What to do about the bad husband?

Written by Father Bill 8 Comments

We often get questions that go something like this one we recently received:

On pages 114-115 in section 2.2 [of your work Five Aspects of Woman] you talk about Christ suffering under human authority and you urge wives to submit to “bad husbands.” You ask that they “be patient with them by recognizing Christ’s authority over and beyond their husbands.” … someone who is currently in an abusive relationship married to a “bad husband” could construe this section to mean that they should stay with their husband even if he beats them to death. Just as Christ is our example, he was beaten and crucified. I do not with any of my being believe that Christ has called us to do the same.

bad husbandThis correspondent is in numerous company with her question, for to judge by feminist and egalitarians generally, married men are neanderthals unless they happen to be Alan Alda wannabees instead.  Even the ostensibly Christian egalitarian will speak as this women spoke, to render the Apostle Peter flatly wrong in what he counseled women to do in 1 Peter 3. 

I am not concerned here to expound 1 Peter 3 in its broadest scope, except to say that a very large company of martyrs in heaven would have a thing or two to say about what Christ did or did not call upon them to suffer for His name.

The question posed, however, almost never turns on a potential martyrdom. In my own pastoral experience of some 25 years, and in onsulting with other pastors across several denominations, I do not find the husband who beats his wife to be more than a small minority of bad husbands.  Far, far more common are husbands who abandon their husbandly responsibilities rather than abuse those in their homes.  Yes, the latter exist, but the measures applicable to them are not applicable to husbands whose faults are the kinds characteristic of sluggards.  In any event, what do we say — what should any Christian say — to a woman with a “bad husband?”  What we say turns on what is meant by the term “bad husband.”

I thought my wife’s answer to the question was a good one, and so I reproduce it here:

Dear Mrs. M…,
You ask me to provide clarity on what I consider a “bad husband.” Let me respond with two answers.
I. Bad Husbands Don’t Do What They are Supposed To Do
One way to define a bad husband is this: one who does not fulfill the work that God gives him to do as a husband either because he abandons the responsibility or he abuses it.
I would list the following as basic kinds of responsibilities for husbands:

  1. provide—work to earn a living
  2. lead—provide overall direction for family practically and spiritually (I Cor. 14:35 indicates that women should be able to ask their husbands their spiritual questions. If he does not know anything spiritually, how will he answer?)
  3. love wife—kindness, affection, personal interest in her, spend time with her
  4. be a father to their children: strong, attentive, loving in discipline and care 

Now when a man abandons or abuses any of these areas he is a bad husband because he withholds something from his wife or children that they truly need, or he puts upon his wife something that God did not design her to bear.
For example, there are men who will not work. They abandon their responsibilities as breadwinners. They put upon the wife the weight of providing for the family. Now no man is a perfect husband because no man provides and leads and loves flawlessly. However, most women consider their husbands “good husbands” when they see a sincere effort in the above areas. However, when a man is simply passive or abusive in any of these areas, a woman will have a great need to read and meditate on I Peter 2-3 in order to gain grace from Christ to forgive and be patient, not retaliating in kind, giving evil for evil.

For example, Sue may be married to Joe who is a pretty good guy. He is not a criminal. However, he never spends any time with the children, nor does he take any initiative whatsoever in their guidance, discipline or care. Sue is going to feel hurt, angry, and disappointed, and she has reason to. It hurts her to see her Children neglected. She will need to apply I Peter 3 in patience and in prayer for Joe to grow in love for their children. She will also need to refrain from retaliating in kind, e.g., by withholding her affection from Joe because he is withholding his affection from the children.
II. Bad Husbands Who Are Criminals
Now there are men who are criminals. They are a different category of “bad husband.” Assault and battery are crimes which can and should be prosecuted by the State. Paul tells us that government is for the punishment of evil-doers.  I know that criminals exist and that mentally-deranged people exist who can make life literally impossible. In these cases, the wife should seek help from the state or the church or family or friends. It is not our duty to take beatings that we can escape. Jesus himself spoke up when He was struck unlawfully (John 18:22-23) and Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen, rather than take an unlawful beating from Romans (Acts 22:25-29).
To summarize, I believe almost all women find their husbands letting them down in key ways over the time of their marriage. These failures are real and cause true suffering for the wife. She should be patient, she should model the faith, and not retaliate in kind. In this way she will strive to “win him without a word.” If a woman is married to a criminal or a madman, she should seek help as her situation allows.
I hope this provides some helpful background on the passage in question.

I would only add to this by way of urging church leaders to plan, train, and rehearse interventions for those situations in their flocks where an errant spouse (including women!) are bringing harm to the rest of the family and scandal to the flock.  I remember long ago when I led my elders in confronting two men in the congregation who were involved in adulterous affairs.  Both situations eventually turned out well, as the husbands repented.  But, I found tremendous reluctance for the elders to join me in admonishing the errant husbands.  And, in these situations, the state has no interest in punishing evil-doers at all, beyond encouraging the offended spouse to terminate the marriage.


  1. Seth McBee   |  Friday, 17 November 2006 at 5:24 pm

    So what are we to do with those husbands who do beat their wives? Instead of divorce do we have them live in different places until is “passes.” I really don’t have a good answer but I do know that Scripture doesn’t seem to warrant a divorce even if the wife is being beaten, or at least Scripture is silent on the issue. So where do we go as leadership in this? I am really asking as I don’t know how to encourage a woman if she were to bring this to me. Thoughts?

  2. Fr. Bill   |  Friday, 17 November 2006 at 6:20 pm

    Well, if you as a church leader were to be able to offer encouragement (and, I’m talking about a serious case of physical abuse), you’d have to be prepared to deploy a range of options in the woman’s behalf. This is where I think many pastors are asleep at the switch.

    As a “Biblical basis of action,” I’d point to Romans 13, and Jesus’ and Paul’s examples of appealing to civil authority as a divinely ordained institution to judge evil doers. In practical terms, this means involving the police or other civil agencies with a mandate to intervene.

    Do you know the location and reputation of any shelters in your area? Is there a shelter in your area? Is there a shelter within driving distance (say 50 miles?). Can you or a ministry in your church provide transportation, shelter, interim support (clothing, money, etc.?).

    Once the woman/children are in a safe environment, what are you or your church able/willing to provide by way of counsel, on-going support, etc.

    The point: Christians can and do provide help in these situations, but the best help is going to require some deliberate planning and probably some training in order to offer it. Some churches are prepared for this, others are not.

  3. Ralph   |  Friday, 17 November 2006 at 9:33 pm

    It’s been about 5 weeks to date that the men’s group got a request to both pray for a woman, and to help her move on a Saturday morning out of harms way and into an apartment where she could be separated from her husband. The men did this in order to show that the church was giving her sanction to move out, and to give her protection from his temper that led to phyical abuse. Were she to have moved her own belongings, with out the men being there, it might have been difficult. The church is/was there for both, but it will not tolerate sin that has potential to injure either, nor will it stand to see a marriage broken, but offer both reconciliation with the need for true repentance to be evident in order to bring that union to what it should be in Christ Jesus. To me, this showed me that I am in a very healthy church, most would not do this sort of thing, until it was too late.

    Sometimes love needs to be tough!

  4. Fr. Bill   |  Friday, 17 November 2006 at 9:54 pm

    “To me, this showed me that I am in a very healthy church, most would not do this sort of thing, until it was too late.”

    Maybe times are a’changin’, Ralph. I certainly hope so. Thirty years ago, I had a dickens of a time getting my elders to join me in confronting two adulterous husbands in the congregation. And, the amazing thing is this: both of them repented.

  5. Seth McBee   |  Friday, 17 November 2006 at 11:03 pm

    Good ideas and great insight on some things that we should be doing in those cases. So, you would basically get the woman out of the tough situation and then work on reconciliation once she is safe from the situation. All the time making sure that the husband knows that you don’t support the abuse but want to help him or restore him back to fellowship with God and His congregation…sound correct?

  6. Ralph   |  Friday, 17 November 2006 at 11:32 pm

    Amen Seth… That’s why Jesus went to the cross… He poured out His life so that men (all human kind) could be reconciled to God. It’s about the big picture, not the little sin that bogs us down. Some would just want to get us off track, but His word won’t let us do that.

  7. Ralph   |  Friday, 17 November 2006 at 11:42 pm

    Bill… I spent 11 years in a church where I served that body as the chair of their deacon board, which is similar to the Elder boards in non-North American Baptist Churches, and they could not get Church discipline right… they looked at it from a human perspective, and not from a divine perspective… that’s why the deception of egalitarianism makes many churches look like morphodites… and sadly it’s looking at something that’s not Biblical, but born in human thought.

    God’s standard is born in His word, and it demands a verdict from us… it’s just that some of us, or the rest of us, are lost in our humanistic thought about what God’s word is saying…

    I’m in a place that is not the norm, but it is Biblically correct in what it does.

    Can you tell I’m really happy now? 🙂

  8. mystarbucks   |  Monday, 11 December 2006 at 7:35 pm

    This is the best advice I have heard in a while. I see a marriage counselor that just does not seem to give me a cut and dry answer as to what my role is as a wife whose husband is a good provider but not a leader, disciplines out of anger ,is more interested in friends and spends more time on work rather than his wife. I will really begin to pour over I Peter 3 and pray for the patience to deal with this as I am weary. He is a good guy but has abandoned these areas and I have retaliated instead of remaining quiet. Thanks for the post.

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