John Diacos — The Briefing, Nov 2009

Divorce and remarriage are always controversial and troubling issues for those who wish to submit to the authority of God’s word. Even for those who have given the subject some thought, it can be challenging to know where the dividing lines lie: we want to affirm the importance of the marriage relationship, yet we’re aware that marriages, like all relationships, can break down. As a result, it can be difficult to know what to teach and how to advise those undergoing marital difficulties.

On this topic, Not Under Bondage is a challenging and stimulating book that addresses the circumstances in which divorce and remarriage are permissible. It contains detailed sections that grapple with many of the relevant biblical texts. In particular, it addresses relationships in which there has been abuse.

Abuse

Perhaps the book’s greatest value is its insightful and sympathetic description of the nature of abusive relationships. I recommend the opening chapters to those who care for married people as they help you identify and aid victims of abuse. Abuse is often a hidden problem in churches—hidden even from those closest to the couple. Victims may maintain secrecy—often because they are in denial and have been rationalizing their spouse’s behaviour for years. But their distress is compounded when, upon speaking up, they are disbelieved or, worse, when they are believed but not helped.

While sin means that all of us will occasionally mistreat and exploit others, abuse describes persistent patterns of behaviour. These include not just physical violence, but emotional manipulation (threats, coercion, humiliation), social deprivation, financial constraint and sexual abuse. Sometimes such behaviours are even justified by appeals to Scripture. Characteristically, the perpetrator will shift blame for their behaviour onto their spouse and deny all responsibility (p. 21).1 All of these behaviours are bullying tactics “designed to obtain and maintain ungodly control over another” (p. 20). Typically, perpetrators are not constantly abusive, which leads to uncertainty in their spouse: “The victim suffers at the hands of the abuser, who professes love but shows hate, who makes inconsistent and contradictory demands from one day to the next” (p. 16). Those who endure such relationships find them all-pervading, and often end up developing mental and physical illnesses.

So what biblical guidance is there for those in abusive marriages? Roberts argues that separation, in some circumstances, may be justified, and she is correct to point out that it is not wrong to protect ourselves from harm, nor to remove ourselves to prevent another from continuing in sinful behaviour. Roberts rightly challenges churches to consider dysfunctional marriages a matter for discipline. Sin flourishes in secret, and marriages should not be exempt from our care of each other. Instead, sin should be challenged by the two or three, the elders and the whole church (if necessary) in order to call the offender to repentance. Recognition of the perpetrator’s sin also enlists the help and support of the church for the victim.

Divorce and remarriage

Following the chapters on abuse, Roberts establishes the general case for divorce and remarriage. Using texts like Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15, she makes clear that there are circumstances in which divorce (and by implication, she argues, remarriage) are permissible.2It is not controversial to recognize that these verses specify adultery and desertion by an unbelieving spouse as grounds for divorce. However, it is her understanding of desertion in the case of abuse that deserves further examination.

The main argument of the book centres on 1 Corinthians 7:15: “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.” This verse speaks of the dissolution of the marriage when an unbeliever deserts or separates from a believer. But Roberts reasons that this verse also applies to abusive marriages—that the perpetrator, by virtue of their behaviour, drives the victim away, thus forcing separation. Furthermore, should the offending spouse claim to be Christian, they should be disciplined, and if they fail to repent, they should subsequently be treated like an unbeliever.3

However, at best, this interpretation is strained: the context of 1 Corinthians 7 is Paul addressing questions regarding marriage and sexual expression. To Corinthians concerned about being married to an unbeliever, Paul’s advice is that such marriages are legitimate, so they should remain married (7:12-14). However, regarding those whose unbelieving spouse wants to leave (even though the believer may wish the marriage to continue for their salvation—v. 16), Paul’s command is to allow them to go (v. 15).

So it is difficult to imagine that the apostle intended verse 15 to refer in such a circuitous way to abusive marriages in which a spouse is forced to flee. It feels like Roberts has an argument for divorce and is searching for justification. Indeed, it tends towards legalism to redefine someone as an unbeliever and their actions as desertion in order to fulfil the requirements of this verse.

Indeed, while Not Under Bondage features a lot of analysis of individual verses, they are often considered outside their context. Most troubling is Roberts’ failure to consider the context of the entire Bible; when it comes to divorce and remarriage, shouldn’t the first question to ask be “What does the Bible make of marriage”?

The biblical passages on divorce are very brief compared to those on marriage. God’s commitment is to the permanence of marriage (Gen 2:24; Matt 19:4-6), and this in turn is a reflection of his faithfulness to his people (Isa 54:5; Ezek 16:8; Hos 2:16-20; Eph 5:31-32). Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees in Matthew 19 reflects this emphasis: he redirects them from their question regarding the minimum justification for divorce to consider the nature of marriage—that it is a divinely constructed lifelong union that is not to be dissolved lightly. Yet Roberts makes the Pharisees’ mistake of not placing the discussion of legitimate grounds for divorce within the biblical context. This is apparent in the title—a reflection of the words in 1 Corinthians 7:15. However, ‘bondage’ is exactly the kind of commitment marriage entails—two becoming one, committed to serving one another in all circumstances of life.

Also troubling is Roberts’s failure to give all but passing mention to 1 Peter 3:1-7. I expected this passage, which calls for patient service when married to an un­believing and/or disobedient husband, to be critical in any discussion regarding abusive marriage. Service like this is, no doubt, a supernatural ability, but it is urged by Peter as imitation of Christ (1 Pet 2:21-24). Advice to victims on how to remain patient and faithful to God and their spouse within their marriages would have proved an invaluable addition to this book.

Instead, the author draws attention to the rights due to a spouse—for example, by drawing on Exodus 21:7-11 (p. 61ff). However, a Christian marriage is not characterized by insistence upon rights, but rather by obligations and responsibilities. Christian husbands are to give their lives to love and serve their wives (Eph 5:25), but wives are not to demand their right to a loving husband. Wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:22), but husbands are not to insist that their wives submit. This distinction is not unimportant, because it is the difference between viewing marriage self-centredly and seeing it as an opportunity to serve.

How can a victim of abuse continue to love their spouse? How can he or she move towards reconciliation when the relationship is broken? This advice would have been invaluable in a book certain to be read by those in abusive marriages. So too would an honest evaluation of divorce, which often creates more problems than it solves.

While I cannot justify this particular view of 1 Corinthians 7:15, Not Under Bondage is right to call for understanding, sympathy and action for those suffering in their marriages. We need to acknowledge the difficulty of many marital relationships, but also the need for all of us to be longsuffering with one another. We need to help each other err on the side of bearing with one another in love (Eph 4:2; Col 3:13).

Of course, even then, there comes a time when the damage in a marriage is irrevocable. Abuse can destroy all trust between a couple, and an unrepentant spouse makes further relationship impossible. Roberts is right to call on churches to be ready to discipline offending spouses, and to provide comfort and protection to those experiencing abuse. The issue of how to advise and support those in abusive relationships is important, and I for one would welcome further discussion.

ENDNOTES

1 Bullying is characterized by low self-esteem that is alleviated by finding fault in others, taking control, refusing to apologize or take responsibility for one’s behaviour, and failing to understand the consequences of one’s actions. An excellent description of bullying and some tactics to combat it can be found in Sam Horn, Take the Bully by the Horns (St Martins Griffin, New York, 2002).

2 While I did not require convincing, I will not pretend that this view is without controversy. However, while it was necessary for Roberts to establish the possibility of divorce and remarriage, the aim of her book is to go beyond this and outline permissible grounds for divorce. At any rate, she makes a well-argued case for remarriage.

3 A superior argument deserving further development is that marriages are destroyed by attacks on both the leaving and cleaving that form its foundation (Gen 2:24): just as adultery disrupts the exclusiveness of marriage, so desertion and abuse assaults its unity by driving a spouse away (p. 17).

John Diacos, Minister in the Presbyterian Church of Australia.
Read this review in The Briefing November 2009