22 Years of Failure: The Church’s Response to Abuse

Marsha DivorceMarsha sought help from leaders of the many churches she and her abusive husband attended over the years.

After 20 years of marriage she told her whole, sordid story to a couple church leaders who seemed to “get it.” As they heard her story, they listened with concern for her. Their initial responses were helpful and safe.

It All Began…

Marsha was sexually assaulted twice as a child on the mission field, later by a relative, and then as a young adult by an assistant church pastor. It seems that each time she turned to spiritual leaders or those who should have had her wefare in mind, she was abused.

In her late-twenties Marsha was introduced to her future husband by friends and had a short courtship. Within a few months they were at the altar repeating their vows to love and cherish one another.

Then it began.

There had been no sign of abusive behavior in their short courtship. But on their honeymoon he lost it and “yelled” at her for accidentally crushing the sand dollars collected on the beach, making quite a scene. Marsha explained to me, “Time went on and his anger was very present when conflict arose.”

In each location they lived, she sought help from church leaders. They were moving about every three to four years due to her husband’s job. One pastor, when asked for counsel told her husband to “love her” and told her to “get her parents out of it.” Marsha had shared his raging moments with her parents over time including the time she said, “He was yelling at me with a dog gate held over his head.”

In obedience to the pastor, Marsha faithfully “kept [her parents] out of it” for 17 years.

Bad to Worse

When things finally completely boiled over, she sought out a church that would understand abuse and help her. She had believed, as some of the churches had told her, that she must dutifully submit to her husband and that divorce was one of the worst actions anyone could ever take.

Church leaders, tasked with shepherding her and caring for her spiritual wellbeing, had faithfully taught her to just hang in there…because God hates divorce.

When she told her story to two pastors in the new church, they wrapped their arms around her. The senior pastor advised her to legally separate. She began that process.

Then, the elders met with her husband.

It all seemed to turn on its head. She began receiving communications from the pastors and a woman who was part of a group tasked with helping other women in crisis. They shared with Marsha in emails and conversations such things as:

  • I don’t find grounds for you to divorce your husband.
  • We are hoping that you might be willing to enter into a process to possibly restore your marriage.
  • It seems you have a habit of leaving churches that challenge your views. Sounds like the same ol’ song.
  • We’ve inherited an estrangement that has gone on for 20 years and one in which several churches have not been consistently speaking into.
  • Relational estrangement is far removed from fixing appliances and cars…It requires two willing people.  It requires repentance and forgiveness….And so we need time to make room for all these things.  It demands patience from all involved.

After more than twenty years. “It demands patience” was all the pastor could come up with. We need to make room for all these things.

This is a typical problem for those in abusive situations. It does indeed take two willing people. Apparently, church leaders having not gone through the years of living in hell with an abuser think they need the survivor to slow down for them to catch up.

They hear the abuser’s manipulation and are sucked into his vortex of lies.

Suddenly, a church that knows little of the story wants the victim to “be patient” while they dot their i’s and check off the boxes they need to feel justified in allowing her to divorce (if they will allow divorce). They think they can finally fix the marital problems where others have failed…

My wife calls it ignorance and arrogance.

It is where many of us have been when we had little understanding of abuse. We can be so ignorant and then, thinking we are so knowledgeable of God’s will, arrogantly espouse platitudes about love and mercy and commitment…and forgiveness.

Abuse is not “estrangement”

It was a strange and calming term to use for the violence perpetrated by Marsha’s oppressive and manipulative husband. “Oppression” is the term that scripture uses. My guess is the pastor used the term “estrangement” (consciously or subconsciously) to bring the abuse down to a manageable level with which the leaders could deal.

As we consider why church leaders would care so poorly for targets of domestic violence, I would suggest that there is a fundamental underlying failure in our theology of divorce.

We think all divorce is bad

Some get this from Malachi as he takes God’s people to task for divorce:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

Malachi 2:16 (ESV)

There are few who have not heard translations of this verse that say “God hates divorce” such as the American Standard Version and King James. Theologian after theologian quote these versions to battle our culture of no-fault divorce.

But notice how the English Standard Version translates it:

The man who does not love his wife but divorces her…covers his garment with violence.” 

The New International Version says,

The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

There are difficulties in the translation of this passage and scholars disagree. But there is significant evidence that the language used, the context of the culture in which it was written, and traditional rabbinic interpretation would suggest the ESV and NIV likely have it right.[1]

It is not divorce the Lord hates, but the reasons for the divorce; the husband does not love his wife. The husband is not treating his wife well. He has severed the covenant he made with his wife.

That can be evidenced in abusive behavior, adultery, addiction to pornography, and other ways that reject his wife, breaking his covenant to love and protect he made at the altar.

This translation makes more sense when considering God’s own actions. He is said to “divorce” Israel in its rebellion, called adultery. [Jeremiah 3:8]

God hated Israel’s adultery and found it necessary to turn away from them just as a survivor of abuse must turn away from the evil of their covenant-breaking spouse.

If divorce were evil in itself, God would never take part in it.

We hold men and women in bondage as we expect them to “hang in there” when a spouse radically breaks their covenant vows through abuse. Whether it be adultery or abuse, the innocent party has biblical grounds to take the legal steps to put a legal stamp of “divorce” on the actions of divorce. A divorce has already taken place in the marriage by the offending party.

In case of abuse, divorce is not only the safe option but the loving option.  Abusers must be held accountable if there is to be lasting change. The Lord most certainly wants the abuser to change.

The church should stand beside those who are suffering abusive relationships. They should do everything in their power to give aid and safety to the survivor, including “allowing” the decision to divorce should the survivor seek it.

Not begrudgingly. Not hesitantly. But with their blessing.



1 David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Kindle, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 1075.

Leave a Reply