Yesterday, I wrote about what love is not. This is because sometimes people use the concept of love to manipulate victims to continue living with abuse and without justice. I want to explore that a bit further today because one of the arguments used is that this is part of a wife’s responsibility to submit to her husband. This is based on Ephesians 5:22
“22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”
The argument then is that a wife’s submission is an act of love and witness to her husband and therefore she must put up with his rages, physical violence, constant demands and gas-lighting. Marriage is for life and therefore separation and divorce are not an option.
There are a number of reasons why this is a bad argument. First of all, there is the very immediate context. She is to submit to him “…as to the Lord.” Immediately we are reminded about what it is like to submit to the one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.
Secondly, wives submitting to husbands follows on immediately as an expansion on the command to submit to one another as a consequence of being filled with the Spirit. Submission is mutual. This means that whilst there is a spiritual order in the home so that the husband is described as the head, he too is to submit. The language used to describe his submission is as follows.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25)
He is to love her sacrificially and so, you could argue that she submits to him by letting him love her in this way. This means that in Ephesians there is a reciprocal relationship between husband and wife.
I do believe that the Bible deals with how to respond in a situation where the love and submission is not being reciprocated, see 1 Peter 2-3 on this. However, it is important to see this as something voluntary through God’s grace not something imposed upon someone. I think we also need to see this grace as coming in the context where there appears to be no way out. Some people will find themselves living in the context of oppressive regimes, corrupt judicial systems and prejudicial cultures but they can still cling to Christ for hope. Further, there are a few more things to consider.
The first is that true submission and love means that we desire the best for the other person and that best is certainly not for them to continue to exhibit abusive behaviours. True love desires to see them brought to forgiveness. Challenging wrong behaviour is not unloving, nor is it contrary to mutual submission. Coercive control, financial manipulation and sexual abuse are the opposite of sacrificial love and cannot be justified under “spiritual headship” but sadly I hear reports of those who attempt to do so.
Secondly, marriage relationships do not happen in isolation but in the context of our obligations to each other through the church and through the state. This means that an abuse victim can and should seek recourse through both the church and the criminal justice system to ensure that the abusive is brought to justice.
Thirdly, whilst God may give grace to people to enable them to stay in a situation, especially where no way out is possible, this does not preclude him from providing a means of escape. For example, we can admire those who are martyred for their faith in countries where Christians are persecuted whilst at the same time loving, welcoming and speaking up for asylum seekers.
Jesus speaking about the destruction of Jerusalem says:
“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. (Matthew 24:15-20)
Sometimes it is okay to run
In the case of marriage, this includes the possibility of divorce where there has been unfaithfulness. In my opinion, that unfaithfulness should be read reasonably broadly, it is not just about adultery (in fact when Jesus talks about marriage and divorce he chooses not to use the word ‘adultery’ when providing an exception clause to his ban on divorce and remarriage), Paul includes within this desertion by an unbelieving partner and I would suggest that there are other ways to desert on your marriage vows than by just leaving home.
So, it is vital for abuse victims that love does not compel them to stay and soak up the verbal and physical punches. The victim of sexual assault is not prohibited from going to the police and then testifying in court.
Further, and finally, those of us who are elders in the church have a responsibility here to step in and defend the sheep. We can’t stand by whilst wolves come in to snatch and devour the most vulnerable among the flock. We must not hide behind a misinterpretation of these verses in order to excuse cowardly behaviour.
It is okay for victims to run but not for those who are meant to be shepherds.
 See also Diane Langberg’s article where she argues that abuse breaks the marriage covenant http://www.dianelangberg.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Langberg_CCT23.4.pdf