Thursday, May 17, 2018

Domestic Abuse and Divorce - Evangelicals are Ignoring the Elephant in the Room

Ah yes, the issue of domestic violence and abuse is back in the news, and, as before, Evangelicals are having a terrible time making a morally and rationally coherent statement.

To those not following it, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and notable Southern Baptist, got caught (again) advising women to stay in abusive marriages. Hey, I mentioned him five years ago. This is nothing new, and is a feature of the Complementarian movement. As I have pointed out, the issue is control. If men have a right to expect obedience, then it follows that they have the right to use some means - either force or other abuse - to compel it.

In the wake of this, notable patriarchist Russell Moore (who, to his credit, as been one of the few voices in the SBC standing against Trump and White Supremacy), published a response in which he claimed that abuse was the same as “abandonment,” and thus a “biblical” reason for divorce.

I mention Moore here, because I’m afraid that what he is saying is pretty much bullshit. I will explain in a minute.

A much better response has come from Beth Moore (no relation to Russell), who was willing to say what should be obvious, which is that Patterson’s teaching is based on misogyny. And this point is connected to why Russell Moore is missing the real issue.

The best response I have read so far is from Morgan Guyton, in his post entitled No, The Bible Does Not Condemn Domestic Violence.

Guyton is absolutely correct. However, he doesn’t go quite far enough in my opinion. Any discussion of what the bible says about divorce is completely and utterly futile until we actually acknowledge the elephant in the room:

The bible was written during a time in history where it was assumed that men owned women and their bodies; and that this was the natural, proper state of society because women were congenitally vastly inferior to men.

This is where we must know our history in order to understand things. So, let’s get that part right first.


During most of human history, in most places, including in the West, women were the property - the chattel - of men. They could be bought, sold, given in marriage, pimped out, raped, and even murdered by their husbands (or fathers before that) with impunity.

This includes all of the times in which the books of the bible were written.

I have already written about the legal status of women in the Old Testament. But the 1st Century CE wasn’t much better. Aristotle’s view of women as malformed, defective men was the assumption of Roman society, and women were - as in the OT - the chattel of men.

I won’t expand on this too much more - go ahead and read my post above - or grab a history book.

One of the things that this meant in practice was this:

Women had NO right to a divorce.

Seriously. Find me one place in the bible where it talks about women giving a man a divorce. Of course they don’t, because they had no such right in the law. Divorce was what a man did to a woman when he no longer wished to support her financially. So, when you see “divorce,” you have to understand that. A divorce was a MAN sending a WOMAN away, without any financial obligation to her. If he did that to her, it meant she either starved or became a prostitute.

That is the real meaning of “divorce” in the bible.

As you can see, it bears little resemblance to our modern society.

But wait! It gets better!

Women lacked divorce rights well into the Victorian Era!

This is where it helps to have gone to law school. You learn some really, um, interesting things. First, how about William Blackstone? (1765)

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert, foemina viro co-operta; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage. I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage…
The husband also, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer.

Interesting, yes? A woman ceased to be a person upon her marriage, and he had the right to use violence on her.

Now, let’s talk about divorce, because this is important to our discussion.

A woman could not divorce her husband except for abandonment.

A lot of people don’t understand this. One reason is that they do not understand the meaning of “adultery.” Historically - and in the bible - adultery is as follows, and no more:

Adultery was sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who is married to another man.

Some things which were NOT considered adultery historically or in the bible:

a. Sex between a married man and an unmarried woman.
b. Sex between a married man and a prostitute.
c. A man taking a mistress and having a second family with her.
d. A man marrying a second wife (although this would eventually be the crime of Bigamy.)

You see the problem here? If a man cheated, it was only adultery if the other woman was married. That is, if she was another man’s property. Adultery was a crime against property - which is why in the 10th Commandment, it was forbidden to covet a man’s house, slave, beast, or….wife.

So, that is why, a woman whose husband was unfaithful had no legal recourse. She just had to take it.

But wait! There’s more!

Abuse and violence were NOT grounds for a woman to divorce her husband.

I think this is a missing piece in this discussion. Paige Patterson isn’t saying anything that would be shocking to the average Victorian. Back then, a woman by law had to stay and be beaten. Sure, she could try to get help from law enforcement, but then (as now in many churches), she would have been asked what she did to deserve a beating. If she had been anything other than perfectly compliant and submissive, well, she deserved it. And, she would, in any case, have been sent back to live with her husband after he was punished.

Oh, and it gets even better!

Divorce in the bible doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Let’s start with this: During the time the Old Testament was written, a man could choose to stop having sex with, cohabiting with, or showing affection to his wife anytime he wanted. Not just that, but he could marry another wife - or six if he could afford it, take a concubine, rape his slaves, frequent brothels, and in general, act as though he wasn’t married to her.

But he still had to financially support her. He couldn’t throw her out and let her starve.

THAT is what a divorce was. Divorcing a woman meant you were no longer financially responsible for her - she was on her own. What this meant in practice was that a woman who had been divorced had limited options. Her family might take her in if they believed the man was at fault. She could try to find a man who would marry her or take her as a concubine. She could become a prostitute. Or she could starve.

So whenever you see a discussion of “divorce” that refers to the Torah, that is what we are talking about. Whether a man could cut a woman off without support.

To be clear, this means not just stuff you see in the Old Testament (although this understanding puts a totally different spin on the passage in Malachi used to bludgeon women who wish to leave abusive marriages….) It also means that wherever you see Christ discussing divorce in the gospels, He is discussing the Torah - and that means divorce means the above.

What about the New Testament? Well, a few things change. The biggest one is that, by law, Roman citizens could have only one formal marriage. The reason was simple: one’s marriage was for producing legitimate offspring, who would be citizens like their parents, and inherit any property. Marriage was all about property and status. Not love. Not sex.

This did not mean that the Romans believed in monogamy for men. Far from it. Rather, they took from the Greeks a view of “a woman for each purpose.”

To quote Demosthenes:

“For this is what living with a woman as one's wife means—to have children by her and to introduce the sons to the members of the clan and of the deme, and to betroth the daughters to husbands as one's own. Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.”
Concubines were common, prostitution was rampant, men could rape their slaves (both male and female), and men really could do pretty much anything they wanted sexually, as long as they didn’t mess with another citizen’s wife or unmarried daughter. Because of the distinctions of class, a man who wanted to be with a woman of lower class couldn’t marry her. She would be a concubine, and he would marry someone of appropriate status to bear his children and inherit his property.

Divorce was actually fairly liberal in Roman law, and it was apparently common among the upper classes. However, while MEN could divorce their wives with few restrictions, WOMEN did not gain the right to divorce until the 2nd Century.

So, again, with the exception of polygamy (which non-citizens still engaged in throughout the Empire), all of the Old Testament rights that men had carried over. In fact, if you read the New Testament, the one truly obvious change from Roman mores is that St. Paul frowned on prostitutes. I was kind of surprised to re-read the NT, and realize that concubines aren’t really mentioned at all. Even polygamy seems to merely disqualify one from church leadership. And “slaves submit to your masters” looks a bit different when you realize that that meant submitting to rape.

When you actually read it with the cultural context in mind, you realize that the one thing scripture doesn’t do well is give clear direction for how marriage should function in a culture where women aren’t seen as property, and the sexual double standard is mostly unspoken rather than written into our laws.

Let me be clear, then, regarding what “biblical” divorce really means:

1. Women could not divorce their husbands under ANY circumstances.

The very idea that a woman had this right would seem as foreign to anyone living in the times the bible was written as the idea of speed limits for motor vehicles. You cannot find any reference to grounds for a woman to divorce for the same reason you do not see a 55 mph speed limit - the very idea was not even on the table.

2. Men were permitted to seek sexual satisfaction outside the marriage - they just had to support their wives.

And yes, this includes the New Testament, which says a lot less about male sexual morality than we were taught.

3. Men were fully permitted to beat their wives.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe domestic violence is a serious sin, and a crime, and inconsistent with the Christian faith. But legally, during the times the books of the bible were written, it was legal, and culturally acceptable. Period. You can’t sugar coat it.

4. It was assumed that men owned women, because women were inferior.

This is the key. Since women were the property of men, the idea that property had rights was as silly as saying that oxen had rights, or wine had rights. They didn’t. Thus, it would have been equally anachronistic for us to find rules in the bible based on the idea that women had these rights.  

So, if you were to take the theonomic approach to scripture, in a truly honest manner, I do not believe there is any conclusion other than to say that the bible does not in any way permit women to divorce their husbands. Rather, they should acknowledge their legal status as chattel and act accordingly.

Do I believe this is the meaning of the bible? Hell no! But that is the conclusion if you use a theonomic approach.


Back to Paige Patterson, Russell Moore, and Morgan Guyton. Patterson and Moore share what I have termed the “theonomic” approach to the bible. Let me elaborate.

Theonomy is an approach to the bible which treats the bible as “God’s Little Instruction Book™” for humans. It means searching scripture looking for rules to apply to our lives, to our churches, to our relationships.

In the case of marriage and divorce, that means searching the bible for RULES telling us how our marriages should work, and when - if ever - we are allowed to end them.  

I spent time in Bill Gothard’s cult. Key to the movement was an idea called “theonomy,” which was coined by Rousas Rushdoony. What it meant in the most extreme case was that our civil laws should be based on the rules of the bible - including the Old Testament.

People like Rushdoony, whatever their faults - and these were many - at least had one virtue: consistency. They honestly followed their assumptions to the bitter, cruel, evil conclusions which logically flowed from their approach to scripture.

The Patriarchists at least understood what Evangelicals refuse to see: many - indeed most - of the rules found in the bible only make sense if you re-create the culture in which they were found. Specifically:

You cannot truly enforce the rules related to gender and gender roles unless you re-create a culture in which women are chattel.

It does no good to try to figure out what the “biblical grounds for divorce” are, unless you understand the legal and cultural system in which they arose.

And that system did not permit women to divorce. For any reason. Because they were property.

Paige Patterson and Russell Moore, therefore, are both, in their own way, being dishonest. But Moore is being more dishonest than Patterson.

After all, Patterson is closer to how someone in the 1st Century CE would have understood marriage. Heck, Patterson is closer to how someone in the 19th Century would have understood marriage and divorce. To wit, a woman had to stay and be beaten.

Guyton has it right on that score, by the way.

I think Guyton might have gone further and admitted that the bible makes no provision for women to end marriages. Ever. But his point is otherwise correct.


This is where a theonomic approach is so poisonous. Searching a book written in a time when women were legally considered chattel for rules about when women have rights will inevitably result in conclusions consistent with the idea that women do not, in fact, have rights.

Russell Moore has to tie himself in theological knots because he knows deep in his conscience that it is cruel and wrong to make women stay and suffer abuse. Somewhere, in his moral self, he understands that the only morally decent answer is that women should be free to leave an abusive marriage. I think Moore is a fundamentally decent person and wants to do the right thing.  

But, on the other hand, his theology binds him to a theonomic approach to the bible - at least when it comes to marriage and sex. So, he has to muster all of his sophistry to make the bible say what it certainly does not.

There is a better way.

The first part is to let go of the belief that the bible is intended to be God’s Little Instruction Book™. That is, in fact, the most harmful way to read the bible. Rather, it is better to acknowledge that everything you read about marriage and divorce in the bible was written during a time in which women were chattel, and this arrangement was justified by a belief that women were vastly inferior to men.

That is the foundation on which ALL of the so-called “Biblical™” teachings on marriage, gender, and sexuality rest.

If you assume that foundation is correct, then the rules make perfect sense.

If you reject the foundation, then the rules seem, unsurprisingly, rather nonsensical.

For purposes of this post, I will limit the discussion to the rules surrounding divorce. (But make no mistake, the ENTIRE edifice of sexual rules rests on the foundation of misogyny. The ancients had no illusions about this like we do, and thus no need to lie to ourselves about it. That is a topic for another post…)

If you truly believe that women are inferior to men (in a similar way that small children are inferior to adults) and you believe that men own women, their bodies, and particularly their reproductive system, then the “biblical” rules for divorce make perfect sense.

Women do not have the capacity to make their own decisions, so a woman has NO right to end a marriage. (Although, if her husband refuses to support her, she kinda has the right to seek support from another man, perhaps.)

Women do not own their own bodies - those belong to the husband. Thus, she has no right to have sex with another man. (And can be killed for doing so - that’s in the law. A man who finds his wife in bed with another man could kill both of them - and it wouldn’t be a crime.) However, she doesn’t own him, so he could sleep around without any recourse on the part of his wife. Likewise, if he chose to beat or otherwise abuse her, so what? She was his property. No different than, say, kicking the couch.

Once you acknowledge that the rules were written with the assumption of a misogynist society and legal system, then you can actually think morally and reasonably about them. You can’t just apply those rules to our modern understanding of the equality of the sexes or the autonomy of women. If you try, you have to go back to the old misogyny. Once the foundation has crumbled, the rest falls - and neither Moore nor Patterson understands that.

The Patriarchists are actually closer to honest. They don’t quite say that they believe women are inferior, and that they are owned by men. But they come oh so close to saying it outright - and in practice, they mean the same thing.


Imagine instead of using the theonomic approach, we start with the assumption that men and women are equal, and that they each own their own bodies. Once you start with that, it is easy to think ethically and rationally about the implications. If men and women are equal, then neither has a privilege when it comes to entering or ending a marriage. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Since each owns their own body, each is entitled to the dignity of being free from abuse of any kind. If one spouse fails to treat the other appropriately - and this includes more than just physical violence - it includes mental, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse - then the abused spouse has every right to protect him or herself and end the marriage. That is the result that Russell Moore knows in his heart and conscience is right. But because he is wedded to theonomy - and patriarchy - he must engage in pretty obvious mental convolutions to avoid cognitive dissonance. 

It isn't just about hitting your partner...
it's a whole constellation of behaviors meant to control and assert ownership.

In case it isn’t obvious, I despise the theonomic approach in general. I think all it is in practice is an attempt to find a new Torah - a new law to follow. The idea of being led by the Spirit, engaging our reason and our empathy, and walking by faith - that’s really terrifying to fundamentalists (and the vast majority of Evangelicals are fundamentalists these days.) It’s easy to just parse the words of the bible looking for rules to follow - and impose on everyone else. It’s much harder to wrestle with what “love your neighbor” looks like in the actual world we find ourselves in.

I’ll confess, I find this really puzzling.

We should not be surprised that the bible reflects the misogyny and injustice of the cultures in which it was written.

The authors of the bible wrote to the cultures of their times. This is a surprise? That’s why you find tribalism and slavery and genocide and all that. It was in the water, so to speak. Times change, and humanity has - to a significant extent - grown less violent and more concerned with human rights over the last few thousand years. The writings of St. Paul (to cite one example) were pretty radical and progressive by Roman standards. But not so much today. Now, what was shockingly empowering has become a club to beat women back into submission. It breaks my heart that my faith tradition has lost its way like this. Christianity should be - like it once was - ahead of the curve rather than behind it on human rights.

None of this is meant to condemn the bible, which I still find to be a glorious and inspiring book. It is we who have misused it in a way it was never intended to be used – as an instruction book.


It should be no mystery why Evangelicals/Fundamentalists are having difficulty these days. Their theological edifice rests on the belief that the bible was literally dictated by God, is perfect and flawless in every way, and speaks directly to us in our time and culture. And, as a result of this, that it is intended to be a new Torah for us - an instruction book for life, marriage, sex, and everything. Except for the “love your neighbor, feed the hungry, welcome the immigrant stuff. That stuff isn’t literal or binding. But I digress.

To lose the certainty of an instruction book is terrifying to Evangelicals. Their morality is tied up in legalism of two kinds. First, that one must believe the right things or burn in hell for eternity. Second, that God has spelled out every facet of our lives that is connected with our genitals. What we do with them. And what having a particular set dictates about how we function in relationships, church, and society.

Thus, morality in marriage is about what your genitals dictate for your life. Have one set, and you are in charge, and God speaks to you directly. Have another set, and you are called to suffer and put up with abuse, always submitting to the superior person with the other set of genitals. The question of divorce isn’t about protecting the vulnerable. It’s about maintaining a certain hierarchy.

Legalism is easy. Truly ethical thinking is hard. Particularly I ethical thinking. It requires self sacrifice, rather than mostly the sacrifice of others. It is no accident that women are leading the resistance to the (mostly) men pushing the theology of abuse. Powerful men are unlikely to be victims of domestic violence and abuse. And they would have the full support of their congregations if they took action to end the abuse. But they have zero empathy - not really - for vulnerable women. It’s all about how things fit with their theological structure.


I have been an attorney for 18 years. During that time, I have worked with victims of domestic violence. I have also handled divorce cases. This experience has significantly changed my perspective on divorce.

I believe that divorce is not a problem in itself: it is a symptom of greater problems. In the case of abuse, divorce is a symptom of that abuse, every bit as much as the broken bones and bruises on the face. It is as much a symptom as the psychological damage to the victim - and the children.

Divorce is like the vomiting caused by food poisoning. Telling a person when they can divorce and not is like telling someone when they can puke.

This doesn’t just apply in obvious cases of violence. For most of us, we will never see what goes on in a marriage. There is always more to the story. (We attorneys hear a lot more than we would like to know, to tell you the truth. In particular, I have a really hard time looking at pastors the same way after some of the cases I have had. And in seeing “godly” women the same way too.) Even if we could observe a marriage over the course if years - as a fly on the wall - I doubt we could really understand the dynamics.

Thus, I firmly believe that we have no right to sit in judgment on whether people should divorce or not.

Here is just one story - I have heard a number like it. And others not like it, but unique in their own way. Tolstoy was at least half right: unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.

Back in the day, before my former pastor went (in my view) off the rails, he had some good things to say about marriage. One of those was that we spend so much time telling people not to divorce - and way too little time teaching them how to love each other in marriage. I agree. And part of that is making it clear that abuse has consequences, and one of those consequences is that the abuser is evicted from the marriage. Without the ability to escape, preaching against abuse is toothless. I haven’t seen many abusers change. And the very few I have, it was because they lost everything: their marriage, their children, their job, their freedom. And in those cases, the marriage was still over. And it needed to be. Because some damage cannot be fixed.

Unless and until Evangelicalism stops trying to find ways of squaring the misogynistic view of marriage from the past with our present times and culture, it will become increasingly irrelevant. I have mentioned before that I believe American Christianity is on the verge of losing most of its youth. This will be a reason why. Why should my children want to embrace a tradition which is 100 years behind the culture on supporting the basic human rights of women? They aren’t stupid, and they don’t think women are inferior.

Why on earth would they wish to go back to the injustices of the past?

Something to think about...


If you want to read more about my perspective on how to interpret the bible in light of ancient culture, I recommend my series on Christianity and Culture, and the second installment on the Bible and Culture in particular. 


Please read my comment policy before commenting. In particular, for posts like this, I really am not interested in getting lectured on what YOU believe the bible means (which generally means some set of talking points I have already heard over and over during my 40 years as an Evangelical.) I've heard it. I've dealt with the aftermath of failed Evangelical marriages. You are not going to somehow explain it to me in a way that I have never heard before, or that you are special enough to convince me to return to my past beliefs.

I also want to be clear that I will delete ANY comment that has some form of "marriage was created to give us a picture of Christ and the church." I already blogged about that.  I believe men and women are equal PERIOD, and that taking St. Paul's metaphor about sacrificial love in ANY way that even implies that men are to rule women is exactly the problem I am talking about here.