The Common Good

Churches Must Step Up to Help Abused Spouses

This is a plea to my brothers and sisters in the Christian faith who have a very different view than I do of male and female relationships in marriage.

Stop domestic violence poster, Lurin /
Stop domestic violence poster, Lurin /

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Whatever priority you give to the role of the husband in marriage, please be absolutely clear that being the head of the household does not in any way give a man the right to abuse his wife.

I know, there are a few Scripture passages that some Christians hold on to that give a dominant position to the man in a marriage. I disagree with those interpretations, but that’s a theological argument for another day.

Where there should be no room for disagreement is that abuse has no place in any marriage — in any loving relationship, for that matter.

Yes, there is that famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians about wives submitting to husbands. But too often overlooked is the verse right after that: “Husbands, love your wives and do not treat them harshly.”

I’ve been thinking about this of late because Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, based in Madison, held a couple of sessions recently for representatives of faith communities to hear the powerful and heart-wrenching story of a woman who suffered a lifetime of abuse.

As we gathered together, the Rev. Charles Berthaud, the new pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church on Madison’s west side, told this story.

He was in his car listening to a Christian radio station. A caller was telling the hosts about some of the strains in her marriage. Soon, she was talking about the physical abuse she was receiving from her husband.

And the response of the hosts of this Christian radio show? “What are you doing that is making him so mad?”

There’s a sad history in too many Christian churches of pastors telling abused wives that their duty is, as one author noted, “to trust that God would honor her action by either stopping the abuse or giving her the strength to endure it.”

I don’t think that view is as common in churches as it once was. And in many churches pastors and other faith leaders will act thoughtfully and quickly to come to the aid of a victim of abuse. But the undercurrent of tolerating abuse lingers.

A renowned theology professor from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bruce Ware, preached a few years ago that when women refuse to submit to their husbands, men will sometimes respond with abuse. He did not condone that, but he seemed to accept it as inevitable.

There’s even a small Christian movement that suggests that it is a man’s duty to discipline his wife with spanking — and no, this is not a “Fifty Shades of Grey” sort of thing. And some Christian churches with large followings acknowledge the problem of abuse but say the wife should only separate from the husband temporarily while he receives counseling.

With those strains still playing in corners of the Christian world, victims need to be selective about where they seek help. But even more to the point, church leaders need to be really clear in their condemnation of abuse as a tactic of power in a relationship. Churches that proclaim the way of Jesus need to be allies of the abused, not protectors of the abuser. 

Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg. This article orginially appeared in The Cap Times.

Photo: Stop domestic violence poster, Lurin /

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