What the Bible REALLY says about domestic violence and divorce

22 Apr

It seems to me that for far too long the church has been relatively silent on the issue of domestic violence and abuse in marriage.  I think it is for a couple of reasons.

First of all, a lot of pastors avoid controversial issues.  We’re all tempted to do it, but we shouldn’t give in.  Messages that deal with domestic violence hit close to home because there is domestic violence that is occuring right underneath our noses and we’re not sure what to do with the fall-out that will occur if we choose to talk about it.

It isn’t just avoidance, though.  We also want to be biblically accurate as we counsel women (and occasionally men) about the future of their marriages/separation/divorce, etc.  Now that is a healthy fear!  We need to be accurate in our handling of scripture as we counsel our congregations.

Having said that, most of us haven’t cared deeply enough to take a hard look at what scripture really says about legitimate reasons for separation and divorce.

Think about it: in cases involving adultery, many pastors would give their blessing (albeit reluctantly) on a woman’s decision to leave her cheating spouse (Matthew 5).  BUT, the same pastor would most likely struggle with counseling a beaten or emotionally abused woman to do the same thing.  Why?  Because with just a quick look at the New Testament, it appears that God would not support a woman leaving her husband on the grounds that he abused her.

Here’s the truth…as pastors who handle God’s Word, we do need to be careful, but that does not take away our responsibility to properly understand scripture.  Just recently I came across a wonderful resource in a man named David Instone-Brewer.  He has a ton of expertise regarding the Bible and is presently the senior research fellow in rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House in Cambridge.

Here is what I learned.  Jesus was speaking to first century Jewish culture and to truly understand how the Jews were understanding his instructions, we have to understand Jewish culture more thoroughly.

For instance, our present day traditional marriage vows (to love/honor/respect) are based upon the book of Exodus where God said that all people were due food/clothing/love in marriage and that if those basic needs were neglected, then those affected were able to obtain a divorce.

The Apostle Paul affirmed these teachings in 1 Corinthians 7 when he said that married couples owed each other love and material support.  He didn’t say that neglect of these needs was grounds for divorce, because he didn’t need to.  It was already clearly understood.

So what about abuse?  Divorce for abuse was also allowed because abuse is an extreme form of neglect.  First century Jews understood this and we need to understand it too and properly counsel broken and hurt people.

Jesus was clear about his mission in Matthew 5:17:

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Jesus didn’t come to do away with the Old Testament but to fulfill it.  In this case, Jesus came to give a proper perspective on divorce.  He confronted the false Jewish ideas about divorce that were prevalent in his time.  You see, there was a group of Jewish people that believed that the Old Testament allowed for divorce for “any cause.”  In other words, if for ANY reason a man wanted to divorce his wife, they believed it was ok.

Jesus said no and pointed back to the actual intent of the Old Testament law.

Let me be clear: divorce is not God’s best and should rarely happen. God wants reconciliation between us and him and between us and other people.  However, there are times when the option to divorce is scripturally acceptable.

1.  Adultery (in Deuteronomy 24 and Matthew 19)

2.  Emotional and Physical neglect (including abuse and abandonment) (Exodus 21 and 1 Corinthians 7)

May God be honored as we seek to follow him with out hearts and minds and may he liberate all whom suffer at the hands or from the words of their spouses.

Peace,

Neil

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24 Responses to “What the Bible REALLY says about domestic violence and divorce”

  1. Jamey April 24, 2009 at 4:35 am #

    Good article and one I hope many will read. Thanks for being a voice to women who have or are suffering from domestic violence.

    • Neil Schori April 24, 2009 at 2:22 pm #

      I’m honored to be able to stand up for women who are suffering at the hands of men who were called to sacrifice all for them but chose selfishness and evil instead.

      • chez February 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

        Thank you Neil. I am currently going through a divorce due to physical abuse from my husband who also has aspergers. he has also been emotionally abusive to me and the children but doesn’t recognise this and will always make excuses or just simply say he wasn’t being abusive. He lacks self awareness to know how he comes across which complicates things. He hasn’t shown any real repentance since it happened and has been telling me i need to repent and obey him then things would be okay! He is totally against divorce for any reasons (he follows David Pawson’s views) and is also radical and extreme about women in general ( women shouldn’t wear trousers, shouldn’t be in leadership etc). Very traditional views i guess. he is challenging the divorce (I think on religious grounds). Due to growing up in a Christian family (as my dad was a baptist minister) I have struggled with can Christians divorce for abuse and also with my christian legacy and i will be the first to divorce in our family, so I found this article very helpful and liberating as well as other books i have come across. I have also struggled with the judgmental attitudes some well meaning Christians have shown. Two lots of traditional missionary couples wrote to me to tell me God hates divorce and its a very serious thing to contemplate. I felt a bit insulted they thought i wouldn’t be taking it seriously although i know they meant well.
        Again thanks for your article. Its lovely to see Christian men taking a stand for this and showing true Christian leadership, being humble and treating women with love and respect. I respect men who treat people nicely.

      • Neil Schori February 25, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

        Cheryl~

        I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through! I will pray for you and your liberation from your suffering.

        Many well-meaning pastors give terrible advice to victims of abuse. I’m trying to educate them and help women get out of their situations into temporary safe havens.

        Please go to http://documenttheabuse.com for some great resources. Email me at neilschori@gmail.com with any questions you may have.

        Peace,

        Neil Schori

  2. delilah1234 April 24, 2009 at 2:46 pm #

    Thank you for doing the research and explaining this ever so important issue according to the teachings of the word. I’m sure there are many women who will hold on to this hope as they seek to safely escape the vice of abuse.

  3. Sara Huizenga Lubbers April 24, 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    Wow, I LOVE this article! Awesome, you are so spot on…

    It’s so true, this type of legalistic Christian banter is actually just stale OT laws incorrectly applied onto modern day life.

    I also completely enjoyed your guest spot on Susan Murphy Milano’s Show yesterday, you are incredibly inspiring, thank you for your presence.

  4. Anne Caroline Drake April 30, 2009 at 12:27 am #

    Bravo! You might be interested in Rev. Marie M. Fortune’s excellent book on this subject: KEEPING THE FAITH: GUIDANCE FOR CHRISTIAN WOMEN FACING ABUSE. She has more resources available via the Faith Trust Institute in Seattle, WA.

    Iyanla Vanzant’s books are also good resources for those seeking to put the pieces of their lives back together after abuse.

  5. Sarah Christensen July 8, 2009 at 10:32 pm #

    I am so happy you posted this. I went to a Christian College, and have attended church the last 8 years in an abusive relationship. I always felt there was no support from the Bible on the subject of abuse. However, I recently left the marriage, filed for divorce and I am starting an abuse shelter in my area. Your words will go a long way with many women. Thank you.

    • Neil Schori July 10, 2009 at 7:40 am #

      Sarah,

      I’m so happy that you got out of your marriage, but I’m very sorry for your heart-ache. There are a lot of ill-informed but well-meaning Christians out there who are offering terrible advice about marriage and divorce.

      God intends for husbands to lay down their lives for their wives. There is NO room for abuse in any marriage. Sarah, if you need any help with the shelter you are starting, let me know. I have some terrific resources!

  6. Barbara Roberts September 12, 2009 at 5:38 am #

    Your readers might also be interested in my book ‘Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion’. I rely on Instone-Brewer in some of my conclusions, but I have found additional scriptural support for divorce in cases of domestic abuse — more than what Brewer found.
    Thanks Neil for paying attention to the plight of victims of abuse!

  7. Rochelle November 10, 2009 at 5:40 am #

    I found some solid answers – thanks!

  8. Ernest Pablo November 12, 2009 at 6:20 am #

    Thank you for the unbiased writeup! I have an abusive wife and 2yr old son. It seems the Internet is filled with articles that seem interested in a certain agenda rather than helping us. I have been separated for a year and see no changes still. I recently filed my divorce thinking if I’m going to be damned, then I accept my fate if it means my son will grow up as normal as possible because I love him so much. Your article has definitely given me a place to start researching. Thanks again

    • Neil Schori November 12, 2009 at 8:36 am #

      Ernest,

      Thank you for your boldness to come out and show that men can be victims of abuse, too. I hope that your courage will give some freedom to other men hiding in shame. I will be praying for you and your little boy.

      I don’t believe for one second that God would have you stay with your wife. It would be detrimental to both you and your son, whom God gave you care of. Keep pursuing the truth, and I’ll pray that God gives you peace as you move forward with the rest of your life.

      Peace,

      Neil

  9. Jay B November 24, 2009 at 2:58 pm #

    I’ve been in conversation with some people recently on the issue of remarrying after a divorce. Matthew 19 says that if adultery was the cause of divorce then remarriage is okay, but that’s the only reason. But what about in the situation of spousal abuse? Is it really adultery for a woman who has been physically abused to remarry?

    • Neil Schori November 24, 2009 at 4:30 pm #

      Jay,

      After my investigation of scripture, I’ve come to believe that abuse was considered in the Old Testament and also by Jesus to be a reason for divorce. Because of that, a person who is abused would also be free to remarry, just as a victim of adultery would.

      I would encourage you to keep doing biblical research on the matter, and ask God for wisdom and discernment. I’m confident that He will give it to you!

      Neil

  10. Barbara Roberts November 24, 2009 at 10:31 pm #

    Dear Jay
    “Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion” will give you clearly argued reasons why that common reading of Matthew 19 is not correct. It took me three years to research and write it. I’d be very interested in your feedback if you read it, as I like to hear from readers about whether my book has helped them (or conversely, has left them with more questions). Sorry once again for using this blog as a bit of a promotion, but I just want to offer you help, Jay.

    • Jay B November 25, 2009 at 9:46 am #

      Barbara,

      Thanks for letting me know about the book, I may have to check it out. I’m not in a situation where either myself or wife is contemplating a divorce and there certainly isn’t abuse in my house, but when I get into conversation with people on the topic I like to be able to back up my view with scripture. It really bothers me when people interpret the Bible to treat women as second-class citizens, and drives me even more nuts when it’s women arguing for that interpretation! The idea that God would punish someone for being abused by disallowing a remarriage simply baffles me; he loves us, why would he further punish the abused by giving the abuser that power over them?

  11. Barbara Roberts November 25, 2009 at 4:42 pm #

    Great Jay. We need more men like you who are seeing it the way it is, and are willing to speak up for victims of abuse. (Not that all victims are male, as I know some are.)
    Barb

  12. Joe January 31, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    It’s interesting to see the crafty things that people do to convince themselves that God supports their wicked behaviors.

    There is no scriptural basis whatsoever what what is being stated in that article/blog post.

    God is crystal clear in His word about what He thinks about marriage and divorce.

    Why not be honest with yourselves and admit that you do not want to follow God’s clear teachings on marriage and divorce and that you want to do whatever you think is right in your own eyes? Why degrade yourselves even further by twisting God’s crystal clear words around?

  13. Sandy February 16, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    Domestic violence is not biblical grounds for divorce. We do not have permission to add to or take away from the Bible. 1 Corinthians 7 or Exodus 21 do not give permission for divorce under the circumstances of abuse. While we as humans wish that exception was in the bible it is not. I am not saying that women should be abused by any means. Colossians 3:19 states, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” (ESV)The ideal solution would separation, counseling, repentance, and reconciliation.

  14. Barbara Roberts February 16, 2010 at 11:06 pm #

    Dear Sandy and Joe,
    Have you read Instone Brewer’s book or my book (Not Under Bondage)? Or did you just write your comments from your existing preconceptions? It’s all to easy to dismiss others without hearing their arguments and carefully evaulating them.

    Neil Schori’s post is just a pointer to further reading, as is my comment above. I think a person needs to read the books for themselves before making a judgement.
    And Sandy, while I agree that ‘the ideal solution would be separation, counselling, repentance and reconciliation”, the fact is that in many cases this solution is not achievable. The abuser frequently fails to truly repent. Often the abuser makes an outward show of repentance (to fool the opposite spouse and the church leadership) but it isn’t true repentance so the abuse resurfaces. The question you have failed to address is: what can or should be done in such circumstances? If you say “Just keep trying” then you are condemning the victim/survivor to constantly re-exposing him or herself to the corroding, soul-destroying influences of the abuser.

  15. Joe February 26, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    This quote from a reviewer of the book says it all:

    “She points out that when Jesus spoke against divorce, he was talking of treacherous or frivolous divorce, not against divorce that had legitimate cause because the spouse had broken the marriage contract”

    It’s so very sad to see people degrade themselves by twisting Jesus’ clear teachings. I would hate to be in their shoes.

  16. Mavis Johnson July 12, 2015 at 8:06 pm #

    the bible is VERY clear about associating with those who are immoral or are abusers, and just because they happen to be our spouse doesn’t change that:

    1 Corinthians 5:9-13 New Living Translation (NLT)

    9 When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. 10 But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. 11 I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer[a] yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.

    the word “abusive” here, original greek word REVILER

    • Neil Schori July 21, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

      Love this, Mavis. So true and so simple, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing this!

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