Over the past several weeks I have received numerous questions around whether or not it’s Biblically permissible to divorce an abusive spouse. Let me summarize them.
Question: I have been in a marriage where there has been mostly emotional, but some physical as well as regular spiritual abuse. My spouse regularly tells me I am unsubmissive, ungodly, a bad mother, and a horrible person. I feel afraid to disagree or even hold a normal conversation. We’ve gotten some counseling but it always falls back on me. I’m not doing something right. He never takes any responsibility for his reactions and I haven’t seen any change. Does God expect me to live like this the rest of my life? What about my children? Can I peruse a divorce biblically?
Answer: If you have read my book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, you know that God takes all kinds of abuse very seriously. First of all it is always sin. No matter how provoked someone is or how justified he or she feels, abusive speech is never an acceptable way to communicate when angry or upset. (Colossians 3:8,19; Psalm 11:5; Malachi 2:16-17).
Second, just because someone is in the role of an authority figure, such as a husband, or even a parent, this does not give them a biblical right to mistreat another person or use their power and/or authority to push their own way. In fact, Jesus sternly warned us not to misuse our positions of authority in order to get our own way (Mark 10:42-45; Ephesians 5:1,2; Ephesians 6:21-29).
Third, it will be very tempting for someone living in such a situation to respond by becoming abusive back, as well as bitter and resentful. This is not God’s way for you even if you feel very justified in doing so. The apostle Paul encountered some spiritually abusive leaders in 2 Corinthians and he tells us not to put up with it (2 Corinthians 11:20) but he also encourages us in Romans 12:21 to not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. So what does that actually look like in an abusive relationship?
1. It is good to protect yourself (Proverbs 27:12; Proverbs 11:9). David fled King Saul when he was violent toward him. The angel of the Lord warned Joseph to flee to Egypt with Jesus because Herod was trying to kill him. Paul escaped from those who sought to stone him. If you are being mistreated, and you have tried speaking up, standing up and setting boundaries and nothing has changed or stopped the abusive behavior, I believe it is biblically permissible to separate yourself from the abusive person in order to protect yourself from further harm.
2. It is good to expose the abuser (Ephesians 5:11) Sometimes we’re very afraid to be bold and take a stand because then it let’s other’s know that our marriage is a mess and our spouse has been abusive. Bringing this out into the open is the ONLY way to get help for both yourself as well as your spouse. When things remain hidden, then a person can more easily stay self-deceived and blind to his/her own brokenness.
Also it is important to ask yourself if there is anything that you are doing to provoke and/or escalate a difficult or volitile situation. I have worked with couples where one spouse is trying to shut the conflict down because he or she is afraid of losing control, but the other spouse will not stop their arguing. The situation escalates and the one who feared losing control, does. I’m not excusing the abusive person in these cases, but sometimes we do create a situation where it is harder for someone to handle themselves in a godly way.
3. It is good to allow the violent person to experience the consequences of his/her sinful behavior. One of life’s greatest teachers is consequences. God says what we sow, we reap (Galatians 6:7). A person uses violence at home because they can. God has put the civil authorities in place to protect victims of abuse. The apostle Paul appealed to the Roman government when he was being mistreated (Acts 22:24-29).
When someone continually mistreats us, they lose the fellowship of our company. God does not ask us to have unconditional relationships with people even as he asks us to unconditionally love them. He calls us to love our enemies, not necessarily have fellowship with him/her. In a marital relationship what that means is that you will act in your spouses’ best interests, even when that is difficult and costs you.
So the big question becomes what is in my spouse’s best interest when he or she is regularly abusive and mistreats me and my children? I don’t think it’s to pretend it’s OK and that it doesn’t matter how they behave towards you. That’s not realistic or even possible. It might mean that you separate yourself from him/her for a season in order to help them see more clearly the damage they have done to the relationship and to get the help that he/she needs. That would be in the abusive person’s long term best interests, even if they tell you that you’re being mean, uncaring, unreasonable, unloving, etc.
In my book, I talk about using this time of separation to wait in love. Watch to see what God is doing in your spouse. Perhaps God is leading him/her to a deeper awareness and repentance. Authentic change will take time and that process is often difficult. I’m also very aware that in some states, the spouse cannot get financial support or stop marital debt from accumulating without initiating legal proceedings of divorce.
So to answer your question, can you bibically divorce your spouse? Ultimately you are the one who must live in this situation or not, as well as answer to God for your life choices. In counseling those who have endured an abusive partner for a long time, I find they have become quite passive. They have given up their personal power because of fear and they have stopped thinking through their own convictions and life choices. It’s easier to let someone else control them. Even when leaving an abusive spouse, you now want your pastor or counselor to tell you what to do, what to think.
Part of your healing through all of this is to learn to think for yourself and decide what you think God is saying to you through the scriptures and prayer in your specific situation. There are godly Christians who think very differently on this answer. I would encourage you to read up on their opinions, consult with your own church leaders and counselor but ultimately the decision is yours. Pray and ask God to rescue you and give you his wisdom. He promises he will (James 1).