Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. Wives, submit to your husbands in a way that is appropriate in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and don’t be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, because this pleases the Lord. Parents, don’t provoke your children in a way that ends up discouraging them. (Colossians 3:12–21, CEB)
This is the third in our sermon series called “Breaking the Silence,” where we’ve talked about some hard issues, such as mental health, suicide, and now, domestic violence. These three things are somewhat interconnected, and one thing they have in common is that they cross racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines. You can’t look at someone and know “there’s someone struggling with mental health” or “there’s somebody struggling with domestic violence.”
We are talking about domestic violence, in particular, for three reasons. First, no one should suffer fear and violence, especially within their own home. A home is a sanctuary and a place of love, affection, healing, and comfort. It should not be a place of violence or fear.
Second, keeping the subject of domestic violence secret, hidden, and away from polite company perpetuates the problem. This is why people do not get help and why abusers can keep doing what they do: because nobody talks about it. The stigma of violence is a weapon so powerful that it keeps people in abusive relationships. People in abusive relationships are afraid that someone will say that the abuse is their fault. They are afraid that someone will call them less than human, or silly, or stupid, for allowing themselves to be in such a situation.
Third, healing is possible. If healing were a lost cause, then we as Christians should just be silent and suffer in silence; however, healing is possible if we take action and call the police rather than the pastor. Too often, when women come to a pastor, the pastor says “This is your cross to bear. This is your suffering. Jesus said we must all suffer and this is yours, for his sake, for the sake of your marriage, and for your children.” Pastors have said these things and perpetuated violence instead of going to a place that can break the cycle of violence.
Stigma and statistics
The stigma around abuse allows church members to think, “Oh, that doesn’t happen to us,” “That doesn’t happen here,” or, “It’s really not my problem.” However, studies have shown that one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes! Of course, men suffer domestic violence too, but it is not nearly as common. Each year, 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by their intimate partner, whether that partner be a boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, or husband.
In these studies and surveys, less than one-fifth of the victims sought medical attention.
Why? Because of the stigma. They are afraid of facing judgement from the hospital and afraid of retribution from the abuser. Unfortunately, the woman who does not report an attack to the police is much more likely to be abused again. So many times the victims think, “They’ll change, they’re really sorry, they apologized and if I just do something, if I act differently, if I just do XYZ, then it won’t happen again.”
Often, the stigma of domestic violence makes the victims place the blame on themselves. Sadly, 41% of the women who are abused and do not call the police will be abused again within six months. However, if the victims report the abuse and try to break the cycle of violence, only about 15% are abused again. Nevertheless, many do not do it, and I can’t help but wonder why.
Theology that enables abuse
One of the main reasons is bad theology. The way we think about God, and talk about Christ and the Bible, and understand the words of the Bible, matters. The way we understand things like submission or mutuality matters. We need to become better at relationships and we need to start healing. We need to address the theology about relationships and start the process of healing for both the abused and the abuser.
One of the most abused and distorted pieces of theology concerns the idea of submission.
Today’s passage is one of those verses that says, “Wives submit to your husbands.” It is amazing to me how many times people quote this Scripture, but forget the paragraph, and especially the sentence, before it. This idea of wives submitting to their husbands is found in a couple of places in the Bible, including Ephesians. In Ephesians, the sentence before it says that everyone must submit to each other (Eph. 5:21). The paragraph calls us to sing, worship, and come together in times of conflict and crisis (5:18–20). We must be one body and mutually submit to one another.
Of course, submission is often couched in language of Trinity and creation, which is the idea of God and his self, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A lot of people think of the Trinity as a hierarchy: the Father is on top, the Son is lower, and the Holy Spirit is next in line. This understanding of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is incredibly damaging, because this is not how God and the Trinity work. God is one, and God’s very self is a relational—a circle of connection rather than a hierarchy. We who were created in the image of God were created for the same thing. We were not created for a hierarchical relationship. We were meant for a mutual relationship—a circle of relationship, where we love, respect, and gain strength from one another. Marriage is not about hierarchy; it is about mutuality.
In creation, we were created, as Genesis says, as “humankind,” and “As male and female, they were created in the image of God.” Women and men, you are created in the image of God, so to treat anyone as less than created in the very image of God breaks our relationship with and understanding of God and demeans God. Violence, fear, manipulation, and control are sins that need to be called out just as strongly in our lives and culture.
In this Colossians passage, we constantly hear that we should forgive one another, and so many times, this idea of forgiveness is used to keep people in abusive relationships. People say, “You should forgive him because he’s sorry.” But “sorry” is meaningless without repentance. Repentance—sincere, authentic, wanting to change and making efforts to do so—this is what matters.
Forgiveness should come. When somebody hurts us, we are called to forgive, but it’s not my job to push you to forgive. Before forgiveness must come anger, safety, the ability to forgive yourself, to love yourself, and to be in a safe place. Sometimes, forgiveness means the reconciliation of a relationship. Sometimes, people can stay together and forgiveness can overcome, build, and rebound. Sometimes, however, forgiveness only comes when people are separated. Sometimes forgiveness means, “I am going to love myself fully and wholly in a safe place, and I will forgive you, but I won’t have a relationship with you. I will let go of the hurt and the pain that you’ve caused, but that doesn’t mean that I have to get back in that relationship and submit myself again.” Forgiveness is empowering, strengthening, and freeing—it is not a way to put somebody back in chains.
Divorce does not end marriage. Violence ends a marriage. Violence ends a relationship. Violence ends a covenant relationship, a relationship of mutual submission, and a covenant of mutual love. Violating that covenant ends it; divorce is the official step that frees someone from abuse.
Jesus said, “Do not divorce.” However, he was saying this in a culture where women’s rights were null. In ancient Jewish culture, a man could divorce and remarry at will with no ramifications or repercussions, while a divorced woman was left with very little in the way of supporting herself. The only options for an adult divorced woman in Jesus’ time were going back to her family, begging, and prostitution. Therefore, Jesus said, “Don’t do that. Don’t divorce people. Don’t just end relationships because you don’t like them anymore.” The truth of the matter is that a violent, abusive relationship is not worth saving.
So what do we do?
What do we do? We seek help when needed. We allow people to find paths of healing and safety before eventually finding forgiveness. We pastor to both victim and abuser, because many abusers were themselves abused. We try to teach abusers about other ways of dealing with their anger and their fear. We teach our women and our girls that love is not jealousy or control. We teach our girls that they are created in the image of God. We teach our boys to not be violent or to not strike out against anybody. We teach our boys that manhood is not about being the biggest and strongest. Most importantly, we teach everyone that when the love of God is in our hearts, it means that we must submit to one another. We do not create hierarchies; we create healing communities.
We go about this in simple ways, such as posting brochures about domestic violence, suicide, and mental health issues inside bathrooms. The bathroom may seem like a strange place to post a brochure, but for women who are under control in a relationship or feel like they are in an oppressive relationship, the bathroom may be the only private place they have. They might be able to grab a brochure. Making smaller, card-sized brochures will allow suffering women to discreetly grab a card and hide it in their pocket or purse. So when you see a brochure like this in a bathroom, remember that it is there because there are people who are suffering in secret.
In addition, there is a national awareness month dedicated to domestic violence. As a nation, we can get together and talk about these situations in order to engage others as much as we can and break stigmas. Call your pastor and talk about what you can do to help those suffering from domestic violence. Be part of a congregation that confesses to the role that we have in creating stigma and notices and prays for those who are suffering. Be a community where someone can be asked, “How are you doing?” and can respond, “I’m not well.” Be a caring person who is willing to give somebody a ride, pick up furniture, cook a meal, all without judgement, clichés, or platitudes, but with absolute sincerity. Advocate for stronger laws. Be a prophetic voice to powers, the media, congress, the local government, and say that there needs to be funding for shelters and laws that are strong and cannot be avoided. In other words, advocate for those who cannot.
Love is not jealous, love is not violent or controlling or manipulative. In all of these things, we are called to mutually submit to one another and love one another. Love those who are hurting from mental illness, love those who are thinking about suicide, love those whose families have fallen victim to suicide, love those who are abused, and love the abusers. One of my favorite songs in my church’s hymnal is called “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” In the third verse of this song, it says, “We share each other’s woes, our mutual burdens bare, and often for each other flows our sympathizing tear.” Can we be a people that shares in each other’s woes, bears our mutual burdens, and allow tears of sympathy to flow? Our God is a God of love, and love is all that really matters. If we as Christians are able to speak these truths and break the silence and find healing, we can create a community that will change each other and the world. Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, because the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
[Editor's note: It's important to remember that there may be important and valid reasons that victims may not want to call the police; sometimes it may escalate the problem or put others in danger. Calling a national domestic violence crisis hotline may be the most appropriate first step in these cases. In the US, that number is 1-800-799-7233. Thanks, commenter Mark, for this crucial reminder.]