Is Abuse Biblical Grounds for Divorce?
by Del Hungerford (January, 2011)

So many people ask about divorce and abuse: Can a woman Biblically divorce her abuser? This seems to be the main “tripping over” point for many Christian women who are (or have been) in abusive relationships. I think in order to answer this question satisfactorily, it’s important to look at HOW God views our behavior and the results (consequences) of that behavior.

NOTE: Keep in mind that no matter what is said here, there will be clergy, fellow church members, deacons, bishops, other church leaders, etc. that will tell you divorce is only an option when one partner commits adulterous acts. They might even ostracize you “in the name of the Lord” because they feel obligated scripturally to do so. However, that kind of behavior is very un-Christ-like. Jesus ministered to the woman at the well who had been married several times (John 4:1-30). He didn't judge her or treat her poorly. Why should your fellow believer treat you any different than Jesus did with this woman? Ask God to show YOU answers through scripture concerning your situation. The reason we are given a brain, a free will, and the ability to read His word, is to think for ourselves and not simply swallow a doctrine. We are told to compare what’s said to us with the light of His Word. That, my friend, requires us doing our homework.

As you read what I present below, you’ll need to read the scriptures, then, do your own word study. I’ve given you a place to start and trust that God will show you the correct answer for YOU! As you can tell, the issue of divorce is not an easy one. In addition to reading, I would talk with divorced women (and/or men) who ARE prospering and doing well. That, too, might help you. The proof of God’s blessings are demonstrated in people who are walking with Him. You probably know several divorced and remarried people who are being blessed by God.

This article will cover the topics listed below. You can read from top to bottom or click on any of the points and you’ll be directed to that part of the article. Happy reading!

Topics of discussion:
  1. Sin and its consequences
  2. What the unrighteous/sinful get to inherit
  3. How abusive behavior is categorized
  4. Marriage and how it relates to the “bride of Christ”
  5. What is a covenant and what happens when it’s broken?
  6. Tying it all together

Sin and its consequences:

The Bible clearly states that “the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23). In this particular scripture, it continues to say “but the free gift of God is eternal life.” For the second part, we as Christians are all grateful. However, we often overlook the first part because we believe, and are told in scripture that our sins will be forgiven us (James 5:15, I John 2:12). We must always remember that it doesn’t give us license to continue sinning (missing the mark).

When reading the scriptures on sin and what not to do, the apostles are talking to Christians. Their letters that appear in the New Testament are written to the churches in those particular regions. There would be no reason to discuss sin and its consequences unless Christians of the day were not struggling with sinful acts. The Christians of the 21st century are dealing with the same issues some 2,000 years later. As long as mankind is still on a mission to serve itself, we will deal with sinful acts; Christians or not.

So, what are the consequences of sin? According to 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (NIV), we are told in the last days that people will be “lovers of money, boastful, lovers of themselves, ungrateful, unholy, without love, disobedient to parents, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of good…” After listing all these sinful behaviors, it then states, “Have nothing to do with them.” The KJV says “from such turn away.” It’s made very clear here that people with these kinds of behaviors should be avoided. A man who is an abuser of his wife and/or children often exhibits every one of the behaviors on this list (even if only at home). If he refuses to change, then we are to “have nothing to do with him.”

In the first book of Timothy, chapter 3, the qualifications of deacon and bishop are presented. In these verses, in order to be in a position of authority, a man must NOT be: a contentious or quarrelsome person, lover of money, double-tongued (saying conflicting things to people), self-willed, angry, and/or a brawler. Timothy also states that a leader must be a protector or guardian over his family (often seen as the word “ruler” in many passages), blameless, and a steward of God. Now, in order to be considered a church leader, one had to be a Christian. So, why would Timothy say this to a church if those being considered for leadership positions didn’t struggle with these kinds of issues? As we’d say today, these types of positions should “separate the men from the boys.” To put it bluntly, men who don’t know how to treat their wives and children are boys who haven’t grown up yet. This scripture clearly shows that in order to be a church leader, a man must be mature. Abusive men aren’t mature.

The consequences of the above listed sins are… that one who doesn’t have control in these areas of his life, cannot be a leader in the church. A man who is an abuser (physically, emotionally, or verbally) of his wife and/or children should be removed from a position of leadership. In 1 Peter 3:7, it says that if a man doesn’t treat his wife well, his prayers will be hindered. With this being the case, why would any pastor want a man in leadership whose prayers are falling flat on the floor? This is not in the best interest of any church. Until the man has control of himself, his position of leadership is hurting his church rather than helping it.

Secret sin is another story all together. Since many abusers believe that no one is aware of their behavior, they are in deception. What does the Bible say about such people? Numbers 32:23 says that your sin will be sure to found out. Psalms 90:8 says that our secret sins are in the light of God’s presence. Proverbs 28:13 (NIV) states “He who conceals his sin does not prosper.” In Luke 12:2 (NIV), Jesus says concerning the yeast of the Pharisees that “there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” So, those that think they are getting away with sin aren’t. They will eventually be found out. A question to ponder; why would a man treat others well and his wife abusively without knowing there’s a problem with that kind of thinking? It would seem that he knows the abuse is wrong, otherwise, he’d treat everyone the same.

What the unrighteous/sinful get to inherit

The word “unrighteous” has three different Hebrew words throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the words aven, avval, and chamac, are all used to describe what unrighteousness is. They all mean trouble, wicked, and unjust. “Chamac” actually goes a step further and describes unrighteous as someone who is violent, wrong, and cruel. In the New Testament, the word “adikos” means “one who deals fraudulently with others and is deceitful.” (Strong’s Concordance)

1 Corinthian’s 6:9-10 (NIV) describes the unrighteous by saying, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the sexually immoral no idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God…” The next section goes on to say that when these behaviors are changed, a person can inherit the Kingdom of God. NOTE… a behavior change is required. It won’t simply be lip service. The proof will be seen in the actions because God knows man’s heart. It’s what’s in the heart that will determine the blessings and prosperity of God.

Jesus says in Mark 7:21-22 (NIV) that “What comes out of a man is what makes him unclean. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean.” Based on this verse, our sin makes us unclean. In addition, we reap what we sow, according to Galatians 6:7-8. The NIV says those who continue in sin will reap destruction. Hebrews 9:27, James 1:5, and Romans 7:11 tell us that sin leads to death. In this case, it’s talking about spiritual death.

In 1 John 2:11 (NIV), it says “whoever hates his brother is in darkness and walks around in darkness; he does not know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded him.” The word brother in the passage is “adelphos” which according to Strong’s is “a fellow believer, united to one another by the bond of affection.” In one commentary that I saw on-line, it said of this verse that it’s sad when the “fellow believer” is a parent, sibling or spouse. An “adelphos” could very easily be a wife or husband.

Also see 1 Corinthians 5:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 1 John 3:15, and 1 John 4:20 for additional references concerning the use of “brother” in light of when someone has mistreated a “brother” in Christ. In some of these verses, it likens a “brother hater” to a murderer. In each instance, the person who hates his brother is to not be associated with. They are to be cut off from fellowship. Hate here comes from the Greek “miseo” meaning to hate, detest, pursue with hatred or to be hated or detested. A wife of an abuser rarely feels loved. The opposite of love is hate. She often feels detested because she can do nothing right. Therefore, an abuser “shows” hate towards his wife.

A man who mistreats his family is walking in darkness and spiritual death. His sin has blinded him. He won’t be prosperous and he won’t inherit the Kingdom of God unless he sees the error of his way and repents. Is this something a Christian wife wants? If not, it’s time to get help.

As a recap of this section, we see that sinful behavior (which is unrighteousness) leads to spiritual death, blinds us spiritually, keeps us from prospering, and will ultimately lead to not inheriting the kingdom of God if we continue in our sinful ways. In addition, everything we do will fall under a version of “reaping and sowing.” If we sow hate, we’ll reap it. If we sow love, we’ll reap it. Poor behavior, including treating our “brother” poorly, will cut us off from communion with God. This is to only mention the spiritual consequences. We’ve not even touched upon the ramifications of poor behavior in the “natural world.” However, there are many, as the Bible also provides example after example where people “reaped what they sowed.”

It’s important to note in this section that there IS a way out. It’s called “repentance.” In order to repent, a person must first acknowledge their error and then begin the process of changing that error. Yes, the actual sins can be repented of immediately but walking out the actual change requires a character renewal and paradigm shift. That, my friend, will NOT happen overnight. The Bible is very clear on how the process of repentance is dealt with. First, one brother goes to the “offender.” If he doesn’t listen, take two people, and so on. If in the end there’s still no repentance, then that person is to be cut off from fellowship. At any time there’s repentance, the “offender” can be brought back into the “flock.”

How abusive behavior is categorized

After reading what sin does to us, it should be easy to see that the consequences of continual “missing the mark” will result in producing after its own kind. Read again the abusive behaviors on this web site. You should begin to see a pattern in which all of these behaviors fit into a sinful category described in the Bible. Abusive behavior is all sinful and leads to being cut off from God, living and walking in darkness, spiritual death, and reaping all kinds of bad stuff. This being the case, if the abuser has a complete heart change and repents (literally meaning to “turn 180 degrees and go another direction), forgiveness of his sin is granted by God. However, if you remember the story of David and Bathsheba, Nathan goes to David in 2 Samuel, chapter 12, and tells David that he has sinned. David repents but there are still consequences in the natural. Nathan outlines what those consequences are, which do happen. This includes losing the first child of Bathsheba.

To sum it up, all abusive behavior is sin. Unwillingness to change that behavior will ultimately lead to destruction of all kinds (spiritual first followed by natural consequences).

Marriage and how it relates to the “bride of Christ.”

There are two theories of who the bride of Christ is. The most subscribed to is that a marriage between a man and a woman represents a “type and shadow” of our relationship with Christ. Since the Bible talks mostly through symbolic language, it would only seem natural that God would use something we are so familiar with to describe our relationship with Him. Marriage is the most intimate relationship that we know of. Our relationship with Christ is to be on the same level of love, respect, friendship, etc. that is between a husband and wife. Do NOT trip over the word "submit" in the passage below. View this often mis-quoted scripture through the eyes of our Lord who speaks to us through symbolic language. How does it relate to the verses around it? What's the overall context? Where do you see the symbolism?

Ephesians 5:15-32 (Paul speaking to the church)“See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit [yeild to his admonition or advice] yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”

Paul speaks to the church in 2 Corinthians 11:1-3 saying, “Would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly: and indeed bear with me. For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”

NOTE: The following link provides a very good Bible study on the topic of Christ as the Bride of the Church: For further personal study on any subject, the Watchman Bible Studies on-line provide a great starting point for those desiring to research any topic.

In realizing that a marriage is to represent our relationship as the bride of Christ, it would only seem right that the “husband” (Christ) love his “wife” (the body of Christ, or church) and give himself up for her. In an earthly marriage, the husband loves his wife first. That love then leads to voluntary submission on her part; just like our relationship with Christ. If Christ loved us the same way an abuser does his own wife, most of us would high tail it out of that relationship! Who would want a God who treated us like that?

In Colossians 3:19, the husband is told to love his wife (agape love in the same way Christ loves us) and to not be bitter toward her. The definition of bitter comes from the Greek word “pikraino” meaning to make bitter, exasperate, render angry, indignant, or irritated. An abusive husband is all of this and more to his wife. What an example of a man who calls himself a Christian!

In summary of this section, Google “bride of Christ” for many articles and sites on how a human marriage relates to the marriage between Christ and his bride (the church). Look at how Christ loves us. Then, ponder the fact that Christ is a husband’s example on how to treat his wife. When he doesn’t love (agape) his wife, he’s not representing a Godly nature. He’s in sin and will suffer the consequences of that sin. The sad part is that his family will also suffer because of his sin. His prayers will be hindered, he’ll eventually reap what he’s sowing, and God is no longer blessing his marriage.

What is a covenant and what happens when it’s broken?

A covenant in the Bible comes from the Hebrew word “beriyth” meaning an alliance or pledge between two parties (God and man, man and friend, husband and wife, etc.). In the New Testament, the word is interchangeable between “covenant” and “testament.” The Greek word for both is “diatheke” which means “a disposition, arrangement of any sort which one wishes to be valid; the last disposition which one makes of his earthly possessions after his death, a testament, a will.”

The most obvious covenants we see in the Bible are that with Abraham (Genesis 17), Moses (Exodus 3), David (2 Samuel 7), and Solomon (1 Kings 11). Although there are many more, these are the most read about. They are covenants between God and His people, the Israelites. When Jesus came, he brought a “New Testament” or new “covenant” that fulfilled or “updated” the old covenant. The blood sacrifice of animals used to remind the Israelites of God’s covenant was substituted with the blood of Jesus in the new covenant. There are many Bible studies on the covenant between man and God. They can give you a more in depth view on how a Biblical covenant works.

How does this relate to marriage? In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God talks about his covenant with Israel saying he would be their “husband.” Part of the definition of the word “covenant” says that it’s an agreement between a man and a wife. Does God put heavy emphasis on this covenant? The answer is, yes!

The scripture so often quoted by those who say Christian’s shouldn’t get divorced (Malachi 2:14) also talks about God’s covenant and WHY he said that to his people. Let’s look at it a little closer. Malachi is rebuking the people for their unfaithfulness… “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another? Judah has broken faith. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves, by marrying the daughter of a foreign god. As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the Lord cut him off from the tents of Jacob – even though he brings offerings to the Lord Almighty. Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s alter with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, ‘Why?’ It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel, and ‘I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,’ says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit and do not break faith.” (Malachi 2: 10-16 NIV)

Malachi is telling the people that a marriage is a covenant that’s witnessed by God. The people were wailing and crying because nothing was going right for them. They weren’t being blessed any longer and as any one of us would be if nothing was going right; very frustrating! They went to the prophet of the time, Malachi. I’m sure what he said to them didn’t go over too well. In reading this passage, it’s obvious that God hates divorce. In addition, he didn’t like the way the men were treating their wives. This was a time in history where a man would “put away” his wife if he was tired of her. In addition, at the end of the section of this chapter, it appears that men were “covering themselves with violence.” It sounds like the men of Judah had a problem with knowing how to treat their wives. They broke the marriage covenant and reaped not having prayers answered and no blessings were being bestowed on them.

Basically, a covenant between a man and woman is meant to last a life-time. However, when men (or women) break their part of the covenant, all hell breaks loose. Blessings are lost, prayers aren’t answered, and bad things start to happen. The covenant is meant to be restored. However, in the event that the one who broke the covenant refuses to repent, the covenant stays broken. God broke his covenant with Israel more than one time because of their sin. WHEN they repented, he renewed the covenant. If an abusive husband is un-repentant, the covenant cannot be restored. HE must take the necessary actions to restore his part of the covenant. HE will be held responsible. Of course, if the roles were reversed and the wife is the abuser (which does happen) or she’s the adulterous one in the relationship, the breaking of the covenant will be on her head.

Tying it all together

First of all, God considers the marriage covenant a serious commitment. When that covenant is broken, it’s a VERY devastating thing to the family! So, for those men who are abusers of their wives, this is how God views your act… 
  1. Sin has consequences, both spiritual and natural. Continual and habitual sin will keep a person from receiving various spiritual rewards.
  2. The unrighteous (and sinful) will not inherit the Kingdom of God, unless they repent. This includes Christians who are engaging in unrighteous acts.
  3. All abusive behavior is sin and cuts the abuser off of all blessings from God. He will not prosper, his prayers will be hindered, he will reap what he sows, and he is as a murderer in God’s eyes.  
  4. The marriage between a man and a woman is a “type and shadow” of the bride (church) being married to Christ (groom). The husband is to love (agape) the wife as Christ loved the church. 
  5. A covenant is meant to be life-long but when broken by one party, blessings and prayers are withheld.
In looking at all of this in light of an abusive marriage, a Christian man who is abusive to his wife has broken the marriage covenant. In addition, his prayers will be hindered and he won’t be walking in the blessings of God. It may not appear that way but sometimes it takes a while for things in the natural (in the world) to catch up to those in the spiritual realm. If the man is in a leadership position in his church, he’s hurting the entire church because of his sin. In addition, because the man is told to treat his wife the same way Christ does the church and he doesn’t, his entire family suffers because of his wrongful acts. Not only has he broken a covenant, but he’s walking in deception. If his sin is “hidden” from the community, it’s only a matter of time before it comes out into the open. Women should not feel bad about praying that his “hidden sin be revealed.” It’s scriptural. God has very clever ways of making this happen without the wife being involved. If you read my book “…But Words will Never Hurt Me,” you’ll see this in action. I never had to say anything. I trusted God to do it, and he did!

When a man is confronted with his abuse, he has two options; to deny it or to repent. Denial will usually come first. However, a true man of God will eventually see his error and should be able to at least work on changing. He may not be able to if he’s unwilling to deal with what made him an abuser. A Christian woman in this situation should determine if danger is involved. If so, leave immediately. There IS help and people will pick a woman (and children) up and take them to a shelter if need be. If a woman has the backing of her church, the leadership should go to the husband and confront the sin. Once that’s done, the ball is in his court.

Counseling is a must with an abuse specialist for both husband and wife. (It will rarely be done as a couple.) Most clergy are not trained to deal with abuse. However, you can choose to have the abuse counselor work with church leaders. The couple should NOT get back together until the COUNSELOR (not the pastor) has deemed it safe. This will often take at least a year, if not more, depending on the severity of the situation. Emotional and verbal abuse (with no physical abuse present) may take longer because it’s harder to identify and then correct. Many times, the issues are much more deeply rooted than it appears.

A repentant abuser will need to walk out the results of his sin against his wife. This may come in the form of lack of trust for quite some time. It may affect his children’s behavior for quite some time. Either way, there will be some natural consequences. He must be willing to work through knowing the road to healing for his whole family will not be quick. He cannot expect to be trusted by clergy or family until he’s demonstrated a paradigm shift and behavior change. He must go through counseling and then show that he’s had a complete change of character. This should happen before the couple is allowed back together. Wise pastoral staff will rely heavily on the expertise of trained counselors in making sure the couple doesn’t get back together too soon. This cannot be stressed enough! For proof of this, be sure to read the article “A Case Study” on this web site where my teacher friend lost her life to an abusive husband because the pastoral staff allowed them back together too soon.

A woman, I believe, can make the decision to divorce once it’s determined that her abuser is unwilling to change. This decision may be made for her, as it was in my case. Every opportunity should be given for the abuser to change. In reality, it won’t take too long for this to be revealed. An unrepentant abusive husband isn’t willing to get pastoral counseling, abuse counseling, or work on “his” problems. For this kind of man, the wife is generally blamed for the marriage problems.

When one partner breaks the covenant and refuses to live by the guidelines set for a Biblical marriage covenant, there’s nothing the other partner can do. Plain and simple… when a man cannot treat his wife in the manner that Christ does with the church, his marriage will not be good. He can’t demand submission from the wife just like Christ can’t demand submission from us. If this is what the husband expects, he needs a reality check about the Biblical principles on marriage. In addition, as stated in other articles on this web site, if the church that the couple is attending believes the wife is to submit to the husband in everything, the points discussed in this article will be meaningless to church leaders. Go outside the church to trained counselors for help. It may cost a woman her church family but God will direct her where to go. All she needs to do is ask Him. He’s faithful to respond to the pleas of His people.

Blessings to you!