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Westminster Theology & Domestic Abuse

From the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith—remarkable insight and pastoral concern for those struggling in the wake of domestic abuse. The following quotes have been pulled from a helpful study published by the Presbyterian Church of America.

William Ames

Perhaps best known for his book “The Marrow of Divinity”, Ames is an excellent representation of the thought these men devoted to the subject. William Ames wrote at length concerning the question of divorce in his “Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof.” After first affirming the indissolubility of marriage, he continues the discussion:

Nevertheless, it is not so indissoluble, but that upon such cause, as God approveth to be just it may been dissolved. For that indissolubility was not instituted for the punishment, but the comfort of the innocent and doth admit some exception, in which God ceaseth to join them. Matthew 19:6, 9.

William Perkins

J. I. Packer once said of him, “No Puritan author save Richard Baxter ever sold better than Perkins, and no Puritan thinker ever did more to shape and solidify historic Puritanism itself” (Puritan Portraits). Here William Perkins addresses the topic of desertion and something he calls “malicious dealing”. As some of you may know, the Westminster Confession cites desertion as grounds for divorce.

Like unto desertion is malicious and spiteful dealing of married folks one with the other. Malicious dealing is, when dwelling together, they require of each other intolerable conditions … Here it may be demanded, what a believer should do, who is in certain and imminent danger, either of loss of life, or breach of conscience, if they both abide together.

If [this danger is] from a stranger, then the husband either takes upon him the defense of his believing wife, or not; if he doth, then she ought to abide with him. If not, she may depart and provide for her own safety. Again, if the husband threateneth hurt, the believing wife may fife in this case; and it is all one, as if the unbelieving man should depart. For to depart from one, and drive one away by threat, are equipollent.

When questioned re: the strict terms of I Corinthians 7:15, Perkins replied,

It is alleged, that if this be so, then the believing wife forsakes the unbelieving husband, which she may not do. [He answers] She forsakes him not finally, but leaves him for a time. Again, the desertion is not made by the person, which giveth place for the time, but by him in whom is the cause of the desertion.

Theodore Beza

John Calvin’s faithful friend and successor in Geneva. Characterized by Milton as one of the strictest opponents of divorce, Beza nevertheless reserved some of his most powerful language for abusers. Concerning desertion, he wrote,

… we know him also to be a deserter who does not refuse cohabitation,but obstinately demands impious conditions.

In another place he said,

It is asked whether the faithful in turn may desert the unfaithful? … in no way is that to be permitted … [he refers again to Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 7 and to the fact that the faithful spouse sanctifies the unfaithful]. But, I repeat what I said shortly before, namely that he appears the deserter not only who positively refuses a mutual living together, but also who demands intolerable conditions from the faithful [spouse], such as if the unfaithful spouse absolutely compels the faithful to attend the abominable Mass, in a word any doing or enduring of something altogether against the obligation of piety. From this, therefore, another question occurs: what should the faithful [spouse] do when indeed cohabitation is not denied, but either hazard of life is incurred or something is either to be done or endured against the true religion. I respond that these two distinctions are to be observed.

First, either the unfaithful [spouse], whether intentionally or unwittingly, persecutes the faithful spouse, or the persecution arises from some other direction. If the former, the faithful spouse really has a suitable excuse for shunning her domestic enemy for no other reason than that she should consider her life and conscience, and I would decide in this case nothing other than if the unfaithful spouse himself had departed for another. To depart from someone and to drive the other away by threats or force are the same thing. But if such persecution should assail [the faithful spouse] from some other direction, the faithful spouse should act at length more moderately than if she should cherish an enemy in her home and bosom. Nor is it to be doubted that if the unfaithful spouse should attend the faithful with conjugal love, should provide for her life in every way, in this case the faithful spouse rather should bear whatever you will than that is should be her duty to abandon the unfaithful spouse. But if the unfaithful spouse does not care as is right that the faithful spouse is in peril, no one does not see, I think, not only that he is a deserter, but also that he may be shunned with a good conscience as a traitor.

Samuel Maresius (1599-1673)

Samuel Maresius, certainly a representative reformed divine from the general period of the Westminster Assembly, provides a summation which includes the broader construction of desertion. That he does so without any indication that this was particularly controversial is remarkable.

The legitimacy of divorce is established, such that the offended party acquires the right to make new [marriage] vows, for only two causes in the new covenant, even if civil laws and some erudite today think it right to allow more, namely Adultery, as Christ says … Matthew 5:32; 19:9 and Malitiosa Desertio … (the brother or sister is not bound in such a case, viz. that he should remain unmarried) I Corinthians 7:15. But such desertion is taken to be not only a determined and permanent withdrawal from the marital home and companionship, but an obstinate denial of the obligations of marriage, by intolerable cruelty putting life at hazard for the present, or from either treacherous or naked force, by the acceptance of a mistress, and whatever, by analogy, is equivalent to or greater than this desertion. If, however, a spouse … should only go over to the enemies (i.e. religious?) or desert the true religion, he is not by this to be considered guilty of this malicious desertion which severs the bond of marriage, if only the other spouse is able to cohabit with him with a clear conscience.

Domestic Abuse: Resources for Further Study

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