Complementarians Should Be Toughest on Abuse

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“The great thing about Rebecca,” said my female, non-Christian friend on first meeting my boyfriend, “is that you can treat her like junk and she will always love you and always forgive you.”

If there is a type of woman who would hide domestic abuse, year after year, I conform. Had I married an abusive man, I would likely have done so. Thank God I did not. My then-boyfriend, now-husband channels his strength to protect me and our kids. But was I more at risk because I married a Christian man, and because after much wrestling I have come to complementarian beliefs about marriage?

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:22–23). Tragically, these holy words have been misused to justify horrible abuse. But using complementarian theology to justify abuse is like defacing a “Do Not Enter” sign until it says, “Enter.” Consider five reasons why complementarians, of all people, should have the least tolerance for spousal abuse.

1. God calls husbands to sacrificial love.

Some summarize complementarian theology as “husbands lead, wives submit,” but this is not what the Bible says. God calls wives to submit (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1). But the primary command to husbands is not lead. It is love (Ephesians 5:25, 28, 33; Colossians 3:19). To be sure, the explanation for why wives should submit to their husbands implies that husbands should lead (Ephesians 5:23). But lest we should misunderstand what leading means (as we are wont to do), Paul calls husbands to self-denying, Christlike, sacrificial love: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

How did Christ love the church? He loved to the point of rejection, beatings, nakedness, and death. Were this command given to wives, we might more easily imagine it justifying spousal abuse. But it is not. “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies,” Paul continues. “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:28–29). The command in Colossians comes with a prohibition: “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19). It would take an exegetical gymnast to interpret Paul’s vision of marriage as an excuse for spousal abuse.

2. Strength is for honoring, not control.

From a biblical perspective, the relative physical strength of men is not a tool for power play, but a motivation for empathy and honor. “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7). Fail to honor your wife, Peter warns, and your relationship with God will be hindered.

3. Spousal abuse is a gospel-denying sin.

When a woman bravely acknowledges abuse, complementarian theology should drive her pastor (and other men in the church as well) to confront her husband with his sin. Not only is he sinning in the general sense of harming a neighbor. The abusive husband is committing the gospel-denying sin of disgracing his cross-shaped role of sacrificial love. Marriage to his victim does not excuse the sin. It compounds it.

God calls Christian men in general, and pastors specifically, to protect the vulnerable. This means taking sacrificial action to see that an abused wife, and her children, are cared for and made safe; that civil law-breaking is not covered up but reported to civil authorities; and that an abusive husband shows radical repentance and commits to ongoing accountability.

In some situations, we will need to provide a wife and children with alternative housing and support while we handle the husband (who also may be excluded from fellowship in line with the biblical teaching on church discipline, 1 Corinthians 5:9–13). We must not be naïve: abusers frequently say sorry and then continue in their patterns. Sin patterns are hard to break, and we do not want to enable them.

4. Jesus teaches vulnerability and protection.

Due to its distortions and misuses, some believe complementarian theology must be abandoned to keep women safe. But imagine Paul and Peter had said nothing about wives. An unthoughtful pastor might use Jesus’s own words to justify sending a woman back into a dangerous situation. “Do not resist the one who is evil,” says our Lord. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). In Christ, we all enter the world with a posture of vulnerability. This is Christian Ethics 101. But on page after page of the Scriptures, God calls his people to protect the oppressed — particularly women and children.

This ethic emerges from God’s own character. As Psalm 146 proclaims, the Lord “executes justice for the oppressed,” “sets the prisoners free,” “lifts up those who are bowed down,” and “upholds the widow and the fatherless” (Psalm 146:7–9). God is “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5). He commands his people both to rescue the oppressed and to resist the oppressor (Jeremiah 22:3).

Jesus consistently modeled and reemphasized this. He came “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18) and his relationships with women lifted them up in extraordinary ways. Jesus shamed Simon the Pharisee with the moral example of the “sinful” woman, who outstripped him in every measure of love (Luke 7:36–50). Jesus affirmed Mary as she sat at his feet with the male disciples (Luke 10:38–42). He rescued the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11) and spoke against divorce to protect women from abandonment (Matthew 19:3–9). If our churches abandon women to abuse, we are stopping our ears to the Scriptures.

5. You’re twice as safe with a Christian man.

We all know of instances where Christians have failed — individually and corporately — to protect women from abusive men. But philosopher Christian Miller cites evidence that church attendance is correlated with much lower levels of domestic abuse.

Indeed, men who do not attend church have been found to be 49% more likely to be abusive at home than men who attend once a week or more (The Character Gap, 235). But that differential is not enough.

Christian husbands who are striving to love your wives as Christ loved the church, we appreciate you — and we need you. We need you to show your sons what it means to man up and love. We need you to be your brothers’ keeper. We need you not to assume that there are no abusive men in your church, your small group, or your family. We all are capable of egregious sin, and without support and accountability, that can manifest itself in ugly ways.

No woman wants to acknowledge spousal abuse. Many will suffer in silence, while their husbands maintain a godly pretense. We need you to work with your wives and sisters in Christ to ensure that no one in your sphere is issuing scars or hiding them. We need you to be like Christ to your wives, and to be like Christ in your church, speaking up with courage, standing up for women, and hating abuse in all its forms. Twice as safe is not enough — let’s make women a hundred times safer with Christian men.

Showcase the Gospel

Christianity in general, and complementarian theology in particular, is no more an excuse for spousal abuse than a doctor’s license is an excuse for murder. Complementarian marriage rests on the bedrock of Christ’s love for his church — a love that took him to the cross. It is a covenant commitment between a man and a woman designed to mirror — however imperfectly — Christ’s sacrificial love for his church and our joyful submission to him.

Christian men who abuse their wives are committing egregious, gospel-denying sin. Let’s stand together in Christ to oppose them, not because we don’t believe the Bible’s challenging words about marriage, but because we do. The biblical sign says, “Do Not Enter.” Let’s keep the door firmly shut.