Feb 25, 2014

Can a Christian divorce an abusive spouse?

Although there are many differing views on marriage and divorce among bible-believing Christians the majority of evangelicals Christians continue to maintain that biblical divorce is permissible on 2 grounds; that of adultery (Matthew 19:9) and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. (1 Cor. 7:15).

The leading evangelical theologians of the 1640’s set forth this position in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 24:6, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.

If divorce is not possible for anything but adultery or desertion then does that compel a spouse to stay in a relationship that is dangerous or abusive?

What about an abusive marriage relationship?

Having read numerous books on divorce I have yet to find an author who defends the idea that God calls on us to stay in the home when in an abusive relationship. Don Carson goes so far as to say that if a wife lives in fear of physical harm because she has been threatened or even actually suffered physical abuse the  church is ‘pastorally mandated to secure her safety.’ Indeed in certain circumstances it may even be right to call the police and to seek to have charges pressed.

I’ve personally known spouses who have stayed in abusive relationships sometimes for the sake of the children. But I want to make it clear, if you or your children are in danger of physical harm then the Bible does not tell you to stay.

But does an abused spouse have the right to divorce?

Some would say that a spouse in such circumstances does not have a ground for divorce. Rather he or she, having moved out of immediate danger, is to work with the elders of the church to seek a true repentance on the part of the guilty spouse and a restoration of the marriage.

She may change the locks, call in the police, but she is not free from the marriage. Such a view is set forth by Don Carson, John Piper and Andrew Cornes to name a few.

But that is not the view of the elders at City Church. Some appeal to the arguments presented by David Instone-Brewer from Exodus 21 (see this earlier post on his view and my concerns). For myself I am persuaded that in a situation where a spouse refuses to repent and reconciliation is humanly impossible that divorce is permitted as a logical and necessary deduction of the teaching we find in the New Testament.

How would I justify divorce on the grounds of abuse from the Bible?

I believe that an abusive relationship where there is no evidence of repentance is a form of desertion by an unbelieving spouse. Theologians sometimes refer to it as constructive desertion.

In the church we are to take sin seriously and that includes sin within a marriage. Jesus instructed his disciples as to what should happen if someone refuses to repent of sin as a Christian. We read in Matthew 18v.15-17, If your brother sins against you,go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

What Jesus insists on is that sin, even sin between a married couple in their own home, is the responsibility of the church. The church’s role is to call to account those who are guilty of wilful, deliberate, and persistent sin. And those who refuse to repent are to be treated as unbelievers. Jesus says treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

We also read in 1 Timothy 5:8, If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

There will be times and circumstances where it is right and appropriate to say to someone who claims to be a Christian that by their actions they have denied the faith and they are to be treated as an unbeliever. And that would seem to apply to spouses who abuse their spouses.

Now the goal of such church discipline is their restoration to the faith and reconciliation to their spouse. However where no reconciliation is possible, for example where the guilty spouse wants nothing more to do with the church, it would seem appropriate that after a time of delay and when all prospect of reconciliation has gone then the innocent party in the marriage is free from their marriage because they have been abandoned by an unbelieving spouse.

We considered the conclusion of English theologians of the Westminster Assembly earlier in this post and one of the greatest Puritan preachers of the previous of the previous generation was William Perkins. In his work on the Christian family he said:

Like unto desertion is malicious and spiteful dealing of married folks one with the other. Malicious dealing is, when dwelling together, they require of each other intolerable conditions …if the husband threateneth hurt, the believing wife may fife in this case; and it is all one, as if the unbelieving man should depart. For to depart from one, and drive one away by threat, are equipollent.

As elders at City we would argue that there are two grounds for divorce but the second ground of dissertion may extend to abusive reationships even where both parties profess a Christian faith.  If, after investigation by the church, we conclude that, to use Perkins language, intolerable or abusive conditions are imposed on a spouse and the guilty party is unwilling to repent the innocent party may seek a divorce.

That would certainly seem to cover incidences of violence, threats of violence, it may also include extreme or prolonged psychological abuse or emotional trauma, intimidation, alcohol abuse, perhaps even chronic gambling addiction.

Extending this second ground is fraught with difficulty and there can be few if any hard and fast rules. But as elders in our position paper we will be setting forth three sets of circumstances where we believe that the church is able to recognise a divorce as biblically sanctioned.

1. Adultery within marriage permits the believer to instigate a divorce

2. Abandonment or desertion by unbelieving spouse permits the believer to recognise the end of the marriage (even if they formalise that in a divorce).

3. Abuse which results in constructive desertion permits the believer to recognise the end of the marriage (even if they formalise that in a divorce).



  • Neil, can you explain why you think this needs to be spelled out in official policy? Having recognised that the NT gives two possible grounds, would it not be better to leave it at that, and then consider on a case-by-case basis whether the abuse amounts to abandonment? With the right spin, I can imagine ‘constructive abandonment’ being very close to ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or ‘we don’t love each other any more’.

    • Good question. I think the key thing to remember is that it is desertion by an unbelieving spouse. So constructive abandonment is only a ground for divorce when the church in accord with Matthew 18:15-17 exercises church discipline and the guilty party is unresponsive to that discipline. All that means that the church family may need to be involved in deciding whether to expel someone from membership and that would, in every circumstance I can think of, be a prerequisite of divorce. I can’t think of a church that would expel someone from membership, regarding them as an unbeliever, for ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or falling out of love.

      Given that the whole church family might be called upon to be involved in that process now or at some point years into the future it seems wise to have it written up so that members would know what we are proposing and why.

      Hope that’s a help.

    • A very good point, Mike.

  • Abusive relationships.

    My mother found herself in precisely this position. She left my father twice, but each time was persuaded to return by Christian relatives. Whether this was right or wrong I cannot say. The abuse never entirely subsided – although it did get better in the sense of being less frequent/abusive in later years.

    In principle I think your approach is right; that God does not require a spouse to remain forever trapped in an abusive relationship. What you have left unsaid, however, is whether the victim is free to re-marry. I believe the answer is no, except on the one cause that Jesus mentioned.

    I believe that if one is divorced on any grounds other than unfaithfulness (that breaking of the one-flesh dynamic that God has so wisely instituted in Genesis 2) then one is not free to “remarry”.

    That’s how seriously God takes marriage.

  • I should perhaps add that my mother knowingly married an unbeliever, in the mistaken assumption that she would lead him to faith. On that basis I think she recognised (and relatives may also have recognised) this was not a case of a professed believer somehow changing in later years, but rather that my mother had knowingly taken on a marriage of partners pulling in different directions.

    That being said my father’s abuse was quite extreme/frequent and so the idea of constructive abandonment has some weight in this case.

  • In thinking about the Biblical provisions regarding divorce, it is perhaps helpful to think in terms of the purposes of marriage which are breached by adultery and desertion.

    Adultery is a wilful reneging on the sexual purpose of marriage which is destructive towards marriage. Whilst, for instance, a lesbian relationship may not technically constitute adultery, it imay be construed as adultery.

    Desertion is a wilful reneging on the social purpose of marriage which is destructive towards the marriage. By the same token, enslaving a woman in an abusive relationship is a wilful attack on the social blessing of marriage, and may be construed as desertion.

    It is arguable that Scripture offers, at the level of principle, only one ground for divorce, the wilful breaking of the marriage bond by an attack on its very purpose, but acknowledges that such a breach can be effected in an attack either in the sexual purpose or on its social purpose. Such a position allows a nuanced approach to divorce which does not depend on defining offences so much as a clear understanding of what marriage is about and therefore what behaviours may break it.

    • Helpful pointers, Keith.

  • Had to truncate my earlier post as my flight was called.

    What this line of argument allows is a fresh consideration of remedies for deeply troubling pastoral cases. For example how do we help a woman (say) whose children are subject to harmed by her husband? We do not want to end up with an approach which allows divorce for any and every reason, but we do need one which is pastorally responsive in justly mitigating the worst effects of the Fall in relation to its attacks on marriage in terms of its divine design and purpose.

  • I find it quite interesting that people that have not lived in a marriage made in hell, defend the scripture word for word. I would imagine that “these defenders” would change their viewpoint if it was them in that situation.

  • Neil,
    How should one expect to see Matthew 18 play out with an abusive spouse? If an abuser is brought out into the open, would that not make him retaliate on his wife? What about her safety, emotional or physical?

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