More than a few Christian wives endure years of terrible mistreatment at the hands of an abusive husband because they genuinely want to follow God’s calling to “submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:24). Many assume or have been taught to believe that submitting “in everything” includes submitting to abusive behavior.
It’s important to understand the setting in which Ephesians 5 calls for submission. Specifically, Paul urges wives to submit “as the church submits to Christ” (Ephesians 5:24). This qualification gives meaning to the kind of relationship and leadership that is in view. Just as Jesus expanded the definition of leadership to center around the heart of a servant (Luke 22:25-27), Paul actually spends most of this section emphasizing that husbands are to sacrificially look after their wives as Christ gave Himself for the church (Ephesians 5:23-33). Of course, no husband perfectly lives up to Christ’s example just as no wife perfectly submits to Christlike leadership, but the submission Paul speaks of in this passage presumes that a husband desires and strives to follow Christ’s example of loving, servant-heart leadership.
While Paul is clearly calling for women to submit to husbands who are committed to looking out for their well-being, we can safely say that Paul would not counsel a wife to submit to an abusive husband. A marriage that is marked by a pattern of abuse of power and control is altogether different from the kind of relationship and servant leadership Paul had in mind when he called wives to submit to their husbands.
Marital abuse is a harmful distortion of Christ’s leadership and a violation of the marital vows to “love, honor, and cherish” that calls for a radically different response than submission (See the ATQ article What Is a Godly Response to Domestic Abuse for an Abused Wife?). Perhaps that is one reason why, even in a time when women were not highly regarded, the book of Esther features Queen’s Vashti’s refusal to submit to her drunken husband’s command to parade around like a trophy in front of his intoxicated and lewd male guests (Esther 1:2-12).
To read more about physical and nonphysical abuse in marriage and some ways to deal with it in a biblical manner, please feel free to order our booklets When Violence Comes Home, When Words Hurt, and God’s Protection Of Women.