Thursday, May 10, 2018

Should battered wives divorce their husbands?

Many evangelicals believe there are only two grounds for divorce: adultery and desertion. That creates a dilemma in cases like domestic abuse, which those two categories don't cover. Some evangelicals try to create an opening for divorce in that situation by stretching the categories. But that gerrymanders the categories. 

A compromise is to propose separation rather than divorce. But that's a makeshift solution because you end up with a situation that isn't marriage and isn't divorce. Because the battered wife remains married, she's not free to remarry. So she's bound by the restrictions of marriage without the benefits.

I'd add that husbands can also be battered. That isn't taken seriously because men can overpower a physically abusive wife. However, they can't exercise that advantage in practice since they'd be charged with domestic abuse, even if they acted in self-defense.

One solution is to make allowance for the possibility that Scriptural grounds for divorce don't attempt to contemplate every conceivable situation. Jesus wasn't asked about a husband splashing acid in her face. 

We'd consider other potential justifications for divorce based on general biblical principles. Of course, that makes it harder to draw a line. 

Depending on the topic, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders for being too lax or too strict. But one general principle Jesus has taught us is to think about the underlying rationale for a biblical command or prohibition, as well as higher duties that temporarily override lower duties, in case of conflict. 


  1. Even if one does not believe physical abuse is grounds for divorce, a mother also has a moral obligation to her children that might be worth as much consideration as her own spiritual welfare.

  2. Physical abuse would demand the victim to separate from the aggressor. Regardless who is removed from the premises, such separation would constitute abandonment by the abuser.

    1. Sorry, but that's rather Kafkaesque reasoning. If the wife initiates the separation, one can't logically say the husband abandoned the wife. One might say the physically abusive husband pushed/drove/forced her out of the marriage.

      This reflects a tension when some Christians think Mt 5:32 & 1 Cor 7:15 are the only permissible grounds for divorce, yet they also think there are additional grounds for divorce, so they proposed ingenious ways to make those two passages cover the other grounds.

      It would be better just to admit that Mt 5:32 & 1 Cor 7:15 were never meant to exhaust every hypothetical situation. Admittedly, that opens a can of worms, but people are already doing that in a roundabout way by stretching Mt 5:32 & 1 Cor 7:15.

  3. Got rid of duplicate paragraphs...

    I get what you’re saying but I don’t think I’m stretching the overall headings under which divorce is permissible by cataloging infractions as I do.

    Imagine a married couple lives in a 40,000 square foot house. Certainly one can *depart* the marriage without leaving the physical premises. Living in solitude in a wing of mansion I would think constitutes departing, regardless of whether the innocent party ever formally initiates legal separation from the premises. Indeed, I’d suggest one can depart the marriage by taking on a settled denial of physical privilege to a spouse even in 400 square foot apartment. At the very least, departing wouldn’t seem to demand any removal from premises.

    In cases of an abused spouse who departs as a matter of physical safety, obviously it’s the violent spouse who is *culpable* for the separation. My point is if the innocent party has to separate for safety sake, the new state affairs of spousal departure is *tantamount* to the guilty party having departed. I say this because the result is no different, and it would be brought about by the abusive spouse. I’ve seen this happen when a spouse outright refuses to depart yet desires to be separated for no just cause. In such cases, it’s not unusual that he *causes* his spouse to depart. That one can get the separation he seeks yet without literally separating himself doesn’t suggest to me that he is not the only one culpable for departure. It’s as though he departed.

    So, I don’t find the need to expand the lawfulness of divorce beyond adultery and willful abandonment, given of course the willingness to make application.

    Just as the fifth commandment instructs children to honor their parents, the application extends beyond the immediate context, even to superiors and inferiors in the work place. The commandment is an umbrella in this regard. Similarly, I find the clause pertaining to departing can envelope forced separation.

    1. I don't think Steven Furtick would appreciate your analogy! :-)

    2. Yeah, his is a meager 8,500 square feet (heated)!

  4. Any crime that deserves the death penalty under mosaic law should be grounds for divorce. Repeat abuse falls under a repeat offender criminal who refuses to be reformed and so deserves the death penalty. RJ Rushdoony argued for repeat offender criminals under the young adult who fights his parents by a from a lesser to greater arguement. Jesus said such an offender should die the death in the gospels. I’m curious your take on this?