Domestic violence in the church

Using the Bible to justify abuse is a misuse of the text

The article is part of a series on the dangers misinterpreting scripture

As a Christian theologian, I take the Bible very seriously. This means that I follow certain rules

for interpreting the text. One of the most important rules is to look at individual passages within their particular context. This is especially important when considering the Bible’s treatment of interactions between married men and women.

Domestic violence is still shockingly common, and can too often be found among members of the church. This violence is not always an issue of anger management or marital strife; it is often a matter of misinterpreting the Bible’s commentary on power dynamics within the home.  Some abusers believe they have authority over their victims and, distressingly, use the Bible as a source of justification for such domination and abuse. One of the most widely misread verses used to justify abuse is Ephesians 5:22 (ESV): “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” The problem is that this verse, by itself, is seen as a mandate for women to do whatever their husbands demand. As a result, when a wife refuses to “obey” her husband he sees it as his religious duty to puther “ in line.”

This does an injustice to the text and the victims of domestic violence. Ephesians 5:22 is preceded by the verse: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The apostle Paul is writing in regards to God’s transforming work, in which people give of themselves freely and mutually. This is in accord with the opening verses of the chapter , which tell us to “be imitators of God” by “living a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up

for us….” He also goes on to instruct husbands to love their wives as they would love their own bodies. Surely an abusive husband would not inflict the same wounds on himself that he would on his spouse? In fact, the apostle insists that mutual submission between spouses compels the husband to love sacrificially, in the same manner as Christ, who loved the church and died for it.

Regarding the book’s context; readers must consider the socio-cultural realities of Ephesus, where the Greek Temple of Artemis played a prominent role in social life. Paul wrote his radical instructions in an ancient, patriarchal world that accepted the sort of abuse we no longer tolerate today. Some scholars also suggest that the followers of Artemis, being women themselves, were causing problems in the church by suggesting their supremacy over men, as their faith in the “Great Mother Goddess”, Artemis, taught them that they were the source of human life. It is tragic irony that Ephesians 5:22 is used to justify violence and abuse against women, since Paul potentially intended it to stop women from abusing men. We know Paul was chased from Ephesus for stirring up trouble with the Artemis cult (Acts 19).

In the larger Biblical view, I point to the Bible’s teachings on love (Mark 12:29-31; 1 Cor.13), or to Scripture’s troubling truthfulness about the horrible consequences of domestic violence (Judges 19; 2 Sam. 13 & 14). However, I would like to appeal to how our actions bear witness to the truth. Jesus told his followers that they would be his “witnesses” to the world (Acts 1). In the court of public opinion, people understand Jesus based on how his followers act. We testify God’s plan for love, life, hope and reconciliation to the world. However, when our actions fail to match our words, our talk is rendered empty. We cannot claim to be serious about family values and the sanctity of marriage if we allow domestic violence to exist unchallenged in our congregations. As an institution that uses the Bible in classrooms, we need to read carefully and take matters of context into consideration so that we do not justify unpious actions. Such negligence would tell the world that we are liars, and gives false testimony  the legitimacy of Christ’s claims. Scripture calls these kinds of actions “hypocrisy.”

It is my sincerest hope that Fresno Pacific University will equip students with the tools to confront and educate their christian communities about domestic violence. I hope that students will read scripture in a way that focuses on Christs appeal to the church. Jesus focused on love for one another, and having the privilege to study scripture in college is about using exegetical tools to understand how that love should be manifested in our present day.

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