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.