GCC Elder’s Statement on Physical and Emotional Abuse in Relation to Divorce and Remarriage

I.      A Biblical Perspective on Harmful Behavior

The Bible speaks often of protecting and guarding the afflicted and the needy from those who abuse and harm them.  The Scriptures also speak of the injustice of refusing to stand up for the rights of the oppressed.  God’s judgment comes upon nations and individuals who ignore those rights.  These fundamental principles are found in both the Old and New Testament.

A.    Old Testament principles of care for the afflicted

Specifically, the word means to force submission and to punish or inflict pain upon (TWOT) In general, the word Hebrew “afflicted” refers to one who has been exploited and wrongfully impoverished (NIDOTTE).  The word can include mental and emotional anguish such as Sarah brought upon Hagar (Genesis 16:6) or intense economic deprivation and physical abuse such as that which the Egyptians brought upon the Israelites (Exodus 1:11-12).  Thus, the word has a broad range and identifies the victim of some pain, injury, or harm, either physically or mentally, often associated with recurring treatment or events (Logos)

1.      God hears and does not forget the cries of the afflicted

Ps 9:12 For He who requires blood remembers them; He does not forget the cry of the afflicted.

2.      God’s care and provision provide hope for the afflicted

Ps 9:18 For the needy will not always be forgotten, Nor the hope of the afflicted perish forever.

3.      The Lord rescues the afflicted and brings them to safety

Ps 12:5 “Because of the devastation of the afflicted, because of the groaning of the needy, Now I will arise,” says the Lord; “I will set him in the safety for which he longs.”

Ps 18:27 For You save an afflicted people, But haughty eyes You abase.

Ps 35:10 All my bones will say, “Lord, who is like You, Who delivers the afflicted from him who is too strong for him, And the afflicted and the needy from him who robs him?”

Ps 72:12 For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help, The afflicted also, and him who has no helper.

Ps 149:4 For the Lord takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation.

4.       The Lord has compassion on the afflicted

Is 49:13 Shout for joy, O heavens! And rejoice, O earth! Break forth into joyful shouting, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted His people And will have compassion on His afflicted.

5.      The afflicted can and should cry to the Lord for his salvation and rescue

Ps 40:17 Since I am afflicted and needy, Let the Lord be mindful of me. You are my help and my deliverer; Do not delay, O my God.

Ps 69:29 But I am afflicted and in pain; May Your salvation, O God, set me securely on high.

Ps 70:5 But I am afflicted and needy; Hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay.

6.      God will bring justice for the afflicted

Ps 72:2 May he judge Your people with righteousness And Your afflicted with justice.

Ps 72:4 May he vindicate the afflicted of the people, Save the children of the needy And crush the oppressor.

Ps 82:3 Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.

Ps 140:12 I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted And justice for the poor.

7.      The Lord brings judgment on those who harm the afflicted

Pr 31:9 Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.

Is 11:4 But with righteousness He will judge the poor, And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.

8.      The Lord commands his people to care for the afflicted

Is 58:6–10 “Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? “Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, And if you give yourself to the hungry And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness And your gloom will become like midday.

B.     New Testament Principles of care for the afflicted and needy

While much of this biblical discussion takes place in the Old Testament concerning the laws and actions of the nation of Israel, it is clear that God cares deeply for the needy, afflicted, and oppressed. God’s concern in this regard certainly flows into the principles of behavior for those in the New Testament church.  God’s people have a responsibility to care for fellow believers with love, comfort, justice, and protection.  We have the fullness of the Scriptures and the indwelling Spirit of God to give us wisdom, grace, strength, and empathy.

1.      Jesus had compassion on the weary and afflicted

Mt 9:36 Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.

2.      Jesus made provision for the physically afflicted and needy

Mt 4:24 The news about Him spread throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them.

3.      We are to love and care for the afflicted and needy in the church

Jas 1:27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Mt 25:34–40 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

4.      We are to do good to our brothers and sisters in Christ

Ga 6:9–10 Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.

5.      We are not to afflict one another with anger, malice, bitterness, disputes, or strife; but to be kind and forgiving

Eph 4:31–32 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Ga 5:19–21 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

II.   Biblical Commands to Shepherd the Flock

A.    Shepherds are to Protect the Flock from Harm and Affliction

Whether it is a child harmed by a parent, a spouse harmed by their partner, or a church member harmed by another person (believer or unbeliever), the biblical commands for love, justice, compassion, protection, and deliverance for the afflicted most certainly apply.  This is not an issue that the church can overlook and expect to be blessed and strengthened by Christ.  To overlook affliction is to hate our brother and thus to demonstrate lack of love for God.

1 Jn 4:20 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.

A true shepherd will not abandon the sheep to those who might do them harm.

Jn 10:12–13 “He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. “He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep.

While it is true that God uses certain kinds of affliction to strengthen and mature his children, it is equally true that this affliction must never come from believers harming other believers or allowing them to be oppressed when it is in their power or responsibility to bring protection and provision. God Himself will hold the shepherds of the church accountable if they ignore the wolves who come among them.

Je 23:1–2 “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: “You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds,” declares the Lord.

B.     Abuse Constitutes a Unique Harm Against the Flock

The difficulty in the discussion of abuse is that the term “abuse” is not commonly used in English translations of Scripture and concepts such as affliction, oppression, and harm do not carry the same general connotation that the word “abuse” has taken on in our culture. Essentially, the term abuse is used of behavior so harmful that special (and often immediate) action must be taken to protect the one being abused. This is especially true in the case of marriage. When spouses’ sin against one another or their children, they are to be confronted and dealt with through the processes described in Scripture. However, the term abuse carries a special connotation of the kind of harm that requires significant or immediate intervention to protect the one being abused from inordinate danger.

Pr 24:11–12 Deliver those who are being taken away to death, And those who are staggering to slaughter, Oh hold them back. If you say, “See, we did not know this,” Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?

Thus, while the term abuse is not “biblical” it seems clear that there is a level of harm, oppression, or affliction, that requires the direct intervention of the shepherds of the church to protect members of their flock from a uniquely dangerous situation. It is this level of harm to which the elders of GCC are assigning the term abuse, as this is the word most commonly used in society for the inordinate kind of harm being guarded against.

One of the primary reasons for taking such great care in defining abuse is that many of the behaviors that society labels abuse would not fit a biblically informed definition.

C.    Abuse in Marriage Presents a Unique Difficulty

Dealing with abuse in marriage is made even more difficult by the fact that there is no direct discussion of what should happen in a marriage when a spouse or children are being endangered to an inordinate degree (abuse). The uniqueness of the Biblically defined marriage relationship requires the family to live together in the same household with no direct provision made for the dissolution of the family – except in the case of death, adultery, or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.

However, we are convinced that the Bible provides the necessary principles to protect the flock from abuse in God-honoring ways. For this reason, the elders of the church must use Biblical wisdom and discernment to determine the level of harm in a relationship that requires direct intervention, possible separation, and even dissolution of the relationship. They must have plans in place to bring justice, protection, comfort, and provision in all ways that are biblically prescribed.

1 Pe 5:2–3 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.

This is not to say that the primary work of the church is to eliminate suffering and affliction in the world, or that what now constitutes the demands of the social justice, “woke,” or “me too,” culture must be accommodated. However, for the church to ignore affliction and foster a climate of abuse is an absolute travesty. The principles of Scripture, properly understood and followed, will enable Grace Community Church to create a proper atmosphere of justice, compassion, transparency, and truthfulness, while quickly and discerningly dealing with the harm and abuse of its members.

2 Ti 3:16–17 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

D.    Acknowledging the Harm of Abuse and the Sanctity of Marriage

The following definitions and resulting actions are an attempt by the elders of Grace Community Church to clarify the nature of physical and emotional abuse with particular attention to issues in marriage. 

As a general rule, it is the elder’s stance, that when physical or emotional interaction in a marriage reaches the level defined as abusive, it is grounds for marital separation, church discipline and, if ongoing, divorce. In clear cases of abuse, separation and church discipline may be immediately enacted. The biblical case for this is presented in detail at the end of this distinctive.

Where the issues are less clear, intentional, ongoing counseling will be required to determine if abuse is involved. In nearly every case, however, it is important to have a significant amount of time in which the situation is monitored and solutions brought to bear before divorce will be discussed or approved.

The elders take seriously their mandate to protect and preserve the sanctity of marriage as a fundamental building block of society and the church even as they bring protection and provision to individual members of the church. 

The general rule of marriage, “what God has joined together, let no man separate (Matthew 19:6b)” applies in all situations unless or until it has been determined that sinful behavior on the part of one or both spouses allows for the biblical dissolution of a marriage in divorce.

III. General Definitions of Abuse

A.    General definition

Abuse is defined as sinful, selfish, dominating, controlling behavior against another person which is intentional, habitual, and harmful to the point of creating an inordinately dangerous situation from which the individual must be protected or removed.[1] While abuse is not necessarily defined by its results, in every case of abuse there is significant, measurable harm caused to the individual being abused.

B.     Distinction between harmful and abusive

In this document, there is a differentiation made between harmful and abusive behavior. It is our understanding that a physical or verbal/emotional behavior may bring a certain level of harm without being categorized as abusive. This is particularly true of verbal/emotional behavior.

In some cases, harmful behavior, when conducted in an ongoing, intentional way, can rise to the level of abuse.

A behavior classified as harmful is not necessarily grounds for marital separation or divorce. Behaviors classified as abusive may be grounds for separation and possibly divorce.

C.    Distinction between difficult and dangerous

Additionally, this document makes a distinction between a difficult home environment and a dangerous one. A home in which some level of harmful behavior is taking place is considered to be difficult. This situation may require ongoing counseling for a couple but is not grounds for the removal of the spouse or children from the home. For example, if a wife yells at her husband, lies to him, and tries to get him to admit wrongdoing when he is innocent, this is certainly harmful, but would not necessarily be considered abusive.

A home in which abusive behavior is taking place is considered to be dangerous and may result in counsel for the spouse and children to be removed from the home until it is determined that the dangerous situation no longer exists. For example, if a husband were to physically harm his wife, the elders might counsel immediate separation while they work through the details of the situation.

D.    Use of psychological terms

Psychological terms such as narcissism, gaslighting, etc. may be helpful in identifying abusive behavior in some cases. However, an ongoing diagnosis of the situation must use biblical terms for sin so that the behavior can be properly identified and dealt with. We desire to avoid attaching psychological labels to individuals which then mandate some particular response in every case.

IV.            Specific Definitions of Harm and Abuse

A.    Physical Harm and Abuse

The elders recognize that each particular situation carries its own nuance, intensity, complexity, frequency, tone, progression, etc.. To appreciate these multiple factors, it is helpful, and even necessary, to systematize and standardize behavior to some degree in order to have a quantifiable means of measuring these myriad variables. Rather than just coldly codifying behavior, the lists below are meant to serve as a helpful guide for the leadership on the proper responses and courses of action.

1.      Physical Harm – not automatically labeled as physical abuse

a)      Physical Intimidation

(1)   Definition
(a)    To purposely use one’s physical presence or the environment to produce fear or force submission – this includes physical forms of sexual coercion.
(2)   Behavior
(a)    To approach menacingly
(b)   To do damage to objects in the vicinity of the person
(c)    To raise a hand or object as if to strike
(d)   To stand close to, or over, with intent to dominate
(e)    To throw objects toward the person “without intent” to hit
(f)     To refuse to stop a sexual encounter if lack of desire is communicated (sexual coercion)
(3)   Levels

The level of a certain kind of harmful behavior can be very difficult to determine. Again, the purpose of assigning levels is to provide some kind of guide for church intervention.

(a)    Level 1 – One-time intimidation
(b)   Level 2 – Occasional intimidation
  • May be considered abuse based on level of violence involved in the intimidation.
(c)    Level 3 – Consistent intimidation
  • Nearly always considered abusive.

b)     Physical roughness

(1)   Definition
(a)    To purposely and physically touch another in a rough or potentially harmful way – this includes unwanted physicality in sexual engagement.
(2)   Behavior
(a)    Put hand on the body in a threatening way
(b)   Try to take something from the person (phone, car keys, etc.).
(c)    Restrain the person from leaving in a rough manner.
(d)   Push, trip, or shove a person (but not into something or onto the ground in a way which causes further harm).
(e)    To engage in rough sexual behavior that is not desired or to use greater strength to continue in sexual behavior that is not desired.
(3)   Levels
(a)    Level 1 – One- time roughness
(b)   Level 2 – Occasional roughness
  • May be considered abusive based on the severity and frequency of the behavior.
(c)    Level 3 – consistent roughness
  • Almost always considered abuse at this point.

2.      Physical abuse

a)      Definition

(1)   Actions that bring definitive harm to the body (bruise, injury, broken bone, other measurable physical result) including but not limited to beatings, sexual assault, sleep deprivation, starvation, and confinement.[2]

b)     Levels

Not all levels of physical abuse are the same and some are much more dangerous than others. However, all forms are considered potentially dangerous.

(1)   Level 1
(a)    Slap – open hand
(b)   Violently shake
(c)    Shove – to the ground or into something
(2)   Level 2
(a)    Hit with an object
(b)   Punch
(c)    Tackle
(d)   Drag
(3)   Level 3
(a)    Sexual assault
  • To force sexual behavior when it is being actively resisted
(b)   Starvation
(c)    Confinement

c)      Classification

(1)   Any level of physical abuse is immediately classified as dangerous.
(2)   No level of physical abuse is tolerated within Christian marriage and church discipline is to be started for any level of physical abuse.

3.      Church leadership response to intimidation, roughness and physical abuse

a)      Warning and possible counseling for level 1 and 2 intimidation issues.

b)     Warning and required counseling for any occurrence of physical roughness.

c)      Warning, counseling, possible separation for level 1-2 physical abuse and level 3 intimidation and roughness.

(1)   Possible report to authorities.
(2)   Possible period of separation based on the nature of the offense, the level of frequency, and level of danger discerned.

d)     Immediate separation considered for any level 2 or 3 physical abuse offense – often long-term.

(1)   Immediate consideration of separation.
(2)   Authorities immediately contacted.

B.     Verbal/Emotional Harm and Abuse

1.      Verbal Harm

a)      Definition: The use of speech to purposefully bring harm to another by sinfully degrading or dehumanizing them in any form.[3]

2.      Verbal manifestations

a)      Level 1

(1)   Silent treatment
(2)   Making fun of, put downs, belittling
(3)   Harmful sarcasm
(4)   Swearing
(5)   Constant criticism
(6)   Lying
(7)   Crying/pouting
(8)   Denial of the obvious
(9)   Attempts to cause questioning of one’s sanity
(10)           Constant blame, reversal of blame
(11)           Constant questioning, accusing
(12)           Demanding immediate responses or particular responses
(13)           Refusing to let the conversation lapse or drop
(14)           Forced verbal agreement
(15)           Forced acquiescence to wrongdoing
(16)           Constant interruption, overtalk
(17)           Misuses/misinterpretations of Scripture

b)     Level 2

(1)   Screaming, yelling
(2)   Evil, vile name calling
(3)   Blackmail
(4)   Threats
(a)    Self-harm/suicide
(b)   Harm to the spouse
(c)    Harm the kids
(d)   Harm reputation

3.      Emotional Harm/Scheming[4]

a)      Definition – the intentional use of sinful manipulation and control behaviors that bring harm to a person’s mental, emotional, or physical state.

b)     Manifestations

(1)   Requiring constant knowledge of whereabouts
(2)   No privacy
(3)   No outside friendships, isolation from family
(4)   Withholding finances
(5)   Dictating a personal standard and demanding performance up to that standard
(6)   Limiting or denying exercise of personal freedoms
(7)   Limiting access to benefits
(8)   Demanding complete obedience
(9)   Demanding full disclosure of all behavior
(10)           Limiting access to the abusers resources, assets, personal items

4.      Clarification: Verbal/Emotional harm

a)      Some level of verbal/emotional harm occurs in nearly all marriages.

b)     Ongoing counseling and encouragement for the spouse are encouraged where there is verbal/emotional harm.

5.      Verbal/Emotional Abuse

a)      Definition

(1)   The verbal/emotional harm is intense, habitual, and coercive, for the purpose of dominating and controlling the spouse and/or children.
(2)   The verbal/emotional harm is intense, habitual, and coercive, causing damage that produces true danger to the welfare of the spouse and/or children.

6.      Manifestations

a)      The verbal/emotional harm causes a destructive sense of fear, obligation, shame, or guilt.[5]

b)     The verbal/emotional harm overwhelms the ability to carry on basic life functions (eating, sleeping, etc.).

c)      The verbal/emotional harm causes ongoing anguish and despair.

d)     The verbal/emotional harm causes physical deterioration.

7.      Clarification

a)      The line between verbal/emotional harm and verbal/emotional abuse is much more difficult to determine than physical abuse.

b)     It may take many counseling interactions to determine what level of harm is actually taking place.

c)      Emotional abuse is real and can be even more dangerous and have longer ongoing consequences than physical abuse.

d)     Verbal/Emotional abuse does not force an abuser to respond in a certain manner.

Every case of verbal/emotional abuse is different and has unique manifestations. Additionally, there is a level of responsibility that must be maintained by the one being abused. The abuser cannot force the abused to respond in a certain way either mentally or emotionally. This understanding allows the victim to retain the proper freedom of conscience before God. However, it must be acknowledged that even the strongest of believers is often overwhelmed by the constant verbal/emotional attacks of an abuser and may manifest symptoms that are not directly within their control such as: inordinate fear, panic attacks, sleeplessness, upset stomach, post-tramautic stress, and others.  Additionally, even when anguish and despair are properly acknowledged through lament to God, Biblical shepherding may require a removal of the victim from the situation to grant them rest and relief.

8.      Verbal/Emotional abuse classifies the marriage as dangerous

a)      When the stipulations for verbal/emotional abuse are met the marriage is classified as dangerous.

b)     Church discipline is then enacted on the basis of the danger ongoing pattern of sin inherent in emotional abuse.

9.      Difficult vs. Dangerous marriage

a)      Marriage in which there is emotional harm, but not physical or emotional abuse, are classified as difficult but not dangerous. That is, the verbal/emotional harm does not rise to the level of abuse and can be dealt with through a strong spiritual walk and the spiritual strengthening that the church helps provide.

b)     This is often a wisdom/discernment decision on the part of the elders/counselors involved in the situation and may not be agreed upon by the person being counseled.

c)      This classification often involves the willingness of the person being harmed to take hold of spiritual resources they possess and the help that the church can offer. When this is refused, the person grows weak and may feel like they are being abused, when the situation does not warrant that classification.

d)     Additionally, the one being harmed must be encouraged and strengthened to think Biblically. Otherwise they are unable to properly assess the nature of their situation. This often happens when they have been exposed to secular counseling and advice concerning the nature of abuse.

10.  Church Leadership Responses to Verbal/Emotional Harm or Abuse Within Marriage – Short-Term

a)      Warning and required counseling for any demonstrated pattern of verbal/emotional harm.

b)     Warning, required counseling, and possible separation for any verbal/emotional harm which is determined to rise to the level of verbal/emotional abuse.

V.   Elder Responses to Abuse Within Marriage – Long-Term

A.    Physical and Verbal/Emotional abuse – Dangerous marriage

1.      The elders will pursue church discipline for physical abuse and/or verbal/emotional abuse.

a)      If the abuser does not repent, they are put out of the church through the levels of church discipline.

b)     If the abuser does repent, then careful monitoring is put in place to determine if/when the couple can be safely put back together.

c)      If the abuser repents and is not put out of the church, the spouse does not have Biblical grounds of pursuing divorce.

2.      If an abuser does not repent and is put out of the church they are treated as an unbeliever.

The nature of the final step of church discipline is that the church has corporately declared that the disciplined person is acting like an unbeliever and therefore they are treated as such.

If a person has been declared to be an unbeliever, then Paul’s allowance for a believer to be divorced from an unbeliever who abandon’s the marriage comes into effect. This counsel if found in 1 Corinthians 7.

1 Co 7:12–17 But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches.

a)      If an abusing spouse is considered to be an unbeliever and they want a divorce, then the innocent spouse is commanded to “let them go.”

b)     If an abusing spouse is considered to be an unbeliever and yet does not want to leave the marriage, then the innocent spouse may pursue divorce on the grounds of 1 Corinthians 7:12-17.

(1)   The spouse is an unbeliever.
(2)   The spouse is not “consenting” to live in the marriage.

The elders believe that “consent” is more than just a desire on the part of the unbeliever to physically remain in the marriage.

(a)    Consent seems, at least, to be an agreement to abide by the marriage covenant as fundamentally described in Scripture. Even unbelievers are capable of basic acts of commitment, communication, concern, and change of behavior.
  • Basic care and concern
  • Basic communication and provision
  • Basic changes in harmful behavior
(b)   Consent must be more than just wanting the benefits of marriage without the commitments.

c)      Additional reasons for considering abuse to be a violation of the “consent to be married.”

(1)   The marriage couple is called in this passage to “peace” which is fundamentally breached when one spouse is unbelieving and practically breached when the unbelieving spouse refuses to make a sincere attempt to live out the covenant of marriage.
(2)   The elders believe that “Letting the unbeliever leave” can include initiating divorce when the unbelieving spouse is not truly “consenting” to the marriage yet refuses to leave because of the benefits of having a spouse (no child support, physical intimacy, care and provision). In this case the unbelieving spouse would be seen as already having left the marriage in any true sense by refusing to live consent to its responsibilities and requirements.
(3)   Additionally, a reason to allow for divorce in the case of an unbeliever who is being abusive in the marriage yet refuses to leave, is that the sanctification God provides may not be in effect.
(a)   The primary reason for having the unbeliever stay is that they might come to a saving knowledge of Christ and that God can provide “sanctification” through the believing spouse which allows the children to be “holy. While, admittedly, this is a very difficult passage, the “sanctification” and “holiness” described seem to be, at least in part, based on the “consent” of the unbeliever in not violating the marriage covenant in substantial ways.  If the unbeliever is violating the marriage covenant, then there is question as to whether the “sanctification” that God provides is still in effect and thus the children will be harmed in ways that violate God’s design for marriage.
(4)   Another reason for allowing divorce in the situation of a dangerous marriage is that the purpose of seeing the unbeliever saved through the marriage is broken when the unbeliever is breaking the marriage covenant.
(5)   Finally, Paul states that “God has called us to peace” and uses this as a reason for allowing an unbeliever to leave a marriage. This seems to indicate that the unbeliever was unable to mask hatred and anger over the spiritual state of the believing spouse, thus causing a lack of peace which warrants their leaving. In the case of unrepentant and unchanging physical abuse, there is certainly not “peace” and there seems to be warrant for the believer to “let the unbeliever go” for that reason.

d)     The elders believe that remarriage is allowed when divorce is pursued on the grounds described above.

(1)   The passage states that a spouse who has “let the unbeliever leave” is not under bondage in such cases. We would take this to mean, at least, that there is nothing hindering the abandoned party from remarrying in the future.

B.     Verbal/Emotional harm – difficult marriage

1.      Church discipline enacted for ongoing, habitual manifestations of verbal/emotional harm.

a)      Even if the level of emotional harm is not considered abusive, the individual will be confronted by the leadership of the church to change their behavior. If they refuse to do so then church discipline is enacted and if there is no repentance then the spouse will be put out of the church and declared to be an unbeliever.

b)     This, in and of itself, however, would not allow for the spouse who is being harmed to pursue divorce. If the unbeliever consents to live in the marriage at a level deemed within the “marriage” covenant agreement – i.e. emotional harm, not abuse – then, according to 1 Corinthians 7, the believing spouse is required to continue in the marriage.

c)      This would be termed a difficult, but not dangerous marriage.

C.    Closing Thought

All of these case involve difficult decision which must be made in the power of the Holy Spirit, according to the Word of God, and after much careful discussion. It is the elders desire to honor the Lord in both protecting the flock and guarding the sanctity of marriage.


[1] ACBC’s definition of abuse forms the basis for this definition. However, we believe it is necessary to specify the uniquely dangerous nature of behavior that is to be called abuse so that the definition cannot be interpreted loosely to include behavior that is harmful but not abusive. The ACBC statement reads: Abuse is the pattern of sinful, selfish mistreatment of another made in God’s image, whereby moral agency, freedom of conscience informed by God’s Word, and God-given human dignity is violated by harmful acts (physical, sexual, verbal) or schemes to perpetuate oppression and unbiblical control (Exodus 3:9-10; Deuteronomy 26:6-8; Psalm 10; Isaiah 19:20; Isaiah 30:12-13; Isaiah 49:26; Matthew 20:25-28). Acts of abuse are vile practices arising from selfish ambition and bitter jealousy, born from sinful desires in the heart (James 3:16).


[2] Part of this definition is drawn to ACBC Statement on Abuse. The category of physical or sexual coercion was removed as we believe this would come under physical intimidation, not abuse.

[3] We believe that the ACBC definition of verbal abuse is too broad and fits our definition of verbal harm. We do not believe that a single, or occasional act of most of these behaviors can be considered abuse. The ACBC definition is as follows: Verbal abuse involves patterns of degrading and dehumanizing communication in all forms, including threats of violence to spouse or child, threats of continued abuse, threats of suicide and self-harm, lying, and manipulation. Spiritual manipulation may happen when misuses or misinterpretations of Scripture are enforced in order to be a stumbling block, oppress, or control another person.

[4] The ACBC statement on abuse uses the word “scheming” for forms of “abuse” that are not verbal or physical. The ACBC definition of scheming is as follows: Scheming includes intentional efforts and plotting by the abuser to inflict harm by threatening future abuse, continuing abusive behaviors, concealing past abuse, or hiding the scope of the abuse. Scheming against another can consist of limiting access to material assets, isolating from social relationships, and controlled monitoring of the individual. While scheming can take many forms, it is marked by evil intentions and using resources to inflict harm (Psalm 5:6; Psalm 7:14; Psalm 35:4; Psalm 40:14; Psalm 70:2; Psalm 71:10). Restricting material assets in order to perpetuate abuse may include, but is not limited to, intentionally cutting off access to finances, neglecting familial fiduciary responsibilities, limiting ability to communicate and travel, and blackmailing. This obviously does not include the biblical stewardship of resources like budgeting. Restricting relational support in order to perpetuate abuse may include, but is not limited to, isolating the abused from family, church, friends, and other social connections and deceiving outsiders for the purpose of concealment. This does not include the clear biblical principle of leaving and cleaving. Monitoring the abused in order to perpetuate abuse may include, but is not limited to, surveillance through cameras, cellphone activity, financial transactions, other technology, or co-conspirators.(3) This does not include the use of technology for safety or proper stewardship of such things as security cameras, cellphones, bank statements, etc.

[5] Darby Strickland, Is It Abuse: A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims (New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2020), 24.