How does the Bible define abuse? Specifically within the context the context of marriage and the family does the Bible say anything about abuse? If it does not, are there general Biblical principles that we could apply to form a Biblical view of what constitutes abuse?
The Bible does speak to abuse but it does not do it all in one place in an exhaustive manner. There is no one chapter of the Bible dedicated to abuse. Instead we find verses and passages through the Bible that speak to abuse in parts and we then must connect all these dots together to get the full picture of the Biblical view of abuse.
But before we look at the Biblical view of abuse we need to define what we are talking about when we use the English word “abuse”.
The word abuse is defined by Meriam-Webster online dictionary as “a corrupt practice or custom… improper or excessive use or treatment… language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily… physical maltreatment”.
But I think the best definition of abuse actually comes from the origin of the English word itself which literally is “ab + use” which literally means to “misuse”.
So abuse is when we misuse or mistreat someone or something. For the purposes of this article we confine the subject of abuse to emotional and physical abuse in marriage and the family.
How does the Bible define Emotional Abuse?
Sometimes we can mistreat or abuse others without laying a finger on them. Instead we use a tool that God gave us that can be used for great blessing or great destruction – the tongue. The Bible says this about our tongue:
“8 But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.”
James 3:8-10 (KJV)
Our words should be used to build others up, not to tear others down as the Scriptures command us to do:
“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.”
Ephesians 4:29 (KJV)
Husbands can Emotionally Abuse their Wives
The Bible gives the following command toward husbands regarding their wives:
“Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.”
I Peter 3:7 (KJV)
There is much debate in Christian circles as to what a man honoring his wife looks like. A few years ago I wrote an article entitled “12 Ways to Honor Your Wife” where I took my stab at the issue from what I see in the Scriptures. In that article I referenced Proverbs 31:28 which tells of the virtuous wife that her husband “praiseth her”. Some of us Christian husbands are really good at telling our wives when they do wrong (which is a part of our job as her spiritual head) but we are horrible at praising our wives when they do right and that should not be the case.
There will be times when we must call out our wife’s foolish behavior as Job did:
“But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.”
Job 2:10 (KJV)
But Job’s words toward his wife were a spiritual rebuke toward her done in love to correct her wrong doing. He was not running around calling his wife names with malicious intent. He was not using his wife as his emotional punching bag when he had a bad day at work. Sometimes we may even need to correct our wives in front of our children when she does something in front of them that warrants that public correction. But we must always be cognizant of honoring our wife’s position as our wife and as the mother of our children.
In Ephesians 5:25-27 the Scriptures give us this admonition as husbands toward our wives:
“25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, 27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
Ephesians 5:25-27 (KJV)
Husbands are called to wash their wives spiritual spots and blemishes with the Word of God and hurling emotional dirt on them does exactly the opposite of what God is calling husbands to do. A husband’s correction is to be done in love – not with vitriol and spite.
The Bible gives husbands this command about acting in love rather than in bitterness toward their wives:
“Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.”
Colossians 3:19 (KJV)
This is why men need to remember that as disobedient or rebellious as their wives may be and no matter how their wives may hurt them in many ways – husbands never have a license from God to act from a place of bitterness and spite toward their wives.
The discipline of a husband toward his wife should never be an act of revenge, but rather it is to be a conscious and controlled act of love.
And husbands need to realize that God is watching how they treat their wives and he says of husbands who mistreat their wives that their prayers will be hindered before him (I Peter 3:7).
Parents Can Emotionally Abuse their Children
The Bible gives the following commands to fathers regarding their children:
“And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
Ephesians 6:4 (KJV)
“Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.”
Colossians 3:21 (KJV)
Why did God address these commands only to fathers? Can mothers not provoke their children to anger as well and cause them to be discouraged? The answer is that mothers can do this just as easily as fathers but God is addressing fathers because they are the spiritual head of their home. Fathers set the example and fathers can and should address this wrong behavior not only in themselves, but also in their wives as the mothers of their children.
So how can fathers and mothers provoke their children to wrath and discourage them? Perhaps by showing favoritism between their children. Maybe they constantly tear down and call their children names and hurl insults at them. Maybe it is that they do not discipline in love, but rather in anger or in malice. Perhaps they constantly threaten instead of warn. Maybe they use no measure or control in their discipline. Fathers may be too over protective or possessive not realizing that their ownership over children is a temporary stewardship God has given unlike the lifelong ownership of a husband over his wife.
Sometimes Words That Will Hurt Must Be Said
From a Biblical perspective it is not always wrong to say things to others that we know may hurt other’s feelings:
“5 Open rebuke is better than secret love. 6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”
Proverbs 27:5-6 (KJV)
Sometimes a tough word must be spoken and for the moment it will bring some emotional pain but it is for our own good. In fact the Bible tells us that a rebuke can sometimes be an act of love:
“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”
Revelation 3:19 (KJV)
So in summary on this issue of emotional abuse – if we say things simply to hurt someone that is sinful. If however we speak words of rebuke that may cause hurt but it is done for the edification of the other person this may in fact be a righteous act depending on the context.
How Does The Bible Define Physical Abuse?
Physical abuse is when we mistreat others in a physical manner. But here is the million dollar question – how do we define what is the physical mistreatment of others?
In an article entitled “Responding to Physical Abuse” Dennis Rainey writes what I would consider to be a typical Christian Pastor’s definition of physical abuse:
“Let me begin by saying that I cannot think of a circumstance in a marriage or family that could justify abuse of any kind—emotional, mental, physical, or sexual. Abusive behavior was never and can never be a part of God’s plan for a marriage or a family.
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to limit this answer to physical abuse. And by this I mean assaulting, threatening, or restraining a person through force. It would include hitting, slapping, punching, beating, grabbing, shoving, biting, kicking, pulling hair, burning, using or threatening the use of weapons, blocking you from leaving a room or the house during an argument, driving recklessly, or intimidating you with threatening gestures.
Also, I think it’s important to note that I do not, like some others in today’s culture, automatically classify spanking of children as abuse. I believe that loving, controlled physical discipline is biblical, and beneficial for a child. In some cases it can turn abusive when performed with anger or malice, and in those cases it must be stopped.”
I respect Dennis Rainey and his ministry and I agree with him in many areas of Biblical interpretation. While I think he is definitely to the right of many Pastors and teachers today on the subject of Biblical gender roles he still does not fully embrace all the Bible’s teachings on gender roles. On this subject we are discussing of physical abuse – I am going to partially agree and partially disagree with his definition of physical abuse and I think the best way to take it is word by word.
Before I do that I want to draw attention to the end of his definition where he states this regarding the spanking of children:
“I believe that loving, controlled physical discipline is biblical, and beneficial for a child. In some cases it can turn abusive when performed with anger or malice, and in those cases it must be stopped.”
That last statement I believe would be absolutely Biblical except for him limiting physical discipline to children. The Bible specifically allows for the physical discipline of adults in Exodus 21:20-21 & 26-27 and Deuteronomy 25:1-3. The Bible even encourages physical discipline for those who act in foolish manners when it states in Proverbs 26:3 “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.”
But I 100% agree with Dennis Rainey that physical discipline should always be done in a “loving” and “controlled” way as opposed to an angry or malicious way.
When speaking about a father disciplining his son God said:
“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
Proverbs 13:24 (KJV)
Christ when speaking about disciplining his churches said:
“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”
Revelation 3:19 (KJV)
God when speaking about disciplining the nation of Israel (pictured as his wife) said:
“For I am with thee, saith the Lord, to save thee: though I make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee, yet I will not make a full end of thee: but I will correct thee in measure, and will not leave thee altogether unpunished.”
Jeremiah 30:11 (KJV)
So as we can see the Bible full supports the idea that two critical ingredients of any godly form of discipline are love and control (measure). With said as introduction to this area of physical abuse I will now look at key words in Dennis Rainey’s statement on what he believes constitutes physical abuse.
By definition assaulting is any type of unlawful touching of another person’s body. But the key word is “unlawful”. If a police officer chases down a person who he has just witnessed commit a crime and wrestles him to the ground to put hand cuffs on him is that unlawful? The answer is NO. In the same way if a husband engages in physical discipline toward his wife or a father engages in physical discipline toward his child this is not automatically physical abuse. In fact this activity could be lawful in God’s eyes if it is done in a loving and controlled manner and not done with malicious intent.
The Bible tells masters not to engage in “threatening” in Ephesians 6:9. The difference between a threat and a warning is that threats demonstrate a lack of control and simply seek to intimidate people into compliance with one’s wants. When someone exercises the Biblical authority God has given them, whether it be a governor, an employer, a master, a Pastor, a husband or a father or mother discipline measures should be just, fair and well thought out. Warnings regarding impending discipline if one breaks certain rules should be done in a controlled manner. So in the area of threatening – I agree with Mr. Rainey because the Bible tells Biblical authorities not to engage in threatening which is very different than giving warnings which authorities should give.
“Restraining a Person Through Force”
Again I could back to my police officer example that it depends on if the restraining is lawful according to God’s law. There are plenty of times that a child or an adult may need to be restrained by force. Adults in mental hospitals have to be restrained by force all the time. What about when a parent has to pick up their screaming child and take them out of church or a store? Is that unlawful in God’s eyes? Of course it is not.
But what Dennis Rainey is really talking about is a husband restraining his wife by force.
Again the principles of love and control determine whether this action by a husband is right or wrong. Let me give you a few examples that I have received via email to illustrate this.
A man’s wife is mentally ill. She grabs a bottle of pills and pours it in her mouth to swallow them so she can die. He grabs his wife forces his hand in her mouth and pulls the pills out throwing them on the floor. He physically restrains her until she calms down after which he calls for help and takes her to a mental health facility. Was that wrong for him to restrain his wife by force in this case? Absolutely not. Such restraint was an act of love.
A man’s wife is angry at him and in rage she comes at him to strike him. He grabs her, bear hugs her and hold her by force until she calms down. Again – was his action of restraining her by force in this case wrong? No it was not. Rather this was an act of love on his part in restraining his wife from doing the evil she was intent on doing.
Now there are some men who get off on exercising power over their wives. If a husband comes by and pushes his wife into a clothes closet and locks the door simply for the thrill of confining her this is an abuse of his God given power. This is not a just use of force against his wife. The same principle would apply to parents over their children as well. There have been horror stories in the news of parents chaining their children to beds and locking them in rooms for years. This is not the loving, controlled and measured discipline the Bible allows. Such actions are sadistic and evil.
“Hitting, Slapping, Punching, Beating”
The Bible tells us in Proverbs 23:13 “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die”. But there is such a thing as a controlled beating and an uncontrolled beating. An uncontrolled beating is done in rage or anger but a controlled beating is done as an act of discipline. The object of a Biblically based beating is to try to change one’s behavior, not to seriously injure or kill someone. That is why when God prescribed flogging as a method of discipline in the book of Deuteronomy he placed several controls on it.
“If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked. 2 And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number. 3 Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee.”
Deuteronomy 25:1-3 (KJV)
First the judge himself, or someone he directly appointed was to perform the beating. The beating was to be witnessed and controlled by the judge who had imposed the punishment. The man was to lie down and we know from other passages that this was face down and the stripes were applied to his back. Why? Because there is a risk of hitting one’s face or genitals. Typically speaking the human body is much better suited to taking a beating from the back side rather than front and this is the pattern God gives us for physical discipline.
Also the discipline was to be measured in that God did not allow them to strike more than 40 times. The Jews in order to make sure they did not accidentally go over 40 imposed a policy of only using 39 stripes. Paul alludes to this when he was beat for preaching the Gospel when he stated in 2 Corinthians 11:24 that “Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one”.
What about punching? I do not believe God allows punching as a form of discipline. The closed fist is weapon to be used in combat and it is not a tool to be used for discipline. Where do I get this belief from? Let’s look at the passage below from the book of Exodus:
“26 And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. 27 And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.”
Exodus 21:26-27 (KJV)
This passage tells us that God commanded that a male or female slave that had lost their sight or lost a tooth as a result of a beating from their Master had to be freed. But there are some greater principles we learn from this passage. Some Christians will point to the fact that Christ endured physical abuse and so did the Apostles and so too we should endure it wherever it may occur. But I would respectfully disagree with my brethren on this. There is a time and place to endure physical abuse when it is directly for the cause of Christ and the Gospel. But that does not mean Christians may not flee physical abuse in various situations. Christ fled (Matthew 12:14-16) and Paul fled as well (II Corinthians 11:33).
But in the context of punching I think this passage from Exodus 21:26-27 prohibits us from using our fists and especially punching people in the face as a form of discipline. Think about it – how easy is it to break a tooth if you punch someone in the face? Ask any boxer it is really easy to do. So in most cases how would a master break his slaves tooth or damage his eye? It was most likely because he punched him in the face.
On the other hand when it comes to slapping with an open hand a palm has a much smaller chance of causing any serious injury to a person. The only way it could is if excessive force was used but then this violates the Biblical concept of using control and measure in discipline. But there is no prohibition in the Scriptures against an authority using a controlled slap across the cheek as a form of discipline.
The rightness or wrongness of grabbing someone very much depends on the context. How many parents can say they have never grabbed their child’s arm whether to keep them from harm or even to discipline them? Where is the condemnation of grabbing someone as a form of discipline that is done in a loving and controlled way? The answer is there is no condemnation of this action when done in a right manner.
But what about shoving? This I think is more akin to punching. It has a very large chance of causing serious injury. In fact if you were to shove someone and they fall and hit their head they could have a various serious injury as a result or even die. Shoving someone is another way that someone could fall and break a tooth or loose the sight in their eye. Therefore, for the same reason I think God would condemn punching as a form of physical discipline, so too I think he would condemn shoving as a form of discipline as we in authority are not to place those under our authority in danger of serious injury.
“biting, kicking, pulling hair”
When we are talking about biting, kicking and pulling hair these actions do not describe discipline but rather a fight between two persons. Discipline is to be administered in a loving and controlled way – not in the form of a brawl. If discipline is administered in the form of a fight it risks causing serious harm or even death to the person being disciplined.
“using or threatening the use of weapons”
Threatening to use or using weapons as form of discipline is forbidden as a form of discipline based on the fact that Biblical discipline is to be done from a place of love and control and its object is to change behavior without causing serious harm or placing the person in danger of losing their life.
“blocking you from leaving a room or the house during an argument”
From a Biblical perspective there is no prohibition on a husband or father prohibiting his wife or child from leaving the room or house during an argument. For instance if a father or mother sends their child to their room because an argument or a husband sends his wife to their bedroom after an argument there is nothing in the Scriptures that would forbid this action.
I have actually received emails from people and heard stories elsewhere of men blocking their wives from leaving when they were in a manic state. To allow someone to drive a car in such a state would not be wise and such an action is actually an act of love on the part of the husband.
I am not saying it is wrong for a husband to let his wife leave to cool off, but it is also not forbidden for him to make her stay.
It is not the Church and it is not the government that defines what is and what is not abuse. It is God speaking through his Word, the Bible, that defines what abuse is within the spheres of the Church, Civil Government and the Family.
We have shown from the Bible that abuse is when we mistreat someone as mistreatment is defined by the Word of God. When we mistreat someone we have sinned against that person and against God who is our creator.
We can emotionally mistreat others by hurling insults at them and speaking unkind or untrue things about them(James 3:8-10, Ephesians 4:29).
Husbands can emotionally mistreat their wives by acting in a spirit of bitterness and spite toward them (Colossians 3:19) or dishonoring their position as their wife and the mother of their children (I Peter 3:7).
Fathers can emotionally mistreat their children by provoking them to wrath and causing them to be discouraged (Colossians 3:21, Ephesians 6:4) instead of encouraging them and teaching them in the ways of God.
But sometimes husbands and fathers must use tough words and call out sin in their wives and children(Job 2:10) and even though these words hurt if they are done for the edification of the wife or child then they are holy and righteous before God. In other words, it is not automatically emotional abuse for a husband or father to verbally confront or call foolish or sinful the actions of his wife or child.
Verbal rebukes on the part of husbands and fathers toward their wives and children that come from a place of love and control should never ever be conflated with emotional abuse.
Not only does the Bible allow and even encourage verbal rebukes as a form of discipline but it allows physical discipline not only for children (Proverbs 13:24) but also for adults as well (Exodus 21:20-21 & 26-27 and Deuteronomy 25:1-3).
But again as with verbal discipline, physical discipline must be performed by husbands and fathers toward their wives and children from a place of love and in a controlled and measured manner(Jeremiah 30:11).
Physical discipline on the part of husbands and fathers toward their wives and children that comes from a place of love and control and is properly exercised within the boundaries of God’s law should never ever be conflated with physical abuse.
Verbal Rebukes or Physical discipline that does not come from love or is not controlled in keeping with God’s boundaries is by Biblical definition abuse.
A husband and father who comes home after having a bad day at work hurling insults and corrupt words at his wife or children is acting in an emotionally abusive way toward his family. Even if he is not hurling insults or cursing at them – if he rebukes them from a place of bitterness and spite as opposed to love and control this may be emotionally abusive behavior on his part.
When a husband or father physically disciplines his wife from a place or rage, revenge anger or bitterness as opposed to love and control he is engaging in physical abuse by Biblical standards.
Actions like punching, shoving, kicking, hair pulling, biting and threatening the use of weapons violate the Biblical principles of love and control which are to govern all instances of physical discipline.
A Word Of Caution On The Issue Physical Discipline
It is one thing to know what God’s Word says about the differences between physical abuse and discipline – that is knowledge. But wisdom is knowing what to do with that knowledge. As parents we have the God given right to use physical discipline with our children in a loving and controlled manner. But we must also be cognizant of the evil world we live in where any type of physical discipline – even toward children is frowned upon. Not only that – we have social service organizations that are just waiting to come in and take children if there is any hint of what they regard as child abuse even if that definition does not match the Scriptural definition.
So in the case of using physical discipline with children I believe we as parents need to follow Christ’s admonition to be “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16) and exercise this right with some caution. That means it is probably not best to be spanking our children in the middle of a store in front of 30 people. It may mean if a child is acting unruly that we pick them up, leave our grocery cart, and take them to our car and take them home and then give them the physical discipline that is due.
I am a firm believer that small children need to be spanked. At very young ages they really don’t understand other forms of non-physical discipline. Obviously as parents we need to do this in love and with measure. That would mean you don’t spank a one year old on the bottom with the same force that you do a four year old. But as children get older there are other non-physical forms discipline we can use in taking away things like video games, TV time, computer time, tablets and phones and grounding them from friends.
On the matter of husbands spanking their wives – that is a much larger topic by itself. Please see my article “Does the Bible Allow A Husband to Spank His Wife?”. I originally wrote this article in September of 2016. I have completely rewritten that article over the last couple weeks to be a companion piece with this article.