Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church

Divorce for Abuse – An argument from lesser to greater

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 –

  1. they do not grasp the evil nature of abuse,
  2. they have a wrong notion about the nature of covenants, specifically, the marriage covenant, and
  3. 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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  1. R

    I’m asking an honest question here, not trying to challenge you. I just want to understand. Scripture does argue from lesser to greater, but in the examples you gave, Scripture spells out both the lesser and the greater. In your divorce example, we are left to come up with the “greater” on our own because Scripture only spells out the lesser. How do we know when we have interpreted properly? I wouldn’t want to come to a wrong conclusion because I applied the principle wrongly.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Good question. It’s because Scripture gives us the principle. It does so through examples such as in Hebrews and in Jesus’ don’t muzzle the ox application. Also in His teachings on the Sabbath – ok to make an entire man well. So the principle is there. The Bible does not and cannot address every possible scenario of life or every specific situation. But it does give us principles like this one to use.

  2. Innoscent

    I was one of the many brainwashed in believing that adultery was the only grounds for divorce because “Jesus said so in Matthew 19”.
    … until I fell prey to a professed Christian that became my husband and endured years of emotional abuse. Mental torture. Basically your only hope then is that the man either dies or commits adultery.
    The church reasons just like the Jews. Never mind the human victim of the abuser, the more important is to rescue the donkey from the pit. They minimize or ignore the sin of abuse and maximize the sin of divorce.
    There is a dire lack of knowledge, wisdom, understanding, humility and courage. A morbid Laodicean condition indeed..

  3. Without pondering from all angles to be sure this is true: I will say from my own story that logic and good thinking are sorely lacking in my Hs family AND they are collectively and individually abusive. As I’ve gotten to understanding them better, I see yet again that good logic, if they could accept it, would save them from being sooo abusive. There is one sister who got mad, so her bad logic is now even more out of control. BUT, in synthesizing all the bad logic they have had for generations, one of the principles I’ve extracted is to always always check where are the ONLIES in a situation.
    It seems that connects to what you are saying here. The Bible says ONLY, according to the wooden interpretation. What it really means may not be ONLY and correct interpretation using lesser to greater does not put an ONLY in where an ONLY is not stated.
    Of course I’m still technically married and i do struggle with the ONLY in the example passage here, but the general principle of “don’t infer an ONLY where one is not warranted” has served me well over the years in other situations.

  4. Free

    Thank you Pastor Crippen. After literally enduring hideous and hidden abuse I had sobbed in a Christian counselors office because I did not have “biblical” grounds for a divorce – the wooden interpretation because the abuser had not physically cheated on me (yet-although every sign was that too was soon to come). Yes…..I was that person who believed I didn’t have Biblical grounds. Fast forward not too much later and the abuse got even worse and was so bad that it is only by the grace of God I made it out alive, physical scars, surgery and forever medical follow-up care included, but I am here…. and even at that … I heard the snickers that I didn’t have (biblical) grounds for a divorce. There comes a point when you simply look at them (or in my case myself included!) for their foolish wooden interpretation of the Bible, and have to be honest in asking does this match the teachings of Christ? Allowing the abuse, staying in it, silently supporting it by using the wooden interpretation of the Bible?! Looking the other way? No…. that does not match any of the teachings of Christ. You will not find it anywhere in the Bible – it really is that simple.

  5. MG

    Such a good example. Thank you! As a child my siblings and I were abandoned by our father and verbally abused by our mother. Two of my three sisters ended up homeless. My other sister has a terrible time in any relationship. With God’s Grace I became a believer at 30 then met my late wife. She had a very deep faith and we really loved each other and served each other for twenty years. Six years after her going home I married and the marriage went upside down with verbal abuse on the honeymoon. With my childhood and seeing it’s affects on my sisters and a marriage filled with grace I knew on my honeymoon that I was abandoned by someone who just vowed to love me. Thankfully I found this ministry which started my own change as to what God expected of me. My response to Him. It was a call to freedom and to living and serving for Him. Not to be in bondage to someone who emotionally deserted me and was bent on destroying my character. God didn’t miss anything. He wanted me to be rescued from my own legalistic thinking. I praise Him I was blessed with my battle. It wasn’t a long one but for sure was one of the most difficult.

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