A friend wrote to me recently, asking why I haven’t written anything about wife abuse on Parchment & Pen. She urged me to do it because, according to her, complementarianism is rich soil in which to grow this kind of wickedness (she’s an egalitarian). Now, I could dispute the merits of that viewpoint, but I’ll pass. Instead, I want to take a pro-active position on what the Bible says about how a husband should treat his wife. I’ll talk about the do’s and don’t’s.
But to begin with, I should mention a curiosity in the history of English Bibles. In 1537, John Rogers published, under the pen name, Thomas Matthew, the Matthew’s Bible. He essentially combined the Old Testament of Miles Coverdale with the New Testament of William Tyndale. Besides blatant plagiarism, Rogers also added about 2000 notes to his Bible, many of which were controversial. Far and away, the most controversial note was found at 1 Peter 3.7: “If [the wife] be not obedient and healpfull unto [her husband, he should] endeavoureth to beate the feare of God into her…”! This Bible soon earned the moniker, “The Wife-Beater’s Bible.” I suppose a silver lining in this story is that the fact that this label was so quickly given to the Matthew’s Bible shows us that our ancestors also thought that this little comment was inappropriate. Thank God that note didn’t make it into the King James Bible!
Now if someone could read 1 Peter 3.7 five hundred years ago to mean that he had the right and the obligation to beat his wife if she disobeyed, then certainly some corrective instruction needs to be given.
The first thing to note is that 1 Peter 3.7 ruins the flow of the argument. Beginning in 2.13, Peter had been discussing the person who functioned in the subordinate role in relation to a non-Christian superior. He speaks about obedience to the government—both the king and those he commissions, submission (of slaves) to one’s master, and submission of wives to their husbands. In each instance, non-Christian superiors are in view. But then, at the end of the discourse, Peter turns to Christian husbands. Why does he do this? He didn’t address Christian governors or Christian slave-owners. Why now address Christian husbands? There were Christian slave-owners and even some in government. Why not address them?
As I said, addressing the husbands ruins the argument flow. The reason that Peter does this, it seems, is because Christian husbands especially were not grasping what it meant to be a Christian husband. They needed his advice more than others in superior roles. So he wrecked the literary flow to address a serious problem in the church.
And what does Peter tell them? To beat them into submission? NO!! He says that husbands must treat their wives with profound consideration, with the recognition that in God’s eyes both were equal recipients of his grace. I take it that this means that husbands will be held accountable before God for how they have treated their wives in this life. Matthew’s Bible is as far from the mark of the meaning of this text as anything could be.
OK, some specifics. What does it look like for a complementarian husband to treat his wife properly? (I’m speaking of complementarian husbands here because I don’t want to get into debates over whether egalitarianism or complementarianism is biblical. For sake of argument, let’s just assume that complementarianism is biblical. The reason that this should not be hard to do is that, as my egalitarian friend said, complementarianism is a breeding ground for wife abuse. So, if that’s so, no complementarian husband can look at this blog post and say, ‘Well, he’s an egalitarian, so I don’t need to listen to him.’ Fair enough? Good. Let’s go.)
- It does NOT mean that he EVER has the right to physically hurt her in any way. Anyone who reads 1 Peter 3.7 that way has got serious issues and needs to get counseling. And my advice to wives who are caught in a marriage like that is this: RUN! Get out before it gets worse. The first time your husband strikes you, take the kids and leave. I’m not saying get a divorce. That may be necessary. But I am saying show some self-dignity. If your husband won’t treat you with the respect you deserve, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t! And the longer you wait, the harder it will get.
- It does NOT mean that he has the right to bully his wife, verbally abuse her, bark orders at her like he’s Archie Bunker, belittle her, or treat her with any less respect than he would his most-respected friend. Husbands, your wife is not your doormat. She is not your slave. She is not there to serve your every whim. She is there to partner with you in the gospel so that the sum of the two of you working together is greater than what either of you could do apart. Peter gives a profound warning in this verse: Husbands who treat their wives right will not have their prayers hindered. In other words, if you mistreat your wives, you have no guarantee that God will answer your prayers. Husbands, if you’re having a multitude of difficulties in life—difficulties at work, difficulties with your children, difficulties with your relationships, difficulties with finances, difficulties with health, difficulties with sexual temptation (the list is endless)—maybe you should look at how you are treating your wife. Maybe God’s not answering your prayers because you’re not honoring her.
- It does NOT mean that he has the right to ask his wife to do anything that is illegal or immoral. And when husbands do this under the guise that their wives have to obey them, the wives need to stand up against such nonsense and challenge their husbands to be more godly. Wives, a complementarian viewpoint on the role of husbands and wives does NOT mean that you should obey your husband when he asks you to do anything illegal or immoral.
- It DOES mean that you are to treat your wives with the same respect that you treat yourself—assuming you do treat yourself with respect.
- It DOES mean that you are to love your wife as Christ loved the church. How did he do it? With self-sacrifice, with placing her needs above your own, with gently guiding her and your family in the ways of peace and righteousness.
- It DOES mean that before your children you two present a united front. The worst kind of parenting is that which the children can easily manipulate by pitting parent against parent. These little monsters are smart; you have to be smarter! Husbands, support your wife’s call in front of the children. NEVER contradict her when she lays down the law for the kids. You do that and you’ve just robbed your wife of any respect and honor that she could have before the kids. This goes for the wife, too. My wife and I have four boys. And they would always try to appeal to one parent after the other one already said no. They’d get smart and wait for a few hours, then spring the request on the second parent (usually me) who did not know that they already got turned down by the first parent (usually Pati). But we got smart too: We asked if they already talked to the other parent. Of course, we didn’t just take their word for it. (Children are totally depraved sinners, too.) We’d call the other parent. And never ever did the second parent say yes when the first one said no. I can’t stress how vital this is. You cross that line and you’ve just damaged the authority that your spouse MUST have with the kids.
- It DOES mean that you trust your wife. Read Proverbs 31 sometime (soon!), and see if your wife is living up to her potential. Ask her what she wants to get out of life. Ask her if she feels unfulfilled. Ask her if she feels threatened by you, or if she is scared by you. Ask her if she feels that you love her, if she feels that you put her needs before your own. Ask her if she thinks you’re a good husband and, if not, what you can do about it. I’m serious. But if you ask her, do NOT then turn the tables and tell her what you think of her as a wife. And don’t use her honesty with you as a weapon against her. If you’re really a complementarian husband, then you should also believe that men are designed to be initiators and wives are designed to be responders. (Not in everything and not in every way, my egalitarian friends; please, let this one go! See caution below.) If you’ve got a list of complaints about your wife, then guess what? You can do something about it by being a better husband, by taking the initiative to truly love your wife. You may be surprised by what you discover.
I’ve only touched the surface of some issues. I haven’t touched on alcohol (but here’s an obvious tip: If drinking tends to make you violent, abstain. Period.) I haven’t touched on pornography or unfaithfulness or a host of other issues. There are many reasons why husbands beat their wives. All of them are bad reasons, wrong reasons, utterly sinful reasons.
OK, enough for now. I’m interested to see where this dialog will go. But please don’t make it your own soapbox on why this view or that view is right. A couple of blog posts ago, that happened and now we’ve got a runaway blog on our hands. 150 comments and still counting! Let’s deal with what constitutes wife abuse and what does not, what a good marriage looks like and what it does not look like. If you get too far off course, either Michael or I will comment. This is too important an issue to get sidetracked.