What Does the Bible Say About Destructive and Abusive Relationships?

Bible_ Abusive Relationships - Adobe Stock - CanvaI receive frantic calls and emails each week from Christian women (and some men) who feel scared. They feel trapped, hopeless and helpless because their most intimate relationship is abusive. They are suffering from abuse verbally, physically, economically, sexually, spiritually or all of the above. The Bible has something to say about the way we treat people. And as Christians we should all strive to be Biblically wise in how we handle these difficult and painful family issues. Below are five Biblical principles that will guide your thinking about this topic of abusive relationships.

Biblical Principles on Abusive Relationships

1. Abuse is always sin.

The scriptures are clear. Abuse of authority or power (even legitimate God given authority) is always sin. Abusive speech and/or behavior is never an acceptable way to communicate with someone. (See: Malachi 2:16-17; Psalm 11:5; and Colossians 3:8,19.)

2. Abuse is never an appropriate response to being provoked.

In working with abusive individuals they often blame the other person. This can be especially tricky when trying to counsel couples. There is no perfect person and victims of abuse aren’t sinless. However, we must be very clear minded that abusive behavior and/or speech is never justified. It’s not even justified when provoked. People provoke us all the time. But we are still responsible for our response. (See: Ephesians 4:26; and Luke 6:45.)

3. Biblical headship does not entitle a husband to get his own way.

It doesn’t entitle him to make all the family decisions, or to remove his wife’s right to choose. At the heart of most domestic abuse is the sinful use of power to gain control over another individual. Biblical headship is described as sacrificial servanthood. It is not unlimited authority and/or power (Mark 10:42-45).

Let’s not confuse terms. When a husband demands his own way or tries to dominate his wife, it’s not called biblical headship. It is called selfishness and abuse of power. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 13; Jeremiah 23:1-4; and Ezekiel 34:2-4. There you will read of God’s rebuke of the leaders of Israel. He rebuked them for their self-centered and abusive shepherding of God’s flock.)

4. Unrepentant sin always damages relationships and sometimes people.

Sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2-5). Sin also separates us from one another (Proverbs 17:9). It is unrealistic and unbiblical to believe that you can continue healthy fellowship with someone who repeatedly sins against you. This is especially true when there is no repentance and no change. We are impacted in every way. (Read Proverbs 1:15; 14:7; 21:28; 22:24; and 1 Corinthians 15:33.)

5. God’s purpose is to deliver the abused.

We are to be champions of the oppressed and abused. God hates the abuse of power and the sin of injustice. (See: Psalm 5,7,10,140; 2 Corinthians 11:20; and Acts 14:5-6.)

What’s next, concerning abusive relationships?

How should we respond when we know abuse is happening to someone?

We must never close our eyes to the sin of injustice or the abuse of power, whether it is in a home, a church, a work setting or a community or country (Micah 6:8). The apostle Paul encountered some spiritually abusive leaders. But he did not put up with it (2 Corinthians 11:20). Please don’t be passive when you encounter abuse.

However, because we too are sinners we are all tempted to react to abusive behavior with a sinful response of our own. The apostle Paul cautions us not to be overcome with evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

Biblical Guidelines to Abusive Relationships

Below are five (5) biblical guidelines that will help you respond to the evil of abuse with good.

1. It is good to protect yourself from violent people.

David fled King Saul when he was violent toward him. The angel of the Lord warned Joseph to flee to Egypt with Jesus because Herod was trying to kill him. Paul escaped from those who sought to stone him.

We must help people to get safe and stay safe when they are in abusive relationships. This is not only good for her and her children, it is good for her abusive partner. [The same is true if it is a man who is being abused.] If you are not experienced in developing a safety plan and assessing for lethality (often spouses are more at risk when they leave an abusive partner), refer or consult with someone who is knowledgeable in this area (Proverbs 27:12).

[Also note: We have several articles you can glean through that are posted in the Abuse in Marriage topic that could be helpful.]

2. It is good to expose the abuser.

Secrets are deadly, especially when there is abuse in a home. Bringing the deeds of darkness to light is the only way to get help for both the victim and the abuser. If you are working with a couple and notice that the woman defers to her husband, regularly looks to him before she answers, blames herself for all their conflicts, speak with them separately. (See Proverbs 29:1; Galatians 6:1; and James 5:19-20.)

If you are a victim of an abusive relationship, it is not sinful to tell. It is good to expose the hidden deeds of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). Biblical love is always action directed towards the best interest of the beloved. This is true even when it is difficult or involves sacrifice. (Read 1 Thessalonians 5:14; and Hebrews 3:13.)

3. It is good not to allow someone to continue to sin against you.

It is not only good for the abused person to stop being a victim, it is good for the abuser to stop being a victimizer. There is no doubt that it is it is in the abuser’s best interests to repent and to change. (See: Matthew 18:15-17; and James 5:19-20.)

4. It is good to stop enabling and to let the violent person experience the consequences of his/her sinful behavior.

One of life’s greatest teachers is consequences. God says what we sow, we reap (Galatians 6:7). A person who repeatedly uses violence at home does so because he gets away with it. Don’t allow that to continue (Proverbs 19:19). God has put civil authorities in place to protect victims of abuse (Romans 13:1-5). The apostle Paul appealed to the Roman government when he was being mistreated (Acts 22:24-29). And we should encourage victims to do likewise.

5. It is good to wait and see the fruits of repentance before initiating reconciliation.

Sin damages relationships. Repeated sin separates people. Although we are called to unconditional forgiveness, the Bible does not teach unconditional relationship with everyone. Nor does it teach unconditional reconciliation with a person who continues to mistreat us.

Although Joseph forgave his brothers, he did not initiate a reconciliation of the relationships until he saw that they had a heart change. (Read Genesis 42-45.)

Biblical repentance is not simply feeling sorry (2 Corinthians 7:8-12). Repentance requires a change in direction. When we put pressure someone to reconcile a marital relationship with an abusive partner before they have seen some significant change in behavior and attitude we can put them in harm’s way. We have sometimes valued the sanctity of marriage over the emotional, physical, and spiritual safety of the individuals in it.

The apostle Paul encourages us to distance ourselves from other believers who are sinning and refuse correction. (See 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; and 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14-15.)

A person cannot discern whether a heart change has taken place without adequate time. Words don’t demonstrate repentance; but changed behaviors over time does. (Read Matthew 7:20; and 1 Corinthians 4:20.)

Christian’s Responsibility Towards Abusive Relationships

As Christian we have the mandate and the responsibility to be champions of peace. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “In the end what hurt the most was not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

In honor of victims of domestic abuse who need wise help, please forward this article to other Christian leaders who may need to learn how to see domestic abuse through the lens of the Scriptures.

Leslie Vernick is the author of this article and graciously gave us permission to post it on this web site. Leslie is a popular speaker, author, and licensed clinical social worker and relationship coach. She is the author of seven books, including the best selling, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship and her most recent The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.

Leslie has been a featured guest on Focus on the Family Radio, Family Life Today with Dennis Rainey, Moody Mid-Day Connection. She also writes a regular column for WHOA Women’s Magazine. Internationally, she’s spoken in Canada, Romania, Russia, Hungary, the Philippines, British Virgin Islands and Iraq. She’s been married to Howard for 38 years. Together they have two grown children and three grandchildren. You can find out more about abusive relationships by going to her web site at Leslievernick.com.

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2 responses to “What Does the Bible Say About Destructive and Abusive Relationships?

  1. Love, love, love this article. As a Christian and a therapist, I have (unfortunately) seen many well-meaning Christians give (literally) dangerous advice when it comes to abusive relationships that don’t line up with what counseling/psychology knows to be true. This article does a fantastic job of providing biblical support for steps we often teach in counseling for staying safe physically/emotionally. I am bookmarking this article for future reference. Thank you so much for this wonderful resource.

    1. Thank you for your supportive comment. We truly appreciate it! So many people go by their gut reactions when they try to advise people. They mean well. But when it comes to abuse issues this can get dangerous. And each situation is different so those who try to give advice need to be careful.

      Yes, we care. And yes, we want them to be safe. These types of situations tug at our heartstrings. But these are not “one-size fits all” types of situations. The abuse victim needs to know that. That’s especially true as it pertains to different cultures in different countries. They need to be very careful and prayerful and come up with the best plan to be safe as they possibly can. Thank you for affirming this. We pray that every person who reads this article is able to tailor their “plan” to find places of safety that will somehow work for them!