Following Rebecca VanDoodewaard’s article “A High View of Marriage Includes Divorce” here on Gentle Reformation, and with the internet abuzz with Australian reporter Julia Baird’s hit piece on the church regarding abuse that has produced such responses as “An Open Letter to Husbands Who Abuse Their Wives” at TGC, a question has been raised. What is the proper response of a Christian wife who finds herself facing a sexually immoral or abusive husband?
Though the types of situations a wife may encounter can vary greatly, meaning there is no simple blanket answer to this question, certain Biblical principles and options can be pursued. My wife, Miriam, helped me to write this post as we reflected on our experiences in pastoral ministry that, sadly, included too many wives dealing with this issue.
What is a Christian wife to do when she discovers explicit texts from another woman on her husband’s phone? When she is shocked by an explosion of anger that creates a bleeding heart or even a bruised body? When she walks in the room unexpectedly and finds her husband watching pornographic videos?
Each of these scenarios can have quite a range of involvement and intensity, and thus influence how a wife should respond. Yet in the face of marital sin, the following Biblical guidelines can be given to a wife.
Pray for wisdom, grace, and strength. You do not have any of these resources naturally. They are especially needed when awful events like these strike your marriage. Additionally, a wrong response by a wife can exacerbate a situation and make it even more volatile. Your flesh will want to lash out with anger or vindictiveness. Yet responding sinfully will not solve your husband’s sin problem. You need Christ’s wisdom and strength at this moment perhaps more than ever. Ask him to give you what you do not possess. Pray for the Spirit’s help at this time of need (Luke 11:13).
Measure offenses by God’s standards. In the “lawless grace” gospel so often presented in our modern age, many believers have heard “Judge not, that you be not judged” from Matthew 7:1 out of context so often that they believe it is unchristian to point out another’s wrongdoing. In addition, many wives have been told that submission means they must never question their husband’s judgment. After all, godly wives are told to win their husbands “without a word” according to 1 Peter 3:1. So they suffer alone in silence. Simply stated, the idea that a Christian wife must tolerate gross conduct by her husband without speaking a word is absurd and a twisting of Scripture. Not hounding and nagging an unbelieving husband with the gospel is one thing; being told to be quiet in the name of Christ while a husband pounds her is quite another.
If you are a hurting wife, look at your husband’s sin and measure it biblically. When hurt, it is so difficult to evaluate things properly but you must. You must first and foremost measure yourself by the standard you hold him up against as Matthew 7 goes on to teach. If he is yelling angry words at you or flirting with a co-worker, but you are doing the same, then you should first repent of your own transgressions.
If you do have the log out of your own eye, then measure carefully his culpability and his actions’ severity. Were those cell phone texts responded to or were they the unwanted advances of an adulterous woman that he rebuffed but was afraid to show you? Did he yell in a moment of frustration caused by a difficult work situation or is he threatening regularly to harm you? Are the requests for sex reasonable though perhaps more frequent than you wish or – and this can and has happened – have you been forcibly raped by your own husband? Wives can overreact in jealousy to small offenses just as they can respond too passively when a husband is abusing them. Neither is a godly response. Measure carefully what is taking place.
Confront your sinning husband privately and gently as soon as possible. If your husband is indeed sinning against you, you should before, during, or after if necessary ask him to stop. For instance, if he asks you to view pornography with him, you should lovingly and firmly refuse, calling him to repent of this wrong. If during sexual relations he begins to ask or push you to do things that violate your conscience or Scripture, such as sodomy, you should plead with him to cease and even withdraw if he will not listen if possible to do so. If he has angrily yelled at you because you will not cooperate in these sins, when things have calmed down you should quietly explain to him the wrongness of his action, call him to repent and seek forgiveness, and perhaps ask him to seek the counsel of others.
For in Christian marriage, before you two were husband and wife you were first brother and sister in the Lord. Thus, the Christian wife, being the one person who knows best of all her husband, has a first-line responsibility to help her husband see his sin. Yes, of course, she is not to be the proverbial dripping roof on a rainy day, daily trying to nag and argue righteousness into her husband. But she is to be her husband’s counselor, for “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (Prov. 19:14). My wife, who is my covenant companion and best friend, is both submitted in love to me and speaks more corrective words into my soul than anyone else. Your sinning husband may not accept your correction, but it is a lie and corruption of Christian teaching that would tell you that you are not to offer it when he is in danger of God’s judgment for violating his law.
Grant forgiveness willingly and often. If your husband genuinely repents, in Christ you should grant forgiveness. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:12-13). If you see your husband seeking to change, encourage him and pray for him. However, as the next guideline suggests, if the sins are especially heinous and your husband seems increasingly hardened, you will need the help of others. But through it all, you should work at forgiving him from the heart even though you may not get to a point of true reconciliation if your husband refuses to change.
When abusive or immoral behaviors persist, involve one or two that can truly help. Often a suffering wife will tell others about the problems, but it is done to gossip and elicit sympathy rather than to seek help. I’ve even seen some women form what amounts to “Husbands Anonymous” clubs, where they gather to tell all the shortcomings and even awful sins of their husbands but do little beyond that to bring healing to their relationships.
Rather, in wisdom you should go to those in the church you know you can trust to help you take the next steps (Matt. 18:16). As a pastor, I have had women come and, in their suffering and shame, explain to me what their husband was doing. I always told them I would need to take two steps. First, I would want them to name another woman that we could involve so that she would have the proper emotional support and empathy, and would guide her if needed toward a mature woman in the congregation. Second, unless it was a dangerous situation (see below), I would tell her that together we would contact her husband as soon as possible. I wanted him to know I knew and that I wanted to hear his side of the story in order to build some trust and hope of reconciliation if possible.
If in imminent danger, you should flee. Years ago, a woman with a black eye told me that her husband who gave it to her had said he was sorry and asked me if she should go back. I warned her that, given that he refused to receive counsel, come to church, or hear the gospel with her, to return would likely result in similar treatment. She did not listen, and returned to him only to show up a few weeks later with the other eye blackened.
Once a man begins to threaten or strike a woman, he rarely stops unless drastic means are taken. Thus, she should flee the situation. And, yes, I believe if a man “only” threatens with words to hurt or kill a woman she should leave until she is reassured of her safety. A husband’s main duty is to protect his family. If he is threatening those he’s pledged to guard, we should take him at his word, for out of the mouth comes what is in the heart (see Matt. 15:18-19).
However, getting away is often more difficult than it sounds. Where do you go? How long do you stay? What about the children? Do you let your husband know where you are? I recall counseling a wife over the phone whose home had become a prison, as she was trying to escape a husband who was abusing her and terrorizing her and the children. We had to walk through a fairly detailed plan that involved a support network of friends and a shelter so that she could be encouraged to flee this awful situation. Those counseling an abused wife should put a plan in place. If physical abuse has occurred, the civil authorities should be involved in this plan as reporting it is required by law.
In questions of divorce, you should seek the involvement of the elders of the church. For Christians, divorce is not just a matter for lawyers and civil courts. If a woman believes her situation warrants a divorce, she should seek the counsel of the elders of her church for guidance regarding it. If her husband is a member of the church and her concerns are legitimate, the elders should also bring ecclesiastical discipline to bear.
I wish I could assure hurting wives that the elders always have their best interests as heart and do what is right. However, as Rebecca’s article reminded us and the Westminster Confession of Faith plainly states, the courts of the church “may err; and many have erred” (WCF 31.4). Elders can render bad judgments on familial issues and turn the victim into the culprit. Wives and those helping them should be sure to seek further recourse if they feel the church also has wronged them. Though painful, they can appeal to the higher courts of the church or ask for broader help from other godly men who might advocate for them.
For this returns us to the first principle. We must pray, remembering the truth, “The righteous cry, and the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles” (Ps. 34:17).