I have formed my stance from the Bible, prayer, conversations with people much wiser than myself, and many books. The main one that has influenced me, though, is Divorce & Remarriage in the Church by David Instone-Brewer, which I highly recommend. I believe that marriage is for a lifetime. And I believe that people should not divorce because they aren’t happy or have “fallen out of love”. (More on that Thursday.)
I believe that the Bible is clear that divorce is allowed for these two reasons:
If your spouse is unfaithful and unrepentant.
If your spouse literally abandons you.
These circumstances do not mean you must divorce, but I believe the path is clearer for people whose situations fall under these two areas, and they may choose to divorce. Now, onto the messy and gray areas. Up until I read Divorce & Remarriage in the Church, I was under the impression that being in an abusive or addiction-fraught marriage was just someone’s tough luck and they had to suffer under it. Dr. Brewer references a text in Exodus 21:10-11 where he builds the argument that abuse and neglect are areas where a woman may be free to divorce her husband. (I cannot possibly cover all that he goes into in one blog post, so please pick up his book.) But Dr. Brewer says, “The Old Testament allowed divorce for the breaking of marriage vows, including neglect and abuse, based on Exodus21:10f. Jesus was not asked about these biblical grounds for divorce, though Paul alluded to them in 1 Corinthians 7 as the basis of marriage obligations. This book argues that God never repealed these biblical grounds for divorce based on broken marriage vows. They were exemplified by Christ (according to Ephesians 5:28f) and they became the basis of Christian marriage vows (love, honor, and keep).”
He also puts words to something that I’ve felt for a very long time but couldn’t get a handle on. Though we are all sinners and every person will stand before God to account for their part in their marriage’s thriving or failing, in some instances there is actually a victim and a guilty party. The most obvious would be the woman who is doing her part in her marriage and thinks her marriage is going well only to find out that her husband is having an affair. Though they are both sinners and could both be doing more to work on themselves and their marriage, clearly it was the husband who broke the vow. I’m not saying that all marriages with abuse or addiction in them should end in divorce. I am saying that they should be treated with extra and specific help and support in hopes to bring restoration. They can’t be treated the way regular “hard” marriages are. And if they can’t be restored, which is always a possibility (because of free will), there should be extra grace shown. Dr. Brewer asserts that it is the option of the victim to decide if she wants a divorce. He goes on to say that it’s the breaking of the marriage vows that is the sin, not the actual initiation of the divorce.
The conclusions he makes in his book are as follows:
The Bible’s message for those suffering within marriage is both realistic and loving.
Marriage should be lifelong, but broken marriage vows can be grounds for divorce.
Biblical grounds for divorce include adultery, abuse and abandonment.
Jesus urged forgiveness but allowed divorce for repeated unrepentant breaking of marriage vows.
Only the victim, not the perpetrator of such sins, should decide when or whether to divorce.*
I believe that, despite inner and external accusations, I was not in sin or wrong to stand up against the wrongdoing that was taking place in my marriage. I believe I was not in sin or wrong to take the advice of my church leadership when they released me to legally separate. I believe I was not in sin or wrong to not contest the divorce petitioned against me. And I believe I was not in sin or wrong to not stay married no matter what.
Is it a shame that my marriage ended in divorce? Yes, absolutely. But not nearly as much as a shame that the marriage vows were broken.
I realize that not everyone will agree with me (or Dr. Brewer) and that is fine. Every person needs to come to their own conclusions about this, with Bible-reading, prayer and wise counsel. I am aware that I will stand before God for my views and I am comfortable with that, because I believe I did what I could do to save my marriage. But I remind myself, it wasn’t just up to me.
*To this I want to add my own two cents. I know what he means when he says this; he means that it shouldn’t be left up to the abuser to decide if the marriage is over. But I want to add a caution that though no one can understand the intricacies of a marriage except for the two people living in the marriage, and I do believe the victim should be able to determine the true state of his or her marriage, I want to recommend that surrounding yourself with much wise counsel is the best way to walk this out. Not all church experiences will be the same as mine, I know, but there was a protection over me – I have no doubt – because I went to my church, asked for their help, and submitted to their authority and counsel.
If this post encouraged you, you would benefit from “Unraveling: Hanging onto Faith through the End of a Christian Marriage”, found here.
Thank you for sharing this. I believe that abuse is abandonment. The abuser has certainly abandoned his marriage vows. There are scriptures that explain how to deal with a person who has sinned against you and they do not exclude spouses. The end result of an unrepentant offender is basically shunning. You can’t simultaneously be married to someone and shun them at the same time, at least not while living out your marriage vows.
Cynthia, so true: you can’t be married to someone and shun at the same time. So good. Thanks, -Elisabeth
Elizabeth, you have written down what I have found true in my experiences and study. I am thankful for those who are willing to speak truth, regardless of it’s popularity or acceptance. Thank you.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Julia. -Elisabeth
Great post, and I agree! I still haven’t read that book, but after extensive study and prayer I came to the same conclusions as you. I especially like your point that the breaking of the vows, not the paperwork, is the sin. That was something I had to wrestle with, since my ex had effectively ended our marriage in every way but didn’t feel like following through legally. If I hadn’t gone ahead and filed, we’d be like Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in Twister who were still legally married even though they hadn’t spoken in years. 😛
Brenda, yikes…and that’s no marriage! -Elisabeth
I admire you for standing up for your sanity, Elisabeth. I’m still in my teen years (17) — so not close to being married — but I really enjoy reading other believers’ thoughts on marriage, love and relationships. Especially mature believers. I’m taking notes for the future, of course 🙂 I discovered your blog about a month ago and I really like the honesty and sincerity conveyed through your words. You write from your heart — that is undeniable. In this post, I like how you stress the fact that you carefully, consciously, prayerfully made your decision. I believe God will honour that. Blessings to you and your ministry <3
What about fear due to previous abuse in the marriage, resulting in separation? He is trying everything he can to convince me of his changing but I just can not come to trust this. Not to mention, after what I’ve experienced in our very brief courtship and marriage, I feel I just do not love him.
So I guess my question is, is it ok to divorce due to abuse before the separation even though we’ve been trying to make things work?
I REALLY need some help. I’m terrified and extremely conflicted.
Lauren, I am right where you are and really need some discussion and wisdom about this.
19 years married. Separated for 6 weeks now. (It’s not yet a legal separation.) My husband was physically abusive from the very start of our marriage, but there had been no sign of it at all in our dating months. It exploded into my reality on our actual wedding day and continued on for 15 years. At seven years in, I told our pastor. He said it was “serious,” but did nothing other than meet twice with my husband to read 1 Corinthians 13 together. No one ever checked on me. Seven years after that, I finally had an eye-witness, who went to the church and said that someone needed to get involved. Drat, a witness. Now they had to do something, so an elder took my husband to breakfast, declared that he was “saying all the right things,” and considered the case closed. He has not been physically abusive since, but he has been physically intimidating, sexually abusive (demanding sexual payment for NOT physically harming me; demanding payment via sex for any gift or enjoyment or social activity I participate in; and more) and psychologically and financially abusive (lying, threatening, concocting wild stories for me to believe to then make me seem crazy afterward; stealing all our savings–even that which was set aside for the kids; running up huge debts and lying about them; hiding money from his family; buying very expensive frivolous things and hiding those). I caught him in more lies 6 weeks ago; he has bankrupted us. We saw the attorney about filing. I told him to leave. My church does not approve the separation. They want him back in the house now. I can’t do it. He is again saying all the right things. I don’t believe him.
I’m right where you are. Am I the one who has given up? Or am I finally just acting on the truth? Am I wrong to pursue divorce? Is it too early? We’ve done two marriage retreats, told pastors & elders, five months of marriage counseling together (which he manipulated for his own purposes successfully), read at least a half dozen books about how marriage ought to be, attended a Christian 12-step program together and separately for 2.5 years, he has a sponsor who tries to hold him accountable but he doesn’t listen; he now sees a psychologist and I have a separate counselor. We have written agreements between us of the things he isn’t allowed to do, witnessed by church leadership, and he finds new things to violate.
Am I really premature in saying, “Enough”? I have broken farther than I ever thought possible. I nearly have a panic attack from just being in the room with him, waiting to see what he’s going to hurt next. He now says (as of 2 weeks ago) that he’s repentant (again) and the church says I have to take him back. I don’t think I can.
I’m in the same place.
Abigail, I am sure you are giving it all you can and it must be extremely draining and confusing. In my experiences, you can not be the one to change him. You have to give him to God and let them work it out between the two of them. I also see very clearly that my path to God is so much clearer without an abusive and out of control man taking up all my energy. It’s so hard to make the choice to “abandon” someone we love and have committed our life to but I truly believe our purpose here is to love and glorify God. Maybe it’s just me but I know for a fact that I can enrich so many other peoples lives when take the focus off of my broken marriage and concentrate in furthering His kingdom by paying more attention to others. When I focus on my marriage turmoil all other relationships in my life suffer.
It’s tough to explain, I hope that made sense. I can’t tell anyone to leave or stay, I don’t envy anyone who has to make that choice. But please, PLEASE take care of yourself and your children. I will pray for you and your family. I hope God blesses you with clarity and comfort. If you never cease to pray with a heart of love He will answer your prayers. God bless, sister 🙂
“I realize that not everyone will agree with me (or Dr. Brewer) and that is fine. Every person needs to come to their own conclusions about this, with Bible-reading, prayer and wise counsel. I am aware that I will stand before God for my views and I am comfortable with that, because I believe I did what I could do to save my marriage. But I remind myself, it wasn’t just up to me.”
You are right, Elisabeth. You and everyone else (including Brewer) will stand before God and give an account. In addition, the only part that was “up to you” was remaining in the vow you made before your husband and God. This vow to your husband was not contingent upon him reciprocating the vow…no…Your vow was before God and He will hold you to your end of the vow as much as He will hold your spouses vow to you.
Failure comes when one or both spouses believe that a divorce ends a marriage. Only death ends a marriage (Romans 7:2,3; 1 Cor 7:39) A marriage is not a contract. A marriage is a one-flesh covenant no man may break (Matthew 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-9) Do not fall for the false and Hell bound teaching of “exception clauses” and “Pauline privileges” by men like Brewer, Adams, and MacArthur. These men will teach you that “remarriage” is acceptable when Jesus calls remarriage after divorce of a living spouse nothing more than adultery. Singleness and /or reconciliation of the marriage is the only option IF divorce is the option. No excuses, no exceptions.
1 Cor 7:10,11 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: 11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.
15 years of marriage. We’ve been separated for a year. This isn’t our first separation or filing for divorce, it’s our second. I’m going to skip everything except the two most important points that seem to matter right now. Neither of us were Christians when we got married. We got married for all the wrong reasons. We lived in sin. We’ve both broken the vows, as far as infidelity, repeatedly. Supposedly I was the first. And I’ll own that if it’s the truth. This time the separation is a little more complicated. It’s basically court ordered because of supposed sexual abuse towards my children. I say supposed because it can’t be proven. He denies it – completely – so of course is unrepentant. There are things I saw though. And it came to light after myself and a godly spiritual mentor prayed daily for months for it to come out in the open if it was true … Because I had concerns. So right now he is not allowed in the house as long as our children are minors. The child protective agency in our area substantiated the claim of the accusations of my oldest daughter. Considering those two things … What am I to do?? I know you can’t tell me that, but … What does the bible say? Can you give me some kind of counsel on this? I am begging God for a clear answer. On one hand I think He wants me to stay … On the other, how does that even make sense? A good friend says if I put my children at risk again, it’s on me this time. Sigh … Please help.