Divorce and Domestic Violence

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, May 02, 2016
Divorce and Domestic Violence

Divorce and Domestic Violence

I can still remember reading it, even though it was four years ago.

A survey by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) found that 1 out of every 4 women surveyed said they were violently attacked by their husbands or boyfriends.

Where is the church when it comes to the physical abuse of women? 

Where are its leaders?

Sadly, they are largely silent; and when they do speak, they’re often far from helpful.

But let’s focus on the victims first.

The women themselves (and I’ve sadly had to come to the side of many as a pastor) feel guilty – as if what is happening is somehow their fault. It’s not, of course. Never, ever, does any woman deserve to have their husband or boyfriend physically harm them in any form whatsoever.

Then there are those who feel locked in. They feel they can’t leave.  Somehow they feel that would not only make their husband angry and even more violent, but would also disappoint Jesus. 

And then they say, “Isn’t that what the Bible says?”

Okay, time for some pastoral intervention.


You should not feel guilty, and you can leave. I’m nauseated and enraged by the lame, misogynistic exegesis floating around out there that counsels women to stay in abusive relationships, leaving them victims of physical abuse in the name of marital fidelity. It’s one of the most egregious areas of spiritual malpractice.

When it comes to marriage, the Bible gives two situations when separation and, if it reaches that point, divorce are allowed (granted, not commanded, but clearly allowed): 

The first is marital unfaithfulness (Matthew 5). I know, the words “marital unfaithfulness” seem pretty broad. You can pin almost anything on marital unfaithfulness.

“My wife is emotionally unfaithful. She doesn’t love me or cherish me or care for my emotional needs.”

“My husband is financially unfaithful. He doesn’t provide enough money to live at the level I need.”

“My spouse is spiritually unfaithful. They won’t come with me to church.”

What Jesus said wasn’t that general.

The actual Greek word Jesus used that we translate “unfaithful” was not concerned with being unfaithful in a general sense, but in a very specific sense. It was the Greek word "porneia," which refers to flagrant and habitual sexual immorality devoid of any desire to repent and be faithful.

Jesus made it clear that sexual intimacy is to be reserved for men and women who have entered into the commitment of marriage. Sex is more than just “skin on skin.” It was designed by God for marriage as part of the intimacy required for two people to become one. No other human activity has the same power as sexual intimacy. It is the supreme expression of a relationship. It is ultimate emotional unity. 

And because of that, it is reserved for marriage.

But when the marriage is defiled by that oneness being violated through sexual activity with someone outside of the marriage, then it so destroys the very fabric of the relationship that Jesus says divorce is allowed. That's how serious sex is, and how tied it is to intimacy and trust. If it's violated, the marriage is violated; it's torn apart.   

The other situation where separation and possible eventual divorce is allowed is when there is physical abandonment (I Corinthians 7). This is when someone leaves you and/or refuses to stay married to you, making it physically impossible to stay married.

Now this is important; please read carefully –

It follows from this that if their behavior is of such a nature that it forces separation, they are – in essence – making it physically impossible for you to remain with them and stay married.

For example, if a spouse engages in an illegal behavior such as illegal drug use, you are not called to be subject to that or to expose yourself and/or your children to that, much less its potential legal penalties.

Another example is, without a doubt, physical abuse of either you as a spouse or of your children. When that occurs, you have to separate yourself for the purpose of personal safety or the safety of your children.

In such situations your spouse is forcing you to leave or to separate. 

That is physical abandonment.

So let’s not put too fine a point on it. It doesn’t deserve it. If you are being physically abused by a boyfriend, end the relationship.


He is not worthy of your affection. He is living and acting outside of the will of God and doesn’t deserve your heart. In no way is he God’s man for your life. 

And if you are married to such an abuser, you are biblically afforded the opportunity to leave. 

And for your safety’s sake, I would.

I’ll even help escort you out the door.

James Emery White



“Survey: 1 in 4 women victims of severe violence,” Associated Press, in CBS News, December 14, 2011, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.