Ask A Counselor: Can I leave my abusive spouse, when “the Bible clearly says”…?

I’ve written before about domestic abuse among missionaries. (Here and here are my previous articles.)

I always wish that I didn’t have to write about this, because I wish it didn’t exist in our communities, but it does. Because domestic abuse does exist among missionaries, it is my privilege and calling to shine a light on it, to offer hope and support to the victims, and to call all of us to greater awareness and action against abuse.

I fear that the mission field is an especially safe haven for abusers, as there is often little oversight, a lack of accountability, and zero support for the victimized spouse.

Abusers very often isolate their victims from family, friends, and support systems.

What better place to do this than the mission field?

I believe that if we are not actively aware of the issues around abuse, if we are not prepared to take action against abuse, we are probably going to be complicit in abuse.

We may have good intentions, but if we don’t know what we’re looking for, we’ll get sidetracked and bamboozled more often than not.  Why? Because abusers are charming, they are manipulative, they will make their spouse look crazy while they act like “the sane one,” they say and do anything to protect themselves from reality, they will flat-out lie.

Victims cannot bear this burden alone, and they shouldn’t have to. They need and deserve our awareness, our attention, our support, our care.

Today I want to address a couple of supposedly “biblical” ideas that are used to coerce women into staying with abusive spouses. If these get trotted out in front of you, whether as a victim or a bystander, I want you to be prepared to address them.

I then want to offer a perspective on power and control that is helpful in accurately identifying abuse. Basing assessment on specific behavior without looking at the overall system makes the unwise pastor or counselor vulnerable to manipulation by the abuser. On the other hand, being able to assess a system based on toxic power and control patterns helps avoid manipulation by the abuser, who very often knows how to walk just inside a line of “acceptable behavior,” but has a well-established system of power and control firmly in place.


“God hates divorce” is the most common “reason-they-told-me-I-had-to-stay” that I come across. I think people like to quote this one because it’s quick and easy to remember. You can slap it onto someone and go on your merry way, convinced that God is on your side.

These days when folks quote “God hates divorce” to me, I simply ask: “Are you telling me that  God hates divorce more than he hates domestic violence?”

I want people to face the reality of what they are so glibly saying to victims, because it in no way represents the Way of Jesus.

Those who quote “God hates divorce” don’t quote the second part of the verse: “’For to divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,’ says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.” (Malachi 2:16)

This is a recognition of the cultural reality that, in Old Testament times, divorced women would be utterly without a livelihood; divorce was essentially a death sentence.

“God hates divorce” because divorce was a weapon of cruelty to women!

How incredibly ironic that this verse is now used to trap victims with abusers, therefore overwhelming women with cruelty. 

“God hates divorce?”

Imagine how much more God must hate the bastardization of His Word, used against women to betray His holy Love and passion for justice!

If you need a New Testament source to combat “God hates divorce,” Romans 6:14 is a favorite of mine:

“For sin shall not have dominion over you—as the slaves of a tyrant lord. For you are not under the law, but under grace.”

Dear friend: God hates CRUELTY TO WOMEN. 

You are not a slave to sin, including your husband’s sin.

You are not required to stay and submit to his sin.

When you are ready and able, grace has freed you to walk in newness of life.


Here’s what women get told: “You can’t leave your abuser. You have to stay and love him like Jesus would.”

Here are two main points we must keep in mind, when it comes to unconditional love.

ONE: I am not the source of unconditional love, so it’s not up to me to supply love to every abusive person on the planet.

Unconditional love means that every human being is inherently precious and valuable.

Yes, even the abusers. God loves them too. Which just proves that you really don’t want me to be the source of unconditional Love because I just don’t have it in me. Any love I’d give to the abusers would be pure pretend, and I think they need better than that. They need real, healing Love. So let’s just accept that God gets to be in charge of that, and it’s a good thing for everybody.

Because I’m not the source of unconditional Love, I am not required to be close to people who are abusive, unpleasant, or in any way toxic to me.

I can still accept that the person is precious and valuable, and probably doing the best that they can, while I remove myself from toxic situations.

Unconditional Love will still be available to that person, even when I am not.

I can leave an abuser and Jesus can love him just fine without me.

TWO: I am included in unconditional love, so I get to receive love just like everyone else.

Because I am included in unconditional love, that Love does not allow others to abuse or harm me.

Unconditional love must include love FOR ME just like everyone else, otherwise it’s a very limited, seriously conditional sort of love.

Unconditional love does not condone abuse FOR ME, just like unconditional love does not condone abuse for anyone else.

(Those of us who grew up in abusive systems will have a hard time believing that unconditional love includes us, but sit with it a while.)

Because the other person is included in love,

even while they are being toxic to me,

I can do what is healthy for myself

while trusting that Love will do what is best for that person as well.

Unconditional Love does not depend on me,

and unconditional Love always includes me.


If you’re wondering whether a particular situation is abusive, I encourage you to check the Power and Control Wheel, at the National Centers for Domestic Violence.

Domestic abuse is not simply a single, identifiable event like hitting.

Domestic abuse is a system of power and control within which identifiable events take place.

The entire system is abusive.

Many Christian pastors and even counselors do not take this systemic view into account. They tend to look at single events rather than examining the overall system.

I think one of the reasons for this is that many times, churches are power-and-control systems as well. Churches don’t want the victims to be educated about power and control, because the churches themselves often fit the profile for abusive systems. Many, many abusers find safe haven within Christian systems, precisely because those systems are already abusive and built to protect abusers.

Is your church or organization a power and control system, and therefore likely to protect abusers? Assess it with the power and control wheel and see what you think. Here are some possible patterns to consider:

  • Are women encouraged to isolate themselves from the scary outside world?
  • Are women required to be so occupied with church and family activities that they have no opportunity for independent activities?
  • Are women told that they must dress modestly so that they don’t cause men to sin?
  • Are women required to check with church officials or their husbands before making decisions for themselves?
  • Are women shamed for working outside the home?
  • Are women required to homeschool their children as proof of their holiness?
  • Are women told that they must give their husbands sex whenever they want?
  • Are women told that they must reconcile with their husbands, no matter how abusive the situation?

These are red flags for power and control, and very often a toxic religious system that supports abusers and oppresses victims.

If your church or organization does fall into the power and control realm, then it’s probably time to ask yourself how comfortable you are being part of a system like that.

If you are aware of instances of abuse on the organizational level, such as a leader abusing women or children, resources are available at GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments).

If we don’t get this straight within our own circles of influence, if we are complicit in the abuse of women, overlooking and denying the reality of their suffering, I fear that we are in for a big, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

If we don’t want to be on the receiving end of that righteous judgment, we had better stop coercing women into staying with their abusive spouses, and instead get busy binding the wounds of these sisters who walk beside us every day, bleeding and bruised and broken from abuse by their “Christian” husbands.


Domestic Shelters

A High View of Marriage Includes Divorce, blogpost

Why Does He Do That? Lundy Bancroft

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Lundy Bancroft

The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Jeff Van Vonderen

Domestic Abuse Is A System, short animated video

Six Different Types of Abuse, blogpost

Financial Ideas, blogpost

photo credit

adapted from a post at

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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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