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,
Theology isn't by necessity a job for me anymore. I recently had someone ask me why I still talked about theological issues and read theological books now that I'm back to being a lawyer. Simple. Theology informs everything else, including the practice of law. The more I thought about it, the more I began to develop a means by which to approach every issue - IBAD.
I just said theology informs everything else; why start with intellect? First, IBAD is a cooler acronym than BIAD. Second (and more importantly), intellect must proceed belief. I'm not saying you have to understand everything before you believe it. However, you have to be able to comprehend that which you believe. This is the foundational issue in epistemology - the study of how we know things. Kant argued that we can't know God because He is too far beyond us. Some theologians like Kaufman follow suit. If that's true, then we don't get to theology because we can't comprehend God or hold a belief about Him. Plantinga has written several books on whether belief is rational, sensible, or justifiable. In any case, intellect must precede belief in this world. Regardless of the topic, I write first about my comprehension of the topic and approach it from an intellectual standpoint.
That said, I won't stop there and rely on my own understanding. I'd rather trust what I know God has said in Scripture and acknowledge Him in the process. Ultimately, He promises to make the path straight if I'll do so. There are a couple of ways I approach belief about a subject. The first is a historical and biblical theology of the topic. I want to know what God said through Moses about a topic. What did he say through the prophets, psalmists, and wisdom writers of Scripture about the subject? What did Jesus say about it? What did the apostles understand? Charting the development of a specific topic through Scripture often provides a great deal of insight into what God was ultimately aiming at, even if He had to start small and develop a concept over centuries to point His people to Christ or for some other divine purpose. I like to take as much of a chronological approach as is possible with the information we have on biblical literature for that reason alone.
Taking it even further is to do a systematic theology of the topic. What does Scripture as a whole say about it? How do we reconcile seemingly different approaches to the topic in varying circumstances within Scripture? Biblical theology often helps develop this systematic approach in my experience. Erickson indicates the first step in systematic theology is to collect the biblical materials; why not do so in a chronological and contextual fashion with strong exegesis? What have other theologians said about the topic throughout history? With these and other questions at hand, I attempt to write what it is I believe and what questions the doctrine answers.
If theology informs everything, then I need to know how to act based on that theology. If I am to obey Scripture and be not only a consumer of the Word but also an executor of the Word (James 1:22), I need to know how to act as a result. This is how I define ethics. Too many ethicists only deal with the big cultural issues of the day: abortion, euthanasia, bioethics, war, poverty, famine... All of these are important, but what about how I should treat people? What about how I should handle my finances? What about what substances I should or should not consume? There are every day questions that Christians all over the world are struggling with that ethicists aren't answering. With whatever I believe or whatever doctrine I systematize, I want to know what to do with it or its all just a waste of time.
I also want to know how I defend that belief. This is the central theme of apologetics, which is so heavily intertwined with philosophy that it brings us right back to where we started. It's a circular process through which I refine what I believe and how I think about it. It's also a necessity. If you can't defend what you believe, you'll soon find yourself either no longer believing it or never talking about it. Neither is an acceptable option when another's eternity is at stake.
So that's what you'll see a lot of on this segment of my website. You'll see how I intellectualize an issue, how I systematize that issue down to a doctrine, what ethical implications that doctrine carries, and a robust defense of the position. Let me conclude by saying that I write for my own benefit primarily as it helps with my own clarity of thought. But, I want it to help others as well. Perhaps the arguments here will help clarify doctrines for you. Better yet, perhaps it will persuade others that the gospel is true, that humanity is desperately sick, that God loves us anyways and sent Jesus to suffer the consequences of that sickness on our behalf so that we could escape quarantine and be with God in heaven forever, and that in the meantime we have a mission to accomplish for His purposes. To these ends I write...
...for His fame,