Church Views · On Being Christian

divorce for domestic abuse

Physical abuse in marriage is not grounds for divorce, according to Saddleback pastor Tom Holladay. The Bible only gives two cases where divorce is acceptable: abandonment and a physical affair. A recent article by The Christian Post quotes Holladay as saying,

“I wish there were a third [option] in Scripture… There is something in me that wishes there were a Bible verse that says, ‘If they abuse you in this-and-such kind of way, then you have a right to leave them.'”

I agree with his assessment. There are very few passages of Scripture that suggest quitting as an option when things get unthinkably difficult. In fact, quite the opposite.

Which is not to say that an abused spouse has to remain in unsafe living arrangements, or “submit” to an abusive spouse. Holladay recommends a couple separate and work on their marriage through counseling. I agree with this, too. Often, both parties contribute to a negative and deteriorating dynamic in the relationship. Counseling can potentially help both spouses recognize triggers and change behaviors.

Holladay’s conclusion is that spouses in an abusive relationship need to ask God for wisdom to do the right things.

“He says we’re one and as Christians, as believers, the Bible says a husband is to sacrifice for his wife and the wife is to respect her husband. So if that’s not happening,” he continued, “I think you have not only the right but also the responsibility to keep pushing for that, to not just settle for the pain.”

And on this point, I disagree. It’s utterly impossible to make someone to sacrifice for you. Sacrifice requires an attitude adjustment – a willingness to put others first – and that’s just not something someone else can force, particularly a wife.

So, I question whether a raging, abusive Christian man has not actually met one of the biblical requirements for divorce. In the complimentarian view, he’s the head of the house. It’s his role – his responsibility. An abusive man who refuses counseling, refuses to submit to accountability or to change his behavior is abandoning his marriage. He’s abandoning the vows he made before God, as well as his ordained “role” in the relationship. To suggest a wife “keep pushing” for a marriage her husband has already abandoned then makes the abused wife  solely responsible for the relationship. Which is nonsense.

Divorce should not automatically be the first step in an abusive relationship, but it should sometimes be the last.

11 thoughts on “divorce for domestic abuse

  1. A Christian friend in the midst of his divorce, whose wife would not be coming back, asked me when, as a Christian, he should sign the divorce papers. He did not want the divorce, but she would not come back to him. So when, Biblically, should he have signed the papers? That one stumped me. I had heard plenty of sermons about divorce – whether, when, why one should divorce; whether it was right to remarry – but I never heard a sermon on his specific question.

    “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him….But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:12-13, 15 KJV).

    Anyone, Christian or non-, who abuses his or her spouse is not pleased to live with his or her spouse. Period. This makes sense with unbelievers, but what if the abusive spouse professes the faith? Then this comes into play:

    “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Matthew 18:15-17 KJV).

    If the abused spouse seeks repentance and reconciliation from the abuser, and the abuser refuses to repent after the abused, the abused’s friends, and their church try to intervene, then the abuser should be treated like an unbeliever. If he or she continues to abuse the other, then the abused should leave.


    1. Thanks for providing a thoughtful argument on this subject. You clarified what I was trying to say… I hadn’t thought about treating the unrepentant spouse (male or female) as an unbeliever. That makes sense, and highlights the church’s seeming reluctance to actually deal with sin.


      1. Ya know, the more I think about this, however, that gives the unbeliever (abuser, in this hypothetical situation) leave to go. That doesn’t excuse the believer for divorce.

        I retract my previous statemen


    2. A caution: I don’t think treating one as an unbeliever doesn’t mean leaving, shunning, or ostracizing. It means working under the assumption that the individual in question is no a Christ-follower, and needs to be “loved in.”

      Inasfar as the divorce situation goes, however, I see you argument for grounds if we are working under the assumption of one being an unbeliever.

      Good thoughts, all.


      1. I may not be understanding your point, (and not to belabor the discussion) but I actually think we’re talking about the case of a spouse who IS a believer, but refuses to repent, change, be accountable, etc. My read is that several here are agreeing that could constitute abandonment, and therefore grounds for divorce.


      2. I had a friend, a professing believer, who was committing adultery and beating his wife. I was friends with the wife, too. I did not know what he was doing until another friend of the family told me. I was shocked, because I had known my male friend for a few years. I never would have thought him capable of it.

        When the matter came to a head, he hit her in the head with a cup. The police were called. He was arrested and placed under an emergency restraining order. I talked him into giving me his set of keys to his apartment. I also talked to him about repenting. So did my pastor, his wife’s pastor, and probably other people, too. He would not repent. So I talked the wife into extending the restraining order and adding their two children to it.

        I was concerned, first, that he would come back to the house after the first order was lifted, beat his wife, and end up in jail for sure. I also was concerned he would take the children and leave. After the extension of the order, our friendship, what was left of it, ended on his end.

        My friend’s wife did not want to get a divorce. I used the above commentary on Matthew and 1 Corinthians to help her see that it was okay to divorce him if he would not repent. It was clear he was not pleased to live with her. Plus, in Virginia, you cannot stop a divorce if one party wants it.

        He now has married his girlfriend, who may not be legally divorced from her ex-husband. The ex-husband did not want to divorce her. My former friend and his new wife have a son, too.

        Throughout the ordeal, my attitude has always been that, if he would repent, this would all be over as far as it concerned our friendship. We would be friends again.


  2. Thanks for this well reasoned argument. I heartily agree. It is never the abused person’s responsibility to change the abuser. I wish more churches would get involved with these situations and work for reconciliation rather than so quickly running to encourage quitting.


    1. Yes, I also think churches tend to adopt a passive, “well you really don’t have grounds for divorce… so just keep praying, keep working at it…” They know the situation is wrong, but can’t seem to determine a scriptural response (church leadership!) so are reluctant to commit to any action steps.


    2. katherine, you are so right. i have been married for almost 5 years and my husband is a sociopath, actually it is the whole family. i have been in denial for some time but i also had church clergy do nothing but encourage me to pray and work hard. they were clueless about the abuse, lies, manipulation,etc. now i am scared. he is ss teacher at church and so am i. his daughter was following me last night. he is the best con i have ever encountered and has so many fooled. i cannot move til i save enough money which will be the end of march but i live in fear. i cant sleep, cant eat (have lost 35 pounds) and i worry constantly. i pray constantly too but have a hard time trying to focus. i feel so lost, i am scared and i need someone to pray for me. will you? i cant even talk about this without crying i am just a wreck. i am glad i found this site. GOD BLESS


  3. Jan, I heartily agree with your reasoning here. On a related note, I wonder what the Biblical view of “separation” is? If a couple separates due to abuse, and the abuser never makes any progress, doesn’t long-term separation (with or without the divorce decree) simply amount to a de facto divorce anyway?


  4. Hmmm…No one has suggested the historical context of the bible as it concerns the expectations of marriage. If physical abuse was not considered sinful at the time in Hebrew culture would it have been something that the New Testament writers would have broached? I am appalled at the idea that a woman has “contributed” to her physical abuse. I think that it’s a slippery slope here to encourage any abused woman to stay with her husband. Separation is an acceptable first step but I would be very cautious of putting a woman back in her household with a man that his previously beaten her to a pulp while glibly saying – “well there’s no third option in scripture to allow for a divorce here…sorry.” I just don’t think it’s as simple as looking in the bible for a “third option.” That approach and the subsequent conclusion seems spiritually immature and theologically incomplete.


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