Several years ago I accepted a position as spokesperson for a local domestic violence shelter, and almost immediately began a campaign to reach out to local churches. I would have to call the campaign a huge failure, because in spite of our many efforts, the overwhelming majority of pastors and church counselors didn’t seem interested in training on spousal abuse. In the meantime, as I did local radio shows, victims began to call in with a common theme. They questioned the wisdom of the counsel they received in their churches. Almost overwhelmingly they were told to submit and to win their husbands with a “quiet and gentle spirit.” They didn’t have to tell me the outcome of heeding such advice, because as a survivor of domestic violence and a counselor, I had seen that far too often it simply serves to worsen the situation. While most Biblical counselors and pastors counsel women not to submit to sinful requests or physical abuse, they still tell them that they must submit to all other requests—even those many would define as emotionally abusive. The problem with such counsel is that it simply serves selfish motives on the part of the abuser. For years, this area was a real struggle for me, and I often found myself at odds with fellow counselors over how to faithfully apply biblical teachings on submission in cases of emotional abuse. Finally, a seminary ethics class seemed to offer the solution to my dilemma as I learned moral decisions are multi-faceted, and involve far more than behavior. There are three aspects to a moral event. In addition to conduct, one must look at the character and goals behind it. In many cases, blind submission is not only wrong, but also damaging to both parties. If the wife desires to glorify God and help her husband grow in godliness, refusing to submit to emotional abuse and malicious control can be the most ethical and beneficial decision.
As a counselor, I’ve heard the charge of emotional abuse far more often than I thought it applied. Our culture seems to encourage the notion of victimization, and abuse often seems to be broadly defined. In her 2006 article in the Journal of Biblical Counseling, “Husbands Who Control,” Becky Larson gave a good description of a domineering and emotionally abusive man. The “controlling [husband] seems almost to “erase” his wife’s personality, replacing her by fiat, if you will, with his own creation.” She further stated that though secular counseling literature has defined and described abusive and controlling behavior, biblical counseling literature has generally not done so. Larson rightly points out that we cannot readily accept worldly counseling models, and while that is true in regards to motivation, etiology and remedy, I think it would be a mistake to discount secular research.
In 1984, common abusive behavioral patterns were identified by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project of Duluth, Minnesota and recorded in graph called the Power and Control Wheel (see Appendix 1). This widely used chart is based on observation rather than theory, and I have found to be an accurate reflection in the scores of cases I have observed. Since the wheel portrays common characteristics found in domestic violence and our subject here is emotional abuse, it might seem irrelevant. However, one can clearly see that majority of behaviors described on the wheel do not involve physical harm. Basically, domestic violence involves an overall pattern of power and control, which is the basic focus of this paper. There is usually a very fine line between physical and emotional abuse, and the counselor who desires to help in these situations must learn to recognize these general traits.
While there are many controlling men who would never cross the line to violence, it is not uncommon for physical abuse to appear after many years without it. During my time with the shelter, I met a lady whose husband who nearly killed her after over 30 years of marriage. Although he never touched her prior to this incident, he had maintained tight control. In my own case, it took eleven years before physical abuse began, but in that first decade I learned to cower and give in to any and every demand based on fear and my poor interpretation of biblical submission. Over time, my blind obedience allowed sinful patterns in my husband’s life, not only to continue, but also to flourish. In times of crisis, I often reached out to churches and counselors for help, but somehow the burden always landed on me. If I would only meet his demands things would improve. Yet, the more I yielded, the worse matters became. In the end, I believe my blind submission convinced my husband he was entitled to treat me any way he wanted.
A sense of entitlement seems to be a common characteristic among men who control and abuse their wives. The Power and Control Wheel (Appendix 1) identifies eight areas in which this perceived right to control is commonly seen. Basically, abusers seek to dominate nearly every aspect of their partners’ lives—a privilege that should be reserved for God alone. They use a variety of tactics that keep their families in a constant state of turmoil. Women often tell me they prefer physical violence to such emotional cruelty. Abusive men use emotional control techniques because they convince themselves they are entitled. “An abuser almost never does anything that he himself considers morally unacceptable. He may hide what he does because he thinks other people would disagree with it, but he feels justified inside.” Sadly, within the church, men often use a twisted view of biblical headship as justification for injury against their wives. Pastors and biblical counselors need to be aware of the propensity abusers have to misuse Scripture, and counter it with proper teaching. The Greek term for submission, hupotasso, used in Ephesians 5:22-23, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1 has a variety of interpretations ranging from “yield” to “obey.” Although interpretations vary, “it does generally denote authority by indicating a willingness to yield to, defer, or follow another.” However, it is not as strong as hupakouō, which is used to indicate obedience in the case of children and slaves. A better description would be a voluntary attitude of the heart. This in no way indicates absolute authority, and it is not something that can be forced, or that a husband may demand.
Christian scholars tend to vary in their interpretations of biblical texts regarding gender roles in marriage. While egalitarians do not recognize differences in roles, those who advocate complementarity believe that husbands and wives have unique roles within the marriage based on passages such as Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. In this viewpoint, men are the delegated leaders in their homes, and wives are expected to submit to their husbands’ leadership. This paper will focus on common teachings within complementarian ranks. While there is some variety, the most popular viewpoint is that “a wife is to be submissive to her husband in all things unless her husband asks her to sin.” This is the perspective I have encountered countless times over the years. Though some complementarians claim a more moderate position, it is difficult to find anyone who supports non-submission for any reason other than sinful requests. Many are quick to claim that the husband’s headship “is not synonymous with unilateral decision making,” and that there are areas of ambiguity in which it is difficult to determine the correct course of action.
Theology and ethics professor Steven Tracy’s 2006 article entitled “What Does ‘Submit in Everything’ Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission” directly challenges the prevalent complementarian perspective. Tracy gives a comprehensive Biblical analysis of the concept of marital submission, and concludes that besides refusing to submit to sin, there are other limitations to a husband’s authority over his wife. She should not submit to: anything that would require her to “violate a Biblical principle” (not just commands); “compromise her relationship with Christ;” “violate her conscience;” compromise the care and protection of their children; endure “physical, sexual, or emotional abuse;” or anything that would “enable (facilitate) her husband’s sin.” Basically, Tracy is saying there are a multitude of considerations when it comes to submission in emotionally destructive marriages.
In order to truly reflect God’s heart in our application of biblical submission, we must learn to take into consideration the character (or motive) behind the action, the desired goal (or outcome) as well as the conduct. These three parts of morality have been a part of church tradition for centuries. Looking at conduct alone falls far short of God’s standard. Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders are a good example of this. While they stressed the letter of the law, he always esteemed people over rules and institutions (Mk. 2:27, Jn. 8:7). If behavior was the only part of morality, then Rahab should have been condemned for lying to protect the Israelite spies (rather than commended in Hebrews 11), David should have been condemned for killing Goliath, and so on. In his description of the three parts of morality, C.S. Lewis claimed, “There are two ways in which the human machine goes wrong. One is when human individuals drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another and do one another damage, by cheating or bullying.” When individuals try to take advantage of others through misuse of the rules that is bullying of the worst sort.
Scripture is full of admonitions against authorities misusing their God-given authority (Jer. 23:1-4, Ezekiel. 34:1-10, and Jesus indicated that those in authority should not “lord it over” one another (Mt. 20:25-28), but rather serve. According to complementarians, God designed headship and submission in marriage is meant to reflect His very nature. If that is the case, then the husband’s authority is meant to be a source of protection for his wife rather than injury. Abusive men usurp God’s role by demanding unquestioned obedience and devotion from their wives. In such cases, wives should pray and carefully weigh their responses to selfish demands by considering all aspects of the moral event. As a wife considers the requirement of honoring her abusive husband, she must consider the character or motive behind the action she chooses.
Jesus said the whole Law is summed up in two commandments—loving God and others. Giving blind obedience and allowing a husband to flourish in his sin is clearly not the most loving action, nor the most honoring. A loving refusal could actually be a greater act of love. Most wives in these situations are afraid to stand up to their husbands even when they know they are wrong, because refusing will likely have unpleasant repercussions. Still, the point here is that women in these situations must ask themselves which action is most loving, and figure out a way to stay safe while doing it. Ideally, the church should come along and help in this endeavor.
In addition to being loving, the most moral decision needs to have a proper goal. What is the desired outcome? Which action will result in the highest good? Will the wife’s submission or refusal bring more glory to God? Will continued submission teach her children that they can bully others and get away with it? Will submission to harsh discipline techniques help draw her children into relationship with their Heavenly Father, or push them away? Children in emotionally abusive families usually suffer exposure to harsh treatment themselves, or watch, as their mothers are humiliated on a regular basis. Young boys in “Christian” homes may learn to use Scripture as a weapon rather than recognizing it as the living and active truth of God. None of these outcomes bring glory to God, and for that reason, refusal to submit can be the best moral decision.
In order to effectively help women in emotionally abusive situations glorify God, we must first teach them to fear God more than men. I believe it is unproductive to counsel submission to a man; rather the first order of business should be to teach the wife to yield to God, knowing He has her best interest at heart. Once she is submitted to Him, there may be times when He will lead her to submit to her husband, but in all cases her behavior must flow from a loving character that desires to bring glory to God. She must learn that speaking boldly against sin is more loving than remaining silent. In The Excellent Wife, Martha Peace correctly asserts that women should act out of love rather than fear when approaching their husbands, and that they should appeal to the church according to Matthew 18: 5-18 to confront sinful behavior. Unfortunately, Peace fails to recognize how difficult the nature of abuse can make this, because usually an abusive husband’s public persona in no way reflects what is happening in the privacy of the home. Abusers can be “charming and gifted seducers” in public, and cruel and vicious with their families. Counselors or pastors unfamiliar with the dynamics of abuse may find it easier to believe the husband than the wife, and these men have an uncanny ability to shift the focus of any counseling session from themselves to their wives. Anyone experienced in these matters can tell you, that far too often victims end up getting blamed rather than helped, and church involvement simply serves to anger the husband more. When these women show up in their churches for counseling, and are told that submitting is the answer, it can seem as though the church is backing the abuser. I have actually seen women subjected to church discipline for non-submission, even though the New Testament terms clearly indicate submission should be voluntary and not forced. Interestingly, I have never seen a man considered for church discipline for failing to love his wife as Christ loves the church. Counselors and pastors who are unfamiliar with these dynamics can unwittingly make matters worse, and create a sense of despair in the victim.
This is why it is crucial for those who would help to familiarize themselves with resources such as the Power and Control Wheel, and other materials that describe common traits seen in abusive families. In possibly abusive situations, individual counseling is preferred over joint so that the wife can feel free to be honest without fear of her husband. It is also important to counter faulty views of headship and submission held by both spouses. Husbands must be taught the sacrificial aspects of headship, even as women are taught how to honor their husbands in a loving manner that glorifies God. Sometimes, this may mean non-compliance rather than submission. God’s ordinances are meant to be a reflection of His character and when applied correctly they glorify Him as they benefit people. When neither of these goals is being achieved, it is time to reconsider the action based on all aspects of the moral event. If a wife’s submission is simply serving sinful heart attitudes on the part of her husband, and hurting everyone else in the family, refusing to submit may very well be the most loving and ethical decision.
 “Husbands Who Control” Larson, Becky. Journal of Biblical Counseling Winter 2006, 29-34.
 “Wheel Gallery” http://www.theduluthmodel.org/training/wheels.html. Accessed November 17, 2013.
 Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He do That? (New York, Berkley, 2002), 31.
 Miles, Al, Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Should Know (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2000), 176.
 Tracy, Steven. “What Does ‘Submit in Everything’ Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission. Trinity Journal, 2008.
 Mahaney, C.J., “How to Encourage Husbands to Lead” in Pastoral Leadership for Manhood & Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem & Dennis Rainey. (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 2002), 204.
 Peace Martha, The Excellent Wife, 138.
 Piper, John and Wayne Grudem, “Fifty Crucial Questions: Biblical Headship Rightly Understood.” http://cbmw.org/book-reviews/men-book-reviews/fifty-crucial-questions-biblical-headship. Accessed November 12, 2013.
 Tracy, 21-24.
 Frame, John M., The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ, R&R Publishing, 2008), 36.
 Vernick, 219, and Peace, Martha. Becoming a Titus Two Woman (Bemidji, MN: Focus Publishing, 1997), 137.
 Powlison, David, Paul Tripp, & Edward Welch. “Pastoral Responses to Domestic Violence” in Pastoral Leadership For Manhood and Womanhood. 272.