How Do You Respond When Abuse and Submission Collide?

How Do You Respond When Abuse and Submission Collide

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I will never forget the first time that I confronted a verbally abusive husband during a counseling session. As with many authoritarian husbands, this particular man declared his harsh treatment of his wife to be his biblical duty—a perceived badge of honor. As with far too many husbands, he believed that establishing his own kingdom and authority in the home equated to godliness. Moreover, he pronounced to me that his wife’s submissive acceptance of his dictatorial spirit and harsh treatment was her biblical duty to him.

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Love God, Love Wife

Sadly, at that time, I was a young pastor who was beginning to practically apply Scripture in counseling and was not yet married myself. Although I offered the couple the best biblical counsel that I could, I admit that I fell short of fulfilling my biblical and loving duty as an elder.

Despite my failures, I discerned then from Scripture that a husband who genuinely understands and is intimate with the one true God will not treat his bride in harsh or destructive ways. As Ephesians 5:25 makes abundantly clear, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” This was the counsel that I offered to the husband: a man who understands God’s love extends and applies the same grace to his own bride.

More specifically, a Christlike husband gives, sacrifices, nourishes, and places his wife above his own needs and desires. In fact, in the next verses (Ephesians 5:26-33), a man’s loving covenant duty to his wife is revealed in how Jesus Himself loves His bride: by sacrificing his life, by washing her with gracious and true words, and by nourishing and cherishing her as one does his own body.

The Mind of Christ

I would argue very strongly, now, that a man’s true theology is best displayed in how he treats, speaks to, and sacrifices for (or not) his wife. The same is true in how a father engages with his children. A man who claims to love and know the gracious Creator of the universe will not mistreat, demoralize, or “abuse” his own flesh.

For a Christian to have the mind of Christ demands that he/she think of others more highly than his/herself (Philippians 2), and in no human relationship is this truer than in the covenant relationship of marriage as designed by God to reveal His covenant grace to His bride the church.

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It is in the bond of marriage that God graciously designed all aspects of His love agape [John 15:13], eros [Song of Solomon], storge [Isaiah 49:15], and phileo [John 15:15]) to be revealed, lived out, and experienced. Since the fall, this design—as with the very image of God in mankind—has been marred. While Christians who enter into covenant marriage are fallen and display God’s love imperfectly, they are still those who purpose and strive to both know the covenant God and live out his love in their own bond of marriage.

While I offered biblical martial counsel in dealing with my first counseling experience of an abusive spouse and in regard to his heart’s relationship with God and his wife, I realize now that I did not do enough. In truth, the church as a whole has not done enough, and we who are called to minister the Word and appointed to church leadership are most at fault.

Thankfully, there are a growing number of men and women who are unified in addressing this failure within the local and universal church. Men like Chris Moles and Warren Lamb, among others who have personally helped me through their ministry of writing and their friendships, are seeking both to address these issues as well as to call church elders to urgent biblical action.

Check the Heart First

One of the points that Chris Moles makes in his book, The Heart of Domestic Abuse, and in speaking, is that abuse is not a marital problem. Instead, it is an individual heart problem. Wives are not the only people who are abused in this world, and sadly, as society as a whole sets its heart on fulfilling its own desires, abuse is becoming more widespread.

When abuse occurs within marriage, the “salvation of marriage” itself is often elevated to being the priority rather than addressing the abuser’s heart. As a professor of biblical counseling, Nicolas Ellen has rightfully stated, “Marriages don’t have problems; people in marriages, however, do.” The only way to “save” marriages, then, is to address the heart problems, which are truly responsible for attacking God’s original design/purpose for marriage.

Sadly, many churches have set up a false dichotomy where church leadership feels as though they must choose between either saving people or saving marriages. But if the church is to biblically approach these issues of abuse and truly help marriages, then the “heart of abuse” must be priority number one. This brings me to the point of biblical submission—the key heart issue in all discussions of abuse.

Perverted Submission

Having been in dozens of churches over the last several years and read countless secular and Christian books and journal articles on suggested definitions of “submission,” it is not far-fetched to conclude that submission has become a perverted concept apart from biblical understanding.

This common practice has led to destructive and hurtful advice and applications in counseling, as well as to divisive and often heated debates. It is important to also note that this is not merely an error of the church, as secular counseling and the world’s thinking despise God’s wisdom contained in His Word.

But understanding biblical submission is not only necessary; it is also foundational to approach abusive men and genuinely help abused wives. As I have also dialogued with so many about these issues, I have concluded that the vast majority of believers understand that abuse is a moral problem that needs to be addressed, and they desire to help however they can. Others, however, are unaware of the problem until it becomes an issue in their own spheres of influence.

Exponential Effect

The problem is exacerbated by the church’s avoidance of graciously talking about submission within a biblical framework, which has opened the door for secular viewpoints to be considered. When it comes to a biblical understanding of submission, two passages stand out (among others) in my own thinking: 1 Peter 2-5 and Ephesians 5.

In 1 Peter 2:11, Christians are told “to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul.” When husbands pursue their own fleshly desires and “punish” with anger, fight, or are violent toward anyone who impedes their fleshly pursuits/lusts (James 4:1-3), it is not only a husband’s own soul that is damaged. All of those who observe the corrupt fruit of the heart are negatively affected.

The next verse (1 Peter 2:12) also speaks on this reality—noting that the unsaved are able to discern by behavior whether someone truly knows God or not: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Fleshly desires that wage war against the soul, then, are at the core of all abuse, and they are destructive to everyone involved.

Everyone Submits

But “deceitful desires of the flesh” are to be lovingly confronted by other believers (Ephesians 4), and all members of the church are to be held accountable for their humble obedience to God, His Word, and to other obedient believers (Matthew 18:15-20) who are walking in the Spirit (Galatians 6:1-2). When there is biblical confrontation according to God’s will, and unrepentance persists, that individual must be treated as an unbeliever and hopefully only temporarily cut off from covenant benefits (Matthew 18:15-20).

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people (1 Peter 2: 13).

Verse 13 (of 1 Peter 2) introduces submission into the equation. But as will be observed, it is not only the wife that is admonished to submit to others in Scripture. Everyone must submit to ALL institutions of authority that God ordains since all human authority is both gifted by God and purposed to reflect His character (Romans 13:1-3). This passage also asserts that established authorities are to take responsibility for addressing evil done against others and honoring those who do good.

Back to the Heart

Once again, it is the human heart that is corrupt and not established institutions such as marriages or the church. The passage then carefully warns believers that human nature can twist God’s grace into being a cover-up for evil rather than as a call to love and serve (verses 16-17):

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Honor everyone and love the brotherhood are commands for both husbands and wives. Simply because a man claims that his motive is pure and that he is free to govern his home however he wants is not justification for the church to not be involved in his wife’s treatment.

Even in the most horrific sins against the husband, Scripture establishes the pattern of husbandry that reflects God’s grace in these instances. Hosea’s relationship with his prostituting wife, Gomer, shows God’s faithful and gracious covenant love when a wife lives opposed to God’s grace.

Be Like Jesus

In the following verses of 1 Peter 2, submission is again commanded. This time, however, the context is an innocent servant who is being abused (18-20), which points to Jesus’ own abuse and mistreatment throughout His life and particularly at His death:

Servants, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but even to those who are unreasonable [crooked; torturous; unjust]. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.

For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

While the context is referring to slavery and not the covenant of marriage, abuse/injustice is clearly stated, and even in such environments, slaves are called to respect their masters in glory to God. Within the historical context, slaves had no legal rights to take their masters to court or to hold them accountable for their abuses.

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Display God’s Grace

God did not provide this example for people to twist His Word and use this passage to insist that the abused “suck it up and take it.” Instead, God reveals through Peter that even in experiences of injustice that cannot be escaped, Christians can take the opportunity to display God’s grace to the lost. God does not receive glory through people being abused, but he does find pleasure in people who are always mindful of him no matter their trials (James 1).

But the discussion of submission does not end here. As Peter closes his letter in Chapter 5, he makes two relevant and important statements concerning submission within the church: (1) Elders must not be “domineering over those in their charge, but be examples” (James 1:3), and (2)

You younger men, likewise, be subject [humbly submit or subordinate] to your elders (presbyterois); and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for GOD IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE (James 1:5, NASB).

A Church’s Responsibility

Young men are to submit to their spiritual authority in the church. In other words, the church leadership is responsible for both graciously establishing an example of humility and holding young men accountable. In turn, young men are to humbly submit to their God-ordained human authorities.

Peter stresses that everyone should submit to the established authorities and institutions in their lives, slaves who cannot escape are to submit to even their harsh masters, and young men are to submit to their church elders. All relationships that are exercised in biblical wisdom have submission, humility, honor, and love as the central features.

Biblically, submission is not just a heart’s position of a wife to her husband, and biblical discussions of submission must consider how the word/concept is nuanced throughout the Word of God and all of those who are called to be submissive to others.

What Does Ephesians Say?

Such a necessary discussion brings the conversation to Ephesians 5. It might be argued that in counseling abuse cases, this passage is most often cited in a husband’s demanding his wife to continue in submission to him no matter what. Some pastors have taken this same perspective.

As others have argued, though, the husband’s insistence that his wife submits to him can be itself a form of abuse since the passage does not instruct men to make their wives submit. Instead, Ephesians 5 admonishes wives to subject themselves as unto Christ.

At the same time, as Ephesians 5 makes abundantly clear within the context, there exist different types of submission, and all Christians—not only wives—are called to have a submissive mindset toward one another. It is within this context that the redemptive picture is displayed in Ephesians 5:21-25.

Chiastic Structure Ephesians 5:22-33

Understanding Biblical Submission

Prior to Paul’s admonishing husbands to love their wives and wives to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord, All Christians are commanded to have a heart that is “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). “Submitting,” as used in verse 21, is a Greek participle reflecting back to the command in verse 18 to be filled with the Spirit.

What Paul is stating is that a person who is spirit-filled looks like this: one who is 1) corporately worshipping Christ (vs. 19), 2) giving thanks in everything in Jesus’ name (vs. 20), 3) and submitting to one another for Christ’s sake. As applied to husbands, men who are truly walking in the Spirit are actively involved in corporate worship and fellowship, are thankful for what God has blessed them with, and are humbly submitting themselves to those in their lives.

In truth, verse 22 cannot be properly understood without connecting it to verse 21, as the Greek reads: “Submit to one another out of respect for Christ: wives unto your own husbands as unto the Lord.” Stated differently, verse 22 must be understood as one example of how ALL Christians are to submit to one another.

Christ and His Church

To emphasize this point, Paul makes it clear in verses 30-32 that his words “refer to Christ and the church.” Just as verse 19 explains how corporate worship is to be carried out, so too verses 22-25 explain how a husband and wife are to specifically submit to each other. A wife lovingly submits to her husband as her authority, just as the church does to Christ. (“Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands”; vs. 24), and a husband lovingly submits himself to his bride just as Christ did for the church (vs. 25).

For the wife, she “places her mission under” her husband’s leadership. For the husband, he places the value of his own life (and body) under that of his wife’s soul; he makes himself a living sacrifice just as Christ did for his bride. Philippians 2:1-8 provides a detailed perspective of Christ’s heart in his husbandry, which men are to embrace in their hearts and live out with their own bride:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross . . . .

A Loving Sacrifice

Christ humbly submitted himself to His bride by offering Himself as a living sacrifice. Jesus was not forced to do this; He lovingly chose to make His own life of less value than His bride’s, as displayed in both His words and actions. Likewise, in making His bride His mission, Jesus did not empty himself of value.

On the contrary, Christ was exalted because of His humility (Philippians 2:9-11). It is also worth noting that selfish ambition and pride are once again listed as heart conditions that are antithetical to being filled with the Spirit of God and knowing Christ intimately.

One of the points that Warren Lamb makes in his book, Behind the Veil: Exposing the Evil of Domestic Oppression and Providing Hope, is that Jesus, to whom was given ALL authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18), practically applied His authority in humble servitude and in gracious soul care—not domineering nor tearing down.

Are You Reflecting Christ?

Christ’s authority establishes meekness/gentleness in spirit (Matthew 11:29), and human authority should steward (Romans 13:1-3) and reflect Christ’s authority (Colossians 3:12). But in the same manner, understanding how the church must submit to Christ is necessary to understand how a bride should submit to her husband. Romans 12:1-3, among other similar passages, offers the answer:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

Just as the church must humbly submit their minds and bodies to Christ, so too the wife must submit to her husband. In many abuse cases (if not most) the church elders fail to hold everyone accountable for submitting to one another as God commands in Scripture, and, sadly, only the wife is typically admonished to submit to her husband as Scripture lays out. Furthering the problem, ideas of what biblical submission for the wife looks like also regularly do incredible damage.

The Husband Submits

But what about the husband who is called to submit his life in service to his bride and to nourish her in a way that reflects God’s grace? Why is the husband not first held accountable by the church elders who are called to do so graciously and establish an example? I would argue that a proper theology (regarding both soteriology and sanctification) determines that Christ first loves His church, which enables His bride to love him in return (1 John 4:19).

Ephesians 5 also reiterates that proper theology determines a proper understanding of marriage and covenant responsibility. If marriage is to theologically be upheld, then the husband must be the primary focus of biblical submission in counseling and, if needed, in church discipline. According to Scripture, the church cannot love God if Christ did not first display His own love on the cross. This is not to advocate that a wife is no longer under her husband’s authority if a husband is abusive. Instead, it is to establish that an abusive husband is under the authority of the church elders, and church leadership ordained by God must first hold the Christ-type in the home accountable before rightly addressing a wife’s submission. The church is responsible since “we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5:30).

Biblically, then, spousal abuse is not merely a husband’s pursuit of fleshly desires, disobedience to God, and sin against his own wife. It is also a lack of submission to God and the institution of the church and church authority that God has ordained in the man’s life. I believe that if the church fulfills its duty to uphold God’s commands and institutes church discipline when hearts are unrepentant, then conversations about whether a woman is submitting to her husband as God intends would be few and far between. Yet, many elders are content to admonish the wife alone while ignoring the true heart of the problem.

Abuse Is Subjective

To be fair, “abuse” is a subjective social construct that is regularly based upon an individual’s own internal perception. For example, to one lady, a husband’s harsh words or raised voice might be considered severe abuse, whereas to another, it is no big deal. In fact, discussions and debates abound about whether or not “emotional” and “spiritual” abuse (versus physical or sexual abuse) are legitimate categories in which the church should engage.

For Christians, though, we are not merely talking about how we feel internally but about accurate theology and how Christ is being lived out in our lives. Christians are evaluating behavior based on God’s moral laws (especially of love) rather than upon subjective opinion. This factor certainly includes both words and actions, as both 1 Peter 2 and Ephesians 5 affirm.

Therefore, the church should not be as concerned about how we define abuse subjectively as we are that we, the church submit to God’s authority on the matter and fulfill our responsibility to protect the souls in membership who are being defrauded. If God declares behavior toward others to be sin against them, then whether we choose to call it abuse or not doesn’t negate the responsibility of those walking in the Spirit to lovingly confront and seek to restore those who have forsaken the laws of God.

Sin Is Objective

One of the greatest points of contention that I observe in conversations about what type of behavior qualifies as “abuse” is both in the subjective nature of the term as well as in our exulting the idea of abuse over God’s clear revelation about sin. In other words, some people might dogmatically hold to the position that a husband’s angry words toward his wife are “verbal abuse” or “emotional abuse.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with using the word abuse. (I have utilized that term throughout this piece.) But if a man is sinning against his wife in a destructive and harmful way and in an unrepentant spirit, then even without using the term abuse, the church must take unified action to lovingly confront the husband and comfort the wife.

As Proverbs 15:4 states, “Gentleness of tongue is a tree of life; but crookedness therein is a breaking of the spirit.” Whether one chooses to accept or reject the term abuse, a man who from his character seeks to break his wife’s spirit in word or deed is sinning against her and not loving her as Christ does his own bride. Sadly, this reality leaves the people who are being sinned against and need immediate help with church leadership that is far too often divided and confused (and sometimes hurt or angry) rather than unified in their support of upholding God’s Word and biblically approaching the matter.

We Must Do Better

Why have we failed to identify and help those being abused in a biblical and thus edifying way? It might be, as I was once guilty of, that we are ignorant of what it means to graciously submit to one another in love for Christ and to hold our church members accountable for their soul care or lack thereof. Likewise, we have not accurately taught a biblical definition and application of submission within the covenant of marriage.

At this level, we have failed to teach proper theology that leads to proper counsel and application within the church. For most churches, the desire to help people who are being oppressed is unquestioned. But without truth, biblical love cannot be properly carried out. But it also could be, as Peter warns, that many pastors themselves have a mindset of “overpowering” or “attempting to master” (κατακυριεύοντες) their flocks (1 Peter 5:3).

While it has been made clear that spousal abuse is a tremendous problem and continues to worsen, there are also cases of women who have used the “abuse card” as a manipulation tool and a weapon to tear down their husbands who genuinely desire to nourish and love their wives as Christ does to them.

While this is not the norm, I have observed women who claimed to be believers, yet they did all that they could to destroy their spouses—including making shocking false accusations. Rather than focusing on whether or not someone has been “emotionally” abused, we must discern whether or not someone has been sinned against and his/her soul injured.

Of course, physical abuse is a different subject altogether, and Christians should submit themselves to the governing institutions and the laws of the land established to punish husbands who physically harm the woman they promised to cherish and nourish. In this way, we must submit to our God-given authority as well.

Call to Action

I am not attempting to cover the entire topic in this piece, but clearly, the church and church leaders need to graciously dialogue about how submission is defined according to the words and life of Christ. There are several practical applications that we can begin to apply in our families and in our church families today that can steadily turn the tide:

  1. Teach sound theology a bunch. We must stop failing to teach our young men God’s gracious love for us. Abuse can and will be prevented if young men fall in love with God and out of love with themselves. The biblical equation is simple: Men who love God love their wives. Men who abuse their wives either do not understand God’s goodness or have outright rejected it. We must stop failing to dismiss problems of abuse as if they are not heretical in their theology and as if they are not church discipline problems. Children, other church members, and even the unredeemed will see the theology we truly believe in how we treat other souls—especially in our family.
  2. Teach the value of women. We must stop failing to teach our young men that the souls of women are to be built up and nourished rather than used for our fleshly desires—especially those destructive lusts that are neatly dressed in robes of righteousness but are evil. If men are not taught to value women apart from their lustful desires, then men will naturally value women only for what they can get out of them. Most young men simply do not marry a wife to display Christ’s love for his bride, and the natural heart of man is more like Sampson, who sees a woman that pleases him and desires to take her as his own possession.
  3. Teach the church a theology of marriage. Marriage is not the problem; the heart of man is. If marriage is biblically understood and upheld, then the benefits are immense.
  4. We must get back to a biblical framework for marriage rather than relying upon our feelings in arrogantly clinging to our defined terms.

When the church does not disciple young men or hold them accountable, we should expect abuse to worsen in the body of Christ. Moreover, when the church refuses to define submission as God does, they not only set abused wives up for further pain but also encourage abusers to use their freedom for evil while claiming it as their God-given right. In many ways, churches have created abusive environments by not teaching and upholding the Word of God. Abuse and submission are not separate issues, and all whom God has called to submit in humility must be held accountable to do so in the theological order God has ordained (from the head down).

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