Pastoral Carers

Will Briggs — Anglican Pastor, Tasmania

Barbara Roberts' book is subtitled "Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery & Desertion." It is a thorough consideration of how issues surrounding divorce and remarriage are handled by Scripture. While there is a definite pastoral aspect to this book (Roberts herself has been through an abusive marriage) it's main approach is exegetical. After setting the scene, and summarising her conclusions and where she is coming from, Roberts makes a decent consideration of relevant Pauline (1 Corinthians 7 in particular) and Old Testament passages as well as unpacking the teaching of Jesus.

The questions are clear: What are the Biblical grounds for divorce? And, if divorce is allowed, is remarriage also allowed? She helpfully puts forward the key concepts at the beginning of the book:

The Bible distinguishes between "treacherous divorce" and "disciplinary divorce".
Disciplinary divorce is permitted by the Bible. This applies in cases of abuse, adultery or desertion, where a seriously mistreated spouse divorces a seriously offending spouse.
Treacherous divorce is condemned by the Bible. It occurs when a spouse obtains divorce for reasons other than abuse, adultery or desertion.
If the offending partner was sexually immoral, the Bible allows the non-offending partner to remarry.
If the offending partner was abused, deserted or unjustly dismissed the other, and the offender has been judged to be "as an unbeliever", the Bible allows the mistreated partner to remarry.
By taking an exegetical approach Roberts is providing a service to victims of abuse who tend, often as a consequence of their abuse, to be "better at understanding the letter of God's Word than they are at interpreting general principles from scripture." (Page 37, emphasis mine). Here there is assistance to those who are vulnerable to being on the receiving end of scripture misapplied cruelly and abusively.
Coming to this book from a pastoral point of view I was encouraged by some of her conclusions. For instance, in general, the principle that "it is impossible to tell a victim that she ought to leave or stay at any particular juncture — the decision when or whether to leave must be left to each victim... all we can do is lay out the biblical principles that permit separation and help the victim to assess the discernible risk factors, leaving the ultimate choice to her." (p. 43) When people come for answers what they often really looking for is empowerment, freedom to choose the right thing.
The main food for thought for me was her consideration of 1 Corinthians 7. In particular, a key plank in her "abuse is grounds for divorce" argument rests on firstly, the equating of the abuser with being an "unbeliever" who has left (or has brought a separation to the marriage - see page 48), and secondly, the necessity for church discipline to determiner whether the abusing party is "acting as an unbeliever." The exegesis may need some strengthening in parts but I do not think this is an invalid application of a difficult text. It certainly aligns with her aim of allowing all of Scripture to speak — a harmonizing of Moses, Jesus and Paul (p. 108), if you like.
This part, and the rest of the book, certainly gels with my experience (and myriad mistakes) in engaging with people who are facing marital breakdown. I think evangelical considerations of marriage often take an overly-sacramental view that inappropriately elevates the covenantal bond to something eternal and unbreakable. My analogy is that in marriage a new "unit" is formed (the couple in unity) — it is valuable, like a person. It should not be harmed, but can be harmed, it should not be killed, but can be killed. Roberts unpacks how the Bible affirms the value of marriage in the strongest possible way, without becoming separated from the reality that marriage covenants are broken.
Roberts' insistence on church discipline should not be ignored. Yet, for me, it is the most difficult of her exhortations. Not because I disagree with her in the principle of it — but overwhelmed by the practice of it. So often it is incredibly difficult to find out what the truth is behind a marriage breakdown: who is the abuser, who is not? is the marriage sick, or just broken? is what the person saying a true expression of victimhood or manipulative lie?
Roberts would do well to expand on how church leadership may go about exercising the judgement it needs to exercise.
For those trapped in abuse — particular those who are or have experienced religious justifications for that abuse — this book is invaluable. For those expected to give Biblically-grounded advice, this book is a must-read. I by-and-large agree with Roberts' principles but they needs careful application wrapped in a cry to God for wisdom. Barbara Roberts' book is subtitled "Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery & Desertion." It is a thorough consideration of how issues surrounding divorce and remarriage are handled by Scripture. While there is a definite pastoral aspect to this book (Roberts herself has been through an abusive marriage) it's main approach is exegetical. After setting the scene, and summarising her conclusions and where she is coming from, Roberts makes a decent consideration of relevant Pauline (1 Corinthians 7 in particular) and Old Testament passages as well as unpacking the teaching of Jesus.
Will Briggs, March 2010 (originally published on Will Brigg's site Journeyman, which is no longer in existence)

Kriss Mitchell, Living Well Counselling and Consulting

I picked up a copy of Not Under Bondage because I wanted to see another person's views on what I have been teaching and counseling for several years now. As a Christian counselor, it can feel as though I am taking on the entire church when I sometimes encourage women to leave abusive relationships.

When I read David Instone-Brewer's article in Christianity Today, it took a lot of pressure off my shoulders. Coming from an abusive relationship myself, I knew in my spirit that the God I serve could not forbid victims to separate from and divorce their abusive spouses, even if marriage was a "covenant"; but I could never come up with scriptural understanding of why I knew that to be so. There was a point where I just said to myself, "Stop tippytoeing around and just speak the truth as you see it! "

Not Under Bondage and the articles on Barbara Roberts' website have provided me with a wealth of information to be able to pass out, and give substantial proof to the knowing within.

I thank Barbara for the work she did to put this in such a cohesive and understandable format. I know that I will be quoting from this book many times as I write my blog articles.

Kriss Mitchell, M.Ed, LPC, CRC, CNHP
Living Well Counseling and Consulting
Idaho, USA

Notes from Barbara Roberts:
There is a good library of articles on Kriss's website, some written by her and some by others; many of which deal with domestic abuse. Kriss also answers domestic violence questions at All Experts


Jim Pakala, Covenant Theological Seminary

The issue of spousal abuse as a basis for separation is fraught with difficulties that only begin with definitions or understandings of abuse and separation. I know of a Presbytery that had a struggle with a case of serious physical abuse of a woman by her husband. At least one ruling elder at the woman’s church demanded that, as a church member, she stay with her husband despite accumulating evidence that her life could be in jeopardy. As far as I know, an overwhelming majority of the elders and the ministers at both the congregation and presbytery levels concluded that the situation required that the status quo could not continue. Although I don’t think unanimity would have emerged, a book like this may have helped considerably

Jim Pakala, Library Director, Covenant Theological Seminary


Lynne M Baab, Colloquium

Barbara Roberts, an Australian, was the victim of an abusive marriage. After she separated from her husband, he made a profession of faith in Christ, so she reconciled with him. She believed the Bible commanded her to do this. The abuse started again, she left him again, and she began looking for resources to help her understand what the Bible teaches about divorce. She studied the topic exhaustively and wrote a book to put in one place everything she had learned.

Her personal story is recounted only very briefly. The bulk of the book is a detailed look at all the biblical passages on divorce, drawing on the Greek and Hebrew texts and referring to dozens of books, both popular and academic. She comes to several interesting conclusions. She argues that the Bible differentiates between “treacherous divorce” and “disciplinary divorce.” This second kind of divorce is permitted by the Bible, she argues, in cases of abuse, adultery or desertion. Divorce for any other reason, however, is not permitted; therefore she uses “treacherous” to describe divorce when abuse, adultery or desertion has not been a factor.

Roberts’s conclusions about remarriage are also noteworthy. She writes: “If the offending partner was sexually immoral, the Bible allows the non-offending partner to remarry. If the offending partner abused, deserted or unjustly dismissed the other, and the offender has been judged to be ‘as an unbeliever’, the Bible allows the mistreated partner to remarry” (7). She describes what it might look like for an abused person to convince a church board to judge his or her spouse “as an unbeliever,” a concept that comes from Matt 18:17. She observes that when someone accuses his or her spouse of abuse, that spouse usually leaves their church. So she argues, in a conclusion I find astonishing, that the abused person needs to track down the spouse or ex-spouse at whatever church he or she now attends and ask the board of that church to judge the spouse “as an unbeliever.”

Roberts provides some interesting statistics. Religious victims stay in abusive marriages longer, on the average, than non-religious people (11.4 to 8.6 years respectively) and religious victims experience abuse for a longer period of time than non-religious victims (9.4 to 7.4 years on average). If these statistics are accurate, this is obviously a tragedy about which church leaders need to think carefully. She also notes that abusers who have been referred for treatment by clergy are more likely to complete the program than those without clergy referral, another pattern that clergy should know about.

Eleven appendices provide an interesting array of resources, including a variety of translations of Mal 2:16 and a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions describing his parents’ marriage. One six-page appendix presents the response of the Geneva Consistory in 1552, under John Calvin’s leadership, when a noblewoman wrote to ask if she had biblical grounds to divorce her Roman Catholic husband.

Roberts’s book is a window into a world quite different than mine. The difference does not reside in the fact that I have not experienced abuse in my marriage. The significant gap between Roberts’s world and mine comes from the fact that I do not approach the Bible the way she does, even though my background is evangelical. Roberts’s book provides a glimpse of the desperation she felt as an abused woman in a conservative church setting because of Jesus’ words about divorce only for adultery. This desperation seems to have arisen from her commitment to obey every word of the Bible in the most literal sense.

The endorsements for Roberts’s book and a small number of additional statements on her website indicate that some scholars are enthusiastic about the way she has examined the biblical texts. As a pastoral theologian I am unfortunately not equipped to critique her exegesis. I do have significant mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, it could perhaps be useful for ministers who desire to help abused parishioners coming from a conservative background. It gives arguments that might help abused people feel the freedom to divorce their abusers even if they are committed to literal obedience of every word of the Bible. The book might help ministers in conservative churches to stop using the argument that the Bible permits divorce only in the case of adultery to encourage abused women to stay in their marriages.

On the other hand, many of the arguments she presents as she examines the various biblical passages on divorce are based on interpretations that seem complex and hard to understand for a lay person or even a minister with minimal training in the biblical languages. Therefore I wonder if most people in abusive marriages or most ministers will be able to accurately assess her exegesis. I know I did not feel competent to do so. In addition, I have great reservations about the value of treating the Bible like a handbook that has a unified view on every societal issue. A book like Roberts’s encourages Christians not only to look for that unified view on challenging issues, but she encourages the reader to believe that “what the Bible says about divorce” will be found exclusively in the passages that talk about marriage or divorce, rather than in the wider overarching themes of God’s grace and Christ’s redemption.

Lynne M. Baab, Colloquium Volume 41, no 1, mid-2009

Dr Barbara Wilson New Life Newspaper

As an immature Christian, Barbara Roberts married an unbeliever in 1989 and her marriage gradually became abusive. Barbara with her daughter finally left, but returned to the marriage when her husband made a profession of faith. However the abuse continued and finally, in 1999, she separated from him for the last time and divorced him a few years later.

Barbara looks at the way the Bible distinguishes between "treacherous divorce" and '"disciplinary divorce", the characteristics of each, and what the Bible permits in each of those situations.

She carefully researches both Old and New Testament teaching on divorce in its context, and carefully documents her findings and conclusions. The bibliography is extensive and the book is well indexed.

It is not an easy book to read, and the author has carefully wrestled with the Biblical text to come to her conclusions – and some of them may be different from what Bible believing Christians would expect. They may reject some of them, believing that divorce is not permitted in any circumstance. Barbara also looks carefully at the so-called "exception" clause.

This book is carefully written by someone who has been in this very difficult place at a personal level, and writes with a discernment which many readers will appreciate. It will help the committed Christian to carefully explore what the Bible says about this subject, and not only what one thinks it teaches. The book can also help a Christian who is in an abusive situation know that the Bible sets the victims of abuse free from bondage and guilt.

Most of us have not been through these waters, and we should not be over judgmental until all the issues have been carefully and prayerfully considered. Barbara tells us that "abuse can be emotional, social, financial, sexual, physical and spiritual. It might involve using children or legal processes as an artillery of abuse – for non-physical forms of abuse can be just as (or more) damaging than physical violence. They are also harder to recognise."

The book has fine reviews from scholars who are teachers in the areas of ethics and theology from Moore College, Taylor University, Covenant Seminary, and Tyndale House. I commend it to our readers and to Christian counsellors as a further tool in understanding Biblical teaching about this destructive experience.

Dr Barbara Wilson, co-editor of New Life, Australia's Christian Newspaper

Patsy Rae Dawson, Gospel Themes

"After 35 years of teaching both the positive and negative aspects of marriage and looking back at what happened to many of my first students, I highly recommend Not Under Bondage. Barbara’s insights and teaching is badly needed by Christians who often neglect God’s righteous solution of disciplinary divorce for certain problems.

If more people exercised God’s way of escape by divorcing for impenitent sin in their homes, I believe Christians would exert tremendous peer pressure on wayward spouses as they acknowledge that God does not tolerate such ungodly conduct. Sin thrives on secrecy and a mate falsely thinking, “It’s my fault,” instead of demanding accountability.

As Christians, we often focus so strongly on saving the marriage that we fail to recognize the other person’s free will in choosing to be abusive rather than loving. Love is a choice as is demonstrated by the commands in the Bible to love others. We don’t earn another person’s love. And often the justifications for refusing to love are utterly ridiculous and selfish.

Every person who feels trapped by God in a loveless or abusive marriage needs to study this book. It may not have been God, but man’s ignorance that ensnared them. The irony is that when God’s people believe they are trapped and then work hard “to just survive,” they are actually creating an environment that allows the mate’s sin to flourish.

Barbara will stretch your mind as she explores word meanings, the context, and the consistency of how words are used in other passages. She skilfully proves that our slogan, “God hates divorce,” ignores both the meanings of words and the grammar in Mal. 2:16. After you read this chapter, you may want to correct the way you quote that catchphrase.

The eye opening chapter, “What is abuse?” makes the whole book worth reading whether you agree with anything else.

An abused woman herself, Barbara clearly answers the question I’ve asked abused women for nearly 20 years, “Why do you stay?” Most victims do not know why they continue to “spend all their energies walking on eggshells and trying to ‘fix’ the relationship.”

Basically, they stay because in the “dynamic cycle of abuse” tension builds until an episode of sin occurs, then the abuser offers just enough “buy backs” of affection that the victim is happy and hopeful for her marriage without core problems being addressed. The victim believes the buy backs and her fantasy of happily ever after. No doubt, Barbara’s words will wake up many victims to their codependence with sin.

I highly recommend Not Under Bondage to help you examine the scriptures from a fresh perspective and to look anew at one of God’s ways for waging a spiritual battle against sin in the home.

I pray God’s blessings on Barbara and her efforts as she deals with “Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery & Desertion” and ultimately, our own better treatment of those who falsely assume they are trapped in marriage to an abuser.
(Amazon rank starsstarsstarsstarsstars)

Patsy Rae Dawson Challenges in Marriage: What to do when Sin Inhibits Love (audio teaching on MP3 or CD)Gospel Themes

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Pastor Brian Birkett, Citylife Church, Melbourne

Not Under Bondage is an excellent text which tackles a challenging and controversial topic. The author has wrestled with the issues from a theological, experiential and practical perspective coming to some well thought through recommendations and measured conclusions.

When first picking up the book I thought that perhaps it was a book where the author was simply arguing the issues from her own experience speaking out of woundedness and therefore being biased in her conclusions. I can assure you that this is not the case. Rather she has thought through issues to depth drawing on a number of key texts written on these issues already and examining and exegeting scripture carefully.

Not Under Bondage is a book which examines the issue of divorce. The author considers when divorce is biblical and therefore when it is legitimate from a Christian’s point of view. Her conclusions will be helpful for pastors, church leaders, and denominational leaders, any Christian who cares for others who are going through marriage difficulties and any person who has been through the heartache of divorce.

The author does not give licence to people to divorce over trivial matters, but rather affirms the sanctity of marriage whilst making clear that there are most unfortunate situations where divorce may be a last resort.

Barbara Roberts considers carefully the issues of divorce for abuse, adultery and desertion. These are all tragic situations and are well explained as to why the author comes to her conclusions.

The author’s appendices, footnotes and other texts which she draws from all contribute to produce a well thought through, well argued presentation. Whether you agree with the author’s conclusions or not, it is an excellent book which I recommend be carefully examined in the ongoing complex debate raging within the Christian church as to the appropriate time for divorce and what types of divorce allow for remarriage. Particularly her treatment of the issue of abuse contributing to the potential for the legitimacy of divorce is wrestled with thoroughly. Again whatever your personal bias or traditional conclusions it is well worth the time to consider the author’s arguments and use them to inform you to come to your own well thought through conclusions.

May God use this book, among a number of others, to guide the Christian church to strengthen marriages, bring healing and hope to hurting people and find guidance to the way ahead in an often fractured community.

Pastor Brian Birkett, Citylife Church, Melbourne

John Wilson (Presbyterian Theological College, Melbourne)

This book belongs on the shelf of every pastor. Roberts has made a significant contribution to pastoral theology. In this book she grapples tenaciously with the theology of marriage, divorce and remarriage but with particular focus on the seldom-tackled scenarios facing an abused woman.

John Wilson (Lecturer in Practical Theology, Presbyterian Theological College, Melbourne)

Deb Sugars (St Jude’s Anglican Church, Melbourne)

Barbara Roberts’ book is a very helpful resource. Written by a survivor of domestic abuse, it is for people who have suffered in marriage, and for those who seek to minister with them, in encouragement and counsel. Barbara's coverage of the issues is comprehensive. She defines abuse clearly, and carefully examines the relevant biblical material, and academic research in the area. She shows how the bible can give victims of abuse freedom from guilt. She draws a helpful distinction between treacherous divorce and disciplinary divorce – the former when a spouse takes out a divorce without biblical grounds, the latter where there is a clear statement of the grounds for divorce, a verification that they are biblical, then discipline is used as a tool. Barbara's plea to teachers and speakers, at the conclusion of the book, is ‘It only takes 11 words to say: God hates treacherous divorce but he does not hate disciplinary divorce.’

Deb Sugars (pastoral care worker, St Jude’s Anglican Church, Melbourne)