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