By: Dr. L. Brooks Walker
If you are in an abusive or broken marriage relationship and you turn to your church for help you may get at least two conflicting responses.
One is the practical response when the pastor says get out of the abusive relationship, and the other opinion is the literal response which says you must never divorce for any reason.
For the counselor the literal is the easiest since you simply cite the scriptures which say divorce is a sin and tell the person they must obey even if it means their life. Let us look at these scriptures.
Matt 19:3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
1 Cor. 7:10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:
11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.
So there it is, for the literalist it is simple the Bible says it, so it is the law and you cannot divorce. It is very simple to follow the letter of the law and even simpler for a pastor to hide behind this literal interpretation rather than address the real problems of abuse in a marriage.
At this point I have found that someone who has been raised on a literal interpretation of scripture will have a hard time disregarding these scriptures, but it is important that we study the scriptures to gain wisdom and not just get a quick easy answer.
Quick and easy is what the lawyers (Pharisees) of Jesus day were looking for and in this case in the Matthew scriptures Jesus gave them just what they were looking for because they were not looking for truth or real answers.
They were simply trying to trick him into incriminating himself so that they could tell everyone that Jesus was a law breaker.
Jesus did not fall into their trap; instead he starts by giving them a definition of true marriage. (Verses 4, 5&6) Jesus says that marriage, a real marriage is when the two become one, not just legally but spiritually. The Pharisees counter with the question of why then did Moses allow divorce.
Jesus says because of the hardness of the heart and in a marriage this is the destruction of a relationship and when the relationship is destroyed it is no longer a marriage.
During the Exodus the people were trying to regain their identity as the people of God and there was no way for the Hebrews to get rid of their Egyptian wives and so they were killing them or sending them out to be deserted or become camp followers or prostitutes. Either way they would die or be put to death.
To correct this injustice God, and not Moses, gave the law of a written bill of divorce which allowed these women to join themselves to someone else without penalty. Divorce in this case was actually an act of God’s compassion.
Then Jesus points out that this was not the true intent of marriage and in a true marriage there would be no divorce because when the two become one they will not separate unless someone literally separates them usually by killing the husband and capturing the wife and that person is then under the curse of God.
Jesus is describing Gods perfect intent in an imperfect and sinful world. He has taught the lawyers the perfect understanding of the law and their trap fails.
Notice too, that in Jesus telling of the law he gives no option for the women, she is either kept or put away.
It will be Paul in 1 Corinthians that addresses the woman who has left her husband simply because one group of Jewish lawyers had said that women could divorce their husband’s, and in the other cultures (Greek and Roman) of the 1st century, where many Jews were now living, women could divorce their husbands. Paul is espousing the stricter Jewish law.
In verse 10 he says “they cannot leave”, but then in verse 11 he says “but if they do leave” here is the condition of their divorce that would be acceptable to his understanding of the law.
Is divorce preferable?
No. Is divorce a reality of the day? Yes. We must learn how to deal with this reality in a way that is pleasing to God and even Paul is not being strictly legalistic as he allows for certain conditions to occur in the event of a divorce.
Now let us approach divorce not as Pharisees, by just quoting the law and saying that is the answer, because while many pastors love a literal and legal interpretation, they forget that the people who approached the law this way were the same ones who crucified Jesus. Let’s look at how Jesus interpreted law and not just how he quoted the law.
The harshest words Jesus ever spoke was not to the tax collectors and whores it was to the literalistic and legalistic interpreters of the law that used the law as a tool to condemn and shed blood rather than find justice and mercy.
Read Jesus’ curse to them in Matt. 23.
Matt 23: 23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,
30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.
32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.
33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?
Wow, that is powerful and frightening. Now search the scriptures and find where Jesus goes out and finds a divorcee and says anything like this to them. I will save you the trouble; it’s not in the Bible. Instead what you find is Jesus offering sinners forgiveness and grace.
Since this writing is about marriage and divorce in an abusive or broken relationship lets address the problem of divorce, or as some suggest, the sin of divorce. First be clear that there is sin related to divorce, but it is not the sin of leaving a husband or wife.
The sin of divorce as with all sin is that sin is an affront to God. When we divorce, we break a promise made to one another but more importantly a promise made to God and we should seek forgiveness for this sin.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is willing to forgive us and through grace let us start anew as new creatures in Christ not bound by or to our old sin. Psalm 51 was the psalm of David he wrote it after being caught in murder and adultery and he said, “Against you and you only have I sinned oh Lord.” And God forgave him and was with him for the rest of his life.
Divorce is not the unpardonable sin, even though many in Christian society try to make it out to be.
They fear it and they fear anyone who has experienced it, and so when faced with it in church, they hide behind cold cruel legalism rather than extend the warmth of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Again I say, these are the same pharisaical people that when faced with the truth of Christ love and mercy, they could not face him or run from His truth so they crucified Him. I say we should look to see what brings healing to the hurt and freedom to those enslaved in an abusive situation.
Jesus said that this was the mission he sought to fulfill when he read in the synagogue of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry, he said,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,..” Luke 4:18
It sounds like he is talking to the abused spouse, and he is because abuse is a form of sin.
In an abusive situation the abuser is committing the sin of abuse to their spouse and they have broken the vow they took to love that person.
When a woman divorces an abusive husband she is not the one initiating the divorce, she is fulfilling the requirements of the law.
The abuser is the one who has divorced her through his abusive actions. His abuse has destroyed the marriage and made it an evil union and not an honorable institution. (Heb. 13:4 Marriage is honorable in all…)
An abusive husband has failed in his legal vows and duties as a husband and the marriage is already broken. The original Mosaic law of divorce did not allow for a woman to be seen as anything other than property and so it fell to the man to divorce his wife. KJV Deuteronomy
24:1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
If the relationship has become abusive then he should send his wife away because he has a problem with here. But this law assumes that the man is a righteous man.
If he is a bad man then he takes perverse pleasure in abusing the woman he calls wife instead of loving her as Jesus loved his church.
A woman is not bound to a relationship that is not a true marriage. So what is a true marriage, Jesus said that it was when the two become one and that is an equal relationship of love. Look at Ephesians and see what Paul says a marriage should be.
Eph 5: 21 submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body.
24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
The abusive husband loves to quote verse 22 -24 to his wife but is not so quick to quote 21 and 25.
This section of Ephesians was intended to be a teaching on how Christians should behave and the reference to marriage was used as an example of the behavior found in a right relationship with God and the world, so go back to the beginning of Chapter 5 and see if your marriage measures up to a true marriage based on these behavior traits.
V 1 followers of Christ
V 2 walking in love
V 3, 4, 5 no uncleanness (such as the sin of abuse)
V 6 Not deception
V 7 Partakers with Christ
V 8,9,10 walking in light, fruitful in righteousness and goodness, and being acceptable to God
V 11 no fellowship with works of darkness , shameful behavior, done in secret. (Abuse often goes unreported until someone is hospitalized or dead)
The next few verses, when seen in the context of abusive relationships sounds like a call to action.
V 14-17 Awake sleeper, and arise from the dead, walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, not unwise, understanding the will of the lord (where does it say that it is the will of the lord that you stay with someone who swore to love you, yet abuses you and thereby makes a mockery of the holy institution of marriage.)
Some will argue that I am interpreting the law too broadly and not standing by the letter of the law. I say I am finding the truth, mercy and the compassion of the law that God intended, and not straining on gnats and swallowing camels just so I could condemn and pass judgment on those I profess to care about.
My last two arguments are this, for those that legalistically say we must adhere strictly to the law.
First, I ask was Jesus perfect or was he a sinner?
If you are a strict legalist then you must say that Jesus was not perfect because he broke the law which makes him a sinner. In Luke 13: 11-17 is the story of how Jesus broke the law and sinned according to the leaders of the synagogue.
He healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath and he didn’t even deny that he was working on the Sabbath instead he reveals that god is not in the letter of the law but in the spirit of the law.
Secondly, if divorce is unquestionably condemned and all who divorce are sinners then as a legalist you must say that God himself is a sinner.
For in Jeremiah 3:8 God speaking through the prophet confesses that he has divorced his wife (Israel) because of adultery. But as a legalist you must tell God that adultery applies only to actual fornication and not just spiritual backsliding, so he cannot divorce Israel.
KJV Jeremiah 3:8 And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also.
I for one would not care to tell God that he is guilty of sin and breaking the law, so I must understand that God deals with man in the heart and spirit with mercy and compassion and not in the legalistic wrangling of modern day Pharisees.
Divorce is not what people want out of a marriage but sin comes and can destroy the marriage and all that is left is a place where sin dwells and we call that hell.
So come out and be set free from the pain and bondage of in and the law and fall in to the arms of a graceful and loving God.