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Battered into Submission

Domestic violence is an unqualified evil.


Not long ago, someone said to me, "I've never heard a sermon about violence in the home. I've never heard the preacher pray about it. I've never seen an education class about it—and I've been in the church my whole life." I took that challenge to heart.

What's wrong with this picture?

A woman had just recovered from a brutal and bloody beating at the hands of her husband. After years of violence, she was left with a deep despair she could not overcome. In spite of marriage counseling, threats on her part, and tearful promises on his part, the beatings continued until she no longer had any place to turn.

As she pondered the hopelessness of her situation, she remembered an offer a friend had made: "Come to our Bible study," the friend had said. "Our pastor is wonderful. He's so close to God." It was a glimmer of hope, an avenue of help she had never explored.

That night she attended the Bible study and heard the preacher say that every problem could be solved through prayer. She wanted to believe that, and she wanted her husband to believe it, too. She wanted to believe that she could rid their home of the terrible violence that had dominated their lives. She hurried home and pleaded with her husband to attend the next Bible study and to come under the counsel of this godly pastor. Wanting to please her and win her favor, he agreed. They attended the Bible study the following week, and the next day they confessed to the pastor the violence that had been so much a part of their married life.

The pastor listened carefully. Then he turned his chair to face the wife and directed all his counseling to her. He told her it was God's plan that the man should be the head of the home. He reminded her of Ephesians 5:22–24: "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. … As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands." The pastor told her she must submit to her husband in everything, and that she must learn to view her sufferings—her beatings—as her cross to bear, an opportunity to be closer to God and to the angels.

The abuse continued until, finally, she packed her bags and her children into the family car and made her way to a battered women's shelter operated under the auspices of the Michigan Department of Corrections. On the night of her escape, her pastor telephoned the shelter and demanded to speak to the escaped wife. The director of the shelter refused. After a heated conversation, the pastor told the director to pass along a message to the wife: "Tell her if she isn't home by morning, I'm going to excommunicate her from my church."

There's a lot wrong with that picture, isn't there? The images of a husband shoving, slapping, slugging, and kicking his wife do not fit into the family-values frame. A pastor trying to solve complex problems with simple answers does little to bring the evil of spousal abuse into focus. Building one's entire theology of female-male relationships around one verse or set of verses, while ignoring the rest of Scripture, serves to sharpen one image as it distorts the entire picture. Placing the victim in the center of the picture—as if the solution to the problem was within her control—does nothing to force the offender to come out of the shadows and face his consequences.

The victims of spousal abuse are legion. One out of every three women who seeks emergency medical treatment at a doctor's office or hospital is the victim of domestic violence, and so is one out of every four women seeking prenatal care. Constance Duran, a Christian psychologist, says, "Typically the violence pattern begins with the wife's first pregnancy and is really directed toward the fetus. There's going to be another sibling in the family, and the husband is jealous." For women between the ages of 15 and 44, domestic violence is the most common cause of injury, and 50 percent of all female murder victims are murdered by a husband or boyfriend.

While Christian marriages have been shown to have a lower likelihood of abuse, the tragic truth is that domestic violence occurs in Christian homes as well. Generalizing from the studies done in churches among Christian women, one can conservatively estimate that for every 60 married women in a church, 10 are being verbally abused by their husbands, and two or three are being physically beaten, as well.

Reverend Joy Bussert, director of the Battered Women Project for the Minnesota Council of Churches, says:

Batterers are often pillars of our churches, men who teach Sunday school and serve on the church council. Statistically, men who batter often work in highly respected professions as medical doctors, psychiatrists, policemen, human services people, and somewhere near the top of the list, ordained clergymen.

Victims are not only poor, uneducated, un-churched, or non-white, as we often lead ourselves to believe. Rather, there are victims from every class and ethnic group, and across all denominational lines. Few battered women consider themselves feminists. The vast majority would say they believe in the family, and that they are working desperately to be submissive to their husbands. Ironically, statistics indicate that the more submissive abused women become, the more frequent and severe their beatings become.

The first time Mary was beaten, she was riding in the car with her husband of 15 years and their three children. Inadvertently she gave the wrong direction. "Suddenly he turned around and socked me," she said. "It was such a shock that night, I had a hemorrhage." Her husband—an author, educator, and well-respected, world-renowned Christian leader—continued to beat her brutally for seven years. "You have this terrible fear of being alone with him in the room," she said. "He's so unpredictable you don't know when he's going to suddenly turn on you."

God's message about domestic violence: Never!

Psalm 140 has become a fervent prayer of such women. I believe our God wants desperately to answer that prayer, and the first step is for the church of Jesus Christ to speak up on God's behalf.

First and foremost, I believe God wants to say that abuse is evil. It's a sin. God wants all of us, especially the men, to know that violence is a misuse of power that stems from a misunderstanding of the Biblical concept of submission. It doesn't matter where you want to locate power and authority in a marriage. Whether you think the man is the head of the home, or that the man and the woman together share power and authority in the home, the New Testament teaches that there are explicit limits to the use of power and authority. Violence never enters the equation. God does not ordain violence. He does not baptize abuse, whether verbal, emotional, or physical.

New Testament theologian S. Scott Bartchy points out that the models of leadership to which many Christian males appeal come straight from the battlefields and corporations of secular society. In response, Jesus calls us to examine the way we use power and authority.

God's message to men: Use power to protect

The second thing we have to acknowledge is that men have power. In physical terms, they're usually bigger and stronger and louder. Often, they're more educated, more privileged, and better equipped to survive in this male-dominated culture than are their wives and daughters.

In Mark 10:42–44, Jesus confronts men who have erroneous views on how to use their power: "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But, it shall not be so among you." Instead, whoever would be first among you—in your home, office, church, or classroom—must be servant of all. Those who would be the most powerful will be those who sacrifice the most. That is such a radical thing to say.

People like the pastor in our opening story, who take one passage out of Scripture and use it to justify keeping the wife in line, encourage violence in the home and perpetuate the misuse of power and authority. Such a theology teaches that the husband's wishes and needs are more important than his wife's. I call such thinking "doormat theology."

In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes, "the sting of the teaching [on submission] falls upon the dominant partner." He is to surrender his prerogative to power, says Foster, through self-sacrificing love. The truth of the teachings of Genesis on Adam and Eve, the writings of Paul, and especially the words and the actions of Jesus Christ, clearly state that women were not created to be doormats for men. Treating them as such is an affront to the just nature of almighty God.

God never condones violence. I believe God wants to say to men: Men, I put you on Earth to self-sacrifice. I put you on Earth to be a protecting force; not to use your physical size and strength to dominate and control, but rather to protect those who are not as strong."

God's message to victims: It's not your fault

What does God say to women, especially those who have been or who are being battered? He would say to them: You don't deserve it, and you're not to blame.

Part of the terror of abuse is that most battered women do not know what triggers their husbands' violence. This is illustrated in a scene from the movie Sleeping with the Enemy. The husband is talking to a neighbor down the beach. The neighbor says, "I saw your wife walking on the beach the other day. What a beautiful woman she is." The man goes home, and beats up his wife. She has no idea what's going on. She can't control him. She is powerless in the face of his rage.

The truth is, women, you can't control your husband's violence, and he won't change without help. The pastor in our opening story was wrong. Prayer alone will not solve this problem. Your spirituality is not what is lacking. The Lord is not ignoring you. Your husband is ignoring the Lord.

We need to understand that an improper understanding of the biblical concept of submission goes both ways. It's not just the men who have a warped view. Women have it, too. In an extensive study of battered Christian women, Christianity Today found that two-thirds of abused women believe it was their Christian responsibility to endure their husbands' violence and that in so doing they would be expressing a commitment both to God and to their husbands. Fifty-five percent noted that their husbands had said if they would be more submissive, the violence would stop. One-third believed their husbands and assumed their submission was the key to resolving domestic violence. It is not. The woman does not hold the key to resolving domestic violence.


What, then, is the key? I wish after all this research and study and prayer and talking with people that I could give you a firm answer. I do know this: Psychologists wrestle with the matter, and they don't know. Behavioral scientists wrestle with the issue, and they don't know. But theologians don't wrestle with the issue, and we do have the answer. I think the answer begins with our theology. We've got to study the whole Word. We've got to get it right, and then we've got to get the right word out.

Finally, you and I have to get involved. The church has to once again serve as the haven it was meant to be. The church has to be a place where a woman can find support, and not be betrayed; where a man can confess his sin and not be turned out.

One woman wrote, "One of the reasons that mine is a 'success' story—my husband and I are back together after a three-month separation—is because my church took action. My preacher preached about it. My preacher prayed about it. Our elders confronted my husband with it, and they forced him to make some choices. While he was seeking help, they were protecting me."

Another woman found that pastoral counsel varied greatly in the two churches she had attended. "The first pastor I talked to," she says, "focused on keeping the family together. The other," she said, "had a more realistic and spiritual approach. They advised separation for as long as it takes to make a wise decision and to see if my husband is going to change. … The deacons were committed to finding me a place to stay. … They also loved and cared for my husband. One pastor confronted him in love and has been involved in helping him to change."

Is there hope? Is healing possible? Absolutely. If I don't believe there is hope and there is healing in the person of Jesus Christ and through the church that bears his name, then I'm not worthy of this office, and I ought to step down. Of course there's hope. What's it going to take? First and foremost, we've got to get our theology right. Then we've got to get the right word out. Then we've got to get involved.

For the outline of this sermon, go to "Battered Into Submission."

Marlin Vis is pastor of Southridge Reformed Church in Portage, Michigan. A graduate of Western Theological Seminary, he is a former teacher and football coach.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Wife battering is an evil

II. Men, use power to protect

III. Victims, it's not your fault

IV. The church should care and get involved