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Untwisting the truth: what the Bible actually says about abuse

In this guest blog, Helen Paynter addresses how abusers twist Bible passages to excuse or support their actions, when really it is rich with truth that brings freedom to those experiencing oppression. Here are six biblical truths that an abuser doesn't want you to read.

In February 2019, I received an email from someone I had never met. We’ll call her Jenny. Jenny had heard me speaking on a series of podcasts produced by the Bible Society, talking about some of the stories of sexual violence in the Old Testament. As a result, she contacted me to tell me something of her story.

Jenny has been married for decades to a man who for a long time served as a lay preacher with a major denomination in the UK. During their marriage he consistently emotionally abused her, undermining her confidence and self-worth. He also physically abused her, sexually abused her and raped her.

And – here’s the thing – he told her the Bible supported his actions.

Stories like Jenny’s are far too common. Because domestic abuse and coercive control is found in Christian homes, too. And when that happens, the Bible can get used as a weapon.

For far too long women have been told that the Bible commands their subservience to men. That it is God’s command that they submit to abuse. That God’s hatred of divorce means they can never escape from an abusive marriage. Some women’s husbands have told them this. Some ministers have told them so. In a particularly virulent combination, sometimes husbands who are ministers have told them these things.

It’s not true.

These misrepresentations of the Bible spin an evil web of lies that trap women in abusive relationships. But in reality, if read properly, the Bible is liberating. God is on the side of the abused.

I find it very interesting that in the days of American slavery, the masters were pretty careful about which passages of the Bible they allowed their slaves to read. They knew that certain parts could be twisted to their purpose, but that other parts would be liberating for the slaves. And they didn’t want that.

It’s the same for domestic abuse and coercive control. There are some parts of the Bible that can be misread – twisted – to support an abuser’s narrative. There are other parts that clearly, uncontrovertibly, contradict it.

"Jesus was the ultimate non-toxic man."

— Helen Paynter —

What are the passages that an abuser doesn’t want their victim to read? What are the truths that the Bible teaches which can set the abused free? Here are a few of them:

1 - Women are made in the image of God, just as men are.

Women are not inferior, are not told to be subservient to men, and it is neither a woman’s curse to be dominated by men, nor her ‘special privilege’ to suffer.

2 - Forgiveness does not have to mean allowing the abuser back into the home and the bed.

Forgiveness is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card for abusers. And while divorce breaks God’s heart, so too do violence and adultery, which also break the marriage covenant.

3 - The narrative of a woman’s place being exclusively in the home is consistently undermined by biblical examples.

Look at Miriam, Deborah, Jael(!), the wise woman of Tekoa, Huldah, Esther; look at the women who supported Jesus from their own independent means (see Luke 8), and the women who met Jesus at the tomb and were the first to announce the resurrection to the world; look at Priscilla, Phoebe and Junia.

4 - Jesus was the ultimate non-toxic man.

His conduct with women was beyond reproach. He accorded them dignity, trusted them and was a safe person for even the most traumatised and vulnerable of women to be alone with.

5 - Jesus shared and understands the suffering of abuse sufferers.

He was misunderstood and misrepresented – often deliberately. He was lied about and betrayed. He was physically abused, and he experienced nakedness and humiliation – maybe even sexual abuse.

6 - God rages on behalf of the oppressed.

He leans out of heaven to take note of how the defenceless are being treated. And Jesus said that those who put a stumbling block in front of someone vulnerable would be better off walking into the sea with a millstone round their necks.

This is what Jenny’s husband didn’t want her to know. He wanted to tie her up in knots with the Bible; to spin her lies about her duty, about false role-models, about a stern God who governs women with a cruel hand. He was lying.

God’s heart is for human flourishing. He endows men and women with dignity and value, and he expects us to honour that in one another. And to those who choose to defy him in this, as the psalmist says, you are under the scrutiny of God and will have to answer to him for it.

"The wicked pour out arrogant words;
all the evildoers are full of boasting.
They crush your people, Lord;
they oppress your inheritance.
They slay the widow and the foreigner;
they murder the fatherless.
They say, “The Lord does not see;
the God of Jacob takes no notice.”

Take notice, you senseless ones among the people;
you fools, when will you become wise?
Does he who fashioned the ear not hear?
Does he who formed the eye not see?"

— Psalm 94 —

Helen Paynter is tutor in biblical studies at Bristol Baptist College, and the director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. Her book is now on sale The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: Why you don't have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control .

The #SheToo podcast series can be found here https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/explore-the-bible/shetoo/.