The scriptures and separating...
Updated: Dec 23, 2019
Logically it seems obvious that for mental wellbeing, for safety and to underscore that the relationship has broken down and needs to be rebuilt completely differently, the separation of the abuser is often necessary in cases of ongoing abuse. Society recognises this by the important place the laws give to "intervention orders" (or similar terms in other states and countries) that eliminate contact and communication between abuser and victims, for instance.
But what about scripture? Do we have grounds to ask someone to move out, even temporarily? "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9) seems to be one passage that on its own strongly suggests that married couples should remain together at all costs. We should, however, compare scripture with scripture to gain a complete picture because many times things need to be understood in their context and not as absolutes.
One simple example of a statement that is not absolute is "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, …" (1 Peter 2:13-14). Is the 'every ordinance' absolute? Are we called to submit to our harm? Evidently not, because Christ when warning of possible persecution did not say to submit - but to seek safety: "But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another" (Matthew 10:23 ). The context of Peter's "every ordinance" is in the will of God, and Christ's command about not putting asunder is the feeble excuses for separation made by the Pharisees on a whim - he is not talking in the context of abuse.
If we investigate the biblical principles for true marriage, the reason God designed them from the beginning is for those married to learn to be like Him in character, and learn to demonstrate the practical love that Christ showed to his bride, the ecclesia. In a spiritual sense, does Christ stay 'married' to a recalcitrant ecclesia? There are evidently some, even though their names were written in the book of life, for whom it is possible to be "blotted out" (Revelation 3:5). More directly, we are told it is possible for us to affect our marriage relationship before God by our actions, both in positive and negative ways.
It is possible to positively influence our marriage relationship. What if God initially wasn't part of our "threefold cord" (Ecclesiastes 4:12) of marriage - something we may have come to realise after marriage, or if our spouse was not a believer? Well, it is possible to influence a spouse for good, and to bring God into that relationship. Hence Peter suggested to spouses of unbelievers, to treat them as they would a godly spouse - in other words to practically demonstrate the love of Christ to them, and the response may well turn out positive.
"Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives" (1 Peter 3:1).
So Peter in the middle of his first letter is talking about the principle of submission. We saw he said to submit to every ordinance of rulers in ch 2:13, yet Christ instructed that in extreme cases to flee. Peter also in ch 2:18 tells servants to be subject to masters, yet Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:21 says if you can possibly buy your freedom, you should. Obviously Peter is talking about the principles of authority generally, not in absolutes and not in every situation.
Peter goes on to clarify something very important about the marriage relationship.
"Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered." (1 Peter 3:7)
There are a number of things worth taking note of in this verse. One is that we can affect our relationship with God by our actions inside our marriage relationship, with our "prayers" being "hindered". This means we have severed that 'three-fold cord' with God in our relationship with our spouse by our actions. In other words, what God has put together, we have 'sundered'.
What is it that can possibly sunder a relationship in Gods eyes? There are obviously two things that can do this according to Peter - not dwelling according to knowledge, and not honouring as the weaker vessel. It is fair to assume that either one of these can sunder our marriage. What are they? Well they actually both are relevant to domestic abuse. Dwelling according to knowledge can be better rendered to "live with your wives in an understanding way"(ESV). All husbands need to live in an understanding and sympathetic way with our wives. Peter doesn’t say, "Wives, you need to understand your husband, and make allowances for him". He says the reverse. In fact, he goes further and says failure to do this leads to a failure in our relationship before God, and as husbands, we are responsible before God for the spiritual well-being of our marriage relationship (Ephesians 5:23-26).
The second part of Peter's statement is to honour our wives as a fragile vessel, which again is a bit clumsy in translation. I believe Peter is playing on the fact that Sarah means 'princess' and so he uses imagery to illustrate how all husbands should treat their wives as precious and uses a 'delicate vessel' to show that this is not your 'rough and ready' water jug, or the ephah used for your chores, or the laundry basket. Your wife is not part of the furniture and just cooking meals and doing washing and ironing for you. She is a gift of God - a 'good thing' (Proverbs 18:22) that you need to cherish as a precious vessel - made of delicate china as it were, that you treasure. Failure to cherish our wives, failure to dwell with them in an understanding way and I would add, failure to lead in love - showing Christ's love as an example, would result in failure for our prayers to be heard, meaning we are no longer seen by God as the spiritual leader and head of the relationship - we have abdicated by our actions.
There is one more scripture that is worth considering in the case of whether it is right to seek space from an abuser, but before we do I think its worth considering again what the scripture says about being married to an unbeliever, because if someone is acting in an un-Christ-like way and not fulfilling their obligation to love their spouse as Christ gave example, and if God is not hearing their prayer, there are strong grounds for considering them to be acting as an unbeliever.
Paul says to the Corinthians,
"To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.
If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.
For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.
For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? " (1 Cor 7:12-16)
A believing partner can separate from an unbeliever, particularly if there is no peace otherwise (v15). So with this in mind, consider Paul's words to Timothy,
"But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. " (1 Timothy 5:8)
There is a case where a believer, by their actions can deny the faith and be seen as worse than an unbeliever. It follows that if it is permissible to be separate from an unbeliever, then it is also scripturally sound to be separate from someone who is worse than an unbeliever. An unbeliever acts through ignorance. It is sobering that one for whom Christ has died, and yet does not follow Christ's example in washing, loving and sacrificing themselves for their wife (Ephesians 5:25-33) is worse (cp James 4:17).
"Providing not for their own" can also be improved as "taking thought for" or "caring for" and means more than just earning money. It embraces emotional support as well as material support and planning. An abusive and controlling person is not providing support for their spouse and family and has therefore denied the faith and abdicated their position before God as the head of the relationship and is worse than an unbeliever in Gods eyes.
It should go without saying, but I will state it here to be clear, the spiritual purpose of such a separation is always to save (1 Corinthians 5:5). The purpose of separation from an abuser is for the victim's safety - mentally, emotionally and physically, to demonstrate the seriousness of the behaviours, and when trust is rebuilt and if there is to be reconciliation it is not just a coming back together, but building an entirely new relationship dynamic together, based on a proper foundation of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11), not centred around the abuser. With this in mind may our efforts as Christ's disciples to end oppression and recover sinners receive His blessing and the ultimate joy of couples who are truly "heirs together of the Grace of Life".
If you are in a situation affected by domestic abuse consider the Resources page of this website. Help is available, both from within and without the Christadelphian Brotherhood - we recommend you avail yourself of it whether separation is something you are considering or not. Also, don't hesitate to contact us - we handle all enquiries confidentially, and will contribute our best experience and reach out on your behalf to others that will help if you wish.