Most everyone applies an unconscious standard when judging the relative merit of someone’s decision to leave a bad marriage. In other words, we all have a “line.” And when someone crosses it, we’re emotionally willing to clear the offended partner for take-off. For some, the “line” is easily crossed. For others, the “line” exists somewhere beyond the asteroid belt. But we all have one; it’s just a matter of where we choose to draw it, either consciously or unconsciously.
Think about the last time you heard someone tell his or her divorce story. We’ve all experienced this. As the newly emancipated soul explains the events leading up to the final decision to leave, we smile politely, thinking, I don’t know. Perhaps this person gave up too easily. Then, a particular detail triggers a response. Somewhere, down in the deep recesses of intuition, a signals goes off telling us that a “line” has been crossed. Perhaps the trigger was infidelity, or substance abuse, or dishonesty. Suddenly, we’re nodding in outraged approval, wondering why he or she waited so long to divorce.
During the late 1980s, a pair of researchers, James and Phyllis Alsdurf, wanted to know where church leaders drew their lines based on their firsthand experience. They sent a questionnaire to more than 5000 Protestant pastors in the United States, asking about their personal encounters with spousal abuse. One question in particular yielded opinions that some would consider disturbing. The leaders were asked, “How intense must marital violence be in order to justify a Christian woman leaving the home?” Study the results.
According to the researchers, “written comments from pastors revealed them to be a group concerned about women but torn by the theological perspectives they hold which conflict with this concern.” “Most pastors in this study indicated that they would be more than willing to accept a marriage in which some wife abuse is present—even though it is ‘not God’s perfect will’—than they would be to advise separation, which could end in divorce.”
To be fair, leaders in Christian ministry must consider the implications of divorce beyond the immediate needs of just one individual and his or her family. They recognize that the very institution of marriage and the survival of the traditional family are at stake. In 1980, statistics hinted that the “traditional” family, consisting of a working dad and home-keeping mother raising 2 of their own children, had long been an “ideal” of the past. By that time, only 7 percent of all households fit that model. Today, the United States Census Bureau doesn’t even have a category for the “traditional” or “nuclear” family. Through the nineties, blended families—households with children from previous marriages—overtook those where mom and dad reared their own children together. And by 2000, one out of every four households with children had a single mom or dad at the helm. As a result of these and other trends, “married couples with children” has become the slowest growing category of family over the last thirty years, with single-parent families growing the fastest in the last ten.
The replacement of the nuclear family by other types of household appeared to be both rapid and steady. The divorce trend, starting in the turbulent 1960s and continuing throughout the disorienting 1970s, appeared to place the family in peril of extinction. Consequently, church leaders felt compelled to shore it up, placing the needs of the many above those of the few. This undoubtedly explains why “only two per cent of the pastors said they would support a divorce (not merely separation) in situations of violence.”
Bear in mind that the Alsdurf study examined the issue of physical violence, not something as subjective as “emotional abuse” or “control issues.” Of all marital problems, physical violence is one of the easiest to prove. Bruises don’t lie. Nevertheless, “almost half of the pastors were concerned that the husband’s violence not be overemphasized and used as a ‘justification’ for breaking the marriage commitment.”
I’m not suggesting that pastors—or anyone else—should relax their commitment to upholding the marriage covenant. Not by a long shot. But at some point, we must ask ourselves, were people made for marriage, or marriage made for people? (Mark 2:27). Are we now guilty of venerating the institution of marriage over its original design, like the Pharisees obsessed over the Sabbath? Have we lost sight of the purpose of marriage in God’s ultimate program to make us more like Christ?
God gave us marriage as a blessing, not as a curse. The permanence of marriage was never intended to insulate the unrepentant sinner from the consequences of his or her sin.
 James and Phyllis Alsdurf, Battered into Submission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1989), 153.
 Ibid., 158.
 Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1981), 211–12.