Prof. Brian Huizinga, professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant
Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Grandville PRC in Grandville,
Michigan

If we desire peace in the church, then we desire peace in our homes, for the church is made up of our homes. That is, the church is like a big square, made up of many smaller squares representing our homes. In some of those homes live single individuals, whether younger saints or older ones. In other of those homes live friends, roommates. However, in most of those homes live a man and his wife, and usually children as well. How can there be peace in the church—the big square, if there is war in our homes—the smaller squares? 

If peace in the church means that brethren dwell in blessed accord as they walk together in the Lord’s way of truth and holiness, then the husband and wife must also walk in that way in their marriage and home. One of the most disturbing attacks against the holiness and unity of the home today is what has come to be called “spousal abuse,” or “domestic abuse,” or even “inti- mate partner violence.” The reality of spousal abuse is no new thing, but an old evil of unholy war in the home. Spousal abuse seems to be more prevalent today than ever, or at least, it is being acknowledged as a problem, reported, exposed, and addressed today more than ever before. Our desire for peace in the church must include a fervent desire for God’s grace to make us faithful in confronting spousal abuse. 

The problem 

Spousal abuse is a problem. I do not employ the noun “problem” in its weakest sense, in which case one might think of a petty annoyance like a chattering wiper blade or an unresponsive key on a laptop keyboard. Rather, I use the term “problem” in the weightiest sense of sin. Spousal abuse is sin against God and the neighbor. It is an inexcusable pattern of murderous behavior in which the abuser, as a self-serving and controlling oppressor, intentionally perpetrates many forms of violence against the spouse. Therefore, spousal abuse is a very serious problem that must be detested, confronted, and rooted out. Our prayer is that where this sin-problem is manifested, God Himself will transform the abuser’s heart and life by a wonder of grace, and then cause the miserable marriage to flourish. 

Spousal abuse is a male problem. Spousal abuse is not perpetrated exclusively by males. There is such a thing as a controlling, manipulative, deceptive, and demeaning wife who may not be as ruthless, bloody, and overtly immoral as Jezebel of old but still possesses her spirit. Marriage to such a woman is not bliss but misery. Nevertheless, both in the broader culture and in the church, spousal abuse is mainly a male problem. Usually it is the man who abuses his wife. 

Spousal abuse is a church problem. That is to say, spousal abuse, like sexual abuse, is not only a problem up and down our city streets, but up and down too many of our church pews. Too many women in the church (and one is too many) are subjected to treachery at the hands of a husband who publicly promised to love and maintain his wife as long as they both shall live. Indeed, we live in perilous times in which “men,” even men of the church, “shall be lovers of their own selves” (II Tim. 3:2) so that instead of nourishing and cherishing their wives in love, they despise and oppress this good gift from God. 

Spousal abuse is a deceptive problem. What you usually see is a pious-looking man who gives friendly greetings and hearty hand-shakes, and can hold a good theological conversation. But that is not what you get in his heart and home. In his home there may be yelling, screaming, violent outbursts, pushing, shoving, slap- ping, grabbing, degrading insults, ridicule, forced participation in unwanted acts, and perhaps even threats with a loaded handgun. Yet, what makes spousal abuse such a deceptive problem is that it exists across a spectrum and consists of so much more than such overt elements. It is much more complex and sometimes subtle. In the home and marriage there is a relentless drive for control and many tactics to obtain and maintain control. There is manipulation, intimidation, punishment by ‘silent treatment,’ constant blame-shifting, guilt-trips, humiliation, tightly restricted Internet or cell phone use, isolation from friends and family who are sources of support, and the leveraging of children to form a coalition of support around their father. One or all of the following are often present as well: pornography, drunkenness, and drugs. Then all the way down in the stone-cold heart are found idolatry, pride, a sense of entitlement, selfishness, and an insatiable desire to maintain the control obtained. You see, in spousal abuse, you get much more than what you first see. 

Spousal abuse is a heart problem in the abuser. The abuser will deflect blame. When he is held accountable for his sinful behavior, he will blame his environment or his circumstances, but chiefly he will blame his wife and claim she is responsible for his violent behavior. In an abusive relationship what must be targeted and what must change is the man, and not merely his behavior, but his heart. 

Spousal abuse in the church is a problem that is particularly provoking to God because it projects great wickedness on His Christ. God designed marriage to be an intimate one-flesh relationship of love that pictures in a dim way Christ’s love for His bride, the church. In marriage, the husband must be a man of understanding who gives honor to his wife as the weaker vessel, and who reflects the loving headship, sacrificial service, wise leadership, abiding faithfulness, and tender consolation of Christ. Our wives should see Christ in us, daily. It is bad enough that all of us husbands miss that high mark, daily. We need our Savior’s blood and Spirit. But it is even worse when the man who is supposed to picture Christ does just the opposite of Christ. Would Christ come and murder one of the women for whom He died? Yet, that is the picture of Christ that an abuser paints in his home, over the course of time, and with greater clarity and definition. He who is supposed to reflect the unmerited and tender love of Christ instead shows murderous hatred. What a horrible and terrifying distortion of the gospel! 

The response 

Our response to spousal abuse must be to look up to the God of all grace. We need God. Without God, all our efforts are vanity, and in our folly we will turn big problems into bigger ones. When the Spirit gives you and me a desire for Jerusalem’s peace, that same Spirit also gives us an earnest desire for God’s grace so that we can be faithful in this daunting, wretched, and sensitive matter of spousal abuse. 

Abusers need the grace of godly sorrow that works repentance to salvation. Victims need the grace of God’s fatherly countenance shining upon them. We all need grace. We need grace to learn about this sin so that we know what we are confronting. We need grace to preach and teach against it in the service of teaching true, Christ-like marital love. We need grace to humble ourselves in examining our own hearts and lives. We need grace to call abusers to genuine repentance and to remove them from the church through Christian discipline if necessary. We need grace to love, support, and protect the distressed women who are victims of this sin, including the children of their troubled homes. We need grace to provide victims with guidance in what a God-pleasing, biblically faithful life looks like in what is presently a miserable marriage relationship. We need grace to keep supporting and praying for our officebearers as they face tremendous challenges in these difficult cases. We need grace to be more faithful in rearing our children and preparing them for a God-glorifying marriage. 

While all of these points could be developed, I want to call special attention to two matters specifically. First, we need to be prepared and well informed so that we can confront spousal abuse in a biblically faithful way when it appears. We need a level of education, for standing behind good, intentional action is always knowledge and understanding. We have resources to- day as never before as this terrible subject is coming to light and being studied. Speeches have been given, and articles and books have been written that are helpful for understanding such things as the dynamics of abuse and the trauma it inflicts, what a proper Christian response to this evil looks like, and how to provide care for victims.1 Others have navigated these dark and treacherous waters of spousal abuse, and have even made mistakes and learned from them. Now we can learn from those who have gone before us as we examine all things prayerfully in the light of Scripture and our confessions, seeking to be faithful to God.

Church members, and officebearers in particular, must be equipped to identify an abusive relationship so that they know how to deal with the abusive husband and how to help the weary wife who has been battered by an array of oppressive words and actions, and reduced to a spiritual skeleton with little flesh and life remaining. Often the wife is disoriented, and does not even fully understand her situation and how tightly her husband has control of her. It would be good for elders if they did not put off reading and studying until they have a concrete case, but to read and study now. With knowledge we will be more prepared, and may even be able to see evidences of the domineering oppression to which we were previously blind. 

In the past year or so, I have been struck by some- thing as I have preached around in various churches. While sitting in the consistory room with the elders and deacons prior to the worship service, I have noticed something I do not recall seeing before. In several churches, I have seen books on sexual and spousal abuse sitting on the consistory room table. This tells me our men are taking this problem to heart and seeking to learn together. 

Second, may this great evil of spousal abuse press upon us more deeply our solemn calling toward the children God has given to us. Let us redouble our efforts in training them diligently in God’s way of marriage, and even more fundamentally, in God’s way of personal godliness, so that when they grow old and marry, they will not depart from that way and be abusive. As if the calling to fulfill our baptismal vows were not serious and urgent enough! Altogether apart from the reality of spousal abuse, training our covenant children is our solemn calling from God! This is our part in the covenant! This is the proof of our love for God! This is the grateful life unto which Christ has saved us and for which He equips us by His Spirit! This is our enormous labor of love for our children in and over against a godless world! This is our privilege for only a little while when our sons and daughters are young! Yet, the present evil of spousal abuse makes this calling even more urgent. 

For the peace and unity of the church, let us beseech God for His grace so that we may have sons who will be godly men, loving husbands, wise fathers, and faithful friends—not abusers. God forbid, but should we ever have a son who grows up to look like the tyrant Satan and not our gracious Lord, let the blame be with him, and not us because we failed to teach him. May God make us faithful and then graciously bless our efforts for Christ’s sake, so that, as we walk in the way of faith- fulness, we may be spared all this grief and sorrow and instead see our children in happy and holy marriages that reflect the marriage. 

The reality of spousal abuse should make every God-fearing father think more carefully about the ex- ample he is giving to his children in how to treat females, particularly a girlfriend and wife. Let us be com- mitted to being better examples to our sons, not merely by what we avoid, but particularly by being a positive reflection of the love and holiness of God in Christ. 

Then in all our instruction in the church, home, and school, there are many angles from which to approach the nurturing of our children. Think and pray about the passages found below, and how to explain and apply them carefully and practically to children and young people, so that they will be prepared for a holy life in God’s covenant, and, if God wills, prepared to be godly spouses in marriage. Always remember to aim at their heart, and to get to the heart of the gospel. May Christ the King of the church give us what we need, little square by little square.

  • Marriage passages such as Ephesians 5:22-33. 
  • The Family Psalms (127-128). 
  • I Corinthians 13 and the description of true love. 
  • Romans 1:29-32 as a catalogue of sins to detest and put off. 
  • The Psalms and owning up to our own personal sins (Ps. 32, 51). 
  • Galatians 5:16-26 and the works of the flesh v. the fruits of the Spirit. 
  • Passages like Exodus 34:6-7 declaring the character of God. 
  • Matthew 5-7 and the characteristics of the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. 
  • Passages like Philippians 2:1-8 revealing the mind of Christ. 
  • Descriptions of God’s church and love for her in the Psalter, such as #s 134, 237, 349, 368, 379. 
  • Lord’s Days 34-44 of the Heidelberg Catechism on the Ten Commandments. 
  • Qualifications for holding church office (I Tim. 3:1ff., Titus 1:6-9).