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How the evangelical church idolizes marriage through its tolerance of domestic violence

Content warning: Abuse and domestic violence

I’m angry at evangelical Christians, even though I was one.

But there is a tightrope to walk: on the one hand, I have left evangelical Christianity behind completely and entirely, with no plans of ever going back. There are many others I know who have done the same. On the other hand, there are others I know and love who are still involved in that world and that culture.

Writing, I’ve come to realize, is how I can channel this anger and resentment into something productive and powerful. But when I write, my intention is not to hurt others or to insult the evangelical Christians I know and love. My intention is to speak broadly about the subculture, the institutions propped up by it, and, in turn, the institutions that prop up evangelical Christianity itself: To shine a light on the implications of bad theology.

There is an important distinction to make here. There are systems, and there are people. When I speak about systems, there are inherently people that participate in those systems, who further the needs and goals of those systems in (un)intentional ways. There are people who truly believe in the goodness and the significance of what they are doing. There are people who don’t know better, and there are people who act maliciously for their own benefit.

In other words, there are people, who are capable of good things and bad things. And at times, whether something is good or bad is not always immediately clear, especially when you are immersed in a particular way of thinking for so long. My goal here is not to accuse anyone of anything, but to call out toxic ideologies and mindsets that then lead to problematic and harmful behavior. In other words, intentions matter, but impact matters more.

It’s also important for me to note that I was an active participant in and member of this subculture. I have regrets over past beliefs and how those beliefs informed the way I perceived and treated other people (and myself). With each toxic belief or behavior subconsciously ingrained in me from the church that I am able to unlearn, I get closer to becoming the person I want to be: confident, gracious, and rational.

The institution that is most critical to evangelical Christianity — and that has given rise to a plethora of questionable and unsound spiritual guidance — is marriage. So much of what is wrong with evangelical Christianity can be traced to the extraordinarily narrow constraints placed on what a marriage should look like. The church has created rigid and unattainable standards, and when marriages fail, it is often attributed to a lack of faith, the presence of sin, or both. When spouses can’t — or don’t want to — fit into the so-called “biblical definition of marriage,” the consequences can be dangerous.

There is a lot to say about the church’s view of marriage, far too much for one post. But the significance of marriage in the church cannot be overstated. In evangelical Christianity, the importance of heterosexual marriage goes beyond its role as the only acceptable context for sex. To understand the scope of the church’s cultural, social, and political influence, you have to understand that marriage is a metaphor for the relationship between Jesus Christ and the church.

The spiritual significance of marriage has influenced a variety of perspectives on what marriage should look like. An inevitable part of these discussions is divorce. The standards for divorce are quite high. Divorce should always be treated as a last resort. When this standard is universally applied as the foundation for marital counseling for couples in completely different situations with completely different issues, it can end up doing much more harm than good.

In a nutshell, there are two acceptable reasons for divorce: 1.) adultery and 2.) abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.

In the first case, the reasoning is fairly obvious: The spouse in question has been “sexually immoral” by having sex outside of marriage. In this scenario, divorce is acceptable because the sanctity of the marriage has been compromised by sexual sin. The second condition is a bit more complicated: Essentially, divorce is permissible if a Christian is married to an “unbeliever,” and the unbeliever has initiated divorce proceedings. In this situation, divorce is acceptable because it is preferable that the believer enter into a marriage with another believer as opposed to being “unequally yoked” with an unbeliever.

There are a lot of scenarios that aren’t accounted for in these two narrow justifications for divorce. Some Christians argue that abuse, in contrast to adultery or separation from an unbeliever, is not a viable justification for divorce in any circumstance. You read that correctly: if a man is abusing his wife, the wife still does not necessarily have grounds for divorce.

Before I dive into this, there is extensive debate on this issue within Christianity generally, depending on your denomination or the specific church you attend. Many churches ultimately argue that divorce is okay when one spouse is abusive, but only with a variety of conditions attached. Some churches don’t expressly address what to do in the case of abuse but emphasize the two biblical grounds for divorce. Others still reiterate that there are only two acceptable grounds for divorce. But generally, Christians are torn on this issue, especially pastors.

My focus here is on the argument for what women should do when they are experiencing domestic violence. (Note that this argument pertains to a heterosexual couple, where the husband is the abuser.) There is an elaborate set of hoops the wife is expected to jump through in order for divorce to eventually become a viable, bible-based option.

First, the wife should remove herself from the dangerous situation by moving out of her home. In theory, the woman’s church will support her during this process. Then, the wife is expected to pray for her husband’s reconciliation with God, that he eventually repents of his sin of physical violence. Ultimately, the wife should be working towards reunification with her husband as the ideal outcome. During this time apart from her abuser, the woman is not permitted to date anyone else, but she can take advantage of whatever legal options are available to her — legal separation is apparently permissible, though I am unaware of where Jesus muses to his disciples on the differences between legal separation vs. divorce in the eyes of God.

Nevertheless, there are a few possible resolutions to this situation: 1.) The woman’s husband will die and she can remarry, 2.) the man sees the error of his ways and reconciles with his wife, vowing never to abuse her again, and 3.) the husband pursues another woman sexually, thereby checking the box for one of two “biblically sound” reasons for divorce, giving the woman an out. Never mind the fact that this other woman will become the abusive man’s next target.

There are numerous problems with this. First, but not foremost, there isn’t a single verse in the bible that provides instructions for someone in an abusive marriage. There is no verse you can point to with literal instructions or guidelines for a woman to follow if her husband is abusing her. None whatsoever.

Consequently, this guidance has no biblical grounds. This advice is provided only with general verses about the nature of marriage as a lifelong commitment (1 Corinthians 7:39), and specifically identified situations in which divorce is acceptable (Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15, both cited earlier) as evidence. As such, this very specific advice — that a woman should move out of her home and work towards reconciliation without dating anyone else while waiting for her husband to sleep with someone else, thereby giving her an excuse to exit the marriage — is far beyond the scope of the textual evidence provided.

Secondly, and most importantly, if your spouse abuses you, it is well within your rights to divorce that pathetic excuse for a human being. No, Jesus never technically “gave you permission” to do so. There are no letters in red that say abuse is an acceptable reason for divorce. But based on the best evidence we have — Jesus’ empathy for the powerless and marginalized and his outrage at religious hypocrites who exploited and abused their own authority and positions of power — I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t tolerate the weaponization of scripture in an effort to preserve a marriage with a violent spouse.

The Jesus that is actually portrayed in the bible would be this woman’s getaway driver. She could call him in the middle of the night, and he would drive her to the police station. He would help her file a police report and a restraining order. He would give her a spare bedroom or a couch to sleep on while she made other living arrangements. She would cry on his shoulder. He would find her a lawyer and remind her that she deserves so much better than any man who would lay a hand on her out of anger. This is not only what Jesus would do, but what any decent person should do.

Jesus would never put the “sanctity of marriage” above a woman’s life, safety, and wellbeing by pressuring her to reconcile with her abuser. I want to emphasize that any god with those priorities isn’t worth following.

This guidance puts real women in danger. Though not explicitly stated in this argument, women are expected to take risks in an effort to reconcile with their spouse. How can you reconcile with a spouse without seeing them? How do you know when they’ve “reconciled” with God? In addition, what if the spouse has access to firearms? How do you know when it is safe to move back in? There’s no way to know if the spouse has “changed his ways” unless his wife moves back in and he abuses her. Why is that an acceptable risk? What if children are involved? And, the most obvious question: what if the woman doesn’t want to reconcile with her husband?

In this argument, the woman is robbed of all agency — her future and her marriage are dependent on whether her husband sleeps with someone else. It is a criterion that needs to be met, through no control of her own, in order for her to leave her toxic and physically violent marriage. In other words, the morality of her behavior and her decision to seek a divorce depends on the decisions and choices of her husband. In what other context is the righteousness of our behavior dependent on the sin of another?

Additionally, in adhering to this interpretation, the church is essentially arguing that one sin is more egregious than another: Adultery is worse than abuse. Adultery is so bad that it is worth ending a marriage over. A marriage simply cannot survive adultery. Abuse, in contrast, is less of a problem. It’s “fixable.” You can get through that.

This is the problem with extrapolating universal guidelines for divorce based only on a narrow selection of verses that don’t address every possible situation or context you might encounter: You’ve elevated the letter of the law over the spirit of the law.

The stakes of the church’s bad theology are high, and this emphasis on preserving a marriage at the cost of a woman’s mental and physical health is deadly. Women should be under no obligation to stay with an abusive spouse. If you refuse to accept abuse as a reasonable justification for divorce because it is not explicitly stated in the bible, then you are complicit in the violence perpetrated against the women whose lives you only claim to value.

If you attend a church or read a book or receive counseling that advocates for this interpretation of abuse alone as insufficient grounds for divorce, know this: This church, this author, this pastor does not care about your marriage. They care about Marriage. The sanctity of marriage. The idea of marriage. That church, that pastor, that author is willing to sacrifice the lives of women at the altar of biblical marriage.

And you deserve better than that.

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Kelsie McWilliams

Kelsie McWilliams

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she/her. A writer and editor who loves dogs. Exvangelical. I read and write about trauma of all varieties because there is hope and healing in this world.