I have never recommended or prescribed divorce. How could I as a minister of the Gospel? The Bible makes clear the way in which God views divorce. I have on more than one occasion counseled and aided women in leaving an abusive husband. -Paige Patterson
I, too, am a Southern Baptist, and although I respect Dr. Patterson's right to disagree, I doubt that this is the presiding opinion among all SBC pastors. Patterson's refusal to acknowledge abuse as a legitimate breach of the marriage covenant convinced a battered wife to stay in an abusive home. Domestic abuse is cyclical. Even when pastors, counselors, and victim’s advocates intentionally intervene, abused women often find the fear of isolation, financial struggle, single parenting, violent retribution, and a host of other factors to be a hill too steep to climb. So they return home.
Women and children are being oppressed by their husbands and fathers across our nation. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2011 survey of more than 12,000 women, 22 percent of women in the US have experienced severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. That's one in four women across our nation experiencing “severe” physical oppression. (Fourteen percent of men also experience abuse during their lifetimes.) Which is why pastors have to refuse the simple, proof-texted answer. Patterson insists, “The Bible makes clear the way in which God views divorce.” That is true.
Exhibit A: Malachi 2:16a—“‘For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel ...” (NASB)
However, the Bible also makes clear the way in which God views abuse and oppression.
Exhibit B: Malachi 2:16b—“...and [I hate] him who covers his garment with wrong,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.’”
Let us take heed together, lest we be joined with those who deal in treacherous acts.
1. God will crush all oppressors.
The defining act of the Old Testament is the Exodus: a deliverance from oppression. The fearful plagues that befell Egypt were in direct response to the ruthless enslavement Pharaoh inflicted on the people of Israel (Ex. 1:13). We even see the hardhearted cycle of abuse as Pharaoh feels remorse and promises reform, only to tighten his grip. Ultimately, God crushed Pharaoh and his army between the walls of his judgment. If abusers want to know how God feels about them, they need only look at Pharaoh's fate.
What is more, God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). He is just as offended by abuse within the people of God. Read the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. God explicitly tells his people the reason for their judgment: oppression and violence (cf. Isa. 10:1–4; 30:12–14; Jer. 6:6-8; 9:6–11). The Lord freed his people from slavery and gave them a veritable Garden of Eden, a land to fill with the beautiful fruit of brotherly love. Instead, they turned the Promised Land into the New Egypt. This time, God's people were the oppressors:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord God of hosts. (Isa. 3:14b–15, NASB)
Jeremiah did not mince words when he confronted King Jehoiakim: “You have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (Jer. 22:17, ESV). He tells the king that God will use his dead carcass to demonstrate to the whole world how he feels about the abuse taking place on his holy hill: “With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried, dragged and dumped beyond the gates of Jerusalem” (22:19, ESV).
When pastors counsel quick reconciliation in marriages ravaged by abuse, the Lord says, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14, ESV). The primary message an abuser should experience from the minister of Christ is that the eternal wrath of the Lord burns hot against those who heap up violence and oppression. Their abuse has not escaped the watchful eye of the One who declares, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19, ESV). The first step in putting God’s justice on full display is getting the proper authorities involved.
The most unloving thing a pastor could do in a situation of abuse is to dampen the severity of God's retribution by offering cheap grace. Perhaps God will bring true repentance in the life of an abuser. But it will never happen until he stands condemned in his sin before the burning anger of the eternal Creator. Then and only then is he ready to receive forgiveness at the Cross.
The primary message an abused woman should hear from a minister of Christ is that the Lord is the protector of the weak. He is our Boaz, the gentle, kind, and strong Redeemer who spreads his wing of protection over us (Ruth 2:12). Like Naomi spoke to Ruth, the voice of the church should unequivocally call a vulnerable woman to the safety of Jesus Christ: “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted” (Ruth 2:22, ESV). We make that safety tangible by surrounding a victim with advocates, counselors, and resources to help her make the difficult choices that lay ahead.
2. Jesus taught against the oppression of divorce.
This heart for the downtrodden and abused is what pours forth in the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). As we approach Jesus’ teaching on divorce later in the chapter, we enter through the doorway of this blessing.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus attacks the stronghold of self-righteousness. He uses the law to destroy those who would seek to be justified by the law. He came to fulfill the law by driving it into our hearts:
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:31–32, ESV).
To the one who would wish to justify his divorce saying, “Well, the Law of Moses says I can,” Jesus responds, “True. But if you do, her adultery and the adultery of the one she marries will be credited to your account before God, not theirs.” That’s what he means when he says, “[He] makes her commit adultery.” Jesus’ teaching is not meant to trap women in abusive marriages. It is meant to trap abusive men in the heartless trading of their wives like playing cards.
I'm not alone in this reading of Christ's teachings. John Calvin speaks frankly:
That man ... who puts away his wife, and gives her a bill of divorcement, shelters himself under the pretense of the law: but the bond of marriage is too sacred to be dissolved at the will, or rather at the licentious pleasure, of men. ... The man who, unjustly and unlawfully, abandons the wife whom God had given him, is justly condemned for having prostituted his wife to others.
Later in Matthew 19, Jesus responds to an egregious question: “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” Knowing the hard hearts scattered in his audience, he confronts them in their sin: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. ... And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (19:6, 9, ESV). Once again, Jesus draws reckless men under the condemnation of the law—this time for their own adulterous hearts.
The point is that all of Jesus’ teachings on divorce are directed at people who are looking to justify themselves when there are no grounds for divorce. In Mark 10, Jesus makes it clear that all mankind—both men and women—are accountable to uphold their marital vows: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11–12, ESV).
3. Paul clarified Christian marriages.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul directly cites Jesus’ teaching: “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband. ... The husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10, 11, ESV). Likewise, he commands believers to build happy marriages even with their unbelieving spouses. However, Paul writes, “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace” (1 Cor. 7:15, ESV). This is the same concession Jesus made. While Christians should never break the marriage covenant, they can acknowledge when their spouse has broken it—either by sexual immorality or abandonment.
It is beneficial to a non-believer if they can preserve a marriage with their believing spouse. Paul explains, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (v. 16). However, it is a disastrous interpretation of this passage to guilt wives into enduring “minor non-injurious abuse,” as Patterson terms it, or financial abuse, verbal abuse, or any other kind of abuse as though their husband’s eternal destiny hangs on them being able to stick it out. If God is determined to save a spouse, he is more than capable to accomplish it without the degrading of his beloved daughter.
The Importance of Wise Counsel
At this juncture, it’s important to clarify what we mean by the word counsel. Counseling does not mean telling a person what to do. Proper counseling, in my estimation, is providing an individual with all of the God-honoring choices available and helping that individual to make the wisest choice.
When a pastor insists that divorce is a nonstarter for Christians, he limits the options of a vulnerable woman in a way neither Jesus nor Paul did. Simply because he wishes every broken marriage would result in reconciliation does not give him the right to strong-arm women, using his spiritual authority effectively to make the decision for her. It is a valiant, humbling display of gospel love when a woman chooses to fight for her marriage despite her husband’s sexual immorality, abuse, or abandonment. However, that is a choice she alone must make. And when there are biblical grounds for divorce, it is pastoral malpractice to make a woman feel guilty for choosing to depart a broken marriage covenant. Paul made it abundantly clear: She is not enslaved.
Is abuse a biblical grounds for divorce? Perhaps we should ask the Lord. After all, he’s been divorced before: “For all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce” (Jer. 3:8, ESV). And what did these adulteries look like? “Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the guiltless poor” (Jer. 2:34, ESV). This vivid image symbolizes the way the strong trampled the weak through oppression, financial enslavement, bribery, violence, and gross injustice. If the Lord divorced his covenant people for their abuse of the vulnerable, surely it is grounds for those who have trusted in the God and Savior who cares for the poor in spirit.
But what constitutes abuse? I would put it this way: Abuse is when a marriage crosses the line from relationship to enslavement. Marriage is meant to reflect Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32). However, when the picture begins to look like Pharaoh and the Israelites, there is a serious problem. A woman beaten, verbally assaulted, cut off from friends, and/or financially isolated is no longer a wife but a slave. Abuse can be hard to discern, which is why pastors absolutely must get other counselors, authorities, and victim’s advocates involved.
Divorce is a painful reality in any circumstances. As Christians, we believe in the power of forgiveness, we believe in the reconciliation found in Christ Jesus, and we have all witnessed the gospel’s power to turn bad marriages around. But ultimately, Christians have to be people who are concerned with saving people even more than they are with saving marriages.
Chad Ashby is a pastor at College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, and chairman of LifeBridge. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Grove City College. He writes regularly at After+Math.