Is it Ever a Sin to Stay Married?

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10 Prayers for Victims in Abusive Marriages

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God hates divorce.” Every married Christian in the Western hemisphere is familiar with the Malachi 2:16 verse, likely used to respectively warn and encourage any Christian sister or brother pondering the subject of divorce. I believe most of us agree God prefers married people to stay married, and we should do everything possible to maintain the vows to our partner and the Lord. After all, marriage is a sacred act, the foundation for family, and divorce is a universally grievous experience.

But just as we live in a fallen world full of broken people and a myriad of circumstances beyond our control, sometimes our vows fail us. Sometimes, the one who swore to love and protect us pivots severely in spirit and behavior, instead bringing pain and harm. Sometimes a spouse turns from the Lord completely, or falls so deeply into sin they lose themselves, and their capacity to love. Unforeseen acts like physical abuse, manipulation, and infidelity occur, and we’re left in a pool of unfathomable heartache, staring at a seemingly bottomless chasm between what was promised and what is.

And aside from all the confusion and difficult questions we’re left struggling with, we’re often left with the uncomfortable, often polarizing question: Should Christians stay married no matter the cost? Is it ever against God’s will to remain in toxic, unhealthy marriages for the sake of keeping our vows? Some say yes. After all, Jesus turned the other cheek, suffered at length, and still loved those nailing him to the cross. And let’s remember, marriage is a sacrifice, not a vacation. Bad marriages may feel unbearable, but life isn’t about our happiness, and God is enough.

All that sounds biblically-informed enough, but what about when a marriage involves one spouse dishonoring God by harming the other? What does the Bible say about remaining in abusive relationships where behaviors like spiritual manipulation, financial abuse, infidelity, gaslighting, and physical intimidation exist? Can it even be considered a sin to stay married in such sad, extreme cases?

I believe the best place to begin is by examining God’s heart and purpose for marriage in the first place. In Ephesians 5:22, marriage is compared to the relationship between Christ and the church, teaching that Christian spouses reflect this mystery. As God willed for Christ and the church to become one body (Gal. 3:28, 1 Cor. 12:13), so He desires marriage to reflect this pattern—that the husband and wife become one flesh (Gen. 2:24).

In the Catholic faith, Christians believe that the sacrament of marriage is a public declaration of commitment to another person and a public statement about God. The loving union of a couple is seen as an example of God’s values and family values.

So what does God expect of those partaking in the holy sacrament of marriage? Naturally, I could regurgitate that 1 Corinthians 13 verse (love is patient, love is kind) and then, of course, pivot to the Ephesians 5:25 verse instructing husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and wives to respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:22). But it really comes to this: the purpose of marriage is to exemplify the love of Christ to our spouse, daily. Not just for our own growth and joy but so that others (our kids, colleagues, neighbors, friends) might see God’s nature and give Him glory. By adopting a lifestyle of self-sacrifice and unconditional love towards our spouse, we both become more like Jesus and, hence, closer to God.

So when we’re talking about the potential of God desiring the obsoletion of these vows, we’re obviously not talking about leaving a marriage due to bad habits, character flaws, communication issues, loss of attraction, etc. We’re not talking about being “stuck” with a spouse who has proclivities to sin or remains spiritually complacent or “suffering” through extreme seasons of discontentment or discord. That’s just life. These (and so many others) are common challenges that take sacrifice, compromise, selflessness, patience and most likely some decent marriage counseling to work through, with God’s grace. But what about when a spouse begins mistreating the other and is unwilling to change?

Jesus only names infidelity (Matt. 19:9) as grounds for divorce. Does that mean God expects a spouse to stay married to a physical abuser? What about continued, purposeful verbal attacks? What about an unapologetically intentional habit of a husband or wife acting inappropriately with members of the opposite sex? What would Jesus say to us today if given the chance to counsel his sweet daughter or son living with a spouse who’s willfully and perpetually violating his or her vows with no signs of true repentance? Would he ever consider it a sin to stay married?

Angry couple arguing in the kitchen.

Photo credit: ©Pexels/Alex Green

I believe the answer becomes clear as day when exploring the meaning of sin in the first place. Sin is anything that separates us from God. It can be foul language, idolatry, lying, pride, lust, etc. When we continue in these behaviors without repenting, the Holy Spirit living in us remains grieved, and we can’t enjoy close communion with Him. But how could something good and ordained by God, like marriage, be a sin? The same way all the other innately good, godly things like sex (when married), food, wine, work, and entertainment are misused every day (by millions) and turned into acts of gluttony, drunkenness, and idolatry.

I would venture to say some spouses remain in unhealthy, God-dishonoring marriages not out of duty to their vows but out of sin itself. Some would rather raise their children under the roof of a manipulating abuser than endure the “shame” and embarrassment of a divorce, hence making the marriage less of a sacrament and more of an idol or even a mockery that grieves the Lord. Marriage license or not, I believe when a spouse continually engages in any of the malicious, harmful behaviors mentioned above, their vows have already been broken. And by staying married to a destructive spouse – even in the legal sense- we’re not only enabling sinful behavior, we’re perpetuating a degraded, distorted version of God’s design for marriage in the first place. And everyone around us pays the price.

God certainly does not receive glory when children see their mother transmute into a verbally battered shell of herself by staying with an abusive husband and instituting a sick view of marriage for her children. The beauty of God’s ways is not reflected when friends witness a wife demeaning and brow-beating her husband for years without any sign of regret. The majesty of God’s nature is captivating friends who watch a husband financially manipulate his wife for years to control and possess her.

Notice that the key denominators here are unwillingness and repentance. The biblical meaning of repentance is turning away from self and to God. It involves a change of mind that leads to action. It’s never okay for a spouse to push another during a fit of anger. It’s never okay for a spouse to demean another to tears with their words. It’s never okay to watch porn or flirt with a co-worker. But I do believe any/all sins can be forgiven and behaviors changed when a spouse experiences true repentance, desires change, and gains trust through proven action.

In a harmful marriage where the spouse is unwilling or unable to change unhealthy habits, I believe Jesus would say it’s our job to forgive but not reconcile. Because on this side of heaven, there are still consequences, even after forgiveness. Galatians 6:8 says, “Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful desires will harvest the consequences of decay and death. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit.

There is a way to forgive an abusive spouse without holding any bitterness in our hearts while choosing to go our separate ways. It’s the same exact concept we see enacted when a Christian pastor commits sexual immorality, adultery, or some other egregious act and is rightly removed from leadership. Should he be forgiven by the Lord, his church, and his victims? Absolutely. But forgiveness does not always equate to restoration. Just as the fallen pastor loses the privilege of shepherding God’s people, so should an abusing spouse lose the privilege of remaining united to any child of God.

I feel as much as we idolatrize the act of marriage in the Christian life, we also over-villainize divorce to an extent. We make divorce second only to the unpardonable sin. We’ve put divorce on a pedestal of evil, looking down from its throne of doctrinal villainhood upon all the lesser sins, with gluttony, malice, lying, complaining, coveting, envying, stealing, and cheating shouting upward, “At least we didn’t break our oath to Jesus! At least we didn’t break a family up!”

God always values life over law. It’s why Jesus healed a lame man on the Sabbath despite the Pharisees’ condemnation. Staying married to an unrepented spouse bringing continual harm for the sake of “upholding” a sacrament was never God’s intention. While evil exists in this world, so will divorce, and for some of us, Jesus remains our only true bridegroom. And thankfully, His love never fails, never harms, and always endures.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/somethingway

Jessica Kastner is an award-winning writer and author of Hiding from the Kids in My Prayer ClosetShe leads Bible studies within juvenile detention centers with Straight Ahead Ministries and offers unapologetically real encouragement for women at Jessicakastner.com.



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