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Is Emotional Abuse Grounds for Biblical Separation?

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We tend to categorize things in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, and biblical and unbiblical, but I think some things aren’t always so clear. James 3:2 tells us that we all stumble in many ways.

 There is no perfect marriage or perfect spouse. All marriages will experience hurt and heartache. But there are marriages that are more than disappointing or difficult, they are damaging and destructive.

As biblical counselors, we must be prepared to wisely counsel those who are in destructive marriages. Part of our preparation is to wrestle through whether or not we believe God’s word allows separation and, if so, when.

Among conservative Christians there seems to be some allowance for separation if a husband is beating his wife with his fists or she fears for her safety, but consistently little support if her husband is crushing her spirit or twisting her thinking with his words. One woman recently wrote me and said, “My pastor said emotional abuse is too fuzzy to allow for separation. Physical abuse would be clear, but emotional abuse isn’t.”

Yet, God’s word clearly has much to say in support of victims of verbal and emotional cruelty. (See my video on “What is Emotional Abuse” for Bible verses that support God’s care for the emotionally abused person.)

Research on those who have suffered with chronic emotional abuse show that it can be far more harmful to their long term health than physical abuse can be. In a 2011 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers found that our brain processes physical pain and intense social rejection in exactly the same way. The primary difference is that physical injuries usually heal. Wounds to one’s soul and spirit are longer lasting and often more damaging.

Therefore, as biblical counselors, why would we tell a woman or man who is being emotionally abused that they must stay in their marriage because being pummeled by words is not serious enough to justify a biblical separation. If this same person were being regularly pummeled by fists or stabbed by their spouse, most pastors and church leaders would not only allow for biblical separation, they’d advise it.

God’s word says it best, “Reckless words pierce like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18) and “Who can bear a crushed spirit?” (Proverbs 18:14). When someone is stabbed with a sword or knife, it leads to grave and often fatal injuries. The Bible says the impact of reckless words is like being stabbed and is just as injurious as physical abuse. Proverbs warns, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

Is emotional abuse enough grounds for separation or even divorce? There seems to be some fuzziness on the meaning of covenant as well as the oft misquoted passage in Malachi 2 about divorce. Barbara Robert’s writes in her book Not Under Bondage, “God did not say “I hate divorce”, nor did he condemn all divorce. We should therefore stop using the slogan ‘God hates divorce’. If we still need a slogan, it would be better to say, ‘God hates treacherous divorce, but he does not hate disciplinary divorce’.”  In other words her extensive research shows that there are biblical grounds for divorce and one of them is abuse.[1]

Marital covenant has also been assumed to be a unilateral, one sided covenant but many Biblical scholars do not indicate this. For example, the Tyndale Bible Dictionary says, “The essence of covenant is to be found in a particular kind of relationship between persons. Mutual obligations characterize that kind of relationship. Thus a covenant relationship is not merely a mutual acquaintance but a commitment to responsibility and action. A key word in Scripture to describe that commitment is ‘faithfulness,’ acted out in a context of abiding friendship…To appreciate the many OT laws on marriage and divorce, one must understand that marriage itself was a covenant relationship. The solemn promises exchanged by a man and a woman became their covenant obligations. Faithfulness to those promises brought marital blessing (Psalm 128; Proverbs 18:22); violation brought a curse.”[2]

In another source, various types of covenants are explained. According to OT scholar J. Barton Payne, marriage is a parity covenant. A parity covenant is a contract between equal parties–an agreement entered into that includes promises to each other. Each party was expected to keep his or her promises and to be loyal to the covenant, but sometimes that didn’t happen. And when it didn’t, the covenant was broken; considered null and void. Severe consequences could follow one breaking his covenant agreement. That’s what God hated in Malachi, husbands breaking their covenant agreement for trivial reasons.[3]

Lastly, when is the line crossed? When is an abusive behavior biblical grounds for separation or even divorce? Most people would support chronic infidelity as biblical grounds for divorce, yet not all marriages that suffer infidelity should end in divorce. When there has been repentance sought and forgiveness granted, I have seen marriages healed and restored. That brings great joy and glory to God. Just because one has biblical grounds does not mean one should pursue separation or divorce.

Every person’s story is unique. Each person who has been grievously sinned against will need to wrestle with the impact that the abuse is having on his or her body, soul and spirit as well as on their children.

Therefore as biblical counselors, we need to help counselee’s pray and ask God two crucial questions:

1. Is it best for me and my children to leave or to stay? God does call us to be good stewards of our physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, sexual and financial health.  Therefore, evaluating what toll staying in this marriage is taking on your counselee and her children is a legitimate concern.  Sometimes staying at all costs is too high a price to pay.  

2. Is it best for my unrepentant and/or foolish spouse for me to leave or to stay? What is his greatest need right now and how can I meet it? Is it best for him to remain blind to his sin, unrepentant and unwilling to repair the damage he’s done? Or is it more loving to leave (or enact church discipline or tell someone) letting him know that you will no longer keep secrets or enable his sin against you to continue without consequence.

As we help our counselee’s grow and pray and trust God, we trust she makes her decision because she believes it is God’s will and this decision is the most loving thing she can do for herself, her children and her spouse.

Oswald Chambers writes: “To choose to suffer means there is something wrong; to choose God’s will even if it means suffering is a very different thing. No healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.”

Whatever choice our counselee makes, whether she stays, whether she separates, or whether she divorces, we must help her be prepared for more suffering and grief ahead. Her decision will bring challenges and criticism for those who think she is making the wrong choice. Her choice will bring opportunities for growth as well as temptations to sin. Knowing that these stumbling blocks and stepping stones are ahead of her will keep her eyes open so that she can be more vigilant over her heart and mind.

Let’s equip our clients to choose God, not suffering, and we can be confident that he will instruct them and counsel them in the way they should go. (Psalm 32:8).


[1] Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 75

[2] Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Tyndale Reference Library (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2001), 323

[3] J.B. Payne, “Covenant (in the Old Testament),” from The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol., 1, Merrill C. Tenney, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 1001-2

Posted on June 9, 2014