Thinking about Submission in Light of Domestic Abuse

By December 2, 201112 Comments

Earlier today, writer Rachel Held Evans posted a blog in which she issued a strong condemnation of Michael and Debi Pearl, authors of the controversial book To Train Up a Child. In case you’re unfamiliar with the book, Rachel offers a a summary of the controversy behind it, the center of which is its alleged role in child abuse and the deaths of several children.

What I want to address here is another book that Rachel mentioned on her blog, Created to Be His Help Meet, also authored by Debi Pearl. I have not read this book, but Rachel highlighted an excerpt contributed by Debi’s husband, Michael, in which he wrote the following:

“Has your husband reviled you and threatened you? You are exhorted to respond as Jesus did. When he was reviled and threatened, he suffered by committing himself to a higher judge who is righteous. You must commit yourself to the one who placed you under your husband’s command. Your husband will answer to God, and you must answer to God for how you respond to your husband, even when he causes you to suffer.Just as we are to obey government in every ordinance, and servants are to obey their masters, even the ones who are abusive and surly, ‘likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands’…You can freely call your husband ‘lord’ when you know that you are addressing the one who put him in charge and asked you to suffer at your husband’s hands just as our Lord suffered at the hands of unjust authorities…When you endure evil and railing without returning it, you receive a blessing, not just as a martyr, but as one who worships God.”

Again, I have not read this book and I don’t know whether this quote was somehow taken out of context to convey something other than what the author intended. What I do know is this: This excerpt is an excellent example of why we MUST talk about domestic abuse whenever we talk about submission.

As a result of numerous factors such as bad exegesis, mental illness, or basic, ugly depravity, Ephesians 5:22 has been used to trap women in abusive relationships. Believing that they are honoring God, witnessing to their husbands, and becoming like Christ, women have allowed themselves to be battered or emotionally assaulted.

This cannot stand.

What makes Ephesians 5:22 tricky is that there tend to be two different responses to this verse (although there really is a spectrum between these two poles): Some Christians reject it altogether as inherently patriarchal and oppressive to women, while others accept the teaching as a universal principle, perhaps making an exception in the case of abuse.

I think both approaches are problematic. For those who would reject Ephesians 5:22, I am sensitive to the stigma attached to submission. In our culture today, this word is nearly synonymous with oppression. It is a wholly unpalatable concept for women today, so I realize the difficulty some of you will have with what I’m about to say. Namely, this verse IS still relevant for women. It is the Word of God, inspired and authoritative, so we cannot simply discard it.

This verse clarifies the manner in which marriage reflects the love between Christ and the church. Given that our culture worships autonomy and individualism, the public imagination struggles to conceive of a love that involves surrender. The two seem antithetical, thereby making the gospel seem strange and even repulsive. Christian marriage, however, is our opportunity to display the freedom of submission to God by providing the world with a glimpse of it here on earth. That is why we cannot let go of submission, for men or women.

On the other hand, I disagree with those who would claim that submission is a universal principle for wives, even if they make an exception for abuse. The problem is that this universalizing interpretation makes the verse incoherent with the whole of Scripture. Although the marriage relationship reflects Christ and the church, it is an imperfect analogy. This state of imperfection is nowhere more clear than when a woman must sin in order to remain submitted to her husband. Those who universalize this verse must concede that women can sometimes sin in doing so, which makes no sense. Others avoid this pitfall by making exceptions, but they tend to do so arbitrarily. If this verse is “law,” so to speak, Paul provides no exception clause.

That is why Ephesians 5:22 must not be interpreted as law. Instead, verse 15 offers a better interpretational lens for understanding this teaching:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise.

Submission is a matter of wisdom. It is not a black and white issue but one that requires discernment and a heart after God. It requires that we consult with others to make sure we are not confusing wisdom with selfish motivations or blind obedience. It also means that submission is not an unbreakable command that seems strangely out of sync with the rest of Scripture. Submission to our husband is one way that we can honor them and glorify God, but not always.

Some of you will feel uncomfortable with this. It isn’t concrete enough. What if, you fear, women take advantage of that freedom and refuse to honor their husbands?  That is why the community of the church is necessary. The Body of Christ helps us to live out our calls to honor God and one another, and to do so honestly.

Others of you might see this as a lost opportunity for women to witness to their husbands. As the Pearls seem to argue, women who endure abuse are mirroring Christ and thereby drawing their husbands closer to God. Here I must echo my sister Rachel in an unequivocal condemnation of this belief. Yes, there is a spectrum of situations in which a woman should persevere in a difficult marriage for the purpose of God’s redemptive work. But in situations of abuse where the husband is either mentally ill or simply a criminal (Remember, everyone, abuse is AGAINST THE LAW!) then both the church and the local authorities need to intervene. These women are not bearing abuse because of their faith; they are bearing abuse because their husbands are sick. Enabling that sickness and that sin is not helping anyone and it CERTAINLY isn’t glorifying to God.

I would also add that by remaining in an abusive situation, it sends a TERRIBLE message to the children. It teaches sons to abuse and teaches girls to accept abuse.

Sister, if you currently find yourself in an abusive relationship, please remove yourself from harm’s way immediately! Contact your church, call the police, and make sure your children are safe as well. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you need help finding local assistance. It is the role of the church to shield you, love you, and help you heal, but the church can do that for neither you nor your husband if you stay silent and continue to place yourself in danger. Let God do His work through the church. Please speak up!


  • Tim says:

    Sharon, what a wonderfully balanced discussion on a passage that gives so many Bible readers pause.

    I see a lot of the aftermath of abuse here at work, with my work sometimes also invading my time at home as well (2:00 a.m. phone calls from police seeking an emergencey protective order for a battered spouse for example). There is no legitimate reason I can think of for anyone to hesitate from seeking help at the soonest safe moment. And the church should be facilitating that, not deterring women from doing so out of tortured exegesis. I really liked how you point to Ephesians 5:15 to guide us in a proper understanding. Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture at all times.

    One line from the Pearl book in particular grated on me. “Just as we are to obey government in every ordinance, and servants are to obey their masters, even the ones who are abusive and surly, ‘likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands’…” Baloney. We are not called to obey government in every ordinance. Peter certainly taught us that in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” Paul cautions us along the same lines in 1 Thessalonians 2:4, doesn’t he: “We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts.”

    Thank you for a great post on such an important subject, Sharon. Very well done.


  • Becky says:

    “But in situations of abuse where the husband is either mentally ill or simply a criminal (Remember, everyone, abuse is AGAINST THE LAW!) then both the church and the local authorities need to intervene.”

    I’d like to know how you envision the church intervening?

  • Aimee Byrd says:

    Piggybacking off of Becky’s comment, I do believe this is an issue the church needs to be educated and compassionate about. In fear of telling women not to be submissive, I think the ones that need the help fall through the cracks. I have a dear friend who read this book and is in an abusive marriage. She is married to a narcissist who has lifted her up by her neck twice. But mostly, the abuse is verbal. In reading this book, Debbie Pearl’s advice convinced her that if she loves her children, she will not give them a single mother who lives in a cheap apartment and has to give her husband joint custody. I haven’t read the book, but much of what was shared w/me seemed less godly (or wise) and more like practical excuses.

    The thing that stinks is that he claims to be a Christian, but sabotages her efforts to go to church. She just doesn’t come that often b/c of the price she has to pay (i.e. rants about how bad of a housekeeper she is–VERY UNTRUE–being told off in front of her 5-yr-old children…). So, there is no “church discipline” happening. We need to think of ways to counsel and help these women who’s husbands will not ever put themselves in the position to receive church discipline. She is a Christian woman, starving for good leadership, support, and strength. I can’t convince her of what she needs to do. All the while, I know how violent a situation divorce is on everyone.

    This whole situation with my dear friend has really led me to believe that our churches need to be training elders in biblical counseling. Shepherding the flock.

  • Sharon says:

    Becky and Aimee, this is a topic that really deserves its very own post (or several!) due to its complexity, but I’m glad you brought it up. I have heard of situations in which women have contacted their church about spousal abuse, only to be ignored because the husband was a leader in the church. That is UNACCEPTABLE. The church should be a refuge for the weak, so whenever physical abuse is happening, the first step is to make sure the victim is safe.

    Secondly, church discipline is a must. The church needs to take every step necessary to intervene and work toward the healing and restoration of the perpetrator. I am not of the opinion that divorce should be on the table until this step is first attempted. I believe God can and does restore horribly broken situations, so it is the responsibility of the church to do what’s necessary to revive a marriage, but it is ALSO the responsibility of the church to protect the victims in the mean time.

  • Sue says:

    Read this- this morning, tweeted it and then got a call from a women who’s best friend was beat up last night by her husband.
    I’m sick inside.
    Hoping we will bring her over tonight so we can talk and get her help. And hoping she doesn’t jump right back in and be the “good” wife.


  • Sharon says:

    Oh Sue, I am praying for you and your friend! I pray God uses you to speak truth into her heart and mind, and that God works healing and redemption in the midst of tremendous darkness. You are doing His work in caring for her!

  • Great post, Sharon! This is one of the topics I blog about a lot. I wrote an article for the Covenant Companion a while back that goes over a lot of these issues, and offers some practical advice to churches and clergy members–it can be viewed here: I think one of the important things to know is that there ARE resources available to churches to help them learn how to deal with these situations–but certainly, the Pearl’s books should not be counted among them. :-/

  • Marsha says:

    I found this post through CWA Tweets today. I’m so glad I did. This is a topic I’m passionate about. I walk in harmony with your post.

  • Thank you for talking about this and how scripture can be enforced inappropriately. I was just talking about it today on my blog. I grew up in a home with a raging father, who was in ministry and I can tell you that the ramifications on the children are wicked. And my mother is a shattered shell of a human being. And it has only been through the power of the cross and the grace of Jesus, tons of therapy, writing my heart out,(and my father dying) that I have come to a place of healing. We’re talking years! I will link back here from my post. Again, thank you!

  • Sharon, After reading this I dug around and found something that I wrote a few years back about my experience growing up in an emotionally abusive home. I thought your readers might be interested in an adult child’s perspective. I think it underscores why it is so important to help women.

  • Sharon says:

    Thank you for posting that, Melody! And thank you for sharing your story.

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