It almost goes without saying that the Christian tradition has upheld the role of families as the most important unit in society. Christians have long recognised that marriage is a gift from God.
The creation story (Genesis 1-3) makes it clear that men and women were created to be partners in their role of caring for creation. Adam and Eve are “one flesh” (2:23); together they share God's image: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (1:27). The creation story ends with the familiar institution of marriage: “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (2:24).
The unity of man and woman in marriage is seen as central to God's plan for creation, and when violence or even divorce threaten this unity it is an affront to God.
Much later, the prophet Malachi re-expresses these ideas very powerfully in a passage which is often partly quoted:
Another thing you do: You flood the LORD's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, "Why?" It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
15 Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.
16 "I hate divorce,"
says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering
himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the
So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.
Here Malachi draws a connection between unanswered prayer and breaking of faith in marriage. The Lord describes two things he hates: divorce and a man who covers himself in violence.
A breakdown in the covenant between man and wife brings about an equal breakdown in the covenant between people and God.
Jesus, as we know, performed his first miracle at a wedding (John 2) and quoted the creation story to uphold the value of marriage and to refute those who were in favour of easy divorce.
It is clear from the gospels that Jesus taught that love was to be the defining attitude in relationships of christians.
When asked to define the most important of the Torah commandments, Jesus replied like this:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
29"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
Jesus even commanded that his followers should love their enemies (Matthew 5:44). This command is not a requirement to remain in a dangerous domestic situation. It is clear in the context that Jesus is addressing an entirely different issue, namely that of dividing others into categories of “us” and “them” or “friend” and enemy”.
What then is meant by this love which should be shown to God, our neighbour and even our enemies? The apostle Paul described this love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Whilst this passage has often been used to encourage wives to stay with abusive husbands (“love always protects... always perseveres”), the real application of this passage should be in rebuking violent or intimidating partners. The fact is that anyone who is seeking, by physical violence or other means, to control a partner is showing the very opposite of love.
The kind of love which Jesus taught and exemplified, and which Paul described is the kind of love which seeks to build up, serve and even sacrifice oneself for another person.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the whole issue of marriage is the issue of “submission.” This idea comes from Ephesians 5:22-33 where Paul seems to be telling wives that they are the slaves of their husbands. This idea has been carried along by many evangelicals over the years, telling wives that they must obey their husbands in everything. Over recent years, as an accommodation to more democratic ways of thinking, their has been an Orwellian shift in which men and women are equal, but husbands are definitely more equal then their wives.
The Ephesians passage has been used by some church-going men to justify violence against their wives.
Again, this passage needs to be carefully read to understand what is being meant. In particular, no man should “read his wife's mail” and demand that she submit to him. We also need to read this text as an example of Paul's earlier command to “submit to one another out of reverence to Christ”. In other words, there is an unwritten assumption here that not only should wives submit to their husbands, husbands must likewise submit to their wives.
Paul enjoins women to “submit” to their husbands. The word “submit” in Greek means literally to stand under in order to lift up. In other words Paul is saying here that women must carry a stance in which they seek to build up their husbands, putting their own desires second.
Men are to love their wives in the same way Christ loves the church. We have already seen that the christian concept of love means to put the needs of another well ahead of one's own needs. Husbands, then are to submit to their wives, in exactly the same way that wives are to submit to their husbands.
But Paul goes further to tell husbands that the way Christ loved the church was “to give himself up for her.” Jesus died for the church, and husbands likewise are to give themselves up for their wives- this is a reminder that all followers of Jesus are to die to themselves.
Paul goes on to say that men are to “love their wives as their own bodies. After all no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it” (Eph. 5:29). In other words, to assault your wife, is a very dangerous form of self-mutilation.
Since the attitude of men to their wives has a sacramental nature (by which I mean that marriage is a reflection on the relationship between Christ and the church), violence or control in a marriage has not just physical or relational ramifications, but very profound spiritual dimensions also.
When seen in these terms, the very passage of scripture which seems to lend some semblance of support to marital abuse actually speak very loudly against it.