Several bloggers, including Henry Neufeld, have linked to a short YouTube video by John Piper entitled Does a women [sic] submit to abuse? I must say I wasn’t quite as shocked as I thought I might be from some of the comments I had seen. I can accept that a woman who has committed herself to a man in marriage should endure some difficulties including minor abuse without walking out on him – and exactly the same for a man who has committed himself to his wife. I am not saying that either should endure life-threatening abuse, or submit to being required to sin, but then neither is Piper.
Piper has wise advice in the last part of the video (starting at 2:36):
If it’s not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, and she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church. Every time I deal with somebody in this I find the ultimate solution under God in the church, where the words “This man should be disciplined, this man should be disciplined” … She should have a safe place in the body of Christ where she goes and where the people in the church deal with it. She can’t deal with it by herself.
So the short answer I think is, the church is really crucial here, to step in, be her strength, say to this man “You can’t do this. You cannot do this. That’s not what we allow. That’s not what Christ calls you to be.” So, I can’t go into all the details, but I would say “I hope …” I would say to a woman “Come to a church that you feel safe in. Tell them the case. Let the leaders step in and help you navigate the difficulties here.”
These are good words in principle. The problem is, what if the abused woman does not feel safe in the church that she and her husband attend? What if, as Henry suggests, the abusive husband is himself one of the leaders of the church? This certainly happens. What if the church doesn’t believe her? This also certainly happens. What if the woman is so badly hurt that she cannot trust any man, and the church leadership is all male as Piper would expect?
Does Piper mean to suggest that the woman should go to the leaders of a different church? That is not bad advice – I would hope that most churches would be prepared to help and protect a woman in those circumstances. The problem is that that church would have no authority over the husband to discipline him and bring about a proper resolution. And it would still cause serious issues if the husband is church leader well known in the area.
Would the right thing for the woman be to report the matter to the authorities, as Henry suggests? In 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 Paul strongly warns believers not to take disputes between them to secular authorities. It would certainly be best if the church could deal with the matter internally, at least unless the case is so serious that the police would expect to be involved. If the church is unwilling or unable to resolve the matter, I think the abused woman would be right to look elsewhere for help. But that implies that the church is seriously failing to live up to its obligations towards its members.