For abused wives

In all of the discussions of submission or headship among complementarians, I haven’t read much on what wives should do in abusive situations. Every time I post on being a strong helper, or the value of submission, or respecting our husbands, I always hear from a woman married to an angry jerk who abuses his authority and physical strength. Some women aren’t physically abused but emotionally belittled. Many who write me sound so very discouraged, taking God’s commands seriously and truly wanting to obey. They need clear teaching on when to endure WITH their husband and when to endure WITH CLEAR BOUNDARIES BETWEEN them and their husband. I am by no means an authority on this subject, but something needs to be said, so here goes my first attempt to write on this subject.

Here is my firm conviction (based in part on ideas I articulated in this post on the Christian’s call to end evil in the world). What should you do if you are a Christian wife who loves God and His Word, believes in headship and submission, but is married to a man who physically abuses you and/or your kids? GET OUT.

You may say, “Shouldn’t I endure and submit? Shouldn’t I try to forgive and love unconditionally?” And my answer would be, “Absolutely!” But you can endure, forgive, and love unconditionally without staying in a place that actually encourages more sin. You aren’t enduring with him in love when you stay in a place that invites abuse. We have a term for it now – enabling. If your husband has a porn problem, you aren’t loving him by bringing him Playboy magazines, right? He might say, “Go get me a playboy magazine.” Or “I want to have a 3-way.” (Pardon the crude example—but I think we need an example like this to really get a grip on the difference.) We would never counsel a wife to submit to a 3-way because her husband is her head. NEVER! And the same wife who shouldn’t bring her husband a playboy magazine should not bring him her children to abuse either.

Now, I would also counsel a woman in this situation definitely to endure in love, hoping the best for her husband. I would counsel her to pray diligently for his repentance and transformation and to believe confidently that God can do this. She should pray that he would repent to his children. But NOT from a place where she is enabling him to continue to sin against her or her children.

Issues of verbal abuse are a little trickier. But I use the same line of reasoning there. When you sense that your mere presence is provoking a sinful, angry response against you, remove yourself in love from the situation. You are submitting to God’s moral law by not remaining in that cycle of anger even if you are not submitting to your husband in that moment. We recognize this hierarchy of submission in other areas. I submit to my government until they require something of me that is directly contradicted by God’s Word. I submit to my parents until they require something of me that contradicts God’s moral law. And the same goes with my husband. If your husband is abusing you, instead of focusing on the instructions to submit, you may need to start thinking in terms of loving your enemies.

If you are married to an angry man who hasn’t physically acted out on that anger, I recommend Gary Thomas’ Sacred Influence. He deals with influencing an angry man, and I found his treatment of it, while not exhaustive, certainly helpful. It may be a good starting point for you.

That’s a very short treatment of the subject. Gospel grace, enduring love, and eating it are all still quite relevant when faced with the terrible evil of a powerful person using his power to physically wound those under his authority. You can both extend gospel grace and say no to the perpetuation of evil at the same time. But it has taken me a lot of thinking and wrestling with Scripture to get a vision for what that looks like. I have more thinking to do on this and maybe I’ll flesh this out more in the future. But for right now, if you are in a physically abusive situation, please don’t think you are serving your husband or God by facilitating his sin against you. And please, please, please get your children out and protect them.

**If you know of a Christian organization that helps women in such situations, please feel free to leave the link in the comment section. I know of places in the Seattle area, but I don’t have recommendations for other regions.**

23 Responses to For abused wives

  1. kbonikowsky February 23, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    Physical abuse is also against the law of our country. Its called assault and battery. I find it helps women to think of it in those terms too. In ancient times, it was lawful for husbands to beat their wives. Now, we have a government influenced by godly principles. Praise God! Uphold the law of your country and report the abuser.
    Emotional abuse is so tricky! You've made a good start.

  2. Anonymous February 23, 2011 at 6:08 pm #

    I am sure this comes up often. Twice Abram tells Sarai to lie about being his wife to save himself. Sarai does so and God protects her but she does submit to her husband in this sin. Later in I Peter 3:6 Sarai is praised for her submission to her husband. Does this praise include 'lying' or do I have it all wrong?

  3. Wendy February 23, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Thanks, Kay. That's exactly right.

    Anonymous, I think we need to let Scripture's other instructions on lying inform this one. Sarah may have done correctly in her circumstance. Maybe not. But whatever Sarah did or did not do, it doesn't trump other explicit instructions on lying.

  4. Wenatchee the Hatchet February 23, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    Anonymous, in those cases Gentile rulers rebuke Abraham for his deceit. If having a Gentile rebuke you for your deceit doesn't show you that you failed to trust the Lord when you're the world's first Jew I'm not sure what would. The Puritan author Richard Sibbes points out that James urges us to remember the patience of Job and yet when we read Job we realize how lengthy Job's complaint was. Sibbes' explanation for this apparent disparity is to note that after death and through the scriptures God credits to saints qualities that may have been lacking in their lives as we would have observed them. The most conspicuous case of this might well be Lot, whom Peter described in 2 Peter 2 as grieving over the wickedness of the city even though there is no canonical textual evidence pointing in this direction. In the same way Sarah, even though she talked her husband into siring a child through Hagar, agreed to lie on behalf of her husband, and even laughed at the promise of God (like her husband did, actually) was still credited with being a submissive and honoring wife. Perhaps these are all cases in which the imputed righteousness of Christ is how NT authors choose to view the saints of old while in the OT we see that the gap between imputed righteousness and lived righteousness can be alarmingly great. They were not righteous because they were particularly grand in their obedience but because of their trust that one day God would fulfill His promises and they continued to struggle living in light of those promises. That's as best an understanding as I can come to about the question of Sarah as Abraham's wife, not that that was solicited but it's a proposal for a possible reflection on the subject.

  5. Anonymous February 23, 2011 at 9:39 pm #

    I appreciate everyone's insight but obviously I am a little dense – maybe a lot. I don't feel there has been an answer. If being abused physically and/or emotionally a woman should possibly leave her husband shouldn't Sarai at least have said 'no'. I think being given to another man constitutes abuse. Trying to wrap my mind around this not just being confrontational.

  6. Saralyn February 23, 2011 at 10:43 pm #

    Chicagoland area–Biblical Counseling Center in Arlington Heights, IL (847)398-7193

  7. Wendy February 23, 2011 at 10:56 pm #

    Well, a secondary issue we haven't discussed is progressive revelation. When Sarah was with Abraham, she didn't have the book of Ephesians. She didn't even have the 10 commandments. In contrast, we have the complete revelation of God through His Word.

    There are a whole host of things that were done in the Old Testament that we do not do now. Frankly, Sarah's lying for Abraham seems as irrelevant to Biblical teaching for wives as David's cutting off Philistine foreskins seems to public relations.

  8. Anonymous February 24, 2011 at 2:31 am #

    Gospel grace, enduring love, and eating it are all still quite relevant when faced with the terrible evil of a powerful person using his power to physically wound those under his authority. You can both extend gospel grace and say no to the perpetuation of evil at the same time.

    This is very good. How would you respond when it isn't a wife, necessarily, but a son or daughter, particularly an adult child? Submission is to wife what honor is to the adult child, and both can be used against someone.

  9. Wendy February 24, 2011 at 4:23 am #

    Anonymous, I hope this doesn't sound like a cop out answer, but my first thought is simply that there is nothing honoring about staying in the cycle of abuse.

    I'll think more on this.

  10. Wendy February 24, 2011 at 6:54 am #

    I went to bed and started praying and thinking about wives lying for their husbands. 🙂 The thought came to me that if my husband needed me to lie to protect him from the Nazis, I'd do it in a heartbeat. If he needed me to lie to the authorities because he sexually abused our children, no way.

    That doesn't necessarily clarify anything, but I won't be able to go to sleep tonight if I don't add that.

  11. Sarah Guild February 24, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    To lie or not to lie in an effort to submit? Our answers must absolutely make sense in the context of God's larger story of redemption and restoration. The Bible isn't a bunch of little moral lessons about how to act as a wife in certain situations (although there are certainly guidelines)… it is the amazing story of God's rescue mission for humanity. Submission is to reflect the glory of God, and I cannot imagine how to justify a position of submission in the face of abuse if we see submission as reflecting the glory of God. This is God's story of rescue and restoration, and all that we see in scripture must make sense in that larger narrative.

  12. Anonymous February 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    Thank you Wendy for raising this vital issue! Having grown up in a home characterized by verbal abuse I know the untold suffering it causes. And the issues we grapple with every day as a result of damaged thinking and emotional responses that developed in that toxic enviroment.
    Church authorities had no understanding just recommendated a vacation was needed!!
    The suffering was intensified by cover up and a misplaced loyalty that we mustn't say what was happening in our “christian home” as it as a bad witness.
    Please learn about this issue. Speak out and look out for those suffering in our churches. My mum stayed to honour Christ and has lived to bitterly regret not protecting us. But no-one understood or helped.
    Thank you for raising this Wendy.
    Written in tears x

  13. kbonikowsky February 25, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    Interesting points made in the video at the bottom. Her books might be good!

  14. Donna February 25, 2011 at 11:38 pm #

    Anonymous, Though I personally have not experienced what you have, I know several who have….also in silence. Many silenced by Church authorities. I won't say more because I don't want to write w/o thinking things through. But I want you to know that this whole topic is a great burden to me. I am praying for special grace for you now as I write. That you would experience special grace from God.
    Thanks, Wendy, for sticking your neck out there….causing me to contemplate….may write on it myself.

  15. Anonymous February 27, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    Thank you Donna. And please do write about this x

  16. Anonymous April 27, 2011 at 5:50 am #

    I was previously in an abusive marriage. My church leaders at the time didn't know how to help me. I turned to the world for help and didn't want anything to do with Christians for a time. I'm grateful to the Lord for bringing me back and cleansing my heart that had become very bitter.

    I also learned during that time about all sorts of type of abuse in addition to physical and verbal abuse, and also that all abuse is rooted in a desire to control.

    The other types of abuse that can happen in a marriage include sexual abuse, emotional abuse (e.g., humiliation, name calling, etc.), mental abuse (e.g., mind games), using silence as a weapon, economic/financial abuse (e.g., ruining the wife's credit, forcing her to work while he spends it all, etc.), medical abuse (e.g., not allow an ob/gyn doctor to examine due to jealousy, etc.), religious abuse (e.g., use scripture to try and control), isolation (e.g., keep wife from her friends and family or move continuously, etc.).

  17. Anonymous April 27, 2011 at 5:52 am #

    Here is a ministry to abuse victims and survivors in San Jose, California.

  18. Sara April 29, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    As a woman in a verbally abusive marriage and denied protection by our church (I was told my husband was getting angry because I wasn't trying hard enough to be one flesh with him. really.) I'm convicted by God to stay. I may be the only example of Christ my husband ever sees walking the planet. I get to live out turning the other cheek, laying down my life and loving my enemy everyday. I'm a learning that God and God alone is my Deliverer, Protection, Portion and Salvation. I take comfort in the same voice that spoke creation into existance calls me daughter and that someday God will either deliver true repentance on my husbands part or justice for me. I would rather see repentance on my husbands part, just to see the power of Christ at work in his life and for my church as well for that matter.
    Praying for repentance or justice whichever God deems best…

  19. Resentful wife March 5, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Sara, please don't ever have children if you remain married to this man! You are my mother-in-law, through and through.

    My husband is verbally abusive to me and our children. It got worse after having children, though I didn't realize until our youngest was 3-4 that it was verbal abuse. My father-in-law was/is a controlling person, my mil stayed to be a witness for him.

    My husband has never forgiven her for his childhood, the horrible abuse tolerated at his dad's hands and mind. And now, 15 years into our marriage, I'm left trying to decide what would be best for me and our kids – continuing the cycle by staying, or tearing apart our family but protecting myself and the kids from the mental anguish.

    If I knew then what I knew now, children never would have entered the equation. If you stay, please, don't force little ones to live with your decision… It's not fair to them or their future families.

  20. Anonymous January 16, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    If your husband rapes you occasionally – not violently, just because he wants to take what he thinks is his whist you are asleep or otherwise not consenting, and is actually a christian, what do you do? Give him a chance to stop and if he doesnt stop you have to choose to divorce and tear your children away from him or sacrife yourself for the sake of your childrens happiness and wellbeing? And how do you even begin to talk to church and family about a topic like that? And how long do you remain patient waiting for repentance, when he refuses to apologise or even aknowledge the issue?

  21. Wendy January 16, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

    I'm not a trained rape counselor, so first I strongly encourage you to find one who has knowledge of your legal options. Second, do not bear the weight that YOU are destroying your children's lives. He needs to stop, and if he doesn't respect you and the laws of your nation enough to stop, then he is the one who has made the choice to abuse your family, not you. But, again, please, please, please seek out a rape counselor.

  22. Rachel October 6, 2016 at 11:29 am #

    I specifically searched for “emotional abuse” which brought me to this post. I have family and friends advising me to separate, possibly divorce, my husband on those grounds. I have three children and am struggling desperately to decide what to do. He has alienated me and the kids by withholding interaction and asked for me to agree to a divorce. I’ve said “no” three times now. I’m very confused and have sought out my church, which is trying to help. If you’ve any further advice or encouragement, please respond.

    • Wendy October 6, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

      Rachel, do you have supportive pastors to walk with you through this? I encourage you to listen closely to those around you who love God, love you, and love your children. Also listen to those who love your husband as well. Pray through their input. But ultimately you have to make the decision the Spirit leads you to through the Word and such counsel. And you don’t have to make the decision on THEIR time table but yours and God’s. I encourage you that God will lead you through this storm, and you will emerge on the other side. But take your time in making decisions and move when you have peace. The pressure from externals can feel overwhelming at times.