One in three women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime, and this is true even in the church.
This is a wake-up call. As much as we want to believe that domestic abuse only exists out in the world, in those “other” neighborhoods “but not mine”, the truth is domestic violence is a cancer that impacts families of every socioeconomic, geographical, educational, racial, ethnic, and religious community in the world. It’s a problem where you live, work and worship whether you want to see it or not. It’s there. And there are victims in our churches crying silently for understanding and help. I was one of those women, possibly sitting near you every Sunday for 19 years.
There are also abusers sitting near you who are conflicted and troubled by their own behavior, fearful someone will find out how they really treat their family behind closed doors. Some believe it is their God-given right and obligation to be the head of the home, including the right to be verbally and physically aggressive if needed to keep everyone in submission to their authority. While there are a number of complex reasons why one person would abuse another, in our historically patriarchal society there has been a level of pressure put on men to be the one who dominates the family. No man wants to be perceived as weak or “hen-pecked” by a bossy and controlling wife.
Well-meaning Christians have struggled to find an effective response for the issue of domestic abuse. Submission to my husband’s abuse and my willingness to keep it secret didn’t improve our marriage, nor did marriage counseling. Instead, it seemed to get worse over time. I needed help, and so did he. After finally confiding in the pastor and his wife that I was afraid my husband would kill me and our children, the response was, “Well, if he kills you and the kids, then he will just have to answer to God then, won’t he.” This was not the help I was hoping for.
Does a wife have to submit to her husband in everything, including abuse? Does she have to respect her husband, even if he’s abusive? There are those who would answer yes to both of those questions, and they use scriptures to back up their stance. Women are told to suffer in silence, to find ways to please him so as not to provoke or cause the abuse, and that to seek help or separate is shameful, making her responsible for the break-up of the family.
“Really, God? Is this really how you see it?” I was desperate for understanding and comfort. I searched the scriptures, attended a Christian group for battered women and read books. I was on a quest to find God’s heart for me, for my children, and for my husband. I needed healing, hope and peace. We all needed Jesus’ truth to set us free.
In addressing domestic violence, one major difficulty for the Church has been the interpretation of scripture. Some teachings have been based more on tradition than truth. I’m not a theologian or a Bible scholar, and I don’t claim to be the final authority on what the Bible says about domestic abuse. As a survivor of domestic violence myself and advocate for others, and a student of the Word, I learn and gain more insight every year. The remainder of this article contains only a portion of the scriptures related to this issue. Readers are free to agree or disagree, and all are encouraged to study the Bible for themselves.
Headship According to Jesus
A major concept in the Ephesians 5 passage is the statement that the husband is the head of the wife. Paul compares it to the way in which Christ is the Head of the church. If husbands are to do this like Jesus, we need to ask then, “How did Jesus demonstrate how to be the head?” Paul also said that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church. What does that look like?
Headship is not about who has the most power and control in the relationship. It’s not about who gets to be the leader and decision maker, or who gets the last word, and who is relegated to the lowly position of the powerless follower. Headship is about the power of sacrificial love; it’s about high self-esteem revealed in a servant’s heart and an attitude of humility; it’s strength demonstrated in meekness; it’s about self-control instead of controlling others. True headship elevates the other to a higher status. That’s what it means to be the head in a relationship. Paul tells husbands to love like this in Ephesians 5. He knows the power of love because it transformed his life too.
How Does Jesus Love His Bride?
Ephesians 5:21-33 should never be used as ammunition to keep women in submission to abusive men or to demand that they respect someone who is disrespectful. Using scripture in that way is spiritual abuse. This passage is about mutual, life-changing, empowering love.
- Jesus did not use verbal and emotional abuse to destroy his bride’s self-esteem. He bestowed on her great value by coming to be her servant and giving his life to save her.
- Jesus did not tear down his bride to make her feel weak and powerless. On Pentecost he filled her with his own power.
- Jesus did not isolate his bride out of fear she would fall in love with someone else. He wants to give her his love so she can love others. He sent her into the world to live her destiny and promised to walk with her, giving her support and encouragement, even to the end of the age.
- Jesus didn’t treat his bride like a door mat, walking on her to prove his superiority. He elevated her, even to be seated with him in the heavenly realm, in a place of authority.
- Jesus doesn’t yell at his bride or call her names. He calls her his Beloved and rejoices over her with singing.
- Jesus doesn’t raise his voice to drown out what his bride is trying to say. Instead, his ear is attentive to her prayer.
- He doesn’t look at her with contempt or hate, or glare at her from a distance. He smiles when he sees her because he sees her without spot or blemish. He sees how beautiful she is and knows it’s his love that has washed over her and made her beautiful.
- Jesus doesn’t use his strength to manhandle his bride. His strong right arm lifts her up and defends her against aggressors. He uses his strength and power to fight for her, not against her.
- Jesus would never grab his bride aggressively, slap her to shut her up, or beat her into submission. Instead he took the abuse for her; he was the one who was humiliated, spit on and beaten. He submitted to death so she could live. He offers healing and comfort to her when she’s in pain, he makes her strong when she feels weak, he weeps with her when she weeps, and he wipes away every tear from her eyes because he’s gentle and kind.
- He doesn’t threaten to hurt her when he gets home. Instead, his plan when he comes again is to sweep her off her feet, raise her up to meet him in the air, and forever be with him in the amazing mansion he is preparing for her in heaven.
This is no fairy tale. This is how a husband is to love his wife. Mutual submission and respect naturally flow in the relationship that is focused on loving and serving one another.
Telling a woman she has to submit to abuse only reinforces her victim identity and empowers an abuser to continue in sin. Both are in bondage and there is a much greater chance the marriage will end in pain or even tragedy. God has a different plan – one that sets both free to step into a new identity.
Choosing Our True Identity
Children growing up in a home where there is domestic abuse see two identities modeled for them – the victim and the abuser. Without making a conscious choice, they often find they have become one or the other in adulthood, or a combination of both. But there is a third choice, commonly referred to as a survivor. A survivor is one who has overcome the victim or abuser identity and lives consistently as a mature Christian with healthy boundaries, good communication skills and stable emotions. A survivor is secure in their identity in Christ and looks for the positive in others. Survivors speak up and stand their ground but in a way that doesn’t harm anyone. They are confident and encouraging, self-controlled, quick to forgive while using wisdom in discerning who to trust. Survivors give and serve by choice, because it pleases God. They are strong and kind, loving and truthful. Much more could be said about the survivor identity, but essentially, a survivor looks and acts like Jesus. If a child did not see that modeled by someone while they were growing up, it’s hard to comprehend and become this. It has to be a conscious choice, something we learn and grow in over time in the Word and with others. It’s a transformation process that takes direct instruction and practice. The good news is that abusers and victims can both be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and support from brothers and sisters in Christ. If Paul can change, anyone can. He who began a good work in you will see it to completion.
It’s time for all of us as the Church to step into our true identity as the Victorious Bride of Christ. We are Overcomers and More Than Conquerors. We WILL defeat the devil and domestic violence, but not as an abuser would demand control or as a victim would submit to sin and take the blame. We will do it like Jesus did – with a servant’s heart, sacrificing whatever we have to on behalf of others, loving the Father and loving people with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. We will step into difficult situations without fear, stand for truth and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. We will be bold but gentle, empowered by love that sets the captives free. We will walk in faith, confident in who Jesus is and who we are called to be.
I am not a victim, nor an abuser. I am the Bride of Christ, filled with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. The power and authority of Christ in me guarantees my victory over the devil’s attack. I will not be silenced like a victim, nor try to seize control in my own strength out of fear as an abuser would. I am an Overcomer and my confidence is in Jesus. I will speak up and clearly share my testimony of what Christ has done in my life to set me free, and I will speak the truth in love so that others can find freedom. Motivated and empowered by his love, I can enter enemy territory, set captives free, take possession of and redeem the land for his kingdom purposes. Christ in me is victorious over the effects of abuse in my life. I am free from the bondage of the victim and abuser identities, free from pain, lies, guilt and shame. I am free to step into my destiny as the Bride of Christ, an Overcomer, More Than a Conqueror!
Click here to read the entire article.