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.

41 Responses

  1. You are dancing around the issue, Danni. This is a public blog. You have also allowed it to become a forum. You have a responsibility. The hurting sisters in the Lord who come to the narrow focus of this site are naturally seeking some comfort and direction in one specific area of their lives. When you provide a link you are also providing an endorsement of that link ….. unless you specifically state otherwise. They see these links as a blanket endorsement on behalf of …… you. Could I suggest a type of disclaimer within the area where you provide your links? I say this because the discerning believer can easily go to some of them and see some radical departures from orthodox Christianity. Gola’s and Charis’s are just two of them. Gola’s due to some very bad exegesis of Scripture and Charis’s due to Feminist Theology.

    Just a suggestion …..

  2. DANNI, THANK YOU !!!!
    Thank you for your wisdom, your patience as well as hard work and time spent on this fabulous blog. Women are seriously underrepresented in so many areas of life – they are constantly being intimidated, “called into obedience” and just brain washed. Thank you for helping us all! God bless you!

  3. Danni,

    I found this site after a friend of mine was convicted of child molestation. I too found it hard to believe that the man I knew in service to the Lord had fallen so hard. I am saddened because I had never heard such a gifted preacher or singer at such a young age. He was an inspiration at age 16. “The Devil knew of his gifts and tempted him…

    I am responding to your articles on abuse in marriage. I too am a victim and developed the courage to leave. Even now, I contemplate if I could have had a different outcome. My charge as a mother and spouse who has been committed to Christ and my marriage has been one that I have taken seriously. In facing the abuse of my unrepentant spouse, I came to know of the crisis that many women have found themselves in. I am educated and self-supporting. I am one of the fortunate ones. I shudder to think what would have become of me had this not been the case. Thank you for exposing the lie: that God expects women to remain in abusive marriages. It seems like too many of our brothers and sisters in the church rather see a fellow believer dead in the ground rather than divorced. It is puzzling to me. I pray for my own family and others that continue to suffer…

    • Liliet,

      I’m sorry you’ve experienced all this, too! But I’m very glad you followed your common sense and got out. You’re right — many women either have been taught they can’t or they feel they lack the means to do so.

      Thanks for sharing!

      — Danni

  4. WOW ! You are doing exactly what I’ve been thinking about for a very long time…..Women need to know that they do not have to remain in a marriage for the sake of committment, children, church membership, or any of various and sundry reasons. The Word of God is a strong tower (for women (mankind) too ! I’m just out of a spiritual abusive (SBC preacher marriage) and thank you for the freedom I’ve experienced upon reading “putting asunder” – he put the relationship asunder long before the legal decree came…..As my dad used to say and I told this preacher “Just keep reading – read a little bit further”……Thank you for doing exactly that and freeing my mind…..YAY – Somebody else does agree – and it’s a woman….and a Godly one it seems…
    I would love to have more input for women here and help where I can – if you have a need……God’s blessings to you……I am grateful !

  5. Thank you for your insightful study on the subject of Godly Submission verses ABUSE of Scripture. I struggled with these same issues. I so wanted to do God’s Will within my marriage. Confusion is Satan’s game. Satan twists God’s WORD around to mean something totally opposite of what GOD is saying and meaning. It is a matter of Life or Death to women/men that are in an Abusive Relationship to have God’s WORD rightly divided (2 Timothy 2:15). You have offered a life line to those of us that were/are drowning in the sea of despair from living in or with ABUSE of any kind what so ever. I am NOT responsible for HOW or WHAT my husband chooses to do or not do. I am responsible before GOD for my choices. Adam did not take responsibility for his wrong choice in the Garden of Eden. Nor did Eve. Both played the BLAME game. It is easy for us to minimize, justify, rationalize, etc. when we lean upon our own understanding. Yet, we are admonished to lean upon JESUS and take Him at His WORD. I take JESUS at His WORD in the Authorized 1611 King James Holy Bible alone. All other so-called Bible versions have been written from corrupted Greek Texts. Satan is a liar and deceiver. He wants there to be confusion. Confusion is what a person gets when they read from any other bible version that has been perverted by the Master of Deceit….SATAN. In GOD I place my Trust. He (GOD ALMIGHTY) was/is faithful to KEEP His Holy WORD for us in the English Tongue (language) in the Authorized 1611 KJV alone. Thank you LORD.

  6. Adam did not take responsibility for his wrong choice in the Garden of Eden. Nor did Eve. Both played the BLAME game.

    Correction. Eve confessed her deed and accurately acknowledged the remote source as Satan. Adam blamed God.

    from “God’s Word to Women” by Katharine Bushnell:

    69. I think we are warranted in drawing a contrast between these two answers, for in them we find a clue to what follows. Both confess, “I did eat,” and both tell truthfully the immediate influence that led to the eating. So far they are equal. But Adam is led on to say more. There was a remote cause for his downfall, through Eve,—Satan. But Adam does not, like Eve, mention Satan; and yet he does not remain silent as to a remote cause; he accuses God to His face of being Himself that remote cause,—in giving the woman to be with him. And the worst feature of the case consists in the fact that Satan was present, or near-by, at the interview, and could not have been overlooked, excepting wilfully, if a remote cause was to be mentioned at all. Satan must have rejoiced as much in Adam’s attitude towards God in charging Him with folly, as in Adam’s attitude towards himself, the tempter, in shielding him from blame. Is it not this scene, this conduct on the part of Adam, to which Job refers (3133) when he complains, “If, like Adam, I covered my transgressions by hiding mine iniquity in my bosom?” Dr. Lange says (see par. 36), “Adam must watch and protect” the garden from an “existing power of evil.” Is not this the reason why Adam does not mention Satan, who has been let inside?

  7. I respectfully agree to disagree about placing blame on Satan. Satan does tempt us, yet…we CHOOSE to reject or accept his lies. Temptation in itself is NOT sin. Jesus was tempted. Yet, when we give into that temptation that goes against God’s WORD, then it is sin. We have a “free will” to choose to obey God or disobey Him. Eve KNEW the truth. She spoke the truth to the tempter. Yet, she chose to believe the LIE rather than obey God’s TRUTH. Adam was not off somewhere else at the time of the temptation. My Bible that I read from (1611 Authorized King James Holy Bible) says that Adam was with her. Adam could have said, “NO” to Eve. Women are the weaker vessels. We often think with our hearts, where men often think with their heads. (I’m not saying that women don’t know how to think and use common sense). Women and men are different in how God created us. This is a good thing. This is why men do better when they have a “help meet” to bring a different perspective on issues when decisions need to be made that concern them both. Women feel safe when their husbands will protect and provide for them. I believe Adam was willfully choosing to disobey God’s command to eat the forbidden fruit. Even though Eve chose to disobey God’s command, Adam could have chosen to OBEY God’s WORD despite what Eve chose to do. I am not responsible for what others do or say. I am responsible for my choices. For years, living in an abusive marriage, I wanted to understand God’s WORD. The more I read His WORD, attended church, Bible classes on Marriage and Parenting, I learned what healthy relationships looked and sounded like. Yet, the enemy of our souls twisted my understanding due to living in an “insane” relationship. I am responsible for my sin nature. The LORD delivered me out of bondage through my choosing to believe HIM instead of Satan’s lies. Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world. I also notice in the dialogue that went on between Eve and the serpent that she ADDED to God’s WORD by saying that God said to not TOUCH the forbidden fruit. God did not say that. We need to take personal responsibility for our choices. I cannot BLAME my husband for my lack of judgment. My husband chooses to be disrespectful and ungodly. I choose to walk with GOD and obey his WORD with the help of the Holy Spirit. I sin daily. Yet, I usually have conviction in my soul over how I grieved my LORD and Saviour and others by my choice to sin. I ask for the LORD to break me and change ME to be molded to become more like HIM. The Serenity Prayer says, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I cannot change others. I can influence others for good or bad by my choices. We are told to have the spirit of “self control”….NOT “other control”. True freedom in Christ is doing things because we want to please the LORD…not because we feel we have to. Same thing in a marriage relationship. I want to please not because I have to, but because I want (desire) to. A healthy relationship is where both partners have a heart to “serve” one another and give into the marriage. In abusive relationships, the partners are often selfish, immature and are TAKERS rather than givers into the relationship. Marriage was designed to be a reflection of God’s LOVE that he showers upon the CHURCH (true born again believers that have trusted JESUS by faith alone – Eph 2:8+9). Jesus laid down his life for the CHURCH. Men that will protect their wives often help to make their wives feel cherished. Sadly, my husband wanted (wants) me to lay down my life for him and protect him from his bad choices. (He wants me to enable him by lying to cover for his bad choices). Since I don’t do that anymore, he sees me as his enemy. I do hold him accountable because I care. I want the LORD to hold me accountable and discipline me when I sin, because I know HE careth for me. God cares. When I choose to obey the LORD, I say to Him that I LOVE Him. Eve could have chosen to obey God’s command rather than disobey His WORD. We are protected when we obey God’s commands (WORD). A child is often protected when he/she chooses to obey their parent’s. When children rebel against their parents good judgment, then there should be some kind of consequence to teach the child to repent and turn from their sinful choices. Obedience to God brings blessings. Disobedience brings heart ache and consequences. WE have a free will to choose to obey or disobey God. GOD never ever will lead us astray. I DO Trust God.

  8. Paul clarifies that Adam was NOT deceived but the woman was deceived: “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived “. 1 Tim 2

    I think there is a difference between being deceived/tricked into doing something wrong, and deliberately choosing defiance. With my own children, defiance is viewed as much MUCH more serious than doing something ignorantly.

    And their responses are different too.
    When God confronted them,:

    Eve confessed what she had done and explained the source of the deception: Satan

    Adam confessed what he had done, but blamed the woman and God. (with Satan still right there enjoying THAT spectacle!)

    I see those two responses as entirely different, and Katharine Bushnell goes so far as to call Eve the first believer and to point out that: enmity between the woman and the serpent came about because she so boldly exposed his evil, and that nowhere in the text is Eve told to “leave the garden”. Only the one who was taken from the ground was told to leave. Bushnell suggests she CHOSE to follow Adam out. (see the link in my previous post, the whole book is online at that website)

    In a sense, these OT characters are our “mothers” and Jesus said “Honour thy father and thy mother” . if we do what is right we are “daughters of Sarah” (1 Pet 3) which makes Sarah our mother in a sense.
    Eve’s name means “Mother of all the living”. So, in a sense, Eve is our mother too. Personally, I experienced a great deal of healing when my view of biblical foremothers changed. When I read Bushnell, it was like a veil came off and I came to respect our “fore-mothers” instead of viewing them with contempt.

    Anyway, take it or leave it. Personally, I find it a much more refreshing and edifying perspective than the traditional view of Eve.

  9. Thank you for this article. I just found your site today. My wife and I are lay-pastors in an adult singles ministry at a church in the west. I began to reevaluate my views on marriage and divorce before we took on this ministry.

    My sister was beaten and abused for 6 out of the 8 years she was married. In the aftermath of her experience I began a journey though the heart of biblical teachings on divorce. Her husband, claiming to be a Christian, argued that she could not divorce him because he had not committed adultery (with a REAL woman). I told my sister of my thoughts several years ago. She responded, “does your church know you believe this stuff?” She feels that the church abandoned her.

    We men are called to love our wives as Christ loves the church, self-sacrifically. That’s all nice spiritual language until it actually feels like we are sacrificing something we don’t want to give up (like pornography, or our pride).

    In light of Paul’s teachings on marriage in Ephesians, the man who abuses his wife has declared by his actions that he is NOT a follower of Jesus Christ (by their fruit ye shall know them). In light of Matthew 5, the abuser has the heart of a murderer. Domestic abuse is unjustifiable anger, judged the same as murder according to Jesus.

    Don’t tell me how long you’ve been a Christian, when you were baptized, what seminary you went to, how many degrees you have posted on the wall of your office, what position you hold in the church, how much money you give to support ministry, or even if you have a TV or radio ministry. Show me how you treat your spouse and I will tell you whether or not you are in fact a follower of Jesus Christ.

    I think there is a possible solution to the problem. Abusers need to repent biblically, following the example set by the supreme “repenter” of the scriptures, King David. He confessed openly to two capital murder cases without regard to his personal safety. When confronted by the prophet Nathan he said, in effect, “you’re right, I am the man”. He didn’t have a defense attorney,. or a pre-trial conference, or a plea bargain agreement. For all he knew the death sentence was coming next. We know the outcome, but he did not know it when he confessed. David was more concerned with his standing before God than he was his own life. When any abuser is willing to similarly confess, then there is hope for that marriage.

    Has a crime been committed? Why weren’t the police called to the scene and why wasn’t an arrest made? Would the abuser be willing to turn himself in to the authorities for the crime they committed? Is the abuser unwilling to follow David’s example and completely repent of his sin? And if he (of she) is unwilling to do so, then I would maintain that they are not followers of Jesus Christ and have, in effect, “put out” their spouse, violated their vows, and declared the marriage to be over.

    Forgiveness of your enemies is crucial to the gospel message. And sometimes our greatest enemy shares our bed. But churches need to hold abusers accountable, the way that King David was held accountable. Yes, my sister was justified in divorcing her unbelieving spouse. He took unilateral steps to declare that he no longer was willing to honor his marriage vows (by the way, he was typical in that he was VERY afraid of going to jail). He was Christian in name only, something repeatedly addressed by Jesus as blatant hypocrisy.

    Pharisees are alive and well in the modern church, and I wonder if Jesus would be welcomed in many of them if he walked in the door.

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