It should be self-evident that physical, mental or emotional abuse in any marriage would be unacceptable to God. The psalmist makes it clear: The Lord has heard the cries of the humble, “To judge the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may no more oppress. (Psalm 10:18)
St. Paul (Galatians 5:19-23) wrote of many works of the flesh, including hatred, wrath, and strife. And his statements about submission – whether by wives or servants or children – should not be taken out of context, a context of mutual love and forbearance, and God’s peace and grace:
Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. Wives, submit… (Colossians 3:12-21).
Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives… (Ephesians 5:17-22)
Jesus commands us to love one another: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34). And in 1 Corinthians, Paul described love – as patient and kind – not the way of an abuser. Abuse is more about power than love. Taken alone, this very description of love – “love bears all things,” can also be twisted into a barrier to exit a harmful situation. But Jesus’ statement was about mutual love, not one-sided love with forbearance on one side and violence on another.
Consider another statement by Paul, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” (1 Cor 3:16-17). That statement could be seen as simply a statement on bodily self-care, but it can also be interpreted as a larger statement, about the treatment of one person by another.
Long-time victims of abuse can come to believe they deserve their lot. Often, abusers claim that the abused victims are worthless, helpless and cannot survive on their own, or that they caused the outburst of abuse. When victims internalize these messages, they experience what has been termed “learned helplessness.” They are also sometimes told that they will lose their relationship with God if they leave their abusive partner. They may cite 1 Cor. 7:10-11) about not divorcing, without delving into what it really means to have a valid marriage. Sadly, those in a position of spiritual authority may then leave the victim with a sense of being abandoned and unsupported, exactly when such support is needed most.
Ministers who wish to ‘first do no harm’ need to be sensitive to the pain of women survivors of abuse, and careful not to convey a sense that they deserve to be victims. Friendlier, more welcoming theology shows a God who ‘suffers with’ and on the side of the victim, not the victimizer.