See, I believe that there are some in the church who are physically violent toward their spouses. I believe that there are some husbands who will emotionally and psychologically manipulate their wives. I believe that there are wives who will choose to suffer abuse instead of escaping.
The problem for me is that some will add spiritual abuse into the mix, and the result is not pretty. When you believe that a husband is the head of his wife (Ephesians 5), it is not too far of a stretch to say that he must be given freedom to do what he thinks is right. When you believe that a wife is to submit to her husband (1 Peter 3), it is not inconceivable that she willingly endures from him what she does not enjoy. When you believe that the heart of marriage is a commitment to faithfulness for better or worse (Matthew 19), you can see how one might feel guilty for considering separation. When you believe that God can use suffering to build perseverance, character, and hope (Romans 5), it's understandable that someone would stay in a situation that is utterly painful in almost every way.
I have a problem because I believe in all of this. And because I believe this, I have in my theology the beginning of a framework that is potentially extremely destructive, both in my personal relationships and for the people within my pastoral influence.
"Submit to one another" is unsatisfactory
Additionally, some argue that the New Testament was written in an era where the socially accepted norm was for husbands to treat wives as possessions, and so its commands are at worst simply saying the same thing as its contemporaries, and at best a radically subversive teaching that elevates women far above where they would normally sit in the eyes of society. Today's society, however, is quite different from New Testament times, and it is inappropriate to simply apply its teaching today.
Unfortunately for me, although I am sympathetic to this argument, I still think the Bible says that husbands and wives have different roles in the marriage relationship. And as I read and wrestle with the New Testament, I do not think that it is accurate to say that its teaching about husbands and wives was only relevant in the first century and not in the twenty-first century.
Moreover, I don't want to dismantle the ideas about marriage, commitment, and suffering that I find in the Bible! I believe that there is something beautiful about marriages where a husband and wife recognise, appreciate, and bring out the best in their differences as man and woman. I believe that it is wonderful when husbands are eager to put their own necks on the line out of love for their wives, and when wives are confident to trust their husbands. I believe that there is great security and comfort in a marriage that is defined not by emotional intensity but by a commitment to faithfulness. I believe that there is joy in knowing that God is powerful enough to use suffering to produce good, in us and for us. So I need to look for answers somewhere else.
"Love your wives" doesn't address the issue in full
I want to say that I think this may be a valid point, but it may also be beside the point. I think we still have a problem because fundamentally I think we still have to wrestle with the theology, because we are convicted that our theology will drive our practice.
In line with this, an alternative theological solution is to point out that the Bible's teaching counteracts any possibility of abuse in relationships. The most common way of doing this is also by appealing to the context of Ephesians 5.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church-- 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
— Ephesians 5:22-33
In the flow of this argument, to focus on the wife is to only see half of the picture. In full, the commands to husbands and wives leave no room for abuse when they are followed.
I think this argument accurately reflects the Bible's teaching about the role of husbands in marriage. It shows that husbands have no excuse if they are violent, manipulative, unfair, or demanding. It says that husbands are guilty if they are apathetic, if they are unsupportive, or if they are ignorant to the needs of their wives. Yet I think that this argument is not enough on its own, because it still doesn't quite connect with half of the problem.
To point out that the Bible calls husbands to love their wives addresses the problem of a doctrine of headship that implies that abuse is okay. However, we can't stop here. For one, we have just contradicted theoretically the reality that abuse does happen, and sometimes in the church, and moreover sometimes on the basis of faulty doctrine. For another, we have addressed the abuser but not the victim. What exactly is a wife to do? She is torn between being unfaithful to her husband, or suffering. She has no guidance for where to draw the line between sins that can be overlooked and ones that she may flee.
As a husband, I am satisfied—I am not to abuse my wife. I must love her with everything I have got, and that is what I need to concentrate on, not her submission. But as a friend, a pastor, or an unhappy wife, I need more than "he shouldn't be doing that".
A world where abuse exists
Christians therefore ought to recognise that the world is not as it should be, and all the laws of the world are not enough to fix it. We have hope that very soon God himself will intervene in the world and bring every unrighteous act to an end, but that hope is unseen. We have the promise of real, transformed lives in the present, but also the knowledge that corruption still lingers in us and permeates the world. We live in a world where abuse exists.
The reality of sin allows us to explain why the church can teach one thing and seemingly do another. It explains why we cannot assume that this is not our problem. It stops the church from saying, "that doesn't happen here," when stories of violence and manipulation cry out from hurting hearts. It stops us from thinking that just because we don't think or hear about abuse, it therefore doesn't happen.
A world without Abuse
And though we see abuse today, in the new world there will be no abusers, only lovers. There will be no manipulators, only servant leaders. There will be no victims - each one will be restored a thousand times what they lost, whether it was their body, their freedom, their dignity, or their mind.
I believe that Jesus didn't die for nothing. I believe in his coming and his new world: a world without abuse
Living between worlds
See, I don't believe that I can separate myself from those who commit domestic violence. I believe that before I can point the finger at anyone else, Jesus says to me: Get the log out of your own eye first.
I don't think I can claim the moral high ground, because I am insecure in my relationships. And because I am insecure, my sinful tendency is to try to manipulate others—especially my "significant other"—to like me. Because I am insecure, I am tempted to overreact, alternating between being a doormat and being a dominator. Because I am insecure, I am tempted to tell my wife of her spiritual obligations to me, instead of focussing on my spiritual obligations to her. My insecurity, combined with my sinful heart, leads to abuse.
I can't say I am any better than an abuser, because I am proud. And in my pride I don't want to admit that I'm wrong, or unhelpful, or hurtful. I'm tempted to "theologise" my sinful behaviour, to justify it by saying that it was right after all. That I was only doing what I thought was right. That I was acting with out of "love". That true love hurts sometimes. That in being the "head" it was my “right”. In my pride I use half-truths to hide the fact that I am a sinner. And in doing so, I become an abuser.
When I hear about abuse happening in my church, I ought not to respond by getting defensive about my doctrine. I ought to respond in sorrow and repentance, because I am an abuser.
I need to acknowledge here that there are many factors that lie behind abuse: psychopathic disorders, childhood abuse, lack of education, and so on. Sometimes people with callous hearts genuinely enjoy doing evil things. What I am trying to say is that the thing that stops me from saying, “not my problem,” is the fact that I am guilty of the very same things as I condemn.
The gospel that frees us
God wants a relationship with us. He cops our abuse and holds out his hands to welcome us. He lets us heap insults on him and he acts like a father towards us. He lets us commit violence against him, and he uses our depravity to save us from hell. That is the powerful love of God.
And the gospel is good news because everyone who admits that they are a sinner can know that God loves them more than they can imagine. And the logical response can be summed up in two statements, described by Jesus as the greatest of all God's commandments: Love God with all you've got, and Love your neighbour as yourself.
I think that's a good starting point for a theology of responding to abuse.
Getting our priorities right: Honouring Jesus
Husbands are to love Jesus first, more than they love their wives or their marriage. Why is this a good thing? Because every kind of idolatry is a less-than-ideal way to live. A husband who idolises his marriage is tempted to abuse his wife: if Jesus is not Lord, then there is no reason to think that your wife is strong enough to resist temptation, and you will try to force boundaries on her to keep her away from others. You will try to control her whenever you perceive your marriage to be under threat. A husband who idolises his wife is tempted to react violently when she inevitably fails to please him. But a husband who places Jesus first and knows his powerful love can understand and forgive his wife's failings. He can trust that Jesus can take care of her better than he can, so he doesn't need to control her.
Wives are to love Jesus first, more than they are to love their husbands or their marriage. Just as with husbands, any kind of idolatry opens a door for abuse. A wife who idolises her marriage is prone to thinking that she must preserve that relationship at all costs, even if it is doing spiritual harm to everyone involved. A wife who idolises her husband must lose hope when her husband inevitably fails to please her. She is tempted to let her husband get away with sinful behaviour because he is in charge, not Jesus. But a wife who places Jesus first and knows his powerful love has a degree of independence from her husband, even though she loves her union with him. She can help him to honour Jesus in every situation.
Knowing the powerful love of Jesus frees us from the dangers of abuse. It stops us from using other doctrines like headship, submission, faithfulness, and perseverance to justify violence or passive acceptance of manipulative behaviour.
Getting our priorities right: Loving others
A husband who knows the powerful love of Jesus finds immense joy in loving his wife. He will be eager to follow Christ's example of love: He will put her interests ahead of his own. He will put aside his own desires and fears for her sake. He will want her to have healthy relationships with others outside of their marriage. He will find opportunities to help her grow in godliness. I believe that headship means that he will take responsibility both for himself and for their relationship, so that he takes the brunt of the fall when they stuff up together, and he proactively nurtures the love they have for each other.
A wife who knows the powerful love of Jesus finds immense joy in loving her husband. She will be eager to follow Christ's example of love: She will put his interests ahead of her own. She will put aside her own desires and fears for his sake. She will honour him whether she is with him or away from him. She will find opportunities to help him grow in godliness. I believe that submission means that she will take responsibility for herself, but proactively support and honour his responsibility for their relationship. That means she takes the fall for her own failings, she gives him recognition for successes they have together, and she proactively nurtures the love they have for each other.
A wife who knows the powerful love of Jesus will love her husband even if he is abusive. I believe in the biblical context that means that she will refuse to let him be an idol to her, which means not letting him get away with demanding complete obedience. It means that she will try to help him turn away from sin: in some cases, a rebuke in the context of grace may be the right response; in other more dangerous cases, separation may be a necessary first step. I believe that the doctrine of submission is an outworking of the commands to love God and love your neighbour; therefore I believe that sometimes "submission" may be inappropriate when it is not the most loving thing to do.
Knowing the powerful love of Jesus frees us to love others, and especially our spouses. It stops our desires and fears from driving us to abusive and manipulative behaviours. It stops our insecurities from becoming reasons to tolerate sin.
The doctrines of headship and submission are dangerous on their own—just as are the doctrines of faithfulness in marriage and perseverance in suffering. But the theological underpinning of all of these doctrines, and the answer to all their dangers, is the powerful love of Jesus: that is, the gospel.
- Never preach headship or submission without preaching the gospel.
In fact, this is just a subset of another bit of good advice, which is, "Always tell people the gospel". Perhaps here it needs to be said particularly because of the particular dangers are so severe in a context devoid of gospel love. Without the gospel, we preach a legalism: do this; don't do that. We may even unwittingly encourage abusers who have a "law-enforcement" attitude. With the gospel, any kind of abuse becomes a non-option—and we should say why this is so.
- Work hard at including everyone in a relationship where they are known.
The first thing an abusive partner does is to remove their spouse from relationships with their friends and family. I don't know what this looks like when the perpetrator is a churchgoer, but I wonder if we can counteract this by seeking to make sure that every person at church is known by others. They might not be specifically known by the head pastor in a large church; what I mean is creating a culture where we, the laypeople, go out of our way to make sure no person is neglected at church and can say that they had no one to talk to in their darkest hour.
- Create safe spaces where both women and men can express their fears and insecurities.
I have argued here that abuse stems from insecurity and pride combined with sinful hearts. Perhaps one way to help people be transformed by the gospel, then, is to help people to discover and articulate their desires, fears, insecurities and idols, and so bring into the light whatever may be working against them in secret. The first step in getting people to open up introspectively is to create safe spaces where relationships are allowed to be difficult and frustrating.
I believe in the truth of the Bible and in the goodness of the gospel. I believe that the gospel helps me to see patterns of abuse and manipulation in my own life. I believe that the gospel allows me to respond to a world of abuse with love. I believe that the gospel allows me to escape abuse, because it stops me from idolising my marriage or my spouse. I believe that the gospel points to a world without abuse, and I believe that the gospel is essential to our response to abuse in the church.