Marital Abuse & the Bible

This excellent article is from It was originally posted to the site on March 27, 2008.


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.


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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Why are you ignoring the abuse of men?!!!!!!!!!!!

    How unfair. It is an epidemic.

  2. I wouldn’t even think of pretending men aren’t being abused. I’ve seen it in action in several instances. As it happens, the three of us who moderate this blog are women. I, personally, have experienced domestic abuse. I can speak to the issue from personal experience, from the wisdom of what God has taught me as a wife being abused by a “Christian” husband.

    I would love to find more resources for Christian men being abused by “Christian” wives because it is just as much of a problem (in fact, I think you’ve given me a project – stay tuned). At the basic core, the principles are the same. Abuse is not acceptable, period. God does not condone it. He does not expect His children to remain under it without recourse. He has answers for abused women and for abused men.

    It is also true that the majority of materials written for and about abuse are written to women and for a woman’s perspective, simply because women are statistically more likely to be abused than men. And you have to pick a gender in writing. It gets grammatically awkward to write s/he or some version thereof at every turn.

    There is also the Biblical perspective in this article which is specifically addressing the church’s propensity to use the Bible to justify abuse by twisting Scripture. Some of misapplications are gender specific because these verses are gender specific. That does not diminish the reality of abuse of men or suggest that men are not abused.

    However, I think it is true that, while much of the church is grossly negligent in its handling of women who are being abused, they are in even more denial about the abuse of men. I suppose those who teach a woman should submit and pray more would tell a man he’s failing to be the spiritual leader. If you’ve been an abused husband you know that’s completely ridiculous.

    You are completely right. Marital abuse – including abuse against men – is an epidemic (my own very favorite adjective!) and those of us who know are those who need to step up and be the hands of change.

    — Danni, NHO moderator

  3. I just found this resource, which looks very good. I’m also going to continue looking.

    Men Abused By Women in Intimate Relationships.

    Danni, NHO moderator

  4. What an awesome article, and you nailed things right on the head! Good luck with your presentation! I pray that you have plenty of listening ears, and open hearts!

  5. I am in an abusive marriage of almost ten years. There has been physical,emotion, and verbal abuse. I have been told that I should overlook all that has been done to me. The problem is I love so much that I almost hate to leave. I have two daughters who do not seeing leaving as a option but a must. I feel like I am torn between the man I am married too and my children. I grew up in an abusive broken home. I just don’t want my daughters to think this is normal.The one thing that has help me consider leaving is how I stayed with my first husband for 12 years who by the way put a gun to my head, beat,draged and kick me one night almost to death! God delivered me from him. He died about 10 years ago. I know it was God’s mercy then and it is his mercy for me now. I am praying for the man I am married to now because I realize that he had the need for God’s love to.

    • Some things to think about –

      Does your husband need God’s love more than your children?
      Does real love enable another person to continue in sin?
      Is it possible that you see your relationship as acceptable because abusive is “normal” to you?

      I would highly recommend that you find a counselor that specializes in abuse. You have experiened a lot of abuse in your life and you need healing for yourself. That is the first priority. Other things will fall into line as you find healing for yourself.

      — Danni

  6. My husband has hit me this weekend for the first time for his family. They are always butting into our lives.I don’t know what to must i leave or not. He is pretending like nothing has happened what should i do/

    • Hi Mishie!

      This is definitely a big problem, and from what I’m hearing you say, it is part of a larger problem than a single incident. I’m going to recommend that you visit Because It Matters, which is my personal blog with a TON of resources for you in this situation. You are also welcome to e-mail me privately, using the link under my picture on that site.

      God has answers for this, and a plan to work it for good in your life! That is a guarantee from His Word.

      — Danni

  7. There are so many verses that talk about God hating hate, vengence, slavery, enslavement, cruelty, sexual abuse, – it would be nice to see those included so that people who are abused will know that God hates abuse as much as he hates divorce. The only difference is that God said he would allow divorce – he never said that he will condone abuse.

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