Divorce, remarriage, and abuse

The third, and final, part of my review of Pastor Jeff Crippen’s book, A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church, deals with the somewhat controversial topic of divorce and remarriage. There are a wide variety of interpretations on this subject, even within the conservative, evangelical world.

Pastor Crippen begins the chapter, “What about Divorce?” by defining some of the different views on abuse and divorce and giving examples of well-known Christian leaders who espouse them. On one end of the spectrum is something called the “permanence” view of marriage: “no divorce, no remarriage for any reason at all as long as one’s spouse is still living.” (284)  This view has been defined in the book, Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View, by Jim Elliff and the other elders of Christ Fellowship Church, Kansas City. They are not the only ones holding this view. Both Voddie Baucham and John Piper also teach that divorce is never allowed and that remarriage is only allowed if a spouse has died.

A second approach allows for divorce in the case of adultery or desertion but not abuse. An example of a book teaching this view would be, The Divorce Dilemma: God’s Last Word on Lasting Commitment, by John MacArthur. In an article quoted by Pastor Crippen, MacArthur explained:

Abuse is not a biblical cause for divorce. A woman may have to find shelter and protection through her church, but she has not been given the right by God to divorce her abuser (283).

Interestingly, when I went to check the link for this article, I found that there had been a revision to this section. It now reads:

Divorce is not always an option, either–Scripture does not automatically permit divorce in the case of a physically abusive husband.

But it does still say that if a wife is not in physical danger, then she must stay with her husband:

If you are not truly in any physical danger, but are merely a weary wife who is fed up with a cantankerous or disagreeable husband–even if he is an unbeliever who is hostile to the things of God–God’s desire is that you stay and pray and sanctify that husband by your presence as a beloved child of God (1 Corinthians 7:10-16). The Lord will protect you and teach you in the midst of the difficult time.

Of course, pray for your husband, submit to him in every way you can, encourage him to seek advice and counsel from other biblically-knowledgeable men–and do everything you can to heal the problems that cause him to be angry or abusive.

A third view is that “divorce is permitted for adultery, desertion and abuse – understanding abuse as a kind of desertion.” (284)   Pastor Crippen recommends Barbara Roberts’ book, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery & Desertion, as a good resource for understanding abuse as desertion. Another book he recommends is Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities by David Instone-Brewer. This is the view that Pastor Crippen holds and is the one he spends the chapter explaining.

Pastor Crippen starts by using Jesus’ teachings on the Sabbath as an analogy and illustration of the greater principles involved. The Pharisees had gotten so wrapped up in their interpretation of the law that they had forgotten the purpose of the Sabbath and they’d forgotten mercy:

It is my contention that this is the very thing that has happened in the evangelical church in regard to marriage and divorce. Yes, I realize that there are evangelical “libertines” who do not hold diligently enough to the holiness of marriage and are far too liberal in permitting sinful divorce and even other perversions of marriage. But the solution to these evils is not to race to another extreme by maintaining a no-divorce view that essentially contends that man was made for marriage, not marriage for man.

When we tell abuse victims that God does not permit them to divorce their abuser, and that if they do so and then remarry, they will be guilty of adultery, we are condemning the guiltless and demanding sacrifice rather than extending God’s mercy to the weak and helpless: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4) (286-287).

So what are the greater principles that are often forgotten when considering divorce and abuse? Pastor Crippen writes that they are:

  • God desires mercy.
  • Marriage was made for man.
  • We are to zealously protect and advocate for the poor and helpless.
  • We are to defend human life. (287)

The Biblical grounds for divorce in the case of abuse is that abuse is desertion:

Marriage vows (contracts) can be destroyed by adultery or desertion. We maintain that biblical desertion is not only effected by literal leaving one’s spouse, but also by abuse. Abuse is desertion because it is a refusal to live with one’s spouse as husband or wife in the context of marriage, as defined by the vows of the marriage covenant (297).

Pastor Crippen explains that this type of desertion is “constructive desertion:”

Constructive desertion occurs when one partner’s evil conduct ends the marriage because it causes the other partner to leave. But it is the abuser who is to be construed as the deserter, not the victim. The victim bears no blame (304).

Pastor Crippen also makes it clear that in the case of abuse (physical,emotional, verbal, sexual, etc.) a divorce is simply the public acknowledgement that the marriage contract has already been broken. How has the marriage contract been broken? By the persistent, unrepentant actions of the abuser:

In the case of abuse in marriage, the abuse victim is not the one destroying the marriage when he or she decides the marriage contract has been rendered null and void. That has already been accomplished by the abuser who has refused to love, honor, and cherish as he vowed before God to do (296).

It’s important to remember Pastor Crippen’s definition of abuse here. This is not just someone having a bad day or the typical arguments that all couples have:

Abuse then, is a mentality of entitlement and superiority in which an abuser uses various tactics to obtain and enforce unjustified power and control over another person (18).

Also, we should remember that Pastor Crippen’s conclusion is that abusers, as defined in his book, are unregenerate:

Therefore, we must necessarily conclude that an abuser simply cannot be a Christian, no matter how convincing his masquerade of Christianity might be. His very mindset remains unchanged, as his perseverance in his abuse demonstrates (243).

In the context of marriage, this means that abusers are unbelievers who refuse to live with their wives (or husbands) according to their marriage vows. The abuser perpetually and unrepentantly breaks his marriage vows:

Abusers destroy their marriages by trashing the marriage contract which included their promise to love, cherish and protect their partner. An abuser so wounds his victim, so exposes her to hardship and suffering that, despite her best efforts, the marriage bond of love and respect is destroyed (303).

Pastor Crippen anticipates the question that many readers will likely ask: “Won’t this view of marriage and divorce result in a kind of divorce epidemic like we see all around us?” (300) His answer is that allowing divorce in the case of abuse will not “open the floodgates.” He quotes from Barbara Roberts’:

Many Christians are afraid of “opening the floodgates” of excuses for divorce. However, allowing for divorce for constructive desertion is not the same as allowing divorce simply for “mutual incompatibility”. Nor does it imply that a Christian spouse can separate in reaction to a transient incident or a light offense. Even in heavy offenses and repeated abuse, efforts should be made by the believer to bring the abuser to repentance. All efforts to urge a perpetrator to repent should be done with humility and a readiness to forgive.

However, it is important to be aware that most victims of abuse have already made many efforts in this direction before they seek help from a pastor or other professional. Indeed, the victim has usually borne too much for too long and the pattern of abuse has become deeply entrenched (300-301).

Given all of this, pastors, churches, leaders, and Christians in general, should be careful not to add to the abuse that victims have suffered by heaping guilt and condemnation on them regarding their decision to divorce. Protect the weak and innocent. Stand up to abusers. Have mercy on those who carry the scars of abuse.

I’ll conclude with Pastor Crippen’s advice for any victim of abuse whose church holds to the no-divorce for abuse view:

I encourage any victim of abuse who is in a church that binds people in such a manner, to leave that church for her own safety, sanity and health and find a church that does not make the error of going beyond Scripture. It is my conclusion that, even though it may come from zeal for the Lord, teaching people that God forbids divorce for abuse (as abuse has been defined and presented in this book) is spiritual malpractice. To bring church discipline to bear upon victims is to compound this injustice and I must believe that it is obnoxious in God’s sight (288).

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3, ESV)

13 thoughts on “Divorce, remarriage, and abuse

  1. Trent says:

    Unfortunately, I believe that Pastor Crippen paints a dire caricature of the views of Piper, et al.
    I can’t imagine them being non-sympathetic to such cases. Why doesn’t he ask them their view rather than urge people to get out of Dodge so to speak?
    Not that I hold to Piper’s position but, I do hate straw man arguments.


    • Anonymous says:

      Trent-there used to be a video on you-tube, where Piper literally talks about how a woman should be okay, putting up with the man slapping her, and is actually smirking and laughing through his comment. Would that be enough for you to imagine him being non-sympathetic to victims of abuse? Jeff Crippen has not “painted” any “dire caricature” of Piper, that he did not paint for himself.


  2. Jeff Crippen says:

    Calling a highly influential person like Piper to account is certainly not wrong. Myself and numbers of our blog team, among others, have indeed asked Piper to explain himself – but to no avail. Our conclusions about what he believes are based upon his own plain teachings in speaking and writing. His no divorce for any reason ever teaching enslaves abuse victims wrongly and re-traumatizes them. Whether Piper is a “nice guy” or not is really immaterial. We have not created a straw man – Piper has presented quite plainly what he believes and has done so in such a way that he claims God’s authority for his position.


    • Trent says:

      Thanks for supplying evidence as I did not know Piper said those things.
      To anonymous: I would appreciate it if you were a bit more ‘sympathetic’ to my ignorance. You’ve proved to me of Pipers sad stance on the issue which does break my heart. I just did not want someone to be caricatured whoever it was as happens frequently in Christian and non Christian circles.


      • Anonymous says:

        Sorry this is so late, Trent. Did not get a notice on your comment. I was not being unsympathetic toward you, and am happy in fact to see that you are educating yourself about domestic abuse. What I meant, was that if the video were not enough evidence (wasn’t sure it was still up) that we could provide more, but it appears Jeff Crippen did that anyway. I apologize for sounding unsympathetic toward you – it was not my intention


  3. Julie says:

    I have a question about the abusee’s responsibility to bring spouse to repentence (or the attempt to do so.) I have never said, “hey, you have done xy andz and it hurts.” However dh has attempted to stop critiqing what I do, so he is aware on some level. But I know that he hasnt changed his entitlement, he is just behaving in a certain way to keep me here. He tries to control wherw and how long i go away, and he knows that it upsets me. He pulls a lot of verbal abuse too. So have I done my duty, or do I need to sit him down. I am terrified of doing so because serious conflicts never go well. He also has a PD (not narcissism).
    I want to leave, but I also dont want to sin.


  4. Christine says:

    Funny but if a Pastor was physiologically abusing a church for his own gain he would be taken out of leadership because he was leading God’s flock down a dangerous path. These types of men have the ability to cause the flock to commit suicide. He has broken his vow to serve, to love and to protect and no one would question this BUT if a husband was to systematically destroy the faith and hope of his wife then she must remain under him as her leader! Seriously, the thought is ridiculous. God took so serious the turning away of someone’s faith that he even permitted divorce of his children to idolatrous foreign wives.

    And seriously if my husband asked me to join in group sex, I would give him the law as his tutor before I even told him about the gospel. This was such a stupid example because that husband is probably into porn and already having an affair!!! So really I would just confront him and pack my bags. Seriously, by giving such a ridiculous example just proves Piper’s heart attitude of how he views women. And I am a conservative Calvinist!!!

    And someone in Piper’s position needs to realise that because his influence is high then so must be his public rebuke. He should have been rebuked by his elders for the way he handled this question and asking for forgiveness should have been public too so that others in his position may fear.


  5. The Abused says:

    Can the abused woman remarry? Many churches states she’s not allowed to remarry if she’s giving the divorce. Do you have Biblical back up stating than remarrying is ok for the abuser?


  6. Agape Moms says:

    One key Scripture most people overlook on the topic of divorce is in the Book of Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 3:8, God says that He divorces the nation of Israel. Israel is cited for not just adultery, but also deception, abuse, and the unwillingess to admit her sin and repent. God explicitly states that Israel has broken her covenant. We expanded on this topic in a post at https://www.agapemoms.com/blog/is-all-divorce-sinful-what-bible-says-about-divorce-abuse and we hope more people will consider this approach to divorce before counseling abused women. Unchecked abuse is unchecked sin- permitting it does not stop it and actually allows it to be passed to the next generation when there are children in the home. It’s our prayer that the abused AND their abusers will get the help they truly need when we reform our ideas about divorce and abuse. Peace and blessings!


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