On Valuing Concrete Life over Abstract Institutions

First : If you want to see the payoff of the title, you have to read to the end. 

Toxic Masculinity
Over the last week, more and more details have emerged about what motivated the terrible van attack in Toronto on Monday, April 23, 2018. Knowledge that some general misogyny motivated the attacker soon gave way to the understanding that he considers himself an "incel" (from "involuntary celibate"). Incel ideology, which came together on Reddit and (after banned from Reddit) 4chan, is driven by a radical, violent misogyny. Incels are men who believe that have a right to sex with women and that women have unjustly refused them their due. They believe they must now exact their revenge on women and the men who do not share their "plight" through such things as serial rape, acid attacks, and mass killingsall of which are meant to inflict maximal carnage, violence, and long-term terror and psychological trauma. In at least two cases now (the Toronto van attack and Elliot Rogers's 2014 killing spree), this revenge fantasy has proven capable of motivating real violence. Incels—quite explicitly—see women as objects that exist purely for male sexual gratification and they view sex as little more than a consumptive commodity. Theirs is unique among large scale mobilizing ideologies not because they are committed to a thorough-going misogyny (plenty of other movements have had this) but because misogyny is their essential motivating principle. (Here are some good articles that have recently come out from the New York Times, Le Monde, and Racked that go deeper into incel thought and culture.) 

Incel ideology is an inexcusable and vile distillation and radicalization of white male entitlement and consumerist capitalism. This movement seems so diametrically opposed to Christianity that it almost appears trivial to point out why Christians can have no part of it and should do all they can to oppose it: all human beings—male or female—should be treated with dignity and never as objects; sex should be part of healthy mutual relationships and is not to be commoditized; a desire for vengeance can never motivate Christian behavior. 

But to say this posture toward the world is unacceptable, extreme, or even novel does not mean it is unprecedented. As I said, this is a distillation and radicalization of a combination of white supremacy and entitlement, toxic masculinity, and consumer capitalism. Claiming this movement came out of nowhere or is unconnected to problems permeating our larger society may be a quick way to assuage our guilt. However, it's dishonest and, more importantly, it prevents us from doing the hard but necessary work of seeking to dislodge these forces as they have insinuated themselves in our lives.

To the dismaybut surely not surpriseof all who have committed their lives to following Christ, the church shares many or even all of the warped and dehumanizing structures with the larger culture(s) in which the church finds itself. And a prominent example of the church culture of toxic masculinity also shewed itself this week. Comments Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), made in 2000 have recently been brought to public consciousnes. Patterson spoke about how he almost never counsels victims (often women) of physical abuse to get divorces; spoke about "degrees" of seriousness in physical abuse, with only the absolutely most "severe" deserving even consideration of separation; and once counseled a woman to engage in behavior that he himself believed would lead to an intensification of abuse. 

Patterson and SBTS have put out a press release in which he denies ever counseling or condoning abuse. He nevertheless doubled down on his stance that divorce should almost never be an option. The first problem with this is that Patterson's statements about abuse are either bold-faced lies or at least significant distortions of what he unquestionably said. Here's a transcript of part of that speech: 
From a Tweet by Jonathan Merritt
Patterson's choice to deny his own recorded statements rather than do the mature Christian thing by repenting and asking for forgiveness may be profoundly disappointing if you saw Patterson as bearing any spiritual authority (I didn't and I most certainly will not now). But the more profound issue is the kind of pastoral approach that almost never allows for divorce in cases of domestic abuse (whether physical, emotional, sexual). Even if Patterson indeed never condoned or recommended remaining in the proximity of an abusive spouse/partner while abuse occurred, plenty of other pastors/priests/spiritual leaders have made precisely the recommendations he denies making (even though he did). More often than not this kind of attitude is intimately intertwined with the desire to prevent the dissolution of a (purely legal at this point) marriage.  Importantly, while surely there have been and will be instances where marriages have been salvaged after a period of separation and healing for the victim and repentance and and amendment of life for the abuser, expecting this puts an undue burden on the victim and closes of the real possibility that in many cases reconciliation cannot look like a restored marriage. 

But I already know the response at this point: Sorry Pal. That would make things really easy, but there's just one little problemI ACTUALLY believe and follow what Jesus said and he clearly said that divorce is forbidden. 

Well you've got me there. Jesus clearly prohibited divorce in all circumstances.

Wait, that's only in Luke and Mark; in Matthew 19:9 Jesus allows for divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality (the actual Greek word, πορνεία/porneia, means most sexually immoral behavior, not just adultery). 

OK, but there's just that; there's no allowance for divorce on any grounds except sexually immoral behavior. 


There's the whole thing with Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:14 allows believers to divorce unbelievers. 

So I guess there was a bit more flexibility in the early church than Jesus' words in Luke and Mark would indicate. 

Looking for a moment beyond the flexibility that the early church was already reading into Jesus' teaching (and in all likelihood Mark presents the closest thing to what the historical Jesus taught), I'm convinced that putting Jesus' teaching about divorce into his larger Mediterranean context along with the larger context of his own teaching ministry actually provides the grounds for defending divorce in cases of spousal abuse. 

Essential to understanding how Jesus spoke about marriage and divorce was the almost universal understanding of the family in the 1st century Mediterranean world, of which Judea (and Jesus) was a part. Authority over the entire household (which could include not only spouse and children, but also slaves) was centralized in the father. For the vast majority of the population, children of both sexes would have had little final choice in their marriage partner and arranged marriages were the norm. However, entering into marriage still put considerably more power in the future husband's hands. First, there was the bare power differential based on age: elite Roman women could be married as young as 10-13, although the average in most of the population was between 18-25. Men, on the other hand often began their first marriage in their 30s (with a preference for younger women). Also, though Roman law required in principle the legal consent of both marriage parties, this age differential meant that women may or may not have come to the age of legal consent at marriage, but the man almost certainly had. 

Marriage was above all about preserving family honor. A daughter was often seen as a kind of liability for her father: unmarried women had the greatest potential to bring dishonor through sexual impropriety (even as victims of sexual violence) and the conflict of the ensuing retribution cycle that would be carried out by the sons of both families. Getting a daughter married was of paramount importance because marriage diminished her potential to bring dishonor all around, provided the possibility of children (the second most important purpose of marriage), and transferred responsibility for the woman from the father to the husband. At the same time, a wife remained only a quasi-member of her husband's family until she gave birth to a surviving child. Furthermore, the father always retained absolute right over his children, so if a husband and wife divorced (which generally was at the discretion of the husband alone), he had the right to keep his children. As a result of these dynamics, the strongest male-female relationships tended to be between sons and mother and brothers and sisters, with sons acting as the primary advocates for their mothers and brothers the primary protectors of their sisters. Brothers would be expected to carry out retribution on the family of a man who had dishonored their sister, and sisters would have returned to the economic and social protection of their brothers' household if widowed or divorced. 

Women were generally economically and socially dependent on close male relatives (fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons). While there are exceptional cases, most women could or would not have received education outside the home, could not initiate divorces, and were extremely limited in the property they could own independently. This was true to varying degrees in different part of the Roman Empire. The most significant broad distinction for most of the population would have been between urban and rural. Urban women had almost no perceived value outside of childbearing, while the needs of the home-as-center-of-production made rural, agricultural women's labor roughly equal to men's. Beyond this, there was a spectrum based on cultural differences. On the one end would be many urban Greek (especially Athenian) women who were often kept in the home as much as possible, could own almost no property, and could only venture outside of the home under the supervision of a close male relative. On the other end would be a free Roman woman (although her husband still would have retained all rights to children in a divorce). She could in principle own property independent of a male relative and could even initiate a divorce. Jewish women would have had freedoms somewhere in between these two extremes. They could move about relatively freely without male supervision, but official religious teaching forbade women from initiating divorce and Jewish women were much less likely to own personal property than their Roman contemporaries. 

Of course there were exceptional cases, but these tended to occur only among elites. There are records of Roman, Jewish, and even some Athenian women owning considerable private property. Some Jewish women did procure their own divorces and there are examples of some wealthy women even supporting synagogues. Again, though, almost all of these exceptional cases occurred among the economic, cultural, and political elites (with most of the exceptional Jewish cases during Jesus' life occurring in the immediate vicinity of the Herodians). Such exceptions, such as women owning substantial property or Jewish women initiating divorce, would have been virtually unknown among the vast majority of the residents of the Roman Empire. 

(The above summary of family life is a summary of work from Bonnie Thurston's Women in the New Testament, Potter and Mattingly's Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, Malina's The New Testament World, and Kraemer's essay "Jewish Family Life in the First Century CE" from the Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV.)

Jesus' seemingly strict prohibitions on divorce (either the complete prohibition of Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18 or the one allowance of divorce because of sexual immorality in Matthew 19:1-12) take on a considerably different character in light of their 1st century Mediterranean context. Outside of a small group of cultural elites, men and only men could initiate divorces for a myriad of reasons (including the desire to marry another woman because of her looks or age) and thereby leave their wives and possibly children severely economically disadvantaged. By making it either impossible or much more difficult for a man to abandon his wife, this teaching certainly had the consequence (even if not the primary intention) of ensuring much more extensive social and economic protection for women. Furthermore, by disallowing a man to divorce his wife because of infertility or even lack of sexual desire for her, Jesus' position has the effect of challenging the prevailing view that childbearing was a woman's primary role within a marriage. While it is not clear if Jesus' prohibition on divorce was meant to protect women from economic and social harm, I can't rule it out either. It was not unusual for Jesus to speak to the need for protecting the oppressed, abandoned, downtrodden, and exploited (cf. Matthew 25:31-46 or especially Luke 16:19-31, which comes immediately after Jesus' prohibition on divorce in Luke's Gospel!) Thus, if there are instances where divorce, rather than continued marriage, would lead to greater safety (such as in cases of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse), this "protection principle" may in fact make divorce the right option. 

I have to emphasize here that this was not a matter of a liberating Jesus over and against an oppressive and legalistic Judaism. Jesus' teaching was part of a larger movement in 1st century Judaism to reinterpret the nature of marriage within the context of Torah. Jesus' complete prohibition of divorce in Mark and Luke mirrors the teaching of the Qumran Essenes, and Matthew's reinterpretation of this material brings Jesus in line with the House of Shemmai. This stands in contrast to the much more permissive (for men) stances of the Houses of Hillel and Aqiba, who allowed for divorce on the grounds that a wife burnt or spoiled food (Hillel) or because the husband finds another woman more attractive (Aqiba) (from the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 90a). For more information on the early development of divorce law within Rabbinical Judaism, Susan Weiss has an excellent article on the understanding of and allowances for divorce in the Halakhah

I think that the spirit of Jesus' teaching provides the strongest reasons divorce should absolutely remain a real possibility in cases of abuse. First, though, there are grounds for an abused spouse separating from an abuser already present in Jesus' prohibition on divorce itself. Jesus' absolute (or near absolute) prohibition on divorce seems underscored by this statement: "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate" (Matthew 19:6). If someone has any questions about whether marriage is primarily a legal contract or part of the divine order of creation, this seems to answer it: the bonds of marriage are forged by God, not any human institution. What is interesting, though, is the language about the dissolution of a marriage. Jesus does not say "what God has joined together, let no one try to separate." Jesus is saying that you shouldn't break the bonds of marriage, not that you can't. That dissolving a marriage is still within our power is underscored by Jesus' giving an example of a legitimate reason why marriage could be dissolved: cases of sexual immorality (Matthew 19:9). Here is where Jesus' moving marriage out of the legal/contractual realm matters: the certificate of divorce is a seal or recognition that a divorce has happened, but this does not constitute the dissolution of the actual marriage. Furthermore, I think it should be pretty uncontroversial that abusive behavior within a marriage constitutes a de facto breaking of the marriage vows. I have no good reason to see why the abuser does not, through abuse, cause the real dissolution of the marriage (and is therefore also liable to divine judgment for illegitimately dissolving a marriage). Thus, the abuse victim would not be "getting a divorce" but instead would simply be bringing the state up to speed on the real condition of the marriage relationship. In other words, it would be like changing your address on your driver's license after you've moved: the act of changing your address does not actual cause you to move, nor are you "not really moved" until you change your address on your license. 

I am convinced that the above reasoning is enough to show why Jesus' teaching on divorce should in no way prevent the victims spousal abuse from separating from their abusers and legally dissolving their marriages. However, if this is not enough to convince you, then I think a look at the larger spirit of Jesus' teaching should. Jesus makes quite clear that his purpose was not to dissolve or abolish the law (Matthew 5:17-20). At the same time, Jesus reiterated that law should serve life (both human and in some cases animal) and flourishing (Mark 2:27 and Matthew 15:10-20). Furthermore, Jesus points out several instances where keeping the law would interfere with either life or flourishing, and in these cases preserving life and flourishing takes precedence over following the law (Luke 6:6-11, Luke 10:25-37Matthew 12:9-14). Again, I think it should be relatively uncontroversial that abuse of any kind impedes at least human flourishing and has the potential to put someone's life at risk. Therefore, Jesus' own principle about siding with life and flourishing when they come into conflict with following the law would indicate that it is perfectly appropriate to suspend his prohibition against divorce in cases of marital abuse. Moreover, the attachment to Jesus' prohibition on divorce abstracted from lived reality and against people's flourishing is exactly the kind of behavior and thought Jesus called out by healing on the Sabbath. 

A few final thoughts: First, I want to make clear that still believe that Jesus' prohibition on divorce should make people cautious about dissolving their marriages for many of the reasons that often lead to divorce (e.g., finding your spouse no longer attractive, not "feeling it" anymore, short-term tensions). Christians should take marriage seriously and not divorce each other flippantly. However, and this is a big however, there is nothing flippant about abuse. Abuse should always be sufficient grounds for the victim seeking to separate from the abuser and seek the dissolution of the legal marriage . This reality does not mean that spiritual leaders cannot hold out hope for reconciliation once the abuser repents and seeks amendment of life. But holding out this hope will mean that in many cases reconciliation will not look like a restored marital relationship. If anything, the seriousness with which we treat marriage should mean that the perpetrators of abuse (those who are truly breaking their marriage vows) should be condemned with that much more vigor. Moreover, spiritual leaders absolutely cannot burden the victim of abuse with facilitating the repentance of the abuser. That is monstrous behavior. At the very minimum spiritual leaders should do all in their power to help victims of abuse safely distance themselves from their abusers and should never seek to remove divorce as a viable response. 

Second, I know some of you have views about the nature and possible errency of Jesus' teaching such that often the fact of our different social location makes Jesus teaching no longer binding (such as his teaching on divorce). While my instinct is still to see the burden of proof as considerably higher on the side of moving away from Jesus' teaching (properly contextualized), I also believe that you can arrive at your position through sound and faithful theological reasoning. However, if this is your position, then clearly this blog post is not for you because you don't need this kind of reasoning to accept divorce as appropriate in cases of abuse. And if I'm being honest, I don't think this post will change the minds of most spiritual leaders who strongly counsel against divorce for victims of abuse. Now, hopefully there will be some pastors and counselors whose minds are changed, but my more realistic hope is that this piece can give victims of abuse some more tools for challenging destructive pastoral (or priestly) adherence to Jesus' decontextualized teaching. In other words, I hope this provides more resources for victims of abuse to reject harmful pastoral authority without feeling like they also much reject adherence to Jesus' teaching. 


  1. Very well researched and very well expressed. Nice work.

  2. Thank you for providing a broader perspective on Jesus' message.


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