We’ve had some great discussion this week about whether or not a person in an emotionally destructive marriage has biblical grounds for separation. Instead of tackling a new question this week, I want to continue this dialogue because it is so crucial not only to individuals in destructive marriages, but also to those in the church who advise them.
I also want to encourage you to watch this week’s video on my home page called, “When Trying Harder Becomes Destructive” which goes along nicely with this discussion.
We’d all like to categorize things in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, biblical and unbiblical but I don’t think things are always so clear. James 3:2 tells us that we all stumble in many ways. Husbands lie sometimes. Wives lie sometimes. Husbands say and do hurtful things, so do wives. In some marriages there may be a swat, a slap, a yank or a pinch in a moment of anger or frustration. So what I want is for us to dialogue and biblically think through three questions: I’ll get the discussion started but we all need one another’s input.
1. Does the Bible say physical abuse is worse than emotional abuse?
2. Are these sinful behaviors grounds for separation in marriage?
3. If so, when are these things grounds for a separation or even divorce?
First, does the Bible differentiate between physical abuse and emotional abuse? In this past week’s blog discussion there seemed to be more empathy and biblical permission for a wife to separate if her husband is beating her with his fists but not if he’s crushing her spirit with his words. One woman wrote me privately and said, “My pastor said emotional abuse is too fuzzy to allow for separation. Physical abuse would be clear, but emotional abuse isn’t.”
Yet, God’s word clearly has much to say for the victims of verbal and emotional cruelty. See my video on What is Emotional Abuse for verses that support God’s care for the emotionally abused person.
Research on those who have suffered with chronic emotional abuse show that it can be far more harmful to someone’s long term health than physical abuse can be. Physical injuries heal. Wounds to one’s soul and spirit are longer lasting and usually more damaging. Why do we tell a woman or man who is being emotionally abused that they must stay in the marriage because being pummeled by words is not serious enough to justify a biblical separation yet if this same person were being regularly pummeled by fists, or stabbed by their spouse, most pastors and church leaders would not only allow a biblical separation, they’d advise it.
God’s word says it best. “Reckless words pierce like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18) and “Who can bear a crushed spirit?” (Proverbs 18:14). When someone is stabbed with a sword or knife, it leads to grave and often fatal injuries. The Bible says the impact of reckless words is like being stabbed and is just as injurious as physical abuse.
Second, is abuse ever grounds for separation or divorce? There seems to be some fuzziness on the meaning of covenant as well as the oft misquoted passage in Malachi about divorce. Some here have referenced Barbara Robert’s book, Not Under Bondage which is excellent. She says, “God did not say “I hate divorce”, nor did he condemn all divorce. We should therefore stop using the slogan ‘God hates divorce'. If we still need a slogan, it would be better to say, ‘God hates treacherous divorce, but he does not hate disciplinary divorce’.” In other words her extensive research shows that there are biblical grounds for divorce and one of them is abuse.
Marital covenant has also been assumed to be a unilateral, one sided covenant but Biblical scholars do not indicate this. The Tyndale Bible Dictionary says, “The essence of covenant is to be found in a particular kind of relationship between persons. Mutual obligations characterize that kind of relationship. Thus a covenant relationship is not merely a mutual acquaintance but a commitment to responsibility and action. A key word in Scripture to describe that commitment is ‘faithfulness,’ acted out in a context of abiding friendship… To appreciate the many OT laws on marriage and divorce, one must understand that marriage itself was a covenant relationship. The solemn promises exchanged by a man and a woman became their covenant obligations. Faithfulness to those promises brought marital blessing (Psalm 128; Proverbs 18:22); violation brought a curse.”
In another source, various types of covenants are explained. According to OT scholar J. Barton Payne, marriage is a parity covenant. A parity covenant is a contract between equal parties – an agreement entered into that includes promises to each other. Each party was expected to keep his or her promises and to be loyal to the covenant, but sometimes that didn’t happen. And when it didn’t, the covenant was broken, considered null and void. Severe consequences could follow one breaking his covenant agreement. That’s what God hated in Malachi, husband’s breaking their covenant agreement for trivial reasons.
Last, when is the line crossed? When is abusive behavior biblical grounds for separation or divorce? Most people would allow infidelity as biblical grounds for divorce, yet not all marriages that suffer infidelity should end in divorce. When there has been repentance sought and forgiveness granted, I have seen many marriages healed and restored. That brings great joy and glory to God. Just because one has biblical grounds does not mean one should pursue separation or divorce.
Each story is unique. Each person who has been grievously sinned against will need to wrestle with the impact that the abuse is having on your body, your soul and your spirit as well as your children. Therefore you will need to pray and ask God two crucial questions: 1. Is it best for me and my children to leave or to stay? It is biblical to be a good steward of your physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, sexual and financial health. 2. Is it best for my spouse for me to leave or to stay? What is his greatest need right now and how can I meet it? Is it best for him to remain blind to his sin, unrepentant and unwilling to repair the damage he’s done? Or is it more loving to leave (or enact church discipline, or tell someone) letting him know that you will no longer enable his sin against you to continue without consequence.
As you grow and pray and seek wise counsel, hopefully you make the decision you do because you believe it is God’s will and the most loving thing you can do for yourself, your children and your spouse.
Oswald Chambers writes: “To choose to suffer means there is something wrong; to choose God’s will even if it means suffering is a very different thing. No healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.”
Please know whatever choice you make, whether you stay, whether you separate, or whether you divorce, be prepared for more suffering and grief ahead. Your decision will bring challenges and criticism for those who think you are making the wrong choice. Your choice will bring opportunities for growth as well as temptations to sin. Knowing that these stumbling blocks and stepping stones are ahead of you will keep your eyes open so that you can be more vigilant over your heart and mind.
Choose God, not suffering and he will instruct you and counsel you in the way you should go. (Psalm 32:8).