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Published Date: July 31, 2011

Published Date: July 31, 2011

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The Bible’s Nonabusive Intention for Family Relationships

In Saint Paul, Minnesota, during the 1970s, the first shelter in the nation opened “for battered women,” a phrase I had never heard before. This was not all that was happening in the city.

At the same time, the Civic Auditorium in Saint Paul was filled to capacity as a supposed expert held forth for a whole week on how to build constructive relationships within the family. At the time, he was enormously popular with the Christian public. The event had been widely promoted by churches and parachurch organizations, and I, too, had been encouraged to attend. I sat there, along with many thousands of others, watching as the “expert” drew a diagram of a man and woman standing side by side in a dating relationship. Then, while sketching the downward swoop of an arrow, he explained that, after marriage, the woman dropped below her husband to a servant status.

There followed another cartoon of the husband as a hammer pounding down on the wife, who was depicted as a chisel hacking away at the children. There were as well other symbols that were harsh and violent, such as the military image of a chain of command. I could not bring myself to attend the last two nights, but friends told me that they were present when women were instructed to praise God for their husbands even when they were beating them.

Within the following week, I was speaking with the Christian education director of a church located near a psychiatric hospital. There, a single psychiatrist was treating three patients who required hospitalization as a result of their attendance at those meetings. Another therapist told me that he, too, had been busy treating both male and female clients in the aftermath of that particular program. Time moved on, and the “expert” lost a good deal of his popularity, but some of the impressions that he created lingered on. Was it not the Apostle Paul who warned us “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6)?

I attended another event, this time at another church in Minneapolis. Here, another family life expert explained how he had repeatedly knocked his teenaged son to the ground in order to gain his compliance. This was followed by an example of having forced his daughter into the car when she was unwilling to attend a weeknight prayer meeting. One could not miss his point that sometimes force and violence were useful tools in promoting orderly family life. He explained to us that veterans understood very well how to command, control, and coerce, and we came to consider this a biblical pattern.

Obviously, such instances of warped instruction are now an embarrassment to many of us who participated in the events or acted on the advice of those gurus. But the influence is still with us. Other Christian leaders adopted some of the concepts in a more modified form—concepts, nevertheless, that could lend themselves quite readily to abuse. Usually, the argument is made that these concepts are biblically based, but here is where we must examine what is being propounded. There is much that we need to rethink. As a good Christian mother, I spanked my children, but now I regret having used corporal punishment. As we deal with delicate issues of domestic abuse, it is important to deal carefully and faithfully with the word of God.

Moving on in Christian thought 

Beginning in the 1970s, a growing awareness began to spread concerning the widespread existence of domestic abuse. Originally, many of us maintained that no such evil was to be found among those who had been born again, but the evidence proved us wrong. It was evident that the gospel called us to minister to both victims and perpetrators inside and outside of the fold of faith. All too often, there has been a vast gulf between those grappling with a profound social problem and the voice of the church.

Clearly, Christians needed to rethink our understanding of what the Scriptures and the Fathers of the church were telling us about family relationships. Misconceptions have led to tragic forms of abuse and misery that call for correction. None are more susceptible to misinterpretation than the biblical statement that man is the head of woman. How often it has led to abuse! This was recognized very early in the life of the church. One such voice was that of the greatest early biblical exegete, John Chrysostom. He perceived that women are often wonderfully attuned to the concerns, needs, and emotions of those around them and have a gift of responding sensitively and sympathetically. Their gifts enable them to create an environment of care and loving support for the entire family. But abuse and brutalization deprive a wife of the ability to give freely of herself to those around her. Chrysostom wrote:

For when she has been subjected to her husband through force, fear, and violence, it will be more unbearable and unpleasant than if she commands him with total authority. Why do you suppose this is? Because this force drives out all love and pleasure. If neither love nor desire is present, but instead fear and duress, how valuable can the marriage be henceforth?1

For someone can subdue a slave through fear, but even he will soon try to escape. But your life partner, the mother of your children, the source of every joy, must not be bound through fear and threats, but by love and a kind disposition.2

Christianity is not a faith about who should be the boss, but about each one of us assuming the role of a servant (Phil 2:3–8). How often we fail to notice that the practice of Christianity requires mutuality. We are told to be subject one to another (Eph 5:21). Indeed, the word allelos (one another) occurs no less than one hundred times in the New Testament! Our trademark is to have meekness, humility, and a concern for others. We might think of Jesus’ declaration:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42–43, cf. Matt 20:25–28, Luke 22:24–27)3

Jesus said that we would know a tree by its fruits and that we must beware of a message based upon a mistaken ideology (Matt 7:15–20, 12:33; Luke 6:44). He called for a differentiation to be made between those commandments that are truly given in the Scripture and those that develop from human misconception (Matt 15:6–9). If we have embraced a theology that requires further development, now is the time to get on with the work of reconsideration.

Beware the twisting of Scripture into a launching pad for selfish gain

After a spate of eight domestic murders in Massachusetts during a span of thirty-one days, a front page article in the Boston Globe declared:

These were cases with much in common, for this kind of killing is among the least random of crimes: Assailant and victim, by definition, know each other intimately. Power, and the unnatural need for it, is the recurrent motive.4

The article states that authorities were seeking a pattern and could find none. Yet, the journalist herself sees a “recurrent motive” in “power and the unnatural need for it.” We have heard a thousand times over that issues of power and control lie at the heart of domestic abuse, but the concept of an unnatural need for power could move our thought in new directions. Have we been guilty of promoting a doctrine of male privilege that permits domination, possession, and even the power of life and death? Surely, Vienna’s famed psychiatrists demonstrated the lust for power that dwells within our sinful human breasts, but have we in the church of Jesus Christ exacerbated that lust? Have things been said in church contexts that have led to unnatural extremes? Have we been swept along when we should have been considering the biblical warnings?

Sometimes, we have been guilty of claiming over others an authority that is not biblically sanctioned. In particular, there has often been an emphasis on the exercise of power by the male over the female. All too often, that has led to methods of control that destroy family life. The Scriptures caution us against the dangers of distorting the words of Paul. Peter wrote:

Some of his [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters around to mean something quite different from what he meant, just as they do other parts of Scripture—and the result is disaster for them. I am warning you ahead of time, dear friends, so that you can watch out and not be carried away by the errors of these misguided people. I do not want you to lose your own secure footing. (2 Pet 3:15–17)

Peter warns as well not to use honest biblical values as a cover-up for evil (1 Pet 2:16), nor as a selfish occasion to serve one’s own flesh (Gal 5:13):

O members of the household of God, you have been called to liberty, but not as a starting point for gaining your own selfish objects. Rather, serve one another out of love. Indeed, the entire law is fulfilled in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For if you bite and gnaw at one another, watch out that you are not totally destroyed by one another. (Gal 5:13–15)

How very often we see this scenario played out among those who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior! In the above text, I have translated the Greek word aphormē as “starting point,” though it is often translated as “pretext” in this verse. Two of its essential meanings are “a military base of operations” or “a means of war.”5 The terminology led me to contemplate instances of other military and violent images that were used by evangelicals in the last half century. Do we not need to deal with a doctrine that, in many instances, has inappropriately become a springboard for injustice and abuse?

Is the husband supposed to be the boss?

Although some will insist that the Bible teaches male dominance, this is stated only in the book of Esther—by a pagan king!

The king sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in its own language, proclaiming in each people’s tongue that every man should be ruler over his own household. (Esth 1:22)

The decree is issued after an enormous drinking party by a king angered because his queen refused to appear in a compromising situation before the royal court. The rest of the story of Esther deals with how the valiant heroine subverts both this decree and the order for the extermination of all Jews in the empire. King Ahasuerus (aka Xerxes), known in other circumstances for his lack of good judgment, ultimately recognizes the wisdom of Esther and vests her with authority. Other than this statement, the Bible does not say that the man should be the boss. The question we must ask is whether that position, espoused by one who was not a follower of the God of the Bible, does not lead to conclusions that may provide justification for the demeaning, degradation, and brutalization of women.

But does not the Scripture speak of the husband as head of the wife? It does indeed use this metaphor, and it is important for us to understand that, in this instance, the Apostle Paul is using a figure of speech. When we approach his writings, we are dealing with an ancient language and ancient thought patterns. Of course, the head is the uppermost member of the physical body. Clearly, Paul was not using “head” literally, but as a figure of speech, as a metaphor for some other value or relationship.

Frequently, there are difficulties in understanding a language different from our own. Even if a person understands basic English grammar and vocabulary, she or he might not be familiar with our idioms and our metaphors. Metaphors can hold different values in different cultures. For instance, in our English context, to “harden one’s heart” means to determine not to show compassion, while in the African Fulani language it implies being courageous.6 We use many idioms in our own language that must be understood in order to grasp the intention of the author or speaker. As an example, in the United States, we could say that someone had “tied one on” or was “three sheets to the wind,” and this might be impossible for a person from another culture to understand the sense even if they knew the English words.

In the same way, “head” is a metaphor that in the English language can be used to imply “boss, chief,” or “one in charge.” This was seldom true in Greek, the original language in which the New Testament was written. Other languages, such as French, do not necessarily use the word in this way. In Greek, too, “head” seldom meant the ruler or leader, although it does indeed have that sense in Hebrew. Indeed, the Septuagint, the ancient translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, carefully uses other Greek words when the Hebrew text employs “head” as meaning chieftain or ruler.

When used as a metaphor by ancient Greek writers, “head” often had the sense of “beginning, source” or “point of beginning.” Today, even in English, we speak of the “head” of a river. That first great exegete of Christian Scripture, Chrysostom, whose native language was Greek, discussed what relationship the Apostle Paul intended to designate when he used the term “head.” Chrysostom asked: How, then, should we understand “head”? He answered: Understand it in the sense of “perfect unity and primal cause and source.”7

In classical literature, we find many statements attesting to the Greek belief that the head was the source from which the rest of the body grew.8 Even the art of the ancients demonstrates their concept that new life sprang from the head. Ancient scraps of poetry speak of Zeus as head and source of all things, while a well-known myth tells of the wisdom goddess Athena springing full-grown from his head. Sometimes, a bearded head of either man or bull was set up at a fountain or source of a river because, as Eusthatius explained, the river’s head is that which generates the whole river.9

In statuary buried for two thousand years by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, fountains burst from the heads of mythological figures. Both the actual fountains and the frescoes depicting them still remain.10 In the ancient tombs of Magna Graecia are found both statements of belief in the transmigration of souls and figurines depicting the reincarnation of the soul as it issues forth from the head of Persephone, queen of the underworld. Around the emerging souls cluster tiny leaves, demonstrating the belief in the head as the source of life and growth.

The statements of Paul himself demonstrate the same concept of life springing from the head, as it promotes growth: “From the head the entire body grows with the growth of God as it is supplied by the head and held together by every ligament and sinew” (Col 2:19). Here, and in Ephesians 4:15–16, are the only two instances wherein Paul gives us his understanding of the function of the head and how he applies it metaphorically. The head causes the body to grow, and, thus, he invites his readers to grow up in Christ:

Let us grow up in all things unto him who is Christ, the Head. He causes the body to build itself up in love as the head provides empowerment according to the proportion appropriate for each member as they are bound and supported by every sinew. (Eph 4:15–16, cf. Col 2:19)

In Ephesians 5, Paul holds Christ to be the Head of the Church as the man is head of the wife. Here, the husband is encouraged to take Christ as model in causing his bride to grow, to realize her full potential, to become all that she can be, nourishing and cherishing her (Eph 5:25–27). It is the power to build up rather than to tear down (see 2 Cor 10:8, 13:10).

The Bible tells us many things about growth, and surely all of us need to mature in the things of Christ. In some areas, the need can be particularly urgent. Sometimes, historic and sociological events have ways of changing us. In the early days of the church, there were many church councils, and much heat was generated as believers struggled to understand theological truths. Numerous corrections were needed along the way. Distorted ways of thinking were addressed as God’s people were challenged to think more carefully and to respond articulately. Out of it all, new convictions grew, and faithful believers moved on. The Holy Spirit is still at work in our midst. Let us, as Paul admonishes, grow up unto Christ in all things, including our understanding of what Chrysostom and similar early church interpreters of the Bible were trying to tell us about the nonabusive biblical view of family relationships.


  1. John Chrysostom, De Virginitate 54.1, in Sources chrétiennes (Paris: 1943–), 125:302.
  2. John Chrysostom, Homiliae in epistulam ad Ephesios 20.2, in Patrologia graeca, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: 1857–1886), 62:137.
  3. All translations by the author.
  4. Sarah Schweitzer. “The Dangers were Plain, but the Killings Went On,” Boston Globe, May 16, 2010, 1.
  5. Henry G. Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry S. Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), s.v.
  6. J. De Waard and Eugene Nida, From One Language to Another: Functional Equivalence in Bible Translating (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 34.
  7. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Homily 26, in Patrologia graeca, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: 1857–1886), 61:214, 216.
  8. For a developed listing, see Catherine Clark Kroeger, “Appendix III: The Classical Concept of Head as ‘Source,’” in Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal to Serve: Women and Men Working Together Revealing the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 267–83; and Catherine Clark Kroeger, “Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of ‘Head,’” Priscilla Papers 20, no. 3 (Summer 2006), 4–8.
  9. Homer, Odyssey 9.140, 13.102, 13.346; R. B. Onians, The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), 232.
  10. Wilhemina F. Jashemski, The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius, vol. 1 and 2 (Athens: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1979), passim.