Spiritual Abuse: Ephesians 5, Coercive Control, and the Domineering Personality
There are several types of domestic abuse, many of which I’ve discussed in previous posts (verbal, psychological, sexual, emotional). However, I haven’t yet spoken about an extremely toxic form of manipulation that’s particularly evil because it can cause a person to begin doubting the one thing that may be holding her together:
Her relationship with God.
Spiritual abuse, especially using Sacred Scripture as a manipulative weapon to “prove” why a wife supposedly has to tolerate the toxic behavior of her husband, is an attack not only against the victim, but against God Himself.
There’s a great deal I could discuss about the various aspects of spiritual abuse. For this post I want to focus on the one Bible verse that’s most often quoted out of context, the one that’s commonly used by abusive personalities as an excuse for coercive control and other venomous manipulations. Yes, I’m talking about …
“Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.”
If any man cites this verse as “proof” of why his wife must be wholly submissive to his domestic authority, you can be fairly certain you’re dealing with someone who uses coercive control as a way of dominating his relationship in unhealthy, unbalanced ways.
This is not the mutual self-giving the Catholic Church teaches.
This is domestic abuse, plain and simple.
“As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form. A correct reading of Scripture leads people to an understanding of the equal dignity of men and women and to relationships based on mutuality and love … Men who abuse often use Ephesians 5:22, taken out of context, to justify their behavior, but the passage (v. 21-33) refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ. Husbands should love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the Church.”
What’s of particular interest about Ephesians 5—and a fact that’s not mentioned nearly enough—is that the world “submissive” (υποτασσομαι) isn’t even in the original Greek text of Ephesians 5:22. In truth, the word is used in the previous verse, Ephesians 5:21, a verse that refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife to the love of each other.
This isn’t a power-over, male superiority type of submission, but rather that of authentic love—just as Christ loves the Church.
“Authentic married love is caught up into divine love … Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow Him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to ‘be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Eph. 5:21).”
Paul uses the word “submissive” in the verses both before and after 5:22 to reinforce his insistence upon complementarity within marriage. Respect and authentic charity are foundations of a marital union, taking the form of mutual self-giving which both husband and wife must be in submission to—in other words, mutual cooperation, kindness, communication and authentic love.
When we read the words of St. Paul in the proper, Christ-like context, an intermingling of balanced and equal submission—one to the other—is revealed. This is the essence of a sacramental marriage, a mutual submitting to the greater good of marital love and equal respect.
Understanding the Greek and Roman culture during the time of St. Paul helps us to realize just how radical his words are. Mutual submission wasn’t heard of in the Greco-Roman world. Aristotle, hundreds of years before St. Paul, devised “household codes” that came to be used to instruct men on how to rule their homes. Wives were considered property, barely above the status of servants, and respect wasn’t something that had to be given to them.
But St. Paul changed all that. In Ephesians 5 he takes the traditional formula and adapts it in light of Christian love and equality. Remember, this is the same guy who wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
That statement, in itself, must have riled up the Greco-Roman world so much that it’s no wonder St. Paul was imprisoned. After all, he was a ruffian, someone who challenged the status quo; an individual who put women on equal terms with men, slaves the same as free people. Oh, the gall!
According to biblical scholar Craig Keener in his book Paul, Women & Wives, St. Paul uses the traditional household code as a mere basis, but adapts it in such a way that “he significantly qualifies its meaning.”
“Nearly every ancient Mediterranean society expected wives to submit to their husbands … Household codes instructed male heads of households how to rule wives, children and slaves; while continuing to uphold the call for subordinates to submit, Paul here goes beyond traditional expectations in calling for mutual submission (cf. general Christian servanthood to one another in Mk 10:42-45; Jn 13:14-15; Gal 5:13). This places Paul among the small proportion of ancient thinkers who valued mutual concern and sensitivity … It should go without saying that this is a general principle not applicable to situations of abuse or participation of sin.”
Spiritual Abuse is God-Abuse
Those who make the conscious choice to interpret Ephesians 5:22 as a way to “prove” the subordination of wives and superiority of husbands are abusing the word of God. Denial of the true meaning of God’s word, twisting its intent, and using the verse as a means of gaslighting are all ways of abusing the Holy Bible.
Not to mention abusing one’s spouse. And Christ Himself.
Spiritual abuse is a particularly evil form of cruelty. It’s dangerous not only for the victim—who may be sent on a spiral of confusion and spiritual doubt because of her husband’s false claims—but it’s also detrimental for the abuser, as well.
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Those who use spiritual abuse as a means of coercive control lead their victims astray—away from God, and into confusion. This becomes a spiritual millstone fastened round their necks.
On his classic work Theology of the Body, St. Pope John Paul II comments extensively on Ephesians 5. In particular, regarding verse 21 he states that this verse isn’t about a woman’s subordination to her husband, but rather it
“expresses a different concept instead, namely that it is in her relationship with Christ—who is for both spouses the one and only Lord—that the wife can and should find the motivation for the relationship with her husband … This relationship is nevertheless not one-sided submission.”
A husband isn’t his wife’s boss, her father, or her overlord. He should be her equal partner in all things.
A husband should love his wife as Christ loves His Church—not in coercive control, which eliminates free will, but in self-giving, vulnerable love. Any other type of “love” is an abomination to the true charity of authentic Christian teaching.
Authentic Submission, the Opposite of Abuse
St. Paul’s teaching on mutual submission within marriage by using a comparison of the bond between Christ and His Church is something that demands close attention. Because Christ “gave Himself up for [the Church]” (Eph 5:25), and Paul gives a comparison of husband/Christ, wife/Church, this means a husband is to wholly and totally give himself to his wife in the same way Christ gave Himself to the Church—which, by the sheer nature of love and self-giving, means abuse and coercive control aren’t options.
When a husband abuses Ephesians 5 to “prove” how he’s the lord and ruler of a household, he’s spouting off nonsense that’s directly against the teachings of Sacred Scripture. Such an interpretation willfully and pridefully ignores the true nature of Christ’s love for His Church—not to mention His self-giving, sacrificial death.
St. Pope JPII makes the firm point that:
[St. Paul in the book of Ephesians] “writes, ‘And you, husbands, love your wives,’ and with this way of expressing himself he takes away any fear that could have been created (given contemporary sensibility) by the earlier sentence, ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands.’ Love excludes every kind of submission by which the wife would become a servant or slave of the husband, an object of one-sided submission … The community or unity that they should constitute because of marriage is realized through a reciprocal gift, which is also a mutual submission.”
St. John Chrysostom, who lived in the fourth century, delivered numerous homilies on the book of Ephesians. In his homily on Ephesians 5 he said:
The partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband himself enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman?
It’s impossible for a wife to “submit” to her husband as to the Lord if there’s coercive control and abuse in the relationship, because in the Lord there is no fear, but only peace; there is no power-over, only love (John 14:27, 2 Tim. 1:7, 1 John 4:18).
God doesn’t want to control us, but He does want us to control ourselves.
This should be the Christ-like model for all our relationships.
This is a heavy topic, I realize. I haven’t even begun to dig into the misuse of Sacred Scripture that abusive personalities like to employ in order to justify their destructive behavior. If you want to learn more, I dedicate a chapter in my upcoming book, Don’t Plant Your Seeds Among Thorns: A Catholic’s Guide to Domestic Abuse to the topic of how abusers twist Sacred Scripture in abhorrent ways to justify their toxic attitudes. Subscribe to this newsletter to keep updated on publication events.
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