Which One is Worse? The Adulterer or the Abuser? Thoughts on Divorce for Abuse
For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned1 Corinthians 9:9
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” Matthew 12:3-4
Many if not most Christians, churches, pastors, confessions of faith and theologians acknowledge that Scripture permits divorce for the reason of adultery. Others add desertion to the list. Often however these same Christians balk at any suggestion that abuse is biblical grounds for divorce. Why? I suggest it is because
- they do not grasp the evil nature of abuse,
- they have a wrong notion about the nature of covenants, specifically, the marriage covenant, and
- they cling to a method of Scripture interpretation (a “hermenuetic”) that is unbiblical.
It is this last reason I want to discuss here.
Many Christians are clinging to a narrow, wooden way of interpreting Scripture
Our Lord rebuked the two disciples on the road to Emmaus for their narrowly literal way of handling God’s word:
“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself….
And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” Luke 24:21-27
These guys had way too narrow of a view of Scripture. They were woodenly literal in their method of handling God’s Word. As a result they thought that the Lord’s big plan was to “redeem Israel.” The Jews. The earthly land of Israel. Earthly Jerusalem. Jesus took them back (in the greatest Bible study small group in history!) to Genesis and walked them “through the Bible” opening the eyes of their hearts and minds so that their “hearts burned within them” with excitement as the glory of Christ’s real Israel, the Church, and of His true Promised Land — the New Heavens and the New Earth — were put before them. They realized that their “take” on God’s Word that they had been taught was waaaaaay too narrow, limited, and restrictive.
And so it is with many Christians today when it comes to the handling of God’s Word. “Jesus said divorce is only permitted for adultery” (“porneia” — a word which the meaning of is quite debated) and therefore NO other reason for divorce is authorized by God. That is their “wooden” take on it. But that is the very error Jesus confronted in the theologians of His day when they perverted the blessing of the Sabbath and turned it into a heavy burden. And the Apostle Paul applies a proper hermeneutic to the OT law about not muzzling the threshing ox so that it could take a few bites of grain once in a while. As Paul says, “you don’t think that the Lord gave this law only for the benefit of oxen, do you? Well, He did, but His main purpose was much bigger. This law is for human beings. The employer is to give the employee his fair wages.” There it is.
So, with this in mind, let me ask you this. Which is the greater evil? Adultery or Abuse? Or perhaps I should word it in this manner — Is abuse as wicked in God’s sight as adultery? Well, for people who are ignorant (frankly, some of them willfully so) of the incredible evil of abuse, I suppose they would answer “oh, adultery is worse. It is much worse to be unfaithful to your spouse than to blow up at her sometimes or maybe even give her a little slap.” You know the drill with such people, right? But for those who know all too well the mentality and even demonic nature of the abuser, we would say that AT MINIMUM abuse is as evil as adultery. And most of us would probably go on to say that abuse is in many ways far worse than the betrayal of adultery (not to minimize in any way the pain of those wronged by adultery).
The abuser is even more deceptive than the adulterer (we understand that some abusers are adulterers too). That abuse is more cruel, more devious, and yes, even more damaging than adultery. There are numbers of reasons why we would suggest this, one of which is simply that the victim of adultery sometimes finds that people are more willing to acknowledge that the victim has been wronged and has grounds for divorce than in the case of the deceptive, deceitful, cunningly hypocritical abuser. The latter we could even say causes even more damage to the victim than in the case of the adulterer.
If God permits divorce for adultery, surely He permits divorce for the greater evil of abuse.
And for those shouting back at me “Show me the chapter and verse! If you can’t show me the black and white words, then you are wrong!” — I say, your handling of the Word of God is all botched up. God’s Word often argues from the lesser to the greater (see the book of Hebrews if you would like more examples of this). If the lesser is true, then the greater is true. If adultery destroys the marriage covenant, then vows taken by a person who has a profound sense of entitlement to power and control and who fully intends to use all kinds of terrible evil tactics against their “beloved” to get that power and control….then those vows are null and void.
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Further reading for those who want to chew the cud on hermeneutical errors: