Last year I was involved in seeking justice for a family who had lost their daughter at the hands of her husband. The family believe that the husband beat their daughter to death. Then a few weeks back, news came from Nigeria that a gospel singer, Osinachi Nwachukwu, had allegedly died due to sustained physical abuse from her husband. One common denominator of these deaths was that both husbands professed faith in Christ. They were also active members in their respective churches. So the question is: how should the church handle cases of physical abuse that are persistent and life threatening? Could persistent physical abuse be biblically valid grounds for divorce?
How should the church handle cases of physical abuse?
No Marriage is without Sin
First things first. The Bible is very clear that God designed marriage to glorify him. He also established marriage for the good and enjoyment of both the husband and wife (Genesis 2:18-25). Furthermore, marriage is supposed to be lived in love and submission. The husband must love his wife sacrificially and the wife should submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33).
God doesn’t condone any form of physical abuse in marriage.
Therefore, God doesn’t condone any form of violence or physical abuse in marriage. In fact, any form of abuse or violence should be alien to a Christian marriage. However, as the joining of two sinners, no marriage is ever perfect. Sin pervades our relationships, perhaps especially marriage. This explains the existence of evils such as physical or emotional abuse and violence in them.
Two Biblical Grounds for Divorce
Furthermore, God’s plan for marriage is that it be permanent, monogamous, and lifelong. Divorce is displeasing to God (Malachi 2:15). Yet because of man’s hardness of heart and persistent, deeply damaging sin, God provides two grounds for divorce. These are adultery and wilful desertion.
Firstly, adultery is when a husband or wife has sexual intercourse with someone other than their spouse. This is possibly what the writer of Hebrews refers to, saying: “Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4). In clear cases of adultery, Jesus permits divorce (Matthew 19:3-9).
God’s plan for marriage is that it be permanent, monogamous, and lifelong.
Secondly, and slightly more complicated, is wilful desertion. This is usually in the context of a couple who got married when they weren’t believers. However, along the way, one of them becomes a Christian. In this case Paul says that the Christian spouse shouldn’t seek to leave the marriage (1 Corinthians 7:27). But if the non-Christian decides to leave the marriage then this is permitted (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Another expression of wilful desertion is abandonment. If a spouse moves away from their spouse and refuses to return to them, then the abandoned party can pursue divorce.
So, on the face of it, the Bible doesn’t seem to regard persistent, unrepentant physical abuse as a valid ground for divorce. However, I believe physical abuse falls under the grounds of wilful desertion.
Physical Abuse as Wilful Desertion
Allow me to explain. The abusive spouse creates an environment that their partner isn’t safe to live within. If this persists, the abused person should leave the marriage, with guidance and counsel from their church. They must do so in order to protect their own life, as we’re commanded in the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13). In this case, even though the abused spouse leaves the marriage it is the abusive partner who is the deserter.
Divorce is one of the most serious affronts to the dignity of marriage.
I should be quick to qualify: the decision to leave a persistent abusive partner shouldn’t be arrived at lightly. We must always seek out the guidance of our church. If church leaders establish that physical abuse is recurring in a marriage, they should recommend only a temporary separation. This is for the immediate safety of the victim. Because physical abuse is a criminal offence, the leaders together with the abused party should report it to the relevant authorities. Furthermore, the leadership must enact biblical discipline on the abusive partner.
If there is no repentance then the church should proceed with excommunication (Matthew 18:17). Only after a suitable length of time and a sufficient process of church discipline should a divorce be recommended on the basis of wilful desertion. No single elder or pastor should arrive at this decision quickly or painlessly. Divorce is one of the most serious affronts to the dignity of marriage. However, if an abusive partner is unrepentant, the pastor and elders should not hesitate to finally recommend divorce—with tears and sorrow.