Sometimes women are told things like “divorce is not an option for Christians,” or “God hates divorce.” There are passages of scripture that at first glance seem to suggest that divorce is not a path open to women of faith. These passages need to be looked at carefully and within their historic context.
It is important to note that when the bible does speaks negatively about divorce, it is because it is rebuking some men for the ways they were treating (and discarding) their wives. Biblical passages that express concern about divorce are actually expressing concern for women.
Malachi 2:13-16 is a good example of this. Interestingly, this is a passage that is often used to keep women in their abusive marriages because of the verse that quotes God as saying “I hate divorce.” However, when the passage is looked at in its entirety we see that, in fact, abusive men are being chastened for “being faithless to their wives” and for being violent.
We want to remember that in biblical times, only men could initiate divorce. Women were not persons but rather property. A man could divorce his wife just by saying “I divorce you” three times. A woman could not do this. She was not a legal entity. She had no legal power. So any time the Bible speaks about divorce, it is giving instructions to men
New Testament Texts:
In Jesus’ day there were two schools of thought on divorce:
Rabbi Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife for any reason.
Rabbi Shammai taught that divorce was only allowable on the grounds of unfaithfulness.
When we recognize this context, and remember that only men could divorce during this time period, we see that Jesus’ words are intended to protect women. If people followed Rabbi Hillel’s teaching, men would be free to follow the very destructive practice of discarding a wife for even the most trivial of reasons. At that time, a woman thrown out on the street had only one way to make a living and that was prostitution. Jesus’ words serve to protect women, not to victimize them. Take a look at this passage now, remembering the historic context:
And the Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” They said to him, “Why did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Also, it is important to remember that the followers of Jesus gave allowances for divorce given their social context. Paul’s words in 1Corinthians 7:15 are an example of this.
If the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound.
Abuse was not something that was understood or talked about in biblical times and so it is not surprising that the Bible does not give explicit permission for a wife to leave an abusive husband. As I have said above, in biblical times, a wife could not initiate a divorce. But the above passages suggests that the early believers were able to look at their current reality and apply biblical principles.
From my point of view, abuse breaks the covenant of marriage. When two people marry, they vow to “love, honour and cherish”. Abuse is the exact opposite of “love, honour and cherish”. Abuse destroys marriage and destroys the trust that is necessary for a marriage to work. When a woman who has experienced abuse in her marriage chooses to leave that marriage, she is just trying to live authentically (and safely). The marriage was dead a long time ago. The abuse killed it.