Tom Holladay, teaching pastor at the megachurch founded by best-selling author Rick Warren, says the Bible only gives two cases where divorce is acceptable - abandonment and adultery.
“I wish there were a third in Scripture having been involved as a pastor with situations of abuse," Holladay said in an audio clip posted on Saddleback Church’s website. "There is something in me that wishes there were a Bible verse that says, 'If they abuse you in this-and-such kind of way, then you have a right to leave them.'"
Physical abuse, he defined, is someone “literally” beating another person up regularly.
"I don't mean they grab you once. I mean they've made a habit of beating you regularly,” he clarified.
But while Holladay believes divorce is not a biblical option in cases of domestic violence, he strongly recommends the couple to separate. During the separation, the couple should undergo counselling and try to mend the marriage, he said.
“Separation combined with counselling has been proven to provide healing in people’s lives,” the pastor said, noting that his church, Saddleback, offers such a programme.
“There is nowhere in the Bible that says you should put up with abuse,” he emphasised. There is no where that says it is an “attitude of submission to let someone abuse you”, he said.
It is logical to think that divorce will offer an escape from the pain, he said, but contended that in reality it does not. The pain of a broken marriage continues for the rest of a person’s life, he said.
After a divorce, there is an “immediate release” from pain and people can think that freedom and joy are coming back into their life. But in the long term, the pain recurs every time the two former spouses deal with the children or communicate. And even events in a new marriage can trigger painful memories.
Holladay recommends instead of the “short-term solution” of a divorce that will involve long-term pain, people should endure “short-term pain” and find “God’s solution” for “long-term gain”.
The pastor explained that God understands the pain of a difficult marriage. The nation of Israel in the Bible is depicted as the bride of God, but Scripture also expresses in great detail the pain of God as Israel tries to divorce itself from its spiritual husband.
Through the Bible, people can see that God understands the pain of a hurtful marriage and can offer comfort, strength, perspective and wisdom to those also suffering from such a relationship, the pastor said.
“Does God expect us to live with this pain? No,” Holladay stated. “I think he expects us to ask him for wisdom to do the things that would cause the pain to begin to be solved. He says we're one and as Christians, as believers, the Bible says a husband is to sacrifice for his wife and the wife is to respect her husband."
"So if that's not happening," he continued, "I think you have not only the right but also the responsibility to keep pushing for that, to not just settle for the pain."
For those who had a divorce before accepting Christ as their saviour, Holladay said God does not hold them accountable because the person did not know it was wrong. And to those who divorced their spouse after becoming a believer, he said some of them would feel that divorce seemed right at the time but now seems more of a selfish response than anything else. To those people who admit they made the wrong choice, he noted that they should know God forgives sin.