Marital Abuse

October 3, 2008

Do we have a high enough view of marriage to respond adequately to marital abuse?

Before answering, let us consider one woman who represents many. To personalise her, let us imagine her as our daughter or friend.  She does not know where to turn and blames herself for ending up in a bad marriage.  We know she is not perfect. But what we have not seen is how often she has cried, and how hard she has tried to make her marriage work. For the last 12 years she has prayed that God would give her the patience and grace to stay with the man she promised to love for the rest of her life.

He tells her he does not love her and says he is sorry he married her. He calls her names, deprives her of affection, and yet, whenever he is in the mood, expects her to meet his sexual demands. When she talks about getting help, he threatens to tell her friends that she is mentally ill or that she is having an affair. She does not doubt that he would lie to protect himself. He knows wounds of the heart are hard to prove and leaves physical bruises where others cannot see.

When she has confided in church leaders, they have advised her to be more submissive to avoid provoking his anger. They usually ask if he has been sexually unfaithful. She does not think so. Some have asked if she thinks he is really a “believer.” She tells them, “He says he is.” When she asked one elder why those questions were important, he told her that without evidence of an affair or the abandonment by an unbelieving spouse, she does not have biblical grounds to leave her husband. The same church leaders have told her that separation is not an option because it is often the first step to a divorce.

Tough Questions: The subject of marital cruelty opens a Pandora’s box of questions. If we allow separation, and open the door to divorce, how many marriages will be lost? How can we know that a woman is not merely looking for an excuse out of an unhappy marriage?

Often-Overlooked Answers: As difficult as these questions are, they do not keep the God of the Bible from responding to the possibility of real marital cruelty.

Moses did more than describe God’s sacred purpose for marriage (Genesis 2). He also wrote laws granting the protection of divorce to the most powerless and socially disadvantaged women in Israel. Even for daughters who were sold into slavery to pay for a family’s financial debt (Exodus 21:7-11), and for foreign women captured as spoils of war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), Moses made laws granting protection from husbands who showed wilful disregard and neglect of their marital obligations.

In another law, Moses allowed a husband to divorce his wife with only one surprising restriction: he could not marry the same woman again if she was divorced or widowed from another man in the meantime (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). In a legal system severe enough to require the death penalty for those who committed adultery, Moses recognised hard-hearted cruelty that could be worse than divorce. 

But is it right for us to call attention to these Mosaic laws when Jesus corrected religious leaders who were quoting Moses’ tolerance for divorce?

Jesus repeatedly corrected the misuse of Moses. When talking to self-centered men who were looking for legal loopholes to divorce “for any reason,” He talked about the importance of marital permanence. To such men, the Lord emphasised that God’s original intent was that marriage be a lifelong relationship.

But it would be a mistake to assume that Jesus would respond to a victim of domestic abuse in the same way. In parallel situations dealing with other laws, Jesus respected the intent of the law as well as its words.

Consider, for instance, the way He applied Sabbath law that, under Moses, required the death penalty for infraction. According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus went into a synagogue on the Sabbath and healed a woman who had been bent over for 18 years. When the ruler of the synagogue saw what Jesus had done, he was angry and accused Jesus of violating the no-work policy of the seventh day. Jesus, however, showed that it was the leader of the synagogue who misunderstood the intent of Sabbath law (Luke 13:10-16). In a similar incident, Jesus later asked, “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (14:5).

On another occasion, Jesus recognised other exceptions based on the intent of the law and said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23-27). By the same principle, we can safely say that marriage was made for people. People were not made for marriage.

But what if we are not sure that it makes sense to reach back to the Old Testament for practical guidelines today? If we are wondering, remember the following.

Paul encouraged his readers to find spiritual insight in the whole counsel of God. So he wrote, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Even though he wrote these words in the days of the New Testament, Paul saw that when the timeless principles of the Law and Prophets are rightly interpreted and applied, they offer us guidance for working through broken relationships.

So when a daughter, sister, or friend tells a personal story of marital abuse, we need to be careful. Let us believe them until we have reason not to. And if their plight is real, they do not need to be told again about headship, submission, forgiveness, and the threat of losing church membership. They need to know that the God of Moses and Jesus cares not only about marital permanence, but also for those who are caught in abuse that is worse than protective separation and divorce.

Father in heaven, forgive us for multiplying the pain of those who are living with abusively hard-hearted spouses. Please give us the wisdom we need to offer help and consolation to those who are grieving lost hopes and dreams.  AMEN.