We often get questions that go something like this one we recently received:
On pages 114-115 in section 2.2 [of your work Five Aspects of Woman] you talk about Christ suffering under human authority and you urge wives to submit to “bad husbands.” You ask that they “be patient with them by recognizing Christ’s authority over and beyond their husbands.” … someone who is currently in an abusive relationship married to a “bad husband” could construe this section to mean that they should stay with their husband even if he beats them to death. Just as Christ is our example, he was beaten and crucified. I do not with any of my being believe that Christ has called us to do the same.
This correspondent is in numerous company with her question, for to judge by feminist and egalitarians generally, married men are neanderthals unless they happen to be Alan Alda wannabees instead. Even the ostensibly Christian egalitarian will speak as this women spoke, to render the Apostle Peter flatly wrong in what he counseled women to do in 1 Peter 3.
I am not concerned here to expound 1 Peter 3 in its broadest scope, except to say that a very large company of martyrs in heaven would have a thing or two to say about what Christ did or did not call upon them to suffer for His name.
The question posed, however, almost never turns on a potential martyrdom. In my own pastoral experience of some 25 years, and in onsulting with other pastors across several denominations, I do not find the husband who beats his wife to be more than a small minority of bad husbands. Far, far more common are husbands who abandon their husbandly responsibilities rather than abuse those in their homes. Yes, the latter exist, but the measures applicable to them are not applicable to husbands whose faults are the kinds characteristic of sluggards. In any event, what do we say — what should any Christian say — to a woman with a “bad husband?” What we say turns on what is meant by the term “bad husband.”
I thought my wife’s answer to the question was a good one, and so I reproduce it here:
Dear Mrs. M…,
You ask me to provide clarity on what I consider a “bad husband.” Let me respond with two answers.
I. Bad Husbands Don’t Do What They are Supposed To Do
One way to define a bad husband is this: one who does not fulfill the work that God gives him to do as a husband either because he abandons the responsibility or he abuses it.
I would list the following as basic kinds of responsibilities for husbands:
- provide—work to earn a living
- lead—provide overall direction for family practically and spiritually (I Cor. 14:35 indicates that women should be able to ask their husbands their spiritual questions. If he does not know anything spiritually, how will he answer?)
- love wife—kindness, affection, personal interest in her, spend time with her
- be a father to their children: strong, attentive, loving in discipline and care
Now when a man abandons or abuses any of these areas he is a bad husband because he withholds something from his wife or children that they truly need, or he puts upon his wife something that God did not design her to bear.
For example, there are men who will not work. They abandon their responsibilities as breadwinners. They put upon the wife the weight of providing for the family. Now no man is a perfect husband because no man provides and leads and loves flawlessly. However, most women consider their husbands “good husbands” when they see a sincere effort in the above areas. However, when a man is simply passive or abusive in any of these areas, a woman will have a great need to read and meditate on I Peter 2-3 in order to gain grace from Christ to forgive and be patient, not retaliating in kind, giving evil for evil.
For example, Sue may be married to Joe who is a pretty good guy. He is not a criminal. However, he never spends any time with the children, nor does he take any initiative whatsoever in their guidance, discipline or care. Sue is going to feel hurt, angry, and disappointed, and she has reason to. It hurts her to see her Children neglected. She will need to apply I Peter 3 in patience and in prayer for Joe to grow in love for their children. She will also need to refrain from retaliating in kind, e.g., by withholding her affection from Joe because he is withholding his affection from the children.
II. Bad Husbands Who Are Criminals
Now there are men who are criminals. They are a different category of “bad husband.” Assault and battery are crimes which can and should be prosecuted by the State. Paul tells us that government is for the punishment of evil-doers. I know that criminals exist and that mentally-deranged people exist who can make life literally impossible. In these cases, the wife should seek help from the state or the church or family or friends. It is not our duty to take beatings that we can escape. Jesus himself spoke up when He was struck unlawfully (John 18:22-23) and Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen, rather than take an unlawful beating from Romans (Acts 22:25-29).
To summarize, I believe almost all women find their husbands letting them down in key ways over the time of their marriage. These failures are real and cause true suffering for the wife. She should be patient, she should model the faith, and not retaliate in kind. In this way she will strive to “win him without a word.” If a woman is married to a criminal or a madman, she should seek help as her situation allows.
I hope this provides some helpful background on the passage in question.
I would only add to this by way of urging church leaders to plan, train, and rehearse interventions for those situations in their flocks where an errant spouse (including women!) are bringing harm to the rest of the family and scandal to the flock. I remember long ago when I led my elders in confronting two men in the congregation who were involved in adulterous affairs. Both situations eventually turned out well, as the husbands repented. But, I found tremendous reluctance for the elders to join me in admonishing the errant husbands. And, in these situations, the state has no interest in punishing evil-doers at all, beyond encouraging the offended spouse to terminate the marriage.