As much as we hate to admit it, spouse abuse happens, even among families who are in the Church. There are very few people who want to write on this topic, so it makes it very difficult for Christian women who find themselves in an abusive situation. I am going to attempt to address this topic, even though I know that my attempt will be imperfect.
While it is less common, some men are abused, even physically, by their wives as well. I’ll be primarily speaking to women in this article, but many of the principles can also apply to men who are abused.
There are different types of abuse: Emotional, Psychological (Mental), Spiritual, Physical, Sexual, and Financial. Often these categories overlap. My primary focus in this essay will be on the issue of physical abuse. That is not to in any way deny the severity of the other kinds of abuse, nor is it to imply that they are less important or even less damaging than physical abuse, but they are more subjective and more difficult to prove through a legal process, and therefore solutions become more difficult.
Here are some definitions of abuse and Domestic Violence from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domestic_violence.
Abuse is a buzzword right now, and a lot of people play the “abuse” card in situations where it is not warranted. Every marriage faces difficulty, disagreement, and conflict. That is not abuse. The fact that your spouse doesn’t see eye to eye with you, or doesn’t always say affirming things to you, or doesn’t appreciate you the way you feel he or she should does NOT mean that you are being abused. There will be some people who are looking for an excuse to leave their marriage and those folks may seek to find an excuse to do so in what I write here. Please remember that you stand before God for the marriage vows you made, and you may not simply annul them because you are experiencing some bumps in the road. This article is NOT intended to give anyone an easy exit from their marriage. Marriage can be difficult and godly people seek reconciliation and peace whenever possible (Psalm 34:14, 1 Peter 3:11).
This article is to try to help those who are TRULY and GENUINELY being abused. I recognize that can be somewhat subjective, but I’m aiming for the reader who finds himself or herself squarely and consistently in the definitions provided in the link above.
I need to say also that there is NO SILVER BULLET that will magically fix all of your problems. When people sin, it makes life messy. When someone is committed to being selfish in a relationship and abusing another person, there will NOT be a quick and simple solution that will make it all better in a few easy steps. I wish there was one, but there simply isn’t.
What Does the Bible Say About Marriage?
Let me begin by saying that I believe the Bible is God’s word (not man’s opinion) and every Christian must submit to and obey the commands of Scripture (whether they personally “like” what it says or not).
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.” (Ephesians 5:22-33, KJV)
The word “submission” appears in this text. Regardless of whether you like it or not, it is there. However, it is there in a context. In the context of the passage, it is clear that the Bible is NOT recommending a scenario whereby the husband treats his wife as property, and is licensed to treat her however he wishes. That is NOT the Biblical view of marriage, nor of submission. Christ does NOT abuse the church, nor should the man abuse his wife (whom he is commanded to love as his own body).
“In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered. To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. For,
“The one who desires life, to love and see good days,
Must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.
“He must turn away from evil and do good;
He must seek peace and pursue it.”
“For the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous,
And His ears attend to their prayer,
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:1-11, NASB)
This passage is sometimes used by church leaders to convince women that it is their imperative to simply bear up under the weight of abuse and take it. It does clearly show the necessity for a woman to be godly and respectful towards her husband, even when he does not obey the word and treat her gently. HOWEVER, it does NOT say that she needs to simply take abuse and live with it. It is true in ANY human relationship that we need to have a godly and Spirit-led response towards those who do wrong to us, but it does NOT imply that we should avoid taking steps to stop the mistreatment. This passage also, again, insists that the man is to show her honor and live with her in an understanding way, respecting the fact that (in most cases) she is physically weaker than him (not exploiting that in an abusive way). Verse seven of this passage reveals that God Himself will oppose a man who mistreats his wife.
You Do Not Deserve Abuse and it is Not Your Fault
The first thing I want to say to you, Christian woman, if you are being abused by your husband is that you NEVER deserve to be abused, and it is NOT YOUR FAULT! You are cherished by your Heavenly Father. He loves you infinitely. You are treasured and loved by God. If you are in Christ, you are His child, and nothing can ever separate you from His love that is in Christ Jesus:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
If you are being abused by your husband, he is sinning against you. He is wrong. He has major problems. You are not responsible for his behavior. His mistreatment of you can never separate you from God’s love. God is for you, not against you. For a man to harm his wife (or children) in any way (even emotionally) is one of the most despicable acts of cowardice he could ever commit. His role is to protect and defend; NEVER to harm. EVER!
The Civil Magistrate
Romans 13:1-6 and 1 Peter 2:14 inform us that the Civil Government is established by God to punish those who do evil and promote (protect) those who do what is right. Any case of physical and/or sexual abuse of any person (assault) should be reported to the police. That is the purpose for which they were created by God. In our modern judicial system, if there is no physical evidence of abuse, there often will not be a prosecution (for obvious reasons), so whenever there is physical evidence (bruises, marks, cuts, burns, etc.) make sure you report it right away and DO NOT DELAY. It is important to establish a legal documentation of every case of physical and/or sexual abuse. Make sure these individuals are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Government officials are God’s agents of wrath, to bring about justice for the oppressed.
A temporary restraining order can sometimes be filed for cases of abuse, but they only last for a time. A State-sponsored women’s shelter may protect you and give you shelter for a night, but you’ll need to have a long-term game plan beyond the short-term solution.
Emotional, Spiritual, Economic and Mental Abuse
Let me attempt to address the non-Physical and non-Sexual aspects of abuse for a moment. If you call the police and tell them that your husband is mentally, emotionally or verbally abusing you, or depriving you financially, they are probably just going to tell you to divorce him, and you are not going to get any help from them. So the next place to turn is to the Church.
The first element in any relational conflict, or even in a case of abuse, is to talk with your abuser and confront them with their sin.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15, ESV).
Assuming that this has been attempted and no true LASTING CHANGE has occurred, you move on to the next steps in Matthew 18:16-17:
“But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
The real missing element in this whole issue is the Church. Unfortunately, in most cases, the Church leaders simply do not want to get involved. Or, in some cases, when they DO get involved, they side with the abuser, and tell the wife that if she wants to be godly, she must simply bear up under the abuse and submit to it. This is a gross misapplication of Scripture and demonstrates the ineptitude of such men to be leaders in the Church. Men who refuse to bring church discipline upon an abuser should be instantly defrocked and replaced with men who rightly divide the word of truth.
The bottom line is, whenever possible, your family should be in a church led by Biblically-qualified elders (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) who will exercise church discipline on these miserable excuses for men. They will provide a safe environment for the family to live (if it is not physically or emotionally safe for them to live with the abuser), and will hold the man accountable, and walk through a process of repentance and restitution until the marriage can be healed and reconciled (with all parties living together in a safe, non-threatening environment).
Rule #1 is REPORT ANY NON-PHYSICAL AND NON-SEXUAL ABUSE TO YOUR CHURCH ELDERS! This is true for children and young adults still living at home as well. (As I said, call the police immediately if you are being harmed physically or sexually abused.) Make the church leaders respond in one way or another. Lovingly demand a response. You have a Matthew 18 complaint here against a brother who has done you harm, and this is step 2 (bringing two or three witnesses) after confronting the abuser yourself. The elders then should bring it before the church and excommunicate the man if he is unrepentant. Give the church the chance to do the right thing. Your abuser is engaging in habitual sin, and your silence is allowing them to damage themselves and their relationships. You are not doing them a favor by being silent. You need to speak up. Someone will surely listen. Don’t be afraid. Fear is what is keeping you in bondage. Bringing this sin into the light is what can allow everyone to find wholeness and healing. If the Church refuses to help, you have been used by God to hasten their demise. God will judge them and discipline them for their inactivity.
A couple of distinguishing characteristics of an abuser are control and isolation. It is not uncommon for an abusive person to try to avoid accountability and also to keep his or her family away from people who might “interfere.” If there is no church willing to get involved, or if the husband is not a believer, or if he will not submit to the discipline of the church, then the woman needs to move on to plan B.
Leaving Your Spouse?
Can you divorce your spouse for abuse? Here is what Jesus said:
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9, KJV)
As far as I can tell, this is the ONLY allowable exception for divorce. Abuse doesn’t count. Now if your spouse has sexually molested another person, then, of course, the verse above applies. You can rightfully divorce them. Again, if I were God, I might have written the text differently, but we are not God, and we must submit to Him and His word.
So can you leave your spouse for your own safety and the safety of your children, not divorcing but giving physical separation for your protection?
“And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:10-16, KJV)
God tells husbands and wives NOT to separate from one another, but then, in the same breath He says, “But if you do separate, don’t remarry, try to reconcile.” I believe that God recognizes that in some EXTREME situations there may need to be a time of physical separation, for the ultimate purpose of reconciliation. This is my personal advice (I could be wrong, but I’m going to give what I think is a Biblical position on this matter):
If you are in a situation where you and your children are being harmed by abuse of some kind and it is too difficult for you to live in that environment anymore, I’m going to advise you to find a place of physical safety, apart from the chaos and the stress, so that you can clear your head, pray, and seek God’s wisdom. When you are living in the midst of the abuse, you can’t think straight. The purpose of this separation is NOT to start looking for a new spouse, to start planning your divorce or to simply hit the eject button on a normal marriage that has had the same bumps in the road as every marriage. No, this is in an extreme case where you and/or your children are being harmed, physically and/or emotionally. Christian woman, you need to protect yourself and your children from true harm.
My suggestion is that you tell your husband that you want to be married to him, and that your goal is reconciliation, but that you are no longer willing to live under abuse. He has a choice to make. He needs to seek help, counseling and accountability through a local church, walking out repentance over time (I’d recommend six months for emotional abuse and at least a year for physical abuse) before you are willing to live with him again. The ball needs to be in his court. You are not divorcing him, but you are also not willing to be the brunt of his abuse anymore.
When/if you decide to separate, you will need to have a game plan. If your situation is dangerous, you may want to consider getting a restraining order (which is hard to obtain without evidence of physical abuse), contacting a domestic violence help line to find a domestic violence shelter in your area (for a short-term place to stay) and line up family or friends who are willing to house you (perhaps even in a secret location) on a longer-term basis until you find a more long-term dwelling you can afford. Depending on your situation, this transition process can be very dangerous for you and your children, so think it out well, pray and plan strategically, and move decisively.
If you go to a state-run women’s shelter, they will tell you to divorce your husband. If you talk to many people in the Church, they will tell you to divorce your husband. We need to remember that not only does God say He HATES divorce (Malachi 2:16), but divorce is NOT a simple solution that makes all of our troubles go away! There are custody battles, child support wars, split visitation, the influence of the other spouse when your children are away from you with him (or her), the possible remarriage of your spouse and the introduction of a new step-parent into your child’s life, and on and on. Divorce is nasty and ugly. It is not God’s design.
I recognize that there are sometimes very complicated legal issues, which vary from state to state, that may bring extenuating circumstances to bear, and you may end up divorced. It is my understanding from Jesus teaching above that EVEN THEN, you are to remain single and seek reconciliation until such time as that person dies or remarries. My advice is, if at all possible, make the termination of your marriage the decision of your spouse, rather than your decision. Attempt to leave the door of hope open to them. I personally believe that it is important for your children to know that you did not terminate the marriage, but rather, you fought FOR your marriage (even while providing necessary protection for yourself and your children in the meantime). If divorce papers are going to be filed, if someone is going to permanently bail on the marriage, if you at all can, make sure it is your spouse who closes the door, not you. Your children will be far more likely to understand the situation for what it is and stand with and support you if you are not the one who terminated the marriage.
In keeping with the 1 Corinthians 7 passage, if your abusive spouse makes the decision to walk away from the marriage, and serves you with divorce papers, my advice is to consider them to be an unbelieving spouse (having rejected the Church and being treated as an unbeliever), and LET THEM GO. Remain single, continue to pray for your spouse, and seek reconciliation, but only upon repentance that has been walked out over time under the accountability of godly men.
If you have reached the end of this article and still feel stuck with no direction, because my counsel, for some reason, doesn’t work in your situation, please find solid Christian people in your area (or online if nowhere else) who can pray with you and give you Biblical counsel. You probably need this no matter what, but especially if you are in a situation where you feel hopelessly stuck. As I said, I don’t have a silver bullet to offer you that will magically fix all of your problems, but I do believe in the power of prayer and the desire of our Heavenly Father to perform a miracle on your behalf.
If your spouse will submit to counseling, I’d highly recommend trying to find a certified Biblical counselor in your area. www.BiblicalCounseling.com
Years ago, I met a Detective Sergeant Don Stewart who wrote a book on called, Refuge: A Pathway out of Domestic Violence and Abuse. Here is a five page interview on this topic that features him: The Silent Epidemic.
Here is a helpful article, But He Never Hit Me: A Christian Primer on Emotional Abuse, from Christianity Today.
Focus Ministries is a Christian organization designed to help victims of domestic violence. I attended a seminar hosted by their founder many years ago and was impressed with their balanced and Biblical perspective.
I don’t know much about this group, but perhaps it will be useful: The Christian Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADA).