When Passion Trumps Logic

When Passion Trumps Logic

Credits: Hand Modeling by Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Persis Lorenti, who blogs at Tried by Fire, has published Meaningless Verses and Meaningless Vows

Mrs. Lorenti is very concerned about the matter of spousal abuse within the church. Rightly so. Concern about a very real problem leads her to the topic of divorce. She describes "three possible camps regarding divorce among Christians": 
  • No divorce for any reason whatsoever. 
  • Divorce only for adultery and possibly abandonment.
  • Divorce for adultery, abandonment, and abuse.
Her position: "I stand firmly in the third camp." In support of her argument, she offers this scenario:
Scenario 1. A man in your congregation is emotionally, verbally, and financially abusive to his employees. They are demeaned, called names, and cursed. They are not paid on time and sometimes not paid at all. Thankfully, slavery does not exist in this country, so people have the right to quit one job and look for another. However, would you recommend that these employees continue in this man's employ even if he continues to mistreat them this way? Now let's change this scenario to a marriage. Does that change your advice?
This a classic example of comparing apples and oranges. Jobs are not marriages. An employer-employee relationship and a husband-wife relationship both, in this country, begin voluntarily. You don't have to work for The All American Widget Company. Mary does not have to marry John nor John Mary. There the comparison ends. You can walk off the job any day you want to for any reason at all or no reason. It is an entirely voluntary relationship. 

The only qualification that might apply is if the St. Peter's exhortations to servants have any application to employees:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God (1 Peter 2:18-20).
Now if that applies in any way to employees, it seems to cut against the argument by comparison Mrs. Lorenti wants to make. But let's not hang ourselves up there. Just consider the difference between employment and marriage. A marriage in a purely secular setting is a civil contract. Ending the marriage requires civil action. 

But Christians understand marriage to be a solemn covenant (Malachi 2:13-17). And our Lord does say of this covenanted relationship, "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:6). For Christians especially, who are bound by both civil law and God's commandments, there can be no easy path to divorce. Husbands and wives are not employees who may walk off the marriage job for reasons they deem sufficient. 

This is not to say it is never legitimate for one to separate him/herself from the other as an expedient. But, this is not what Mrs. Lorenti advocating. She is advocating divorce in the case of a person who finds him/herself in the marital equivalent of a miserable job situation.

After presenting a second scenario regarding a wife in a physically abusive marriage, Mrs. Lorenti goes on to argue that to deny divorce is to negate a portion of Scripture:
If the wife is not allowed to separate and/or pursue divorce in the case of domestic abuse, this implies that the verses that charge a man to love his wife as Christ loved the church are meaningless. (Eph. 5:25-33) He can treat his wife any way he wants, and it doesn't matter. She may be told that she must take on the Christ role and love her husband sacrificially to fill what he abdicated. But does that mean the husband's role is switched to submit? Are you kidding? Submission is still a nonnegotiable for the wife. So now it is up to her to hold up both sides of the marriage while submitting to the person who is murdering her in his heart. This puts a burden upon her that no person can bear because she is not God. No human being can be another person's savior. No human being can change a person's heart.
I grant that in the case of physical abuse a wife may separate for the sake of self-protection and may eventually be judged by the church to have grounds for divorce. But we think Mrs. Lorenti's argument from Ephesians 5 proves too much. The text clearly teaches that a husband must love his wife (1) as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her and (2) as he loves his own body. The text also clearly teaches that a wife must submit to her husband in all things as the church submits to Christ. (I am not familiar with the position that a wife must take on both roles if the husband fails, which is a preposterous thing to teach.)

It has to be noted that no husband has ever loved his wife by the standard Paul holds before us, nor has any wife by like standard ever submitted to her husband. At what point does the failure become grounds for divorce? If the argument is that it must be a very serious failure on the husband's part to love, as is evidenced by physical abuse, is there a similarly serious failure on a wife's part to submit that would justify divorce?

Each person is under an obligation. Each husband is obligated to love his wife, and each wife is obligated to love her husband. Each ought to do all possible to discover before marriage whether the other has the capacity to live up to his or her obligation. But "breach of love" or "breach of submission" are not grounds for divorce. A husband is obligated to love his wife regardless of whether she is submissive to him, and a wife is obligated to submit to her husband regardless of whether he loves her. Historically many Christian husbands have lived with shrews and many Christian wives have lived with real SOBs because they understood themselves bound by Christian marriage and Christian duty to remain. (See 1 Peter 3:1-7). 

Mrs. Lorenti goes on to argue that not to grant a wife the right to divorce is to make the marriage vows meaningless:
Likewise this response also implies that the vows to love and cherish are meaningless. An abuser can break these vows with no consequence to the marriage but with grave consequences for the victim. Why even bother exchanging vows, if keeping them is unnecessary? 
Again, Mrs. Lorenti's argument proves too much. Who has ever kept the marriage vows? Not the best husband or best wife. Marriage does not work very well if there is not forbearance, long-suffering, repentance, and forgiveness. Of course, keeping vows is necessary, but the truth is they are never more than more or less kept. Why exchange them? Because they testify to to couple and all that marriage involves not just or primarily romance, but solemn obligations undertaken in the face of God and the congregation. Marriage is not a job taken today and quit tomorrow but a covenant established, and marriage is a relationship from which God intends there to be very nearly no opportunity for escape.

One more question: What if a woman took the traditional wedding vow that was in use in many Protestant services till the 1928 Book of Common Prayer omitted it - "to love, honor, and obey"? What if she doesn't obey? Is that breach of vows? Is it ever a ground for divorce? 

Abuse of any kind is not excusable. Physical abuse is reprehensible. A person who is put in physical danger has a right to protect herself. She can leave and go anywhere it is safe. She can call the police before or after leaving in which case the abuser will be without exception arrested. She can make use any other civil protections available. If she is a Christian a church member she may and should report it to the church. The church can investigate and can censure the husband. It can require and provide counseling or therapy. The church can report the abuse to the police. After sufficient inquiry the church may approve obtaining a civil divorce. It may well be the case that a physically abusive husband whose wife leave may be judged himself in effect to have deserted her, leaving her no safe option except to live separate from him : 
Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God has joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXIV:6). 
Mrs. Lorenti is passionate, and understandably so, about abusive marriages. Passions joined to facts and sound logic can make for effective oral or written argument. But passions alone skew facts and make for bad logic. The problem with bad logic is that it makes arguments, which it advances as compelling, that are not compelling. Compelling arguments do not run roughshod over sound interpretation of Scripture or right reason. 

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