There was actually a time when my ex-husband sent me a list of scripture verses on why I could never remarry. This was joke coming from him, but I did want to know what God thought on the topic.
I’d already looked up the scriptures myself and was totally confused. It was like I could pick one scripture to justify whatever I wanted to do, but what did they mean as a whole?
Then I found author Barbara Roberts. She’d done all the research for me. Her message is an important one, and I share it here for anyone considering divorce or remarriage.
Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery, and Desertion. What are some common misconceptions Christians have on the subject?
A: The biggest misconception is that God hates divorce, an idea based on a mistranslation of Malachi 2:16. Many bibles have it as “I hate divorce” says the Lord God of Israel, which gives rise to the belief that God hates divorce. But that's not what the Hebrew says. The 2011 NIV correctly renders it as: “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect.”
God doesn't condemn all kinds of divorce, but he does condemn divorce when it's done without biblical grounds. The passage in Malachi is one place where the Bible makes clear that God condemns divorce when it's done without justification, out of selfish, unrighteous motives.
The second biggest misconception is that the Bible doesn't allow divorce for domestic abuse because it only permits divorce for adultery (many say it also permits divorce for desertion by an unbeliever). My book shows that the Bible definitely allows divorce for domestic abuse.
There are several lesser misconceptions:
remarriage is adultery
marriage is indissoluble except by death
if you separate you should always remain unmarried, or be reconciled to your spouse.
There are also myths about domestic abuse, for example:
“It doesn't happen in our church”
“The wife just needs to submit more”
“Abuse = physical violence, but all other forms of mistreatment don't count.”
These myths feed into the misconceptions about divorce, because people ignore or discount many cases of abuse. Abuse has been the elephant in the room that nobody wants to deal with.
Q: Please define the difference between treacherous divorce and disciplinary divorce.
A: Disciplinary divorce is permitted by the Bible. It applies in cases of abuse, adultery and desertion, where a seriously mistreated spouse divorces a seriously offending spouse.
Treacherous divorce is condemned by the Bible. It occurs when a spouse obtains divorce for reasons other than abuse, adultery or desertion. I did not invent those terms by the way, I got them from another author. To explain the scriptural basis for the distinction between disciplinary and treacherous divorce took a whole book, so I'd best not try to go into it here!
Understanding the biblical principle of disciplinary divorce is liberating, especially for the victims of domestic abuse, who have been the Cinderellas in the divorce controversy for centuries. God doesn't say that abused spouses have to stay, put up and suffer. They are free to separate, divorce and, if they choose, remarry. They don't have to be sacrificed on the altar of the institution of marriage, at the hands of a cruel spouse and a judgemental church. They can seek freedom from bondage and rebuild their lives, without guilt or condemnation.
Q: How has your teaching on this subject been accepted by the church as a whole?
A: Sigh. That's the short answer! But there have been encouraging signs, such as the three eminent theologians who wrote commendations for the back cover of my book. William Heth's commendation was especially noteworthy, considering he originally believed that divorce wasn't allowed even for adultery, then came to believe that divorce was permissible for both adultery and desertion, and now says that Not Under Bondage “took the scales from his eyes.” Quite a few journals and magazines in the UK and Australia have reviewed the book, but sadly none in America. The reviews ranged from extremely positive, to positive with reservations on minor points. I think only two were highly critical: one fellow dismissed my work because of my personal history, and another critic was so liberal in her theology that she saw no need for a book like mine.
I've sold 1500 copies since publication, not to mention the ones I've given away to survivors and domestic abuse services. So far as I can tell, most customers are victim-survivors of abuse. Some of their feedback has been glowing: “the chains fell off as I read it.” But I don't think my book has hit the radar of most Christians. It's not that they've rejected it, they just aren't aware of it.
I've had the feeling all along that while there is an enormous need for my teaching, there is an even greater resistance to it. I've only had two invitations to speak to Christian audiences, one was from Christian counsellors, and the other was from a pastor whose own daughter had suffered domestic abuse. When she disclosed the abuse, the abuser enlisted so many allies in the congregation that the pastor and his family were all maligned and opposed, and more than half the church left. That particular pastor is awake and aware! In contrast, most pastors seem to think they understand domestic abuse pretty well so they don't need to be more discerning about it, or think through their doctrines more carefully. However, most victims who write to me recount horror stories of how their church leaders didn't properly support them because they (the leaders) got unwittingly enlisted by the abuser.
Q: What unhealthy practices might the church support if they do not fully understand the concepts of Biblical divorce?
A: Because most of the church doesn't realise that Malachi 2:16 has been mistranslated and that the Bible allows divorce for domestic abuse, victims of abuse have been placed in a terrible double-bind, thinking they must either endure abuse from their spouse, or leave their marriage but face condemnation by God and the church for disobeying the Bible.
Untold numbers of victims are suffering in appalling marriages and many are dying by murder or suicide because the church doesn't know that God allows divorce for domestic abuse. This is a scandal of monumental proportions. It is at least as serious as the issue of slavery in previous centuries, but it's far more insidious, and more hidden.
There are many other unhealthy practices that are rife in the church in relation to domestic abuse. Telling the victim to submit more, to forgive more (even though the abuser has not properly repented), to pray harder, to have more faith, to examine herself to see what she's doing wrong – all these are highly damaging for victims of domestic abuse. I will be addressing these and other aspects in my next book.
The church doesn't realise how cunningly abusers manage to enlist Christians and church leaders to be their allies. The church is a happy hiding place for abusers, “the Mister Nice Guy Club” I call it, where people wear rose-coloured glasses about prayer and faith being a quick-fix for entrenched sinful attitudes. We've all heard about how pedophiles select their target child-victim, then groom the parents and community around that child so they think “He's such a lovely guy!” Perpetrators of domestic abuse behave somewhat similarly in order to make the congregation think they couldn't possibly be a perpetrator of spousal abuse, and most Christians are deceived. The victim who has separated from an abuser often has only crumbs of support from a tiny handful of Christians, while the perpetrator manipulates the majority of the congregation to be his allies.
A bystander becomes an ally of the perpetrator even when the bystander takes a neutral stance. In domestic abuse, bystanders cannot be neutral, although many they think they can. When bystanders are neutral, they are effectively saying, “The problem is not abuse.” This serves the perpetrator's goals, because it re-defines the problem as something other than abuse – a relationship conflict, a dispute between equals, part of the ups and downs of marriage, a minor skirmish, a temporary loss of control, “it takes two to tango,” etc.
Q: What kind of research did you do that helped you better understand God's view of divorce?
A: I read many books and journal articles on the doctrine of divorce and remarriage, and commentaries on the various biblical chapters and passages that relate to divorce. I could read an article once, underlining and writing in the margins, then read a dozen more books or articles, then re-read the first article and have much greater insight because I'd become more familiar with the intricacies of the scholarly debate. I often re-read three times, in this cyclical process. It took intense concentration over several years, and I sometimes woke up with a sore brain, literally. I really didn't know what contours my doctrine of divorce was going to take until it gradually became clear through all this study.
I felt like an explorer on the high seas trying to chart a body of land which I knew was out there, having only some old and partially incorrect maps to help me, doing depth soundings, finding configurations in the sea bed that seemed to promise dry land ahead, only to discover they led to shifting shallows but no terra firma. When the contours of solid land finally became clear (when the various texts and passages of scripture all stood up and faced the same way) it was a relief, I can tell you!
I also read literature from the secular domestic violence field. There is much better understanding of domestic abuse in the secular welfare field than in the church, though this is starting to change.
Q: Do you mind sharing your personal story that led to this research?
A: Not at all! I was born again in my early 20s but for a long time had minimal biblical teaching and lingering confusion due to my former New Age beliefs. I was sidetracked into other areas and didn't get to church for nearly 14 years (a very painful time!). Unaware that Christians should avoid marrying non-Christians, I married an unbeliever in 1989 and we had a daughter. The marriage gradually became abusive and I occasionally took refuge in a women’s shelter. In 1994 I left my husband and started attending church and Bible study – that was when I began walking as a Christian. After a contested court battle, I was awarded custody of our daughter, with my husband granted fortnightly access.
I never wanted to reconcile with my husband, but as a dutiful Christian I witnessed to him, gave him a Bible, and a couple of times I invited him to church – because I didn't want him to go to Hell and I did want our daughter to have a Christian father. Four years into the separation, he made a profession of faith. His conversion seemed genuine and after my initial fear (sparked by entitlement attitudes on his part, but I didn't realise this at the time) I found that I wanted to reconcile with him, so we renewed our vows. The abuse recurred and within 12 months I had to separate all over again. That was 1999. I got divorced a few years after that, the elders in my church having condoned the divorce.
It was this experience that gave rise to my book. When I started on the divorce topic I only knew that the prevalent ideas on divorce must be wrong because they don't square with our God of love, justice and mercy who upholds the cause of the oppressed. And I knew that just as I had remained in separation-limbo for years, forswearing divorce because I thought the Bible didn't permit it in my circumstances, many other survivors were suffering from the same dilemma, and I wanted to set things right. Bringing vindication and freedom to other survivors, and correcting the wrongdoing of the church, were my foremost goals. My findings did give me personal liberation from false doctrine, but that was an extra bonus, not the main objective.
In 2010 I married a lovely man who also suffered abuse in a former marriage. He is my best friend and he fully supports my writing and activism.
Q: What advice do you have for women who are abused, cheated on, and/or abandoned to take back their power?
A: Let me point out that I'm more confident talking about abuse than adultery or abandonment. And I am reluctant to jump in with advice. Rather, I first acknowledge the woman's pain and suffering, and emphasise that she has been sinned against and is not to blame. Since so many women are in partial denial about the abuse/mistreatment they have been subjected to, I offer information about what constitutes abuse. When a woman learns how broad abuse can be – all the different types and methods of abuse that perpetrators use (emotional, social, financial, sexual, physical, spiritual, and systemic abuse, e.g. using the legal system or the health system to abuse the victim) – she can understand her situation so much better, and realise that she is not to blame. It's like waking up from a dream. It's also helpful to understand the ways abusers enlist allies. This helps a woman understand the secondary abuse she may be experiencing from her church family or other bystanders. Identifying and defining abuse is the first step.
I find it helpful to identify the false doctrines that so often entrap women into double binds or false guilt. I try to untangle false doctrine by explaining and applying the relevant, corrective, biblical principles. For instance, if a woman believes she can't leave the marriage because the Bible doesn't permit it, I would suggest she read Not Under Bondage, or the short article on my blog called The Bible Does Allow Divorce for Domestic Abuse. If she's tied up in knots over the issue of forgiveness, there's a good article by Bob Kerrey on my website called What forgiveness is, and what it is not.
If I sense that a woman's fallen into a pot-hole of longing for retaliation, I give her opportunity to vent her pain and anger, but at some stage I may point out that dwelling on the desire for vengeance will sidetrack and hinder her recovery, and that the Bible tells us to leave vengeance to God, as he will repay the evildoer.
Other distorted doctrines that might need untangling are beliefs about submission, repentance, reconciliation and bearing one's cross. I also dispel the false idea that 1 Corinthians 6 (don't take a brother to court) means you can't apply for protection from the secular courts.
I try not to offer advice until I have found out lots of information about that woman's circumstances, and then I try to couch my advice in the form of questions. For example, instead of telling a woman “You're being abused, you should leave your husband,” I might say “Have you ever thought you are being abused? May I outline to you the characteristics of abuse and all the techniques of abuse that abusers use? Have you ever considered leaving your husband? What reasons do you have for staying? What reasons might you have for leaving?” Of course, I wouldn't ask all those questions at once; they would be part of an extended conversation in which I would do lots of reflective listening. My aim is find out what the woman knows and what she is ready to learn next about abuse, and show that I'm concerned for her and have confidence that she can exercise her own judgment and make her own decisions in her own time.
A woman who has been abused, cheated on or abandoned is hurting a lot and is often living in crisis survival mode; she knows her situation much better than I do. In cases of domestic abuse, some victims suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, or continuing-traumatic stress disorder. It helps to learn about the ways people respond to trauma, and how recovery can gradually be realised, so I might advise a woman to read about trauma and recovery. (A good article is Understanding the Victims of Spousal Abuse, by Frank M Ochberg, MD., and a classic book is Trauma and Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman.)
I try to help the woman realise that many of the complex decisions and micro-actions she is probably already taking demonstrate that she is responding to the abuse with strategic resistance, whether that resistance is subtle or overt. (See the booklet Honouring Resistance: How women resist abuse in intimate relationships by the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter. You can find it via my links page.)
To sum this up, here are these things in point form.
a) Understand and learn about all the types of abuse; this helps you know you are not to blame.
b) Work to untangle false doctrine and misunderstood biblical principles; this brings freedom from false guilt.
c) Acknowledge and honor all the creative ways you have responded, overtly and covertly, to the mistreatment; this builds a sense of personal integrity.
All these things naturally lead to a woman feeling more empowered.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add that could encourage newly divorced Christian women?
A: If you are still in lots of pain, don't blame yourself for “not being over it yet.” Recovery is gradual, be gentle on yourself, seek the support of others who trust and believe you. If you are still having contact with the one who mistreated you (e.g. for child access) then you are probably being re-traumatised regularly and recovery will be that much more difficult. Don't expect too much of yourself. Affirm yourself for taking baby steps, or for just managing to tread water if that's all you can do. There are many of us out here! You are not alone. God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
For more info and resources, I encourage your readers to check out my primary website, my blog and my Facebook page. Thanks, Angela for the opportunity to talk about this topic. God bless your work.
Barbara, thank you so much for your time. I'm glad I found you and believe that many can learn from this message. Best wishes as you continue to bring hope in a world of abuse.