A Rejoinder To John Sharpe On ‘We Must Help The Oppressed – Even In Marriage’

A response to John Sharpe’s critique of “We Must Help The Oppressed.”

The point is, there are times when a spouse cries out about long-term abuse, that she is at the end of her rope, and we as church leaders are not sure if the situation is as bad as she says, even after months of involvement. In those cases, it may be wiser to allow a woman to protect herself than to force her to stay in a situation which could lead to further abuse or even suicide.


I am thankful for Pastor Sharpe’s response to my recent article on abuse and divorce exceptions in that he allowed me to see it in advance to prepare my response. He expresses his views clearly making them easy for interaction. That said, a more careful reading of my article would have avoided some accusations made against me in his response. However, there are clear areas of disagreement between us that need to be addressed. I will begin with the Confessional argument and then the biblical argument.

Pastor Sharpe claims that I deny the clear teaching of the Confession by adding a new category to the Confession’s exceptions for divorce of only desertion and adultery. He also writes that, “Bordow leaves the matter entirely with the individual, and tells the church to stay out of it, except to let suffering spouses know there is a way out.”

As to the first charge, I understand that not every pastor is in a position to conduct a historical survey of how the church, especially the Reformed church, has understood and applied the two-divorce exception taught in Westminster Confession of Faith 24. As I found in my research for my doctrinal dissertation on this topic, there has not been a unified understanding of the two divorce exceptions in church history, even Reformed history. The same is true today. Some Reformed elders and pastors include domestic violence in the definition of desertion, though others do not. Some apply the sexual immorality “porneia” exception to include marital rape, long-term porn addiction, etc., while others, like John Murray, believe it referred to adultery only. The Reformed church has not interpreted and applied the Confession’s teaching on divorce exceptions in a uniformed manner, as is often assumed.

So if my suggestion that we should consider intolerable conditions as a type of desertion (or as an exception not specifically addressed in those well-known passages) means that I am denying the Confession, then, to be consistent, allowing divorce for domestic violence, or holding a broad view of sexual immorality also denies the Confession. The point is, if Sharpe’s strict understanding and application of the two divorce exceptions is the only view that adheres faithfully to the Westminster Standards, then a large number of pastors and elders past and present would be excluded from Westminster Confessionalism.

Further to the point, denominations such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) are not strict subscription denominations. We agree to uphold the system of doctrine in the Confession. To maintain Sharpe’s claims, one would need to demonstrate that expanding the definition of physical abuse or desertion violates the very system of Reformed doctrine our Confession upholds. As Charles Hodge explained,

Some understand them to mean that every proposition contained in the Confession of Faith is included in the profession made at ordination… That it is not the meaning of the words. There are many propositions contained in the Westminster Confession which do not belong to the integrity of the Augustinian, or Reformed system. It is impossible that a body of several thousand ministers and elders should think alike on all the topics embraced in such an extended and minute formula of belief.  Such has never been the rule adopted in our Church. Individuals have held it, but the Church as a body never has. No prosecution for doctrinal error has ever been attempted or sanctioned, except for errors which were regarded as involving the rejection, not of explanations of doctrines, but of the doctrines themselves.

Finally, Sharpe suggests I deny the Confession’s teaching of the church’s involvement in a divorce case to the point of telling the church to “stay out of it.” Let me quote from my original article: “We can surely counsel people,” and, “I often remind church leaders that there is a large middle ground between disciplining a member for divorce (which, at times, is clearly appropriate).” I’m not sure how what I wrote about counseling couples through difficult marriage issues and administering church discipline for causing a divorce can be interpreted as “telling the church to stay out of it.”

The point is, there are times when a spouse cries out about long-term abuse, that she (or he) is at the end of her rope and wants to seek a divorce. Unless we have clear evidence that someone is lying, it may be wiser to allow a woman to protect herself than to force her to stay in a situation which could lead to further abuse or even suicide. Unfortunately, I am familiar with a number of situations where suicide was the result of a session forcing a woman to remain in an intolerable situation. As the Confession states, a session should not leave decisions of divorce to the will of the person alone, the church leaders should be very involved with counsel, warnings, etc. But the Confession does not force the church to make final decisions for the spouse, especially in an abusive situation.

With regard to my biblical exegesis: Sharpe begins by criticizing my statement that the Bible does not address every possible exception for divorce among Christians. From this he concludes that I see the Bible as inadequate to answer the question. For this accusation to be true, Sharpe would need to demonstrate that Paul in I Cor. 7 and Jesus in Matt 5 were addressing every possible situation. We do not normally approach biblical ethics this way.

For example, while the prohibitions against lying and killing in the Ten Commandments may seem clear, we know from the rest of Scripture that there are exceptions, times when taking a life, or lying, may not be sinful. We do not allow one verse or proscription to so inform our application as to disallow the rest of Scripture to add possible nuance or exceptions. When dealing with divorce exceptions, are we forbidden from considering the Old Testament teaching on this matter, the generality equity of the divorce laws, or considerations of God’s character as protector of the oppressed? Suggesting that the Bible does not address every possible ethical situation in divorce does not make the Bible inadequate in any way in its purpose. And there is also nothing wrong with listening to physicians and others who give us their professional insights into the nature of abuse to help us work our way through these difficult matters. Trauma counselors have been warning for years that psychological trauma causes physiological damage. We must listen to this. Lives are at stake. To refuse to learn from such sources would be to favor a fundamentalism that Presbyterians have traditionally rejected.

Sharpe also writes concerning my exegesis, “The desire to find more reasons for divorce, rather than fewer, is the very tendency Jesus was condemning.  Appealing to Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount is strange, to say the least.  Bordow actually places himself in the category of those Jesus was condemning!”

Sharpe is correct that Jesus was warning the Pharisees not to assume that the easy divorce Moses allowed “because of hardness of heart” (Matt 19:8) was God’s ideal standard, nor should they assume this would be acceptable in the New Covenant. Jesus’ warning is against hard-hearted men who are unfaithful to their marriage vows and seeking easy divorce. The warning of Matt. 5 is directed toward the hard-hearted, cruel spouse for not fulfilling his marriage vows, not the one trying to protect herself from his cruelty.

The point is, if we must be as strict as Sharpe suggests in allowing only two exceptions for divorce that cover every possible situation, then we would need to counsel victims of domestic violence to remain in the marriage, even if we allow a short-term separation. Now, one could argue that since domestic violence is illegal, the wife at least has a right to call the civil authorities. But spousal physical abuse has not been, nor is illegal, in every place. And the civil authorities do not always enforce against domestic violence in a way that protect women from long-term abuse.

Is there no place for spiritual shepherds to protect the sheep from a life of violence? Do no other Scriptures bear upon Peter’s words to endure suffering? Is this the message our reformed denominations want to send to wives suffering from domestic violence from physical or intense psychological abuse; that if your husband is abusing you, you must submit to a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse, and any attempt to escape through divorce will bring about church discipline against you? Has Sharpe considered the legal ramifications for a church or a denomination to make such statements? Though Sharp makes no allowance for divorce even with domestic violence, I would hope that is not what he wants to communicate. Unfortunately, I have heard from too many women suffering spousal abuse that this is the exact message they have heard from our churches. Remember, shepherds do more than apply God’s laws; they rescue the oppressed, help binds up wounds, etc.

Sharpe also believes that my desire to allow “intolerable conditions” as a valid reason for divorce introduces an extreme arbitrariness and subjectivism as to who can divorce. I appreciate the concern. First, even Sharpe’s strict position does not remove all elements of subjectivity. What is desertion? How long does someone need to be gone before it is a desertion? Can a man desert his wife while in the same home by not providing for her? The point is, there is always an element of subjectiveness in applying the Bible to real individuals and real situations. That’s why shepherds must know their sheep, and that is why beyond law there is a biblical category of wisdom, and shepherds are to apply wisdom to individual situations.

Finally, I am glad Sharpe brought up the desire to protect the sanctity of marriage, which of course is an honorable thing to do. However, it is important to qualify this. Forcing two people to live together while one hates the other, and the other lives in dread of being near the hateful spouse, is hardly promoting the sanctity of marriage, at least not marriage as God intended. Beyond that, our primary goal as shepherds is not first and foremost to protect institutions, but people under our care.

I am thankful for the work of Dr. Mark Garcia, Pastor of Immanuel OPC in Coraopolis, Penn., and adjunct professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). The full article is on his Lydia Center site which is devoted to the issue of marital ethics. In this excerpt, Dr. Garcia shares what he learned after dealing with emotional abuse in a marriage (my comments in brackets). May more pastors learn from his wisdom.

The session had already started working with them [the couple] before I arrived. They [the session] became more involved through the increasingly focused counseling work of the pastor and myself and, as the marriage deteriorated and the dark reality came more and more to light, eventually I carried much of the load of the meetings. The sessions with him began with the most earnest expressions of humility, love for his wife and children, and commitment to repentance and reconciliation. As the reality became clearer, though, his tactics shifted toward minimization of egregious wrongs, the domestication of destructive sins into a more ordinary and ostensibly palatable form, the questioning of his wife’s credibility and sanity, until finally there was rather conspicuous signs of a deep-running duplicity and manipulative strategy.

There came a point–which the literature (as I later learned) consistently alerts ministers to watch out for–when the man’s veneer unintentionally cracked (through a discovered lie) and the dark reality always lurking beneath the facade suddenly peeked through. With that unintended slip, what the books say to expect started to happen: with increasing energy, and attempting to involve more and more people in his project, the husband began to turn toward me some of the ferocity that had so far been reserved for his wife. Having suggested the proverbial emperor sitting before me had just been found to be naked, I instantly became the object of scorn, ridicule, intimidation, threats, and contempt. The anger started to show, the need to keep such things hidden having ended, and the counselor started to see something of what the wife had been living with…

He [another pastor] asked, “Does she have grounds for divorce? Is abuse a ground for divorce? I’ve always heard our Confession only allows for divorce in cases of adultery or desertion, but this isn’t that, is it?” The correct answer is a strong yes, that even within the terms of the Westminster Confession’s teaching on valid divorce, and most importantly within Holy Scripture, abuse is certainly accounted for as it severs or ruptures, rather than merely bruises, the matrimonial bond, and thus is a valid ground for divorce. In this case…importantly, we were not talking about spousal disagreements, ordinary marital squabbles and challenges, her impatience with his sin or a refusal to reconcile. We were dealing with spousal abuse. The correct answer to the senior pastor’s question on that day and in that situation was yes. But I answered the question differently, in a way perhaps many others might answer it today, “I think your understanding of the Confession is probably right. At least, that’s how I’ve heard it. It seems she should have grounds for divorce, but I don’t see it there. I have to say I don’t know, but I can’t see it. I’m sorry.”

And with that, I failed. Horribly. Not just on a point of theology or biblical interpretation, not just on a point of confessional interpretation, but in the care and protection of real people needing thick, strong, faithful pastoral care as they hold opposite roles in a living horror. I failed…I failed the congregation who rightly expects church officers to defend the cause of the vulnerable and the weak, and to protect them under the authority and command of the Lord and King of the Church, the faithful Shepherd of the sheep. I failed that wife and I failed that husband, who both needed a minister who would be ready and willing to read the situation properly and act confidently, with the proper combination of self-sacrificing resolve and patient compassion… And I’m ashamed…Only Christ and his righteousness can be my hope there.

Dr. Todd Bordow is a Minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is Pastor of Cornerstone OPC in Houston, Texas.