Abuse and a Theology of Divorce

It’s a good thing when our theology informs our opinions on what makes positive social change. It’s not so good when our opinions on social change inform our theology. Case in point:  A few months ago, Sheila Gregoire put up a blog post arguing that abuse (very broadly defined) should not only be immediate warrant for Biblical divorce, but should be considered equal to or worse than adultery–one of the actual Biblical warrants for divorce.

The post contains the usual difficulties with this particular conversation, starting with the ever-expanding definition of abuse. Like rape, the term abuse gets a very real moral urgency from a particularly heinous act–a husband using his superior size and strength to leave his wife bruised, bloody, and battered. Also like rape, feminists like to borrow that moral urgency for a very wide range of tangentially related behaviors and attitudes they would like to extinguish. And so now, “abuse” can mean anything from broken bones to raised voices or joint finances. Indeed, many even contend that it’s not even objective behavior that’s definitive of abuse, but rather how the victim feels–that is, if a wife feels intimidated or controlled, the husband is ipso facto guilty of abuse.

As long as it’s so nebulous and expansive, the bare label “abuse” shouldn’t be treated as a warrant for anything so serious as divorce. And as long as ubiquitous conceptualizations of the label like the Duluth Model make biblical submission per se abusive, the bare label should never carry much weight in Biblical ethics in the first place.

Also present is the “we must protect women from abuse no matter what” attitude that tends to make dialog on this issue so difficult. It is, of course, not the goal that’s problematic, nor the fact that it naturally makes emotions run high–they should. Rather, the issue is the “no matter what” qualifier. It makes for successful activism because it gets stuff done. It’s also (ironically in this case) quite easy to abuse in the long run because it gets stuff done thoughtlessly. This is why the Duluth model ends up getting battered husbands arrested. It’s why people think it’s quite reasonable to divorce a faithful spouse over not putting their dishes in the sink–it’s basically like getting punched in the face, after all.

You can see this attitude on full display in Gregoire’s post as she condemns a theologian for being too slow to grant license to divorce. She even goes so far as to blame him for the deaths and beatings of those who did not immediately divorce as she highlights his lack of apology to them. And, of course, the same black brush tars everyone who hesitates to embrace her reasoning. Naturally, “If you don’t agree with me, you’re responsible for murder” isn’t exactly conducive to thoughtful discussion.

Nevertheless, the aspect of Gregoire’s argument that makes it so theologically problematic is a specific theological sleight of hand that seems to be popular among prominent women teachers. She writes:

I agree that the case that you can divorce for adultery is clearer in the Bible than that you can divorce for abuse. However, I think that when you read all of Scripture, you see God’s concern for the oppressed. You see God’s passion for justice and concern for the downtrodden. I don’t see how you can read all of Scripture and still believe that God wants women–or men–to endure abuse. That’s just not the heart of God.

That is how the game is played. Upon learning that one’s position isn’t found in the text of Scripture, you must instead presume to search God’s heart for it apart from what He’s actually said. Then, having established his attitudes and feelings mainly by projecting your own onto Him, you ask how someone with such attitudes and feelings would weigh in on the subject at hand. Amazingly enough, this method always discovers that God would say exactly what you yourself would say.

The problem with this method is, of course, that we’re not actually God. Our Lord has this unnerving tendency to do and say things that we would never, in a million years, choose to say or do. Surely a loving God would never damn anybody! But He clearly says He does. God would never commit atrocities! But He annihilated almost every living thing on the planet in a flood. Jesus would always be as winsome as possible because of His heart for the lost! But He drove away most of His followers by being offensive in John 6. God would never point out his most devoted follower to Satan and then give him permission to devastate the man’s property, slaughter his family, and afflict him with horrific disease! But the Book of Job exists. And, of course, if you query anybody in a pre-Christian society, they’d tell you that God would certainly never lower himself to become a human being and to die. It’s a senseless method when, in the end, God’s thoughts are simply higher than our thoughts.

That’s also why Gregoire’s utilitarian argument falls so flat. She points to a study indicating that the children of high conflict marriages have higher well-being scores after divorce. Even ignoring her failure to pass along the study’s definition of both “conflict” and “well-being,” what exactly does that prove? There are a myriad of circumstances in which God instructs people to do good despite the evil consequences that may result. God is by no means a utilitarian. There are many divorces that would be advantageous to someone in the household that are nevertheless prohibited.

To be sure, given the physical vulnerability of women and their tendency to undervalue chastity, it’s entirely understandable that many would rate abuse as worse than adultery. That doesn’t mean they get to project their opinion onto God. If you want to know God’s opinion on divorce, your only real option is to look at what He says in Scripture–precisely the instructions that Gregoire finds inadequate. If you want his opinion on adultery as compared to broadly-defined abuse, you’ll have to look at what He says in Scripture–precisely the instruction that Gregoire is dissatisfied with. You’ll find a whole lot about adultery. You’re not going to find much in support of the Duluth Model.

All that said, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed as well. What then for those women (and men) from whom Gregoire borrows her moral urgency–those who were murdered or beaten by their spouses? (Note that I’m not even using the term “abuse” here.) Well, they should most definitely get to safety first and then figure out the details of the long-term solution from that safe place.

Is it permissible for that long-term solution to include divorce? Yes. As it happens, I do think there’s merit in the argument that this kind of violence constitutes abandonment–I consider abandonment in terms of marriage’s primary responsibilities rather than in terms of mere physical proximity or of feeling abandoned. A husband is fundamentally responsible for protecting and providing for his wife’s bodily needs (1 Timothy 5:8), so actually assaulting her yourself is about as clear an abandonment of that responsibility as you can possibly get.

Of course, I suspect feminists aren’t going to like some of the other places that argument logically leads–I even hear them labeled as “abusive” sometimes. After all, sex is also a fundamental marital responsibility. Accordingly, perpetual refusal of physical intimacy would also be abandonment and make divorce permissible in some circumstances. Luther makes a similar case in The Estate of Marriage.  (And whoo boy is that 2nd paragraph triggering. Note that I do disagree with Luther on civil government’s role in the matter, though not on the gravity of the sin.)

The third case for divorce is that in which one of the parties deprives and avoids the other, refusing to fulfil the conjugal duty or to live with the other person. For example, one finds many a stubborn wife like that who will not give in, and who cares not a whit whether her husband falls into the sin of unchastity ten times over. Here it is time for the husband to say, “If you will not, another will; the maid will come if the wife will not.” Only first the husband should admonish and warn his wife two or three times, and let the situation be known to others so that her stubbornness becomes a matter of common knowledge and is rebuked before the congregation. If she still refuses, get rid of her; take an Esther and let Vashti go, as King Ahasuerus did [Esther 1:1 :17].

Here you should be guided by the words of St. Paul, I Corinthians 7 [:4-5], “The husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does; likewise the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does. Do not deprive each other, except by agreement,” etc. Notice that St. Paul forbids either party to deprive the other, for by the marriage vow each submits his body to the other in conjugal duty. When one resists the other and refuses the conjugal duty she is robbing the other of the body she had bestowed upon him. This is really contrary to marriage, and dissolves the marriage. For this reason the civil government must compel the wife, or put her to death. If the government fails to act, the husband must reason that his wife has been stolen away and slain by robbers; he must seek another. We would certainly have to accept it if someone’s life were taken from him. Why then should we not also accept it if a wife steals herself away from her husband, or is stolen away by others?

Could this same kind of reasoning extend to include violent assault as a dissolution of the marriage? Absolutely. That is why I’m not in any way inclined to condemn men and women who divorced because they were being assaulted or to dissuade those who are currently in peril from divorcing in self-defense.

Could this kind of reasoning extend to every other pattern of behavior that fits under the ever-expanding umbrella of “abuse”? By no means. Some might be covered, but most probably aren’t. Jesus was quite clear that divorce is typically a matter of hard-heartedness. Complaints like “he yelled at me”, “he doesn’t do enough housework,” “he’s too controlling,” or the myriad of others I routinely see described as “abuse” are merely excuses. Filing your marital grievances under “abuse” and then, as Gregoire recommends, avoiding any pastor, elder, or counselor who might actually challenge your conclusion is no blanket permission for divorce.

I get why women want that blanket permission. I get that there are times when one needs to act instead of overthinking the matter. I get that anybody would want to give battered women a clear and easy road to relief which no one is allowed to second-guess. I get that when people like Gregoire talk about “abuse,” they’re usually visualizing those women in particular. The routinely overlooked problem, unfortunately, is all the women who feel entitled to hitch a ride with them simply because they’re unhappy–and who consequently leave all manner of their own victims in their wake.

Our divorce culture is far more abusive than some of the things that are routinely labeled abuse these days. (“intimidation” and “control” certainly come to mind when a spouse has police enforce when you’re allowed to see you children, how your income is allotted, who your property belongs to, and so forth.) That’s why Christians can’t just accept “abuse” as an incantation that banishes all moral obstacles to divorce–not even if it’s super-effective at helping the one specific class of victims you want to focus on as you pretend all the others are merely hypothetical. Thoughtfulness is naturally a source of constant frustration for activists, but one can’t just expect the rest of us to abandon it.

It is truly a terrible thing to sever oneself from one’s spouse, just as it’s a terrible thing to sever one of your own limbs. But in each case, there are terrible times when it must be done. If our culture actually treated divorce according to that gravity rather than our habit of wallowing in our Eat, Pray, Love empowerment fantasies, this question wouldn’t be so hard to discuss in the first place.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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5 Responses to Abuse and a Theology of Divorce

  1. Paul says:

    Do not underestimate the impact of the American divorce culture. It’s appalling how the covenant of marriage is downtrodden. In my opinion it can be traced back to the usurpation of the institute of marriage by the state, whereas marriage is instituted by God at creation. If government can define marriage, it should not have come as a surprise that the same government can define how it ends, enter no-fault divorce. Many churches have not only been fooled into following government’s definition of marriage, but have actually pursued for the government to take over regulation of marriage.

    I do not believe in any valid ground for divorce for a Christian, as Christians are bound by the command of the Lord Himself: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”

    As for “abuse”; if there’s real and immanent danger, people’s safety should come first. Similarly, the church should address such sinful behavior of their members. And people should work to improve their marriage. But Christians should learn what it means to forgive their brother (or sister) 7 times 70. It’s very telling how the apostle Peter addresses how wives of unbelieving husbands should act towards them in 1 Pet 3.

  2. Matt says:

    I absolutely agree about the impact of divorce culture. And yes, our understanding has unfortunately changed from government regulating the universal institution of marriage to government defining its own kind of social pairing that it calls “marriage”. However, I don’t think government can be marriage-blind. It has to recognize it to some extent, which means it has to interact with it and regulate it to some extent as a matter of practicality.

    If I were to trace our divorce culture back to a single thing, I would probably choose romanticism. The broader over-emphasis on emotion and individualism as the defining characteristics of human authenticity colored how we see marriage as well. Today, most people only see a marriage as “real” and therefore binding if there’s sufficient emotion behind it for both individuals. Otherwise, it’s “just a piece of paper.” It’s a terrible way of viewing the institution.

    Out of curiosity, what do you do with the Biblical exceptions for divorce for abandonment & adultery?

  3. Paul says:

    Hi Matt,

    A bit late maybe, but here it goes.

    “Out of curiosity, what do you do with the Biblical exceptions for divorce for abandonment & adultery?”

    Short answer: I don’t think there are any exceptions.

    Long answer: For Christians we’re called by a command of the Lord (1 Cor 7:10-11) to not divorce, and if we’re separated, to stay alone or reconcile. If a Christian has an unbelieving spouse who’s willing to live with them, they should also not divorce. In Mat 19 and other gospels Jesus confirms that what God has joined together, no one should separate. The “famous exception” in Mat 19 is theologically discussed, and I don’t think it’s a clear allowance for divorce for Christians. And for Mat 5, that is talking about an exception in CAUSING adultery, not an exception to allow divorce. This is further aligned with the texts of the other gospels, which do not list any exception at all. Furthermore, I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer from the proponents of the allowance for divorce in case of adultery; how can it be that marriage after divorce is called adultery itself? Going back to the OT kind of misses the point how radically different the teaching of Jesus is.

    • B. Gordon says:

      Hi Paul,

      Divorce (not what modern people mean when they say “divorce”) is allowed for adultery only. Remarriage (if the marriage is valid) isn’t allowed for any reason. There is no exception – if you are divorced (“separated” as we moderns like to put it) you are still married and can’t have a 2nd wife.

      This was clear among the early Christians. The only controversy was whether a Christian man was REQUIRED to separate from his wife if she is adulterous.

      Christ restored marriage to its original state – marriage is for life no matter how bad your spouse is – that goes for husbands and wives.

      Summary: separation allowed, remarriage not allowed. Neither the act of adultery, acts of abuse nor the human will ends marriage.

      • Paul says:

        On what basis do you state that “divorce, not modern” is allowed for adultery only? I can’t find a single NT text supporting that.

        The closest that comes to mind would be Mat 19:9, which is not only often mistranslated, but for which the original manuscript most certainly NOT had the phrase “except” in “except for fornication”. Furthermore the “fornication” (porneia) used there is something different from “adultery” (moicheia) in the same sentence. Adultery was punishable by death under Mosaic Law. Separation didn’t cut it.

        I do subscribe to your other statements, although I’m not sure about the extend of separation.

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