Divorce and re-marriage in domestic abuse cases

** From time to time I touch on pastoral issues around abuse and bullying. I try to avoid detailed descriptions. However, some readers may find that the discussion as here may have a trigger effect in terms of provoking past memories.**

Yesterday I began to talk about marriage and divorce where there has been domestic abuse within the home.  We looked at a case study of a couple where violence had occurred but at that stage it did seem that they wanted to try and reconcile. What happens though when the victim of abuse is clear that they do not want to attempt to reconcile?  Are they required to attempt to repair the marriage by Scripture? Certainly, some pastors, particularly from within the Biblical Counselling movement appear to think so.

I write in more detail about divorce and remarriage here.  You will see from this that there are a range of views across the church depending on how people interpret Scripture, particularly Matthew 19. These include:

  • No divorce or remarriage at all in any circumstances. 
  • Divorce permitted in some circumstances but without remarriage
  • Divorce and remarriage permitted in all circumstances
  • Divorce and remarriage permitted in any circumstance

The first and the last option are perhaps the hardest for us to get our heads around.  How can we insist that divorce and remarriage is permissible when Jesus makes clear that it generally isn’t?  How can we not allow divorce and remarriage at all when Jesus seems to offer an exception.

In short, the last view that permits divorce and remarriage assumes that Jesus sets out the standard of God’s pure law. God calls us to say no to divorce. However, just as with the situation in Deuteronomy 24, God’s mercy means that there is forgiveness and grace when a marriage breaks down.  This allows the divorcees to start again. 

The original view depends on what we mean by the word translated “sexual immorality.”  This is the Greek word pornea.  The point is that it is a term referring generally to illicit/unlawful sexual behaviour. This could for example include incest or polygamy. In such cases, the marriage cannot be continued and must be broken off. Those who hold to the strict rule of no divorce seem to assume that Jesus is describing something along those lines.

My understanding of Matthew 19, is that Jesus permits both divorce and subsequent remarriage in the case of sexual immorality.  Pornea is unlikely to refer to something like incest as this would require the marriage to be annulled – treated as though it never had happened rather than ended.  So, we are talking here about unfaithfulness.  Either the husband or wife has acted in a way that breaks the marriage vows. In effect they desert the marriage covenant.

Thinking in terms of pornea as desertion from the marriage covenant helps us then to think about what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Here, Paul is expanding on Jesus’ teaching by considering examples not covered by Matthew 19. In this case, an unbeliever has deserted his wife because she is a believer. Paul says that she is now free to divorce and remarry.  She is under no obligation to him. He has deserted the marriage covenant and broken it.[1]

So, what we begin to see here is that there is more than one way to be unfaithful, more than one way to desert the marriage.  This is pastorally helpful because I have seen cases where a husband has pushed the boundaries whilst insisting that he has not become physically involved with someone else yet. Paul’s words prevent such game playing.

But I also think it permits us to consider other forms of desertion. For example, it seems possible that this can occur even whilst the husband remains physically present if he neglects his wife and fails to provide for her (Exodus 21:10-11).

It is therefore my opinion that abuse is a form of desertion.  In fact, I would also be inclined to suggest that the combination of violence with sex should be classed as a form of pornea

My counsel therefore to the victim of abuse is that they should make use of the remedies and protection the law provides to ensure that they are able to escape violence.  Biblically the option of divorce is available to them because their husband has broken and deserted the marriage covenant just as much as if he had committed adultery.

[1] Note, this is where the importance of church discipline comes in. The husband may profess Christian faith but where he is in serious sin this should lead to discipline and the implication in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 is that he should be treated as though an unbeliever.

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