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Is abuse grounds for divorce?

This post is a little off topic compared to the rest of my blog, but it’s a topic that is close to my heart, and I feel I have to share it.

I am disheartened in the leadership of the churches and church groups that I am part of, as I fail to see our church leaders make any definitive statement over whether abuse (either emotional or physical) is grounds for divorce. Over the past weeks in Australia, there has been a big discussion over domestic abuse amongst Christians. This was triggered by a TV program and accompanying article published by the ABC.

In the Christian circles that I mix in, reactions to this have been mostly positive, rather than getting defensive, church leaders and attendees alike have seen it as an important wake up call, to make changes to the way we address abuse in our churches, particularly in our public messaging. As the ABC pointed out, one of the major problems was that abuse victims often never hear from churches that their husbands abuse is unacceptable.

In spite of this positive discussion, I am yet to hear a leader in the conservative church circles that I mix in come out and say “Abuse is grounds for divorce”. And I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if it’s because they think abuse is not grounds for divorce, I don’t know if it’s because they think it is and everyone knows it, I don’t know if it’s because they think it is but they want to be careful in how they word it. But, I do think it is terrible that there is no clear message on this, and so I am disheartened.

Matthew 5:32 says:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Taken at face value, this verse says that abuse is not grounds for divorce. But, is that a timeless argument applying throughout the ages, or does it speak into a certain culture, and need to be adapted for different cultures? I am no theologian and I have never gone to Bible college so what I say now does not come with any authority, but to me it seems to be cultural. And the lack of clear teaching from church leaders here compels me to talk about this.

Firstly, Jesus is speaking to husbands in this passage, not wives. And I don’t think that that’s just because it was a male dominated culture and we can just assume that whatever Jesus said to men he was also saying to women. Marriage was very different back then. Wives were bought with a dowry. Their only chance at success in life was to marry. To not marry often meant a life of poverty, and to be divorced? A life of shame and poverty. The topic of wives divorcing their husbands in Jesus day didn’t make sense, there was no precedent for it, how can property say to its owner “I am no longer your property?” And it didn’t make sense because why would a woman choose a life of shame and poverty over the security of having a husband? In the time that Jesus spoke into, the only context in which divorce was understood and made sense is men divorcing their wives, and not the other way around.

Today, marriage is very different. A wife is not considered her husbands property, she is not bought, she enters into and stays in a marriage of her own volition. Divorce does not mean the end of her security, it does not equate to a life of poverty and shame. We must not let the fact that today marriage is on equal terms confuse us into thinking that therefore whatever Jesus said about marriage 2000 years ago applies equally to men and women.

In the context of Jesus’ time, for a man to divorce his wife was to sentence her to a life of shame and poverty. This makes Jesus’ command an incredibly practical and loving command, he is instructing men to not sentence their wives to a life of shame and poverty - with the exception being if they willingly leave the relationship for another man. The exception was merely an out for a husband to allow him, the only person that could, to initiate the divorce when the wife refused to honour her wedding vows. Does that same command make sense in today’s context? I don’t think so. I think in today’s context, the exception goes away. Why? Because in today’s society, women can freely divorce their husbands. So, if a woman doesn’t want to be with her husband, and wants to be with someone else instead, she can just do that. She couldn’t before. And so husbands no longer need an out, they no longer need to divorce their wives when their wife refuses to honour her wedding vows, because the wife is able to do that herself. As is modelled throughout the Bible, with God’s relationship to Israel, I believe we are to be forgiving, if our spouse commits adultery, but turns back to us in genuine repentance, we are to forgive them. So unfaithfulness is no longer the excuse it used to be for divorce.

So what about abuse. In the context of a husband being the only person that can initiate a divorce, and a wife for whom divorce is the worst thing that could possibly happen to her (better to be abused by your husband than face constant abuse living on the streets), and especially in a context where society saw it as a mans role to own and control his wife, it would have made no sense for Jesus to have mentioned abuse as grounds for divorce, it just doesn’t fit into that picture. But in today’s context, where divorce is not the end of the world for a woman, everything changes. Abuse is a direct contradiction to a couples wedding vows, it makes the vows a lie, rendering them null and void. I believe a woman can divorce a man who abuses her, because he has already rendered their wedding vows void. I also believe a man can divorce his wife if she abuses him, though as I understand it that is a far less common occurrence.

Is there a place for repentance and forgiveness? Absolutely. But I believe such repentance is a new statement of the wedding vows - a second marriage has taken place, one in which a woman is free to enter or not, just as she was in her first marriage to the man. The decision to forgive a husband is completely hers, and counsellors should not try to push her in that direction, rather, counsellors should express extreme scepticism, for the sake of the woman’s safety, at any repentance that the husband claims, and, if the woman decides to proceed with remarriage, a counsellor needs to temper the reunion with extreme caution. Counsellors must never forget that they themselves can easily fall trap to a husbands manipulation, just because a husband recites the biblical principles behind self sacrificial love in marriage perfectly does not at all mean that he is repentant.

I wish my church leaders would come out and make a clear statement that abuse is grounds for divorce. I wish they would make it loudly, clearly, and often, so that women in abusive relationships are able to hear that there is a way out. I am greatly disheartened that this has not happened already.

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Hi! My name is James Roper, and I am a software developer with a particular interest in open source development and trying new things. I program in Scala, Java, Go, PHP, Python and Javascript, and I work for Lightbend as the architect of Kalix. I also have a full life outside the world of IT, enjoy playing a variety of musical instruments and sports, and currently I live in Canberra.