As an elder, I’ve seen an alarming trend the last 20 years, it’s the number of Christian women divorcing their husbands for verbal, emotional or physical abuse. The scripture they quote most often as justification for a divorce is this one.
“To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” 1 Corinthians 7:12-13, 15
They’ve concluded that one or more of these things are true of their husbands; 1. He is, or may be an unbeliever as evidenced by his abuse. Therefore divorce is permissible. 2. He has already emotionally abandoned his wife, even if he’s still living in the home.
(While there are cases of abuse by wives, 95% of the abuse I’ve seen is by men against women. Therefore, I’ve written this blog in that vein.)
So, let’s try to examine this issue from both a biblical and human points of view. Sin in the Church Abusing anyone, physically or emotionally, is a serious sin. I won’t take the time to prove that, but all Christian churches believe that to be true. And abuse is probably far more prevalent than we realize. This sin is in the church, and it ought to be preached against, in the loudest possible voice!
I also believe every church ought to have a small team of spiritual women to be a resource and an advocate for any women in the church who is being abused. Abused women need nurturing and biblical counsel to help them address and heal from this sin in their families. The male dominated leadership of the church, historically has not handled this issue well. Ask the leaders of your church, how and who, handles abuse in church.
The issue of how to practically and biblically address the issue of abuse is too lengthy for this blog. If you’d like a copy of my churches Abuse Policy, email me and I’ll send you a copy (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Biblical grounds for divorce I believe, as most evangelical churches do, that the Bible permits divorce for only two reasons; • Adultery (Matthew 5:31,32) • Actual physical abandonment – the leaving of the home and marriage, by a non-Christian. (1 Corinthians 7:12-17) And I would define a non-Christian as someone who either has never claimed to be born-again, or one who claims he’s a Christian, but there’s been very little evidence of it in his life, attested to by others who know him well, in addition to his wife.
What about physical or emotional abuse? I don’t believe abuse is the biblical equivalent of abandonment. A straightforward reading of the 1 Corinthians 7 passage is that the unbelieving spouse physically abandons the relationship, either by leaving his wife, or asking her to leave his home.
Nor do I believe one can judge another to be a non-believer, simply because they are abusive, as horrific and destructive as that sin is. Both attempts to make abuse fit either of these conditions permitting divorce is a stretch.
The difficulty of determining if someone is being abusive Unfortunately, physical abuse is generally easier to prove. There are often police records, third party witnesses, medical records, etc. But, the issue of emotional abuse is much more complicated.
In almost every troubled marriage, there are sharp, angry and hurtful words spoken and controlling behaviors acted out. The real question for leaders in the church is how can they know with a high degree of certainty that this intense verbal and emotional abuse is actually taking place and to what degree, unless the abuser admits he has a problem. My church relies heavily on professional Christian counselors to make this assessment and on the advice of the mature Christian women, trained to handle these issues, who we make available to help abused women. This is no job for the average elder.
Nevertheless, unless there are verifiable witnesses whom they can rely on, it’s essentially one person’s word against another. While the elders hearts might want to side with the person who is alleging abuse, they also have to sympathize with the other spouse, who is often frustrated because they cannot prove they are not abusers.
Therefore, in the area of emotional abuse unless the alleged abuser admits they have an anger or an abuse problem, or it is verifiable by unrelated third-party witnesses, I recommend churches not take disciplinary action against such a member. The Bible repeatedly instructs us not to take action against individuals in serious matters without at least one and preferably two eyewitnesses. (Deut. 19:15, 1 Tim. 5:19)
A solution of mercy So, is there no marital relief then for a woman who believes she’s being abused? It’s the practice of my church that in cases where there appears to the elders to be some evidence of real abuse, that if a woman chooses to move forward with separation and eventually with divorce, that the elders in an act of mercy, will neither encourage divorce nor discourage it. No woman, or her children should have to live in fear. Therefore, we leave this decision to the conscience of the person seeking the divorce and leave judgment in the hands of God. Only he knows the truth and he will judge any guilty party. However, we will not put a wife under discipline.
What if the abuse, physical or emotional, is clearly provable? It’s my recommendation the abuser should be put under discipline and eventually ex-communicated from the church if they do not show true repentance by submitting to counseling and changing their behavior. (Yes, my church still excommunicates unrepentant members.)
Remarriage Our church doesn’t permit those who have had an un-biblical (this includes for abuse) divorce to remarry. (Matthew 5:32) And I agree with that position. The Bible simply does not permit us to do otherwise as much as our hearts break for these women. Jesus, in the Matthew passage, is very clear on the remarriage question.
I realize that some of the ideas I’ve expressed or my church believes, sound a bit archaic in today’s world. But, I don’t believe God’s teaching ever goes out of date. Our “Father” really does know best!
How following Jesus works in real life.
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