Marriage has been a very special part of individual’s lives throughout history. There are many different views on marriage. Some see it as a civil contract whereas others see it as a divine institution. Some hold the marriage relationship to a very high standard and hope to stay in one marriage until death, but others enter marriage with divorce being an option if things do not work out. Rather one sees marriage as a civil or divine institution, both agree that the marriage can dissolve with help from the law of the state. The difference each view has is what one should use in deciding if a divorce should happen. As Christians, marriage has been seen as a covenant made between man and woman before God. With this view, most believe that this covenant should not be broken unless permitted by God in scripture. This becomes a problem because many argue what scripture deems as permissible and impermissible reasons for divorce. Divorce is the dissolution of a marriage by the state and more and more people today are filing for divorce. The United States has had the highest divorce rate in the world ever since 1889. The reasons for a biblically permissible divorce have changed throughout histories and denominations of Christianity. According to Rev. Delk, “Seven main causes… now stimulate the demand for divorce. Adultery, cruelty, desertion, drunkenness, neglect to provide, combinations of preceding causes, conviction of felony, impotency, insanity, incompatibility of temper, and other causes are legal grounds in many states…. relation, the most intimate and sacred of all time” (Divorce and Social Welfare). The argument among Christians is which of these reasons are found to be acceptable in scripture. Most biblical scholars would argue that divorce is allowed in the case of adultery, but after that it varies. One debated reason for divorce is domestic violence. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, domestic violence (also known as intimate partner violence) is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship. Domestic violence is a terrible crime that no spouse should have to endure. Based on scriptural understanding and research done on biblically permitted reasons for divorce, domestic violence is a permitted reason.
Domestic violence does not discriminate on gender, economic status, religion, age, race, etc. There are many different forms of domestic violence. Sexual, physical, emotional, financial, verbal, and economic abuse are a few of the possible ways domestic violence can be displayed. Heather Flory in, “’I Promise to Love, Honor, Obey… and Not Divorce You’: Covenant Marriage and the Backlash Against No-Fault Divorce” has found that “national probability samples estimate that 25-30 percent of women and 8 percent of men will experience violence at the hands of a spouse or partner at some point in their lives”. This goes to show that many are facing the problem of domestic violence. Abusers hope to gain control and power over their spouse and use abuse to do this. False assumption has often been made among Christians that intimate partner violence only occurs in non-Christian households. This has not been found true. Although statistics can be hard to find since many who are experiencing abuse will not admit in surveys, it is thought that there are many in the church experiencing abuse. Many times religion has been used as an excuse for husbands to abuse their wife by twisting scripture and its call for wives to submit to their husbands. Daphne Majapie Madiba explained how religion has been used to harm women, “Religion has had a detrimental effect on women worldwide. Used to excuse the prejudicial treatment of women, to degrade them and restrict them to endless childbearing and drudgery. Perpetuated inequalities among men. Nowhere have misinterpretations and biases in the name of religion been more vigorously applied than in the case of women” (Domestic Violence in Christian Homes: A Durban Case Study). While this has been seen to be very true, it also has been seen to be true that religion has often been what has given women hope and freedom. Victims of domestic violence have clung to the hope that Jesus offers them and used this hope to be free of their ongoing abuse. While Christian marriages also experience abuse, many experience high quality and success in marriage which is thought to be due to their religious devotion and accurate interpretation of scripture. It is important that Christians can accurately interpret scripture so that any victim of domestic abuse can be liberated rather than oppressed. Church leadership should be sure to voice that abuse is never okay and offer help to those who need it.
If one has grown up in church or been attending church regularly for some time, then it is probable that they have heard that adultery is a biblically permissible reason for divorce, and they may have even heard that if one’s spouse leaves them then that is permissible as well. It is less probable, however, that they have heard, rather or not domestic violence is seen as biblically permissible. According to Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, adultery is the only mentioned reason for divorce, so one can see why adultery has often been discussed as an accepted reason for divorce among Christians. In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul discusses how if one’s spouse is an unbeliever and that unbelieving spouse leaves them then this is an acceptable divorce. This verse has led many to believe that desertion is another biblically permissible reason for divorce. According to scripture, adultery and desertion are both acceptable reasons for divorce. Domestic violence is not mentioned in scripture as a reason for divorce, but in “The Church and Divorce” by Professor James W. Richard, D.D. he states the question, “Is not an incurably, brutishly inebriate husband a deserter of his wife?” This statement brings forth the interpretation that in 1 Corinthians 5:17, an abuser could be considered a deserter which would allow for divorce in an abusive marriage. Even though the abuser has not physically left the spouse, they have failed to give them “conjugal rights” as 1 Corinthians 7:3 (ESV) demands. The word “separates” in Greek is “chorizo” meaning to dissociate one’s self, to part, to withdraw. (Step Bible) When one is abusing their spouse, they are withdrawing from how the marriage union should be, so they too are a deserter. The idea that an abusive spouse can be seen as a deserter allows for the biblical permission that many Christian victims of abuse are looking for in order to get a divorce.
An interesting viewpoint of why domestic violence is a biblically permissible reason for divorce is in the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 19:3-9, Matt 5:31, Mark 10:2-12, and Luke 16:8. Many scholars have pointed out that only in Matthew is sexual immorality listed as a reason for divorce. This begs the question on rather or not Jesus said this or Matthew inserted it. Rev. Edwin Delk, D.D. in, “The Biblical Teaching Concerning Divorce” stated that Matthew inserted this exception. Regardless on rather this is true, Delk points out that “Jesus dealt with great principles, not with rules of conduct. He is not a legislator, but a great ethical and religious teacher”. With this idea, one can take away that Jesus did not have a set of rules regarding what is an acceptable divorce and what is not. Instead, he taught on principle. He was concerned with the principle that one should regard love for the well-being of each human in how they treat them. According to Delk, “Every broken marriage is a violation of the fundamental law of man’s being of that which the one principle of regard for human well-being”. Since humans are sinful and broken people, there is no one on earth that has a high enough morality and wisdom to determine legal grounds of divorce, so Christians must use Jesus’ principles to help guide them in these decisions. Since abusing one’s spouse does not hold love and human well-being as a principle as Jesus taught then it can be a biblically permissible reason for divorce.
Some may argue that the deserter mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7:15 is an unbeliever which is what allows for the divorce, so in the case of an abusive believer the victim should not divorce their spouse. While the abuser may claim to be a believer, Barbara Roberts in her book, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery, and Desertion, claims that “no one could be a true Christian and engage in months/years/decades of coercive control and cruelty towards their spouse”. Her claim is correct, and she points out that Christians are called to put out hypocritical Christians from the church (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). This allows for the divorce to continue to take place with biblical permission because the abuser is an unbeliever who has deserted their spouse. There are other arguments that one should not divorce their abusive spouse because of the call in Ephesians 5 for wives to submit to their husbands. Some have taken this to account for abuse. They argue that a woman should not divorce their husband since they are supposed to do whatever the husband says which leads to a life of living in a controlled and violent home. For one to take this stance they are twisting scripture to fulfill their own desires which is never okay. In the same chapter, it discusses that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies… For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church”. For a husband to demand their wife to submit to them whatever way they request and then to hurt her body he is not living out the entirety of this passage. They are contradicting themselves and showing themselves to be hypocrites. One must study scripture, so that they can recognize that scripture does not support abuse in a marriage and that God’s call to love frees them of any such abuse in their marriage.
With marriage being such an important aspect in the majority of Christian household’s and divorce being so prevalent in today’s society, it is not surprising that many struggle to know what reasons for divorce are biblically permissible and which ones are not. One might assume that every Christian would believe that a divorce due to domestic violence would be biblically permissible, but sadly many find themselves staying in this violent marriage because they believe it would be sinful to leave. It is important that people of leadership in the church are knowledgeable in scripture and how it regards to domestic violence. Once they are knowledgeable on this, they should speak out on the issue of abuse so that more victims can be freed. There are many places in scripture, many of which were discussed earlier, one can turn to in order to speak out on this. Marriage was created as a beautiful covenant between two people who love each other, but sadly human brokenness has caused it to, if not careful, become a scary and violent relationship that many find themselves in. There is hope, however, that one does not have to stay in this situation forever because there are findings in scripture that allow them to leave. While divorce is biblically permissible in situations of domestic violence there are stories of marriages that have found redemption and been able to have a safe and loving marriage. When one puts Jesus Christ as Lord over their life then it allows for redemption to take place regardless of how hard it may seem. One must use the principles that Jesus taught and wisdom from Godly council in deciding what direction they should go for their marriage, but no one should remain in a marriage environment where they are putting their life, their family’s life, and potentially society in harms way.