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Some Christians teach that it is acceptable to divorce a physically abusive spouse. Some would even say that someone in that situation should do so. What is the Biblical basis for this?

Society would generally say that the sane response would be to divorce an abusive spouse. I'm trying to find scriptural support for this, but the only related verses I can find say "Do not divorce" or "If you divorce and remarry, it's adultery."

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    If it were a pastoral advice question, it would be off topic! Excellent first question and welcome to Christianity.SE! As a new user, it would be a good idea to read this post on what this site is for, it will probably come in handy in the future. – Reluctant_Linux_User Dec 12 '14 at 14:49
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Some Christians would say that the abusiveness of the husband is proof that he is not a Christian, and the wife is therefore able to divorce him based on Paul's words in 1st Corinthians 7.

The key point is in bold.

1 Corinthians 7:10-15 ESV To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 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.

This is a hotly contested passage in Christendom and there are varying interpretations of what Paul is trying to say, but what is clear is that if a Christian and non-Christian are married and the non-Christian wishes to divorce, the Christian is no longer bound to that person. But, can the Christian initiate the divorce even though Paul's example is about the non-Christian initiating it? If the non-believing spouse claims to be a Christian, can one deduce that is their fruits (i.e, actions) that confirm their Christianity and not them merely stating so?

Those that believe you can divorce a sexually faithful yet abusive spouse would answer both questions with "Yes." This is, I believe, a more liberal interpretation of this passage. Those that hold this view are forced to create a standard by which a spouse's actions needs to be compared to in order to determine their "true" Christianity. What about non-physical abuse, anger, or lack of love? Going down this slope to an extreme could lead one to create a trump card out of most any spousal imperfection and use it to justify divorce for petty (selfish) reasons.

Fortunately, God doesn't work in technicalities ☺. He knows the heart of every divorce initiator and which ones were truly "valid" or not.

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The Bible does not give a lot on marriage, nor does it give a lot on divorce. In the book of Matthew Jesus gives us an idea of what God feels about the sanctity of marriage:

Matthew 19:3 through 9 NKJV The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

Verse nine is often quoted even by some Christians as Jesus giving permission to divorce in cases of sex outside the marriage by a married person, including both fornication and adultery. Others such as myself read these Scriptures differently, in our understanding it only means that in the beginning of time if a spouse has not committed fornication are does not commit adultery during the marriage a divorce they then cause the spouse to commit adultery.

Whatever the case in verse nine, it is apparent that God never intended that a married couple should ever be divided again since they have become one person. That would appear to be the reason for Jesus saying, “that which God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

All of that having been said; neither I nor do I believe any other Christian believes that anyone should remain in an abusive relationship. A Christian should make every effort to marry another Christian. This being true abuse of another should never even be contemplated by a Christian.

The apostle Paul warned about just this sort of situation in:

2nd Corinthians 6:14 through 18 NKJV Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what and how he is not hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.

As a final thought:

1st Corinthians 7:10 through 16 NKJV And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. *For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? *

To my way of thinking and as well as I can understand the heart of God, the correct approach to an abusive relationship; is to not to divorce but instead every effort should be made to save the unruly spouse. It does not seem to coincide with the nature of God for a person to remain in an abusive relationship, however; it also seems apparent that once God has joined a couple in marriage it was his intent that they should remain married throughout the physical life.

The world seems to have reduced marriage to a basal uniting under man's law. The institution of marriage is not of man; it is of God:

Genesis 2:18 NKJV And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

According to this Scripture we can only deduce that God intended for man and wife to go through life as equal partners, and seeking a common path which will strengthen and cement their oneness:

Genesis 2:21 through 24 NKJV And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

We need to remember that God, took a rib from Adam to make Eve; and after having formed Eve he did not breathed the breath of life into her body. The reason for this in my estimation is that life already existed in the rib, and so there was already life in Eve; and that was a shared life with Adam. It therefore seems logical that when God says that they become one flesh this is what he is talking about.

From my understanding of the heart of God, it was his intent and that marriage become a unit between and man and a woman in order that the following Scriptures might be fulfilled:

Genesis 1:27 and 28 NKJV So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Therefore marriage as instituted by God should be irrevocable, and yet at the same time all loving God would not expect anyone to subject themselves to abuse just to keep the marriage; while at the same time as it does not appear that God would condone any divorce. And yet if we take into consideration what Paul wrote it would seem to apply to this situation, and the two should separate until they are both living godly lives.

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Scripture Allows Separation
This is for the purpose of conviction, repentance, time to test the fruit of repentance, reestablishing trustworthiness all by the abuser. The ultimate goal is reconciliation. This is similar to the process some spouses work through if the partner has committed adultery. Of course in the case of adultery, which separated physical abusers may commit, divorce is clearly permitted. The primary distinction between separation and full divorce is the intent and hope for repentance by the abuser.

Biblical Support

In the context of this question, the general Biblical principle "Avoid angry men" conflicts with "Do not divorce". Avoid angry men, has multiple supports in the Scripture. Proverbs "22:3 The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it." ... "Do not associate with a man given to anger; Or go with a hot-tempered man, Or you will learn his ways And find a snare for yourself" http://biblehub.com/proverbs/22.htm In addition, the direct commands to get rid of anger, Colossion 3:8, Ephesians 4:31, might even be interpreted to repeat or reinforce 22:3 meaning "avoid angry men". Also, Christ avoided the murderous Pharisees until the appointed time.

The idea of Scripture allowing separation in the context of physical abuse follows from the principle of "If Scripture does not address an issue directly, there is freedom." This is similar to "In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty" (paraphrase of Chuck Swindoll but not original with him), http://www.insight.org/about/chuck-swindoll.html?ga=topnav-about-L2)

Other support Separation as a Means of Reconciliation in Abusive Relationships has several Biblical supports.
Catholic Doctrine Allowing Separation See FMS's response.

  • Please edit this to quote the Bible, or else it can hardly count as a Biblical basis, can it? – curiousdannii May 6 '15 at 9:27
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    The truth is Scripture does not directly address physical abuse in a marriage directly. Much less directly address divorce in such situations. If you've got a better resolution to the conflicting commands, I'm all ears. Feel free to edit for formatting, but be very careful editing for style or substance unless it's to add Biblical support. @Curiousdannii Is this sufficient Biblical support? – nickalh May 6 '15 at 10:12
  • Separation is not the same as divorce, so I'm not sure this answer really addresses the question. Also, the linked Schlender article, while well-intentioned, contains some bad advice for people in an abusive relationship. For example, couples counseling is not a good idea when there is abuse in the relationship. See Why We Don't Recommend Couples Counseling for Abusive Relationships. – Lee Woofenden May 8 '15 at 15:48
  • God's desire is for marriages full of honor and love, not divorce. The other answers deal effectively with the direct question "Is divorce permitted?" but don't support God's love and protection for the wife strongly enough. Let's try the first paragraph again. "[Separation] is for the purpose of conviction, repentance, time to test the fruit of repentance, reestablishing trustworthiness all by the abuser. The ultimate goal is reconciliation [not divorce]. ... The primary distinction between separation[allowed] and full divorce[not allowed] is intent and hope for repentance by the abuser." – nickalh May 8 '15 at 17:23
  • @nickalh I understand. However, statistically very few abusive men actually do repent and become non-abusive, and remaining married to an abusive man can endanger a woman's life. But if you want to continue to discuss the issue we should do it in a chatroom, not in the comments, or the gods of Christianity.SE will wax wrathful! – Lee Woofenden May 8 '15 at 19:15
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The Bible on divorce in the case of spousal abuse

If you are looking for clear and direct statements in the Bible allowing for divorce in the case of spousal abuse, that is going to be difficult if not impossible. The Bible was written in cultures that accepted a husband's right to discipline (read: "beat") his wife as he saw fit. Spousal abuse as we define it today was not seen as cause for divorce in the cultures of the Bible. For those Christians who read the Bible very literally, it is hard to put together a convincing case for divorce in the case of spousal abuse based on the Bible alone.

However, for those Christians who are willing to read the Bible more broadly and less literally, a case can be made based on a broader biblical definition of the words "fornication" and "adultery."

Relevant statements based on a literal interpretation of the Bible

Since the Bible was written in a very different time and culture than that of today, it is hard to draw a straight line between the few biblical injunctions about marriage and divorce on the one hand, and marriage and divorce as they exist in today's society on the other.

For example, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 speaks of a man who is displeased with his wife writing her a certificate of divorce. According to Matthew 19:7-8; Mark 10:2-5, this was interpreted as a commandment of Moses allowing a man to divorce his wife. However, there was no similar commandment allowing a woman to divorce her husband. For all practical purposes, in Old Testament times only men, and not women, had the right to divorce their spouse.

And yet, by the time 1 Corinthians 7:8-16 was written in New Testament times, women had apparently acquired the right to leave, or divorce, their husbands as well.

Further, Jesus specifically repudiated the Mosaic law of divorce in Matthew 19:7-9; Mark 10:5-9; Luke 16:18, establishing the principle historically adhered to by various Christian denominations that divorce is allowed to husbands and to wives only in the case of adultery.

However, even this is not necessarily seen as a hard and fast rule. In New Testament times as in Old Testament times, a divorced woman was in a difficult and dangerous position. It was very common for divorced women to be forced into prostitution because they would be disowned by society and family alike. Therefore Jesus' strong stance against divorce can be read as protecting women from that fate at the hands of "hard-hearted" men, rather than as a blanket prohibition of divorce except in the case of adultery that was intended to stand for all time. In Western cultures today, divorce, while still a difficult experience, has nowhere near the devastating consequences for women that it did in Bible times.

And indeed, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 strongly suggests that the acceptable reasons for divorce are broader than adultery when that is defined exclusively as sexual unfaithfulness:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

"I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." (Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 32:38; Ezekiel 37:27)

Therefore,

"Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." (Isaiah 52:11; Ezekiel 20:34, 41)

And,

"I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty." (2 Samuel 7:14; 7:8)

The quotation of, "Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you," can be read as supporting divorce in the case of believers being married to unbelievers--which does not necessarily involve sexual infidelity.

However, even this is a difficult reading, since 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 indicates that believers (Christians) are not to divorce unbelievers if the unbeliever is content to live with them, but that believers are freed from the bonds of marriage if the unbeliever leaves the marriage.

Relevant statements based on a broader, less literal interpretation of the Bible

In present-day culture, "fornication" and "adultery" are used almost exclusively of sexual unfaithfulness to a partner--"fornication" if no one involved is married, and "adultery" if one or more of the people involved are married.

However, in Bible times, "fornication" and "adultery" were also used more broadly to mean unfaithfulness to God and to God's commandments. For example:

Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. (Judges 2:17)

And:

When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, "Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord." (Hosea 1:2 - and see the rest of the book of Hosea)

If we use the broader scriptural definition of fornication, adultery, and unfaithfulness, then there is a clearer path to a broader definition of the allowable causes of divorce. That definition would allow for divorce in the case of errant unfaithfulness to God and to the laws of God, among which is the commandment not to commit adultery.

If "adultery" means "being unfaithful" in the broader scriptural sense, then any major ongoing violation of the marriage vows and of God's commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves (which certainly includes our spouse!) is adultery in the biblical sense of the word.

The clearest indication of this broader meaning of adultery in relation to marriage, and specifically in relation to violence associated with marriage, is in the difficult-to-translate passage Malachi 2:10-17:

Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors? Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob anyone who does this—any to witness or answer, or to bring an offering to the Lord of hosts.

And this you do as well: You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, "Why does he not?" Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did not one God make her? Both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire? Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one's garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.

You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, "How have we wearied him?" By saying, "All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them." Or by asking, "Where is the God of justice?"

Here divorce is associated with faithlessness, profaning the covenant and the sanctuary, marrying those who adhere to other gods, violence ("covering one's garment with violence"), and generally doing evil in the sight of the Lord.

Superficially, Malachi 2:10-17 can be (and commonly has been) read as a diatribe against divorce. But a more careful reading suggests that it is a diatribe against all sorts of evil, unfaithfulness, profanation, and violence that lead to the destruction of marriage both in the collective sense of the church's marriage to Christ and in the individual sense of marriage with a wife or husband.

In short, if we read the injunctions of the Bible against fornication and adultery more broadly, as speaking not only of sexual infidelity, but any kind of major ongoing unfaithfulness to God and to our spouse, this can provide a biblical basis for divorce in the case of spousal abuse and other major violations of the vows of marriage and the commandments of God.

For more on Malachi 2:10-17 in relation to marriage and divorce, see my article, "God Hates Divorce" vs. "Do Not Be Unfaithful to the Wife of Your Youth."

(This answer is written from the perspective of a contemporary understanding of the Bible in harmony with the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) as commonly understood in the more liberal of the denominations that follow Swedenborg's theology.)

  • I think your answer is pretty good, but you should stress, probably at the beginning, this part: "So if you are looking for clear and direct statements in the Bible allowing for divorce in the case of spousal abuse, that is going to be difficult if not impossible." It's a biblical basis question, so that should be the focus of the question. The rest is icing, not cake. – fredsbend May 11 '15 at 21:44
  • This answer seems more of an exploration of the answerer's own counter-readings than an honest biblical basis answer from an established Christian group. I agree with @fredsbend that the focus is not on providing biblical support, which is what the question asks for. – Andrew Jun 1 '15 at 4:11
  • @Andrew The Swedenborgian Church of North America, of which I am an ordained minister, is a member of the National Council of Churches in the USA--which I think qualifies it as an "established Christian group." I don't mind if you disagree with my answer; but calling into question the honesty of the answer is uncalled for. Not every Christian group interprets the Bible in a literal and linear fashion. (@fredsbend also) – Lee Woofenden Jun 1 '15 at 4:18
  • @LeeWoofenden I think Andrew used the word "honest" as in bona fide, not actually that there is any deceit going on. I think the answer is pretty good, I just suggested a reorganization. – fredsbend Jun 1 '15 at 4:41
  • As @fredsbend said. I also said "seems," as in appears to be. Perhaps you can edit the answer to explicitly state that this is a widely taught and accepted perspective within that denomination, if indeed it is. – Andrew Jun 1 '15 at 15:49

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