I have written before of the problems faced by a trapped wife, and I wanted to lay out some exegetical guidance for a woman in that position. I want to assume that we are talking about a genuinely destructive relationship, and that it is a marriage between two professing Christians. The reason for limiting the discussion this way should become more obvious as we go along. The bottom line is that under these circumstances, a mistreated wife has biblical warrant for moving out of range.
But we have to back up a bit. The Lord Jesus taught us that divorce and remarriage, unless it was for unfaithfulness, was itself a form of unfaithfulness (Matt. 19:9). My point in starting here is simply to note that He was teaching within a covenant context. His context was a covenantal one, meaning that both husband and wife were under the law of God. This was His teaching on marriage when both parties were believers. This is the rule within the covenant.
The apostle Paul turned to the same subject decades later, but he was teaching in a new situation. In Corinth, as in the rest of the Gentile world where the gospel had come, the church was facing a widespread problem that was unlike what you found earlier in Judea. This was the problem of mixed marriages. What do you do when one spouse is a believer and the other is a pagan. Is it okay to have sex with a pagan? What about the children that result? And so on. Paul addresses this new situation with a new set of instructions, which we will get to in a moment.
This is the source of those phrases that some have sometimes tripped over — I, not the Lord and the Lord, not I. He is not telling us that this bit of 1 Corinthians is inspired and this other part over here isn’t. No, he is quoting and applying the dominical teaching in Corinth, in the places where it applies, and he is giving new apostolic legislation where the Lord’s teaching was not applicable — that is, to this new situation of mixed marriages.
Still with me?
In this new setting, Paul says that a marriage should not be dissolved simply because of the unbelief of one of the spouses. If the unbeliever was willing to stay together, the believer should stay together with him (1 Cor. 7:12ff). The word that expresses this willingness is suneudokeo, pleased to be together with. One spouse is an unbeliever, but is pleased to be in what Scripture would recognize as a marriage. But if the unbeliever departs — and there are ways of doing this while under the same roof — then Paul says that the believer should let him go. Under such circumstances, the believer is “not bound” (1 Cor. 7:15). Not bound means not bound, which means that the believer in this circumstance is free to remarry.
And so we have the two clear scriptural exceptions on the rather severe strictures against remarriage after divorce — one is porneias and the other is hostile rejection by an unbeliever. In both these scenarios, the righteous party is free to remarry.
But there is yet another situation, one that I have seen multiple times in my decades of pastoral counseling, and it is the situation described in my first paragraph. Here is the relevant passage.
“And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10–11).
Note that Paul is simply applying the Lord’s teaching here. He is assuming two professing Christians. He is assuming that porneias has not occurred, otherwise the Lord’s exemption could be applied. He commands, and the Lord with him, that a wife should not leave her husband. He is seeking to save the marriage, and he leans in to do it. The wife shouldn’t leave and the husband should not send his wife away. The Lord’s teaching applies. Christians should be able to work it out.
But in the next breath, Paul bows to the fact that the circumstances might be gnarlier than they first appeared. He gives a command, and the Lord also, but then the wife goes and departs anyhow. Let’s just say that it was easier for her to get her own apartment than to have to call the cops every third night. Now in this circumstance Paul does not say that the woman should be pressured to return. He says that she has two options. She can remain alone, or she can be reconciled to her husband. The only pressure she feels is from the fact that she is not free to marry another. This is another reason for believing that Paul is operating under the Lord’s restrictions, delivered during his earthly ministry. The wife who has left (out of self-defense) is still in some sense bound to her husband. She has grounds for separation and she has grounds for divorce. But she does not have grounds for divorce and remarriage. That would constitute the legally sanctioned adultery that the Lord prohibited.
Now if Paul would let such a woman move out of range, despite his general exhortation not to separate, then the church should also let her do that very same thing. Too often wives are kicked around by a terrible husband for many years, and when they finally move out of range, the church kicks them around for the next ten.
This exegetical understanding solves two problems. Often intractable marriage problems are also opaque. She reports his abusive behavior to the elders or pastor and the husband denies it. It is now a did too/did not situation. When that happens, it is not possible to excommunicate the husband on the testimony of his wife, any more than it would be lawful to go the other way and excommunicate the wife on the strength of his word. You cannot do this because sometimes men lie and other times women do. Scripture teaches that two or three witnesses are necessary in order to excommunicate anyone.
And then, on those occasions where you do have two or three witnesses, what if the despotic spouse just professes repentance? Seventy time seven, right? Well, only after a fashion. You cannot excommunicate someone who professes repentance multiple times — but you can let his wife move out, and provide her with the help and support she needs.
If the husband demands that the church make her return to him, the church can lay these principles out very carefully. The pastor can explain that there are times when the church cannot discipline a husband for abuse they suspect, but that they will not discipline the wife who protects herself against it.
One last thing. The church is required to lean in her direction when what she is doing is simply protecting herself. She is a refugee. She must be allowed to take hold of the horns on the altar. But if she turns around and makes accusations that go way beyond merely protecting herself (as sometimes happens in nasty divorce proceedings), as the accuser she is now the one who needs two or three witnesses.
In short, the definition of righteousness is found in Scripture, not in whited sepulcher marriages that look picture perfect in the church directory.