Meaningless Verses and Meaningless Vows?

Whether I have convinced you or not, I hope you will seriously consider how your view of divorce impacts your treatment of an abuse victim.

Some may think that the worst that can happen is a divorce, but I can think of other things that are far worse: A woman driven to substance abuse or even suicide by despair. A woman who is only a shell of her former self because her soul has been battered even if her body has not. A woman injured or killed at the hands of her husband. The collateral or direct damage to any children.

 

Domestic abuse is one of those problems that is rarely addressed in the church. While we know it exists out there, we prefer to believe it doesn’t take place in the Christian home. Why the discomfort? I think one reason is because of this question: What if the marriage ends in divorce?

These are three possible camps regarding divorce among Christians that I am aware of:

  1. No divorce for any reason whatsoever.
  2. Divorce only for adultery and possibly abandonment.
  3. Divorce for adultery, abandonment, and abuse.

I stand firmly in the third camp. For an in-depth defense of this position from scripture and church history, I would refer you to these lectures by Pastor David Dykstra (ARBCA). They are worth your time, and I would do them a disservice if I tried to duplicate his seven talks in one blog post. Rather, I am going to offer two hypothetical scenarios with the hope that you will consider how your position on divorce determines how you respond.

Scenario 1. A man in your congregation is emotionally, verbally, and financially abusive to his employees. They are demeaned, called names, and cursed. They are not paid on time and sometimes not paid at all. Thankfully, slavery does not exist in this country, so people have the right to quit one job and look for another. However, would you recommend that these employees continue in this man’s employ even if he continues to mistreat them this way? Now let’s change this scenario to a marriage. Does that change your advice? D.A. Carson related a story of a woman who was a former missionary. She married a man who emotionally abused her to the point that she drank to dull the pain. She eventually became an alcoholic. Carson’s words were, “He was the most evil man I have ever met.” 1  And yet this man never hit his wife. He just tortured her through other means that left no visible mark. Does the wife have the right to take refuge from nonphysical abuse? Does she have the freedom to pursue a divorce?

Scenario 2. A woman is physically abused by her husband. Must she remain in the home or is she allowed to leave for her safety? Please keep in mind that the majority of domestic violence deaths occur when a woman is attempting to leave her partner. So leaving isn’t as simple as packing a bag and walking out the door. She has also been well trained to live in terror of her husband and the consequences of disobedience. This creates a paralyzing fear of the soul. Also depending on the state in which she lives, there may not be any form of legal separation, so she may not have legal protection even if she leaves. Thus it is still possible for her husband to clean out the bank account and continue the abuse via other forms such as stalking and Internet harassment. It may be possible to obtain a restraining order, but they have as much real clout as a sign for a gun-free school zone. Does she have the freedom to pursue a divorce?

If the wife is not allowed to separate and/or pursue divorce in the case of domestic abuse, this implies that the verses that charge a man to love his wife as Christ loved the church are meaningless. (Eph. 5:25-33) He can treat his wife any way he wants, and it doesn’t matter. She may be told that she must take on the Christ role and love her husband sacrificially to fill what he abdicated. But does that mean the husband’s role is switched to submit? Are you kidding? Submission is still a nonnegotiable for the wife. So now it is up to her to hold up both sides of the marriage while submitting to the person who is murdering her in his heart. This puts a burden upon her that no person can bear because she is not God. No human being can be another person’s savior. No human being can change a person’s heart.

Likewise this response also implies that the vows to love and cherish are meaningless. An abuser can break these vows with no consequence to the marriage but with grave consequences for the victim. Why even bother exchanging vows, if keeping them is unnecessary?2 It’s also interesting that the role of the husband seems to confer a degree of immunity to accountability that is above and beyond a normal believer. Well, perhaps secondary to that of a celebrity pastor.

You must understand that the primary motivation for an abuser is power and control over the victim. There is no normal conscience, only a sense of entitlement which justifies the abuse in the mind of the abuser. The parties are not on an even playing field. It is predator and prey. Does this reflect Christ and the Church? Absolutely not. The abuse has already destroyed the marriage covenant. A divorce only acknowledges what has already taken place.3 By not permitting a woman to be free of her tormentor only gives him what he wants – continued control over his victim even at a distance.

One answer I have heard to the question of divorce is, “Christ never divorces His bride.” While this statement is true regarding Christ and the Church, how does this help the abuse victim? It doesn’t and is like salt on an open wound. I am also concerned that marriage can become so idealized and idolized that it becomesequivalent to the relationship between Christ and the Church, which has Mormon overtones in my opinion. Christ does not abuse with His people, and they do not abuse Him. They may have indwelling sin, but they are new creatures.4 If you make the argument that Christians treat Christ the way an abuser treats his victim, then you are saying Holy Spirit’s work in regeneration did nothing, and to put it respectfully but bluntly, you know nothing about the evil of abuse.

Whether I have convinced you or not, I hope you will seriously consider how your view of divorce impacts your treatment of an abuse victim. How does it square with the Bible’s call for justice, mercy, and compassion? Is it in keeping with 2nd greatest commandment? I would also respectfully ask that you please consider how idolizing marriage romanticizes the suffering of real people. Talk is cheap when you aren’t the person on the pyre.

Some may think that the worst that can happen is a divorce, but I can think of other things that are far worse: A woman driven to substance abuse or even suicide by despair. A woman who is only a shell of her former self because her soul has been battered even if her body has not. A woman injured or killed at the hands of her husband. The collateral or direct damage to any children.

Which do you choose?

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:15-17

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Psalm 82:3-4


1. Family – Husbands and Wives, Love and Submission, Christ and the Church, D.A. Carson, EFCA 2012 Theology Conference.
2. Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church, Jeff Crippen with Rebecca Davis, Justice Keepers Publishing, 2015, pp. 132-134.
3. Ibid.139-140.
4. Ibid.151-153.

Persis Lorenti is an ordinary Christian. You can find her at Tried With Fire and Out of the Ordinary. This article appeared at her blog and is used with permission.