Sunday, November 10, 2013
The Abusive Spouse
ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIPS AND DIVORCE
I have had some interesting conversations of late, in a variety of settings, but have had lots of things happening that kept me away from the computer to get a blog out. One of the topics addressed was the issue of abuse in relation to grounds for divorce and the biblical teaching. Included in it was an individual who had been told that the only biblical grounds for divorce were adultery or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. But the question was raised in regard to biblical teaching about abusive relationships, and whether God required a Christian to stay in a marriage that involves abuse. Sadly, this is a big topic, and often a taboo topic in churches. So what does God require?
Let me begin by saying that in terms of what God requires, I think of verses like Micah 6:8 that talk about doing justice, love kindly and walk humbly. And let me then add that I believe that when we start off on the track of God’s REQUIREMENTS, we sometimes relegate the issues of grace, mercy and forgiveness to far down the list, a choice I believe is a mistake.
So does the scripture address the topic of abuse? Well, somehow the Golden Rule---treating others the way you would like to be treated—and Christ’s new commandment to love one another just as Christ loved us both would automatically exclude being abusive. In fact, a careful reading of the end of Ephesians 5, where the outline of marriage is provided as an illustration of Christ’s love for the church, would also exclude abuse as being a part of any truly Christian marriage. So, it would seem to me that if one is going to ask what God requires of someone in an abusive marriage, the first answer would relate to the abuser, not the abused!
Before I go any further, perhaps I should open the door a bit wider for you in this arena. I know of women whose husbands have beaten them severely. I know of a pregnant woman who suffered beatings, and was literally hanging on the hood of a moving car, begging the father of her child to not leave as he drove away until she fell off. And I also know of a man who would wake up in the middle of the night to discover his drunk wife standing over him with a broken beer bottle, threatening to slice his throat with it. And I know that sometimes, homes that would appear all wonderful to others in a church can, in reality, be war zones behind closed doors. Even to the point that church leadership will unwittingly support a supposedly godly spouse who, in fact, is the abuser in unscriptural marriage. It is always wise to never assume you know the whole story, especially if you have not really heard both sides of the story.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention that abuse is not always physical, but can be verbal or emotional. Perhaps you have known, as I have, of individuals who have been so browbeaten by a spouse that they consider themselves worthless. Or an individual in a relationship in which their life is a daily rollercoaster of emotions, being controlled and insecure in any sense of love or commitment. The physical abuse at least has the visible bruising to prove it is happening. The internal bruises are much more subtle, much harder to define, and sometimes, leave the abused second-guessing as to whether they are even being abused!
So, would Jesus choose the side of the abuser in a bad relationship, or that of the abused? It seems to me that scripture is pretty clear about all the times he stood with the outcast, rejected and abused, and I think he would do the same in judging a marriage.
Some would say that regardless, Jesus does not allow the suffering of abuse as a valid reason for divorce. On the other hand, others (including myself) believe that Jesus’s point about the grounds for divorce was not so much a prescription of the only legitimate grounds as it was an exposé of the wrong being practiced at the time of trivializing divorce. Burning supper is simply not good enough grounds for divorcing your wife!
So should the abused spouse seek a divorce? Certainly not as the first solution, because sometimes there are other ways to bring about an end to the abuse, such as counseling, confrontation, legal complaints. If there is a way for the abuser to be brought to humility, repentance and change, that is the ultimate goal. But, in the case of many I have known, abusers often prefer to blame anyone but themselves, and deny that their actions are their own choices or responsibility. In such cases, divorce may accomplish two things: the safety of the abused and the possible accountability of the abuser which might even lead to repentance.
There remain those who deny that, even under these circumstances, divorce is acceptable. I believe that, sad though it is, divorce is a symptom of our fallen world, and that God in his wisdom knew it and so provided guidelines even in the Mosaic law of old. I also believe that though divorce clearly does not live up to the biblical ideal of one man and one woman become one flesh for life, neither does an abusive marriage live up that ideal either. In fact, the divorce is probably more a reflection of reality than the sham of an abusive marriage.
I tend to be most impressed with a story I once heard about a church who knew of a young woman whose marriage was abusive in a number of ways. There came a time when the husband was away from the home for reasons beyond what I can explain here, and in that time, the believers chose to rescue that woman by putting her and her children on a plane with tickets the believers had purchased so that she would never have to suffer at his hands again. Somehow, that strikes me more as how Christ would respond than those who like to pronounce that the abused must tough it out indefinitely, though I doubt they would do the same.