Divorcing an Abusive Spouse Is Not a Sin
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve received lots of questions about divorce in the case of abuse. At least some of those questions most likely come from reports of a church disciplining a woman for leaving her allegedly abusive husband. In case you or someone you love is in that situation, let me start with my conclusion: You are not sinful for divorcing an abusive spouse or for remarrying after you do.
The reason this is even a question for people is because they know that the Bible says God hates divorce. In Scripture, marriage is a covenant—meant to embody a sign of the union between Christ and his church. Jesus spoke very strongly against divorce, even framing the law of Moses’ allowance of divorce as a temporary concession to hardheartedness, not as God’s plan for marriage (Matt. 5:31–32; Mark 10:2–12; Luke 16:18).
When a minister in a more traditional wedding service pronounces the couple married and says, “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,” this minister is citing the words of Jesus himself.
Even those in the church who rail at the outside world on issues that are unclear in Scripture often tend to mute themselves on divorce, where the Bible speaks emphatically. Usually this is just one more case of tribal culture-war identity politics: There are more divorced and remarried people inside our churches than there are people with other issues.
That’s all true. Even so, I believe the Bible treats the question of divorce in cases of abuse not as a matter of sin for the innocent spouse.
Some people, in the Roman Catholic communion for instance, hold that there is never any moral reason for divorce. Yet even then, the dispute is over whether any institution has the authority to pronounce the marriage dissolved. In that case, the dispute is not over whether a spouse should stay in an abusive situation.
I don’t know a single faithful Catholic priest or bishop who would say that a person should stay in an abusive environment. They would counsel in such situations a removal of the person (and his or her children) and, if the threat of abuse persisted, would keep them away from such a home, even if that meant for life.
As most of you know, I don’t hold to the view that divorce is, in every case, a sin. Along with most evangelical Protestants, I believe that there are some narrow instances in which the sin of a spouse dissolves the marriage covenant and that divorce is warranted in those cases. Almost everyone in this view would see unrepentant adultery as one of those exceptions. And most of us would see abandonment by a spouse as another.
The apostle Paul counseled new Christians in the first century that they were not obligated to leave their unbelieving spouses (1 Cor. 7:10–16). Those marriages were not unholy because of the spouse who worshiped some other god; they were made holy by the one who worshiped the living God.
While God has called us to pursue peace and reconciliation with all people, Paul wrote that in the case of a spouse who walked away, abandoning the marriage, the remaining spouse should “let it be so” and not consider himself or herself “bound,” strongly implying the freedom to remarry.
An abusive spouse, in fact, has abandoned the marriage. Abuse is much worse than abandonment, involving the use of something holy (marriage) for satanic ends. Abuse of a spouse or a child is exactly what God condemns everywhere in the Bible—the leveraging of power to hurt the vulnerable (Ps. 9:18; Isa. 3:14–15; Ezek. 18:12; Amos 2:7; Mark 9:42; etc.). While abuse is worse than abandonment, it is no less than abandonment.
If one spouse abandons the home, the Bible reveals, it is not the fault of the innocent party. And if a spouse makes the home a dangerous place for the other spouse (or their children), that is not the fault of the innocent party either. In those cases, divorce is not a sin but is, first of all, a recognition of what is already the case—that the one-flesh union covenant is dissolved—and the abused spouse should feel no condemnation at all in divorcing.
Suggesting that marital fidelity entails subjecting oneself or one’s children to abuse is akin to implying, based on the Romans 13 command to submit to the governing authorities, that Jesus was immoral for urging those in danger in Judea to “flee to the mountains” in the time of great tribulation (Matt. 24:15–19). God forbid.
According to a 2015 survey, the overwhelming majority of Protestant pastors would say that divorce in cases of domestic violence is morally legitimate. Yet I would go even further to contend that, in many cases, divorce not only is allowable, as it would be for adultery or other forms of abandonment, but is necessary to protect the abused person from further harm.
Both the church and the state have a role in making sure that the abuser does not bully the abused person, which often happens through the deprivation of income or housing. A divorce usually involves society’s acknowledging that the marriage is over, helping to divide resources, and providing some ongoing protection (often through restraining orders or police files) for those who have been abused.
If you’re a minister, you can almost guarantee that someone in your pews or in your immediate community is experiencing domestic violence. Sometimes the victim will have internalized the abusive rhetoric of the abuser and blame herself for bringing on the abuse to her or her children.
Sometimes the one being abused will believe that there is no other option but to stay, feeling trapped in the marriage. In the case of domestic violence, the church has a responsibility not only to alert the relevant civil authorities but also to bear the abuse sufferer’s burdens by arranging a safe place of refuge and meeting other needs.
The very least that one can expect from one’s church is not to be condemned as a sinner for escaping danger.
Recognize that abusers often weaponize spiritual language to cover the abuse. They might suggest that the abused spouses are “unforgiving” if they leave or that they would be sinning against Jesus if they were to pursue divorce—quoting out-of-context Bible verses all the while. As the steward of the oracles of God, the church has a mandate to call such misuse of the Scriptures what it is: a taking of the Lord’s name in vain, in one of the worst ways imaginable.
Divorce for domestic violence is not a sin. It’s about sin all right—but it’s the sin of the abuser, not the sin of the abused who decides to divorce. The abused in our churches and in our communities need to see us applying the Bible the right way, and they need to see us embodying the Jesus Christ who protects the vulnerable.
What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. Yes and amen. But sometimes Jesus also would have us recognize that man should not force together what God has put asunder.
Sometimes the path to divorce court is not a way to destruction but a road to Jericho. We should look to see who is beaten on the roadside and be for them who Jesus told us to be.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.