As a Christian theologian, I take the Bible very seriously. This means that I follow certain rules for interpreting how I read the text.
One of the most important rules is that I look at the parts, particular verses, within the context of the whole of the chapter, book and rest of Scripture. I mention this because October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
How are they related?
Domestic violence is still shockingly common and can too often be found in the church. Such violence is not an issue of anger management or marital strife; it is ultimately a matter of power.
Abusers claim godlike authority over the lives of their victims. Even more distressing is how in “Christian” families the Bible is misused as a source of justification for such domination and abuse.
One of the most widely misread verses of the Bible used to justify abuse is Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” The problem is that this verse, by itself, is seen by some as a mandate for women to do whatever husbands demand.
The will of the woman and the reasonableness of the request are irrelevant to folk who misinterpret the text at this point. Thus, when a wife refuses to “obey” her husband, he sees it as his job to make her “get in line.”
This misreading does injustice to the text and to the victims of domestic violence. Ephesians 5:22 is preceded by verse 21: “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The apostle Paul has in mind a magnificent sign to the world of God’s transforming work: People giving of themselves freely and mutually. This fits the opening verses of this chapter (Ephesians 5:1-2), which tells us to “be imitators of God” by “living a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”
Furthermore, Paul goes on to admonish husbands to love their wives as they would love their own bodies. (Ephesians 5:28) Surely a husband would not inflict the same kind of wounds on himself that the batterer does on his victim? In fact, Paul insists that mutual submission to his spouse compels the husband to love sacrificially, even as Christ loved the church and died for it. (Ephesians 5:25)
Regarding the book’s context, readers must consider the socio-cultural realities of Ephesus, where the Temple of Artemis played a prominent role. First, Paul wrote his radical instructions in an ancient, patriarchal world that accepted the kind of abuse that, after two millennia of Christian reflection, we no longer tolerate.
Second, some scholars suggest that the Artemis followers, likely women, were causing problems in the church by suggesting the supremacy of women over men. Women were the source of life as taught by followers of “the Great Mother-goddess,” Artemis.
It is tragic irony that Ephesians 5:22 is used to justify violence and abuse against women since Paul potentially intended it to stop women from abusing men. Certainly we know Paul was chased from Ephesus for stirring up the Artemis cult. (Acts 19)
As to a larger biblical view, I could point to the Bible’s teaching on love (Mark 12:29-31; 1 Corinthians 13), or to creation (Genesis 1:26-28), or to Scripture’s troubling truthfulness about the horrible consequences of domestic violence. (Judges 19; 2 Samuel 13 and 14)
Instead I appeal to how our actions bear witness to the truth we believe. Jesus told his followers that they would be his “witnesses” to the world. (Acts 1) In the court of public opinion, people understand Jesus based on how his followers act. We testify to the world about God’s plan for love, life, hope and reconciliation. However, when our actions fail to match our words, our talk is empty.
We cannot claim to be serious about family values and the sanctity of marriage while allowing domestic violence to exist unchallenged in our congregations. To do so tells the world that we are liars and gives false testimony as to the legitimacy of Christ’s claims. Scripture calls these kinds of actions “hypocrisy.”
It is my sincerest hope that denominations will equip ministers with tools to confront and educate their congregations about domestic violence, that pastors will preach sermons that clearly denounce violence in the home, that churches will develop plans to protect women and children and truly rehabilitate abusers, that members will intervene when they see abuse happening and that the world might see that we really do take the Bible seriously.
Quentin Kinnison is a professor of contemporary Christian ministries and of Christian ministry and leadership at Fresno Pacific University. This article also appears in Fresno Pacific University’s Scholars Speak series.