Theology of an Abusive Marriage

By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved

Much of the abuse in my marriage had its roots, or at least it’s excuse for continued existence, in the theology of marriage and family taught in the churches where both my husband and I grew up.  These were almost all Baptist churches, some fundamentalist Baptist churches, and a very few non-Baptist churches.  The reason I am naming these churches is because, while this theology is extremely common in fundamentalist Baptist churches, it is not limited to this subset. 

Throughout most of our marriage we were in a Southern Baptist Church and during our first separation our counselor was an elder in our church who was also a LMFT and Christian counselor.  During our second separation we received counseling from a trained counselor who attended a Charismatic (full gospel) church and had exactly the same theology of marriage.  I also want to make clear that the application of this theology does vary.  While I believe this theology is biblically inaccurate, not everyone reaches the conclusion in their personal practice that these theological distinctives excuse behavior which some view as godly but which is abusive.

The theology of an abusive marriage has its fundamental basis in the view that the husband dominates the wife.  The word “dominate” would never be used in real life – it sounds just as bad as it is. 

And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. ~~~ Gen. 2:18

The assumption is made based on this verse, that “man” means human of male gender. At this point, since there was no female, man was just “mankind,” the human species. I believe it is more accurately understood to mean that individual humans are not generally suited to solo existence (though the Word elsewhere says that some individuals have been created for celibacy); we humans are created to function most fully and satisfactorily in pairs where the two individuals make a more complete whole than did the two separately.

In my abusive marriage, this verse meant that the wife was created to meet the needs of and complete the husband in a marriage. This was specifically taught to the women in the Bible college I attended and I heard this concept taught in sermons about marriage. In my marriage, my husband literally believed that the purpose of my creation by God was to complete him and meet his needs. This meant any other purpose for my existence was secondary to this primary purpose.

Another assumption that came out of this theology was, since I was created to complete my husband, in any place he was “incomplete” I was supposed to naturally and supernaturally be the answer and fulfillment of his lack. So, if he didn’t finish a project, it was my fault because I was supposed to complete him (without being told, too; since it was supposed to be a supernatural or automatic function I should have “known”). Any area of weakness in him was my responsibility to make up. The result of this belief was that everything was automatically my fault.

Another bit of theology was taken from Gen. 3:16:

and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

The church taught that “thy desire shall be to thy husband” meant the wife would always want to dominate the husband. But then the second part of the verse was the antidote to that problem because the husband would have to “rule over” the wife to keep from being ruled by her.

The belief that “thy desire shall be to thy husband” meant a desire to control him was based on the use of the same Hebrew word translated “desire” in Gen. 4:7, where the verse is completely convoluted and turned inside out to mean that Satan “desired” to control Cain and that the wife would “desire” to control her husband in the same way that Satan desired to control Cain.

The first problem with this interpretation is that you really have to twist the verse around to reach the conclusion that Gen. 4:7 is using the word desire to mean Satan desired to control Cain. The second problem is making that interpretation (desire = desire to dominate and control like Satan) analogous to the use of the word “desire” in Gen. 3:16. The word “desire” simply means a strong longing. The same Hebrew word is also used in the Song of Solomon 7:10 and obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with an evil desire to dominate or control.

So, if you go back to Gen. 3 and take out the supposition that “desire” means a Satan-like desire by the wife to dominate her husband, it makes far more sense to see that, as a result of the Fall, while the wife would have a great longing for her husband (for her husband, for his attention, for his time, for him to meet her needs that he could not meet; as opposed to having relationship with God as her foremost “desire”) the husband, after the Fall, would erroneously attempt to dominate and control the wife, instead of providing for, treasuring, valuing, and protecting her.

The affect in my abusive marriage of the misunderstanding of the word “desire” in Gen. 3:16 was that anything I did or said was seen as me desiring to dominate or control my husband. Any time I had a thought or opinion that differed from his I was attempting to dominate and control him. So any personal thought or opinion of mine that wasn’t in complete agreement with his on every slightest subpoint was “corrected” — either through the calmly irritated harangues that lasted until he quit being irritated about it – could be 20 minutes or could be 2 hours, and it would be frequently revisited later and never forgotten or forgiven – or through screaming, swearing rages.

Then we get to the New Testament teachings about marriage. Interestingly, when you read the Word, almost all the passages in the New Testament about marriage speak to both the husband and the wife, and the admonitions include statements equating the marriage relationships to the relationship with Christ (husband) and the church (wife). The Christian marriage is supposed to conform to a higher standard. Divorce should never happen in a Christian marriage because a marriage in the image of Christ and the church would never be “separated” – the two partners would never be separated in their relationship, something that happens long before a couple gets a legal document expressing the reality of their relationship that already existed prior to the legal decree.

One of the complaints of those who object to things like the SBC resolution on marriage is that the church tends to focus almost exclusively on the submission of women in Christian marriage. I’ve heard preached that if only the wife would submit to her husband in all things he would be free to lead her. I was told many times by many people if I would just submit to my husband in all things he would be free to obey his part of Scripture and I would stop provoking him to ungodly behavior. There are several theological and logical problems with this belief.

First, is the Biblical mandate for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave up His LIFE for it. Christ is the initiator in the relationship between Himself and the church. Christ loved the church and gave up His life for the church before the church submitted itself to Him. In fact, I would suggest that the church is enabled to freely and completely submit to Christ because we can be confident in His perpetual attitude of humble and unaltered love and service toward us.

Christ also loved the church and continues to love the church, regardless of the church’s behavior or choices. Thank God for that! Jesus would never and has never launched into swearing rages (or any spiritualized equivalent) because the church displeased Him, much less because the church “burnt his breakfast” (or the spiritual equivalent). The only thing that makes Christ angry in the Word is spiritual adultery. And in an interesting additional correlation, spiritual adultery is the reason why the church can be removed from the tree into which it was grafted (Rom. 11:24) — a spiritual divorce, just like God divorced Israel for spiritual adultery (Jer. 3:8).

I believe the idea that a wife’s lack of submission is a valid excuse for a husband’s failure to follow his Biblical responsibilities goes back to the fundamental misunderstanding of Gen. 3:16. Under what theological logic can it be right that a man’s anger, rage, profanity and physical violence is excused if he feels he is being provoked by his wife or children? Even if his accusations are based in reality his behavior is inexcusable. NO ONE ever said that to my husband (completely overlooking the fact that someone who was using another’s behavior as an excuse just might also be creating the accusations against that person out of whole cloth in the first place). And the fact that the church teaches an imbalanced version of submission adds to the offense.

What does it mean when the Bible says for wives to submit to husbands? The church teaches submission as subjugation, though it denies that interpretation because it sounds just as bad as it is. Submission is supposed to be completely putting your will and personhood under the control and domination of another. If you’re a lucky wife, your husband won’t use his rightful position of dominance to hurt you. He will be a benevolent dictator. But this view is completely contradictory to the teaching of the Word. The Word specifically says:

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.

But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;

And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:

Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. ~~~ Mt. 20:15-28

This is Jesus’ model! There is no excuse or justification for domination or dictatorial control, benevolent or otherwise.

Another Scripture that’s taken to mean more than it does is the bit in I Peter 3 about a wife obeying her husband even if he is disobedient to the Word, using the example of Sarah with Abraham. There are multiple factors to consider here. First, remember the culture where women were chattel and had no standing or protection without a husband. But even larger than that, when the Word talks about husbands being disobedient to the Word, using the example of Sarah, there is no indication that we are to follow our husbands into disobedience that puts lives in danger or requires that we deny or defy God or cease to follow our personal relationship with God.

People use Sarah as a positive example and say that Sarah obeyed Abraham even though he gave her into an adulterous relationship. Again, look at the reality of the day. Abraham told Sarah to claim to be his sister because he knew Abimalech would take her, by force if necessary, and would kill Abraham to remove him from his position as her husband. Now, I don’t think Abraham handled this properly. But it could be that, in claiming Sarah as his sister Abraham was attempting to protect her (and himself – which in turn also would protect her because without him she would be at the mercy of whomever was most powerful). Abraham was disobedient to God, doing it in his own strength. But he may have thought he was choosing a “lesser” evil and buying time to fix it. By allowing Abimalech to take Sarah into his harem, Abraham had time to work out something to get her back. He couldn’t do that if he was dead. Abimalech would not have taken Sarah sexually immediately after putting her in his harem. There would have been a process of time required first.

For modern Christian theologians to suggest wives are to submit to “disobedient” husbands who are bringing STD’s into their home, or physically abusing their children, or subjecting them to systematic abuse (which will kill given enough time) is taking one verse out of the context of the whole of the Word and violates the heart of God which is always for protection of the abused and afflicted.

This abusive husband is not merely disobedient. The Word says that a man who does not provide for those in his own house has “denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.” (I Tim. 5:8 ) The “Christian” husband who abuses his family (“provide for” includes all the types of provision a husband is responsible for, not just monetary provision) has denied the faith.

There’s no ambiguity there. But just in case you don’t get it, God goes on to say this man is “worse than an infidel.” We think of “infidel” as meaning “pagan” or “heathen.” That’s not what it says. Infidel comes from the same root as infidelity; another word for adultery. This same Greek word is used elsewhere in the New Testament to speak of unbelievers (I Cor. 7:12-15, II Cor. 6:14-15, Rev. 21:8 ) to whom believers are not maritally bound if the unbeliever will not live with the believing spouse in peace (I Cor. 7).

Where is this teaching in the church??? I’ve never, not ever, heard one preacher teach that an abusive husband has denied the faith and is considered by God to be an unbeliever, even if he thinks he’s prayed the magic mantra prayer and has his eternal fire insurance in order. I don’t know of any pastor who would dare (not to say none exist; I just don’t know of any). This truth is at least as important, if not more important, than the Bible’s teaching on submission.

To leave out this consequence of a husband’s unbiblical domination is a profound error of doctrine and practice and leaves wives and children in danger, something God WILL hold the church responsible for. The Bible also says that God will not hear the prayers of, or receive the offerings of, husbands who treat their wives this way. (Mal. 2:13-16, I Pet. 3:7) The idea that a man’s exemplary service to God could negates the reality of, or consequences for, his abuse of his family is against Scripture.

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