Marital Abuse & the Bible

This excellent article is from It was originally posted to the site on March 27, 2008. This article was a personal blessing to me when I found it. Every point he makes was an affirmation of what God taught me in my own walk through, and out of, an abusive “Christian” marriage. I am so encouraged to see someone who is respected as a leader in Christianity saying these things openly.


By Mart DeHaan

I’m on edge today. Here’s what’s happening. I’ve agreed to make a presentation to a group of church leaders on the subject of marital abuse. The invitation came as a result of materials and programs we have done on the subject.

As I prepare for the presentation, I find myself with mixed feelings. I’m not an authority on the subject. Yet, I also know that those of us who have used the Bible over the years to support marital permanence have often inadvertently contributed to a loss of peace and safety in the home. So I feel an obligation to do what I can to speak to a problem that, through so much misunderstanding, is robbing men of their honor, and women of their safety.

I’m convinced that most of us have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes the number of women and children who are living with the terrible knowledge of what is happening behind closed doors.

Since this is on my mind, let me just summarize a few of the biblical ideas that have been twisted out of context to contribute to the problem. This, by the way, will be a longer than normal post. But at this point I don’t know how to break it up. For those who want more information, I’ll include links to other materials and programs we have produced.

The Creation of Woman– I’ve been amazed how much of my life I spent with a wrong assumption about what the Bible meant by the biblical phrase “help meet” (Gen. 2:18,20 KJV). Not until recently did I discover the richness of meaning this term had in the original biblical language. According Old Testament scholar, Dr. Walter C. Kaiser, the Hebrew word helper (in Gen. 2:18,20 as a designation of the woman) is used only 16 more times in the Old Testament. In those cases it is always a designation of God as the One who saves, upholds, and sustains His people (as in Ps. 46:1). There is no sense in which this word connotes a position of inferiority or subordinate status. The word suitable for literally means “in front of,” signifying one who stands face to face with another, qualitatively the same, his essential equal, and therefore his “correspondent” (Hard Sayings Of The Bible, pp.666-67, IVP, Downers Grove, 1996).

The Curse– On the heels of our first parent’s sin, God made it clear that “male dominance” would combine with thorns, thistles, and death to sound the alarm that something had gone wrong with the world. Yet, for too long, so many of us have assumed that when God said that the man would rule over the woman (Genesis 3:16) this is what God wanted. Yet an honest look at this text will show that male dominance is no more of a virtue than weeds, death, or multiplied pain in childbirth.

Headship– The Bible uses the word picture of the human body to illustrate Christ’s relationship to the Church and a husband’s relationship to his wife. From this metaphor, the Bible shows us that, like the head of a body, a man needs to use whatever thoughts or choices he has to protect and care for his wife, just as he uses his own head to protect and care for his own body (Eph 5:23-30). Yet, for too long, so many of us have turned a beautiful word picture of sacrificial love into a self-serving expression of domestic entitlement. Instead of seeing the head as the source of protection and provision for the body, we have seen it as a justification for self-serving direction, control, and authority.

Even if benevolent leadership is implied in the “head”, it will not be authoritarian in style. Jesus made that clear when he said of leadership in general, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors’. But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves” (Luke 22:25-26).

Submission– In context, submission between husbands and wives is to be a two way street. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he uses the principle of “mutual submission” (5:21) to set the context for how husbands and wives are to understand what a Christ-centered relationship looks like. This mutual submission becomes clear, however, only as we understand that the sacrificial love that is needed for a husband to care for his wife as he cares for his own body is an even stronger picture of submission than what is asked of the wife. Yet on countless occasions, women have been told to be more submissive so that their husbands will be less abusive.

Superficial repentance and forgiveness– Healthy repentance and forgiveness enables us to turn away from self-destructive and dangerous behavior– rather than to prolong it. Yet in settings of marital abuse, the words, “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you please forgive me?” are too often used to demand forgiveness without consequences or a lasting change of heart. Once the man admits he is wrong, the pressure is back on the wife to act as if the abuse never occurred. The result is that a return to business as usual allows for the predictable cycle of abuse to continue.

Marital permanence– From the beginning, God made it clear that his ideal was for marriage to be a one-flesh, life-long relationship. What we have too often overlooked, however, is that when hearts became hard, and when the contract and trust of marriage was shattered, God is the one who allowed for divorce (Deut 24:1-4). The Law of Moses treated marriage as a covenant of mutual responsibility, and if a man refused to live up to his marriage commitments, a wife was to be released from the relationship (Exodus 21:7-11; Deut 21:10-14). Too many of us, for far too long, have overlooked the fact that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness” (2Tim 3:16). It is the Word of God that teaches us to allow for the dissolution of marriages that have ceased to exist for the purpose they were formed.

Church authority– The New Testament urges church leaders not to “Lord it over the church” but rather to lead by example (1Peter 5:3). This counsel is consistent with what Jesus taught about the servant role of those who lead in his Name (Luke 22:24-27). But when faced with issues of marital abuse, and a wife’s conclusion that she must leave for the sake of her own safety and sanity, many elders and church leaders have used the leverage of church membership to try and keep a marriage together. The result is that many victims of abuse lose not only their marriage but their church fellowship.

Jesus’ example of suffering– Women who quietly, or even openly, admit to being abused are often told to look at our Lord’s example of suffering, patiently, and unjustly. But when this happens we are overlooking the fact that Jesus was suffering in a redemptive way to show sacrificial love for his bride, the Church. To turn this around and say that a wife is to patiently endure the self-centered, violence of her husband is to unintentionally promote heresy. Encouraging a woman to suffer abuse as Christ did is to inadvertently tell her to misrepresent the good purposes of Christ (Eph 5:22-33).

God hates divorce– God’s strong disapproval of divorce as expressed by the prophet Malachi (2:14-16) is often used as a reason to believe that the termination of a marriage is not an option for the people of God– even in situations of marital abuse. Yet in context, God is talking about those men who willfully put away the wives of their youth to take other wives for themselves. The emphasis of Malachi is very similar to Jesus’ confrontation of the religious leaders of his day. Many of them were also dismissing their wives for self-centered frivolous reasons (i.e. for any reason). In the process they misused the intent of Moses’ allowance of divorce. (Matt 19:3-11). Yet by telling these men that he hates what they are doing, God was not contradicting the wisdom that he gave through Moses to allow divorce rather than to force couples to remain together in hardness of heart. Malachi speaks of the kind of divorce God hates as a kind of unjustified violence that God loathes. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah makes it clear that God himself gave unfaithful Israel a certificate of divorce (Jer 3:8).

In each of these examples, a good principle is taken out of context and used to support the idea that nothing is worse than divorce. When we do this we fail to see what all too many victims realize– that as regrettable as any divorce is, forced subjection to continued abuse can be far worse.

Now let me ask you, do you disagree with my understanding of any of the above ideas? Or, have you seen the damage that misapplied principles of the Bible can do to a marriage?

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