Since the Fall, men have been sinfully disposed to oppress women — but this doesn’t mean women must remain in abusive marriages.
Recently I presented my understanding of Genesis 3:16 , which is Part 2 in my series on the woman’s desire, and I summarized my interpretation like this:
- After the Fall, woman would desire to be cherished by her husband; but rather than cherishing and comforting his wife, the husband would be inclined to rule harshly over her.
- The gravitational pull woman feels towards her man can easily make her vulnerable to his mistreatment.
I want to make it crystal clear that man’s sinful tendency to mistreat woman does NOT mean that women must remain in an abusive marriages.
When God told Eve
… he [your husband] shall rule over you,
He was not ordering woman to comply with abuse or submit to oppression. He was not telling women that man’s ‘lording-it-over’ disposition is just the way things are from now on, so women have to suck it up.
As Christians, we are all urged to live as new creations in Christ, rather than living as if we were still dead in sin, held captive and enslaved by the consequences of the Fall.
Paul spells out quite specifically what this means for Christian husbands, fathers, slave owners and community leaders. He exhorts men to
- love their wives
- cease provoking their children
- give up threatening their servants
- and stop lording-it-over their communities.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, … husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. …let each one of you love his wife as himself… (Eph 5:25, 28, 33 ESV)
Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Pet 3:7)
Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. … Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Col 3:19, 21)
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Eph 6:4 )
As for masters, … stop threatening them [your slaves], because you know that both you and your slaves have a master in heaven. He doesn’t distinguish between people on the basis of status. (Eph 6:9 CEB)
Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col 4:1 ESV)
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45; cf Matt 20:25-28)
an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain (Titus 1:7)
an overseer must be above reproach, … self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity (1 Tim 3:2-4)
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. (1 Tim 3:8)
I exhort the elders among you … shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet 5:1-3)
With all that teaching to men, is it therefore right to tell a wife that in order to demonstrate Christlikeness she must stay in a marriage where her husband is abusing her? No! That notion is often taught in the church; but it is not biblically defensible.
If we tell a wife that she must stay in the marriage in order to demonstrate Christlikeness, what are we implying?
- Because of the stereotypical concept of “christlikeness” and “the female role” which is pushed in churches, we have implied that she must tacitly comply with her husband’s lording-over behaviour which stems from his sinful disposition to rule over her.
- We have implied that in her responses to his abuse, she yet hasn’t been Christlike enough.
- We have implied that she has the responsibility of bringing godliness her husband.
- We have urged her to submit and endure her husband’s indulging his sinful dispositions.
- We have discouraged her from paying attention to her gut-feelings — that her husband really IS an abuser, he really IS dangerous, and she really IS at serious risk if she stays in this relationship.
- We have discouraged her from using Spirit-guided wisdom in judiciously and assertively confronting her husband, calling on him to repent from his sinful ‘lording-it-over’ mentality and amend his character.
- And we have forbidden her from doing the very thing which has the highest potential to prompt the abuser to repent and change his evil ways.
Abusive men typically escalate their abuse (making it more covert, manipulative and dangerous) when admonished, reprimanded or penalised with consequences. Abusers deny that they are the problem: they focus their energies on oppressing and blaming their victims. But when the wife leaves, refuses to go back, or straight-out divorces him, it shows the abuser in no uncertain terms that his behaviour has been totally unacceptable. He can keep denying it if he chooses to, but his appalling behaviour has in fact meant that he no longer has that woman totally under his thumb.
An abuser will generally attend a men’s behavior change group only when mandated. Men who attend those groups are either court mandated or ‘wife mandated’ (meaning the wife either gave him an ultimatum or she just left and won’t come back). A few men do seem to actually amend their characters from participating in those groups, so if there is any hope for any abuser to change, attending those groups can help them change. (But note: we believe true and lasting change cannot occur unless the abuser is regenerated by the Spirit.)
Christians who tell a wife that she should stay in the marriage in order to demonstrate Christlikeness, are forbidding her from doing the very thing that would have the most chance (though it’s a slim chance) of precipitating repentance and character change in the abuser.
Furthermore, if we instruct an abused woman that she should stay in the marriage in order to demonstrate Christlikeness, we are instructing her to go directly against 1 Peter 3:6.
I have adapted the following from my post Should wives submit to harsh husbands just like slaves submitting to harsh masters?.
While slaves were owned by their masters, wives were not (and still are not) owned by their husbands. It is wrong, both historically and morally, to say that the ‘likewise’ in 1 Peter 3:1 means that wives MUST submit to mistreatment or abuse from harsh husbands. The socio-cultural situation of the wives Peter was addressing was different from that of the slaves.
Peter gave guidance for slaves in their social-cultural situation, and he then gave advice to wives in their socio-cultural situation. The ‘likewise’ refers to the fact that each portion of advice is suited to the socio-cultural situation of the group of persons to whom it was directed. The likewise does not indicate that the advice to each group is the same.
The advice to each group (slaves, wives, and later husbands) is clearly different! Compared to the situation of a slave to his/her master, a wife has more options when she is being mistreated by her husband. A wife may object to mistreatment, may resist or refuse to comply with harshness and abuse, she may leave an abusive husband. She may divorce him and marry another husband because she is not enslaved to the marriage contract (i.e, ‘not under bondage’ – 1 Cor 7:15). Peter implicitly points to this when he says in 1 Peter 3:6
you are Sarah’s daughters (an idiom for ‘faithful believers and followers of God’) if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
What could be more frightening than standing up to an abuser and telling him to stop it! That is pretty scary stuff.
It takes great courage to stand up to an abuser because when you tell an abuser to stop it, he escalates his abuse. So Peter acknowledges that wives may sometimes be in situations where they can (unlike slaves) choose between submitting compliantly to harsh treatment, or standing up to it and refusing to comply with it.
Refusing to comply with abuse is often the scarier option — but it is the ‘good’ thing to do in some circumstances. By refusing to comply with abuse, the wife is doing good, being morally pure, trying to limit and curtail her husband’s sin and hold him accountable for it.
When a husband is entrenched in a pattern of egregious sin against his wife — when he is running amuck in his fallen disposition to rule over his wife, the wife actually shows RESPECT for him by judiciously setting boundaries against his abusiveness, and by employing justice and truth to hold the husband accountable. She shows purity of conduct by refusing to comply with his deceitful and evil ways.
And I have adapted this next part from my post 1 Peter 3:6—Sarah’s children do what is right and do not give way to fear.
Peter tells wives to do good and not give way to the fear of what their husbands might do.
Let us consider a wife who is being abused by her husband. She attempts to do good to her husband by admonishing him for his sinful ways, by resisting his abuse, and by setting boundaries against his destructive conduct. The abuser simply wants to continue in his sinful ways, so he tries even harder to make her afraid of him. This wife has done good to her husband, and the typical outcome is that her husband escalates and intimidates her even more.
Verse 6 addresses this situation. It tells such wives to continue to do the good without backing down, without giving way to fear or intimidation.
It does the wife no good to be further oppressed and downtrodden — she will only become more exhausted and develop chronic health problems. And it does the abuser no good because it enables him to get further entrenched in his evil ways.
Peter is telling abused wives that it is fine, good and godly to judiciously resist the abuser’s power and control tactics. The abused wife does good in resisting being intimidated into fearful compliance with the abuser’s coercive control.
Sometimes some forms of resistance are not safe. Sometimes compliance is the only thing that creates a margin of temporary safety. And resistance can be hidden or visible, small or large. As victims, we pick our battles and we elect to let some things go through uncontested and un-remarked upon. That kind of stuff is the norm for victims of abuse, and it explains why survivors are often such strong, careful, astute people . . . especially as they come more out of the fog and slough off the self-blame and false guilt in which they have been shrouded, shamed, silenced, immured.
A Christian wife who is being abused can be confident that, in not complying with the evildoing of her abuser, she is being Sarah’s daughter — she is doing what is right and not giving way to fear.
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— I’ve given a lot of links here, in the hope that the nay-sayers and doubters will follow them up and find that what I’m asserting here is true and is testified by the Bible and by MANY survivors of domestic abuse.
Connecting genesis 3 and 4 through the most obscure verse by Martin Shields
Is there biblical grounds for divorcing an abuser? (Eternity Magazine)