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Marital Abuse

Marital abuse comes home when it happens to someone we care about. Imagine if the following were your daughter:

A Woman In Pain: She doesn’t know where to turn and blames herself for ending up in an abusive marriage.

You know your daughter isn’t perfect. But what you haven’t seen is how often she’s cried, and how hard she’s tried to make her marriage work. For the last 12 years she has prayed that God would give her the patience and grace to stay with the man she promised to love for the rest of her life.

Sometimes, however, she wishes she had never been born. Her husband tells her he doesn’t love her and says he’s sorry he married her. He calls her names, deprives her of affection, and yet, whenever he’s in the mood, expects her to meet his sexual demands. When she talks about getting help, he threatens to tell her friends that she’s mentally ill or that she’s having an affair. She doesn’t doubt that he would lie to protect himself. He leaves bruises and deep wounds others cannot see.

When your daughter has confided in church leaders, they have advised her to be more submissive and not to criticize him or provoke his anger. They usually ask if he has been sexually unfaithful, but she doesn’t think he has. Some have asked if she thinks he’s really a “believer.” She tells them, “He says he is.” When she asked one elder why those questions were important, he told her that without sexual unfaithfulness or the abandonment by an unbelieving spouse, she doesn’t have biblical grounds to leave her husband. The same church leaders have told her that separation was not an option because it was often the first step to a divorce.

This description of the private world many women are enduring is excerpted from a new Discovery Series publication, God’s Protection Of Women. The 32-page booklet addresses one of the most difficult problems facing families and churches today. 

Tough Questions: The subject of marital cruelty opens a Pandora’s box of questions. If we allow separation, and open the door to divorce, how many marriages will be lost? How can we know that a woman is not merely looking for an excuse out of an unhappy marriage? On the other hand, does a “no-divorce-for-abuse policy” honor the purpose of marriage?

Often-Overlooked Answers: Just as Genesis reveals God’s original intent for marriage, Exodus and Deuteronomy show principles of marital justice in a fallen world.

Moses did more than describe God’s sacred purpose for marriage. He also wrote laws granting protective divorce to the most powerless and socially disadvantaged women in Israel. Even for daughters who were sold into slavery to satisfy a family’s financial debt (Exodus 21:7-11), and for foreign women captured as spoils of war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), Moses decided against the husband who did not honor the most basic terms of the marriage covenant.

In another law, Moses allowed a husband to divorce his wife with only one surprising stipulation: he could not marry her again if she was divorced or widowed from another man in the meantime (24:1-4). In a legal system severe enough to require the death penalty for those who committed adultery, Moses did not forbid divorce or remarriage.

These laws are like “the other side of the coin” to foundational values of home and family. While recognizing that marital permanence is God’s ideal, Moses also recognized that hard-hearted conditions can be worse than divorce. 

The question facing us is whether or not we should allow the wisdom of the Old Testament to inform the way we deal with severe marital abuse in the church today. 

Jesus and Paul both emphasized marital permanence. Neither spoke, as Moses did, about protective divorce for abuse.

So what are we to make of their silence? Do Jesus and Paul leave behind principles of marital justice? No. When Paul writes that all Scripture is inspired by God and full of wisdom for life (2 Timothy 3:16), his words remind us that the Old Testament was the first Bible of Jesus and the apostles. Even though “the law” was fulfilled in Jesus, and even though the form of the law passed away, timeless principles like mercy, justice, and concern for the downtrodden are affirmed throughout the New Testament (Matthew 23:23).

When we take Paul’s advice and consider the whole counsel of God, we find an interesting relationship between divorce and Sabbath law. At first glance, we might wonder if both are parts of the law that are no longer in force. On further consideration, however, it becomes evident that what is important about both is their timeless intent. Neither come into the church age as binding law. Both, however, move forward as timeless principles that reflect the care of God for His people.

Consider the following incident as an illustration of how important it is to understand not only the words of the Law but its heart and spirit.

According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus went into a synagogue on the Sabbath and healed a woman who had been bent over for 18 years. When the ruler of the synagogue saw what Jesus had done, he was angry because Jesus had violated the no-work policy of Sabbath law. Jesus, however, showed that it was the leader of the synagogue who misunderstood the heart and spirit of the law (Luke 13:10-16). In a similar incident, Jesus later asked, “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (14:5).

When someone we love is struggling with severe marital abuse, it is not difficult to see the connection between her situation and that of the woman bent over before Jesus on the Sabbath day. When someone we care about is in severe pain, we begin to see the importance of a Christlike response that takes into consideration the timeless intent of God’s laws.

And so we pray, Father in heaven, please give us the wisdom and mercy of Your Son. Please help us to honor Your purpose of marital permanence, while being able to show Your care and wisdom to those who need help

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