“We adhere to the Bible’s view of marriage and divorce. God created marriage to be a permanent union between a man and a woman. The only Scriptural grounds for divorce is sexual immorality.—Matthew 19:5, 6, 9
Jehovah’s Witnesses apply Matthew 19:9 literally, which states: “I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” In practice, this means that a Jehovah’s Witness who divorces her spouse for any reason other than infidelity will be disfellowshipped—or shunned—from the congregation.
Even in cases where one marriage mate is unfaithful, Watchtower has very specific, legalistic guidelines for elders on how to “handle” the matter:
- “Scriptural freedom to remarry requires three conditions: (1) sexual immorality (por·nei_a); (2) a rejection (refusal to reconcile) by the innocent mate; and (3) a legal, final divorce. (Matt. 5:31, 32; 19:9; Heb. 13:4) For example, if an individual contemplating remarriage confesses that he has been guilty of sexual immorality after his former mate legally divorced him or if his former mate has admitted to committing sexual immorality since the legal divorce, both are Scripturally free to remarry.” –Shepherd the Flock of God (Elder’s Manual) pg. 105
This means that even if one marriage mate was being physically, sexually or emotionally abused it would not be grounds for “scriptural” divorce. What does this mean for the abuse victim? It means that if they do get divorced and begin a relationship with another person, they will be disfellowshipped.
- “Continuing to date or to pursue a romantic relationship with a person though one or both are not legally or Scripturally free to remarry, doing so despite repeated counsel and generally after a warning talk to the congregation, would warrant judicial action” –Shepherd the Flock of God pg. 89
Do Congregation Elders Have to Approve the Divorce of a Witness?
What JW.ORG Says
“No. Even when elders are asked to help a couple deal with marital difficulties, they are not authorized to tell the couple what to do. (Galatians 6:5) However, someone who chooses to divorce without Scriptural grounds is not Scripturally free to remarry.—1 Timothy 3:1, 5, 12.”
The congregation elders’ handbook makes it clear that elders do have to approve the divorce of a Witness:
- “The publisher should be advised that he is not to view himself as Scripturally free to date or remarry until the elders have investigated the matter and guilt of por·nei_a is established.” –Chapter 12, pg. 102
- “It is the responsibility of the individual desiring to remarry to produce convincing evidence [to the elders] to establish Scriptural freedom to remarry” –Chapter 12, pg. 101
Clearly, then, a person may be able to obtain a legal divorce from their spouse without consulting the elders, but she will not be allowed to date or remarry without the elders’ approval. As stated above, the punishment for a lack of the elders’ approval in this matter means excommunication.
How Do Witnesses View Separation?
What JW.ORG Says
“The Bible encourages marriage mates to stay together even under less than ideal circumstances. (1 Corinthians 7:10-16) Many problems can be resolved by praying earnestly, applying Bible principles, and showing love.—1 Corinthians 13:4-8; Galatians 5:22.
“Nevertheless, in extreme situations such as the following, some Christians have decided to separate from a marriage mate:
- Willful nonsupport.—1 Timothy 5:8.
- Extreme physical abuse.—Psalm 11:5.
- Absolute endangerment of spiritual life. For example, a spouse might try to force a Witness to break God’s commands in some way, and the threatened mate might decide that a separation is the only way to ‘obey God as ruler rather than men.’—Acts 5:29.”
The attitudes presented above are incredibly dangerous. Married Witnesses are discouraged from separation even in cases of physical, sexual or emotional abuse—in fact, the latter two forms of abuse are not even mentioned. Only in “extreme” cases have “some Christians” decided to separate. Divorce is not even an option. And should a spouse decide to separate from her mate because of abuse, she would be expected to remain unmarried forever:
- “Should the battered wife leave her husband? The Bible does not treat marital separation lightly. At the same time, it does not oblige a battered wife to stay with a man who jeopardizes her health and perhaps her very life. The Christian apostle Paul wrote: “If she should actually depart, let her remain unmarried or else make up again with her husband.”” Awake, Nov 1 2001 pg. 3-12
“Extreme” abuse is a relative term, as is “absolute” endangerment of spiritual life. Because of this, there is plenty of wiggle room for Witnesses to be forced to remain in dangerous, abusive marriages. In fact, Watchtower publications have historically placed subtle blame on the victims, even encouraging abused spouses to stay in their harmful marriage and “wait on Jehovah” to handle things.
- “Contributing to home violence is the tendency to focus on our own feelings. (Phil. 2:4) A wife expects her husband to notice and to comment on her new hairdo without her mentioning it. But when he comes home it is almost as if he thinks she miraculously should know about the traffic jam. Those could be the ingredients for a family fight leading to violence.” g79 5/8 pp. 13-19
- “…if husband and wife develop a pattern of communication about their activities and feelings, it is unlikely that frustrations common to imperfect life in this system will build to the point of a violent explosion.” g79 5/8 pp. 13-19
- “When Yelena began to study the Bible, she was silently suffering harsh treatment from her husband. He had been brought up in a violent environment, where the kidnapping of brides and physical abuse were common practices. “What I learned from the Bible gave me strength,” says Yelena. “I understood that there was someone who loved me very much and valued and cared about me. I also understood that if my husband studied the Bible, it could change his attitude toward me.” Her dream came true when her husband eventually agreed to study the Bible and then got baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “He became an example of self-control and restraint,” Yelena says.” w12 9/1 pp. 8-11
- “The marriage of one couple was headed for disaster. The husband was violent and had many bad habits. Life seemed impossible for his wife. She attempted suicide. Then the husband began to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. What he learned helped him conquer his bad habits and violent temper. His wife was amazed at the “impossible” changes.” w12 6/1 pp. 27-29