As I write, my fellow Southern Baptists are debating the propriety of a pastor counseling a woman to remain in a marriage with an abusive husband. It could really go the other way too; we live in a day in age in which a woman could certainly be abusive toward her husband. This post seeks to determine whether a person is biblically mandated to remain in an abusive relationship.
1. There is an intellectual middle ground.
The conversation really needs to begin with the understanding that there is probably a middle ground or golden mean that few are talking about. One side of this debate relies on the sanctity of marriage and God's hatred of divorce. The other side relies on the value and dignity of human life. To emphasize one in this context is to de-emphasize the other. It either places marriage as more valuable to God than humanity or humanity as more valuable to God than marriage. The problem is that we rarely understand the value we place on certain things, much less the value others place on that thing. Economics would soon cease to exist if everyone suddenly had the ability to comprehend the value a seller places on an item compared to the value a buyer places on that item. Can we really claim to know the comparative value God places on these two concepts? Does forcing a comparison unfairly limit God?
While I don't subscribe to the Kantian epistemology that God cannot be known, there are certainly things God knows that we do not. If God does place higher value on one than the other, it is likely that those values will never be known to us unless God specifically revealed it. If God specifically revealed it, then that revelation should control our belief and action. If He didn't, then we'll never know what He values more this side of heaven. Any answer to the question presented would be founded on speculation, and we'll never know what to believe or how to act. But what if God doesn't value one more than the other?
God is not God who cannot transcend Sophie's choice. As the ultimate authority on proper human behavior, God must want humanity to know what to believe about this question and how to act accordingly. As the ultimate being that ever existed, He cannot be confined to value one over the other. Given the two options, Occam seems to apply and the simpler explanation is that God can value both equally. As such we can believe equally in the dignity of life and the sanctity of marriage. We can act in a manner that upholds and defends both.
2. There is a clear biblical directive against divorce in the vast majority of situations, but no clear prohibition against a situational separation.
In spite of an intellectual middle ground, Scripture may still spurn my limited thought process and come down firmly on one side or the other. However, based on my studies I believe that God values both marriage and every human life, hating both divorce and abuse.
God clearly values human life. He made mankind in His own image at creation. He has forbidden and punished murder in the Ten Commandments and as early as Cain and Abel. The prophets warned about the repercussions of the people's lack of value for their fellow humans. Jesus instructed us to love our neighbors as ourselves, taught against so much as anger (much less murder) against our fellow human, and Himself died to save humanity from sin. Paul instructed us to never repay evil for evil, to seek to live at peace with everyone, and to put the interests of others before ourselves. God's mission throughout Scripture is to redeem humanity, and we are instructed to be His agents in that process.
God clearly values marriage. Immediately after creating mankind in his own image, He instituted marriage. Adultery has been forbidden since no later than the Ten Commandments. The prophets decried divorce throughout their writings. Divorce was allowed only because of the hardness of the people's hearts. Jesus forbade divorce except in the event of adultery. Paul counseled people to stay as they were in the case of marriage - if single stay single, if married stay married. He also clearly established marriage as an image of Christ's relationship to the church.
God has treated human dignity and marital sanctity in very similar ways. Could He, in His infinite wisdom, knowledge, emotional expression, judgment, grace, and overall perfection value human dignity and marriage equally?
My systematic approach to theology is based on the mission of God for the church to make Him known. The Bible says that creation makes Him known. For believers, marriage exists to make Him known. Specifically, God has ordained marriage as an image of the relationship between Christ and the church. Based on a strict reading of Scripture, adultery is the only exception I can find to the prohibition on divorce. But I also find little reason to equate divorce with separation or leaving the home. You can be separated but not divorced. Some states recognize what is known as a legal separation, a separate maintenance, or a divorce from bed and board. None of these legally break the bonds of marriage, but work to preserve the property rights, debt obligations, and child rearing responsibilities of both parties during a separation. If marriage is an image of Christ's relationship with the church, when an abuse victim leaves the home but refuses to file for a divorce, the image is one of Christ hurt by His bride (as I suspect He often is) but refusing to abandon her (as I know He never will). In other words, it is an image of grace because it leaves open the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. He longs for unity with those made in His own image.
3. Anyone in a physically abusive marriage should feel spiritually at ease leaving the home, but seriously consider Scripture's guidance against divorce.
Since Scripture seems to present this matter as a both-and rather than an either-or proposition, our ethical response to this belief should be one that holds marriage in high esteem while valuing and protecting human life and dignity. To preserve the value of humanity by ensuring the physical safety of an abused spouse, I believe victims of domestic abuse should feel spiritually and morally at ease leaving the home to remain safe. Full stop. Period. God forbid my daughter find herself in a similar situation, but if she does I pray she feels morally and spiritually secure in escaping that abuse. But to preserve the value of marriage and the image of Christ's relationship with the church and His offer of grace, repentance, unconditional forgiveness, and conditional reconciliation, I believe victims of domestic abuse should seek to remain married and offer the same opportunity for grace, repentance, unconditional forgiveness, and conditional reconciliation. As Paul said, perhaps faithfulness to marriage will win an unbelieving spouse (or at least one acting as an unbeliever) for Christ.
4. The sanctity of life and marriage are equally defensible in this understanding.
If we place the value of marriage over the value of life and insist that abused spouses remain in the abusive home, many will attack us as hypocrites considering our stance on abortion. If we place the value of life over the value of marriage and insist that an abused spouse can abandon the marriage altogether, we'll open ourselves up to similar attack considering our stance on divorce, same-sex marriage, and the like. If my belief in this context and the ethical response to that belief is correct, then our stances on the sanctity of human life and on the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman for life are equally defensible.
As an aside, let me be clear that these are my beliefs. I want to respect that others on the same spiritual journey I am on may come to a different conclusion. In many areas we can believe and act differently and both be redeemed and in the sanctifying process of becoming more like Christ. For those who have filed for a divorce based on abuse or any number of other reasons, you'll get zero judgment from me - absolutely none.
Let me be equally clear that in my view, domestic abuse of any kind cannot abide in the church. If it's happening and offenders are unrepentant and unaccountable, I believe pastors should lead their congregations in church discipline. If an abused spouse comes to churches for assistance, I don't think we should guilt trip that abused spouse into remaining in the home and in danger by stating any other course of action is sin. I believe that just as God withdrew from Christ on the cross to protect His perfection, so must an abused spouse have the freedom to withdraw from an abusing spouse to protect his or her safety. Once safety is established, I believe we should work towards repentance of the abuser and the forgiveness of the abused. Once we've secured repentance and accountability is in place, and once we've worked to give up the right to get even, only then do I think we can start working through reconciliation - not before.
I believe that heading into the convention our convictions against abuse must be resolute. Let's remember that the world is watching and what ever we do we must do...
...For His Fame,
I follow Christ. I have a beautiful wife Megan and three wonderful children, Harrisen, Rebekah, and Carter. I am a candidate for a Ph.D. in ethics from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have an M.Div. from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and a JD from the University of Arkansas, am licensed to practice law in several state and federal courts, and live in Rogers, Arkansas. I write a blog and produce a podcast. And I do it all that others may know Christ.