(I wrote this article in 2019 on Medium)
The topic of divorce is always a hot button issue in the church. In general, Christians know that God hates divorce. This comes from Malachi 2:16 and is the “go-to” Scripture reference when pastors are dealing with a married couple in their congregation struggling through marriage, or when Christians are helping another brother or sister endure difficult seasons of life in marriage. In general, the church has promoted only two legitimate reasons for divorce, infidelity (Matt 5:32; 19:9), and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (1 Cor 7:15).
However, at the recent Evangelical Theological Society meeting, held in San Diego on November 21–23, Wayne Grudem, a professor, theologian, scholar, and author added a third reason, abuse, which seemed to cause a stir among those attending his presentation, of which I was in attendance. When he opened up the floor for discussion, just about every man who raised his hand to comment seemed to assume that Grudem was “opening up Pandora’s box to divorce culture.” I am not entirely sure they understood the magnitude of what Grudem was suggesting, but a Pandora’s box of divorce culture was not it.
In the outline he handed out, Grudem wrote that in 2018, he affirmed the only two reasons that the church historically has used to allow divorce, in so far as quoting the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 24, paragraph 6, where it states:
“nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.”
Grudem suggested that for issues of abuse, protection was to be provided, church discipline implemented, and possible separation, but divorce was still not recommended. He wrote that he could not see abuse in the Bible passage that references “desertion,” specifically 1 Cor 7:15.
However, he admits that in 2018 and 2019, he had an increasing conviction to re-examine the issue of divorce, specifically as a means of self-protection from abuse, prompted by “several horrible real-life situations,” which led him to believe that “this cannot be the kind of life that God intends for his children where there is an alternative available.”
Grudem offered that he was not wholly persuaded by the “abuse is one kind of desertion” argument because he could not see it as something Paul intended to mean when he spoke of the abuser as the subject of the verb χωρίζω (to separate), which would denote the abuser as the one who leaves the marriage.
Most often, the abused, not the abuser, is the one who wants to leave the marriage, which makes Grudem’s hesitancy valid. In using the desertion argument, when applied specifically to the abuser as a legitimate reason to end a marriage, this makes no sense, unless the unbelieving abuser actually does seek to leave the marriage.
In reality, abusers rarely want out of the relationship in which they can exert a certain degree of power or control. Furthermore, statistics show that domestic violence victims do not seek to leave their abusive relationship at the first red flag they encounter. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, on average, the abused will contemplate or plan to leave their abuser seven times before she actually does leave the relationship for good. Until she finally has the courage to not go back to her abuser, she will struggle through various emotional and mental obstacles that will prevent her from seeing the abuse for what it is. This statistic is a well-known reality for domestic violence counselors who are helping those in abusive relationships.
Grudem suggests what he calls “a more promising” type of argument that focuses on the phrase, “in such cases” in 1 Cor 7:15. What is most interesting is that this particular phrase is very unique to the New Testament, which is paramount for understanding its use by Paul to the Corinthian church.
When I bumped into Grudem the day after his presentation, I let him know how much his talk meant to me because I counsel women who are in abusive relationships, but that is not why his outline brought me to tears. What I did not tell him was that I had endured my own abusive marriage.
My DV Story
God chose to save me a few months after I walked away from a military career, and an emotionally and physically abusive ex-husband. At the end of 2003, I left Wiesbaden, Germany and a potential re-deployment to Kuwait and moved back to a small college town in New Mexico; leaving behind Army life and a husband who, “to prove his love for me,” wrapped his hands around my neck one too many times.
He showed this kind of love more than once before we found ourselves stationed in Germany. The first incident happened in my office after my fellow soldier and civilian co-workers went to lunch. He started accusing me of being flirtatious because he thought I was too friendly doing my job of issuing military i.d. cards to other soldiers and their family members. When I tried to convince him that he was wrong, he pinned me to the wall and began choking me, to the point that my feet left the floor, asking me, “Don’t you know how much I love you?”
The second “love gesture” occurred a few weeks later, at our military housing unit, with children in the house. I decided to move out.
Since physically abusive spouses often use emotional manipulation to win back their partner, I found myself feeling guilty for breaking up my family, and “keeping his daughter away from him,” his words. During our six month separation, he received orders to transfer to Germany. Due to our physical separation, the Army would not have given me orders to follow him unless we reconciled. Hesitantly, I agreed to get back together. I received orders to follow him to Germany and promised myself that I would be a better wife. I wanted to believe that if only I trusted him more when he stayed out till the early morning hours when he went to strip clubs with his friends, if I gave him permission to freely watch porn, if I made sure I never smiled or came off too friendly at any male co-worker, and if I didn’t freak out when he had phone numbers from other women, surely our marriage would improve.
A month after we arrived in Germany, we both received deployment orders with our respective units. We soon found ourselves working on our marriage at a pop-up camp in Kuwait as we waited to push into Iraq. The emotional abuse continued even though the physical abuse was temporarily on hold because we lived and slept with our units in different parts of the camp. On top of the stress of being part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I began to have frequent debilitating panic attacks after one particular scare because of the daily incoming scud missiles. I was eventually medevac-ed back to Germany because I was unable to function or do my job. Once my husband found out, he pulled some strings and was allowed to accompany me back to Germany.
It did not take long for his hands to find themselves around my neck again. This time it happened in the middle of the night when he woke me out of slumber with our two-year-old sleeping next to me. He spat out accusations that I was cheating on him. In spite of gasping for air, I was able to convince him to loosen the grip from around my neck by pleading, “don’t wake the baby.”
I called the military police the next day and was counseled about the ramifications of ruining my husband’s military career if I pursued consequences for his abuse. He agreed to move out of our off base military housing, and I began to seriously question what it would look like to leave him permanently. I didn’t want to be a single parent in the Army, knowing that it came with extra challenges, so I made a heavy-hearted, but necessary choice to leave the military.
Toward the end of 2003, I was back in New Mexico and began attending a church. By Easter 2004, the LORD gave me a new heart. Still separated, I began to wrestle with the idea of divorce. As a new Christian, a new believer, I sought out Christian resources to help me think about divorce. If God had not given me a new heart to obey His word, I would not have wrestled so intensely with whether or not I should stay in that abusive marriage, and I seriously questioned if God was going to be “ok” if I left it permanently.
About six weeks after God saved me, my husband flew in from Germany, promising to be a better husband. I didn’t feel convinced that things were going to change. He stayed for a couple of days, expecting that I would stay with him in his hotel room, but I refused. I didn’t know what he was doing back in Germany. Specifically, I didn’t feel confident that he had been faithful during our eight-month separation. I did let him see our daughter, but his anger became evident that he was no longer able to manipulate me, so he cut his trip short and flew back to Germany. Within a month, I received divorce papers. He stated that since I did not have sex with him during his visit, there was no point in staying married.
Those divorce papers were a gift. Since I was a new Christian, I was afraid of disobeying the Word of God. I did not feel confident or comfortable as a new believer to attempt to begin taking God’s Word flippantly after salvation. I had been praying to God for clarity on how to proceed with my marriage. Even though I knew that I did not feel safe in that marriage, emotionally or physically, and even though my theology was new and my Bible interpretive skills weak, I knew obedience to God’s Word was important. If God said that He hated divorce, then that meant I should hate divorce too and avoid it all costs.
Furthermore, being a brand new Christian, I didn’t know the value of being plugged into a local church, so I did not seek church counsel. However, in hindsight, I am sure that had I allowed them into “my business,” I am confident that they would have encouraged me to stay in the marriage, regardless of the abuse that had occurred, because saving a marriage is what churches historically have made a priority.
Since the Christian resources I came across online told me that the only two viable options for divorce were adultery and abandonment, I didn’t know where I stood.
I had always speculated that there was adultery in my first marriage but did not have evidentiary proof. When one does not have a Biblical view of the significance of sexual fidelity, it is easy to overlook this aspect of marriage, which I did since I could not prove that he committed adultery, though all the signs were there. I made myself believe I was just paranoid or imagining things.
An abusive spouse has a way of making the victim spouse feel as if they are “going crazy” when the abuser does not exhibit behavior that honors the marriage, especially when the victim spouse questions the dishonorable behavior. Emotional and mental manipulation are tricky coercion tactics that negate the abusing spouse from any accountability. The abused spouse is left feeling as if they are losing their mind, imagining things, or they are accused of being extremely insecure, meaning the abused spouse begins to feel as if they are the only one with the problem. Abused spouses will often be accused of being crazy because they question things in the marriage that does not feel right.
Since I was the one that left the marriage due to the abuse, I felt that the abandonment reason in 1 Cor 7:15 did not apply to me. I honestly did not know how to think about divorce as a new believer when there was abuse in the picture, and I grew fearful that God was going to regret saving me if I was the one that pursued divorce first.
Thankfully, my theology and understanding of the Gospel has matured since conversion. However, knowing that God sought me and saved me when I was in the middle of a marital separation due to abuse, I would still pause and ask myself, “Should I have tried harder in that first marriage?”, specifically when the topic of divorce came up among Christians. When the only two reasons that divorce was considered acceptable were reinforced, I tended to doubt leaving that first marriage.
I often must convince myself that I am not a second class citizen in God’s kingdom because divorce is part of my history. God was not oblivious to the physical, emotional, and mental abuse that had occurred in my first marriage and the subsequent separation that I was in when He chose to give me new life in Christ. He saved me in spite of that abusive marriage, not for the glory of that marriage, but for His glory alone.
Women in abusive relationships are often not looking for an “easy out,” regardless if they are believers who attend church or not. Unfortunately, there has been a misconception that if the church validates abuse as a legitimate reason to leave a marriage, somehow, this is promoting divorce culture.
It is not.
Sarah M. Buel, a former domestic violence victim and single parent, turned lawyer, who founded the Harvard Battered Women’s Advocacy Project in 1990 has spent the majority of her life providing services and advocacy to domestic violence survivors through various venues and platforms. She wrote a still-relevant article in 1999 for the Journal of Colorado Lawyer, where she outlined 50 reasons why victims stay in abusive relationships.
These 50 timeless reasons still apply today, 20 years later, and are referenced frequently. Women who are in abusive relationships stay because the ties that keep them in these relationships are complex. This means that historically, those in abusive relationships are not quick to leave their relationship. The notion that divorce culture is promoted by the church if they accept abuse as a legitimate reason to divorce is, historically and statistically, a farce. It’s just not true.
This is why Grudem’s outline brought me to tears. As a new believer, I never wanted to disobey Scripture. Now, as a 15-year Christ-follower, who has a little more depth to her theology, I presently never want to counsel other women who are suffering in abusive marriages to take the potential dissolution of their marriages flippantly. Most women who come to me for counseling do not want to end their marriages. They just want the abuse, in all the forms that it can come in, to end.
1 Cor 7:15 says, but if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases, the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.
In Grudem’s outline, he cited several extra-biblical examples for the phrase “in such cases.” In his presentation, he shared that he found over 600 references by which one can compare the usage of the phrase “in such cases,” but for the sake of time, he singled out 52 examples for deeper examination. He wanted to find the answers to these questions:
· Does “in such cases” mean only in the particular case of desertion by an unbeliever? OR
· Does “in such cases” mean any cases that have similarly destroyed their marriage?
Grudem writes, “if Paul had meant to refer only to desertion, he would have used another option to express this, specifically “in this case,” which would point to a singular example for dissolving the marriage, the unbelieving spouse leaving. However, Paul invokes a plural sense, meaning abandonment or desertion is one of other kinds of reasons that could potentially destroy a marriage. This seemingly insignificant exegetical exposition of 1 Corinthians 7:15, which broadens the scope of this passage, has the potential to give freedom to so many women who want to obey Scripture because they love their LORD, but who also want an option to leave a marriage if the abusing spouse does not change.
When the victim spouse is forced to seek safety from their abusing spouse, it is the abuser that caused the separation, not the abused. The abused is also not bound, or rather, enslaved to their abusing spouse. Furthermore, if God is calling those in marriage to peace, ongoing abuse in a marriage relationship is far from peaceful. When there is abuse between husband and wife, the marriage feels more like a continual battlefield, with peace nowhere to be found.
Most importantly, when abuse occurs in marriage, God is never glorified.