Last year I was involved in helping a family that had lost their daughter at the hands of her husband to get some justice. It is believed that the husband beat her to death. A few months ago, news came from Nigeria that a gospel singer, Osinachi Nwachukwu, died allegedly due to physical abuse from her husband. One common denominator in both of these deaths was that both husbands professed faith in Christ. There were also active members in their respective churches. The question that I have heard in general and one that has been put to me in particular is: how should the church handle cases of physical abuse that are persistent and life threatening? Does the Bible have anything to say on this issue?
First things first. The Bible is very clear that marriage was designed by God to glorify him and for the good and enjoyment of husband and wife (Genesis 2:18-25). Further marriage life is supposed to be lived in love and submission. The husband should love his wife sacrificially and wife should submit to her own husband in everything (Ephesians 5:22-33). So, the Bible does not condone any form of violence or physical abuse in marriage. In fact, any form of abuse should be alien to a Christian marriage. However, because of sin marriages experience evils like physical abuse.
Furthermore, God’s plan for marriage is that it should last one’s life time. It’s never pleasing to God to see any marriage lasting shorter than that. But because of man’s hardness of heart or sin, God’s word allows divorce on two grounds: adultery and willful desertion. Adultery is when the husband or the wife has sexual intercourse with someone else other than his or her spouse. If the wronged party opts for divorce because the marriage bed has been defiled, the Bible allows him or her to legally divorce the other party (Matthew 19:3-9).
Willful desertion is mainly in a context of a couple who got married while both of them were unconverted. If along the way one of them becomes a Christian, the converted person should not seek to leave the marriage. However, if the unconverted one wants to leave the marriage he or she should be allowed to do so (1 Corinthinas 7:12-16). In the case of those who got married while professing faith in Christ, this ground is applied when one of them willfully abandons his or her spouse and despite the church’s intervention and continued call to him or her to repent and return to his or her marriage he or she refuses. In this case then divorce is allowable if the deserted person desires it because the deserter has proved that he or she is not a believer as initially professed.
On the face of it, the Bible seems not to regard persistent and unrepented physical abuse that is also life threatening (by the way most physical abuse if not checked quickly escalates to life-threating) as a valid ground for divorce. However, I believe physical abuse falls under the ground of willful desertion. Allow me to explain. The abusive spouse creates an environment in which his or her partner is not safe to live in, and if this persist the abused person should leave the marriage, with guidance and counsel from the church, to protect their own life as we are all commanded in the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13). The abusive partner should be reputed as the deserter even though it is actually the abused that has left the marriage.
I should be quick to qualify that the decision to leave a persistent abusive partner should not be arrived at haphazardly and lightly. It should always be done with the guidance of one’s church. When church leaders establish that physical abuse is recurring in a marriage, they should recommend a temporary separation for the safety of the victim. Physical abuse in most circumstances being a crime under state laws should also be reported to the relevant authorities by the abused. On their part, the church leaders should further bring under discipline the abusing partner and counsel him or her with the hope of bringing him or her into repentance and eventually restoration. If there is no repentance then the church should proceed with excommunication. Only after a suitable length of time and a sufficient process of church discipline should a divorce be recommended on the basis of willful desertion by the abusive partner. I believe that no single elder or pastor would arrive at this decision painlessly. Divorce is one of the most serious affronts to the dignity of marriage; however, in a situation that an abusive partner is unrepentant, the pastor and elders should not hesitate to recommended divorce with tears and sorrow.