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Is abuse a biblical reason to divorce?

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The only recorded biblical account regarding abuse and divorce is in Genesis 16 and 21. In Genesis 16:3, Sarah gave her husband Abraham her handmaiden Hagar as a wife. Hagar consequently bore Abraham a son—something Sarah had been unable to do. In Genesis 21, after Hagar mentally abused Sarah, Abraham sent Hagar away—effectively divorcing her. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances, such as God's promise to Abraham was to be fulfilled through Sarah's son Isaac, not Hagar's son Ishmael. And Sarah was not married to Hagar.

Other than that, the Bible doesn't directly mention abuse as an acceptable reason for divorce. Reasons it does mention include sexual unfaithfulness (Matthew 5:32) and the request for divorce by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15). Still, one interpretation of Matthew 19:8 is that a man may divorce his wife if he is abusive and the divorce would actually protect her.

What are an abuse victim's options, then? It depends on the abuse. If it is not criminal, the reconciliation steps Jesus gives in Matthew 18:15-17 should be used. Confront in gentleness, privately. If the spouse refuses to listen, seek counseling—formal or informal. If the spouse still refuses to listen, bring it to the church. Complications arise, of course, if the spouse does not recognize the authority of the church. In that case, the victim needs to hang on to 1 Corinthians 10:13, which promises that God will provide a way through every situation that will not require sin, and James 1:5, which says God will always give wisdom to those who ask.

If the abuse is criminal, to include physical and sexual, the Bible is clear: obey civil authorities (Romans 13:1-2). Physical and sexual abuse are crimes. In some states, it is required by law to report a violent crime. In all states it is highly encouraged. God placed civil authorities over us for the protection and order of society, including the protection of a victim of marital abuse and the society of the family. It is godly to send an abusive spouse to jail.

The trickier question is, is abuse an acceptable reason for separation? If staying together would mean the criminal abuse of the spouse or victim, then yes. Endangering the life of a child is against the law. Scripturally, we can turn to 1 Corinthians 8:9 (NASB). Christ's sacrifice gives us the liberty to stay or go, "but take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." If staying would impel the abusive spouse to sin further, either physically, sexually, emotionally, or verbally, a separation for the purpose of initiating behavioral changes and eventual reconciliation should seriously be considered.

The goal of any conflict in a believer's life should be restoration of the relationship. This doesn't mean an uneasy truce, but complete reconciliation. It is good to set boundaries, such as seeking counseling as in Matthew 18:16. It is good to avoid being a temptation to a sinner. If the abuser consequently indulges in an adulterous affair or files for divorce, the victim is free to biblically divorce. It is possible that the passage in Matthew 19:8 gives permission to divorce because of abuse, but if so, the abused is called not to remarry (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

Related Truth:

What grounds for divorce does the Bible provide?

What is the biblical view on divorce and remarriage?

Can a divorced person remarry?

What does it mean for wives to submit to their husbands?

Biblically, what constitutes a marriage?

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