Biblically, can an abused wife divorce her husband?

Q. I have a friend who feels that the Bible does not give specific instructions on spousal abuse as grounds for divorce or separation, and so a pastor would be going beyond Scripture if they addressed that. I wonder whether Mosaic law includes something applicable, or whether church tradition might provide some guidance. I believe the Bible would permit divorce if the abuser refused to change. Can you please help us? We both want to know. Would any aspects of the marriage covenant be broken in an abusive relationship? How would you address the Scripture, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands” in this regard? (I believe that submission does not equal tolerating or accepting abuse.)

I think there’s a biblical teaching that’s applicable to this issue in 1 Corinthians, in Paul’s discussion of marriage. There he says:

“If a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

I take “willing to live with her” to mean far more than just agreeing to reside under the same roof. It certainly means being willing to create together a decent, respectful, honorable life. Not necessarily one built entirely on Christian principles, unfortunately, if the husband is not a believer, but at least one that would be recognizable to the wider society as a marriage that fulfilled its essential purpose of creating flourishing in the lives of both spouses and their children.

Spousal abuse, by contrast, is something that “even pagans do not tolerate,” as Paul says about another issue earlier in the letter. It would be a real shame if the Christian church were the only community in the world that encouraged abused wives to stay with their husbands, whether they changed or not, literally at the risk of being killed. I think we can do a lot better than that, and that the Bible indeed shows us the way.

I would argue that an unrepentant serial abuser has effectively “left” his wife, because he is no longer “willing to live with her” in the most basic sense of a decent and honorable marriage. That being the case, since God has “called us to live in peace,” the believing wife is not bound. She may separate or even divorce for her own safety and protection, and that of her children.

When I was a pastor, in such situations where these measures seemed regretfully necessary, I used to counsel the wife to see the separation as a “loyal protest,” a measure for her own safety first of all, but also a dramatization of the urgency and severity of the problem and its need for immediate redress. Happily in some cases, the separation got through to the husband and he recognized his need to get help. Unfortunately, in other cases the husband never responded and a divorce seemed to be the only way the wife could protect herself and her children from physical harm. I would argue that in these situations the divorce was biblically sanctioned. God has truly called us to live in peace. I would argue that this situation is included, even if not specifically envisioned, in the advice Paul originally gave the Corinthians.

We need to be very careful about this, however. A man or woman in a marriage that is not abusive, but which still has plenty of room for growth, shouldn’t say, “Well, I’m not ‘flourishing’ at this point, so I’m going to conclude that my spouse isn’t doing his or her part to make this the kind of marriage God intended. Since they’ve effectively ‘left’ me, I’m going to call the marriage off.” My advice here is intended specifically for cases where a spouse’s health and even life, and those of any children, are in danger. Short of that, I would encourage spouses to recommit to their marriages and trust God to heal them and help them grow to maturity.

A case can be made from Scripture, for example, that a husband or wife may divorce their spouse if there has been unfaithfulness. But this does not mean that they must do so. (We have in the Bible the example of Hosea, whose wife was unfaithful, but who didn’t say “she has effectively ended the marriage” and divorce her.) I’ve seen some amazing recoveries of marriages from this kind of problem and many others. Four out of five unhappy marriages become happy ones within five years if the couples will stay together.

This being the case, I don’t think the argument for separation/divorce for the safety of a wife (and children) in an abusive situation should be made on the basis that the husband has “already broken the covenant relationship” through his abuse, so that the marriage is effectively over anyway. I say this because, as just noted, husbands may do other things that arguably break the relationship, such as being unfaithful, but in these cases there may still be hope for the marriage (thought it is certainly in trouble).

I’d rather pursue the lines I sketched out earlier: the wife has a responsibility before God to protect her own life and certainly that of any children, so she must go to a place of safety, and this should be seen as a “loyal protest” whose goal is to wake the husband up to the seriousness of the situation and the immediate need for change.

Finally, I would argue that the biblical admonition “wives submit to your husbands” is not intended to create a power differential in marriage. It does not give the husband “veto power” over any decisions the couple needs to make together, and it does not require a wife to go along with any situation a husband might create, certainly not an abusive one. Paul quite distinctly tells children to obey their parents and servants to obey their masters, but wives to submit to their husbands, so submission definitely means something different from unprotesting compliance.

I would argue that submission means a wife using all of her powers to help her husband become the man God intends him to be, even if this means challenging his plans and actions as a way of pursuing that overall goal. Tolerating abuse is just the opposite of this, and so I don’t see how it can be considered submission.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

7 thoughts on “Biblically, can an abused wife divorce her husband?”

  1. Thank you Chris. In my case my unbelieving wife was mentally abusive. I am not sure biblically my divorce was supported, however I worked very hard at it for 30 years and prayed non-stop. I am thankful for God’s amazing grace and my wonderful believing wife, of 6 years, He has provided. As I look back it is apparent He had a plan.

  2. There is a more straightforward answer from the Bible. See David Instone-Brewer’s books on marriage and divorce for the more detailed exposition if interested. (http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/) But the basic idea is marriage is a covenant and breaking a covenant vow is a reason to declare a covenant terminated, this is true for any covenant, not just a marriage covenant. The slight curve ball is that God never breaks any covenant vow God makes, but this actually confirms the idea as Hos 2:2 acts as the written divorce certification for (North) Israel as confirmed by Jer 3:8, but divorce is not required as confirmed by the verses for Judah around Jer 3:8. In other words, even in the metaphor of God marrying (North) Israel and Judah, God follows the stipulations found in Torah (in this case, for divorce) as an example for us.

    Specifically for a marriage, Ex 21:10-11 when understood in the context of the culture of the original audience, but this is often missed or ignored as it is not recognized as relevant because of the refs to a slave wife and polygamy. The idea is that is material needs (food, clothes) and emotional needs (love, sex) are deliberately not met by a husband for a slave wife, then how much more (Qol Valhomer argument) is this true for a free wife and for a husband. In other words, abuse and neglect are valid reasons found in Scripture for divorce, along with adultery. There is more but this is enough to get the idea.

    1. Thank you, this is very helpful and I appreciate the further Scriptural insights on the issue. I’d only caution once again that just because a person may divorce their spouse, this doesn’t mean that they must do so. A wise course must be found, by God’s grace and help, as we explore whether there is still hope for the marriage, or whether irreparable harm (physical or otherwise) will be done to one of the spouses if it continues. I’ve seen and heard of amazing recoveries for marriages, including one that was saved when all that remained was for the spouse who initiated the divorce to sign the final paperwork. But tragically there are also cases where a spouse stays in a destructive marriage too long and is harmed for life or even killed. May God grant all of us wisdom, patience, discernment, and love whenever we are called upon to help in these situations.

      1. Without getting into extensive details, in Matt 19:3-12 Jesus is correcting seven (7!) misinterpretations of Torah made by the Pharisees, some of them where they claimed a divorce was required. (These teachings by the Pharisees are found in the Mishnah, see Instone-Brewer for the details.) The net is that Jesus taught that divorce was never required but was allowed for valid reasons of breaking the covenant vows.

        Then the question arises about who and when is the decision to divorce? I see it as wrong to try to decide for another in this area. Essentially no believer gets married planning to divorce (if they do then it is fraud) and only they know all the details of what they have been through, large and small. I know there are some counselors that basically take a stance of never counseling divorce, but at the least one should know if that is the stance the counselor takes when considering using them.

        My take is a counselor should be willing to explain all the relevant teaching as found in Scripture and in context, especially the culture of the original audience, while leaving the decision up to the other. David Instone-Brewer’s masterwork does this, for example. One aspect of this is to teach that both parties should strive to keep their marriage vows; if everyone did this, then they would be no divorces. In other words, divorce is a symptom and not the direct problem to be addressed if one wants to reduce the number of divorces.

      2. Very good. Thanks again. I hadn’t heard before that Jesus here was correcting the misinterpretation that in some cases divorce is required, but that makes a lot of sense and is encouraging. I agree with what you say about the wisdom required for us not to take a “one size fits all” approach to counseling about possible divorce.

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