Can a Christian divorce another Christian for abuse?
Few things in our culture today are sadder than the deterioration of the family. It does not matter any longer if you’re a Christian; being Christian does not insulate you from the encroachments of sin.
The Christian family and the non-Christian family are equally under attack, and one of the more horrendous iterations of these attacks is when one spouse is being abused by the other. For the non-Christian marriage, it is explainable, but for the Christian marriage it is inexcusable. Nevertheless, it does happen more than any of us realize.
Many husbands and wives live in abusive marriages. This chapter is going to address only one of the many questions about abuse: can a Christian spouse divorce her husband because of abuse?
As with all of my chapters and podcasts on abuse, it is impossible to deal with every angle in any one piece. Abuse is like a large, angry elephant that needs to be eaten, but we can only eat the behemoth one bite at a time.
In this chapter, I want to discuss how the church needs to engage the abusive husband–though this content applies to any abusive spouse, regardless of gender.
I want to lay out a plan to engage, confront, and hopefully restore an abusive husband to God and to his wife. I want to take the argument all the way to the question of whether the abused person — the wife in this case — can divorce her unrepentant husband.
The particulars that I want to address are:
- Both spouses profess to be Christians.
- The husband has been abusing his wife.
- The abuse does not stop.
- Thus, the question on whether or not the wife can divorce her husband is on the table.
So, let me go ahead and get to the point that you want me to get to: I believe it is biblically possible for an abused spouse to divorce the abusing spouse while maintaining adherence and honor to God’s Word.
Now that you have my bottom line, let me give you my reasoning for such an outcome within a Christian marriage. Though divorce may be a possible outcome for the person being abused, it must be the last link on a chain that has factored in and allowed for all other possibilities that could lead to the couple’s reconciliation and restoration to God.
In this chapter, I want to deal with seven sequential links in the chain that could possibly end in the demise of a marriage. Here are the steps in short-form, and I will deal with them in long-form afterward:
- Are they Christians?
- Is it really abuse?
- Is she biblically addressing her culpability?
- Is she biblically addressing her motives?
- Is the church seeking to reconcile and restore the couple?
- Will the husband change?
- If the husband still will not repent (change), then she is free to divorce.
Link #1: Are they Christians?
This first link in the chain is a subjective assessment question. There is no real way, in the ultimate sense, to know if a person is a Christian until we all stand in heaven and hear our names called out. Some people have exhibited ungodly behavior (Galatians 6:1–2) but still seem, upon more assessment and historical data, to be Christians.
Then other people who have high-profile ministry positions make you genuinely wonder if they have ever been born a second time (John 3:7). The mental exercise must be engaged. A community of wise and courageous believers must give a well-informed opinion on what is being observed from both spouses.
This is because a person’s salvation is the beginning of any hope for them to change (1 Corinthians 2:14; Galatians 5:22–23). If the husband in our scenario is not a Christian, he is powerless to change his abuse in any meaningful and sustaining ways. Only the Spirit of God can empower a person to change and stay changed. Without that change agent, we’re asking someone to do what cannot be done successfully.
The other reason for the salvation discussion is that a believer is not allowed to take another believer to court (1 Corinthians 6:1). Believers do not pursue legal action against other believers. This has been one of the bigger conundrums in the discussion about marriage, abuse, and divorce. I will deal with this later on.
In this chapter scenario, I am working under the notion that both spouses are believers. They profess to be Christians, and it appears to be evident that God has imposed Himself on their lives through regeneration (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Link #2 — Is it really abuse?
The next link in the chain is trying to discern if abuse is really happening. This is a tricky idea to bring up because even a hint of doubt can throw the genuinely abused person into an emotional tailspin. The one thing she needs more than anything else is for someone to believe her.
In order for you to tread carefully here, it is absolutely essential that you understand this chapter is a “teaching lesson,” not a “counseling session.” To teach counseling, as I am doing here, you teach everything necessary for the counseling student to be equipped, such as this question on whether or not it is actually abuse. What we learn in a classroom is not parroted verbatim in a counseling office.
The abused person has been manipulated, put down, lied to, devalued, disregarded, and ignored so many times that she already doubts herself about the veracity of what she is experiencing. She has been well-trained by her abuser not to think what is happening to her is abuse.
If he does succeed in having this kind of mastery over her, and if she ever does have the courage to tell someone else about the abuse, the worst thing you could ever do to her is say, hint, imply, or suggest that she is not telling the truth.
If you come in with questions, suspicions, and doubts about her story, she will shut down, crawling back into her hole and to her husband, only to be relentlessly pummeled by him again.
Therefore, in “class” you must know the importance of discerning whether or not it is abuse, but in counseling, you cannot point any accusatory words at her. Your window of opportunity to serve her is about as wide as a hairline crack, and she is guarding it with a hair-trigger.
Therefore, you want to enter into her narrative (Hebrews 13:3) by understanding the extent of the abuse without blaming her in any way, shape, or form. Am I clear on that?
You do that by asking her questions about instances of what happened. You’re not asking because you do not believe her; you’re asking because you want to fully weep with her (Romans 12:15) while learning how to best protect her (Romans 8:31).
If there are witnesses who are willing to verify and add light to what she is saying, it would be helpful to talk to them — if (1) she is okay with you talking to them and (2) they are not afraid to talk to you.
Links #3 and #4
- Is she biblically addressing her culpability?
- Is she biblically addressing her motives?
These next two links in the chain must be approached like the previous one: I am teaching in this chapter, not counseling the abused. These two links represent two more things you never want to do with the abused: (1) talk about her culpability in an accusing way and (2) question her motives.
However, for this “class,” you must be aware of how the doctrine of sin can impact our lives. Without accusing, you want to discern her motivations, as well as how she has contributed to the marriage dysfunction. Do not tell her these things, but discern these things.
Because we live in a culture where living happily ever after is now a right, there are cases where some spouses want a marriage redo because they are tired of their spouse. Marriage is a long and arduous journey that requires heavy lifting from both partners. The honeymoon wears off quickly, and the difficulties can mount just as quickly.
Being dissatisfied is not abuse. Not liking your spouse does not qualify either. Regretting your marriage, finding your husband’s life-dominating sin, or discovering more “happiness” by perusing Facebook marriages is not an excuse for divorce.
You must also carefully and skillfully factor in how the doctrine of sin intersects with a sound theology of suffering when it comes to the realities of abuse. You want to be thorough. I think most abuse victims will be reasonable with what you are doing if they are assured of these two things:
- You are absolutely for them.
- You will help them to the end of this process regardless of where it goes.
Just to be clear regarding links 2, 3, and 4: You cannot accuse or suggest she is not telling the truth. It is not the time to bring up her culpability. Her husband has done an over-the-top job of reminding her how awful and wrong she has been, as well as why she is the primary source of all their problems. She does not need you telling her that.
I like to think about it this way. Suppose I was in a bank that was being robbed. In a moment of courage (or brain cramp), I made a lunge for the door and was shot in the chest. You are now visiting me in the hospital.
That would not be the time to talk to me about my mistakes. Maybe I should have not lunged for the door, but right now I need your care, not your scrutiny or your would’ve, should’ve, could’ve list of best practices during a bank robbery.
If a wife has the courage to talk to you about abuse, then your starting point is that she is telling you the truth. You believe her, bring care to her, and seek to restore the marriage by making a plan to confront her husband.
To further expand on this point, I want to share with you a letter I received from an abused wife. I asked her if I could use her letter to me in this podcast. She said that would be fine. I’m going to call her Pam. Her letter says in a more effective way what I am trying to convey to you.
The struggle I have had is the fact that no person has been able to give me a straight answer to the question of how to protect the wife, long-term, from a man who is considered dangerous. The counsel I received was that divorce is ONLY allowed in cases of adultery and abandonment. At the time, as far as I knew, there was no evidence of adultery and he certainly hadn’t abandoned us — at least not physically.
I’m not saying this to cast blame or even to criticize the counsel I received. My pastors were pivotal in teaching me what I needed to know. It was during these years that I learned a sound theology of suffering. It was during the first year of separation that I was able to spend vast quantities of time and energy immersed in Scripture. I don’t regret any of the counsel I received because even the “bad” counsel was teaching me what I needed to know. It always forced me to continually go back to Scripture for an understanding of what I was experiencing.
I realize this is a hard issue to address. I also realize that even talking about church discipline and marital abuse runs the risk of giving many people the wrong idea that God just “wants us to be happy.”
Nevertheless, church discipline is a command, not an option (Matthew 18:15–17). We are to go slowly, always giving the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the one being confronted. I believe I have gone as far as I can go according to Matthew 18. I addressed the issue with my husband first — many, many times. Then I sought counsel from my pastor. Then they sought to counsel my husband. This process has taken place over a period of several years.
I will freely tell you that my objectivity in this situation is probably all but gone. I struggle with anger at the way my husband twists Scripture to justify his treatment of me. I do not believe allowing this kind of thing to go unabated glorifies the LORD. I believe doing nothing gives my husband approval for the sin. And my biggest concern is that my husband isn’t really saved. How could he be and believe the stuff he says?
I have never looked for a way to end my marriage. Divorce was never my goal. I love my husband. I love being married. I just don’t love being married to the husband I love.
I’m not feeling pressured. I’m not in a hurry. I want God glorified in whatever happens with my marriage and in my family. But I do think, after a year with no evidence of change, something else needs to happen. As for what that something else should be, I don’t know. This is why I won’t make any sudden moves without lots and lots of counsel.
End of letter
- Holding her arguments loosely.
- Questioning, in a humble way, her motives.
- Not looking for a divorce.
- Open to correction.
- Only moving forward with lots of counsel.
Her letter adequately covers all of our points thus far, while pointing us to what needs to happen next.
Link #5 — Will the church step in?
The church is God’s community for a situation like the one in which Pam finds herself. The church has no choice but to continue what has been called church discipline/restoration. It is discipline if her husband does not repent; it is restoration if he authentically turns to God.
What we have termed “church discipline” begins with the individual Christian and God alone.
If a person sins, the Spirit of God will bring conviction to His child about that sin. The believer will respond to the Spirit’s work and confess (1 John 1:7–10) while developing a plan to remove the sin from his life (Ephesians 4:22–24). Every Christian has this privilege and responsibility.
If the Christian does not respond to the Spirit’s work, a friend should come along and address the sin (Proverbs 27:6). If the erring brother does not repent, a larger number of caring friends will confront him. This is when you get into the Matthew 18:15–17 portion of church discipline. This ties into what Paul said:
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you. — 1 Corinthians 5:9–13
If the church that belongs to Christ will not take care of the body of Christ, it has failed in one of its greatest responsibilities.
Link #6 — Will the husband change?
After a slow, tedious, demanding, and thorough process in which all of the action items listed above have happened, plus all of the common sense things that are biblically derived from the points that I have made thus far, and if the husband will not change, then he must be removed from the local body and treated as a lost person — a person who has never been regenerated. Jesus said it this way:
And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. — Matthew 18:17
If things deteriorate to this degree, it is possible he was not a believer after all. John talked about that in 1 John 3:4–10:
Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
John is not saying that a person who sins at all is not saved because he acknowledged the possibility of being saved and sinning in 1 John 1:7–10. He is also not talking about a person stuck in a life-dominating sin because Paul addressed that in Galatians 6:1–2.
John is talking about a person who willfully makes a practice of sinning; he determines that this is what he is going to do and he will not change no matter how many appeals are made to him. This is very different from a person who sins, confesses, and seeks forgiveness (1 John 1:7–10), or the person who is caught in a trap and wants out but needs the help of the body of Christ (Galatians 6:1–2).
Therefore, it is possible for a person at the Matthew 18:17 point of discipline to be saved. However, Jesus said that you are to treat him like he is not a Christian.
Link #7 — She can take him to court
If the church puts him out of their midst because he is a danger, to whatever degree his sin represents, then it stands to reason that his wife, a fellow church member, has the right to entertain a similar response. It does not sound reasonable to me to ask him to stay away from the church body while providing her no recourse to stay away from him.
You cannot go to court against a believer, but there is no prohibition in God’s Word that keeps you from engaging unbelievers through the justice system. This is not an unusual situation. For example, many spouses have been counseled to ask for a restraining order (RO) to keep their husbands from harassing them.
It is also possible, as I understand these Scriptures, that she can divorce him if that is the right thing to do according to adequate counsel from the church and the careful application of the ideas presented in this chapter. If her heart’s attitude is like Pam’s, from the letter above, and if all other options have been weighed, then that door is open to her — in my opinion.
Some may argue 1 Corinthians 7:13 — “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.” It seems that the inference of this passage is about an unbeliever who does not want a divorce. He does not want to be a Christian and he does not want to leave his wife.
In such a case he should dwell with his wife — but if he chooses to beat her or abuse her in some other way, then she must follow the teachings of her God in order to keep him from abusing her. Just because he wants to stay with her does not void her right to pursue peace through God’s Word, even if it means getting a divorce, as outlined in this chapter.
Being an unbeliever does not give him the right to abuse her. In fact, she would not have to wait for the church to declare him an unbeliever; that is the point of 1Corinthians 7:13: he is already one.
Therefore, she would not have any Scriptural prohibitions that would deter her from calling the civil authorities to arrest him, acquiring a restraining order, or possibly divorcing him.
This is one of those “can of worms” chapters in a book. I realize this. I’m not trying to stir up controversy, nor am I trying to create a pro-divorce stance out of thin air. I suspect that I am against divorce more than most of the people who are reading this.
However, it seems unkind and unreasonable for an authentically abused spouse to have no way of being free from this kind of sinful activity. I am willing to entertain your responses, as long as they are civil.
Honestly, I don’t have a dog in this hunt–other than the scores of abused spouses that I have counseled. My heart breaks for them. While I have what I believe is a sound theology of suffering, I don’t believe that trying to end your suffering is wrong if done in a biblical way.
Originally published at Rick Thomas.