Yes, You Can End an Abusive Marriage
About a decade ago, I attended the funeral of a woman of faith that my family and I had known for decades. This longtime friend had passed away after battling cancer, and the farewell was painful. She was the kind of person whose departure meant the world had lost some of its tenderness.
At her funeral in our midwestern Brazil hometown, I heard people remark that "she got sick because of her sorrow" and that "now she would finally rest," and I finally put together what I was too young to comprehend before: She had endured an abusive relationship until the day she died.
What made our friend stay in such a cold relationship and toxic situation? Her faith that her husband would one day change and her conviction that divorce could cause her to lose her salvation.
Devastatingly, she believed that it was God's wish that she remain faithfully married, regardless of her husband's abuse, and this stance was only reinforced by her pastors. They advised her to keep fasting, praying, and putting her all into her marriage--practices she kept until the day she passed away.
Requiring someone to submit to a violent marital burden is a slow, sadistic death sentence whose origins can be traced back to years of sinful abuse of power. Surely, our calling to die to ourselves every day extends into our personal relationships, because all of them entail a measure of self-sacrifice. But it's a completely different thing to distort Scripture to the point of equating spiritual sacrifice with enduring spousal violence. There's a crucial difference between these types of death: one is rooted in perfect love, while the other is rooted in destructive sin.
The marital burden
When justifying maintaining such a violent and deadly marital burden, I've heard many pastors and Christian leaders quote 1 Peter 3:1-2: "Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives."
In these verses, Peter is addressing women who believe in God but are married to men who do not and explaining that they have an opportunity to be a witness of faith to their unbelieving husbands. At no point whatsoever is Peter telling women to submit to violent husbands, often Christian, so that they are "won over without words" by their wives' behavior--an argument I have often heard.
On the contrary, the Bible condemns this violence, as Malachi 2:16 shows: "'For I hate divorce,' says the Lord, the God of Israel, 'and him who covers his garment with violence,' says the Lord of armies" (NASB). It is worth noting that in the same verse in which God says "I hate divorce," the Lord also clearly says that he hates violence.
Therefore, a marriage grounded in submission to abusive behavior has nothing to do with godliness, nor is it based on the Word of God. It is not a bond of love but more like an arrow fastening a slain animal to a wall. When the predator fakes love through emotional appeals for forgiveness and promises of change, these gestures amount to little besides spraying perfume to conceal the putrefaction of his sins on the decomposing prey.
But how do you differentiate suffering in an abusive relationship from acting self-sacrificially in a godly marriage? In the latter, both spouses follow Jesus' words to deny themselves and pick up their crosses. Each of them is denying his or her own urges and desires out of love for the other. Through this dying of their own separate flesh comes a new life, a resurrection embodied through this marriage.
Despite Scripture's message to the contrary, rarely have I seen church leaders hold perpetrators responsible for the state of the marriage. Some pastors hold that divorce is a tragedy to be avoided at all costs, as it is too great of a sin.
Church leaders may praise a woman who stays in an abusive marriage for acting as a "good wife" and persevering in a trying situation. Since Christians believe that God changes people, some think that the wife is responsible to change her husband and that her persistence will be attested later when he finally changes--which to them seems way more virtuous than "simply divorcing."
Too often, Christians believe that the wife needs to view this situation as an opportunity to be full of virtue and that she's being ungodly if she files for divorce. Blaming the woman for a divorce in cases of domestic violence shifts the guilt and implies that she is ultimately responsible for her husband's actions. Giving wives the spiritual responsibility of masculine redemption is asking them to transform men's worst into their best--in other words, to perform the work of Jesus. What's more, this work often means that women bear the wounds of change.
The idea that a woman should bear this marital burden while enduring a violent household, as if this is an intrinsically feminine role, is not only immoral but also unbiblical. It collides with the ideal of marriage according to Paul in Ephesians 5:25-28, which places the man as a Christlike redeemer who gives his life for his bride. In this sense, many have inverted the biblical standards, where sacrificial love is primarily and specifically required of the man. The biblical marital covenant is a covenant not of predatory death but of resurrection, where the loving sacrifice is inspired by the sacrifice of Christ.
God can restore everyone, even a violent or adulterous man. But he should bear the consequences of his actions, and this restoration should not take place where he still has access to those he has harmed. Jesus already carried our wounds, and inner transformation is a work of the Holy Spirit. Thus no woman needs to compulsorily risk her life for the love of any human being's soul, not even that of her own husband.
A welcome change
Earlier this year, CT reported on an American church whose leaders had advised domestic violence victims to stay in a marriage. The story was wrenching, but the reception to it revealed that many Christians now see these leaders' actions as inappropriate and understand that even if this behavior was considered "normal" or acceptable in the past, it is wrong. Perhaps the question to ask now isn't just "How did we get to this point?" but rather "How did we stay that way for so long?" or "How can we change this situation for good?"
In 2019, amid an explosive discussion among evangelicals regarding confrontation of violence against women, the complementarian theologian Wayne Grudem shared with CT his reinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:15. After almost 40 years of ministry, Grudem shared a hermeneutical shift that allowed him to recognize violence and abuse as causes for divorce (in addition to adultery and desertion). As someone who has counseled domestic violence victims for years, I welcomed such significant change.
Advising women to stay married when they don't know whether they will stay alive tomorrow will certainly not work to preserve the institution of marriage. Advising desperate women that there are biblical arguments for this kind of submission is perverting the Word to maintain a false and superficial marital image when the marriage covenant itself is already broken.
As CT's editor in chief Russell Moore wrote last year, "If one spouse abandons the home, the Bible reveals, it is not the fault of the innocent party. And if a spouse makes the home a dangerous place for the other spouse (or their children), that is not the fault of the innocent party either. In those cases, divorce is not a sin but is, first of all, a recognition of what is already the case--that the one-flesh union covenant is dissolved--and the abused spouse should feel no condemnation at all in divorcing."
My most fervent prayer is that women suffering spousal abuse may find comfort and support from their pastors and, whenever people fail them, that they may witness the Father's protection. There is a God who sees them (Gen. 16), and he is not demanding that they continue in covenants of death. Rather, he came that they might have life and that they might have it to the full (John 10:10). God does not need a woman to die or be beaten as a sacrifice for a man's life. Christ has already made the supreme and ultimate offering (Heb. 10:12-14).
Bruna Santini has worked in family law and advised domestic violence victims in Brazil and the United States, where she lives today with her family. She is currently pursuing her master's in theological studies at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.