Divorce in the Case of Abuse

Andy Webb wrote a really excellent article on divorce, and things people need to realize about divorce before plunging into it.

But there was something right at the end which disturbed me, and which I’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and that was a disclaimer that this is not the advice he would give in the case of an abusive situation.

What disturbs me about this is that a lot of people, in sympathy with the terrible problem of domestic abuse, treat abuse as if it is a whole different situation, to be dealt with by completely different rules, than any other situation, and there is no Biblical evidence that this is so.  In fact, the definition of abuse in the linked article is so broad that practically any sinful behavior of one person toward another can be defined as abuse, thus justifying divorce.

My issue with the way that this problem often gets discussed these days is that the term “abuse” gets used to cover a wide variety of types and severities of sins, which wouldn’t be such an issue except that all who are guilty of such sins are labeled “abusers” which then get treated as unique kinds of monsters to which the normal rules don’t apply.  I’ve written about Jeff Crippen and his website “Crying Out for Justice” as a particularly egregious example of this tendency before here and here, and the articles by Justin Holcomb which Andy Webb links to make a lot of the same tendencies- labeling a wide variety of behavior as abuse, and then treating those guilty of these sins as if they all shared particular characteristics.  Crippen’s solution to the problem is to always believe the woman when she claims to be a victim, not to listen to the accused at all, to treat him as incapable of change, and to throw him out of the church with no due process.  Holcomb’s articles quote Lundy Bancroft several times, one of Crippen’s major influences as well.

Here is Holcomb’s definition of abuse:

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner.

Now the behavior which Holcomb describes is abusive, certainly.  But the problem is, according to this, as soon as someone uses hurtful words or silence to try to control someone else’s behavior, they are an abuser, and all these other statements about abuse come into play.  But this description is incredibly broad and vague.  How many marriages are there where the spouses haven’t used hurtful words toward each other?  And why do people do that?  Because they want their spouse to behave differently than they are.  But this is Holcomb’s definition of domestic abuse.  It’s so broad as to be useless.

Holcomb in this article describe what abusers do and why, and he treats them almost like another species of human being.  The definition of what abuse is is so broad as to encompass practically any sinful behavior that someone engages in toward another.  But once someone gets labeled as an abuser, they have been so dehumanized by this kind of language as to be utterly unworthy of fair treatment.  They have been described as so intentionally deceptive and manipulative that they will never even be heard.   Sure, Holcomb says it’s a “pattern” that defines abuse, but again, this is a vague description.  People tend to sin in similar ways.  How many incidents before we have a pattern?

I have counseled many marriages, some in absolutely disastrous states, and some that were pretty healthy overall but just needing some help in one or two areas.  Every single marriage I have ever counseled involved sinful behavior on the part of both parties toward the other, and every single situation involved behavior that could fall under abuse.  Who hasn’t used hurtful words towards others to try to get them to do what they want?  If every marriage where abusive behavior was at times present should end in divorce, no marriage would survive.

The category of financial control is another example of an overly broad describer.  If a husband controls his wife’s access to money, then he is engaged in financial abuse, according to Holcomb and Crippen.  Again, this may be the case, but you’d need to know a lot more detail.  Maybe they’re struggling financially?  Maybe the wife has problems overspending and the husband is trying to be a good steward?  Yet with these simplistic descriptions a whole range of behavior, some justifiable, some marginal, some abusive, is all dumped into this bucket of “abuse” and all treated the same way, and invariably the wife is urged to leave.

In Holcomb’s articles, I did not see the same level of bad advice that I have in Crippen’s.  I have not seen Holcomb say that accusations should not be investigated, that the accuser should always be believed, or that the accused should be excommunicated without any recourse.  But there is still the broad overgeneralization, where a very wide variety of behavior, that pretty much everyone is guilty of at some time or another, is described as domestic abuse, and all domestic abusers are described in overbroad generalizations, with the net effect that pretty much any sinful behavior can be described as domestic abuse and the abuser can then be treated any way one likes.  It’s classic scapegoating behavior.  There is sound Biblical wisdom to follow, and the current fad about domestic abuse I fear is encouraging a lot of reckless, unbiblical scapegoating.  Anyone who is unhappy in their marriage can find plenty of material in Holcomb’s article, or from Jeff Crippen’s books or websites, to make their spouses out to be abusers, and leave in haste without proper Biblical process or reasonings, and anyone who encourages them to slow down and seek out advice will be treated as an “abuse enabler and apologist.”

The last thing we need to be doing is encouraging more divorce.  These are real people’s lives.  Divorce is shattering to the people getting divorced, to the children, to society at large.  It causes multigenerational dysfuntion.  Yes, it’s sometimes necessary.  But encouraging people to get divorced with these vague, overbroad descriptions is reckless, foolish, and unbiblical.  We need to take domestic abuse seriously, and that means being much more careful in what we’re willing to describe as domestic abuse, and sweeping language we use about people.  Everyone sins against other people, and sinful behavior towards others is always abusive.  The remedy provided by the Scriptures for abusive behavior is the cross of Christ, and forgiveness and repentance.  Abusers are not in some different category than the rest of us.

If someone is abusing their spouse in a way that is a civil offense, such as violence, the cops should be called.  Physical violence is grounds for divorce.  Other kinds of abuse should be matters of church discipline, and if a person will not submit to the discipline of the church, then that too becomes grounds for divorce.  This should be the way these things are handled- in the courts of the church, by mature believers, very carefully, and not with sweeping generalizations.  This is why it is so important and so valuable to be part of churches that have robust systems of church government with accountability and oversight.

Andy Webb’s article is nonetheless highly recommended.


4 thoughts on “Divorce in the Case of Abuse

  1. This teaching by Matthew Powell is dangerous. To see why, read this post by Ps Jeff Crippen:

  2. Matt Powell says:

    “I believe the reason Matt Powell is critical of ACFJ is because you have helped open the eyes either of his wife or the wife (wives) of his friend(s) or relative(s). I do not know him/have special knowledge of the situation. It just stands to reason.

    No offense to ACFJ, but as much as I would like you to be universally well known, I think your audience is fairly limited to victims and their friends/loved ones who found you via Internet search (or subsequent word of mouth), i. e. Those looking for real help/answers from Christians who actually understand abuse – people you are helping immensely/validating/liberating. Conversely, your critics are abusers themselves or their allies whose victims found you. The fact that he is vehemently criticizing you tells me you have helped open the eyes of someone he knows and he is trying to keep a lid on it/trying to obstruct Christian victims from finding the freedom/validation you offer. i.e. He is actively trying to keep victims/targets in the fog.

    If he didn’t know someone benefiting from your site, why would he know you at all?”

    Barbara Roberts replies: “Yes, Sister. I think your speculation is very likely correct.”

    This one is particularly rich, Barbara, a comment I see you approve of. Would you like to be in touch with my wife, my mother, or any number of women from my congregation, to see whether your baseless accusations are correct or not?

    Do you know what the penalty for slander in the Scriptures are? Are you familiar with the 9th commandment? Why do you think I or anyone should entertain anything you have to say, when this is the sort of thing you speculate about, about anyone who disagrees with you? You just speculated that the reason I disagree with you is that I am an abuser or an abuse enabler, an accusation that was made several times on that thread. I’m going to leave your comments here so that people can see what your teaching actually produces.

    Do women falsely accuse of abuse? You just did, as did your commentariat, and I haven’t even met them. So good job refuting your own thesis.

    The fact that you accuse anyone who disagrees with you of being an abuser or of being the friend of an abuser indicates pretty well the spirit of your outfit.

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