Saturday, April 30, 2011

Wife Abuse Theologically Understood

Stanley Hauerwas has an essay called, "Abortion Theologically Understood." I don't presume to be at the level of scholarship that Hauerwas is. Not even a little bit. But, I've been pondering lately the tragedy of wife abuse and what Christian theology has to say about it. In this discussion, my thoughts are applied to Christian marriages, in particular. Much of what I say might apply to non-Christian marriages, as well, but the following thoughts are based upon what the Scriptures have to say about Christian marriage, in particular.

The first chapter of the Bible tells us that God created humankind male and female, in God's image. Past understandings of the imago Dei have focused upon the intelligence and reasoning capacity of human beings. The idea has been that humans bear the image of God because they are capable of reason, something that separates them from animals.

Without denying the uniqueness of humanity's reasoning capacity, many contemporary theologians have suggested that the image of God is better seen in the male and female character of humankind. That is to say, perhaps the imago Dei is in the relational character of humanity--human beings bear God's image precisely as male and female, together, in harmony. This is based on the idea that God is in God's own self, a relational being. The Trinity is a union of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit co-exist in loving unity. Because God is an eternal being of loving relationality, God made humankind to reflect this relationality. Men and women together bear this image. (And, I'm not just talking about married people here. Men and women in general bear God's image as they govern God's good earth in harmony.)

As we all know, the third chapter of Genesis speaks to the dissolution of the original harmony of humankind. Men and women are now at enmity with God and each other. From my theological perspective, this is most apparent in the reality of patriarchy, a system of male rule that has dominated human history and almost always resulted in the subjugation of women and all "others" to ruling males (by "others," I'm thinking of immigrants, conquered peoples, the disabled, the weak, and children--all of whom are typically subordinated within patriarchal societies, too).

One way in which this reality is practically obvious is within the marriage relationship, where, as many of us know, conflict and strife are often prevalent. As the original couple experienced perfect vulnerability and unity in the garden, so now couples living after the Fall experience struggle in those very areas. Sin has marred God's creation.

And yet, the message of the Gospel is that Christ is making all things new. His death and resurrection have signaled the defeat of death and sin and the turning back of the effects of the Fall. So, among many other things, there is hope within the Christian marriage to see the image of God restored beautifully in the harmony of married life. I believe that, among other things, that is God's intention for the Christian marriage: to be a living sign of God's restoration of harmony between men and women and an indication of the new found fruitfulness of humanity in the reign of God.

This is the first reason why wife abuse is so tragic and evil. If part of God's work in marriage is to signify the restoration of God's image in humankind, then abuse is an evil perversion of that sign. It runs contrary to the will of God and extends the effects of sin in an even more diabolical direction. Beyond the disharmony brought about by the Fall, abuse brings violence and the willful destruction of another's body and soul into the relationship. This is a grave sin.

Although I am inclined to agree with contemporary theologians that men and women together bear the image of God, I am still unwilling to give up the notion that human beings individually bear the image of God, as well. As a result, every individual is a creature of God and a reflection of God's intelligence, creativity, and relationality. Applied to wife abuse, this concept again yields the conclusion that the violence done by a husband to a wife is a work of great evil. Kicks, punches, slaps, insults, and curses all serve to deny the image of God in the woman and subject her to a level below her God-given status. More than even the isolated instances of abuse, however, the abusive relationship itself--filled with cycles of abuse, remorse, and fear--creates a life for the woman that is truly subhuman. Once again, this is a gross perversion of God's good order.

Another element to the theological consideration of wife is abuse is also found in first chapters of Genesis. There, we are told that the relationship of the first couple illustrates the truth that in marriage, the man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, so that the two become "one flesh." This language of "one flesh," indicates both the physical and spiritual reality of the married relationship: the "one flesh" displayed through sexual intercourse indicates the "one flesh" nature of the couple's souls (not ontologically, of course, but spiritually, emotionally, and mentally). (This is one major reason the Hebrew Bible considers sex to be what makes a marriage. For them, one flesh = sex = marriage.)

The fact that marriage involves the joining of two persons in "one flesh" highlights once again the perversity of wife abuse. Violence against one's partner is violence against one's self. It is destructive of another human being and destructive of one's self. It involves the diabolical preying on the human being with whom one is the most intimate and vulnerable.

A further element to the theological consideration of wife abuse is the fact that the New Testament and Christian tradition testify that the marriage relationship is, mysteriously, a picture of Christ's relationship to the Church. This is found in Ephesians 5, where Paul says that when he speaks of marriage he is also speaking in a mysterious way of Christ's union with his bride, the Church. The dynamics of this relationship are clear from the preaching of the Gospel. Jesus Christ loved his people, his bride, and gave himself up to death in order to redeem her. This love was self-giving and sacrificial. Furthermore, Christ continues to show his love for his Bride by gifting her the Holy Spirit and caring for her despite his physical absence.

If the marriage relationship mirrors the love of Christ for his Church, then this means a specific way of life for both husband and wife. And, it should be clear what wife abuse does to this great mystery. Violence done by a husband to a wife is an evil reversal of the sign intended for marriage. It is unthinkable that Christ would mar the body of his beloved, mistreat her, use her, curse her, or otherwise bring her harm. An abusive husband presents Christ as a sadistic enemy, rather than a self-giving lover. An abused and victimized wife presents the Church as a brutalized prisoner, rather than an adored and cherished bride. For a husband to abuse his wife, especially within a Christian marriage, is an egregious sin and distortion of the mysterious symbolism God intends for marriage.

If all of the above points are legitimate ways to understand wife abuse from a theological point of view, then it should be clear that the Church of Christ cannot take such behavior lightly. Sadly, in the past, the Church has not been the friend or protector of abused women. I've seen firsthand how pastors, deacons, parishioners, and others who should know better either turn a blind eye to instances of abuse or gloss over them as if they are insignificant.

I've even heard stories of women being told to return to the punches and kicks of their husbands because in so doing, they might "win" the men's souls to Christ. Such counsel is as theologically unsound as it is morally outrageous. Jesus Christ was the God-man and the only person capable of freely giving his body up to death as a sacrifice for others. In fact, one might say that he did this so that others would not have to. Advising victims to accept their oppression as a means of saving their oppressors is a perversion of the salvific message of Christ.

Today, wife abuse remains a serious problem in the United States and around the world. Although evangelical marriages are less likely to be abusive overall, they are more likely to be abusive when they are explicitly patriarchal. (You can read other statistics about wife abuse in a previous post.) I urge my fellow evangelicals not to shrug off this issue and I urge pastors to make it a subject of their preaching and teaching. We need to make victims of wife abuse a part of our collective concern, along with the unborn, the sick, the orphan, the widow, and the disabled. The reality of wife abuse is a despicable perversion of the Gospel and it is vital that we make that very clear.

Epilogue: I should add that I think the principle of "one flesh" provides sufficient foundation for divorce in the case of wife abuse. In the Gospels, when Jesus allows for divorce in the case of sexual immorality, I think he does so on the same principle. The person who commits adultery has become "one flesh" with someone other than their spouse and violated the union of the marriage. I would take the spirit of Jesus' teaching here and apply it to the situation of abused women. Victims of abuse have had the one flesh nature of their marriage violated and, in my mind, effectively dissolved. By having their literal flesh violated by their partner, women are thereby released from obligation to the "one flesh" of their marriage partnership. But, this is my own opinion and not the focus of this post.


Bob Cleveland said...

I do not think that Matthew 5:32 "allows divorce" in the case of sexual immorality. It deals with the effects of divorce for any reason, save for that.

Matthew 19:6 still says "..let no one separate...", and God still hates divorce. I just don't see Jesus giving "permission" for something God hates.

Bob Cleveland said...

Oh yes ... I think jail is the place for a man that will hit his wife.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thanks for your comments. I agree that God hates divorce. Scripture says as much. But, there's two things I'm thinking of here.

First, there are instances in the Old Testament where God does allow for and even advocate putting away wives (I'm thinking especially of the case with Ezra when the men are told to put away their Gentile wives and children.)

Second, I can't get around Jesus saying that divorce was permitted by Moses because of the hardness of men's hearts. I don't think its ideal by any stretch of the imagination (hence, "let no one separate"), but I think his teaching in Matthew 5 and 19 still leaves open the possibility of divorce in instances of porneia, however that is best interpreted. That's been the tradition of the Church since very early on, too.

I agree with you that jail is the place for the man who hits his wife. But then, what's the wife to do? If you don't think abuse is foundation for divorce, then I'm wondering if you'd have her stay married to the abuser. I'm not trying to "trap" you, Bob. I'm really just curious from a pastoral perspective what you would advise.


Kristen said...

I think that the Eph. 5 passage says, not that marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, but that Christ's love for, giving up of himself for, and raising up of the church is a heavenly picture that Christian marriages are to try to imitate.

I think you are correct in saying that marriages are to "mirror" Christ and the church (in the particular ways set forth in Eph 5), but not that marriages are a "picture" of Christ and the church. The two metaphors usually mean opposite things: a "mirror" reflects, and a "picture" shows. Marriage doesn't show anyone a picture of Christ and the church-- rather, it is to attempt to mirror that divine love. Would you agree?

I don't want to sound like I'm splitting hairs, but I've heard so often that "marriage is a picture of Christ and the church," which usually means we think our marriages are supposed to somehow teach a gospel message to unbelievers-- and I don't think that's what the Eph 5 passage is saying at all. It's dangerous when a man thinks he's somehow a "picture of Christ" to his wife's "picture of the church." The resulting husband-idolatry is the source of a lot of problems in Christian marriages today.