This verse has been generally assumed to relate to desertion: when an unbelieving spouse walks out, abandoning a marriage with a Christian spouse, but not legally divorcing them. However, in the Greek text the word “depart” (chorizo) means “to place space between, to separate” and it was one of the standard terms for legal divorce in the first century.
Typically, perpetrators of abuse do not walk out of their marriages – they want to stay in the relationship because they enjoy the power, privilege and control they obtain therein. So the victim of abuse thinks verse fifteen does not apply to her. However, when correctly understood, it is the verse which gives her freedom. (And yes, men can be victims too; though it appears to be much less common than men being the perpetrators).
In my book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion I define domestic abuse as a pattern of conduct by one spouse which is designed to obtain and maintain power and control over the other spouse. It always includes emotional and verbal abuse and may also include financial abuse, social abuse (restricting the victim’s contact with family and friends), sexual abuse, physical violence, and spiritual abuse such as twisting scriptures to justify the abuse. Abusers who never use physical violence (and there are many) are still very frightening and controlling to their victims. Post-separation, many of these abuses may continue, with the added element of legal abuse leading to protective mothers sometimes losing custody of their children to the abuser.
The perpetration of domestic abuse effectively pushes away the other spouse and divides the marriage. The fact that many victims eventually leave abusive relationships testifies to this pushing away. Perpetrators usually protest that they want the marriage to continue, but their evil conduct conveys the exact opposite – it effectually pushes the opposite spouse away.
When applying 1 Corinthians 7:15, the key question is not who walked out? but who caused the separation? Would it be sensible to say that David was the sinful rebellious one when he left Saul’s court? No; David left because of Saul's abuse. David left, but Saul was the cause of his leaving. If we translate the word chorizo as “separate” we see this more clearly: if the unbeliever separates, let him separate. The unbeliever is doing the separating; the believer is commanded to let it be done. This tells the believing spouse (and the church) to allow the marriage to be over, because the unbeliever has destroyed the covenant. It permits the victim of abuse to take out a legal divorce. Let there be chorizo = let there be separation = let there be legal divorce, because the word chorizo means both separation and divorce.
In Not Under Bondage I also show that since the brother or sister is not under bondage, the victim of abuse is free to remarry a new partner (unlike the instance in 1 Cor. 7:10-11 where marriage to a new partner was forbidden).
This idea isn't new
Before no-fault divorce came into vogue, there was a ground for divorce under English law called 'constructive desertion'. Constructive desertion was deemed to have occurred if one spouse so ill-treated the other that the victim was justified in leaving the abusing spouse, having been driven to do so. The act of desertion was understood as having been caused by the abuser. The concept of constructive desertion was recognized by Puritan theologians who saw it in 1 Corinthians 7:15. My interpretation of that verse is not new, it's just been lost (buried under male-privilege?) for several hundred years.
What if the abuser is a professing Christian? 1 Corinthians 7:15 only applies to marriages where the opposite spouse is a nonbeliever. If an abuser is a professing Christian, efforts may be made to bring them to repentance (Matt. 18:15-17), but pastors please note: usually a Christian victim of abuse has tried to bring her abuser to repentance for years, often decades, before disclosing her predicament to the church leaders.
An abuser who doesn't demonstrate genuine repentance should be treated as an unbeliever (victims and pastors, please refer to my Checklist for Repentance). Because the abuser is to be treated as an unbeliever, the believing spouse who has suffered under the abuser is at liberty to take out a divorce under 1 Corinthians 7:15.
When it comes to domestic abuse, biblical discipline has been appallingly neglected or inappropriately employed by church leaders. But there is a line in the sand and churches must draw it when it comes to the perpetrator of domestic abuse. It's not okay for pastors to take a neutral stance vis a vis perpetrator and victim. Neutrality is not neutral. Neutrality effectively means you become an ally of the abuser, because if you take the view that both parties are contributing to the marriage problem, then you're effectively saying "It's not abuse” — which serves the agenda of the abuser. When responding to domestic abuse, the proper feeling is outrage, and the only righteous stance is to fully support the victim, while holding the perpetrator accountable.
Because abusers are great at feigning repentance and enlisting allies among clergy, an abuser's supposed repentance should be cautiously evaluated and stress-tested over time, just as Joseph tested his brothers’ repentance before reconciling with them. Repentance is not mere words, it should be demonstrated in changed attitudes and behavior. Please refer to my Checklist for Repentance.
Church leaders should always check with the victim to know how she sees her abuser's demonstrations of reformation, whether she thinks he is really reforming or just feigning it. This principle has been followed for years by best-practice secular programs which run behavior change groups for abusers. Clergy who are assessing an abuser's repentance need to follow the same protocol: they should consult with the victim at all stages.
Liberty, but not license
The principles outlined here don't open the floodgates to all divorce. Allowing divorce for abuse, on the principle of constructive desertion under 1 Corinthians 7:15 is not the same as allowing divorce for any disaffection. Because abuse is defined as a pattern of conduct designed to obtain and maintain power and control over the other, my teaching cannot be misconstrued to allow divorce for the catch-all excuse of 'incompatibility', or for the occasional instances in non-abusive marriages where one spouse shows a lack of consideration for the other spouse. In all abuse, efforts should be made to bring an abuser to repentance. However, it is important to be aware that most victims of abuse have already made many efforts in this direction before they seek help from a pastor or other professional. Indeed, the victim has usually borne too much for too long and the pattern of abuse has become deeply entrenched.
Note: This post was updated on 15 Feb 2015