Spiritual abuse can be particularly difficult to deal with. Although there are many types of domestic abuse — not only physical, but emotional, psychological, verbal, sexual, and financial — spiritual abuse is particularly damaging because it can lead to a rupture in the victim’s relationship with God. Often, her spiritual life is the one anchor holding her together, and when that’s ripped from her, she can feel as if all is lost.
But it isn’t. All isn’t lost, because spiritual abuse is as false — and cruel — as all the other forms of domestic violence. And because it’s false, we don’t need to take it to heart. We just need the facts so we can combat this type of domestic warfare.
Often a domestic abuser will use Sacred Scripture as a way to “prove” his superiority and justify his toxic behavior. Ephesians 5:22 is a particular favorite of abusers:
“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.”
When a man quotes this verse and then states that it’s “proof” as to why his partner needs to be submissive to his authority, you can be confident that you’re dealing with a person who feels coercive control is an appropriate way of dominating his spouse. In other words, red flag alert!
Abuse of Sacred Scripture, especially in such nefarious ways, isn’t the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Church teaches that marriage is an equal unity of mutual self-giving. It’s not a power-over domination or struggle. Remember, “love is patient, love is kind … Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:4-5).
The best summary of using Sacred Scripture as a form of domestic abuse comes from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB):
“As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form. A correct reading of Scripture leads people to an understanding of the equal dignity of men and women and to relationships based on mutuality and love … Men who abuse often use Ephesians 5:22, taken out of context, to justify their behavior, but the passage (v. 21-33) refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ. Husbands should love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the Church.”
Another crucial thing to keep in mind is that in the original Greek — the native tongue of the book of Ephesians — the world “submissive” (υποτασσομαι) isn’t even present. What modern translations of the Bible fail to acknowledge is that the world “submissive” or “submit” is actually in the prior verse, Ephesians 5:21, a line that’s speaking about the mutual submission of husband and wife to the love of each other.
In other words, mutual self-giving is the foundational definition of a healthy, sacramental Catholic marriage. Spiritual abuse — or any other type of abuse — has no place in this type of Christ-centered relationship.
The chapter in Ephesians isn’t talking about a power-over, male superiority type of submission, but rather that of authentic love — the same vulnerable and tender love Christ gives to His Church.
St. Paul makes use of the word “submissive” (or “submit”) in the verses both before and after 5:22 in order to bolster his emphasis on the necessity of equality within marital relationships. Respect, loving and deserving vulnerability and deep friendship are foundations of a marriage bond. If these are absent, the marriage bond is a fragile string, ready to unravel.
When the words of St. Paul are interpreted in the correct, Christ-like way, an intermingling of balanced and equal submission —one to the other — becomes obvious.
Yet there’s also another point to consider.
Spiritual Abuse is Also an Abuse of God Himself
To abuse Ephesians 5:22 as a way to “prove” the subordination of wives to the ultimate superiority of husbands is an abuse of the word of God. Falsifying the authentic meaning of God’s word, bending its intention and using the words as a means of gaslighting a loving victim, are all very serious — and very covert — ways of abusing Sacred Scripture.
Not to mention abusing one’s wife. And Christ Himself.
Spiritual abuse is a particularly virulent form of domestic cruelty. Yes, it’s toxic for the victim — who may be sent on a downward trajectory of confusion and spiritual angst because of her partner’s insidious and totally false claims — but it’s also destructive for the abuser.
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Anyone who engages in spiritual abuse as a way of coercively controlling their partners may also lead their victims away from God, and into confusion. This becomes a spiritual millstone fastened round their necks.
Opposite of Abuse: Loving and Equal Submission
St. Paul was insistent on teaching others the necessity of mutual submission within marriage. He did this by using a comparison of the bond between Christ and His Church, so we need to pay close attention. Christ “gave Himself up for [the Church]” (Eph 5:25). Since Paul gives a comparison of husband/Christ, wife/Church, this means a husband is to authentically gift himself to his wife in the same way Christ gave Himself as a sacrificial gift to His Church.
By the natural definition of love and self-giving, abuse and coercive control aren’t options in an authentic relationship. Spiritual abuse falls flat on its face when confronted with this loving truth.
If a husband uses Ephesians 5 as a way to supposedly “prove” how he’s the superior head of his household, he’s babbling gibberish. In fact, this coercive gibberish is directly against the teachings of the Catholic Church and of Sacred Scripture. Such an interpretation ignores the true nature of Christ’s love for His Church — not to mention His self-giving, sacrificial death.
This is a form of spiritual pride, not authentic love.
St. Pope John Paul II, in his classic work Theology of the Body, makes it very clear that
[St. Paul in the book of Ephesians] “writes, ‘And you, husbands, love your wives,’ and with this way of expressing himself he takes away any fear that could have been created (given contemporary sensibility) by the earlier sentence, ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands.’ Love excludes every kind of submission by which the wife would become a servant or slave of the husband, an object of one-sided submission … The community or unity that they should constitute because of marriage is realized through a reciprocal gift, which is also a mutual submission.”
It’s not even a remote possibility for a wife to be “submissive” to her husband as to the Lord if there’s coercive control and abuse in their relationship.
In God there is no fear, only peace; there’s no power-over, only charity-driven, equal and authentic love (John 14:27, 2 Tim. 1:7, 1 John 4:18).
God doesn’t want to control us, and that’s why He gave us all a free will. However, He does want us to control ourselves.
We need to take this as our Christ-like model for every relationship in our lives.