In a recent article, I wrote that the church does not have a divorce crisis—it has an abuse crisis. Behind closed doors many women are suffering in silence. The psychological, emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse they are enduring is taking a serious toll on their body and soul. They have coped for years through the cycle of abuse, and often live in a state of hopelessness.
Yet, because the church has generally not been awake to the reality of domestic abuse or aware of the nature and tactics of abuse, many women receive advice that only perpetuates the problem:
Here is what we need to understand: advice that might be good and applicable for a marriage that has some problems but is not abusive, is devastating when abuse is involved.
Many counselors (both Christian and secular) agree on a sad reality: abusers, especially those with narcissistic tendencies, very rarely change. And while I believe strongly in the power of prayer, God will not change a person who does not want to change. Abuse involves deep-seated mindsets and belief systems of entitlement and superiority, and a need for power and control over others. For an abuser to change involves radical steps to alter long held mindsets, beliefs, and behaviors that many abusive men are unwilling or unable to take. Even if at times things “get better” for a short time, the pattern of abuse often continues.
Many women feel trapped in abusive marriages, especially because they know that God values marriage and as believers, they feel that divorce is not an option. But let me bring another perspective: an abusive marriage is not honoring to God. Pastor and marriage author Gary Thomas put it this way:
“How does it honor the concept of “Christian marriage” to enforce the continuance of an abusive, destructive relationship that is slowly squeezing all life and joy out of a woman’s soul? Our focus has to be on urging men to love their wives like Christ loves the church, not on telling women to put up with husbands mistreating their wives like Satan mistreats us. We should confront and stop the work of Satan, not enable it.” (From the article Dear Church: It’s Time to Stop Enabling Abusive Men)
In some cases, leaving the marriage is a better option than staying. Many women have spent years praying for breakthrough, seeking to heal a broken marriage, and doing everything they can to make things work. But the fact is, it takes two willing and involved people to have a loving, healthy, and godly marriage. It only takes one to destroy a marriage. When one person continually breaks the marriage covenant through infidelity, abuse, pornography, or abandonment, sometimes the best option is for the victim to leave. And to be clear, the abuser is the one who destroyed the marriage in this case, not the one who chose to leave the abuse.
But what does the Bible say? Does Scripture allow for a woman to leave? Women of faith can often struggle to know whether they are allowed biblically to separate from, or divorce, their abusive husbands. There are certainly a variety of opinions on the topic of divorce and remarriage in the church. We must look at the whole counsel of Scripture and do so with an understanding of the heart of God.
Others have written extensively on this topic (see The Life-Saving Divorce by Gretchen Baskerville). But it seems clear to me that the Bible gives permission for a wife to leave when necessary.
“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)
There is a general rule— “a wife should not separate from her husband.” But then this is followed by an exception— “but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” What Paul is basically saying here is that generally speaking, wives should not leave their husbands. Marriage is valued and held in honor, and should be seen as a lifelong commitment. But then, he makes it clear that in some situations women may choose to separate from their husbands—not for the purpose of pursuing other men, but in hopes that there could be eventual reconciliation.
In a similar way, Jesus gives a general rule followed by an exception in Matthew 19:9: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The general rule is to not divorce, but the exception is that permission is given to divorce when there is sexual immorality involved. (And it is important to note that the term for “sexual immorality” is broader than adultery. It is a general term for sexual sin, and would include pornography use).
So, while separation or divorce should not be taken lightly or engaged in flippantly, women in abusive marriages need to know that they have those options. Rather than teaching wives that their only options are to “stay, pray, and obey” we should be giving a different message:
Choosing whether to stay with or leave an abusive spouse is a deeply personal decision that involves multiple factors. Some choose to stay for various reasons and do their best to live with their abusive husband. Some know that they must leave for their own safety and the safety of their children. Some separate multiple times before realizing that their husband is never going to change. Neither choice is an easy decision—both staying and leaving are hard roads to walk down. Each woman must be free to pray, seek counsel, and discern what is right for her situation.
Allowing separation and divorce in cases of abuse does not diminish the value of marriage. Rather, it upholds that marriage is meant to be a loving and godly relationship and that ongoing destructive behavior is never okay. As someone who highly values marriage and believes in the authority of Scripture, I want to say to women: you don’t have to stay in an abusive marriage!