This post is one of three which touch upon Ephesians 5:21-33 and what those verses might mean for Christians seeking to confront violence and abuse. The authors of these posts have some different interpretations of these verses but they are united in their condemnation of violence and abuse against women.
Submit. It’s a strong word, bringing to mind the laying down of one’s desires, perhaps even the bowing of heads. It provides a clear hierarchy when we “submit our wants to God” or even “submit an essay” – you would never submit an essay to anyone who wasn’t your tutor or the almighty Moodle, while you might “show” it to your friend or “run it by” your flatmate. It implies a finality, a permanence of posture. Without qualifiers like “mutual” or “joint” it isn’t intrinsically negative, but it is intrinsically unequal.
I grew up in a church which preached a harmful form of complementarianism from the pulpit, which put men first, then women and children. I struggled with the common translation of Ephesians 5:22 which famously says “wives submit to your husbands…” Such a clear hierarchy just didn’t make sense to me. After a while I decided it might be okay to submit to my husband if I found someone I could respect and trust enough to submit to. And for many women, this may be a happy conclusion, a suitable scenario, and in normal, God-centred marriages may be a very satisfactory arrangement. I’m not here to critique anyone’s theology or marriage, I simply wish that my church had also mentioned Ephesians 5:21 which says “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Male leadership can be a good and wonderful thing, but when such a one-sided picture of biblical submission is transmitted, it can give men who are already at risk for developing abusive behaviours a mental “green light.”
This became much more real to me when I encountered the abusive behaviour this kind of thinking can sometimes create. In my personal experience, when put into practice, promoting wifely submission meant: for example, rather than investing in both men and women as spiritual leaders within the family, all the responsibility was put on men to lead their family devotions or prayer, meaning that I tended to – subconsciously – view feminine voices as “less spiritual.” It meant the male voices had the last word, and that their women were expected to yield to their decisions. In the worst of situations, personal preferences turn into mandates, enforced with emotional abuse or physical violence.
Now in some ways the church is not responsible for individual men’s actions. However, they are responsible when pastoral guidance means more of an emphasis is put on the woman to forgive, rather than the man to repent. They are responsible for ignoring or trivialising abusive behaviours. John Piper, for example, has said that women should endure verbal abuse and moderate physical abuse “for a season” before seeking help from the church. Never mind the shame and brokenness that often hovers around those abused. Never mind the fact that some women cannot seek help without fearing the consequences from the person abusing them. Never mind the fact that abuse endangers the lives of women and children. Never mind the fact that some church leaders will have abusive tendencies themselves, and so should be disqualified from providing care for the couple. Never mind the fact that in one church I attended the pastor stepped down not because of spousal abuse but because of hiding that spousal abuse from the church. In other words, the fact that he did not bring it before the church was considered of greater importance than the fact that he hit his wife.
As university students this may seem pretty distant to most of us. I mean, the majority of us aren’t married, and probably won’t be for at least a couple more years. So why bother even thinking about how we should respond to abuse of scripture and of each other? Because harmful ideas about male headship can leak in in the most innocent of ways. It might be the guy who’s really spiritual, who has a great heart for the Lord, but who always seems to interrupt and correct women when they’re sharing at a Bible study. It might be the woman who changes her career plans because “his job is more important.” I am not saying that in certain contexts all of these things are harmful or are that they are indicative of abuse. I am certainly not saying that all Christian guys have abusive tendencies by any means. But for the Christian men that do, it’s the kind of thinking that if unchallenged can lead to disastrous consequences. I know. I’ve seen it happen.
Abuse coated in scripture is still abuse. We have to remember that our agency and our voices are God-given, and that submission needs to be enveloped in a dynamic of mutual respect, not a hierarchy.
This piece has been posted anonymously to protect friends still in unrestored abusive relationships.
If you are a woman who has been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this post and it is safe for you to seek support or advice, you can call the National Domestic Violence helpline (which is open twenty four hours a day and free to phone) on 0808 2000 247. You can also access information about local services for survivors of rape or abuse through the Rape Crisis website.
If you are a man who has been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this post and it is safe for you to seek support or advice, you can call the Men’s Advice Line (which is open Monday to Friday, 9am til 5pm) on 0808 801 0327.
If you’re a man who has abused or is still abusing a partner, you can get help to stop by calling the Respect Phoneline (which is open Monday to Friday, 9am til 5pm) on 0808 802 4040.
If you would like to know more about what churches can do to support victims of abuse and tackle abuse within their congregations, please take a look at Restored’s Churches Pack.