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David Clyde Jones is remembered as the PCA’s chief ethicist of recent times (link). He trained generations of pastors at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he taught for 40 years. He commended my book Not Under Bondage.
Jones suggested that the Westminster Confession’s statement about divorce be modified in one small but very significant way.
The Westminster Confession was composed during the Puritan era. In chapter 24 the Confession says:
Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage, yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion of the marriage covenant as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage. (link)
In view of the confusion over “wilful desertion” in the Confession and the growing number of divorcing and divorced persons in need of pastoral care, it is time to think about how the Confession might be revised to represent more clearly and adequately the biblical teaching on marriage and divorce. What follows is one effort in that direction.
The Marriage Covenant and Divorce
The proposal is to replace the word “desertion” with the phrase “repudiation of the marriage covenant” as follows:
Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage, yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful
desertionrepudiation of the marriage covenant as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage”. ¹
I heartily second David Clyde Jones’s suggestion. Wilful repudiation of the marriage covenant covers simple desertion, constructive desertion and treacherous divorce. So it covers all the things I believe Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 7:15.
When will more people stand with me? In particular, when will more leaders in the PCA (Americans and Australians) stand up and publicly call for reform? I know that some men in the church appreciate my work because they tell me so privately. But what I want to see is them speaking out publicly on this issue, and one way to do so is to comment at this blog.
A final thought
When victims of abuse want to divorce their abusers, one of the problems they often face is that the church assumes it can control the victim’s decision and punish the victim if she persists in pursuing divorce.
The Westminster Confession encourages the idea that the church has the authority to direct the abused to ‘remedy’ a marriage that is on the rocks. It also suggests that the church has power of veto over whether the victim may divorce. This idea remains prevalent in Presbyterian circles. Many non-Presbyterians have the same idea. People like Chris Moles say you should ask your own church leaders whether they allow divorce for abuse.
All these ideas tie victims up in knots and put them at the mercy of church leaders – many of whom are ignorant when it comes to understanding domestic abuse. If you are a church leader and want to learn how better to respond to domestic abuse, I’ve given you some some suggestions below.
¹ David C. Jones “The Westminster Confession on Divorce and Remarriage” Covenant Seminary Review 16 (Spring 1990), 27-8.
Jones also submitted his paper for the PCA’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage to consider. That committee was appointed by the Eighteenth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America and it gave its final report to the Twentieth General Assembly. You can read the final report here: PCA Position Paper on Divorce and Remarriage
Other parts in this series
The PCA’s Position Paper on Divorce is dangerous for abuse victims – Barbara Roberts
How is the PCA responding to victims of domestic abuse? – Lynette English & Valerie Hobbs
Church discipline and church permission for divorce – Barbara Roberts
Abuse IS grounds for divorce. Most evangelical leaders are reluctant to say this outright today, but several eminent theologians In the sixteenth and seventeenth century said it. Today’s leaders need to take courage and follow their example.
Thomas Cranmer was the first to say it – see Pt 1 of this series Thomas Cranmer on divorce for abuse.
Theodore Beza, William Perkins and William Ames were Puritans who said abuse is grounds for divorce
Theodore Beza, 1570
…we know him also to be a deserter who does not refuse cohabitation, but obstinately demands impious conditions.
… another question occurs: what should the faithful spouse do when indeed cohabitation is not denied, but either hazard of life is incurred or something is either to be done or endured against the true religion. I respond that these two distinctions are to be observed.
First, either the unfaithful [spouse], whether intentionally or unwittingly, persecute the faithful spouse, or the persecution arises from some other direction.
If the former, the faithful spouse really has a suitable excuse for shunning her domestic enemy for no other reason than that she should consider her life and conscience, and I would decide in this case nothing other than if the unfaithful spouse himself had departed for another. To depart from someone and to drive the other away by threats or force are the same thing.
But if such persecution should assail [the faithful spouse] from some other direction, the faithful spouse should act at length more moderately than if she should cherish an enemy in her home and bosom.
Nor is its to be doubted that if the unfaithful spouse should attend the faithful with conjugal love, should provide for her life in every way, in this case the faithful spouse rather should bear whatever you will than that it should be her duty to abandon the unfaithful spouse.
But if the unfaithful spouse does not care as is right that the faithful spouse is in peril, no one does not see, I think, not only that he is a deserter, but also that he may be shunned with a good conscience as a traitor.
— for source of this quote, see footnote 1.
See UPDATE below about Theodore Beza.
Only three years after Beza wrote this, the Scottish Parliament in 1573 enacted legislation which allowed divorce for desertion. (see footnote 2)
William Perkins 1609
Like unto desertion is malicious and spiteful dealing of married folks one with another. Malicious dealing is, when dwelling together, they require of each other intolerable conditions … Here it may be demanded, what a believer should do, who is in certain and imminent danger, either of loss of life, or breach of conscience, if they both abide together.
If [this danger is] from the stranger, then the husband either takes upon him the defence of his believing wife, or not; if he does, then she ought to abide with him. If not, she may depart and provide for her own safety. Again if the husband threatens hurt, the believing wife may flee in this case; and it is all one, as if the unbelieving man should depart. For to depart from one, and drive one away by threat, are equivalent. (3)
William Ames 1632
For if one party drive away the other with great fierceness and cruelty, there is cause of desertion, and he is to be reputed the deserter. But if he obstinately neglect, that necessary departure of the other avoiding the eminent danger, he himself in that plays the deserter. (4)
(1) Theodore Beza, De Repudiis et Divortiis, Tractationes Theologiae, 1570, vol. 2; cited on pp. 199-200 of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Position Paper on Divorce and Remarriage, issued at the Twentieth General Assembly, 1992. [paragraph breaks added for readability]
(2) Marriage and Divorce: a Report of the Study Panel of the Free Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: Free Church of Scotland 1988) 28; cited by David Clyde Jones in his paper The Westminster Confession on Divorce and Remarriage (Covenant Seminary Review, p. 21, n. 13.)
(3) William Perkins, Christian Oeconomie, 1609, p. 88; cited on p. 194 of the PCA Report (ibid.)
118 [spelling updated into modern English]
(4) William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof, 1632; cited on p. 197 of the PCA Report (ibid.) [spelling updated into modern English]
UPDATE relating to Theodore Beza added 16 Feb 2019. Since some people don’t read comments on blogs, I am pasting here some words Ruth Magnusson Davis wrote in her comment on this post.
Beware of Theodore Beza. He was a fierce religious persecutor who taught that heretics should be killed (see his book ‘Concerning the punishment of heretics by the civil magistrate’). He also taught that magistrates (Puritan judges and executive officers) could rebel against superior powers and even kill their kings and queens, which teaching led to much civil disturbance and civil unrest. (See his book ‘Right of Magistrates,’ which was essentially Roman Catholic. The pope’s canon laws taught that the pope could lead a revolution.) This was completely contrary to Thomas Cranmer, who taught the complete obedience of subjects to their king, in the evil day and in the good.
In a great many ways, Beza taught contrary to Archbishop Cranmer. He despised Cranmer’s prayer book and wanted it outlawed in the Church. During the Puritan revolution, prayer books were publicly burned in St. Paul’s Square.
Also contrary to Thomas Cranmer (and also Martin Luther and William Tyndale) Beza fought against baptism by women, and wanted to “sharply punish” women who baptized infants. From his chair in the Geneva Academy, he inveighed against this in a 1566 letter to Bishop Grindal, complaining that it is “much grievouser [than the] most filthy superstitions, as crossing and kneeling at the Communicating of the Lord’s Supper,” and a “filthy error” which springs “from a gross ignorance of the matter of the sacrament.”
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Part 1 of this series: Thomas Cranmer on divorce for abuse.
This post – Part 2 – is giving you for free what you can read in Appendix 2 of my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion.
Coming up Part 3: A contemporary PCA theologian who said that abuse is grounds for divorce.
The Bible DOES allow divorce for domestic abuse – B Roberts
What about divorce? — one of our FAQ pages.
Several theologians in the 16th & 17th centuries said abuse is grounds for divorce. It is a tragedy that their arguments have been passed over and ignored by so many today.
The Roman church only countenanced “separation from bed and board” in cases of abuse or other marital mistreatment. When the protestant reformation began, quite a few protestant leaders argued that abuse is grounds for divorce. For example, this was spelled out in the Hungarian Confession of Faith 1562.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Many evangelicals today lack awareness of history, and they’re repeating the spiritual abuse of Rome by reluctantly tolerating separation for abuse while condemning those who divorce for abuse.
This post focuses on Thomas Cranmer. It is the first of a 3-Part series. Parts 1 & 2 are about men from the reformation and puritan eras who believed that abuse is grounds for divorce. Part 3 is about a much more recent theologian (Professor David Clyde Jones, Presbyterian Church in America) who said that abuse is grounds for divorce.
Who was Thomas Cranmer?
Thomas Cranmer was one of the men who awakened King Henry VIII to the need for English scriptures. Henry made him Archbishop of Canterbury. When the Matthew Bible arrived in England in 1537, Archbishop Cranmer was one of the men who influenced King Henry to grant his license so that it might go forth. We have a lot to thank him for!
Cranmer was born of modest parents in 1489. He studied at Cambridge, where he was among the students who met at the White Horse Inn to discuss the “new learning.” He initially came to King Henry’s attention as someone who might assist with the difficult questions around his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and whether that marriage could or should be annulled. Against his will, Cranmer became involved. In the end, in 1533, the marriage was annulled, Henry tied the knot with Anne Boleyn, and – again against his will, and initially even without his knowledge, Cranmer was made Archbishop of Canterbury. Reluctantly, he assumed the ecclesiastical post that Henry had thrust on him.
– The Story of the Matthew Bible, Ruth Magnusson Davis, 193-4
As you can see, one of the precipitants for the English Reformation was a dispute over canon law. The question was: Did the Rome’s canon law allow Henry VIII to annul his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon?
After King Henry broke with Rome and the Pope, the English reformers wanted to clear out bad laws which centuries of being under Rome’s canon law had bequeathed to England. They wanted to bring in laws that were more consistent with biblical principles.
Archbishop Cranmer drafted reformed ecclesiastical laws for the new English Protestant church. His Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum was designed to provide a system of order and discipline for the Church of England in place of the medieval canon law which the papacy had enforced for centuries. The Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum was presented to the English Parliament in March 1553, but the death of Edward VI prevented further progress (link). Although Cranmer’s proposed reforms never became law, they were highly esteemed by later canon lawyers and enjoyed an unofficial authority in ecclesiastical courts. ¹
Cranmer proposed church laws on adultery and divorce in chapter 10 of the Reformio Legum Ecclesiaticarum. You can find chapter 10 on pp 264-279 of this Googlebooks link.
Here are some points Cranmer made about divorce for abuse
Deadly hostility is a ground for divorce
If deadly hostility should arise between husband and wife, and become so inflamed that one attacks the other, either by treacherous means or by poison, and wants to take the other’s life in some way, either by open violence or by hidden malice, it is our will that as soon as so horrible a crime is proved in court, such persons shall be separated by divorce. For a person who attacks health and life does greater injury to his marriage partner than one who separates himself from the other’s company, or commits adultery with someone else. For there cannot be any sort of fellowship between those who have begun to plot or to fear mortal harm. Therefore, since they can[not] live together, it is right for [the marriage] to be dissolved, according to the teaching of Paul.
The crime of ill-treatment is also a ground for divorce
If a man is cruel to his wife and displays excessive harshness of word and deed towards her, as long as there is any hope of improvement, the ecclesiastical judge is to reason with him, rebuking his excessive violence, and if he cannot prevail by admonitions and exhortations, he is to compel him not to inflict any violent injury on his wife, and to treat her as the intimate union of marriage requires, by making him pledge bail, or by taking guarantees. But if the husband cannot be coerced either by bail or by guarantees, and if he refuses to abandon his cruelty by these means, then he must be considered his wife’s mortal enemy and a threat to her life. Therefore in her peril recourse must be made to the remedy of divorce, no less than if her life had been openly attacked. But on the other side, the power given by the law to coerce wives, by whatever ways are necessary, if they are rebellious, obstinate, petulant, scolds and of evil behaviour, is not abrogated, as long as the husband does not exceed the limits of moderation and fairness. Both in this and in the above-mentioned offences, it is our will that parties set free in this way may contract a new marriage (if they wish), while those convicted of the said crimes shall be punished either by perpetual exile or by imprisonment for life.
Minor disagreements, unless they be permanent, are no ground for divorce.
If minor disagreements or grounds for offence creep into a marriage, the words of Paul should act as a check upon them (1 Cor 7:11) namely, that either the wife should be reconciled to her husband, a result which ought to be sought after by all ordinary and extraordinary methods of penalties and exhortations, or she is to remain single, a penalty which we decree shall be equally binding on the man.
Incurable disease does not annul a marriage
If by chance either of the parties has contracted an incurable disease for which no remedy can be found, the marriage will nevertheless continue in spite of all difficulties of this kind. For this ought to be the one principal and distinguishing advantage of matrimony, that [mutual many’ troubles may be soothed and alleviated by the mutual support of the spouses.
How the accused party is to be maintained during the lawsuit
Since cases involving charges of adultery, poisoning, mortal treachery and ill-treatment frequently entail serious controversy and are of very great length, a man is to maintain his wife for the duration on an honourable and sufficient allowance, account being taken of her rank and social standing.
¹ Some of my phrases have been taken from the back cover of Tudor Church Reform: The Henrician Canons of 1535 and the Reformio Legum Ecclesiaticarum.
Part 2 of this series will feature three more men from the 16th & 17th centuries who believed that abuse is grounds for divorce. Their names are Theodore Beza, William Perkins and William Ames. It will reproduce Appendix 2 of my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion.
Here are my screen shots from Chapter 10 of the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum
I have full faith in God, I see His hand in my life. I believe I am His precious daughter. But I’m having so much trouble feeling an intimacy and fellowship with God or discerning His voice. How do you get the abuser’s voice and perspective out of your head?
— question asked by “Becoming” (link)
One of our anonymous readers gave this suggestion:
Think of your abuser as Satan. It is not that great a stretch, as abusers are children of the devil. Every time anything comes up regarding your abuser, inject “Satan” into the equation, instead.
Let’s call your abuser “Joe”…..instead of saying, “Joe wanted me to fold the clothes this way”, replace Joe with “Satan”….. “Satan wanted me to fold the clothes this way”
See how jarring that is? It works.
“Satan says I’m fat.” or “Satan said I’m worthless.” or “Satan said I’m a bad mother.” or whatever it is that Joe (your abuser) said about you or demanded of you.
Same goes for further contact — “Satan wants to me to meet with him and talk about this or that.” Would you go to talk and have a heart-to-heart with Satan? No, you would not.
Speaking for myself (Barb), it has not only been things my personal abusers said or did that had stuck to me like the Tar-Baby. The Tar-Baby is the second of the Uncle Remus stories published in 1880; it is about a doll made of tar and turpentine used by the villainous Br’er Fox to entrap Br’er Rabbit. The more that Br’er Rabbit fights the Tar-Baby, the more entangled he becomes.
A pastor I sat under for a year used certain verses repeatedly to teach what I now know to be false doctrine. Whenever I re-read those verses, the recollection of man’s spirit contaminates me all over again. He’s poisoned those verses for me for the rest of my life. I try to apprehend the real meaning of those verses with the Holy Spirit’s help, but I seem to be unable to. Every time I come to read those verses, jagged, ugly, garish lines choke my view and stop me understanding.
He Loves Me gave this suggestion:
How do I reclaim the power that the abusers had (and still have) over me?
Their power over me put me in a position of living in a constant state of fear. Walking on eggshells, but somehow always stepping on glass instead.
Even though the abuse may (or may not) have ended in the technical sense—-the person or persons still have a lot of power over me. Like you said, their voices in my head are still going strong, even though I may (or may not) have ceased speaking to them anymore.
Abuse is based on lies. 100% lies. The only antidote to lies is the Lord – He IS the way, truth and the life. He doesn’t just promote or represent truth. He IS the truth. The more you abide in Him, and He in you—-the more those lies will erode as He fills you with everything that He is. I believe, in time, He will eventually “push out” the lies that abusers have filled their victims with.
The Lord says He IS Light, and that darkness cannot compete with Him. Lies represent the kingdom of darkness. If we truly belong to His kingdom, which is full of His presence (no darkness exists in Him), we WILL start to see real results in our lives. The darkness had its way with us for awhile, but it will not claim victory over us.
Abuse represents nothing but death. A Cry for Justice beautifully wrote about how abuse, in essence, is murder. Lies DO murder a person from the inside out. I can tell you from experience that you can be technically alive on the outside, but inside you are dry, barren and lifeless because of what abuse does to a person. It is a slow, silent but deadly killer.
Jesus says He IS life. Since He lives in us and even goes so far to say He makes His home in us—-we too are just as alive as He is. He died for us so that we would not have to abide in death anymore. He rose again so that He could give us the victory over whatever has torn us down. THAT is Who ultimately lives in us. Learning and growing and reminding ourselves about who He is (and who He isn’t) is potent antidote to abuse.
We who are born again in Him are required to NOT serve two masters. Our abusers are NOT our masters. They tried to be, but not anymore. My father was my abuser, and he darn well tried to rule my life. Even after I technically left that home, he “followed” me wherever I went and strongly influenced whatever I tried to do. I had a hard time with relationships because I had no idea how to relate to someone in normal, healthy ways! Sometimes I could feel the tug of war inside of me, with the Lord saying one thing, and my father saying another.
It truly was as if I was trying to serve two masters. Even though I hated my father for a lot of years, I also idolized and (in a strong sense) loved him—I think I feared him as MUCH as I loved him! That just made trying to get rid of his lies even harder.
This was my father, whose love and approval meant a great deal to me. I never got it. Even though he filled me with nothing but lies for most of my life, how does one reconcile getting rid of the very strong influence of the ONLY earthly father I’d ever had?
It became something of a competition. My Heavenly Father was saying one thing. My earthly father was saying the exact opposite, or something radically different. Both had VERY strong voices—-pulling me back and forth.
I should add that I was (and still am) in your boat—-trying to discern His voice from my abuser’s. But I WAS reading the Word of God, and there were plenty of verses that directly contradicted the lies my abuser had fed me. So even though I couldn’t always discern His voice, I had His written Word right in front of me—-telling me that I AM worthy in His eyes. I AM valuable. I AM precious.
It seems obvious, right? Our Heavenly and earthly fathers (or spouses) are in separate arenas. How can they even compete? It’s too easy for professing Christians to say: Why don’t you just believe God over your abuser? You lack faith! You lack trust! You are “letting” your abuser control you! You have the power in Him now; rebuke those lies. YOU have the problem, because you know God is over and above everyone else, yet you continue to deny and disbelieve His truths.
Such persons aren’t technically wrong, but they lack empathy. They simply don’t understand the power of lies—-and plenty of them. Try to imagine a house full of trash, built up over time. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the house is messy, smells bad and is probably hazardous to our health to live in. Trying to clean up that house is going to be a slow and steady process. It will take time, but you will see real results eventually.
If the Lord is patient as we work through the rubble and rubbish that abuse did to us, we too should be patient with ourselves. More than likely, we didn’t even KNOW how bad things were until we stepped back and saw things as they really were. In relationships that did not involve my father, it took over a decade in some cases to realize I had been fed a lot of lies that had really messed me up. Now I am in the process (again) of untying all the knots that those lies caused. Untangling the many cords that lies had tied me up in.
Untangling one lie at a time seems frustratingly slow, but it’s effective. You cannot expect a “rush” job when it comes to something as delicate and sensitive as our hearts and souls and minds. We are His treasures. He will not risk doing real damage to us by bulldozing those lies out of us.
Our Father is NOT an abuser. He is above all thing—infinitely superior to everything—yet He will never use that superiority to tear His children down. He is in complete contrast to an abuser. For Him, it’s not about control, domination and having power over us. It’s about love, having a real relationship with Him—-and letting a real Savior transform us into His image.
I used to believe that abuse could also involve half truths or could contain bits of truth here and there. Perhaps I shouldn’t discard EVERYTHING an abuser says. Maybe there were a few pearls of wisdom inserted into the ocean of lies he was feeding me.
I have ceased that way of thinking. Here is why:
Sometimes the things my dad would point out about me were truthful, even though it was used to feed his sense of entitlement to hurt me. So I had an even harder time getting rid of his voice inside of me. Don’t forget that I lived under his roof for years. Anyone that you spend a lot of time with is going to get to know you in ways that other people do not.
This is my personal viewpoint, but I take my cue from the Word. Discard EVERYTHING that an abuser feeds you. They take their cue from the devil, and they walk in his footsteps. The Lord said that he is the father of lies. There is NO truth in him. A murderer from the beginning. He lives only to steal, kill and destroy. He will masquerade as an angel of light. He goes around like a hungry lion, always looking for someone to devour.
I don’t care if they are “technically” right in some of the things they point out to you. The devil knows how to take Scripture and twist it up so that it SOUNDS Biblical, but it does not represent who He is. If anyone is doing anything like that—-get them out of your lives. They have no interest in the truth setting you free as Christ intended. They are only interested in putting you BACK into the bondage that He set us free from.
And by the way, there is NO hierarchy with Him. None at all. Everyone who is born again is on equal, solid footing with the rest of His children. You do NOT have to give into a popular, beloved or charismatic pastor or preacher who tries to claim he or she has some sort of “upper hand” with the Lord. Same with a man who tries to claim he has some “special” authority over you as a woman. Therefore you better darn well listen to them—-and give into your abuser or enable another abuser. That is 100% false. He doesn’t work like that. He never, ever elevates one gender or one believer in order to demean the other gender or another believer.
Each of us has the Holy Spirit in us as born again believers. And if you need to repel false doctrine or an arsenal of lies—-all you do is ask Him for His Spirit and believe that He will be faithful. The Spirit of the Lord is all about freedom, based 100% on truth and brings streams of living water to the cold and dry desert that abuse has done to us.
When we see Him face to to face again, we will be 100% free from the trials of this world. In the meantime, fight the good fight. Never give up. Never give in. He overcame everything on our behalf. We have every reason to believe He will not give up on us as we too struggle to overcome what has dominated us for so long.
Readers, if you have any tips to share about how to get the abuser’s voice out of your head, please share them!