Daniel W. Zink

Daniel W. Zink, Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review, 36/2 (Fall 2010)

This book focuses on the complex question of the church’s proper understanding of and response to spousal violence. Barbara Roberts suffered abuse at the hands of her husband in their ten-year marriage. She shares that “at that time I needed a book which analyzed and explained the Scriptures pertinent to marital abuse, but could not find one that went into sufficient detail” (15). It seemed to her that the church as a whole had not given enough thought to the issue, and as a result, was doing damage to abuse victims. Roberts set out to fill the gap in the literature, producing this thorough treatment of a full range of questions related to spousal abuse, pastoral responses, the ethics of divorce, and the related biblical data.

The greatest strength of the book is the many helpful insights into the experience of the abuse victim—both at the hands of her spouse and with church leadership. For example, cautions to remember that a victim has survived by minimizing the seriousness of the abuse are very valuable. Our pastoral judgments will be more accurate if we gently ask probing questions to aid the victim in being specific about what was done to her, so that we can see beyond her initial it’s-not-that-bad statements. If we will fail to listen well or see accurately the severity of the situation, we will fail to provide the needed intervention. Roberts repeatedly and clearly details the thinking of the victim and what is needed from pastors and elders in caring for the couple. A careful reading of this book will help church leaders better understand abuse situations and their victims, and provide more constructive pastoral care in these complex cases.

There are, in broad terms, three interpretive approaches to the biblical texts used in conservative evangelical circles with regard to divorce. The first emphasizes the literal meaning of the text, usually resulting in a small list of specific reasons that divorce may be appropriate (if any reasons are found at all). One outcome of this approach is the view that sexual infidelity and desertion by an unbelieving spouse are the only possible biblical grounds for divorce. This view gives little pastoral guidance for difficult and dangerous situations not included on the “official” list.

A second approach—and this is Roberts’s view—is slightly less literal and interprets the vocabulary of the text in broader terms in order to apply the text to situations like abuse that are not specifically mentioned in Scripture. Roberts focuses on 1 Corinthians 7 and its vocabulary for separation, noting that this same Greek word was also used to denote divorce. She argues carefully that this text could be seen as not naming desertion as grounds for divorce for the believing spouse who is left behind, but rather stating that when the unbeliever separates from the marriage (an informal but widely recognized act of divorce at the time) the believer is free to legalize what has already occurred. Roberts argues that abuse is equivalent to separating from the marriage, and is, therefore, a biblically supported reason to divorce. Though Roberts seems to want to be careful with the text, and tries to limit how far others might go to open the door to seeing all kinds of spousal failures as biblical grounds for divorce, I nevertheless, see this approach as stretching the meaning of the text to create additional applications for it. Such a view makes it too easy to support an inappropriate expansion of actions as biblical reasons for divorce.

A third approach honors the inspired texts as inerrant and instructive, coming at them by asking not only what they say, but also what principles are taught through them. In this case, viewing Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 together, we see a reason common to both that infidelity and desertion are grounds for divorce. These are radical covenant-breaking actions. Sexual infidelity is more than a violation of marital faithfulness, as the interpreters from the other two approaches are likely to hold. Infidelity is a breaking of the special and multiple covenant promises made in marriage. Desertion has similar covenant-breaking results. Could there be other actions that radically break the marriage covenant? Yes. Is spousal abuse such an action? Sometimes. Therefore, it is best if situations are evaluated and judged on a case-by-case basis.

Roberts defines abuse broadly as covering a wide range of behaviors, and she adds cautions to not include every type of abuse as an automatic reason for divorce. Indeed, some of these behaviors may not be so radical a breach of the marriage covenant as to justify divorce. A man who is chronically negative in speech toward his wife can be destructive to her emotional wellbeing, and such a situation can be so chronic and so destructive that the husband is breaking his promise to love and nurture his wife in a sacrificial manner. But it is also possible for such behavior to not be so severe or chronic, in which case it may not be so clear that covenant promises are being broken, even when such behavior is burdensome to the wife. Determining that abuse is categorically grounds for divorce, as Roberts does, precludes the more prudent approach of case-by-case evaluation on the part of church leadership.

To Roberts’ credit, she carefully works through the biblical texts related to divorce and remarriage, presenting a good overview of each of the approaches to interpreting these passages. She also does a good job of addressing fairly the differing positions of a variety of authors. She does not create straw men, but states the various points of view clearly, giving careful readers room to think for themselves as they seek the most effective and biblically faithful position to guide ministry and practice. Pastors and elders can benefit from a thoughtful reading this book, which provides a helpful perspective on the experience of the abuse victim and addresses thoroughly the many related issues and biblical texts. Most of all, the book will encourage church leaders to be seek constructive discipline as early as possible in these difficult situations—something many couples need in this age of tumult in the home.