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Is there biblical grounds for divorcing an abuser?

OPINION | Barbara Roberts

Monday 10 August 2015

Domestic abuse is a pattern of power and coercive control exercised by one spouse against the other spouse. Abusers employ covert or overt aggression, lies, manipulation, unjust criticism, insinuation, blame-shifting, threats and micro-management of the target’s everyday life to undermine her dignity, her liberty, her personal confidence and identity. The abuser tries to keep his target living in fear and confusion (and thus under the abuser’s power). The abuser believes he is entitled to treat his spouse that way. The abuser’s pattern of conduct doesn’t have to include physical abuse to qualify as domestic abuse. The genders are occasionally reversed, but I’ll speak about the victim as female. Domestic abusers typically target intimate partners and ex-partners but may target other family members; children are harmed indirectly even if they are not directly targeted.

Marriage is a bilateral covenant where each spouse promises to love, care for, honour and respect the other. If one spouse engages in a regular pattern of exercising demeaning, contemptuous, deceptive, cold, calculated, manipulative power and control over the other, that spouse violates the covenant vows of marriage over and over again. If a husband treats his wife like an object rather than a person, if he acts like he owns her body, mind, thoughts and feelings and has the right to tell her what she feels and how she thinks, and the right to subtly monopolise her attention by keeping her afraid of him, he is doing the very opposite of loving, cherishing, honoring and respecting his wife. In exercising such power and control, physical violence isn’t necessary: it can be achieved with emotions and attitudes, words, body language, sexual behaviour, economic control, and constricting the social life of the victim. Violence is just the optional icing on the cake.

I’m not talking about slipping into a sin like King David did and then repenting when confronted and convicted with his guilt. I’m talking about continuing to oppress someone by wicked, multifaceted conduct and to hold a self-justifying belief in one’s right to do so, despite being confronted about it by upright people. I’m talking about a person who, when confronted, denies he is doing it, minimises it, shifts the blame unjustly to his victim, and crafts a tangled web of lies to make it look like he is a nice guy and his wife is crazy or making it up. Think about it ¬– to live like this, a person must violate and sear the demands of his own conscience, stiffen his neck against any conviction from the Holy Spirit, and high handedly disregard all the biblical precepts that call him to repentance.

“No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him… Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil… No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. … whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 Jn 3:6,8-10)

Can a person who practices this pattern of coercive control and power over their spouse be a Christian? It seems to me that the Bible tells us they can’t be. To choose to behave this way while professing to be a follower of Christ, is more wicked than to choose to abuse your spouse without any pretense of being a Christian. The “Christian” domestic abuser is systematically taking the Lord’s name in vain and being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you (2 Pet 2:13) … hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear (Jude 12).

I believe 1 Corinthians 5 is the appropriate text to use in disciplining domestic abusers who profess Christianity. Verse 11 lists six heinous sins for which a professing ‘believer’ is to be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Two sins in that verse epitomise domestic abuse. (1) Being a reviler, which means an abuser, someone who insolently and insultingly criticises another person. (2) Being an extortioner/swindler, someone who seizes by force, is aggressively greedy and takes advantage of others. It continues to astonish me how little this verse is heeded by the church.

Regardless of what a “Christian” domestic abuser might profess, the church ought to treat them as unbelievers, and not merely as ignorant unbelievers who simply need to hear the gospel explained. We must wrap our heads around the abuser’s mindset: His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity (Ps 10:7; cf Ps 36:1-4; Mic 2:1; Prov 4:6).

The abuser works to divide his target (his spouse) from her children, her congregation and her support networks. I submit that Christian leaders and counsellors need to heed Titus 3:10-11 — As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. After all, God only gave one counselling session to Cain!

I also believe the Bible teaches that domestic abuse is grounds for divorce. If a married person is not willing to show basic respect for their partner but is doing the very opposite — violating their wedding vows by decidedly and repeatedly mistreating their partner — then they are in effect pushing their partner away and thus causing separation.

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. (1 Corinthians 7:15 ESV)

If the unbelieving partner carries out a pattern of conduct that constitutes domestic abuse, their evil-hearted attitude and conduct creates separation by effectively pushing their victim away. This verse tells the victim of an abusive spouse (and the church!) to let it be so —let the separation be so.

The words “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so” imply that:

  1. We shouldn’t try to pretend the marriage is still intact or probably salvageable, when in fact the covenant has been broken and repeatedly trodden underfoot by the abuser.
  2. We shouldn’t blame the victim for causing the separation. Although she may have been the one to walk out (or flee, or tell her husband to leave, or obtain a court order that requires her husband to leave the home) it’s the abuser’s chosen conduct that caused her to take such steps.
  3. At the time Paul was writing this letter to the Corinthians, separation with intent to end the marriage was identical with divorce in Roman law. The word Paul used for ‘separate’ was often used in legal documents to mean divorce. Unfortunately, this is not brought out in our English translations. The traditional Christian notion that “you may separate but you can’t divorce” is quite unsound.
  4. Therefore, in our modern context, the victim is completely at liberty to apply to the secular court for a divorce. The certificate of divorce will simply be the legal seal on what is already true in reality: that the abuser has egregiously broken the covenant.

God has called us to peace. The only “peace” in domestic abuse is the fear-driven, walking on eggshells, pseudo-peace whereby the victim creatively and discretely tries to ‘avoid trouble’ (maintain safety) within the every present and increasing coercive control of the abuser.

That is not peace: it is living in fear and incrementally giving up your selfhood to become a shell, a slave to the abuser’s selfish moods and desires.

Several Puritan theologians believed that 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows divorce for abuse. In 1992 the Presbyterian Church in America issued a Position Paper stating the same thing. My interpretation of this verse is simply reviving and re-stating an old interpretation that has been swept out of sight by most of the church.


Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. … But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. (1 Corinthians 7:10-15 NKJ)

Verses 10-11 are clearly speaking about two believers who have been married to each other. In contrast, verses 12-15 are about a believer married to someone who is an unbeliever.

Side note: it’s an oft repeated assumption that verses 12-15 are about two people who entered married as unbelievers but then one spouse got converted. However, there’s nothing in the text to indicate its being limited to that specific scenario.

Verses 10-11 say that a Christian wife who divorces her Christian husband has two options. Her first option is to remain unmarried — the text says she is un-married, the legal marriage no longer existed. Her second option is to be reconciled with her former husband, to remarry him. The only restriction is that woman mustn’t marry a new, different husband.

Many Christians urge victims of abuse to reconcile with their abusers in the belief that marital reconciliation takes priority because we must ‘display God’s covenant-keeping love to the world’. But in doing so, they go beyond what Paul has said here. In verse 11, Paul doesn’t prioritise reconciliation over remaining in the de-married state.

In verse 12 Paul says ‘for the rest …’ and it becomes clear that these words signal that he’s turned to a contrasting case: the case of a believer married to an unbeliever. For this case he gives a new rule, one not touched on by Jesus during His ministry: — If an unbelieving spouse leaves, separates, or behaves so badly that it pushes the believer away, then the believer is not under bondage (the ESV says ‘not enslaved’).

In the context of the passage, ’not being under bondage’ must mean that the Christian who gets divorced from an unbeliever is not under the restriction that the woman in verse 11 was under. That is, the believer in verse 15 is not restricted from marrying a new, different spouse (so long as she marries in the Lord, v. 39).

* For further explanation and references, see Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion. and

Barbara is a Christian author and victim-advocate in domestic abuse, based in Melbourne. Her book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Domestic Abuse (2008) has sold over 3000 copies. At the blog A Cry For Justice, Barbara and her American colleague, Ps Jeff Crippen, are seeking to awaken the evangelical church to domestic violence and abuse in its midst. (

Eternity has also published other articles on divorce, remarriage and abuse: 

19 Responses to Is there biblical grounds for divorcing an abuser?

  1. Anonymous asked — ‘What about Jesus words in Mat 19:6  “So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” ‘

    I suggest you read Instone-Brewer’s work on divorce. He explains what the phrase ‘any matter divorce’ meant to Jesus and his audience in the first century AD. Verse 6 of Mattew 19 needs to be understood in the context of that whole debate Jesus was having with the Pharisees. I discuss that all in my book and I won’t go into it here as it’s rather complicated. 

  2. Waneta Dawn says:

    ““her dignity, her liberty, her personal confidence” …. do not forget and make mistake of stereotype or oversimplification – it is his dignity, his liberty, his personal confidence. Men are subject to domestic violence just as much (or rather just as cruelly if not statistically in same manner).” Ja, I disagree. Most “Christian” men who abuse their wives, use the church’s interpretation of scripture to claim their “right” to have their way. Since no church teaches women to be in charge, the “God says, therefore you MUST comply” component is missing when a woman is the abuser.

  3. anonymous says:

    Dear Barbara,
    Barnes Commentary reads for 1 Corinthians 7:10. And unto the married – This verse commences the second subject of inquiry; to wit, whether it was proper, in the existing state of things, for those who were married to continue this relation, or whether they ought to separate. The reasons why any may have supposed that it was best to separate, may have been:
    (1) That their troubles and persecutions might be such that they might judge it best that families should be broken up; and,
    (2) Probably many supposed that it was unlawful for a Christian wife or husband to be connected at all with a pagan and an idolater.
    I command, yet not I, but the Lord – Not I so much as the Lord. This injunction is not to be understood as advice merely, but as a solemn, DIVINE COMMAND, from which you are not at liberty to depart. Paul here professes to utter the language of inspiration, and demands obedience. (“My Insert” See 1 Corinthians 17:37 If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord.) The express command of “the Lord” to which he refers, is probably the precept recorded in Mat_5:32, and Mat_19:3-10. These precepts of Christ asserted that the marriage tie was sacred and inviolable.
    Let not the wife depart … – Let her not prove faithless to her marriage vows; let her not, on any pretence, desert her husband. Though she is a Christian. and he is not, yet let her not seek, on that account, to be separate from him – The law of Moses did not permit a wife to divorce herself from her husband, though it was sometimes done (compare Mat_10:12); but the Greek and Roman laws allowed it – Grotius. But Paul here refers to a formal and legal separation before the magistrates, and not to a voluntary separation, without intending to be formally divorced. The reasons for this opinion are:
    (1) That such divorces were known and practiced among both Jews and pagans.
    (2) it was important to settle the question whether they were to be allowed in the Christian church.
    (3) the claim would be set up, probably, that it might be done.
    (4) the question whether a “voluntary separation” might not be proper, where one party was a Christian, and the other not, he discusses in the following verses, 1 Corinthians 7:12-17. Here, therefore, he solemnly repeats the law of Christ, that divorce, under the Christian economy, was not to be in the power either of the husband or wife.

    What about Jesus words in Mat 19:6  “So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” 

  4. anonymous says: says:

    Dear Barbara,
    It seems to me that the Scriptures you are using in I Corinthians 7 are not what they are saying. What you are doing are adding to Scripture. Can you do this to make your point? To me it is correct what is said at the beginning that it is your OPINION and not what the Scriptures are saying. And that is what you are doing through out the article when you quotes others who are doing the same. Please quotes what the Scriptures say and not what you want it to say to back up your OPINION. We are living in a day that as the world changes so we change the Scriptures to suit us. Is this right again? You say “I BELIEVE 1 Corinthians 5 is the appropriate text etc.” and again, I ALSO BELIEVE the Bible teaches that domestic abuse is grounds for divorce. And again, SEVERAL Puritan theologians believed that 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows divorce for abuse. And again, Verses 10-11 are clearly speaking about TWO BELIEVERS who have been married to each other. Again it does not say that in my Bible. Your OPINION again. And then you build your case on what the Scripture does not say. No wonder people are confused these  day when people do this. Do I keep going or is that enough. How come no one else has pick these things up???

  5. Dear Joy Tattam
    i believe you mean well, but I would like to suggest to you that your understanding of the field of domestic abuse needs to be enlarged.

    I personally have a policy of not engaging in statistical debate about gender rates of perpetration and victimization in domestic abuse. I leave that to the secular experts who have much more knowledge and research on that than I do. But I think I am on good ground to have phrased my article in the language that I did. I made it clear that some men are victims, but that since the victimization of women is common I would use the female pronoun for the victim.  

    I support and advocate for all victims, whatever their gender. But the English language does not have a gender neutral personal pronoun. I encourage genuine male victims who may read my work to reverse the pronouns in their heads if need be.

    We have some male victims participating at our blog A Cry For Justice. We do not discriminate against them on the basis of gender. They do not rail against our use of the gendered pronouns; they understand the limitation of the language and they realise that more females are victimised  and that females are more grievously harmed when they are victimised than males tend to be. They do not make waves about this: they simply join and share with the female victims because what we have in common as fellow survivors of abuse is much more significant than what our differences may be because of our genders.  You can find posts about or by male victims by looking at our blog for the tag ‘male survivors’. 

    At the same time I am aware that there are many male perpetrators who portray themselves of victims. Their energetic promotion of this falsehood is one reason why society and the church continue to believe myths about domestic abuse. 

    I would like to invite you to read these two posts at A Cry For Justice, to enlarge your understanding of this topic: 

    Thank you for contributing to the discussion. 🙂 

  6. Dear Anoymous, you asked 
    “Does anyone know of situations where an abusive person does repent?”

    I have not heard of many, and not any that I could be 100% sure of. I have known of cases where an abuser seemed to repent for a while, maybe for some years, but in the end the abusive behaviour came up again, often in another way or ways. Since the tactics used by abusers can be so varied, and so hard to identify as ‘abuse’ it makes it really hard to see whether change — sufficient change — has really happened.

    Quite often abusers who attend Behaviour Change programs may stop using physical violence, but their abuse rears its head in other ways, sooner or later. The entitlement mentality leaks out, one way or another. The abuser’s resistance to character development is usually so well practised, so entrenched, that deep change is rare indeed. I am not saying it can never occur, but my observation is that it is very very rare for change to be deep enough and steadfast enough to really make the individual a safe and healthy person to be in intimate relationship with.

     You also said “I am so messed up – have always been the one accused of being abusive…but now I wonder.”
    I would like to let you know that what you have said here is very typical of what we hear from victims of domestic abuse on our blog A Cry For Justice.   Abusers typically accuse their victims of being abusers. I would like to suggest to your feeling of exhaustion and confusion is actually indicative of the fact that you are being abused, rather than that you are an abuser! 

    I would also like to encourage you to read this post by Lundy Bancroft, who has worked with hundreds of abusive men and whose book “Why Does He DO That?” is possibly the best book written on domestic abuse.

    You also said that the church is discipling you for you ‘lack of reconciliation’. This is TYPICAL of Pharisaic churches which have been enlisted by the abuser to be the abuser’s ally. The abuser presents as ‘repentant’ (this is a veneer of repentance only; it is skin deep; it’s simply image management) — and then the church disciplines the victim for not being willing to reconcile. This is very very wrong of churches to do this, and it’s one of the reasons we are crying out for justice in the evangelical church on this issue. 

    I would like to encourage and praise you for being wary of your abuser’s fake repentance. Your wariness is wise and to be honoured!  Trust your gut feelings. It sounds to me like your church is not suffiicently aware of the dyamics of abuse and how subtle and covert it can be. I encourage you to not be intimidated and to stick to your firm boundaries. It is not safe to relationally reconcile with an abuser whose skin deep ‘repentance’ is only manipulative and self-serving.

    I also invite you to visit where you can learn a lot more about these issues from a Christian perspecitve,  and find a community of fellow survivors who will not judge you. 🙂  

    One more link for you: this is a Checklist for Repentance. You can use it to assess whether your abuser is really changing deep down, where the change need to occur. Most abusers don’t make this deep change.

  7. Joy Tattam says:

    I feel strongly that gender neutral language should be used here.  I’m not sure of the figures but I think abuse of the male spouse by the female spouse may be higher than we think because it is under-reported.  Men feel they won’t be believed and will instead, be labelled the perpetrator by their abusive spouse.    

  8. anonymous says:

    Does anyone know of stations where an abusive person does repent? I am so messed up – have always been the one accused of being abusive…but now I wonder. I feel I have a God ordained separation – in a motor vehicle accident and could absolutely no longer cope due to head injury and PTSD. Often I reacted out of anger to the power and control – and then told I have an anger issue. Apologies over and over – forgive 70 times 7 right? So tired and confused – the Church is disciplining me for my lack of reconciliation.

  9. Melissa says:

    What an excellent and thought-provoking article!  I think the scripture Barbara uses is descriptive and well-applied.  As a Christian who is going through a divorce from an abuser, I am grateful for the courage, clarity, and hope that this article provides.  I have forwarded it to my church elders and asked for a discussion. I pray this information continues to spread to the Christian community.  

    Reblogged on

  10. Martin Dwyer says:

    Thank you for offering the culmination of your biblical research here in a succinct yet detailed format.  Knowing for years now how much you honor the word of God, I pray this work will help others realize that the truth sets us free.  

  11. Ja, thank you for realising that my artlcle ackowledges that sometimes the genders are reversed. 

  12. Dianne Stott says:

    For years I suffered abuse because the church leaders said I had to stay in the marriage. I finally had the courage to leave the marriage when confronted with the fact that my husband was abusing our children.  They are very damaged. Church is a dirty word to them.  

  13. Susan says:

    Sharing via Facebook so more can read and learn. This needs to be heeded by pastors who truly want to live by the name of the Savior and Lord they claim.

  14. Ja says:

    my mistake – you mentioned “The genders are occasionally reversed”.

  15. Ja says:

    “her dignity, her liberty, her personal confidence” …. do not forget and make mistake of stereotype or oversimplification – it is his dignity, his liberty, his personal confidence. Men are subject to domestic violence just as much (or rather just as cruelly if not statistically in same manner).

  16. A great piece with so much truth packed into such a small space.  Its truth needs to be much-repeated.  The contemporary church has unwittingly served as abusers’ advocate for far too long.  I pray that we, as the body of Christ, can begin to turn this ship around.

    God bless you, Barbara, for your work in this fight for truth and righteousness in marriage.

  17. Teri says:

    Thank You!! Thank You!! Thank You!!
    Thank you for making this So Very Clear!!
    Many victims of abuse want to be obedient & are confused by leadership saying they must stay… divorce but remain unmarried.  As if simply being married makes the rest of the Word null & void. 
    Bittersweet of course but so happy to see this written & available!!!!
    God Bless You!

  18. Linda Gardner says:

    Thank you so much for your work in this difficult area. You help to bring clarity and understanding to those of us who are Christians and living with domestic abuse.

  19. Julie says:

    Positively excellent article. Thanks for your phenomenal wisdom and much needed and comforting words to abuse victims all over the world.