The good news is, most marriages are salvageable. This is when you are talking about believers, of course. When it is unbelievers, then things get harder. But if we’re talking about believers, then the power of the gospel is sufficient, more than sufficient, to save even the most difficult of marriages with the most intractable, dug-in problems. And in fact, marriage is a wonderful opportunity for this to occur, because marriage is an environment that makes it hard to accommodate your own selfishness. It forces you to face it.
The bad news is, we’re all sinners. That’s why the first point is such good news. But for the good news to be the good news, the bad news has to be understood well. We have to face squarely the way our own sin distorts the way we look at marriage problems, in our own personal life and as church leaders.
Sometimes I think that things I have heard and believed my whole live are obvious, just because I have internalized them so thoroughly. Just last night I was talking to my wife about a conversation with someone else, a Christian, and she related to me how novel the doctrine of total depravity was to this person. She told me it was the same to her when she first heard it as a teenager. All of a sudden a bunch of things made sense that never really had before. The radical corruption of our natures must be constantly kept in mind as we deal with anything in life, for it will affect everything. Walter Marshal says, in the Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, ch. 1:
Men show themselves strangely forgetful, or hypocrititcal, in professing original sin in their prayers, catechisms and confessions of faith, and yet urging on themselves and others the practice of the law, without the consideration of any strengthening, enlivening means— as if there were no want of ability, but only of activity.
But the funny thing is that it is the very nature of this problem to conceal itself. If you’re not told it’s there, you’ll never understand it for yourself, because the very nature of the problem is such that it robs its victim of the ability to understand things. It affects our thinking as well as our will and our emotions. And though it begins to be corrected by regeneration, it continues to be a problem for us throughout our lives. So when we deal with marriage problems, we must constantly keep this fact in mind: the radical, pervasive effects of sin on the thinking and choices of everyone affected by it. It causes us to self-justify, to magnify the faults of others and minimize our own, to deflect, to blame-shift, to minimize. It causes us to choose the easy way out of problems rather than the hard way of self-improvement and change. When faced with a choice between causing huge problems in our own lives and the lives of those around us on the one hand, and taking a hard look at our own sin on the other, most people, even believers, unless forced by external restraint, are going to choose the first. Our sin is just that self-deceptive, and just that painful to look at. It’s like a cancer in the brain, one of whose side-effects is to make itself invisible.
The fact that throughout history states have regulated marriage should be sufficient to prove to us that marriage affects a whole lot of people besides just the two in the marriage. That’s why restrictions of various types have always been in place to keep people from divorcing easily, except in ways of which the state approves. These restrictions often worked in favor of the man, making it easy for him to divorce but hard for the wife to leave. Now this isn’t fair, but “fair” has not been the major concern of most governments that have ever existed. The concern rather was stability. Men and women are both sinners, but the nature of the curse works itself out differently in the two. The natural tendency of the woman is to undermine and attack the authority that is over her, and the natural tendency of the man is to respond to this with force and brutality. The stability of society has always favored the brutality of the man over the undermining of the woman, and this is not by accident. It did not create just societies, but it did a fair job of creating stable ones.
I’m not saying any of this because I’m in favor of that solution to the problem. But the nature of the problem has to be squarely faced if the problem is going to be solved. The power of the gospel is much superior to the power of brute force. But we still have to be honest about the nature of the problem.
This gets me to the issue of abuse. In Justin Holcomb’s article that I mentioned previously, he claims that the great majority of perpetrators of abuse are men, and the great majority of victims are women. This is the way the problem is usually presented today, that abuse is what men do to women. But Holcomb’s statement has a couple of problems. First, while he says the majority of perpetrators are men, he doesn’t really have any way of knowing this. All he can know is about reported abuse. Men are also reluctant, for lots of reasons, to report abuse. Further, much of what he defines as abuse is never going to hit the crime statistics. Here, he commits an equivocation between abuse defined as physical violence and abuse defined more broadly. Verbal abuse, which he makes very clear needs to be included, is very rarely a crime. Certainly, anecdotal experience tells me that women abuse men verbally quite commonly, and evidence from the Scriptures support this as well. Proverbs 14:1, 21:9, 21:19, 25:14 and 27:15 all talk about a contentious, angry, brawling woman, and how difficult it is to live with such a one. So if the Bible talks about someone like this, then it’s a reality we have to deal with.
For all these reasons, when accusations come as a result of marital conflict, the wise church leader needs to proceed with caution. The temptation is to scapegoat, to tell an easy story where all the blame lands on one evil person who then gets sent out of the camp and the problem is solved. Add to this the natural influence that women have been given by God over men, the natural impulse that good men have to protect the weak and vulnerable, and the natural competition that men experience for the affection and attention of women, and the temptation to listen to and believe false accusations is huge. We know that false accusations happen. There have been plenty of high-profile examples in the news. There is also the story of Potiphar’s wife in the Bible. Even if most accusations are true, justice requires that we investigate, for this is what the Bible always requires (Exodus 23:1-3; Deuteronomy 19:16-21 for example), and even a small number of false accusations is no good justification for trampling on the innocence of those victims of false allegations. The great weight that the Bible puts on investigating for false claims and of severe punishment for perjury tells us that these things happen, and women are no exception to the rule. Deuteronomy 19:21 specifically warns us against pity in the case of false accusations!
The Bible puts as much weight on destroying a man’s reputation as it does physically assaulting him. The ninth commandment is not a lesser commandment than the sixth.
A Christian society rightly detests the abuse of women, and a false accusation thus carries tremendous power. The idea that a woman would be reluctant to use this tremendous power against a man she was furious at runs contrary to our understanding of original sin, of the nature of the curse on male-female relationships, and contrary to what the Bible itself says about sinful women. People get so angry at each other in marriage sometimes that they will kill each other. Why do we think they would be hesitant to make false accusations?
Therefore, all allegations of domestic abuse need to be taken very seriously, and that means carefully investigated. Reflexively believing every accusation that one side makes against another is not taking the allegations seriously. Allegations need to be evaluated by wise men in the church, hearing both sides. Criminal matters should be investigated by the police, and their findings should be given serious weight. But police make mistakes too. The responsibility is on the church to do their best prayerfully to determine the truth.
Our society has been in full-on attack against traditional families for decades now. A statist government attacks everything that is a competing center of power and security, and that includes families. Government statistics therefore need to be viewed with extreme caution. Social science statistics are notoriously unreliable and studies strongly reflect the political biases of the scientist, 90+% of whom are leftist. Further, even Christian advocacy groups that agitate for a particular cause need to be likewise viewed with great caution, since their bread and butter is all on the side of amplifying the nature of whatever problem they seek to address. The Bible has plenty of wisdom to address these things, and the Bible teaches us to be wise to the ways that people sin, to carefully evaluate our own motives, and to thoroughly investigate accusations against others before we believe them.
And, believers sin against each other. Believers commit abuse. Believers commit violence against people. Believers commit every kind of sin, as the Bible amply testifies to us. And believers repent. Because of the power of the gospel, which is tremendous, greater than any force on earth, marriages of believers are almost always salvageable.
Even an actual example of abuse need not end a marriage. The consequences of ending a marriage are tremendous and long-lasting. It hurts everyone involved. It causes trauma for generations. This is why the Bible is so adamantly against easy divorce. No responsible church leader will ever quickly recommend divorce. He will hear the situation out. He will recommend counseling. He will see whether even physical abuse was a one-time thing which was repented of or whether there is a pattern over time.
Physical abuse is certainly grounds for divorce, as Paul permits divorce for abandonment, and the church has long interpreted this more broadly than simply being physically gone, but also when the spouse has de facto abandoned the marriage. A refusal to provide for his family or severe substance abuse would also qualify. Also qualifying would be if the man was in prison for a stretch, since by his actions the man has abandoned his family. Physical abuse of any severity should be reported to the police, and that will usually result in a de facto abandonment, via prison or a restraining order.
But the Bible only provides for divorce via abandonment when the spouse is an unbeliever. The church should therefore be involved, to certify that the man’s abandonment is of the nature of unrepentant sin. Extreme care should be taken not to twist this provision into a catch-all that is used to justify any divorce.
But what any spouse should recognize is that even if that spouse has grounds for divorce, that divorce is still going to be incredibly painful, for them and everyone around them. That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong. The Bible provides grounds for a divorce for a reason. But people should count the cost, and the church should help them do this. If someone is considering divorce, the church’s goal should always be to slow them down, so they do not act in the heat of the moment. Wise church leaders will help people count the cost, to really think through the matter Biblically and carefully. A separation might be a very good idea in some cases, to give people a chance to cool down and think it through, and the Bible provides for this as well (1 Corinthians 7:5, 10-11). But divorce is a terrible thing, and the weight of the church’s efforts should all be on reducing it as much as possible.