If a husband was hitting his wife, she would know she was being abused and if she went to the pastor, he wouldn’t dispute it. Especially if she had bruises to show him. But what happens when those bruises are on the inside, where no one can see? Even the battered wife questions if its real when there are no visible marks. Certainly no one else would believe her. And as we all know, God hates divorce.
This leaves emotionally abused women feeling abandoned and alone, trapped and unloved, sitting in the pews of our churches every single Sunday. And I can’t help but feel like we’ve failed them.
For the record, men can be verbally or emotionally abused by their wives as well, and although this article is written with the assumption that the abuser is the husband, the truths addressed in it apply equally to either spouse.
To learn more about what constitutes emotional abuse, please follow these links:
What many pastors don’t realize when they are preaching on marriage and divorce is that the counsel they’re giving is within the context of a healthy marriage. The advice given to a woman in an abusive relationship is going to be different than that within a typically dysfunctional one. As no marriage is perfect, there are always ups and downs and rocky seasons. There are two selfish, imperfect people struggling to learn how to live as one flesh. But in an abusive relationship, the dynamic is one of control versus submission. And that changes everything.
We all operate from within the sphere of our experience, and so most of these pastors are sharing based on their own knowledge of marriage with their spouse. They do not mean to inadvertently perpetuate abuse. Pastors and pastors’ wives are given the responsibility of counseling, but often without having been adequately trained. There is a level of discernment required to recognize if a marital conflict might be the result of ongoing verbal or emotional abuse—and these need to be understood and treated as abuse!
Scriptures, when taken out of context by either the abuser or the codependent spouse, can validate an unhealthy balance of power within the marriage. Verses can be misunderstood to teach that the individuals within the relationship are not as important as the relationship itself. It doesn’t matter how bad it is, stick it out! Suck it up! God hates divorce. And the abused party is left wondering, does God love me?
One of the problems with abuse is that it requires two parties: an abuser and a victim. While it is easy to focus on the faults of the abuser since they are more obvious, there’s another problem at play. A woman who marries a verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive man ended up at the altar because she didn’t recognize the signs of a controller before she said, “I do.” She already had a weak sense of self, poor boundaries, and a belief that she didn’t deserve to be treated better. Unintentionally, Christian teaching can reinforce these destructive patterns.
Please do not misunderstand me: God created marriage to be a sacred union, not to be entered into lightly nor abandoned easily. But let’s pause and make sure we understand why God chose to establish marriage as such an important institution. It is meant to be an illustration of the love and commitment Christ has for the Church. In that context, is God honored by an abusive marriage? What example is being set both within and without the church by a marriage where the one who should be cherished and protected is instead beaten down with harsh words and unrealistic and often changing expectations?
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
What we see here is a dynamic where the wife is cherished and nurtured by her husband, who makes himself a servant leader for his family even as Jesus did for the church. She respects his humility and sacrifice and is eager to honor him, knowing that he will always act and speak with her best interest at heart.
This is not the case in an abusive relationship. Abuse is ultimately a form of control. Barbara Roberts, author of the book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion, defines domestic abuse as “a pattern of conduct by one spouse which is designed to obtain and maintain power and control over the other spouse. It always includes emotional and verbal abuse and may also include financial abuse, social abuse (restricting the victim’s contact with family and friends), sexual abuse, physical violence, and spiritual abuse such as twisting scriptures to justify the abuse.”
Let’s review the biblical expectations of the husband.
Husbands are commanded, “Love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19). They are told to “love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:28–29). The focus of a husband’s Christlikeness in loving his wife is “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
Christian husbands are not Christ. They are finite, fallible, forgiven sinners. They do not stand in the place of Christ. Their wives relate directly to Christ (Hebrews 4:16; 11:6), not merely through their husbands. Husbands do not have the wisdom or the power or the rights of Christ. Their likeness to Christ in leading their wives is limited and focused by these words: He gave himself up for her . . . nourishing and cherishing . . . not harsh with them.
Therefore, an abusive husband is breaking God’s law. He is disobeying Christ. He is not to be indulged but disciplined by the church.
It’s important to emphasize that everyone has good days and bad days. Abuse is a pattern of behavior demonstrated over a long period of time, and one which the perpetrator refuses to change despite having been asked to do so.
One of the most historically misused verses to support male domination is “wives submit to your husband in everything.” (Eph. 5:24). Let’s look at what Focus on the Family says about this. (https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-q-and-a/relationships-and-marriage/submission-of-wives-to-husbands)
“The Bible makes it clear that a man should bear the responsibility for leadership in the home. But it is only as a leader that his wife submits to him (Ephesians 5:22) - not as a tyrant or superior being. By his leadership she is not disenfranchised or robbed of her personhood, nor is he given the right to run roughshod over her opinions and feelings. Rather, he is to love and cherish her - to die for her if necessary - even as Christ loved the church. He is to include her in the making of important decisions, weighing and considering her perspectives carefully and respectfully. In the end, the prerogative - and responsibility - of choosing and directing is allotted to him. But this does not give him license to disregard the needs and feelings of his partner - in other words, he is not to use it as a "trump card" to get his way. Rather, it places him under a heavy charge to become even more sensitive and more considerate, since he must ultimately answer to God for his choices and for the way in which he treats his wife. In this connection, it's worth adding that grave errors have been made through the misapplication of the man's "headship" in the home. If a wife believes that her husband is misusing this role, we'd advise her to speak with him about her concerns. If he is unwilling to listen, it would be very appropriate for her to bring the matter before a trusted mutual friend or a spiritual leader.”
Women are not being reduced to property, forced to surrender their individuality and personhood to their husbands. This is not God’s design. The husband is meant to represent Christ in the marriage, and abuse is absolutely counter to God’s nature. Men are being called to sacrificially love their wives, to protect and nurture them. Unfortunately, whoever has the power to protect also has the power to abuse.
Barbara Roberts states: “I believe the Bible allows divorce for domestic abuse, and the key text for this is 1 Corinthians 7:15 – ‘But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. For God has called us to peace.’ This verse has been generally assumed to relate to desertion: when an unbelieving spouse walks out, abandoning a marriage with a Christian spouse, but not legally divorcing them. However, in the Greek text the word “depart” (chorizo) means “to place space between, to separate” and it was one of the standard terms for legal divorce in the first century. Typically, perpetrators of abuse do not walk out of their marriages – they want to stay in the relationship because they enjoy the power, privilege and control they obtain therein. So the victim of abuse thinks this verse does not apply to her. However, when correctly understood, it is the verse which gives her freedom.”
“1 Corinthians 7:15 only applies to marriages where the opposite spouse is a nonbeliever. An abuser who professes to be a Christian typically resists the call to repentance, either by overtly fighting against having to take responsibility for his abusive behavior, or by counterfeiting repentance to get the admonishers off his back and make them think he is really changing. With counterfeit repentance, the change is only superficial: the abuser has not relinquished his belief that he is entitled to exert power and control over those he chooses to oppress. No-one could be a true Christian and engage in months/years/decades of coercive control and cruelty towards their spouse. Such conduct is anathema to Christ.
In Matthew 19:8 Jesus tells us, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.”
If someone were a true Christian they would have a tender heart not a stony heart; they would be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit would long since have effectively pricked their conscience about such wicked behavior so they would have willingly repented and ceased to behave so wickedly. They might slip into the flesh at times, like we all do; but when they did, they would not fight against admonishment. And they would not the shift the blame to another person, especially not to the person they had hurt!”
The perpetration of domestic abuse effectively pushes away the other spouse and divides the marriage. The fact that many victims eventually leave abusive relationships testifies to this pushing away. Perpetrators usually protest that they want the marriage to continue, but their evil conduct conveys the exact opposite – it effectually pushes the opposite spouse away.
When applying 1 Corinthians 7:15, the key question is not “Who walked out?” but “Who caused the separation?”
Peter explains when we should endure abusive treatment. He writes, “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.”
The good Peter is talking about here is a moral good, a doing-the-right-thing kind of good. Although in this passage Peter specifically advises us to submit to authority, Peter himself was flogged after he refused to stop preaching about Christ even though he’d been ordered by those in authority to stop. Peter refused to submit because in doing so, he would have to stop doing good (Acts 4:19; 5:17-42).
In the same way when a wife refuses to submit to her husband’s sinful behavior, or stands up for her children who are being mistreated, or refuses to sign a dishonest income tax report, or calls 911 when her husband is threatening to harm her or himself, she is doing good even if it doesn’t feel good to her spouse. Her behavior honors God, protects her children and does what is in the best interest of her spouse. (It is never in someone’s best interests to enable sin to flourish.).
A wife who does good in these ways will suffer because her husband will not view her actions as good. Instead he will get angry, defensive, and likely retaliate against her for what she’s done. That’s exactly the kind of suffering Peter is talking about. He’s speaking about suffering for doing good instead of being passive or fearful or doing the wrong thing or nothing at all. Peter is saying that when we do what is right and we get mistreated for it, God sees it and commends us.
Lastly, Peter reminds wives that their unbelieving husbands who refuse to obey God’s word can be won by their respectful and pure conduct. But we must keep in mind that a godly wife’s godly actions may include implementing tough consequences for repetitive and unrepentant sin in the hopes that those actions influence her husband to look at his destructive behaviors, repent, and come to Christ. God used that approach with hard hearted Israel when they repeatedly refused to heed his verbal warnings. Paul encourages us to do likewise (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 13).
When a woman takes these brave steps, she will suffer. She may suffer financially as her husband sits in jail because she called the police when he hit her. She may suffer the censure from her church when she separates from him because of his unrepentant use of pornography and verbal abuse. She may suffer with loneliness, retaliation from her spouse, disapproval from her friends and family for the stance she’s taken.
When we counsel a wife that God calls her to provide all the benefits of a good marriage regardless of how her husband treats her, provides for her, or violates their marital vows, we’re asking her to lie and pretend. This is not good for her or her marriage. This counsel also reinforces the abusive person’s delusions that he can do as he please with no consequences. Marriage does not give someone a “get out of jail free” card that entitles one to lie, mistreat, ignore, be cruel, or crush his spouse’s spirit with no consequences. To believe otherwise is to not know the heart or wisdom of God.
I feel very strongly that within the church we need to be more educated and informed on an issue of such vital importance, and exercise discernment and wisdom when giving counsel on marriage and divorce. Having spent much time in prayer and searching the scriptures, I feel compelled to be an advocate for women who feel they are trapped by Christian principles within an abusive marriage.
I want these women to know that they are loved and valued by God, that He hears the cries of their heart, and that they will not be held in condemnation by Him for removing themselves from an abusive relationship.