We Must Help The Oppressed – Even In Marriage

By ignoring the possibility that intolerable conditions might be a valid reason to divorce, church leaders have far too easily separated psychological abuse from physical abuse.

God remains the God of the oppressed in the New Testament. The suffering spouse should at least know that there is a possible way out; that she (or he) is not doomed to a lifetime of hatred and cruelty; that the Lord has compassion on their situation; and that he allows a possible way of escape when all other avenues have failed.

 

Intolerable Conditions

“Did he abandon you or commit adultery? Did he hurt you physically? If not, you must stay with your spouse no matter what, according to God’s Word.” These are the soul-crushing comments often heard by Christians suffering in horrible marriage situations. But are they accurate? Have God’s people always thought like this? Do we dare give Christians the freedom to decide when they have had enough in a horrible marriage? Are there really only two exceptions to divorce in the Bible: adultery and abandonment?

It is time we add another category to what we normally consider divorce exceptions for Christians, one we might call intolerable conditions, or cruelty. For too long we have forced Christian spouses to remain in terrible marriage situations that lead to crippling depression, nervous breakdowns, and even suicide. Conservatives might be surprised that many of our forefathers believed the Scripture allowed for divorce in situations beyond adultery and abandonment.

Martin Luther listed other possible reasons divorce may be allowed among Christians, including refusal of conjugal rights and if a marriage partner is “rude, brutal, and unbearable.” English Puritan William Perkins wrote that a Christian might divorce for what he called “malicious dealings.” Perkins defined malicious dealings as “intolerable conditions” in which a spouse might be living, where “loss of life, or breach of conscience” is imminent if both partners remain together. Under such conditions, Perkins taught, if a believing wife leaves, she is not deserting her husband, but it is the intolerable husband who has deserted his wife by his attitude and actions.

Abuse is abuse

By ignoring the possibility that intolerable conditions might be a valid reason to divorce, church leaders have far too easily separated psychological abuse from physical abuse. Psychological abuse includes anything from outright hatred to inward loathing and disdain disguised by religious duty and words. Many have assumed a line leading to divorce is only crossed by a spouse when such abuse turns physical; at that point a spouse has the right to protect herself (or himself), which includes filing for divorce.

However, both therapists and physicians, through countless studies, have noted the connection between the two types of abuse. The condition of the soul affects the body in more ways than we might realize. In other words, the consequences of consistent psychological abuse in the home extend to the physical health of the victim. Unending stress in the home breaks a person down both emotionally and physically. If a wife is living with someone who hates her and treats her inhumanly, he is also abusing her body, even if he is not hitting her. The physical damage may not be obvious or immediate, but countless victims of psychological abuse will tell you horror stories of their physical infirmities as a result of the long-term psychological abuse. We must take this reality into account as we consider reasons for divorce, and how we even define abuse.

What about the exceptions?

The Bible does not actually address every possible exception for divorce among Christians. Even 1 Corinthians 7 only deals with one situation: an unbeliever deserting a believer. It does not address a believer abandoning a believer for example, or a spouse becoming a long-term drug addict, etc. And there are ways to desert a spouse without geographically leaving an area.

Also, Matthew 5:30-31 speaks not of adultery (moicheia) as a reason for divorce, but the broader “sexual immorality” (porneia). And in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord uses hyperbole in the first four antitheses comparing the New Covenant to the Old Covenant, such as cutting your eye out, never taking a vow, etc. The antithesis on divorce is the third of four antitheses using hyperbole, for you cannot actually make someone commit adultery who does not want to. There is no reason to assume our Lord meant to cover every possible exception to divorce in Matthew 5, or in I Corinthians 7.

What about the objections?

The common objections go something like this: “If we as the church allow Christians to divorce for reasons that are not clearly defined in the Bible, what is to stop Christians from divorcing for wrong reasons? And if we as the church do not discipline members who divorce for reasons we aren’t sure of, won’t we be approving of divorce? And who can define an `intolerable condition’ anyway?”

In a nutshell, we must trust both the victim and the Lord in these situations. When a spouse is at the end of her rope and needs to end a relationship to protect herself emotionally as well as physically, ultimately that is her decision before God. We can surely counsel people, but we must not violate their freedom under the New Covenant to follow their conscience before God. The Bible does teach us to flee persecution, and that can apply to some marriage situations.

Though Protestants are fond of speaking of ecclesiastical divorces, this is a leftover from the Middle Ages, and it is time we abandon the idea that it is the church who grants divorces.

In the Old Testament, the husband (given the patriarchal society) had a right to determine to divorce; it was never a decision for the rabbis to make for the husband. The church is not given such power in the New Testament either.

Church leaders may do their best to understand the situation and provide rebuke, counsel, and administer church discipline to the unrepentant party, but it is not always easy to know what really goes on in a marriage looking in from the outside, especially when each spouse offers opposing narratives of the problem. In these cases, we must trust those who are crying out for help. And though we are to generally trust victims, ultimately our trust is in the Lord, who knows the hearts and will judge all things rightly.

I often remind church leaders that there is a large middle ground between disciplining a member for divorce (which, at times, is clearly appropriate) and approving a divorce. The middle ground is not knowing for sure who is telling the truth, so leaving the matter for God to judge. Better to admit our limitations in understanding all the dynamics in a failing marriage than to actually oppress those who are being oppressed already.

God is a God for the oppressed

With all the potential problems that might arise from allowing spouses to make the final decision whether to divorce under what he or she considers intolerable conditions, what is the advantage? The advantage is to help the oppressed escape oppression, which we are clearly called to do in Scripture. Protection from oppression and mistreatment was the principle girding the various regulations governing divorce under the Mosaic Law.

In Deuteronomy 21:10-14; 22:19; and 24:1-4, the Lord regulated divorce to protect women from abuse. The regulations concerning divorce in the Old Testament reveal that divorce is almost always a tragedy – a result of the serious sin of at least one partner – though for the protection of the innocent party it was allowed under certain circumstances. The general equity of these divorce laws was to protect the oppressed.

God remains the God of the oppressed in the New Testament. The suffering spouse should at least know that there is a possible way out; that she (or he) is not doomed to a lifetime of hatred and cruelty; that the Lord has compassion on their situation; and that he allows a possible way of escape when all other avenues have failed.

And let the church tread carefully, not abusing its authority in forcing others to remain in marriage situations that are indeed intolerable. We must trust the Christian spouse to make a prayerful choice in such difficult circumstances, while at the same time trusting the Lord to ultimately judge what is right.

Let us be those who not only hold high standards for marriage, but also those who protect the oppressed in marriages, and thus reflect our Lord, for “the Lord executes righteousness and judgment for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6).

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