In the case of abuse in marriage, the abuse victim is not the one destroying the marriage when he or she decides the marriage contract has been rendered null and void. That has already been accomplished by the abuser who has refused to love, honor, and cherish as he vowed before God to do.
The third (Read Part 1 and Part 2) and final review of Pastor Jeff Crippen’s book, A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church, deals with the somewhat controversial topic of divorce and remarriage. There are a wide variety of interpretations on this subject, even within the conservative, evangelical world.
Pastor Crippen begins the chapter, “What about Divorce?” by defining some of the different views on abuse and divorce and giving examples of well-known Christian leaders who espouse them. On one end of the spectrum is something called the “permanence” view of marriage: “no divorce, no remarriage for any reason at all as long as one’s spouse is still living.” (284) This view has been defined in the book, Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View, by Jim Elliff and the other elders of Christ Fellowship Church, Kansas City. They are not the only ones holding this view. Both Voddie Baucham and John Piper also teach that divorce is never allowed and that remarriage is only allowed if a spouse has died.
A second approach allows for divorce in the case of adultery or desertion but not abuse. An example of a book teaching this view would be, The Divorce Dilemma: God’s Last Word on Lasting Commitment, by John MacArthur. In an article quoted by Pastor Crippen, MacArthur explained:
Abuse is not a biblical cause for divorce. A woman may have to find shelter and protection through her church, but she has not been given the right by God to divorce her abuser (283).
Interestingly, when I went to check the link for this article, I found that there had been a revision to this section. It now reads:
Divorce is not always an option, either–Scripture does not automatically permit divorce in the case of a physically abusive husband.
But it does still say that if a wife is not in physical danger, then she must stay with her husband:
If you are not truly in any physical danger, but are merely a weary wife who is fed up with a cantankerous or disagreeable husband–even if he is an unbeliever who is hostile to the things of God–God’s desire is that you stay and pray and sanctify that husband by your presence as a beloved child of God (1 Corinthians 7:10-16). The Lord will protect you and teach you in the midst of the difficult time.
Of course, pray for your husband, submit to him in every way you can, encourage him to seek advice and counsel from other biblically-knowledgeable men–and do everything you can to heal the problems that cause him to be angry or abusive.
A third view is that “divorce is permitted for adultery, desertion and abuse – understanding abuse as a kind of desertion.” (284) Pastor Crippen recommends Barbara Roberts’ book, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery & Desertion, as a good resource for understanding abuse as desertion. Another book he recommends is Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities by David Instone-Brewer. This is the view that Pastor Crippen holds and is the one he spends the chapter explaining.
Pastor Crippen starts by using Jesus’ teachings on the Sabbath as an analogy and illustration of the greater principles involved. The Pharisees had gotten so wrapped up in their interpretation of the law that they had forgotten the purpose of the Sabbath and they’d forgotten mercy:
It is my contention that this is the very thing that has happened in the evangelical church in regard to marriage and divorce. Yes, I realize that there are evangelical “libertines” who do not hold diligently enough to the holiness of marriage and are far too liberal in permitting sinful divorce and even other perversions of marriage. But the solution to these evils is not to race to another extreme by maintaining a no-divorce view that essentially contends that man was made for marriage, not marriage for man.
When we tell abuse victims that God does not permit them to divorce their abuser, and that if they do so and then remarry, they will be guilty of adultery, we are condemning the guiltless and demanding sacrifice rather than extending God’s mercy to the weak and helpless: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4) (286-287).
So what are the greater principles that are often forgotten when considering divorce and abuse? Pastor Crippen writes that they are:
- God desires mercy.
- Marriage was made for man.
- We are to zealously protect and advocate for the poor and helpless.
- We are to defend human life. (287)
The Biblical grounds for divorce in the case of abuse is that abuse is desertion:
Marriage vows (contracts) can be destroyed by adultery or desertion. We maintain that biblical desertion is not only effected by literal leaving one’s spouse, but also by abuse. Abuse is desertion because it is a refusal to live with one’s spouse as husband or wife in the context of marriage, as defined by the vows of the marriage covenant (297).
Pastor Crippen explains that this type of desertion is “constructive desertion:”
Constructive desertion occurs when one partner’s evil conduct ends the marriage because it causes the other partner to leave. But it is the abuser who is to be construed as the deserter, not the victim. The victim bears no blame (304).
Pastor Crippen also makes it clear that in the case of abuse (physical,emotional, verbal, sexual, etc.) a divorce is simply the public acknowledgement that the marriage contract has already been broken. How has the marriage contract been broken? By the persistent, unrepentant actions of the abuser:
In the case of abuse in marriage, the abuse victim is not the one destroying the marriage when he or she decides the marriage contract has been rendered null and void. That has already been accomplished by the abuser who has refused to love, honor, and cherish as he vowed before God to do (296).
It’s important to remember Pastor Crippen’s definition of abuse here. This is not just someone having a bad day or the typical arguments that all couples have:
Abuse then, is a mentality of entitlement and superiority in which an abuser uses various tactics to obtain and enforce unjustified power and control over another person (18).
Also, we should remember that Pastor Crippen’s conclusion is that abusers, as defined in his book, are unregenerate:
Therefore, we must necessarily conclude that an abuser simply cannot be a Christian, no matter how convincing his masquerade of Christianity might be. His very mindset remains unchanged, as his perseverance in his abuse demonstrates (243).
In the context of marriage, this means that abusers are unbelievers who refuse to live with their wives (or husbands) according to their marriage vows. The abuser perpetually and unrepentantly breaks his marriage vows:
Abusers destroy their marriages by trashing the marriage contract which included their promise to love, cherish and protect their partner. An abuser so wounds his victim, so exposes her to hardship and suffering that, despite her best efforts, the marriage bond of love and respect is destroyed (303).
Pastor Crippen anticipates the question that many readers will likely ask: “Won’t this view of marriage and divorce result in a kind of divorce epidemic like we see all around us?” (300) His answer is that allowing divorce in the case of abuse will not “open the floodgates.” He quotes from Barbara Roberts’:
Many Christians are afraid of “opening the floodgates” of excuses for divorce. However, allowing for divorce for constructive desertion is not the same as allowing divorce simply for “mutual incompatibility”. Nor does it imply that a Christian spouse can separate in reaction to a transient incident or a light offense. Even in heavy offenses and repeated abuse, efforts should be made by the believer to bring the abuser to repentance. All efforts to urge a perpetrator to repent should be done with humility and a readiness to forgive.
However, it is important to be aware that most victims of abuse have already made many efforts in this direction before they seek help from a pastor or other professional. Indeed, the victim has usually borne too much for too long and the pattern of abuse has become deeply entrenched (300-301).
Given all of this, pastors, churches, leaders, and Christians in general, should be careful not to add to the abuse that victims have suffered by heaping guilt and condemnation on them regarding their decision to divorce. Protect the weak and innocent. Stand up to abusers. Have mercy on those who carry the scars of abuse.
I’ll conclude with Pastor Crippen’s advice for any victim of abuse whose church holds to the no-divorce for abuse view:
I encourage any victim of abuse who is in a church that binds people in such a manner, to leave that church for her own safety, sanity and health and find a church that does not make the error of going beyond Scripture. It is my conclusion that, even though it may come from zeal for the Lord, teaching people that God forbids divorce for abuse (as abuse has been defined and presented in this book) is spiritual malpractice. To bring church discipline to bear upon victims is to compound this injustice and I must believe that it is obnoxious in God’s sight (288).
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3, ESV)
Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She is also a homeschooling mother of 3 boys and member of a PCA church in Spring, Texas. This article first appeared at her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation, and is used with permission.