Qualities of A Healthy Christian Marriage:
A Sermon on Domestic Violence Awareness
By The Reverend Al Miles
Let us pray. God, you are Love and Life-giver. We thank you for your grace, justice and mercy. We firmly embrace your egalitarian nature. Through your son, Jesus Christ, all humans have the right to live life free from abuse and violence. May we treat one another with the same love and respect you give unconditionally. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Today we will address an issue that has unfortunately often been denied or overlooked by Christian leaders and laity: abuse and violence within Christian marriages.
In Christian traditions marriage between a woman and man is indeed a sacred covenant; an oath taken by two people before God and Christ usually in the presence of family, friends, and other well-wishers, to stay together until parted by death. As part of most Christian wedding ceremonies, the couple also vow to honor, love, respect, and be faithful and kind to one another.
The author of a letter written to all Christian churches near the city of Ephesus (many scholars believe this person was the apostle Paul), comments on the holy and mysterious nature of this bond.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each
one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Eph.5:21-33 NIV).
Situations of domestic violence clearly stand outside of the Ephesians author’s admonishments on the principles husbands and wives need to follow in a healthy Christian marriage. A married couple must love and respect each other, just as Christ loves the church. Domestic violence disregards these instructions and disrespects Christ and his church. Abuse is neither loving nor respectful. It is a crime.
As a "body of Christ" it is imperative that we gain knowledge on the many complexities associated with domestic violence. The problem involves a pattern of abusive behavior in which a person uses coercion, deception, harassment, humiliation, manipulation, and/or force to establish and maintain power and control over that person’s intimate partner or former intimate partner. Perpetrators use economic, emotional, psychological, physical, sexual, spiritual and/or verbal tactics to get their way.
We Christians must also grow in our understanding of who within an intimate partnership is most likely to be victimized and the victimizer.
While a small percentage of men are violated, in both heterosexual and homosexual intimate partnerships, the American Medical Association estimates that two million women in this country are assaulted by an intimate partner every year. The actual numbers are probably much higher because victims often do not report attacks, fearing both the stigma associated with abuse and the threat of reprisal from their perpetrators.
Domestic violence is the number one public health problem for women in the United States. According to the United States Surgeon General, domestic violence is the greatest single cause of injury among U.S. women, accounting for more emergency room visits than traffic accidents, muggings, and rape combined.
These alarming statistics do not include many of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual tactics male perpetrators use to abuse their female victims.
It would require a great deal of naivety on our part to think, given the overwhelming figures just cited, that Christians are somehow spared the scourge of domestic violence. To put it bluntly, there are men who sit in the pews, and speak from the pulpits, of churches in every Christian denomination and faith group—who also beat, curse, rape, and in many other ways violate their wives and girlfriends. And, there are Christian women, and their children, who live not in God’s peace, but under the constant terror of being tortured emotionally, physically, psychologically, and sexually by males calling themselves "men of God."
Some of these men are ordained Christian clergy.
Tragically, clergy and congregants have also misinterpreted and mistranslated holy texts and doctrine to support male dominance and female subjugation. The practice continues to this day.
The patriarchal system has certainly always been alive and well in Christianity. Both the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures have an androcentric, or male-centered, perspective and emerge from patriarchal societies. Some texts, which are misogynist (women-hating), are lifted up to the exclusion of other texts that clearly affirm mutual respect between the sexes. Still other texts have been twisted—inadvertently and intentionally—to suggest that our loving and merciful God and Jesus Christ for some reason grant males authority and privilege over females. Because of all the above, men have received special dispensation from Christian clergy and laity alike to do whatever they desire with their wives, girlfriends, daughters, and all other females, without any fear of accountability.
One passage of Scripture that has been used frequently down through the centuries to justify man’s abuse of woman is our text today—Ephesians 5, verses 21-33. Viewed in its entirety, the passage offers clear guidelines regarding principles that must be followed by both Christian husbands and wives. Love and respect are the virtues that need to be at the center of every interaction.
But, over the centuries, the instructions put forth in Ephesians 5 have been used to elevate the status of men and put women down. Seldom do Christian clergy or congregants discuss the fact that nine of the twelve verses carry instructions for Christian husbands to follow. An inordinate amount of attention has been paid to what these verses tell wives, rather than what they demand of men. The passages clearly instruct husbands to love their wives as they do their own bodies. Nevertheless, the verses are often used to instruct women on what they are to do for their husbands—even husbands who abuse their wives.
The manner in which some Christian clergy and laity have used Ephesians 5:21-33 is blasphemous. True blasphemy occurs when a teaching that was intended for good is distorted and misused to bring suffering and death.
Let us take a closer look at what the author of Ephesians actually intended to communicate to first century Christians about the qualities of a healthy marriage.
Verse 21 of Ephesians 5 introduces a litany of instructions for household members. Called "the household code," the writer of Ephesians borrows from the instructions on duties of household members found in Colossians 3:18-4:1. As biblical scholar, Andrew T. Lincoln, states regarding the household code:
Typical of the content of all such discussions is the notion that the man is intended by nature to rule as husband, father, and master and that failure to adhere to this proper hierarchy is detrimental not only to the household but also to the life of the state. Setting the household code within this tradition becomes significant for assessing its use within early Christianity. The tradition reveals that proper household management was regarded as a matter of crucial social and political concerns. Any upsetting of the household’s traditional hierarchical order could be considered a potential threat to the order of society.
Even though the household code reflects a common patriarchal social and political position held in ancient times, this truth remains: domestic violence is never condoned by Scripture.
Nevertheless, the concept of female submission has frequently been misrepresented by abusers, clergy members, and churchgoers to excuse men’s violence and blame women for their own victimization.
In fact, many of us who grew up in the Christian church were trained to think that the famous instructions to husbands and wives in the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, begin and end with verse 22: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord" (NIV). Proclaimed by the clergy and other pastoral ministers from pulpits and at weddings, and by parents, teachers, and other congregants as well, Ephesians 5:22 has established a foundation on which countless numbers of Christian marriages have been built.
The verse has also been a perfect setup for millions of women to suffer acts of domestic violence.
Over the years, hundreds of violated Christian women have personally disclosed their stories of horror to me. They’ve shared how their Christian husbands have beaten, cursed, raped, and violated them in several other ways. Often, the women have said, the husbands justified their criminal and sinful behavior by citing verse 22 of Ephesians, chapter 5. It’s a husband’s right, the battered women are instructed, to do whatever he wants to his wife. And, no matter what acts of atrocity these husbands commit, Christian wives are told that they need to graciously submit to them in all things.
Sadly, this treacherous lie is also propagated by some Christian clergy and laity. Violated Christian women have been told that Ephesians, chapter 5, verse 22, demands that they "stay, pray, obey and everything will be okay." Because of this inappropriate teaching, many Christian women have suffered greater abuse from their Christian husbands. Some of the women have even died.
In truth, the admonitions in the book of Ephesians to Christian husbands and wives begin not at verse 22, but at verse 21: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Inclusion of this one sentence puts on a whole new light and brings clarity to the entire passage. No longer can Christians view marriage as a male hierarchical union. Instead, we are challenged to observe the covenant of matrimony like God and Christ intended: as a mutual and egalitarian bond.
The Greek word hupotasso, which the New International Version of the Bible translates in Ephesians 5, verse 21, as to submit, also means to align oneself with, to behave responsibly toward another, or to relate to one another in a meaningful way. Thus, the author of this book is instructing Christian husbands and wives to behave responsibly toward one another, align themselves and to relate to one another in a meaningful and respectful way.
There must never be a hierarchical structure in Christian marriages. Even when husbands are both loving and respectful, when there is no abuse whatsoever in the nuptial, male headship and female submission work against wives because this type of union disallows a woman to be a full and equal partner with her husband. The hierarchical structure is ultimately disadvantageous for husband as well because it prevents them from reaping the benefits of sharing life with a woman who is equal to him in every way.
Let us now move on in our chosen text to verses 23 and 24. "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."
What exactly did "headship" mean in early Christian thought? The Greek word kephale, often translated as "head," has a number of metaphorical uses in the Christian Scriptures. Ordinarily it denotes "source," "origin," or "preeminence," rather than "authority over" or "ruler." Greek language scholar, Catherine Clark Kroeger, states in an article addressing the classical concept of "head" as "source":
To declare that man was the source of woman, that she was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, was to give woman a nature like man’s own. She was no longer of the substance of the animals but of man. She was a fit partner, his glory and his image. "Neither is the woman independent of the man nor the man of the woman in the Lord; for just as the woman is from the man, so man is from the woman, and all things are of God" (I Cor. 11: 11,12).
What is clear, whether we are discussing first century or twenty-first century Christianity is this: there is no justification for Christian husbands to abuse their wives in any way, at any time. Let me repeat: Husbands have no right—not by God, Jesus, Scripture, beliefs, teachings, or tradition—to abuse their wives in any way. Equality and mutuality in marriage also help Christian women to understand it is never their duty, responsibility, or lot in life to have to endure the illegal and sinful actions of their Christian husbands, whether these inappropriate actions are emotional, physical, psychological, sexual, or spiritual in nature. Domestic violence is always worthy of condemnation.
The remaining passages in today’s text, Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 25-33, focus primarily on a Christian husband’s responsibility to his wife.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
These verses clearly instruct husbands to love their wives as they do their own bodies, just as Christ loved the church. Christ never cursed, raped or threatened harm upon the church in any other emotional, psychological, physical, or spiritual manner. Husbands must follow Christ’s example of self-sacrificing love.
Let’s return for a moment to Colossians, chapter 3. Recall that much of what the writer of Ephesians has to say about the household code was adapted from this earlier work. In Colossians, chapter 3, verse 19, we find a stern warning: "Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them."
Domestic violence is harsh. This type of inappropriate behavior causes wives and children a great deal of harm, and destroys marriages and families. I want to say a few words directly to husbands.
If you are in any way abusing your wives—emotionally, psychologically, physically, sexually, spiritually, know that your behavior is both criminal and reprehensible. Please seek help for your problems from individuals who are trained specifically to work with men who perpetrate violence against their wives. See me at the end of today’s service and I’ll provide you more information about various programs in the area. I will also be happy to accompany you to these places.
In addition, I invite you to schedule weekly spiritual care sessions with me. During our times together we will pray and read passages from Scripture that teach equal value and dignity of husband and wife. We’ll also discuss the larger theological dimensions of how God views men and women.
Please don’t attempt to walk the long and bumpy road alone that can lead you to a healthy, violence-free life. I want to walk with you.
However, let me clearly state my limits: I will in no way accompany you further down the path you’ve already been traveling. In other words, I expect you to be honest with me—and to take full responsibility for the damage you’ve caused your wife and children. Blaming alcohol, children, pets, Satan, and your wife for the abuse you are perpetrating will inform me that you’re not ready to trod the long and very difficult road that can lead to lasting change.
I hope you choose to get the help you need. The process can lead you to becoming the type of Christian husband God intends.
The qualities that make for a healthy Christian marriage today, are the same ones addressed by the writer of Ephesians in ancient times. In order for a marriage to be sustained and grow, both husband and wife must commit to the biblical virtues of love and respect. They must also recognize that this love, which comes from God, binds them together as equals rather than ordering them in a hierarchy. In addition, a wife and husband must behave responsibly toward one another, align themselves and relate to one another in a meaningful and respectful way.
Last, we must acknowledge that a healthy Christian marriage has no place for abuse. Domestic violence is not of God; it breaks apart women and children. Therefore, Christian clergy and laity must always condemn this behavior.
Let us pray. Loving God, in both ancient and modern times there have been scores of Christian men, both clergy and laity, who have used you, Jesus Christ, the holy scriptures, and church doctrine to justify their criminal and sinful acts of violence against their wives. There have also been far too many nonabusive Christians who have chosen to remain silent, even after knowing of the destruction committed by so-called "men of God." We call upon your holy spirit to empower us to respond more faithfully to the needs of victimized Christian women and children, and to hold accountable those Christian men who perpetrate these heinous crimes. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
The Rev. Al Miles serves as coordinator of hospital ministry for Pacific Health Ministry at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is the author of two books Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know, and Violence in Families: What Every Christian Needs to Know. Both works are published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers and can be ordered in the U.S. by calling 1-800-328-4648. They also can be ordered on line at www.augsburgfortress.org.
Thanks For Making This Possible! Kindly Bookmark and Share it: