
Barbara currently does most of her writing at the blog A Cry For Justice which she co-leads with Ps Jeff Crippen. At her solo site notunderbondage.com you can obtain a free flyer for use in churches, read a few more articles by her, and purchase her book. Not Under Bondage can also be purchased from retail bookshops or from Amazon. Barbara is working on a companion volume dealing with other scriptural dilemmas faced by Christian victims of domestic abuse such as submission and headship; suffering and carrying one’s cross; forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation; discerning phoney repentance from genuine repentance; and rebuilding your life after abuse.
This handbook is relevant for survivors, friends of survivors, church leaders and service providers, containing practical support as well as a look at some key theological questions around domestic abuse.