Does the Bible specifically address domestic violence?
If the number of sermons or Bible studies you have heard directly discussing this reality were an indicator, what would it suggest about your church’s biblical engagement with this issue?
A recent Life Way survey revealed that 42% of Protestant pastors rarely or never address domestic and/or sexual violence in their sermons. However, one in every three women will experience physical violence from an intimate partner in her lifetime thus raising the question: why have nearly 50% of these pastors rarely or never addressed a critical issue faced by 33% of all women?
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) defines domestic violence as:
The willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior perpetrated by an intimate partner against another.
The NCADV notes:
- On average, nearly 20 people per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States
- More than 10 million women and men experience domestic violence each year
- 1 in 7 women will experience stalking victimization during their lifetime
- On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide
- Intimate partner violence is most common among women between the ages of 18-24
- 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner
- At least 21% of all victims of intimate partner violence lose their jobs due to reasons stemming from the abuse
- The cost of domestic violence exceeds $8.3 billion per year.
In recent weeks national news has focused on the reality of domestic violence due to the wide circulation of a specific incident caught on an elevator video between an NFL player and his girlfriend.
According to a recent and related Associated Press article, a number of women used the hashtags WhyIStayed and WhyILeft to “share their own stories reflecting the sometimes difficult choice of whether or not to leave an abusive partner.” One woman was Beverly Gooden who tweeted on September 8, “I stayed because my pastor told me God hates divorce. It didn’t cross my mind that God might hate abuse, too.”
Does God hate abuse as well?
By the standard of church awareness, teaching and response to the reality of domestic violence one might be tempted to answer in the negative.
Illustrative of the experience of far too many women in the church, one British website notes:
Quite often, if we as victims approach and confide in an elder, priest, or member of our Church, hoping for some support and encouragement, we can leave feeling even more guilty and trapped than we did formerly. We may be told that the abuse is due to our own lack of submissiveness, or our own sinfulness, that we would not suffer if our faith was greater, or that we will be rewarded in the next life for the suffering we experience in this one (!?!). I have heard of women who have been told earnestly by their vicar that it would be better for them to die at the hands of their abusive husband than to seek a separation and protection for their children! … The question, however, for every Christian person should not be what does our Church say about our situation, but what does the LORD say to us in the Bible?
Malachi 2:13-16 addresses the reality of domestic violence:
13 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 LORD Almighty.
So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith. (NIV 1984)
Despite the fact these husbands were weeping and wailing before the Lord and offering sacrifices to him, they were rejected. Why? According to verse 16, the Lord hates divorce and the Lord hates a man who covers himself with violence towards his spouse. Though there is some debate about how to best translate verse 16, the NIV text indicates that when it comes to discussing familial health, churches ought to address intimate violence in a substantive way.
According to Scriptures, a person engaging in verbal, sexual or physical violence against an intimate partner or family members is committing sin.
The Malachi passage is far from alone. Other passages implicitly addressing this reality:
Genesis 1-2 articulates marriage as a helping relationship forged in the unity and equality of one flesh
Psalm 11:5 notes that the Lord “hates with a passion” those “who love violence”
Isaiah 59 does not mention specific sins but clearly condemns in verse 2 those whose “hands are stained with blood” and “fingers with guilt,” and again in verse 6 that those who commit “acts of violence” with their hands are doing “evil deeds”
Matthew 18:1-10 describes children as those highly regarded in the kingdom of God and therefore to be welcomed, honored and protected
1 Corinthians 13 offers a portrait of love that is patient and kind and free of intimidation, abuse or violence
Ephesians 5:21 discusses mutual submission
Ephesians 5:25-33 calls upon husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church: sacrificially unto death
Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 emphasize that fathers should not provoke their children
Domestic violence is sin. When a person engages in verbal, sexual or domestic violence he or she has broken faith with his or her husband or wife. Domestic violence is far too often a dirty secret happening behind closed doors and weekly filling church pews in suffering silence. We have a responsibility to name this sin and to be grieved over its prevalence in the world.
If are to be God’s people then we must publicly teach that domestic violence is sin, acknowledge our complicit silence in this area, provide safe havens for those seeking freedom, regularly pray for those trapped in abusive situations, and model healthy and life-affirming relationships.