After reading my article called Biblical Advice for an Unhappy Christian Marriage, one AGW reader recently asked if Christians can divorce for abuse in marriage. It was such an important question I felt compelled to write a whole new article addressing this issue because it is really different than when I talk about the general struggles that usually occur in an unhappy marriage.
Can a Christian divorce if there is abuse in the marriage? When we hear of abuse taking place in a Christian marriage, it’s not hard to have compassion for the victim and righteous anger towards the abuser. What can be difficult is to not allow our feelings to control our counsel.
When the question “Can a Christian divorce for abuse?” is posed, we must cling to the love of God and the clear written instructions found in the Bible. In short, Christians are not given permission to divorce for any other reason other than sexual adultery (Matthew 5:32) or if an unbelieving spouse chooses to leave the believer (1 Corinthians 7:15).
Abuse, therefore, is not a biblical reason to get divorced. Abuse is terrible and must never be ignored. It must be addressed immediately. The abuser must be disciplined and the abused must be protected. The church should do everything possible to intervene when abuse is happening or even suspected. Abuse should be reported to authorities so the abuser can be charged with any crimes committed.
So let’s study the Bible more closely now to see why the Bible says what it does about abuse and to talk about what actions should be taken if abuse is happening in a Christian marriage.
What Does the Bible Say About Divorce?
Below is a small sample of what the Bible says about Christians divorcing in marriage.
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18)
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15)
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32)
So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matthew 19:6)
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. (Romans 7:2)
Why Does the Bible Not Allow Divorce for Abuse?
So the Bible only allows divorce to occur for adultery and if an unbelieving spouse wants to leave the believing spouse. Even in these cases, divorce is allowed but not encouraged or commanded. Forgiveness and reconciliation are always encouraged.
But why is abuse not included as a reason for divorce for Christians?
I think to answer this question it helps to remember the point of marriage. Christian marriage is not ultimately about two people finding relational happiness with each other. It’s not ultimately about procreation. It’s not ultimately about solving the problem of loneliness. I think Christian marriage is meant to address all of these areas, but not “ultimately.”
The Bible says the highest purpose for Christian marriage is to reflect the relationship between Christ and his church. In Ephesians 5:21-33, we are told how this is to work ideally. Wives are to respect and follow their husbands like the church reflects and follows Jesus. Husbands are supposed to protect and love their wives as Jesus does his church.
Wives are not ultimately submitting to their husbands but submitting to Jesus. Husbands are not ultimately loving their wives just for their sake but for Jesus sake. Each is equally important and valued although their roles are clearly different within marriage. (Note: the roles for men and women the Bible gives are in the context of the family and the church, not the work place, government, non-church ministries, etcetera.)
That is the ideal, which we know does not always happen. Likewise, the church does not always treat Jesus as we should. While Jesus’ love always remains on his church, his approach and expression of that love varies depending on the needs that his people require at certain times. If they need a blessing, he gives it. If they need discipline, he gives it. Love is doing what’s best for the person. Jesus does not forsake his church even when they are abusive towards him. But, again, he does respond to their needs.
In the case of abuse in marriage, the abused partner should seek to reflect Christ. She or he is not called to cease loving the abuser or end the covenant she or he made. I think sexual adultery and an unbelieving spouse leaving are exceptions in the Bible because those are acts by the offender which break the covenant and thus free the other spouse.
As difficult as it sounds, through God’s grace alone, you can still show the love of Christ to an abusive spouse. You certainly don’t do this by allowing the abuse to continue. But the covenant of love Jesus has made with his church can never be broken, and thus Christian marriages are meant to reflect this committed, covenant love even when one spouse is abusive.
So if abuse is occurring and divorce is not an option, what should be done?
Divorce Is Not a Biblical Option for Abuse, But Separation Is
A wife is called to “submit” (Ephesians 5:22) which means to follow and respect, not worship and obey. But she is not called to follow him into sin. She is called to follow Jesus first and foremost. She follows her husband in obedience to Jesus. When following her husband violates obeying Jesus, she must no longer follow her husband.
A husband is called to love and lead his wife out of his love for God (Ephesians 5:25). If his wife is abusive he is not called to ignore the abuse and violate other commands in Scripture like to guard your heart (Proverbs 4:23). He too must choose to serve God over serving his wife. Most of the time he will be able to serve his wife out of his service for God and because of his devotion to God. But if the two ever contradict, then a husband is called to choose God.
In all these scenarios, divorce is still not permitted in Scripture. I believe the highest and last resort in responding to abuse should be separation. If the abused spouse confronts the abuser and he or she does not stop, the abused spouse should leave to safety while other means of helping the abuser are attempted.
The separation should last for however long it needs to and no more. If the person has truly changed and over an appropriate period of time has demonstrated new and consistent non-abusive behavior, then the husband and wife should reconcile. I’m using vague timelines and instructions here intentionally because each situation will be unique. I recommend talking to a trained pastor, counselor, and the appropriate authorities as soon as possible if abuse is taking place.
While you are not called to divorce, you are also not called to endanger yourself or your children. In Matthew 10:23 Jesus said, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Persecution and abuse are different, but within this Bible verse we can see that Jesus tells Christians they are not called to always endure danger even though they are called to love and forgive all the time.
Christians are called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). But peace does not mean you just submit to the more aggressive side of the argument. Peace can sometimes only come through separation. By removing yourself from conflict you are promoting peace. If you can stay in the relationship and work towards peace, then that should happen first. But if the conflict persists, peace, which is the absence of fighting, should be achieved through separation.
When Abuse Happens in Marriage, Reconciliation Should Only Occur When Possible
In the article, How to Forgive Your Attacker, I discuss the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation:
One reason forgiving those who continue to assault us is often resisted is because forgiveness is confused with reconciliation. Does God call us to rejoin a relationship that would only continue in abuse? Are we called to endlessly subject ourselves to hurtful treatment or else not be considered a Christian?
Questions like these occur when forgiveness and reconciliation are confused. God always calls every Christian to forgive others, but God does not call us to always be reconciled. Forgiveness can be done in your heart between you and God. Reconciliation must involve the willful choice of two people or parties.
Additionally, it is against Scripture to reconcile with people who claim to be Christians and yet refuse to repent in action of the sins you have pointed out to them (Matthew 18:17, 1 Corinthians 5:12-13). When people are retaliatory, threatening, a risk to you, a risk to others, or someone is consistently living in a way contrary to the Scriptures, it is your biblical obligation to forgive while not reconciling. To reconcile with a rebel is to endorse their sin and further encourage it. Once you warn them, discipline them, and they still don’t listen, the blood is not on your hands and you must move on for your sake and theirs (Ezekiel 3:17-19).
We must always love, but love comes in many different expressions. Love is doing what is best for the person’s long-term, eternal good. If you reconcile with someone who is walking in darkness, you are harming that person further. You can hug people to hell. God disciplines those he loves (Hebrews 12:6). God removes his favor and presence when people persist in sin to help them come to their senses. He expects Christians to do the same for the sake of the sinner. To reconcile with someone walking in unrepentance is the most unloving thing you can do for him or her.
So a Christian spouse who is abused in marriage is called to forgive but not always to reconcile until the appropriate time. Resisting reconciliation should not be used as form of punishment but to discipline. Punishment is about making someone pay for their past while discipline is used to correct them so they can live a better future.
Abuse Could Be a Sign of an Unbeliever Saying They Want to Leave You
As I’ve mentioned, one biblical exception for divorce is when an unbelieving spouse wants to leave the believing spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). The Bible also says faith without works is dead (James 2:17), meaning if you are not bearing the fruits of the Spirit it’s very possible you are not a true Christian. People claim to be Christians all the time but if they are not living for Christ they are either backsliding and will repent one day as evidence of their true salvation or they will keep sinning and not repent and thus prove they are not truly saved (1 John 1). Additionally, in Matthew 18:17, we are told that if someone does not repent of their sin after being corrected three times, they should be treated like an unbeliever.
With these truths in mind, I think it’s possible one could make the case that an abusive spouse who claims be a Christian is showing with their actions they are not a Christian and should be treated like an unbeliever. It could also be said that an unbelieving spouse who is claiming they want to stay married is showing with their actions that they actually want to be divorced. So I think it is biblically reasonable in some instances to get divorced for abuse if it falls under the clause of the unbelieving spouse wanting to leave the believing spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
Some people would disagree with this logic and I think they are being reasonable to not see this as a possibility. But personally I think this is a biblically reasonable conclusion.
Before making this conclusion yourself, however, I would ask your local church to give you their perspective on the abuser’s evidence of salvation and whether or not they should be treated like an unbeliever who is saying they want a divorce through their actions.
Can Christians Divorce for Abuse?
My feelings make me want to say, “Yes, Christians can divorce for abuse.” But as Christians we are not called to follow our feelings. We are called to follow God and obey his word.
While an abusive spouse does not deserve a committed, loving partner still trying to honor the marriage vows, God does deserve this. Christians in an abusive marriage are called to not divorce in honor of God, not the abuser. Again, separate if abuse is happening, tell somebody immediately, seek help, but continue to love and forgive through the power of Jesus Christ.