While domestic violence occurs in all socio-economic, ethnic and religious communities, there is something particularly heinous about its occurrence in Christian communities that claim a high view of the Bible. One reason for this is the misuse of the Bible as an instrument for promoting rather than preventing the abuse.
One of the tools the batterer will sometimes use to his (occasionally her) advantage is the threat that if a battered spouse chooses to divorce, she (sometimes he) is being disobedient to God. The batterer will justify this position by using passages like Malachi 2:16 “‘I hate divorce,’ says the LORD God of Israel …,” and Matthew 19:1-12 “anyone who divorces … except for unfaithfulness … commits adultery.”
In light of this, and since October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, I have been reflecting on some significant words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. On several occasions Jesus comments on “binding” and “loosing” as indicators of the church’s role as witnesses of Christ (16:19), responding to sin (18:18) and of religious leaders who tie people down with unnecessary burdens (23:4). I have been thinking of these words in connection with what many in the church teach about divorce.
There are two trains of thought on the two main passages under consideration (Matthew 16:19 and 18:18). One suggests that Jesus is asserting the priority of heavenly binding and loosing and that the church is only coming to God’s preferred conclusion. In other words, what is being bound or loosed on earth is a reflection of what God has already bound or loosed in heaven. This is an opinion that has merit theologically, though it may be more textually difficult.
The other train of thought is that God is giving to the discerning community (church) the freedom to act where there is not a precise ruling in the Scripture. This idea matches the rabbinical traditions of Jesus’ day and makes a great deal of sense. It suggests the freedom and responsibility of Christians in community to discern God’s voice on difficult matters and to live by those choices.
Regarding domestic violence and divorce, either application has significant implications. If we accept the teaching that binding and loosing are a reflection of the heavenly, then it seems clear that the civil and religious authorities granting the official divorce decree are doing so in compatibility to what has already been acknowledged in God’s rule. If we accept the teaching that God’s people, in discerning God’s will on these things, have the responsibility to bind or loose, then as the situation warrants we should not prohibit people from divorcing abusers as the abuser has already destroyed the marriage covenant with violence. I suspect these interpretations are more compatible than they may at first appear. Good interpretation makes several assertions.
First, that the texts dealing with divorce do not give a clear teaching in relation to domestic violence. In fact, most of the texts prohibiting divorce are actually intended to protect women (the people most socially vulnerable in both the Old Testament and New Testament contexts). Read the context of Malachi 2 in its entirety and this becomes clear. The same is true of Matthew 19. In both settings, husbands were arbitrarily divorcing their wives, leaving them vulnerable to poverty, prostitution or worse. The teachings were meant to stop such neglectful practices.
Second, if, because of the broken covenant, God has already released a person from a spouse who is intent on beating, demeaning and abusing her or him, then we should recognize that the continued insistence that these people are married is an unnecessary burden with which we have bound the abused spouse.
Third, failure to permit, or perhaps even to help, an abused spouse get out of an abusive relationship is tantamount to committing the kind of hypocrisy for which Jesus condemned the Pharisees. It refuses to address the sin of the abuser, allowing him (or her) to continue in sin, and it forfeits our role to be Christ’s witnesses of liberty in the world. This is more pronounced for pastoral leaders who maintain the status quo and actually abuse Scripture’s intent.
Divorce is a tragedy. Some in our culture surely use it as an easy escape hatch. That aside, we must avoid making the assumption that divorce is a sin for the victim of domestic abuse. We must embrace that divorce may be a necessity for these victims. Their lives may depend on it.