What does the Bible say about domestic violence?
While men are also victims of domestic violence (see statistics here), I want to look primarily at the circumstances of women as victims of domestic violence, since this is far more common and also (as I will detail below) this is what the Bible warns of most clearly.
First, the Bible unequivocally condemns physical, emotional, or spiritual abuse.
This is demonstrated by what the Bible forbids, like fathers being overbearing (Eph 6:4) or husbands being cruel (Col 3:19), or its general condemnation of “abuse” and “brutality” (2 Tim 3:2-3), violence (Ps 11:5), and “fits of anger” (Gal 5:20). It is also demonstrated by what it commands, like husbands’ Christ-like love for their wife (Eph 5:24-33), and the fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22).
Second, the Bible understands women to be particularly vulnerable to domestic violence.
1 Peter warns husbands:
“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered,” 1 Pet 3:7.
Showing honor to your wife as a “weaker vessel” means that women are not men; they are (usually) physically more vulnerable than men are–smaller in stature, less muscle mass, etc. It refers to physical–not moral, spiritual, or mental–weakness. One commentator writes of the cultural milieux Peter was writing in:
“It normally was quite easy for a husband to abuse his wife physically or sexually, or, because of his social power, including the power to divorce, intimidate her emotionally. All of this Peter rules out: especially because of her vulnerability he is to be sure to honor her in word and deed; rather than exploiting his power or denying that he has it, he lends it to her.” – Peter Davids, NICNT: 1 Peter.
For further evidence of women being particularly vulnerable see Paul’s asymmetrical command for husbands to not be harsh to their wives (Col 3:19), and Paul’s warning of violent men taking advantage of women in 2 Tim 3:1-8.
Third, the Bible places severe consequences on those who abuse their power and authority.
Because a husband has authority over his wife (Eph 5:22-23; Col 3:18; 1 Pet 3:1-6) and usually also has greater physical strength than her, when he uses that authority and strength to abuse, intimidate, or belittle his wife it is especially heinous. While the Bible teaches us that all sin earns condemnation under the Law (James 2:10), it also teaches us that not all sins will be judged equally (John 19:11). Further, the Biblical pattern seems to indicate that those who have positions of authority, such as teachers, who proceed to use that authority wrongly will be judged more strictly (James 3:1; cf. Matt 11:21-24; Luke 12:47). This seems to indicate that the abuse of God-given authority is especially heinous and wicked, especially when it is used to perform violence against the vulnerable.
Fourth, because God defends the most vulnerable, Christians should likewise work to defend the most vulnerable.
The repeated examples of God’s heart for the widow, the fatherless, the poor, and the sojourner is not some arbitrary decision God has made for who to care for. God “stands up” for the most vulnerable groups of people in a society because they are most likely to suffer the worst of injustice (Ps 10:17-18). Therefore, Christians should mirror God’s heart, practicing “true religion” by also caring for the most vulnerable, which today includes victims of domestic violence (Prov 31:8-9; Isa 1:17; James 1:27).
Fifth, domestic violence is a satanic inversion of God’s design for marriage.
Husbands are called to follow Jesus’ model of love, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” Eph 5:24. Husbands are called to die to themselves for the good of their wives; domestic violence is the flip opposite of that: the wife dying for the sinful desires of the husband. In that section, Paul explains that husbands should love their wives like their own bodies, and goes so far to say: “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it,” Eph 5:29, so husbands should nourish and cherish their wives like their own bodies. A husband abusing his wife is the exact contradiction of this verse–it is a husband destroying the one-flesh union.
“Therefore the man who does not love his wife,” John Calvin comments, “is a monster.”
Sixth, persistent violence constitutes permissible grounds for seeking a divorce.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul explains that a wife should not divorce her husband, and a husband should not divorce his wife–if they do, they must remain single (1 Cor 7:10-11). He then explains a situation of marriage between a believer and unbeliever, and notes that if the unbelieving spouse “consent to live with” the believing spouse, they should remain married (1 Cor 7:13). Obviously, Paul wants marriages to stay together and opposes divorce.
However, he then imagines a third scenario: what happens if the unbelieving spouse abandons the other? What if he or she does not “consent to live with” the other spouse? Paul explains, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace,” (1 Cor 7:15). There are a number of different approaches as to what Paul means by not being “enslaved”: (1) is he referring to the fact that he or she is not “bound” to the marriage and can permit the divorce to carry through, as the “let it be so” comment seems to indicate, or (2) is he also referring to the fact that he or she is not bound to now remain single for the rest of their life as he just explained would normally happen in cases of illegitimate divorce back in verses 10-11? (Obviously point number two entails point number one.) I am inclined to agree with the second interpretation (see similarities with Romans 7:1-3 and being “bound”).
But regardless, I (and other commentators and ethicists today) would understand domestic violence to fall under the category of abandonment/desertion and provide permissible grounds for a divorce. Unrepentant violence from one spouse to another may reveal a heart that is likely not regenerate, “By their fruit you shall know them,” (Matt 7:20). The elders of a church should get involved and carry out the process of church discipline, and if the offender persists in their sin and refuses to repent, the offender should be removed from the membership roles and treated as an unbeliever (1 Cor 5:5; Matt 18:17).
Further, their violence in the home is constituting a reverse-form of desertion and abandonment, making the home an unsafe place for you (and your children) to be and thus forcing you to flee. An unbelieving spouse can abandon their spouse by either deserting the home or saying to their spouse: If you come into this home your life will be put in jeopardy. Of course, divorce is never commanded and may not be necessary–each situation is different, but in all cases of abuse the abused spouse (and children) should get out of the house and pursue separation (either informally or legally). But if, after time, the guilty spouse does not demonstrate repentance and continues to present a danger to the spouse, divorce could be a viable option. These decisions, of course, should never be made hastily and should be made in conjunction with wise counsel from your church’s elders and other members.
Seventh, while those who have exhibited a pattern of domestic violence rarely change, repentance is possible.
Change for repeated offenders of domestic violence is unfortunately rare, but it is possible. God’s arm is not too short to save and He can redeem any situation and any person. But that kind of change is not something that happens overnight. Often abusers have deeply ingrained habits of manipulation, narcissism, and emotional immaturity. Thus, the window for change and the necessary fruits of repentance do not appear overnight, but will likely take considerable time. Lundy Bancroft, an author who specializes in domestic violence, lists these characteristics as being indicative of real change:
- Admitting fully to what they have done
- Stopping excuses and blaming
- Making amends
- Accepting responsibility and recognizing that abuse is a choice
- Identifying patterns of controlling behavior they use
- Identifying the attitudes that drive their abuse
- Accepting that overcoming abusiveness is a decades-long process — not declaring themselves “cured”
- Not demanding credit for improvements they’ve made
- Not treating improvements as vouchers to be spent on occasional acts of abuse (ex. “I haven’t done anything like this in a long time, so it’s not a big deal)
- Developing respectful, kind, supportive behaviors
- Carrying their weight and sharing power
- Changing how they respond to their partner’s (or former partner’s) anger and grievances
- Changing how they act in heated conflicts
- Accepting the consequences of their actions (including not feeling sorry for themselves about the consequences, and not blaming their partner or children for them)
Eighth, it is wise to involve local authorities
God has given the sword to the state to punish those who do wrong, “For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer,” (Rom 13:3-4; cf. 1 Pet 2:14). While each situation is different, it is wise to involve the necessary authorities to both provide the just consequences for these kinds of actions and to provide legal protections and assistance for the victim in the case. While repentance is always possible and we should always desire for the abuser to be restored and experience God’s forgiveness, that does not exclude experiencing the necessary consequences of his actions, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life,” Gal 6:7-8. Love does not exclude justice. Sometimes, a full heap of the consequences of his actions may be just the thing the abuser needs to break his pride and humble him before God.