Christian Suffering and Submission in Abusive Marriages

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Many Christian women are advised to remain silent in abusive situations in the name of suffering for Christ. And while we know that suffering can help us develop a more godly character, is endlessly enduring abuse what pleases God?

Suffering in Marriage

The Bible tells us that when we suffer for righteousness’ sake, we are blessed (1 Peter 3:14). In suffering, we discover the limitations of our human nature and can experience the supernatural power of God as He sustains us in the process. If we're doing it right (because there is a right way to approach suffering), suffering brings us closer to God as we rely upon His strength to endure ill-treatment from others for His glory.

We often hear from women in abusive relationships who have been told various verses in the Bible require women to silently suffer domestic abuse in marriage. 1 Peter 3:1 is one such verse that is referenced in these situations. It says that says that if a husband does not believe the Gospel, a wife should still be submissive and set a good example so that he may be won over to Christ by her righteous behavior.

While a wife’s “gentle and quiet spirit is very precious in the sight of God,” (1 Peter 3:4 NKJV) these verses say nothing about a wife being complicit in covering up a husband’s sins of abuse. In actuality, they describe the manner in which she should go about respectfully addressing her husband’s sins. 

Addressing a Husband’s Abuse When He’s an “Unbeliever”

If a Christian woman is married to a professed unbeliever (which is the situation being described in 1 Peter 3:1), while she is called to submit to her husband, she is, above all else, called to submit to God. She has the right and the obligation to walk in her faith daily by attending worship services, engaging in regular prayer times and study of the Word, fellowshipping with other believers, and committing herself to acts of service. The Lord also instructs Christians to raise their children according to His Word.

1 Peter 3:1 says that in doing all these things, she is called to have a humble and peaceable attitude towards her husband, who may choose not to participate. And there’s suffering involved in that. At minimum, she must patiently endure the sorrow of knowing the one she loves does not yet share a saving faith in Jesus. He may even deepen her suffering by dismissing her faith. Nevertheless, she is called to continue to faithfully pursue God “without a word,” meaning she does not need to attempt to convince her husband through argument, but rather through actions. This is the attitude 1 Peter 3 is calling wives with unbelieving husbands to.

Inevitably, her Christian life may end up causing friction in the marriage. And while Peter’s commentary stops at this point, Paul does reference this subject in 1 Corinthians 7. 1 Corinthians 7:13 states that an unbelieving husband must be “willing to live with her,” which Strong’s Concordance suggests means to be “of one mind with.” Conversely, if he doesn’t consent to living with her in this way, Paul says, “let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.” (1 Corinthians 7:15).

As we can see here, full devotion to the Lord on the part of the believing spouse will likely force a decision on the part of the unbelieving spouse- either to live as one with his believing spouse or to depart. In the meantime, no where does it say that submission to her husband means silently suffering abuse from him.

In fact, 1 Peter 2 references the obligation of believers to submit to the laws of the land. In the case of domestic abuse, an abused woman is permitted to alert the authorities of her husband’s unlawful actions to address his behavior, whether he is a believer or not.

Addressing a Husband’s Abuse When He’s a “Believer”

How we deal with the sin of unbelievers differs from the way we handle sin within the Body of Christ. Of unbelievers, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:12, “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside?” (NKJV) Paul references the fact that God is the judge of those outside the fellowship of believers since they have not submitted to the authority of the Church. A woman who is married to a professed unbeliever might contact her church for support, however, the Church doesn’t necessarily have jurisdiction over him.

However, Paul teaches the Church does have authority over believers. He goes on to say in verse 13, “therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.’” (NKJV)

In his verse, Paul is quoting a verse from Deuteronomy that appears NINE TIMES in which believers are exhorted to purge evil from within the congregation. Confronting sin is not only righteous, but a necessity in the community of believers (which includes husbands and wives). When considering a marital conflict between two people who profess to be believers, the Church itself thus serves as the ultimate avenue of accountability.

It’s important to remember that hiding abuse is concealing sin, and should be viewed just as hiding any other kind of sin. For example, if a wife knows her husband is a murderer, a thief, or a pedophile, should she conceal these sins in the name of submitting to him? No. Not only must she submit to God first, but if indeed she is a helpmate to her husband, she does him wrong by allowing his sin to go unaddressed and permitting evil to have its way with him.

Ephesians 5:11 says “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.” (NKJV) In a Christian woman’s submission to God, she is called to expose sin. She can still do this and be respectful to her husband if she goes about addressing sin out of love, with humility and dignity.

The matter of confronting sin in the Body is so important that Jesus outlined the entire process in Matthew 18. Employing the steps that Jesus taught, a submissive and respectful wife can still confront abuse in a righteous manner, and it’s critical that she find a church that will partner with her in doing so, for her benefit and for his. It’s not always easy in our modern church culture. We discuss this subject of issues with securing meaningful church discipline here.

Should her husband chose to reject church discipline and continue in his sin, Jesus tells us to treat that person as an unbeliever. This includes the wife, as she is still a member of the Body (and in which case, the above discussion about unbelievers would apply).

Confronting Sin Involves Suffering

The intention behind involving the church or the authorities is to get an abusive husband some real help so he can turn away from his sins and walk in the light of Christ. Silently suffering abuse usually doesn’t do that.

But suffering that comes from seeking help for yourself and your husband has a greater likelihood of bringing glory to God than suffering in silence does..jpg

And let’s not be mistaken, while some might say a wife speaking out against abuse is trying to escape suffering, this process absolutely still involves suffering, regardless of the outcome. Having to bring a husband’s sins into the light is very challenging, and a wife may experience increased abuse in retaliation (which we caution women to protect themselves against prior to taking any action). She may be told that she’s doing the wrong thing. It is a lonely road that will test the foundation of your faith. But suffering that comes from seeking help for yourself and your husband has a greater likelihood of bringing glory to God than suffering in silence does.

God Sets the Captives Free

In Luke 4:18, Jesus reads the following from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (ESV)

And if the folks listening hadn't already figured it out, Jesus basically turns to them and says, "That passage I just read is about me."  

Mic drop.

We must not forget that while suffering is a part of our Christian walk, God is also the Freer of captives, the Advocate of the oppressed. The Israelites suffered abuse at the hands of their Egyptian enslavers for 400 years. But God was pleased to set His children free (and epically destroyed their oppressors in the process).

And while we were slaves to our sinful nature, God sent Jesus to take up a cross and die for us, to free us from our bondage to sin and death. God was pleased to set His children free (and epically destroyed our oppressor in the process).

Seeing a pattern here?

God has shown us that suffering aside, He is also pleased to receive the glory that comes from setting the oppressed and enslaved free. God is our Deliverer!

God will make a way through your suffering. We never know just what the outcome will be, but when you give you heart in full devotion to Him, He promises that He will give you exactly what you need.

Do you have a story about the role of suffering in your marriage or advice you have received? We’d love to hear your heart and walk the journey along with you- contact us or leave us a comment!

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