Divorce for Abuse Argued from Colossians 2
I talk a lot about divorce these days. To do so brands you in most Christian circles as a troublemaker at best and an enemy of Christ at worst. I think that I am neither. Well, I am a troublemaker to the extent that I trouble those who trouble victims of abuse by demanding that they have no right to divorce a spouse who is an abuser. But then, like Elijah, I hope that I can say “I have not troubled Israel, but you have.”
I talk and write about divorce because this is the thing that must be acknowledged if we are going to deal justice to victims. God redeemed Israel, bringing them out of cruel enslavement to Pharaoh. He did the same for us in His Son at the cross. Exodus. Leaving. Departure. That is His way. As long as someone insists that the victim of domestic abuse has no right before God to depart that already destroyed marriage covenant, then that person still enables the wicked.
As I have been preaching through Colossians, I have been impressed that this teaching that an abuse victim is bound to their abuser is entirely inconsistent with what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians. No, with what he commanded the Colossians. Here is a sample of it —
Colossians 2:4-8 ESV (4) I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. (5) For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. (6) Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, (7) rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (8) See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Colossians 2:15-23 ESV (15) He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (16) Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. (17) These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (18) Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, (19) and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (20) If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations–(21) “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”(22) (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings? (23) These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
A Christian is not to be taken captive. We are to be on guard for any teaching that is the invention of man and not the Word of God. We are not to permit anyone to pass judgment upon us because we will not submit ourselves to their warped “gospel” of asceticism and severe treatment of our body. And in particular, we are not to submit to systems of thought (deceptive philosophies which are not according to Christ) that seem wise and plausible at first, but which consist of “ideas hatched in the brain of man” [John Calvin’s phrase] and smack of the flavor of “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” in reference to things that all perish. In other words, legalistic rules that are applied to things like food, dress, and…..marriage. Yes, marriage. It is a temporal thing, right?
And so today here we have all of these teachers and Christian leaders in the church, numbers of whom are quite popular, working hard to judge us and bring us into submission to their human precepts and teachings. The command of Scripture is that we reject them. And if we follow the Apostle Paul’s dealings with Peter in Galatians, we also name the person, name their error, and we do so in the presence of everyone. [When is the last time you heard “those of reputation” publicly rebuke one of their own as Paul rebuked Peter?]
Listen to our friend Judith Herman, writing in the fourth chapter of her wonderful book, Trauma and Recovery [*affiliate link]. Her chapter is entitled simply, Captivity.
A single traumatic event can occur almost anywhere. Prolonged, repeated trauma, by contrast, occurs only in circumstances of captivity. When the victim is free to escape, she will not be abused a second time; repeated trauma occurs only when the victim is a prisoner, unable to flee, and under the control of the perpetrator. Such conditions obviously exist in prisons, concentration camps, and slave labor camps. These conditions may also exist in religious cults, in brothels and other institutions of organized sexual exploitation, and in families. [emphasis mine]
Political captivity is generally recognized, whereas the domestic captivity of women and children is often unseen. A man’s home is his castle; rarely is it understood that the same home may be a prison for women and children. In domestic captivity, physical barriers to escape are rare. In most homes, even the most oppressive, there are no bars on the windows, no barbed wire fences. Women and children are not ordinarily chained, though even this occurs more often than one might think. The barriers to escape are generally invisible. They are nonetheless extremely powerful. Children are rendered captive by their condition of dependency. Women are rendered captive by economic, social, psychological, and legal subordination, as well as by physical force. [We would add, religious subordination as well].
Captivity, which brings the victim into prolonged contact with the perpetrator, creates a special type of relationship, one of coercive control. This is equally true whether the victim is taken captive entirely by force, as in the case of prisoners and hostages, or by a combination of force, intimidation, and enticement, as in the case of religious cult members, battered women, and abused children. The psychological impact of subordination to coercive control may have many common features, whether that subordination occurs within the public sphere of politics or within the private sphere of sexual and domestic relations.
In situations of captivity, the perpetrator becomes the most powerful person in the life of the victim, and the psychology of the victim is shaped by the actions and beliefs of the perpetrator. [Emphasis mine].
Now, unless Christians who oppose divorce for abuse are willing to pronounce Judith Herman and many other professionals who have studied and researched trauma, wrong, then all they are going to be left with is two alternatives. 1) “But it is different with Christians. The Christian will never let the abuser’s actions and beliefs affect her. It’s different for Christians.” Or, 2) Being in a prison camp or concentration camp or being held captive in a basement by a criminal is different than living with and being bound to an abuser.
Neither of these options will hold water. Study and talk to Christians who have been in prolonged relationship with abusers. Ask them to tell their stories. Have them tell you what those years of abuse did to them. Talk with them and work with them to try and help them come out of the fog and to become a person once again. No, abuse victims suffer the very same effects and in many ways they suffer even more severely that someone in a wartime prison camp. Why? Because in war, the enemy is plainly visible to all. But when it comes to the abuser, well, listen to Judith Herman again:
Little is known about the mind of the perpetrator. Since he is contemptuous of those who seek to understand him, he does not volunteer to be studied. Since he does not perceive that anything is wrong with him, he does not seek help — unless he is in trouble with the law. His most consistent feature, in both the testimony of victims and the observations of psychologists, is his apparent normality. Ordinary concepts of psychopathology fail to define or comprehend him.
Did you hear that, pastors and Christian experts on marriage and the family? Psychologists have trouble identifying and understanding these abusers! Why should we pastors or Christians or theologians be so puffed up that we claim that we can? “Well, because we have the Bible.” Yes, we have the Bible. But even in light of Scripture which does indeed tell us about the psychopathology of evil and sin, we don’t get it! How do I know? Because I know how miserably most church leaders deal with victims of abuse and how they are duped by the abuser.
I know that many people will disagree with me and insist that I am not handling Scripture accurately here. So be it. But the message I get from Colossians 2 is that a Christian does not need – no, a Christian must not – permit anyone to judge them nor force any man-made traditions upon them that would bind them in a captivity that destroys their person, fogs their mind, and thereby necessarily distances them from Christ and brings an evil person into prominence in their every waking moment.
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