In 2012, evangelical theologian John Piper “clarified” his early comments on women’s submission to an abusive husband by explaining that women should go to the authorities if the abuse they suffered met their state’s legal definition for abuse—because they are bound to obey the authorities, not for their well-being.
Several years ago, I was asked in an online Q&A, “What should a wife’s submission to her husband look like if he’s an abuser?”
One of the criticisms of my answer has been that I did not mention the recourse that a wife has to law enforcement for protection. So let me clarify with seven biblical observations.
No shit, Sherlock.
1. Every Christian is called to submit to various authorities and to each other: children to parents (Ephesians 6:1), citizens to government (Romans 13:1), wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:22), employees to employers (2 Thessalonians 3:10), church members to elders (Hebrews 13:17), all Christians to each other (Ephesians 5:21), all believers to Christ (Luke 6:46).
This puts the submission of wives and husbands into the wider context of submission to Jesus, to the civil authorities, to each other, and to the church. This means that the rightness or wrongness of any act of submission is discerned by taking into account all the relevant relationships. We are all responsible to Jesus first, and then, under him, to various other persons and offices. Discerning the path of love and obedience when two or more of these submissive relationships collide is a call to humble, Bible-saturated, spiritual wisdom.
In other words: What should a woman do if her husband tells her to break the law? After all, that woman is called by God to obey both her husband and the civil authorities on earth. Here, she can’t do both.
What exactly does this have to do with abuse? Certainly, there are cases where abusive men force their victims to commit crimes, but I doubt that this is so common as to justify placing it up front.
2. Husbands are commanded, “Love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19). They are told to “love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:28–29). The focus of a husband’s Christlikeness in loving his wife is “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
Christian husbands are not Christ. They are finite, fallible, forgiven sinners. They do not stand in the place of Christ. Their wives relate directly to Christ (Hebrews 4:16; 11:6), not merely through their husbands. Husbands do not have the wisdom or the power or the rights of Christ. Their likeness to Christ in leading their wives is limited and focused by these words: He gave himself up for her . . . nourishing and cherishing . . . not harsh with them.
Therefore, an abusive husband is breaking God’s law. He is disobeying Christ. He is not to be indulged but disciplined by the church. The wife is not insubordinate to ask the church for help. A Christian woman should not feel that the only help available to her is the police. That would be a biblical failure of her church.
Okay, two questions.
First, did it really have to take this long to get to a positive statement that what an abusive husband is doing is wrong? Second, if a woman relates directly to Christ, what is the point of spiritual headship?
This second question, of course, is a longer conversation, but it’s one that I have started to see as increasingly relevant. Protestants have long argued that there is no mediator between God and man but Christ—this was part of their rejection of the Catholic Church, with its pope and priests. Why, then, set up a husband as a sort of mediator between wife and God? Why create spiritual headship at all? Why not a priesthood of all believers?
The import of this section, of course, is that an abusive man is breaking the law of God, and that it is therefore in the purview of the church to discipline him and to take him to task for his sinful actions.
3. But recourse to civil authorities may be the right thing for an abused wife to do. Threatening or intentionally inflicting bodily harm against a spouse (or other family members) is a misdemeanor in Minnesota, punishable by fines, short-term imprisonment, or both. Which means that a husband who threatens and intentionally injures his wife is not only breaking God’s moral law, but also the state’s civil law. In expecting his wife to quietly accept his threats and injuries, he is asking her to participate in his breaking of both God’s moral law and the state’s civil law.
What in the blazes is this?!
Notice why Piper says that going to the authorities may be in order—not because an abusive man is dangerous, or because he should be behind bars. Not because his wife’s safety is at risk. No! The wife should go to the authorities because if she does not, she is both participating in her husband’s sin and breaking the law. Yes, really.
The entire reason Piper gives for reporting domestic violence to the authorities is that the law bans domestic violence and the Bible states that believers are to obey the civil laws. Way to make women feel valued. Way to make women feel cared about. Or like they matter.
Plenty of people participate in victim blaming by asking abuse victims why they didn’t go to the police. Piper goes a step further. He informs abuse victims that if they do not go to the police, they are helping their husband commit a crime by hiding his offense. And they are sinning.
Abused women do not need one more finger pointed at them. They need to be told that they matter. That their life matters. That their happiness matters.
God himself has put law enforcement officers in place for the protection of the innocent. “If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). A wife’s submission to the authority of civil law, for Christ’s sake, may, therefore, overrule her submission to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries. This legitimate recourse to civil protection may be done in a spirit that does not contradict the spirit of love and submission to her husband, for a wife may take this recourse with a heavy and humble heart that longs for her husband’s repentance and the restoration of his nurturing leadership.
I highlighted the important part there.
4. The church should not harbor an abusive man or woman whom the civil authorities would punish if they knew what the church knows. We are called to mercy. “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). But there are times when mercy to one demands justice for another. This is often the case with criminal abuse. Moreover, there are many ways to show mercy toward a guilty person who must pay fines or go to jail. We are seldom in a position where the choice is simply mercy or no mercy.
Do you know what I would prefer to see here? Some explanation of the ways in which abusers manipulate the story so as to get the church on their side and isolate their victim. There’s a sort of implicit assumption in Piper’s statement here that the church will be able to easily identify an abuser and see through his excuses, that the church will believe women and take their words seriously, when reality is often far different.
5. For many women, the thought of a husband going to jail and losing his job and being publicly shamed is so undesirable that they often endure much sin before becoming desperate enough to turn to the authorities. What I want to stress is that long before they reach a point of desperation — or harm — the women of the church should know that there are spiritual men and women in the church that they can turn to for help. By way of caution and lament, I cannot promise that every church has such spiritual, gifted, and compassionate men and women available for help. But many do. The intervention of these mature brothers and sisters may bring the husband to repentance and reconciliation. Or they may determine that laws have been broken and the civil authorities should or must be notified. In either case, no Christian woman (or man) should have to face abuse alone.
There is a larger conversation that needs to be had here. Piper shows at least a little bit of understanding of the situation abused wives’ frequently face, with his nod to not wanting a husband to lose his job. But there is so much more he never really addresses. Up in point 3 he refers to “civil protection.” What exactly is that?
It’s almost as though Piper is living in a parallel universe. He just doesn’t seem to get it. Does he have any understanding at all of the law or of tyrannical husbands? The only civil protection a wife can obtain in such circumstances is a restraining order, and until the matter goes to court, she would be expected to flee the dangerous home. There is no such thing as ‘civil protection’ that arrives at the beck and call of a beaten wife and hangs around her home to protect her. And let’s not be naive. Is the abusive husband really going to give her permission to leave him and perhaps take the children with her? The scenario has no relevance to the real world and carries dangerous implications.
Piper claims that “the women of the church should know that there are spiritual men and women in the church that they can turn to for help.” But what kind of help? Financial help? A safe house? Job training? Logistics? I don’t see a lot of acknowledgement, in Piper’s post, of everything a woman goes through when leaving an abusive husband. Besides—is leaving actually allowed?
Piper says that an abused woman should go to the church for help. He also says that she should make a report to the authorities of any abuse that reaches the criminal level. But what then? The authorities do not come in and remove abused women and take them to a safe house. They do not kick abusive husbands out, or jail them before trial (bail for domestic offenses tends to be low). What is the woman, in practical terms, to do?
Remember—all of this is predicated on the idea that a woman should respond to domestic violence in a way that is still submissive to her husband—her abuser. Telling the church and asking them for help is still submissive, because they are to obey God over their husband; the same is true for reporting criminal abuse to the authorities. But what about leaving? What about kicking an abusive partner out of the house? What about divorce?
My closing plea is to all Christian men, and in particular to the leaders of churches: Herald a beautiful vision of complementarian marriage that calls men to bear the responsibility not only for their own courage and gentleness but also for the gentleness of the other men as well. Make it part of the culture of manhood in the church that the men will not tolerate the abuse of any of its women.
Here’s the problem—church men do not have the legal authority to step in and act as an authority. They can talk to an abuser and tell him to discontinue his ways, but they cannot punish him in any way beyond telling him he is no longer welcome at church. This utter lack of specifics—should church men offer a home for an abused woman, so that she can move out?—is maddening.
If anything comes across loud and clear, it is that even in acting to (presumably) get out of an abusive relationship does not give a woman permission to be anything short of submissive to her husband. So here’s a question—if the civil authorities do not tell her to leave (and that is not something they usually do), can she? If her pastors do not tell her to leave, is she allowed to get out? She does not appear to be allowed to act in any way for herself.
Obey your husband. If he mistreats you, tell the church and the civil authorities and obey them. Never, make your own decisions. Value your own dreams. You matter. No.
Obey. Submit. Obey.
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