Thank you for your email. You describe a situation very similar to one that I recently addressed here. I am very sorry for your troubles, and hope that what I say here will be of some help.
Let me begin with the most difficult part and get that over with first. I want to start by assuming that I am missing an important part of the story, having only heard from you. But after that, I want to then go on to assume that you have given me an accurate account of verbal, emotional, and spiritual cruelty, and give you some counsel from that perspective.
You describe a situation where the elders of your church have felt sorry for you, but have been pretty passive when it comes to addressing your husband’s anger issues. There are two possibilities here. One is that they know your account is true, but they lack the requisite courage or wisdom to deal with a man like your husband is. Part of the solution for that will be addressed in the second half of this letter. The other possibility is that they are confronted with a did too/did not situation, and so they are constrained from acting by biblical limitations (Prov. 18:17). They are not permitted to simply believe a charge that you bring against your husband — any more than they would be allowed to believe a charge that he brought against you. When there are charges and counter charges, those hearing them have to be able to do better than to just flip a coin.
We unfortunately live in a time that allows a certain kind of accusation to serve as a simple conviction. If a man is accused, the accuser is automatically the victim, and anybody who insists on independent corroboration of any serious charge will be himself accused of bringing additional abuse to the victim. But the line between righteousness and unrighteousness does not run neatly between men and women. Some women are fearfully abused by their husbands, and some husbands are frightfully mistreated by their wives. A counselor or pastor does not know going in to a situation which one it might be. If he goes in with his mind made up already, he does a grave disservice to both people he is trying to help.
I have seen situations where everybody in the family claimed to be afraid of the angry bear with a temper problem, but nobody appeared to have the slightest concern about his views, opinions, decisions, or values. But this made me wonder — if everyone was so afraid of the angry bear — why they all kept poking him with their sticks. They claimed fear so that they could use it as another weapon against someone they did not like, and did not respect, but actual fear was absent. I have seen other situations where the family was genuinely paralyzed by actual fear, and spent all day every day walking on egg shells.
We live in a world where some husbands are just angry men. They are angry at the government, angry at their business partners, angry at their competitors, angry at their fellow motorists, and angry at everybody inside the car with them. Periodically they explode, and all the molten malice trapped inside them comes out. That is one problem. But there are also situations where husbands are simply beleaguered men, constantly and unrelentingly disrespected by everyone close to them. His periodic outbursts are the railings of an impotent castrato. Of course, men in the first category will claim to be in the second, but it is important to keep these two categories distinct.
Please do not take any of this as an accusation against you. Your letter certainly seemed genuine to me, although I do not know your situation. I do know that if you are the righteous women you appear to be, you will recognize the justice of acknowledging that sometimes women are the unrighteous ones and that your account is just one side of the story. In my mind, if you recognize the cautions above as fair-minded, then the likelihood that your account is accurate goes way up. But if you take offense at the mere suggestion that an unsubmissive wife could ever slander her hapless husband, then the likelihood that your account is accurate goes way down.
Like I said earlier, I write all this not knowing your actual situation at all. But let us say you have run these biblical diagnostics on your own heart, and you are confident before God, with the Spirit of God as your witness, that your husband is a straight-up bully, and that you and the kids feel trapped by his anger. Let us also give your pastor and elders the benefit of the doubt and say that they would be willing to act if they had a situation with actual handles on it. What is a biblical strategy for dealing with a situation like this? Now what do you do?
Your strategy should be to bring everything to a head. Abigail dealt with her blockhead husband with all wisdom, and everything consequently came to a head. She was submissive to him, up to a point, and went completely around him in another sense. In this way she was very much like her future husband David, who honored the Lord’s anointed, refusing to take Saul’s life when he had the opportunity, while at the same not cooperating with Saul at all. David honored Saul as his anointed king, even while disobeying him. David did not turn himself in. Abigail did the same kind of thing. She honored her husband as her husband, but also did what was necessary to save her household. This was not simply a discrete, stand-alone action, but was rather a step in the story that helped bring everything to a head.
Before getting into how to bring everything to a head, we need to get the lay of the land first. There are two biblical grounds for divorce. They are some form of significant sexual uncleanness on the part of your spouse (Matt. 19:9), and willful desertion of you by your spouse (1 Cor. 7:15). From what you described, neither of these conditions pertain your situation. My understanding is that when divorce occurs under these circumstances, the innocent party is free to remarry. You are not now in that circumstance.
But what about separation? Is there any circumstance that could justify that? The answer is yes, but when that happens, the innocent party is free to separate, but is not free to remarry. Here it is:
“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10–11, ESV).
There are certain hard situations in the church that Paul is willing to live with. He says that his default assumption is that a wife should not separate from her husband. He tries to keep them together. But when she can’t take it anymore and gets the heck out of there, notice how Paul limits her action. Taking the sum of his teaching, he says that the fact that her husband is not an adulterer and has not deserted her means that she must not get married to anyone else. A woman who leaves under these circumstances must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband. At the same time, the church must not force her to return.
When should a wife consider this? There are two basic scenarios. The first is when she has good reason to believe that she and/or the kids are in physical danger. If he is in the grip of anger and strikes her, or chokes her, or is waving a gun around, or anything like that, she needs to look for the first opportunity to get safely away. A husband should protect his family, not be the principal threat his family needs protection from. If he won’t protect them, then she, like Abigail, must take up the duty of protection.
When a wife separates from her husband because she is unsafe, the church should not lean on her to go back apart from the problem being actively addressed through pastoral counsel, and to her satisfaction. If she separates too quickly, and is not following the apostle’s advice perfectly, let her. If Paul would let her, then so should we. The church should simply say in this situation that unless something changes (e.g. her husband gets a live-in girl friend) she must not marry someone else in the meantime.
The second scenario is when a situation has gotten bad enough that a wife decides to force the issue, and give the church a situation that they have to deal with. This is an Abigail move. She moves out, and her husband complains to the elders. The elders ask her what is going on, and she says that their marriage and family are in a desperate way, and that she would be delighted to receive marriage counseling. She yearns for reconciliation. She has been asking her husband to arrange for counseling for years, and he has always refused. Now she has created a situation where the needed counseling must occur. Such a woman is not necessarily being unsubmissive at all.
In the run up to this, she should have been applying the wisdom of the apostle Peter.
“Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear” (1 Pet. 3:1–2).
If a godly wife is dealing with an ungodly and disobedient husband, and she is submissive in the way that Peter describes, then she is actively bringing everything to a head. Either he will be shamed by her courtesy, and submit to the Word, becoming obedient to it, or he will leave, or make the situation intolerable. Notice that the verb used here is that of the wife winning her husband. She is not a doormat here — she wins him.
She, by her reverent and chaste behavior, wins through. Either he submits to Christ, in which case she has won her husband, or he reacts violently to her reverent and chaste behavior. When this latter situation is unfolding, many wives believe that they are doing something wrong because the anger of their husband is apparently getting worse. But a fish being hauled in does most of its thrashing right beside the boat. The husband’s increased anger is a sign that he is getting to a break point. He is converted, or he ditches, or he makes home an impossible place to be. If the former, the problem is solved. If he leaves, the problem is solved. If he makes life in the home unlivable because of her reverent and chaste behavior, then she can leave with a clean conscience. Having left, she is prepared to cooperate fully with the elders when they seek to bring about a real reconciliation.
But that reconciliation will not occur unless there is repentance. Reconciliation is to be on God’s terms, not hers, and certainly not his. Reconciliation is not the same thing as the fight blowing over, or the husband calming down just a bit.
Well, that was a lot. In my experience, letters like this answer some questions, but also generate a lot more. If this has been of any help to you, please write again with any follow-up questions you might have.