In cases of marital breakdown involving abuse, well-meaning family, friends, and church leaders will sometimes do everything they can to, as they say, keep the marriage intact. In their eyes, the marriage is worth everything, regardless of what it means for the one who has been abused. I know where they’re coming from. They believe they’re following what the Bible says about divorce. However, they often only focus on a few select passages. To develop a biblical position on divorce, we need to pay attention to everything Scripture says.
Over the last few months, I’ve been studying Greg Bahnsen’s Theses on Divorce and Spousal Abuse (you can find them here). Bahnsen (1948-1995) was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and he wrote this document for a special committee of his presbytery. While he was an eminent apologist, he is perhaps best known for being a leading theonomist. Yet I don’t believe you have to be a theonomist to agree with his Theses on Divorce and Spousal Abuse.
Let me just provide some of the theses themselves without any further explanation from Bahnsen or me:
E. The scope of ‘fornication’ in biblical usage is broader than adultery and even broader than illicit sexual intercourse.
F. The only forms of ‘fornication’ which provide just grounds for divorce are those which violate the essential commitments of the marriage covenant.
G. The obligations of the marriage covenant include at least ‘leaving father and mother,’ ‘cleaving’ to one’s spouse, and becoming ‘one flesh.’
H. In light of the vow to be ‘one flesh’ we can understand that sexual infidelity breaks the marriage covenant and is, as such, grounds for divorce.
I. In light of the vow to ‘leave father and mother,’ we can understand that desertion of one’s spouse breaks the marriage covenant and is, as such, grounds for divorce.
J. In light of the vow to ‘cling (cleave) to’ each other, we can understand why attempting to destroy the life of one’s spouse breaks the marriage covenant and is, as such, grounds for divorce.
I would note here that conclusions H and I are exactly in line with chapter 24 of the Westminster Confession. That is thus a standard Presbyterian position. If you examine Bahnsen’s arguments in the original document, you’d find that it’s also a biblical position.
It’s his last thesis that I find particularly persuasive. I want to go into this one in more depth. This one builds on thesis J:
K. The above conclusion is explicitly substantiated by the law of God at Exodus 21:10-11, demonstrating (a fortiori) that spousal abuse violates the marriage covenant and is, as such, grounds for divorce.
An a fortiori argument works from lesser cases to the greater. This is a biblical way of arguing. Bahnsen gives several examples including Galatians 6:10, “If we are to do good to all men in general, how much more to those of the household of God?”
How does that work with Exodus 21:10-11? That passage speaks of slave wives. In Old Testament Israel, a man might purchase a woman from a poor family as a second wife. However, she would not be on the same level as the first wife. She would be regarded as a slave. In such situations, a husband was not to deprive his slave wife of food, clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he would fail to do this, she would be free to go away, i.e. to divorce him. His sin of omission would be grounds for her to divorce him. Thus she would be given full relief from her neglectful husband.
Bahnsen draws two a fortiori arguments from this passage. The first one:
If the sin of omission which threatens the life of one’s wife (depriving her of food and clothing) is grounds for divorce according to God’s Word, then how much more would the sin of commission – physical abuse of one’s wife – qualify as a legitimate ground for divorce.
See how he moves from the lesser to the greater, from a sin of omission to a sin of commission.
His second a fortiori argument from Exodus 21:10-11 is this:
…If in the lesser case (a wife with the lower status of a slave) spousal abuse is grounds for divorce, how much more would it be in the greater case (a wife with the higher status of a non-slave). This is the normal way in which we would treat the law’s provisions (cf. supporting oxen and supporting the preacher). It is a fact that slaves had less privileges and protections within society than did free men and women. This being the case, we should reason that, if even slave wives went out free from marriage due to physical deprivation (or abuse), then surely the same privilege and protection was afforded to non-slave wives.
In the next section, Bahnsen points out that the New Testament supports this conclusion. In 1 Corinthians 7:3, Paul works with the requirement of Exodus 21:10 – demonstrating that the passage is not narrowly applicable to slave-wives. All wives have conjugal rights. Writes Bahnsen, “It would be arbitrary special pleading to say that, however, the other provisions of Exodus 21:10 are only sanctioned (in terms of the marriage covenant) for slave-wives, not all wives in general.”
Though Bahnsen doesn’t mention this, the same kind of a fortiori reasoning could be applied to what Exodus 21:26-27 says about slaves. If a man physically abuses and injures his slave, the slave was allowed to go free. If an abused slave was permitted to go free, how much more an abused wife would be allowed to go free from her abusive husband. Aren’t wives worth more than slaves?
In his loving grace, God makes provisions for women who are being abused to escape their abuser. Not merely to separate from him, but to go all the way and divorce him – be completely done with him in her life. In his compassion, God would not have a wife be treated worse than a slave. In this matter, Christians have to reflect their heavenly Father. If the marriage covenant has already been destroyed by an abusive spouse, there is nothing to keep intact and to pretend otherwise, however well-intentioned, is cruel.