In my last post, I tried to give us a little perspective regarding Bruce Ware's recent comments that men sometimes respond to women who challenge their authority by becoming abusive. I hesitated to write such a post for fear that some might charge me with encouraging or otherwise enabling abuse, but I hoped to offer some balance to the discussion. I have to say that most of the comments on that post, including those which took issue with it, were charitable and civil. I sincerely appreciate that.
In this post, I'd like to talk a little more about the issue of abuse to consider what we can and cannot legitimately say about it. I hope that by doing so, I can help both sides to better understand each other.
Let's start with what we agree on.
First, both complementarians and egalitarians would agree that physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse are always sinful and never deserved. I don't care how difficult, obnoxious, hateful, and downright evil someone is, no Christian should resort to beating or berating such a person. I can find nothing in the Bible which prescribes that we give someone a good beating or tongue-lashing. (Okay, there are those proverbs about rods for the backs of fools, but we're not told to wield those rods ourselves.)
Consequently, no abusive husband can justify his violence by pointing to his wife's obstinacy. Whatever her sins may be, if he resorts to abuse in any form, he is sinning and will be answerable to God for such sin.
As I wrote yesterday, abusive men do not merely abuse when they feel challenged. Very often, they abuse even when their wives are walking on eggshells trying not to cross them. An abusive husband may abuse merely to remind his wife that he is in charge, or because he is irritated that she submits to him out of fear rather than out of love (how's that for irony?), or simply because he feels he has no control over other areas of his life. The terrifying reality of abuse is that the abused has absolutely no control. Even perfect compliance is no guarantee that the abuse will stop.
We must therefore work hard to make it clear to battered women that they must get out! Not only is it necessary for their own safety, it is actually the loving thing to do. It is the only way their husbands will have any hope of being made to see their own sin. Accepting abuse does nothing but reinforce it, and taking a beating is not the same thing as Biblical submission.
Now, having said all that, I think we need to be careful not to go to the other extreme and pretend that abusive men abuse in some kind of vacuum. An abusive man certainly does not need to be provoked in order to resort to abuse. But can he be? Is it never the case that he resorts to abuse in response to some sinful action on the part of his wife?
Please understand me, I have already said that no act, no matter how sinful or ugly, justifies an abusive response. Nevertheless, abuse is sometimes a response to sin on the part of the abused. It is an illegitimate and damnable response, and it is never just a response, but there is a sense in which we can legitimately speak of it as being a response.
It is foolish to pretend otherwise, and I think it's here that egalitarians sometimes do battered women a disservice. One of the reasons battered women stay in abusive relationships as long as they do is that they frequently blame themselves for provoking their husbands. They know when they have been selfish, or manipulative, or spiteful, or obstinate; and in their guilt over their part in the conflict they excuse their husbands' abusiveness! Such women do not need to be told that they have "done nothing wrong." Frankly, they're not likely to believe it. Rather, they need to be told that no matter what they've done wrong, it does not excuse their husbands' abusiveness.
As I see it, complementarians like Ware need to go the extra mile to make sure they don't give the impression that abuse is always a response to some prior sin on the part of the woman. Conversely, egalitarians need to stop implying that abuse is never a response to some prior sin on the part of the woman. The reality is that as sinful men and women, we are all prone to wound without provocation, to respond in sinful ways when provoked, and to lash out whenever we feel out of control. Such a vicious cycle of sin begetting more sin can only be broken by the power of the Spirit and the "more excellent way" of Christ-like love.