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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO. 81326




A lady called me one morning saying: "I am a Christian. I know God hates divorce, and so do I. I am married to an alcoholic, physically abusive husband, who is coming home this afternoon, undoubtedly drunk. We have 3 children. What are my legal options?"

She called me because I am an attorney by training. I also served 5 years as a judge, specializing in mental health, marital, criminal, and juvenile matters. Since 1982, I have devoted myself to assisting Christians who are in legal or relational conflict to deal with conflict in a way honoring to Jesus Christ.

What follows is what I told her.

First, let's explore the various legal options: (1) file for divorce, get a restraining order, and he does not even get to come home tonight; (2) file for legal separation and get the restraining order; (3) just get the restraining order; (4) take the children and flee to a shelter facility; (5) go to the police.

But if any one of the first four of these options is chosen, there will probably be a divorce, for the husband will see himself being rejected, justifying him in divorcing. He may need that rejection to maintain his own sense of inadequacy, worthlessness, inability to be other than he is. He may divorce so that, in his mind, "his wife may have a chance to find happiness." The fifth option is appropriate, but only, in my opinion, after certain other steps have been taken. (More on that later.)

Before talking about what can be done, however, let's see if we can agree upon a few things.

First, this man is made in the image of God -- Gen. 1:26-27. God is neither alcoholic nor abusive, nor did He make this husband that way. God made this husband to model God's love for the world to the world. The husband chooses to be alcoholic and abusive.

Second, this man has knowledge of God -- Rom. 1:18-20. He knows that what he is doing is wrong. He, like Paul, cries out: "I am not doing what I want to do; I am doing what I hate" (Rom. 7:15).

Third, God does not want this man lost to the kingdom or to a moment of the abundant life -- Matt. 18:12-14. Because of this, God, while this man was still lost, died for this man -- Rom. 5:8.

Fourth, God, through the Holy Spirit continues to seek to bring this man to repentance, with kindness, forbearance and patience (Rom. 2:4), causing pain as needed (Acts 26:14). In doing this, God has more power than do we.

Fifth, God has given gifts, including both good and bad life experiences, to His people (Rom. 12:6-8; Eph. 4:11-13; I Cor. 12:4-11), each gift being where He wants it for maximum ministry impact (I Cor. 12:18), that we may serve one another on a daily basis (Acts 6:1-6).

Sixth, God wants us to deal with our conflicts face-to-face by seeking out the person who we know has something against us (Matt. 5:22-24) or by seeking out the person whom we believe has offended us (Matt. 18:15). Our relationship one with another is important to God. We were created for relationship with God and with each other. When we broke our relationship with God, He came looking for us (Gen. 3:8-9). [See The Path to Reconciliation; The Who, What and How of Matt. 18:16; The Church in Matt. 18:17]

Seventh, God does not want us to take our disputes to the law courts but does want us to bring our conflicts to the church (I Cor. 6:1-6; Matt. 18:17). God has even granted the Church power to assist in conflict resolution and promised His personal help to the peacemakers (Matt. 18:18-20). [See May We Sue? Shall We Sue? Whom May We Sue?]

He does not want us to go to "grieve the Holy Spirit Who sealed us for the day of redemption by allowing bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander and malice to consume us" (Eph. 4:30-31). He does not want us "consumed as we bite and devour one another" (Gal. 5:15). He does not want us distracted from the work which He has prepared beforehand that we might do (Eph. 2:10).

Well, now we know what we can't do, and why. But this husband is still coming home this afternoon, drunk and abusive. What can be done?

Go to the pastor of the church. Explain the matter to him, and ask him, along with one or two of the men of the church, to be at the door of the house when the husband comes home. In choosing the men, it would be very helpful if one were a man with a background of alcohol, or abuse, or great anger, who, through Jesus Christ, one day at a time, has found peace.

So, there the men are, at the door, and the husband comes home. What then? Then wrestle with him for his very soul, as God wrestled with Jacob at the brook of Penuel (Gen. 32:22-32). Jacob -- "the deceiver" -- knew that God did not want "the deceiver" to enter the promised land. This man knows that God does not want him drunk and abusive. But Jacob felt helpless in himself, to change his deceptive nature. So does this man. So Jacob cried out to God, and wrestled with God, until he was a totally broken man, grasping the edge of the Lord's garment, refusing to let go of the one thing which he knew could alter him. The men at the door wrestle for God as His proxies. There is one major difference between Jacob and the man we are talking about. Jacob and the Lord only wrestled one night. These men may have to wrestle every day for months, or even years.

Therefore, those who go must understand that when people inject themselves into the life of others who are in conflict, it will be a time of pain and sacrifice for the peacemakers. It was a time of pain and sacrifice for Christ. [See On Being a Peacemaker]

What are some possible sacrifices?

One may be for one of the men to take the husband home with him, so the tension is alleviated. By taking him home, there is then the chance to minister to him daily -- to disciple him in-depth. By taking him home, he can be fed and clothed "of the Lord" each day -- Is. 58:7-12. One problem with simple counseling -- one hour per week -- is that the counselee can cover his sins for a short time. But living in the home of others will, in short order, unmask the true man and his true needs. [See Confusion in Counseling]

Another sacrifice may be that the husband commit to a counseling program for his anger, abusiveness, and alcohol use -- with one of the men of the church, and the wife, committed to accompany him to all meetings as a friend and helper. The helper is to take what the counselor is saying that is truth and reinforce it to the man. The man, being in conflict, has some logs in his eyes and ears that inhibit him seeing and hearing correctly from a stranger -- the counselor -- but not from a friend.

Another sacrifice may be that the church pays some bills of this family, to alleviate financial stress and enhance the possibility of healing.

And, lest she be overlooked, the church should find two older ladies to minister to the wife, and teach her how to love her husband (not enable, but love in gentle confrontation) -- Ti. 2:4. She also needs daily ministry. Plus, this creates some witnesses to the positive things taking place in her life, just as the husband now has some witnesses to the positive things taking place in his life. The witnesses can get them together and witness to them of these changes. This is a part of the concept of Matt. 18:16.

So far we have been describing a man who agrees when confronted that he needs help, and agrees to submit himself to the church (and others) for help. But what if he doesn't agree, and submit? Ask him to honor his wife's fear by remaining separate for a time of cooling off, and suggest that he and his wife seek counseling. Offer to assist with money if the cost of counseling seems to be a stumbling block. If he refuses, and insists upon entering the house, take the wife and find housing for her with some people of the church. Then go with her to the authorities to report the abuse. (Rom. 13:1-7)

What about the children?

Unless the husband has been guilty of criminal abuse of the children (physical or sexual), leave the children behind -- they are the responsibility of the husband/father, in his standing before God. If you take his responsibility away from him, he never has to face his responsibility, naked and alone, before God -- you have become an enabler. If the pain of the goad of God could get through Paul as he walked, alone, down the dusty road to Damascus (Acts 26:12-14), it can get through to this man. Allow the Lord the opening to work.

If the husband has been guilty of criminal abuse of the children, take the children with you if you can do so without a breach of the peace (violence). If the husband creates a situation where violence will result, leave the children and take the wife directly to the nearest police station. There make a report of the specific acts of violation of law by the husband in the past. As this is done, there needs to be a release of the future of the matter. It is time to submit the matter to the authorities established by God and defer to whatever decisions they make and to whatever results take place. Your trust is turned from man and man's laws to Him Who judges righteously (I Pet. 2:23) in expectation that He will work it all to His glory in His way and time (Rom. 8:28).

Then, when the authorities go to the man, the pastor and men of the church must be at the station when he is brought in, to again offer to minister to him and bear his burdens (Gal. 6:1-2; Jude 22-25)

I have specified "criminal" for a reason. Our natural concern for the good of a child, raised by an alcoholic and abusive person, makes us want to place ourselves as the protector, as the one who determines right and wrong, rather than see God as protector or submit the matter to the authorities for independent determination. We would prefer to be the protagonist in the courts because we want to control the situation. The problem with one spouse being the aggressor in the law courts is that such is literally warring against oneself, as the two are one flesh (Gen. 2:24). In the process, the child will be forced to choose between two masters and will be divided in two just as was going to be done by Solomon (I Kings 3:16-28).

What if the actions are not criminal -- why should we not fight "in the best interest of the child"? Some day, this child, like every other person ever created, will have to stand before Christ as Judge. Christ may ask: "Sam, when you were 25 years old, you did this pretty dumb thing. Why?" If Sam begins to say: "Well, I was raised by my father, and he was an alcoholic and no good man", then Christ will say: "That is no excuse. I formed you in your mother's womb. I placed my Spirit within you. I gave you knowledge of me. You were free to choose to do right (Ez. 18:1-23). You cannot place the blame on another."

Let me tell you something from my years of legal and judicial experience. First, the separation of this family will cause harm to the children. Divorce will cause greater harm. The greater the fight in the divorce, the greater the harm. Living with a rotten parent (as opposed to a parent committing criminal acts against the child) will be less harmful to the child than the fight to prevent that. A spouse who, in love, surrenders the issues concerning the children to the other spouse, or the criminal authorities, and chooses to display nothing but love to spouse and children at all times, will do more to counteract the harm than anything else can ever do.

The lady called back the next day. She was calling from the hospital where her husband had committed himself for treatment. She was on one side of the bed, holding a hand, committed to going through the treatment with him. And a man of the church was seated on the other side of the bed, holding the other hand, committed to going through the treatment with them.

And God received the glory and the church saw revival take place.