Introduction from "Not Under Bondage"

This introduction is provided here for free but is copyright —all rights reserved to Barbara Roberts. 

This book explores biblical principles that can direct victims of marital abuse. It seeks to find answers from the whole of God’s Word, recognizing this Word as inspired, without error and fully sufficient to guide us in all matters of life and practice. It has a special focus on divorce for marital abuse but it also discusses divorce and remarriage in cases of unjust dismissal, desertion and sexual immorality. You should find help in this book if you are:

  • a victim of marital abuse;
  • a divorcee for a reason other than marital abuse;
  • a person who wonders whether the Bible allows divorce and remarriage and on what grounds;
  • a family member, friend or counselor of a Christian divorcee;
  • a pastor, chaplain or theologian who seeks to give biblical guidance on divorce and remarriage.

If you are reading this book because you are interested in God’s guidance on divorce and remarriage, but are not particularly interested in the domestic abuse aspect, you may wish to skim through the first three chapters, then read more carefully from chapter four.

I am a survivor of an abusive marriage. The concept for this book emerged when my marriage of 10 years finally ended. 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. Many scriptures can be applied to domestic abuse: scriptures about suffering, repentance, forgiveness, submission and headship, separation, divorce and remarriage. This book deals only with the scriptures relating to separation, divorce and remarriage.

The subject of separation, divorce and remarriage is a minefield in Christian circles. Opinions vary as to the correct interpretation of the pertinent scriptures. Interpretation has been difficult because community appreciation of the dynamics of marital abuse only began to develop in the last decades of the twentieth century. The community, until recently, was in denial about the issue, just as victims and perpetrators often are. This affected Christians and led to scriptural interpretations that either ignored the possibility of marital abuse, or failed to recognize its peculiar dynamics.

Another difficulty is that translations of the Bible have sometimes obscured what the original text actually said. For example, Malachi 2:16 has often been translated as if God is declaring “I hate divorce”, whereas it probably does not say that at all. (This will be explored in chapter eight.)

A third difficulty is that we have been reading Jesus’ words through our own cultural grid rather than hearing what they would have meant to his audience. We need to consider how Jesus’ hearers would have understood his teachings. This approach makes it easier to make sense of many of the apparent difficulties in the various divorce texts.

The scriptural plight of the domestic abuse victim

Being a Christian and a victim of abuse produces a spiritual dilemma. Does the Bible command a victim to stay in an appalling marriage, or does it permit separation? If it permits separation, does it permit divorce? Does it also permit remarriage? The committed Christian wants to obey God above all else, and does not dare to divorce without clear biblical permission. Yet Christians interpret the divorce scriptures in a variety of ways. Bewildered and exhausted by the conduct of the other spouse, the victim of abuse has little energy to sift through and evaluate these various interpretations.

In 1992, Christianity Today surveyed its readers’ views on the permissibility of divorce and remarriage. The results suggested layers of confusion about what the Bible permits and what it prohibits. This can be the experience of abuse victims who seek pastoral advice about divorce and remarriage.

Peter F. Rutledge in his PhD thesis said: “Research of past teachers of renown reveals what I believe to be a tragic tale of pastoral irresponsibility in their discussions on marital abuse.” Rev Al Miles has commented, “In many religious circles, pastors treat divorce far more harshly than they treat wife beating.” In a 1986 study of severely abused victims, one in three who turned to clergy said they were instructed that they could not leave the relationship or that it would be sinful to do so, and that divorce was strongly discouraged. They reported they felt trapped by their religion. Attitudes among clergy seem to have somewhat improved since the 1980s, with some Christian writers and teachers bringing more balanced views.

Unfortunately, some writers have had a total blind spot regarding abuse. Carl Laney (The Divorce Myth) is an example. This book only permits divorce when marriage is between people who are close relatives. It rejects the right of divorce, or even separation, for victims of adultery and desertion. This was the only divorce book I read during a four-year period of separation from my husband. As a victim of domestic violence, I was outside Laney’s universe. I reconciled with my husband, the abuse recurred and I separated again.

Other writers appear to contradict themselves. On one hand they claim adultery is the only permissible ground for divorce, but on the other hand they say that if it is the unbeliever’s violence that breaks up a marriage, then the victim is free. The victim of abuse is sorely puzzled by such an approach: how can there be only one permissible ground if there is another ground as well? Some writers emphasize adultery because “it strikes at the heart of marriage”, yet the extreme pain of living under abuse is mentioned only in passing. Many victims find this hurtful.

It also troubles victims when commentators acknowledge violence as a legitimate ground for divorce, but do not acknowledge non-violent methods of abuse. A victim whose abuser is never physically violent, or only rarely so, feels ignored by such an approach. Abuse does not have to be physical to be destructive. The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords (Ps. 55:21).

Such unfairly weighted double messages make a survivor of domestic abuse feel hopeless, confused or angry. The victim suffers at the hand of the abuser, who professes love but shows hate, who makes inconsistent and contradictory demands from one day to the next. The victim also suffers inconsistent and contradictory advice from fellow Christians.

Many pastors face the ethical problem of how to handle the pastoral situation of an abused spouse while remaining faithful to the scriptures. Adultery is fairly commonly accepted in Christian circles as a ground for divorce, based on Matthew 19:9. Desertion is also an accepted ground based on 1 Corinthians 7:15, though it is less commonly accepted than adultery. A victim of abuse whose spouse has not committed adultery does not qualify on the ground of desertion as it is commonly understood. Abusers rarely desert their partner; they want to stay in the marriage but they also want to retain a position of power, which results in continued abuse.

Some Christian advice has been more responsible, teaching that abuse victims have the right to separate, or the right to divorce. This idea is argued from the scriptures by extending general principles of Christian conduct. For example, the sixth commandment You shall not murder implies you should not remain in a position where you might be killed or hurt by another. Another approach is to argue that both adultery and desertion by an unbeliever violate the heart of the marriage covenant for they strike at the two key aspects of the creation ordinance of marriage: leaving and cleaving, and one flesh. Since the Bible deplores covenant breaking and grants divorce for innocent parties, we can extend this and say that any conduct that utterly repudiates the marriage covenant permits the innocent believer to divorce.

These solutions establish the principle of divorce for abuse by relying on a general interpretation of the relevant scriptures. Some victims will be freed by such advice. However, many victims of abuse need more because they are troubled by texts that seem to tell them things such as:

  • marriage is indissoluble, except by death;
  • adultery is the only ground for divorce, with perhaps the additional ground of desertion;
  • if you separate you should remain unmarried, or be reconciled to your spouse.

These ideas may help keep a victim penned into an abusive marriage, or, if she decides to divorce, they can produce guilt for years afterwards. Such victims need specific verses and explanations so that they can break out of their mental and spiritual entrapment.

This book seeks to demonstrate that Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:15 can apply to victims of domestic abuse. Many have thought that this verse only applies to cases where the unbeliever walks out of the marriage, but it also applies when the unbeliever’s sinful conduct so pushes away the believer that the believer flees to protect body or soul. In such cases, even though the believer takes the final act of separation, the separation is caused by the unbeliever’s abusive, dishonest and manipulative conduct. Divorce is permitted in such cases; the victim is not under bondage and is free to remarry. The book explains this in detail and answers questions that some Christians have about this view.