Abuse is one of our world’s greatest tragedies and a frequent reality in marriages. Something like 10 million women are assaulted by intimate partners every year. The church historically has done a terrible job of addressing it. The God of Scripture, however, is a God of mercy who offers victims the permission to divorce.
“Permission” may seem a strange word, but it is an intentional word. Christian women often feel stuck in these abusive relationships for reasons beyond the complexity and danger of leaving. There is difficulty for everyone in an abusive marriage because leaving presents greater risk of violence, greater insecurity for maintenance of lifestyle, and greater heartache over loss of love. Yet, for Christian women there is the added religious pressure of doctrinal conviction. Many women have been taught that abuse is not valid grounds for divorce, and that since “God hates divorce” it would be sinful for them to leave. In such situations they feel especially trapped. In addition even when many women have sought help from the church they have been met with disbelief, disregard, or misguided efforts to help. Pastors speak to women about forgiveness, hard-hearts, and submission instead of addressing the abusive behavior of their husbands. Wives are invited to marriage counseling and encouraged to have more sex, pray more fervently, and speak-up less often. Many Christian women, then, simply resign themselves to living in such volatile situations for the duration of life.
God, however, has great compassion on the oppressed and harassed. His heart is often directed towards those who have no advocates. God is for the fatherless, the widow, and the poor (Ps. 82:3-4; Ps. 140:12; Isa. 1:11, 17; Zech. 7:9-10; Jam. 1:27; etc.). He offers particular mercy to those in abusive marriages in the form of permission to divorce.
The Bible is not naïve about the brokenness of marriage. In Deuteronomy 24:1, we read Moses’ command that any man who divorces his wife must write her a certificate of divorce. The certificate was intended to legally declare the dissolution of a marriage and to offer protection for the woman. The certificate of divorce meant this woman could remarry without fear of her former husband returning to claim her again. The Bible gives us an example of this grace in Exodus 21:10-11. The text speaks about the husband, saying:
10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.
The text explains that if a man marries a second woman, he is not permitted to deprive his first wife of what she needs. In this text, the focus is on food, clothing, and conjugal rights. If he doesn’t do this, the law permits her to divorce her husband and receive appropriate compensation from him for her livelihood. The neglect of these particular rights constituted grounds for divorce according to the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, Jesus and Paul uphold these rights to divorce for victims. During the time of Jesus there were two factions among the Jewish religious leaders regarding the issue of divorce, represented by two different Rabbis. The divergence arose over the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. Rabbi Hillel argued that the phrase “some indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1 broadened the grounds for divorce to “any cause.” Rabbi Shammai argued that the phrase in Deuteronomy 24:1 simply referred to sexual immorality. At the time of Jesus’ teaching the Jewish leaders sought to set a trap for Jesus by asking him the question we see recorded in Matthew 19:3. Their goal, as the text says, was to “test Him.” Their question is stated directly to parallel the common debate: Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause. Jesus answers their question by stating that God allowed for divorce because of sin, and expressly he clarifies in verse 9, that the “any cause” is specifically “sexual immorality.” In other words, Jesus did not believe like the Hillel tribe. Deuteronomy 24:1 was to be understood as a referring to sexual immorality.
It’s important to note, then, that Jesus is not here making a comprehensive statement about all divorce. He is not teaching that divorce is only acceptable on the grounds of sexual immorality. If he were it would raise serious questions about why Paul adds to Jesus’ teaching in 1 Corinthians 7. When we consider, however, the historical context we see that Jesus is actually answering a very specific question. He does not here over turn the Old Testament grounds for divorce, but rather clarifies the interpretation of one specific text.
When we turn to consider Paul’s teaching on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 we can see that it deals expressly with the neglect of one of the covenant vows: conjugal rights. Verse one clarifies the issue that the Corinthians had written to Paul about, it revolves around a common saying among certain people of the church: It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. To this Paul responds, in verse 3, that “the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” In other words, he is defending the traditional marital vows. Then he turns his attention to the issue of divorce, since that would have naturally come up in this context. In verses 10 and 11 he clarifies that believing spouses should not divorce. In verses 12-14, he turns his attention to the believing spouse who is married to an unbelieving spouse. He maintains the importance of the vows, but recognizes here that when an unbelieving spouse refuses to stay in the marriage the believing spouse is not bound to marriage. Since the unbelieving spouse has, at that point, broken his covenant vows the believing spouse is free to divorce. In Paul’s teaching, then, abandonment violates the covenant vow to provide food, clothing, and conjugal rights, and therefore qualifies as Biblical grounds for divorce. Abuse would fall under this heading as well since it is a willful and intentional neglect of the emotional and physical affection that is due a spouse. Abuse comes in many forms: physical, emotional, psychological, verbal, financial, social, and spiritual. It is an effort in using power and position to control another person. It is a direct violation of the commitment to love and cherish your spouse, and to provide the sort of physical and emotional affection required of a spouse. As such it is grounds for Biblical divorce.
Abuse causes many to feel alone, abandoned, and betrayed. It causes many Christian women to question God and to question the church. How could God have no mercy of them and their situation? How could the church not care enough to intervene? But God does have mercy, and He extends it particularly in the form of permission to those who suffer in abusive marriages. The church needs to imitate this God by giving voice to His mercy for the oppressed. Divorce is God’s kindness to victims of broken vows.