Bad theology hurts women. Sometimes it even kills them.
In his book Ten Lies the Church Tells Women, Lee Grady tells the story of a woman called Doris who suffered through an abusive marriage. Doris’s husband, the head deacon at their church, would sometimes come home from work in a rage and physically assault his wife.
For a long time, Doris said nothing. But after the violence began to escalate, she turned to their pastor for help.
“He’s your husband,” said the pastor. “You can’t leave him. He has authority over you. You must be making him angry.”
Doris meekly returned home believing that she was somehow responsible for the abuse she was suffering. Nothing changed. Her husband continued to beat her, and eventually, he killed her.
Doris’s story is hardly unique. I have had female readers tell me similar stories. “My husband was abusive, but my church said I had to forgive him and stay with him.” And I’ve had male readers say similar things as well, but not as many.
Grady reports that in the United States, religious homes are ranked second highest in incidents of domestic abuse. Only the homes of alcoholics are worse.
Why do so many religious men abuse their wives? It might have something to do with this verse:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. (Eph. 5:22)
This scripture is part of a two-punch combination that misguided men have inflicted upon women. Apparently, Ephesians 5 says wives must submit to abusive husbands, while Matthew 5 says they can never walk away.
Of course, these scriptures say no such thing. But read them through a patriarchal lens and you’ll think they do.
“Let women be subject to their husbands as to a lord.” That’s how Thomas Aquinas read Ephesians 5. Aquinas said the relationship between a husband and a wife is “like that of a master to his servant.”
Although the husband is not really a lord, his wife submits to him as though he were.
Many Church Fathers and theologians taught that wives are meant to serve their husbands. Augustine said, “It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in that the lesser serves the greater.”
The first duty of a wife, said the Puritan John Dod (1549–1645), is to fear her husband. Her second duty, “is constant obedience and subjection… she must resolve to obey him in all things.”
Although the trend these days is towards equality in marriage, much of the Christian world remains committed to traditional roles of hierarchy. And this is understandable, because Paul told wives to submit to their husbands. It’s right there in black and white.
For some, this is the most dangerous word in the Bible. It’s medieval. It opens the door to all kinds of abuse. Surely no other word has been the cause of as much physical and psychological damage.
But is it possible that submit does not mean what we think it means?
Could it be that this word, like the words repent, confess, obedience, and love, has been so mangled by manmade tradition that it no longer bears any resemblance to its original meaning?
Submission, as modeled by Jesus and described by Paul, stems from love, not power. Submission is not forced on us from above; it is something we offer to another. It’s choosing to surrender because we want to, not because we have to.
We yield to the other because we love and respect them. Indeed, submission is the essence of love. It is saying, “Because I love you, I choose to put you first.”
The apostle we read at weddings
This weekend, at weddings all over the world, thousands of people will hear the following words from the Apostle Paul: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not self-seeking” (1 Cor. 13:4–5).
On the subject of love, there was no greater authority. Paul understood that true love does not seek its own, but is other-focused. Love says, “How can I put the needs of the one I love ahead of my own needs? How can I put the other one first?”
The choice to freely give yourself to another human being—a husband, a wife, a child, a friend—for no other reason than you love them, is a tremendous risk. In fact, it is probably the greatest risk you can take. But when you have someone you truly love, you’ll happily take the risk because you love them.
And if they happen to love you back—well, there’s no greater thrill in the world.
“Sounds great, Paul, but what if the husband is abusive?” For answers to tough questions like this and practical tips for a heavenly marriage, check out Dr. Paul Ellis’s new book, The Silent Queen: Why the Church Needs Women to Find their Voice. Available now.