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Should Abused Women (or Men) Stay with Their Spouses?

Comments by a Southern Baptist seminary president about divorce, even in situations of abuse, has led to a rebellion by thousands of Southern Baptist women and men.

Many were demanding the seminary president’s resignation, and he has since apologized for his comments. The seminary’s board of trustees met this week and announced that the president had been removed from his position.

Setting aside the particular events now happening in the SBC, I want to think “out loud,” as it were, about divorce.

Is it ever justified? Clearly, Jesus did not consider divorce ideal; whether he considered it always sin is debatable. Some will argue he did.

His statements about divorce recorded in the gospels are somewhat cryptic. How does a husband divorcing his wife cause her to commit adultery? And so on.

I know all the answers; I’m just saying there are many answers, and no one stands out as absolutely the only right one.

The Apostle Paul regarded divorce as a departure from Christian discipleship and yet left the door open to possible justifications.

However, nowhere in the New Testament (to say nothing of the Old Testament) does the Bible say explicitly or implicitly that a wife or husband may break the marriage, divorce, solely because of abuse.

This is why fundamentalists typically do not allow it. Of course, they can’t stop it legally, but what I mean is they do not consider the marriage truly dissolved just because a court says it is.

I grew up in an extremely conservative form of Protestant Christian life. We didn’t call ourselves fundamentalists, but for all practical purposes we were – ethos-wise.

I well remember the annual national convention of our little Pentecostal denomination when the leaders managed to convince a bare majority of the voting delegates (ministers and congregationally elected lay leaders) to pass a change in the denomination’s bylaws allowing ministers whose spouses divorced them and remarried to remarry.

Before that change, any minister who remarried while his or her spouse was still alive – even if she (or he) had divorced the ministry – was excommunicated from the ministerium of the denomination.

Needless to say, within that denomination and most conservative evangelical denominations in the 1950s and before, divorce and especially remarriage after divorce was considered sin.

Then came the change I spoke about above; conservative churches began allowing even ministers to remarry under certain circumstances. But! The stigma attached to divorce remained for a very long time and still remains among the most conservative of the conservatives in U.S. Protestant Christianity.

Here’s my point, though. I grew up in the “thick” of that denomination and through my extended family knew the situation in many other conservative Protestant denominations.

In practice, pastors and denominational leaders, evangelists and missionaries, almost universally counseled abused wives (occasionally abused husbands) to separate from their abusive spouses.

Separation was permitted and even enabled. I remember specific examples of it. Separation, yes; divorce, no.

Over the years, I have been influenced by a more tragic vision of human life. I no longer believe in perfection. Not that the church I grew up in actually used that word, but the spiritual ethos was what I would call perfectionistic.

And I now have a wider view of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. God knows and understands our frailty.

I believe in what I call “the necessary” by which I mean moral emergencies in which a disciple of Jesus Christ must do something less than ideal – to protect himself / herself or others. Otherwise, I would be a pacifist. I’m not.

“The necessary,” a “moral emergency,” is a situation in which the action is neither right nor wrong but simply necessary.

It participates in both right and wrong but transcends the dichotomy. It is forgivable precisely because it is necessary.

Sometimes, separation and divorce are necessary even when the particular cause is not spelled out in the Bible as an exception to the otherwise unbreakable covenant of marriage.

What advice would I give to a wife or husband being chronically abused by her or his spouse? Leave!

Then, I would advise the abused wife or husband to get counseling and urge her or his spouse to get counseling. Do all possible to heal the marriage but do not submit to abuse.

And by “abuse” here I mean physical abuse and mental-emotional abuse but not mere irreconcilable differences.

I would call such a situation of abuse within a marriage a “moral emergency” that could lead eventually to dissolution of the marriage if the abuser continues to be unrepentant and refuses to get the needed counseling to change.

Does the Bible support my position and policy? Not explicitly. But is it consistent with biblical concern for the vulnerable, the weak, the suffering? I believe it is.

On the other hand, far too often contemporary churches, even “evangelical” churches, are extremely permissive with regard to divorce – as if the Bible says nothing at all about it and as if secular courts of law determine when a marriage is dissolved.

They do, of course, from a strictly legal standpoint, but I don’t consider marriage a strictly secular legal institution. This is the opposite extreme from that of fundamentalism. But that’s for another column.

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.