A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Remarriage after divorcing an abuser — in a nutshell 

Am I allowed to remarry after having divorced an abusive spouse?

The reasoning summarized below is fully explained, with scholarly citations, in my book Not Under Bondage.

1 Corinthians 7:10-16 (ESV)

[10] To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband [11] (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

[12] To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. [13] If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. [14] For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. [15] But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. [16] For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

a)  Verses 10-11 are clearly speaking about two believers who have been married to each other.

b)   In contrast, verses 12-15 (and 16) are speaking about a believer married to someone who at this point in time is an unbeliever.

c)   It’s a hackneyed assumption that verses 12-15 are about a couple who married when they were both unbelievers, but then one spouse (typically the wife) got converted. However, there’s nothing in the text to indicate its being limited to that specific scenario. This assumption has been passed down for centuries, unthinkingly.

d)   Verses 10-11 discuss a believing wife who “separates” from her husband. In that culture and in the original Greek language, separation with intent to end the marriage was identical with divorce. Divorce usually took place simply by one partner separating with intent to end the marriage.

e)   Verses 10-11 say that a Christian wife who divorces her Christian husband has two options:

  • remain unmarried (notice she is unmarried so she must be divorced; there was no such thing in those days as a legal or informal state of ‘separation’ as distinct from ‘divorce’); or
  • be reconciled with her former husband.

The only prohibition is she must not marry a new, different husband. If she is to marry again, she can only take the husband she had before.

f)   Verses 12-15 deal with the case of a believer married to an unbeliever.

g)   If an unbelieving spouse leaves, separates, or behaves so badly that it pushes the believer away (this is called constructive desertion because the separation is construed as having been caused by the wicked spouse) then the believer is NOT UNDER BONDAGE IN SUCH CASES.

h)   Not being under bondage must mean that this kind of believer (one who’d been married to an unbeliever) is not under the prohibition that the other believer was under in verse 11.  That is, the believer in verse 15 is not prohibited from marrying a new, different spouse.

i)   In summary, Paul contrasts the two cases.  In the first case, the believer is under a prohibition not to marry a new spouse; in the second case, the believer is not under that same prohibition, so is free to marry someone new. Paul only makes one stipulation: that they marry ‘in the Lord’ (v 39).

j)   Paul makes perfectly clear that he is contrasting these two cases (vv. 10-11, & vv. 12-15) by using the words “for the rest” at the beginning of verse 12. This is a flag phrase which signals that he is giving a new rule. Obviously he is contrasting this rule with the one he gave in verse 11.

k)   For many victims of abuse, the key question is: “Is my abusive spouse a believer, or an unbeliever?” Originally in Not Under Bondage I taught that the step-by-step process of Matthew 18:15-17 was the way to work out whether an abusive spouse is a believer or an unbeliever. However, I have since changed my mind on the applicability of Matthew 18 to domestic abuse. I now believe that 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 is the appropriate text to use in disciplining domestic abusers. See my post Church discipline and church permission for domestic abuse: how my mind has changed.

l)   If they try implementing church discipline (especially the Matthew 18 formula) for domestic abusers, many churches currently fail because they get manipulated and hoodwinked by the abuser’s phoney repentance — so they do not identify that abuse is happening. Churches very often lack understanding, discernment or backbone to firmly discipline abusers and put them out of the church.

m)   If church dicsipline is followed correctly in regard to abusers who profess to be Christians, the abuser should be treated as an unbeliever, regardless of what he might profess to the contrary to his friends and allies. Since the abuser is in fact an unbliever, you are in a situation where verses 12-15 of 1 Corinthians 7 applies, rather than verses 10-11.

n)   The reason my argument needs complex explanation is because Christians have deeply misunderstood and misconstrued these passages for centuries. There’s been a lot of dead wood to clear away.

o)   My conclusions about 1 Corinthians 7:10-15 were argued by some eminent Puritan theologians, so I’m not on new ground. I believe their interpretation got lost in the church and state conflicts of later centuries, and of course, it was easy to ignore the pro-victim interpretation because, after all, the only people who benefited much from it were victims of spouse abuse, and that means they were mostly women.  (It’s no exaggeration to say that domestic abuse is the Cinderella of all causes in the Church.)

p)   If you (the victim-survivor) are trying to defend your actions to members of your congregation, you could tell them “My spouse’s conduct eventually pushed me away, and that is the same as if he deserted me, so verse 15 of 1 Corinthians 7 applies in my case.”

q)   Even in the case of the woman in verses 10-11 (“let the wife not separate from her husband, but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled with her husband,”) the word separate is a word that in 1st century Greek usage meant divorce just as much as it could mean separation. In fact, it was often used in legal documents to mean ‘divorce’. This is not brought out in our English translations, but it’s true. So the argument “You may separate, but you can’t divorce” is unsound, having arisen from translations that didn’t take into account the usage of words in the first century (and from a bias against women on the part of the translators?).

Final tip for victims: It’s a good idea to brace yourself for the reaction from your church.
Sometimes, you only get a chance to say a few words to fellow Christians who judge or raise their eyebrows at you. Here is an example of a few words you can say: “My husband had been abusing me for the last 8 years. I hadn’t told you before because I was afraid and ashamed.”

***
For Further Reading:
Biblical Divorce for Abuse explained in a nutshell
God Hates Divorce? Not Always
Does God Hate Divorce? — Youtube
The Bible does Allow Divorce for Domestic Abuse — guest article by Barbara Roberts at restoredrelationships.org
Church Discipline and Church permission for Divorce — How my Mind has Changed

12 Comments

  1. joepote01

    Barbara –

    I appreciate your discussing this oft-misused text. I agree with your assertion that this passage has often been misunderstood and misinterpretted, and I agree with your analysis of verses 12-16 as applied to situations of abuse.

    I have come to have a different view of verses 10-11 based on contextual reading of the entire passage. I do not believe Paul intended this as a prohibition against ever marrying again, but rather as a prohibition against divorcing for the specific purpose of marrying someone else.

    I realize that my view on this topic is more liberal (less legalistic) than most, and have no issues with you and I holding different perspectives on this topic. Overall, we have much more in common in our perspectives than most Christians.

    If you would like to read a fuller explanation of my perspective, I have two posts on my blog titled “Unmarried or Divorced” and “Divorce & Remarriage” in which I discuss this specific passage. “Divorce & Remarriage” specifically discusses verses 10-11, while “Unmarried or Divorced” looks more at the use of the greek word ‘agamos’ as used throughout this passage.

    Again, thank you for discussing this topic, here.

    Have a blessed day!

  2. LH

    Thankfully my new church (denomination) has ruled that abuse is desertion on the part of the abuser (their policy, not just for my case), and therefore, I, as the victim, have the right to remarry.

    My ex-church said he wasn’t abusive enough (!!!) and I was not to remarry. They also told him that, but when he remarried anyway they ignored it and he is still a member in good standing with them.

    IF questioned, I simply say, “My church ruled that he deserted the marriage with his abuse, and I am free to remarry.” Whether or not I discuss it farther depends, esp on the attitude of the questioner. I have learner to pick my battles.

    • Still Reforming

      LH, you raise a really good point. Just what exactly is “abusive enough”? Isn’t any abuse already enough (presuming here it’s a pattern and not an aberration)?

      In my understanding, it’s the definition of abuse (as given here in the sidebar of this blog) that is not widely enough understood, accepted, or even really cared about.

      I confess that I too really didn’t give it much thought until I finally understood that that’s what was really happening in my own home. And… I daresay, it’s likely that most if not all of us here contributors and readers alike – are here by experience.

      So I don’t particularly expect others who don’t know it from having lived it to understand, but… there are signs of hope – at least in the secular media. It’s very sad that the church is dragging its feet on this issue (or perhaps leading the charge, but for the wrong team).

      • Not Too Late

        What is “abusive enough”? Hmm, let me think…when you’re taking your last breath?!

        The next thing you know there’ll be pastors saying to abused wives, “You’re not submissive enough” then turning to the husbands and saying, “You’re not abusive enough”!

        In all seriousness, I think Christians have normalized abusive behavior so much that their ability to detect abuse and reject abusive behavior is very weak, compared to those outside the church. This distortion of what is normal or acceptable may be the reason why many victims don’t recognize that they are in an abusive marriage (not until the abuse escalates to intolerable levels and they read about it somewhere) and may not mention abuse when seeking help from pastors.

  3. Brenda R

    I hope to find someone one day. I know that I would not be allowed to marry in the church I attend, but I don’t care. If I were to find someone who truly loves me, and not the fake kind that only lasts until the I do’s are over, I would marry with or without the churches blessing. I would not ever be able to repent as I do not believe it would be a sin.

  4. Seeing Clearly

    It isn’t that I have any interest in remarriage for myself. But I now won’t allow any religious person to oppress me with lies about remarriage as they did about the option of divorce. Also, a clarification on the matter of separation is helpful.

  5. Thinking back on two of the Christian counselors who tried to save our marriage, they were genuine. They really believed in us. One of them knew us as teenagers. My point is, they were so ignorant about abuse! And narcissism! How did they earn degrees and licenses and be so mistaken about what I was living in? How did they sleep at night and never hear God tell them to look more closely at my credibility?

    Yes, I now know that I never should have walked into a counselor’s office with my ex, but that is not the issue in this comment.

  6. Vicki

    I believe another way to approach this is that the abuser has broken the covenant he promised in the wedding vows before god. He promised to love and cherish. Clearly an abuser is mot doing that or following the covenant of Moses or the teaching of our Lord to the second greatest commandment to love our neighbor as ourself. I do mot believe you are in bondage if the covenant is broken.

  7. evelyn not my real name

    When I attended Dallas Theological Seminary a number of years ago, hoping to get a master’s in counseling, the head of the program told us at orientation that secular psychology was a sham, and they would teach us to regurgitate enough of it to pass the state exams, but otherwise we were to be 100% reliant on the Bible for counseling. That’s why so many pastors and Christian counselors don’t have a clue about narcissism and abuse.

  8. HisBannerOverMeIsLove

    verse 14. This was preached recently. I was told to “Just think on that when….” and the children and your husband is covered. I came across as arrogant with my “I know” comment. But it didn’t comfort me.

    The situation is seen as a lack of communication, needing of a heart change, this didn’t just happen over night so it will take a long time to change, anger management issue, and at times there has been abuse but that’s the past. He is saying he wants to try to change but doesn’t see it happening. He cant do it. Ok, repent. You are right, you can’t.

    Now that’s all past again and I’m talking with him so he’s on top the world and peachy again. So we wait again for hope of something like a heart change to come. I’m very skeptical since he mentioned how he had wanted to talk to the pastor. I took it as for direction and counsel about salvation and taking those steps of obedience and doing what we should be doing. It’s all dashed away by his telling me he only wants to know “How do you argue and not try to win. I mean if I have to beat somebody to win that isn’t working. When I feel wrongly accused I fight so hard against it I end up like an animal and more wrong than them”. I’m not capturing it here. But also he was concentrating way too much on how to endure when feeling wrongly accused. That just revealed his heart I think. He feels all of us are wrongly accusing him. Several children don’t want to sit by him or be around him. Yet they discuss things with him at some point so he believes they have a great relationship and they are exaggerating or just feeling bad when they shouldn’t etc. How can they feel like not being around him. He doesn’t see it. Not one bit.

    I’m praying for the grace to do the very hardest next thing without confusion or second guessing myself. I know my church won’t see separation as the worst thing but how long it will drag out? Seems like 10 years isn’t a long shot.

    • Hi HBOMIL, I published your comment but there were parts of it I didn’t really understand. If you want to submit another comment, either a re-write or a clarification of your comment, feel free.

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