Marriage at work (9) Protection and abuse

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8.1. The Problem

So far, our scenarios have assumed a reasonably positive family situation.  We have considered to some extent the husband’s responsibility when his wife is unwilling to submit to his leadership in decision making, but what happens when the context turns more sinister?

Violence and abuse in the home is an issue that cannot be ignored in a study such as ours.  Whilst for various reasons it is difficult to establish exact figures about the prevalence of abuse, we know that it is a problem both in the church and wider society.[1]

A number of scholars and practitioners are concerned that a Complementarian interpretation of Ephesians 5 may be used to justify a wife “meekly” accepting not just inconsiderate behaviour, but also domestic violence and rape.[2]  In one study on Domestic Abuse, Carolyn Heggen reflects,

In my early years as a therapist, I was surprised and saddened that many of the perpetrators of sexual abuse and domestic violence I counselled professed to be Christians.  I was particularly confused by the many perpetrators who claimed to see no conflict between their behaviour and their Christian beliefs.  Some even justified their behaviour by citing biblical passages and religious principles.[3]

She identifies four religious justifications for abuse:

  • “God intends that men dominate and women submit.”[4]
  • “Woman is morally inferior to man and cannot trust her own judgement.”[5]
  • “Suffering is a Christian virtue and women in particular have been designed to be ‘suffering servants.’”[6]
  • “Christians must quickly forgive and be reconciled with those who sin against them.”[7]

These excuses or justifications suggest two important issues. Firstly, can men legitimately use the concept of “headship” to justify physical violence against women? Secondly, does submission require women to stay within an abusive relationship and endure violence? 

So this is an issue we cannot ignore.  Even if the problem was not present in the church, we would have to reflect on how our teaching is heard by new Christians coming from abusive contexts.  But it is a real problem within the church as well. A US survey by James and Phyllis Alsdurf of 5000 protestant pastors in the 1980s identified that,

“Of those who did respond, four fifths indicated that they had confronted wife abuse in the ministry and had counselled a woman who had been physically abused by her husband.  One-third of the pastors had counselled six or more women. Three fifths of them had counselled a victim during the six months immediately preceding the questionnaire.”[8]

8.2. Response

8.2.1. Ephesians 5 does not encourage abuse

We must not lose sight of the fact that the context of Ephesians 5:22 is the husband’s love and care for his wife and the purpose is that they are becoming one.  So a proper use of Ephesians 5 language, even within a hard Complementarian context, does not justify abuse because the Ephesians 5 husband’s aim is for the wife to realise her true beauty and potential.[9]

We should not be surprised that people misuse the Bible.  We can identify a number of factors present that seem to increase the likelihood of abuse, but we should not forget that the underlying issue is sin and this has always resulted from the misuse of Scripture.[10]  Our response must be to ensure that Scripture is taught clearly and accurately.

8.2.2. Submission does not mean accepting abuse

Submission and abuse are not equivalent.  Firstly, because, as O’Brien explains, the command is for “free and responsible persons” so that it “can only be heeded voluntarily, never by elimination or breaking of the human will much less by means of servile submissiveness.”[11]

Secondly, because this service is “as the Lord” then “wives are not to be subordinate in matters that are sinful or contrary to God’s commands.”[12]  I would interpret this broadly to include such situations where she is the victim and the sin can be prevented by recourse to law.  So evn panti does not mean that she is to meet her husband’s every whim.[13]  It means that the scope of her voluntary submission is not limited to particular aspects of life.  As O’Brien says, “In this sense it is all encompassing and is not, as some have suggested, restricted to sexual matters or some other special sphere of their relationship.[14]  Furthermore, because this is her voluntary act, it is not dependent upon the husband reciprocating with love.  That is his responsibility.[15]

We are still left with a problem.  Ephesians 5 appears to deal with the ideal scenario where husband and wife love and submit after the pattern of Christ.  Best thinks that, “Our text provides an idealized picture of husbands and wives which only a male author could have depicted, or left unchanged if he drew it from a traditional HT.”[16]

This means that this passage does not tell us what to do when things go wrong.  It does not answer questions about whether or not she should leave him, when to leave and whether this should be on a permanent or temporary basis.  However, I do not think that this is as big a problem as it first appears.  We cannot expect one text to take the weight of all possible scenarios.  There is a wider body of teaching on marriage and divorce and also on suffering.  It is important that we recognise that teaching about submission and headship after the pattern of Christ must be distinguished from teaching about suffering unjustly.  If a wife chooses voluntarily to remain in a potentially abusive relationship, she does so because she is willing to suffer, not because she is willing to submit.[17]

8.2.3. Biblical marriage is there to protect the couple

Wilson makes the telling point that wives are asked to submit to their husbands, not to men in general.[18]  Marriage should protect against wider tyranny in society.  So for example, whilst most counsellors are concerned about the harmful affects of jealousy in marriage, there is a godly jealousy which means that a husband will honour and protect his wife.[19]

Earlier, we noted the benefits of mutual submission within community.  The couple are never isolated in their relationship.  However, there is exclusiveness to marriage as reflected by the leaving and cleaving of verse 32 which protects against over interference, even by parents and in – laws.[20]

Ephesians 5:22-33 provides vital instruction on the cultivation of a godly marriage relationship where the husband may be head of his wife, but the focus is on mutual submission in love.  Domestic abuse contradicts both the spirit and letter of the passage.  The wider Biblical material gives guidance on what to do when the spirit of Ephesians 5 is not present in a marriage.


[1] The problem revolves around two issues.  Firstly, how do we define domestic abuse?  To restrict the definition to physical assault alone is clearly too restrictive and does not recognise the long term consequences of emotional abuse.  However, defining emotional abuse is trickier.  Where do arguments finish and abuse start?  Most experts are, however, clear that the category should be interpreted widely.  For example, Berry says, “Domestic violence is not limited to physical battery but may include other forms of abuse as well…Susan Forward P.H.D. has described abuse as, ‘…any behaviour that is intended to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation and verbal or physical assaults… It is the systematic persecution of one partner by another.”  Dawn Bradley Berry, The Domestic Violence Sourcebook (Los Angeles, CA.: Lowell House, 1998), 1.  On this basis, we note from the same book that, “In April 1994…there [were] 4 million reported instances of domestic violence in the United States.” Berry, The Domestic Violence Sourcebook, 6. Meanwhile, in the UK, Mooney comments that based on her survey of families in North London in 2000, “Whether it is defined as mental cruelty, threats, actual violence with injury or rape, it has occurred to at least a quarter to a third of all women in their life time.”  Jane Mooney, Gender, Violence and the Social Order (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 161. The second problem is that much of what we would count as domestic violence goes unreported because it happens behind closed doors and, “Victims often feel misplaced shame or guilt at being a victim.  Some are constantly told by their abusers that they bring the violence upon themselves, and eventually this message becomes internalized.”  Jane Conway, Domestic Violence and the Church (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 9.

[2] See e.g. I.H. Marshall, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. (Ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordan D. Fee. Leicester: Apollos, 2004), 192. 

[3] Carolyn Holderread Heggen, “Religious Beliefs and Abuse,” in Women, Abuse and the Bible.  (Ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger and James R Beck.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1996), 15.

[4] Heggen, “Religious Beliefs and Abuse,” 16.

[5] Heggen, “Religious Beliefs and Abuse,” 19.

[6] Heggen, “Religious Beliefs and Abuse,” 22.

[7] Heggen, “Religious Beliefs and Abuse,” 24.

[8] Conway, Domestic Violence and the Church, 10.

[9] Conway, Domestic Violence and the Church, 53.

[10] Conway, Domestic Violence and the Church, 37.

[11] Peter T O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary.  Leicester: Apollos: 1999), 411 – 412.

[12] (cf. Acts 5:29), O’Brien, Ephesians, 418.

[13] Eph 5:24.

[14] O’Brien, Ephesians, 417. 

[15] O’Brien, Ephesians, 418.

[16] Ernest Best, Ephesians (ICC.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 538.

[17] So I would argue first that texts about a husband’s responsibility to his wife to provide for her and the possibility of divorce where he fails to provide for her are relevant to the discussion, noting that the subject of divorce remains controversial.  (See Ash and others).  In terms of suffering, one would need to consider the wider Biblical data on persecution, suffering for doing good and responding to harsh masters.  The data on Paul’s response to unjust treatment at Philippi suggests that being prepared to suffer does not preclude recourse to the protection of the Law.  Given that the Law in most western countries provides protection for the victims of domestic abuse, I think that Pastors should proactively encourage wives to resort to the Law.  Even though it is possible that she may choose instead to forgive and even to suffer, my presumption would be towards emphasising the legal recourse available, especially given the phenomena of Learned Helplessness where many battered wives chose to “cope” rather than “escape.”  Berry, The Domestic Violence Sourcebook, 37-38.  “A woman who appears to have control over a situation – a car in the driveway and an unlocked door – but who has been ‘trained’ to believe that she does not have choices is more likely to cope than escape.” Berry, The Domestic Violence Sourcebook, 38.

[18] Wilson, Reforming Marriage, 97.

[19] Wilson, Reforming Marriage, 97.

[20] See Nicky and Sila Lee, The Marriage Book: How to Build a Lasting Relationship (London: Alpha, 2000), 205 – 216.