I should start by stating that there are often a variety of opinions on any one issue within a single group. There absolutely are evangelicals who believe that it is biblically acceptable for a person to divorce an abusive spouse, as well as that it is biblically acceptable for an individual who is divorced to remarry. Many evangelicals, however, hold a much more narrow view on the acceptable grounds for divorce—or, at the very least, treat divorce on the grounds of abuse as biblically iffy or uncertain.
Check out this paragraph from an article in World Magazine, a publication that bills itself as a conservative evangelical alternative to Time Magazine:
I understand Patterson’s reluctance to advise divorce to an abused spouse. Divorce shouldn’t be the first solution. Since the gospel is true, there is always hope for repentance, redemption, and restoration in the most broken, messy marriage. It is right and good for the victim to one day forgive his or her abuser. It is right and good for the victim to pray for his or her abuser, especially if the abuser is not a believer.
The casual way in which the author elides “abused spouse” with “broken, messy marriage” is jarring. A “broken, messy marriage” sounds more like a reference to a marriage with problems—partners who no longer have common goals, or who have ceased even trying to communicate—than it does like a reference to a marriage in which one party is abusing the other.
This emphasis on restoration first makes it harder for victims of domestic violence to find support within their church communities. Did they try everything before leaving? Did they do everything in their power to restore the marriage? Simply leaving—declaring that the way they were treated is not okay—is not enough. Leaving has to be the absolute last resort, an option taken only after every other is exhausted.
Even those evangelicals who do view divorce on the grounds of abuse as valid frequently hold that those who are divorced cannot remarry, and must instead remain single, a belief that keeps women in abusive marriages they might otherwise leave—after all, those marriages becomes their only avenue to lifelong love and companionship. There is no second chance for love—no possibility of finding someone else.
Still, this conversation often stops well before it gets to the question of remarriage. In 2015, Lifeway Research found that nearly half of American evangelicals (46%) believe that divorcing on the grounds of spousal abuse is a sin.
One of these American evangelicals explained his views in a comment on the aforementioned World Magazine article:
The abused spouse issue is an especially difficult issue, made more difficult by the biblical silence on the issue. Marital infidelity was evidently an issue is Jesus’ day, and he addresses that issue with respect to divorce. It’s difficult to believe spousal abuse wasn’t an issue in Jesus’ day, yet Jesus is silent on that issue. Or, more precisely, Jesus allows only infidelity as grounds for divorce. It seems we must find a way of dealing with the spousal abuse issue without looking to divorce as a solution (yet also without regarding divorce as the unpardonable sin).
The commenter’s solution? About that:
It’s not biblical, but the old adage about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure is certainly worth keeping in mind. How do we keep this from starting in the first place? What are the responsibilities of both male and female members of the body with respect to diminishing the frequency with which this occurs? Any “solution” that lays the responsibility solely at the feet of one sex or the other is bound to end in failure.
The problem is the framework.
It’s been interesting to watch many evangelicals (including those who write for World Magazine) portray Patterson’s reluctance to support divorce—even in cases of spousal abuse—as understandable. Sure, Patterson’s comments were insensitive and probably went too far, they explain, but the Bible really does condemn divorce, and it really doesn’t include spousal abuse as acceptable grounds for divorce, so can we fault him in discouraging divorce?
But that is exactly the point.
As long as they continue to dissemble on whether divorce is an acceptable response to domestic violence, evangelicals cannot fully support women in abusive situations. Even accepting divorce in such situations but condemning remarriage creates problems—it means women who leaven an abusive marriage must give up all hope of lifelong companionship.
I’ve seen friends leave bad marriages—whether emotionally or physically abusive—only to find solace in someone new, someone who treats them the way they should have been treated in their first marriage. I’ve spoken with friends still in abusive marriages for whom the hope of someday finding someone else—someone with whom they can be truly happy, someone who loves and supports them for who they are—is central to their ability to even consider leaving.
And yet, many evangelicals who see themselves as progressive on this issue—who see themselves as the supporters of abused women—still dissemble when it comes to remarriage after divorce.
Ultimately, evangelicals—including both those who allow for divorce in case of spousal abuse and those who do not—need to be honest about the implications of their beliefs. Those who portray themselves as supporters of abused women but portray divorce as a last resort—or oppose any possibility of remarriage—need to be honest about the fallout of these beliefs, and the consequences they have for women.
It’s time to do better.
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