Dear Bob: Abuse and the (Complementarian) Christian Response
By Mike Cosper
November 25, 2012
Today is the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This is an issue on which the church needs to speak with both force and clarity. I want to join a number of other pastor-bloggers who are speaking on this issue.
A few years ago I found myself in conversations with a man who was verbally and emotionally abusing his wife. He justified his anger by appealing to Ephesians 5, saying that his fury stemmed from her “unwillingness to submit to him.”
As a Biblical Complementarian, I believe that the Bible means what it says in Ephesians 5, but I also think we (complementarians) face two challenges related to that text: First – there is the husband who would use such a passage to justify being domineering (at the minimum) and abusive. Second, there are the egalitarians and non-Christians who would assert that such abuse is the natural result of a complimentarian worldview.
So with all of this floating in my mind, here is what I’d want to say to a man in my church (“Bob”) who was abusing his wife.
It’s come to my attention that you’ve been abusing your wife. As one of your pastors, I want to make a few things very clear.
First – your membership in this church offers you no shelter or comfort. I might come visit you – whether in jail or at your home – but it won’t be to reassure you of anything but a call to repentance. I am encouraging your wife to distance herself from you until you demonstrate repentance. Apart from that, I see no reason to encourage her to get anywhere near you. It may be true that some wife-beaters have sought the shelter of pastors and churches, calling abuse a private matter, and avoiding legal consequences. I have no intentions of allowing such shelter. The authorities will be involved.
Second – as a member in this church, you’ve signed a covenant that invites church discipline in this situation. This means that your pastors are committed to helping protect your wife from you, and we will instigate a process that – apart from demonstrable repentance on your part – will end with you being removed from membership. One who lives in unrepentant sin (like spousal abuse) should take no comfort from the gospel, because their life bears no fruit of the gospel. We’ll invite the church to treat you as an unbeliever, and to call you to repentance when they see you. As a whole community,we are united in believing that your sins are devastatingly dangerous for your soul and for the witness of the church in the world. These concerns are why we would carry out this discipline.
Third –many abusers justify their abuse with a list of their spouses “sins” – nagging, refusal to submit, etc. Some Christian men even attempt to justify domineering and abusive behavior with the Bible. I want to disabuse you of any such justification, starting with a Bible passage that might (at first glance) appear as part of your defense. Ephesians 5:22-28 says:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
Ephesians 5 doesn’t appear out of thin air. It comes after a long discussion about God’s grace, his formation of the church, and a call to be compelled by the gospel to a life of love. It’s only after all of this dialogue (and a number of moral imperatives like “Don’t be foolish”, and “don’t get drunk”– all of which stand in stark contrast to a husband that abuses his wife), that the apostle gets to his discussion of marriage.
You see, Ephesians 5 isn’t a standalone defense for a husband that wants to rule over and dominate. All that Paul says in this passage is in the context of a life transformed by the gospel. A life ruled by love. A marriage marked by sacrifice and selflessness.
Do you see what I’m saying? To put it a little differently (and here I acknowledge that I’m borrowing a phrase from another pastor) an Ephesians 5 woman is married to an Ephesians 5 man. An Ephesians 5 marriage is an Ephesians 1-4 marriage. A submissive wife is married to a gospel-changed, sacrificial husband.
Have you demonstrated the kind of sacrificial love that Jesus has shown the church? Have you laid aside your rights and made yourself a servant? (Philippians 2:1-11) Have you worn out your knees interceding in prayer for your wife? (Hebrews 7:25) Have you laid down your life? Are you willing to die for your wife – not in some noble display of love, but in a shameful, cursed, miserable way? (Galatians 3:13) And have you been willing to do all of this even while your wife nags, pesters, throws tantrums, and in all ways otherwise sins against you? (Romans 5:8)
I suspect that the answer is no. Don’t you dare assume any biblical justification of your domineering and abuse – especially one that so corrupts the image of Jesus’ love for the church.
Anything less than that kind of selfless love is unchristian, and calls for repentance. Yes, Jesus leads the church, and husbands are to lead wives, but Jesus’ leadership is a leadership marked by love and sacrifice, selflessness, protection from harm, and mercy. Much abuse has been done in the name of “headship,” and all of it misses the point. Jesus leads his wife in such a way that she is stronger, safer, holier, and lovelier, and so should all Christian men love their wives.
The good news is that no husband can say they’ve accomplished all that Jesus has in loving his church. We all (myself included) fail to varying and sometimes spectacular degrees. My encouragement to you is allow yourself to feel crushed by the weight of this call. That pain is the pain of conviction, and it’s God’s way of reminding you that you need a savior.
This is a call for repentance, and repentance doesn’t simply mean saying, “I’m sorry” and getting the keys back to your home. Instead, you have consequences to face relationally and legally, and you’ll have to walk through those processes. You need help to deal with the emotional and spiritual roots of your abuse. You’ll need to get help from pastors, counselors, and peers who can help you change in a deep and meaningful way, and you’ll need to walk a long, slow, and at times lonesome road on the way to reconciliation.
Such is the consequence of sin. You’ve created deep wounds in the heart of a sacred trust. You’ve taken a lovely child of God, who married you and was told to expect the loving kind of leadership that Jesus shows, and she’s gotten a perverse, satanic corruption. Healing such a wound takes more than words. It takes time, grace, and miracles.
There is no guarantee that you’ll even end this journey reconciled. I’d encourage you to go ahead and start getting used to that idea. “But doesn’t the Bible say she’s supposed to forgive me?” Sure. But it also tells you to give up your “rights”. Don’t demand it. Don’t even expect it. Own the consequence of your sin – which might be that your relationship is broken until Jesus returns.
So yes, there’s no guarantee of reconciliation, but there’s also no other path. Apart from repenting, apart from turning away from your sins and towards Jesus, your future offers no comfort, and dire consequences.
So I appeal to you, Bob. Feel the weight of this. Repent of your sins.
If nothing else, I’ll say it again… Regarding your abuse: take no comfort, no sense of shelter, and no sense of justification in anything you’ve heard at this church or read in your bible.
And if you refuse to repent, know the consequences. The temporal ones involve separation from your wife and your church. The eternal consequences are far, far worse.