The words still ring in my ears. "There is violence in My house," the Voice said. Having emerged not long before from an abusive relationship, I was all too aware of the prevalence of domestic violence in society. I had been counseled at an agency that called itself The Abused Persons Program and whose sole mission was to assist those whose lives are being devastated by domestic violence. I attended both individual and group counseling for two years. One of the women with whom I weekly shared my struggles and my fears was shot dead by her estranged husband outside the door of her apartment. I was under no delusions about the frequency and rate of domestic violence in the world, but I had no idea that the problem was as severe and in some ways worse in the church. The image of loving, Christian men raising a fist to their wives was so incongruent to me, but by faith, I began offering a support group in my home for women in the church who were experiencing domestic violence. At my first meeting, one woman attended. Then two. The group grew to between 8 and 10 people, attending weekly, from my little neighborhood church. Truly there is violence in the Lord's house.
The Bible regularly deplores violence and abuse, especially of those weaker and in less of a position to defend themselves. The state in which a battered woman lives her life can be accurately described as a state of oppression. Biblically, an oppressed person is one who is crushed, injured, afflicted. To oppress someone means to press upon, defraud, violate, deceive, drink up, (use) and to do violence (wrong). Other meanings include cracking in pieces, literally or figuratively. To break, bruise, crush, discourage, oppress, and struggle together. These words paint an accurate picture of what happens to the victim of abuse. So, while many think the Bible is virtually silent on the topic of domestic violence, it isn't. In fact, it has much to say.
One pivotal Scripture verse is found in Malachi 2:13-16: And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, inasmuch that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand. Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously. In these verses, the Lord, speaking through the prophet Malachi, is condemning the Israelites for domestic abuse. He plainly states that this was not why He ordained marriage, that women were not to be treated in this fashion, that their prayers weren't even being heard because of their violence against their wives. Unfortunately, many churches simply focus on verse 16, "God hates divorce," and then alienates it from the context, thereby using it as a club against women who are being abused and who seek safety through divorce. The traditional teachings regarding wifely submission, divorce, as well as the role of women within marriage in the traditional Christian home actually conspire with the abuser to sabotage many women's health and well-being. Most abused women find little sympathy or support within the church after sharing their secret shame with others. Many pastors counsel women in these situations to change their ways, presuming that there must be something the victim is doing to provoke her husband to violence against her. Women in traditional churches are taught to believe that they can change a man through prayer and submission.
1 Pet 3:1 says: "Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation [behavior] of the wives" and many Christians take this verse on face value. Women who are being regularly beaten are being put in the position of thinking that their husband's walk with God is their responsibility and that if they remove themselves from harm, they will be responsible for their husbands going to hell or falling into sin because their behavior wasn't convincing enough. First of all, the language in 1Peter 3:1 speaks of unbelieving husbands, not those who claim to be Christians. In the giving of household instructions, as was very common in those days from leaders of various organizations, Peter addresses the various relationships in which power and control often determine the course of the relationship. First, in 2:13, Peter says to submit to governmental authorities. There was often strife between governors and those whom they governed, and such contention often stood in the way of sharing the Gospel. It is also assumed that the governing authorities are not believers. The thrust of these passages is how one can, within relationships with unbelievers, share Christ. Governing authorities were more likely to listen to the rational words of people who were peaceful and law-abiding. Secondly, Peter recommends servants to submit to their masters so that the masters, assumed to be unbelievers because slavery was not approved of for Christians, could see the Christlikeness of the Christian servants and be swayed by their actions. Likewise, Peter recommends that women who are married to unbelieving husbands do the same so as to be a witness for the Gospel. He goes on to speak to husbands, I believe of unbelieving women, for that would fit in context and because he speaks to them reminding them that they are "heirs together of the grace of life," of zoe, which is mere vitality, not pneuma, which is the rational and immortal soul. Peter is saying that they have the gift of a life together here on this earth and that the husbands need to respect that life as God-given. Peter tells husbands to dwell with their unbelieving wives in understanding, giving honor, value, and dignity to them, as unto the "weaker vessel." Weaker here is comparable to the usage of the word in 1 Corinthians 8:9 where Paul is discussing the spiritually weaker brethren and the care which the stronger brethren ought to give so as not to stumble them. Therefore, I believe Peter is referring not to the physical attributes of women but to the spiritual state of an unbelieving wife who is married to a believing husband. Therefore, arguing that an abused woman ought to stay in close quarters with an abusive mate, whether he be a Christian or not, is taking 1Peter 3:1 out of context. Peter is clearly talking about how interpersonal relationships can serve as contexts for great witnessing potential and he is not speaking of particularly dangerous situations in which the victim, by her very presence, lends a hand to sin.
Studies and research has shown that submissive behavior of battered wives might in itself provoke more violence. Most traditionalist Christians believe that the primary responsibility for a good marriage relationship lies with the wife and her submissiveness to her husband. Christian pastors promise that God will take care of women who thus submit if there is any abuse, that God will honor their obedience. But the experiences of battered women are in sharp contrast to these misguided and, I believe erroneous assumptions about God and His Word. Traditionalist Christians need to reexamine the teachings of Jesus regarding authority and the exercise of power. In Mark 10:22-42 Jesus looks at the preconceived notions of male power and dominance and then He counters with: "Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all." Paul, likewise, combats the patria potestas or absolute male power philosophy of the ancient Gentiles with his insistence that Christian men, having agape love through his identification and relationship with Jesus, are motivated to freely sacrifice themselves for the sakes of their wives. James Alsdurf and Phyllis Alsdurf sum up this dynamic succinctly in their inspired work, Battered Into Submission (1989 InterVarsity Press): "To stress wifely submission in a vacuum devoid of husbandly love can result in a disregard for a woman's report of violence and place the woman and her children in great physical danger. Ultimately, it can perpetuate the cycle of violence. When the painful circumstances of battered women are ignored in order to elevate a legalistic standard, it produces people unable to 'rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn' (Romans 12:15)"
Studies also indicate that this traditional view may be one of the factors involved in creating an environment for abuse. The rate of wife beating in couples where the husband dominated was found in a study by sociologist Kersti Yllo to be 300 percent greater than for egalitarian couples. The conclusion of the analysis was "regardless of context, violence against wives is lower among couples where there is a relative equality in decision-making...In general, domination of decision making by husbands is associated with the highest levels of violence against wives." Other studies have found similar results, that the majority of battering of wives occurs in homes where the husband holds the reins of power.
Critics would argue that that is merely an indication of our fallen flesh, that God's word couldn't be at fault. I would agree that God's Word is not at fault, but that we have not taken advantage of the whole counsel of Scripture, that we have traditionally favored certain verses over others, especially where male power and headship is reinforced. I believe strongly that the fault lies in us, not in the Scriptures, and a thorough and balanced reading with as few preconceived notions and biases as humanly possible will render a different result, a more egalitarian result where power is more equally distributed and shared mutually among members of the church and between husbands and wives.
The Bible speaks loudly and clearly on the subject of abuse and its root causes. It also speaks of God's heart concerning the abused. Psalm 9:9 says, "The LORD also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble." The Lord is compassionate and merciful and leans toward those who have no help but Him. He desires to be a refuge, a safe place, for those who find themselves broken, crushed, and taken apart piece by piece. God severely speaks against those who abuse their power and who use it selfishly and to hurt others. He never advises anyone to participate in that abuse. In fact, He goes farther and tells us to intervene, to "hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death" (Psalm 102:20) The Bible also bears strong words about what God will do to the abuser, the oppressors who wield their power in a harmful and unworthy manner: Psalm 72:43 says, "He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor" and Proverbs 14:31 states, "He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker: but he that honoureth him hath mercy on the poor." Interestingly, in that verse, the word used for poor doesn't indicate financial circumstances but instead speaks of dangling, being weak or thin and comes from a word meaning to be oppressed. Abuse incites God's anger like nothing else and gives Him cause for wrath. Psalm 12:5 says, "For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him." And may it be so, for every woman and her children suffering under the yoke of domestic oppression and family violence that this blessing of Scripture be given unto her:
In righteousness shalt thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear: and from terror; for it shall not come near thee. (Isaiah 54:14)
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