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.**