I wrestled with how to biblically answer this question for some time. Is abuse grounds for divorce in the Bible? Can Christians justify it? Generally, I felt like it was. However, my feelings have betrayed me more often than not so I wanted to have a solid foundation of truth before answering this question on a platform like this. Preparing for both the Biblical Womanhood and the Women in the Bible series has given me that foundation. And the simple answer is yes it is.
The Sanctity of Marriage
I cannot overstate how sacred marriage is. That is very clear to me from the scriptures.
7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”Mark 10: 7-9
I have trembled at those words. At a time in my marriage, when I felt like I had “fallen out of love,” when I felt miserable and desperate, those words kept playing over and over in my head. Although at the time I had no problem walking away from my marriage, I shuttered at the thought of trying to break something apart that God had joined together. That little bit of truth saved me and saved my marriage. All this to say that I don’t approach the topic of divorce lightly.
“What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.“
As we talk about biblical grounds for divorce, we should always keep those words in the forefront of our minds. Even when we are talking about abuse.
Isn’t Adultery the Only Grounds for Divorce?
The idea that adultery is the only grounds for divorce is actually very mainstream in the church. There is a good reason for that. Proponents of this view will cite Jesus’ words Matthew 19:9.
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”Matthew 19:9
Those same words led me to the same conclusion at one point. Why have I changed my mind? Because every scripture has to be understood in the context of the Bible as a whole. What I was missing before was the context. When it comes to abuse, there are other Biblical principles at play that must also be considered. It is only in the context of those principles that we can understand Matthew 19:9.
Abuse is an Extanuating Circumstance Where Grounds Can Be Made for Divorce
Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9 are generally the guidance we want to follow when discussing marriage and divorce. However, can exceptions be made to that guidance? Does God allow for exceptions? When one of His other principles is being violated, God does indeed allow for exceptions. There are various examples of this throughout the Bible and they all have a similar pattern. Cases of abuse follow that pattern.
Jesus Taught Us When It is Appropriate to Allow for Exceptions
In two different scenarios in chapter 12 of Matthew, Jesus teaches about not missing the big picture and learning to identify when to make exceptions.
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”Matthew 12: 1-8 (ESV)
In this first encounter, the Pharisees call Jesus out because he is allowing his disciples to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath. They are essentially “working” and the Pharisees are hardliners for the rules. Jesus responds by bringing to their attention a well known incident regarding David in the Old Testament ( I Samuel 20. ) David is fleeing from Saul and takes the ceremonial bread for himself and his men (with the priest’s permission).
In the case of David and his men, they were not hungry because they missed their afternoon snack. He and his men were on the run with little resources. They were probably closer to starving, especially traveling for long distances with no time to stop to hunt, pick fruit of trees, etc.
The same was probably true for Jesus’ disciples. Back then, you couldn’t just stop at the grocery store and pick yourself up something quick to eat. People would go an entire day or sometimes days without eating, especially when traveling. Do you deny men food who probably have not eaten all day due to serving their Lord just so they don’t violate the Sabbath? The obvious answer is no (although not that obvious to the Pharisees).
9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”–so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.Matthew 12:9-14 (ESV)
Once again the Pharisees are trying to be very technical with the Sabbath essentially claiming Jesus is working by healing the man with the withered hand. The example Jesus uses in his response is of a sheep in dire straits who would be immediately rescued by any of his accusers. He then points out how the value of a person is so much greater than a sheep. Jesus is essentially asking, “Are you going to get so technical with the rules that you would abstain from doing the kind thing for a person? You would do it for a sheep, why not for a human being?”
Examples When There Were Exceptions Made for Women
In addition to these lessons taught by Jesus, there are various stories in the Old Testament where certain behavior was applauded that would have otherwise been condemned in different circumstances.
Shiphrah and Puah
Shiprah and Puah were two women who not only lied, but defied a Pharaoh. Why were they lying? To save the lives of Israeli babies. In doing so, however, in eyes of a Pharisee, they technically would have sinned. However, what was God’s response? He rewarded them by giving them families. (You can read more about them in Shiphrah and Puah: The Women Who Defied a Pharaoh)
Tamar is a woman who deceived her father-in-law and got him to sleep with her. That has to be a sin right? And yet the Biblical record doesn’t paint her in a bad light. Instead, the father-in-law admits to his error in failing to provide for Tamar. Why did Tamar do this? She was likely in dire straights, stripped of the financial and physical protection provided by a husband. She did what she did to protect her livelihood. (You can read more in Tamar in the Bible: An Unintentional Hero)
Abigail went behind her husband’s back and against what she knew were his wishes by providing food and refreshments to David and his men. She disobeyed her husband! And yet, God punished the husband and blessed Abigail by providing financial security for the rest of her life (in marrying David) and striking her husband dead. Did Abigail disobey her husband on a whim? No! Abigail did what she did to save the lives of her household including that of her wretched husband. (Read more in Abigail in the Bible: Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves)
Jael murdered a man who she invited into her tent. She was lauded a hero. There is even a song in the Bible that mentions her name as one. Who was this man she killed? He was the general of Israel’s enemy during a time of war. While he was escaping, she provided no mercy, no quarter. She struck him dead with a tent peg and thereby secured the defeat of the enemy. (Read more in Jael in the Bible: A Female Assasin)
The Pharisees would have had a field day condemning any of these women. The Bible does not.
Common Theme Behind These Exceptions
What is the common theme in Jesus’ two encounters with the Pharisees and the examples of the women I gave? The actions were all taken to preserve life and livelihood. The intent of these women was not based on greed, selfishness, or ill intent. It was based on preserving their own lives and those of their loved ones. It wasn’t about finding happiness. It was about preserving the basic right to life. Preserving life is a basic biblical principle because God made us in His image.
Leaving an Abusive Spouse Preserves the Image of God
There is an intrinsic value in human beings because we were created in the image of God. It is our duty to preserve that image in both the things we do and how we take care of our bodies.
19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.I Corinthians 6:19-20 (ESV)
Can we, then, condemn a women for not allowing her husband to tarnish that image by beating her or denying her access to basic necessities? And what does that say of a church that allows that to happen under their watch?
Would not Jesus turn around and say, “Is her life not worth more than a sheep?” — as he did to the Pharisees?
When a woman leaves her abusive husband she is preserving her life, that of her children, and their livelihood. And if we know that a woman is in an abusive relationship, we should seek everything in our power to help the victim. Her life and that of her children have God-given intrinsic worth and value and that matters.
Jesus didn’t give us the standard about divorce for us to fall back into the ways of the Pharisees. He gave it to us to understand just how very sacred marriage is, but he wasn’t asking us to do so at the expense of preserving human life.Jesus didn't give us the standard about divorce for us to fall back into the ways of the Pharisees. He gave it to us to understand just how very sacred marriage is, but he wasn't asking us to do so at the expense of preserving human… Click To Tweet
A Final Warning for Women Who Confuse Unhappiness with Abuse
I wish I didn’t have to make these final statements, but unfortunately, I have seen too many women take advantage of the sympathy given to abused women. In search of selfish desires, they cry out abuse to dissolve themselves of the marriage for ungodly reasons.
A husband who plays too many video games is not an abusive husband.
A husband that forgets to take out the trash is not an abusive husband.
A husband who doesn’t have a CEO salary is not an abusive husband.
A husband who doesn’t communicate is not an abusive husband.
A husband who is a slob is not an abusive husband.
And I could go on and on………
Marriage is sacred and we should take Jesus words to heart. If we choose to dissolve a marriage, we better search our hearts, make sure our motives are pure, and seek godly counsel for an outside perspective. An unhappy marriage is not a biblical reason for divorce, it is a reason to seek counseling, and prayer, and mentorship, etc. I sympathize with you. I have been there, but we can’t confuse unhappiness with abuse.
When the Husband is the Victim
Most abuse victims statistically are women. However, I have personally known cases where the husband is the abuse victim. It happens and probably more often than we would think. This article is for them too.
A Final Plea to the Church
I have consoled and counseled many women who are in abusive marriages. Of all those women, I know of only three that left the marriage. One of them “left” only because the husband was arrested after he shot her and the other because she was basically kidnapped by her family for her safety. In all the other cases, there has been a reluctance to leave. I one case, I even had made arrangements for the shelter to sneak her away in the middle of the night and she cancelled it at the last minute.
Abused women (and men) have been so psychologically tormented that there is an almost invisible bond with the abuser that is difficult to break. For that reason, many times they can’t even identify that they are indeed in an abusive relationship.
This is where the church needs to step in. Broken, abused women need support, validation, serious intervention, and help to identify the abuse for what it is. When they have the courage to speak out and seek help, we can’t turn them away with platitudes. This is where we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, need to be ready and willing to step into the messy lives of people. Sometimes the cry for help is not made at an appointment with a pastor. It is made with an off handed comment in Bible study or in the lobby after church service. We can’t stick our heads in the sand when that happens. We have to be the church and protect our brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you are in an abusive relationship, please go to a safe place and call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit them online at thehotline.org.
Other articles about marriage you may enjoy: