Domestic Violence and Spiritual Abuse: Part 3

Propagation of Male Entitlement, Male Privilege and Female Subjugation

There were a dozen ordained male Christian clergy in the room at the start of a two-day domestic violence awareness conference I’d been asked to facilitate a few years ago. When introductions were made, each spiritual leader spoke enthusiastically about the knowledge he would gain from the session. Ten additional individuals from various other professions were also in attendance.

The afternoon of day one, I presented a more equalitarian view of marriage from the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 21-33 than the one many Christians have historically been taught:

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[a] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[b] 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Instead of viewing the text as espousing male headship and female subjugation, I suggested we consider Christian wives and Christian husbands as having God-granted mutual power, mutual respect, mutual value and mutual responsibility.

During the afternoon break, six of the clergy walked out. No explanation was given. The next morning only two spiritual leaders showed up. (It must be noted that all the other professionals stayed the entire conference.)

One of the two remaining clergy arrived on the second day with a look of pain on his face. He lay in a fetal position outside of the circle the other participants had formed—as though his appendix had just burst or he’d been punched in the abdomen. 

“My colleagues left the conference because you’re trying to change God’s natural order,” the pastor protested. “God instructs man to lead and woman to follow.”

The assessment about my intentions was not far off. I was—and am—in fact seeking to change the ways in which many male Christian pastors and laity interpret and utilize Ephesians 5: 21-33. However, it’s not God’s natural order I’m attempting to change; because, in and outside of marriage, I believe God views females and males as equals. 

The “natural order” I desire to deconstruct is the one promoting an andro-centric pyramid that places males in authority over females.

The Story of Wanda and Peter

I’d known Wanda1 for several years by the time she paid an unscheduled visit to my office early one morning. Outdoors it was pitched black and 75 degrees; nevertheless she arrived in dark shades, a thick turtle-neck sweater and jeans.

As Wanda moved toward a nearby chair, she made a loud grimacing sound. This compelled me to look down. She had on rubber sandals and her feet looked grotesque: battered, bruised and bloody. 

“Chaplain Miles,” Wanda cried out, “please pray that I’ll become a more dutiful and obedient Christian wife.”

Moments later Wanda disclosed her “sin” and the punishment doled out by her husband.

“Last night I had supper with my two sisters and our mother,” she explained. “Peter told me I needed to be home by 9:30 P.M. But, we were having such a wonderful time that I didn’t get back until 9:45. So, my husband said he had to ‘discipline’ me.”

Using his fist, Peter punched Wanda about the face and torso. He then brought out his baseball bat and used it to pound her legs and feet.

“My husband is a wonderful Christian man and church leader,” insisted Wanda. “But, since I was disobedient to his God-given authority, he said he had to ‘correct’ me.”

Peter cited Ephesians 5:21-33 as justification for the criminal and blasphemous acts he perpetrated against Wanda.

What Ephesians 5:21-33 Does and Does Not Instruct

Arguably the most frequently quoted verses in the entire Christian Scripture to support male dominance and encourage female subservience, Ephesians 5:21-33 has been misused for centuries. While this practice in and of itself may not cause domestic violence, it offers men a pathway to commit horrific acts against women (and children) without fear of accountability.

Ephesians 5:21-33

  • Does Not: Give husbands the right to beat, curse, rape, strangle or in any other way harm or “discipline” their wives
  • Does Not: Afford husbands permission to dictate to their wives how they should dress; the length and color of their hair; what they can eat and drink, or the amount of weight they should gain or lose; when they can sleep, study, work or attend worship; and with whom they can relate 
  • Does Not: Encourage male headship and female subjugation
  • Does: Instruct husbands and wives to align, love, respect and be responsible to each other
  • Does: Tell husbands to love their wives as they love their own bodies and in the same manner that Christ loves the church
  • Does: Promote equal value, equal worth and equal responsibilities for husbands and wives

A Closer Look at the Text

Outlining the so-called “Household Codes” for married couples in ancient Christendom, Ephesians 5:21-33 primarily addresses the responsibilities and roles of Christian husbands. The author of this epistle, which many scholars now believe is someone other than the apostle Paul, reserves nine out of the 12 verses for them. In that era, men were granted all the power in and outside of the home. They were also tasked with ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the entire household, which often included an obligation to provide clothing and nourishment. Husbands were to love their wives as they loved their own bodies. And, even more poignant, husbands were instructed to love their wives in the same sacrificial way that Christ loved the church.

Let us therefore be clear: in ancient and modern times, violence and all other abusive tactics cannot be part of a healthy, loving and respectful Christian marriage. 


I’d invite you to answer each of the following questions either with a yes or no. 

As a Christian Husband:

  1. Do you believe God, Jesus Christ and the Christian Scripture give you authority over your wife?
  2. Do you see yourself as head of your household?
  3. Do you think your wife needs to submit to you in all matters?
  4. Do you discipline—or have the right to discipline—your wife if she does something you deem as unacceptable?
  5. Do you think you can have sexual relations with your wife even if she says no?
  6. Do you see yourself as having the right to tell your wife whom she can and cannot relate to; when she can and cannot attend worship, sleep, study and work; how she can and cannot dress; and what she can and cannot eat and drink?
  7. Do you cite God, Jesus Christ, the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scripture, church doctrine and cultural and familial traditions to justify the ways in which you treat your wife?
  8. Do these questions cause you to feel ill-at-ease?

As a Christian Wife:

  1. Do you believe God, Jesus Christ and the Christian Scripture give your husband authority over you?
  2. Do you see your husband as the head of your household?
  3. Do you need to submit to your husband in all matters?
  4. Does your husband discipline you—or threaten to discipline you—if you do something he deems as unacceptable?
  5. Does your husband have sexual relations with you, even when you say no?
  6. Does your husband tell you with whom you can and cannot relate; when you can and cannot attend worship, sleep, study and work; how you can and cannot dress; and what you can and cannot eat and drink?
  7. Does your husband cite God, Jesus Christ, the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scripture, church doctrine and cultural and familial traditions to justify the ways in which he treats you?
  8. Do these questions cause you to feel ill-at-ease?

While my hope is for you to explore these questions in a meaningful way in your own life, for the sake of clarity, I’d offer, once again, my own thoughts on their answers. As I’ve discussed throughout today’s piece, the text of Ephesians 5:21-33 does not entitle, excuse or prescribe any of the above. It does not encourage male headship and female subjugation, nor does it condone violence of any kind, in any marital relationship. I pose these questions and encourage you to answer each one of them to truly explore how the misuse and misreading of this text may manifest—concretely—in your relationships, in everyday life.  

If these questions raise feelings or concerns for you and you would like to talk with someone about them or about your experience, there are a number of experts who have welcomed inquiries from our readers. You can reach out below:

  • Nancy Murphy, DMin, LMHC of the Northwest Family Life Learning and Counseling Center. Email here.
  • Dr. and Rev. Sharon Ellis Davis of the McCormick Theological Seminary. Email here.
  • And of course, myself. You may email me here.

In Part 4 of our series we’ll see how pressure from a Christian pastor and congregation kept one Christian victim-survivor trapped in an abusive marriage.

About the Author 

The Reverend Al Miles is a member of the Joyful Heart Foundation’s Board of Directors. Since 1993, he has served with Pacific Health Ministry as the coordinator of the Hospital Ministry department at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. A nationally recognized expert on how culture, faith, religion and spirituality intersect with domestic and sexual violence, especially when perpetrated against women and children, Miles speaks widely on these topics. He has authored four books and hundreds of articles on intimate partner violence. Rev. Miles is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains and has been an ordained minister in the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) since 1983. 

To view Part 1 in Rev. Miles's series, click here. Click here for Part 2.

1  An expansive version of this story was shared on Sunday, October 27, 2013 during Rev. Miles’s sermon on domestic violence awareness at the Riverside Church in New York City. To view the homily on YouTube, click here.

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